by Carlo Santos,

Black Jack

GN 16

Black Jack GN 16
Black Jack is one of the world's greatest surgeons—and he's also an unlicensed practitioner who charges outrageous fees. Not surprisingly, those who request Jack's services are also just as outrageous: a bloodthirsty military man, a street punk in love with a terminal patient, a vengeful oil magnate, an actor from a hero show, and a young boy with alien-like eyes, among others. Even the medical establishment itself calls on Black Jack when their newest invention turns out to have a fatal flaw. When he tries to collect from his past clients, Black Jack also uncovers shady motives like a wealthy family torn apart by greed or a movie director trying to profit off the doctor's fame. The greatest mystery awaiting him, however, is a patient whose phantom injuries suggest a distant past life. The eventual search for truth will take Black Jack halfway around the world.

In Volume 16 of Black Jack, Osamu Tezuka puts the doctor through the same paces we've seen in every installment: he performs life-or-death surgeries, makes his clients rethink their ethical priorities, brings the morally twisted to justice, and occasionally confronts the supernatural. Yet the mix-and-match of each chapter keeps the formula from ever getting stale: sometimes Black Jack performs his medical miracles right at the beginning, sometimes near the end, sometimes not at all. Sometimes he tackles the toughest problems of human society; sometimes he's just helping a kid lead a happier life. And as always, each story packs a wild twist or two within the space of 20 pages—until the final third of the book, a sprawling, nearly 100-page saga that pushes the series to new heights.

But first, the regular short stories. As usual, these one-and-done efforts show no continuity from one chapter to the next, and some have a nasty habit of ending inconclusively. However, they still stand well enough on their own, displaying a wide range of themes. Some are humorous observations on the pop culture of the time, like a spoof of the tokusatsu genre that had just started to take off in the 70's, or a story where a young boy is obsessed with extra-terrestrials. But it's the serious commentary on moral and societal issues that makes this series one for the ages: warmongers, egomaniacal tycoons, and arrogant ivory-tower types all meet unhappy endings, while the poor and kind-hearted ultimately find solace (although not always in expected ways). Such a worldview could rightly be criticized for being too black-and-white, but having Black Jack there as a morally neutral compass—he doesn't ever work for free, and won't hesitate to leave villains lying in their own blood—keeps things from getting too preachy.

What will really have fans buzzing about this volume, though, is the extended-length final chapter, "A Passed Moment." It starts out innocently enough, with a young man who develops phantom wounds on his body whenever he sees someone else with scars. But what seems like just another "medical mysteries" case soon evolves into a dramatic thriller involving twenty years of history, guerilla warfare, Central American politics, and (apparently) a religious miracle. In other words, just another typical Tezuka plotline with all the twists, double-crosses, and hidden agendas that remind us why he's one of the best there ever was. This ambitious effort strikes the perfect balance in length: it's deep enough to feel like one of Tezuka's phonebook-sized epics, but still captures the quick pace of the regular Black Jack stories. For those who have ever wished for fewer abrupt endings and more continuity in the series, this is your dream come true.

The art shows as much variety as the individual stories themselves, with gunslinging action scenes, precise medical operations, bustling cityscapes, and far-off villages all within Tezuka's capabilities. If there is one area where the artwork falters, it's in the visual gags, which rely too much on corny, archaic humor like rubberband facial contortions and people jumping out of their clothes. The character designs also look dated at times (hooray for 70's fashion sense), but more important is Tezuka's ability to create new ones at will: characters ranging from grade-school kids to grandfatherly priests populate these stories, and they're all easy to discern at first glance. Technical skill is also evident in the carefully shaded backgrounds and surgery scenes, and the page layouts—although busy—always move in a clear direction, even when diagonal panels are used.

Thanks to a seamless translation, the dialogue comes out just as smooth as each of the stories: characters usually explain their motives in two sentences or less, and even complex medical terms can be understood from the context of what's going on. Historical and cultural footnotes are also provided at the bottom of each page when necessary, allowing readers to better understand the famous names of Tezuka's time and even pick up on his more obscure puns. The one bothersome quirk in this translation—sidekick Pinoko's baby talk—isn't that much of a problem for once, since she seldom appears in these chapters. Sound effects are handled in the least intrusive way possible, with the Japanese text being kept intact while the corresponding translations are placed next to them.

The usual praise that is showered upon Black Jack applies once again to Volume 16, but this time there's something even more special in store with the last hundred pages or so. Readers who expect a high-quality blend of colorful characters, moral dilemmas, medical curiosities, and acts of justice will find exactly what they're looking for among the punchy 20-page chapters of this volume. Now expand all those elements into a twisting, turning, pulp-novel adventure, and that's the treat that awaits everyone in the final third of the book. As always, the bold-lined energy of Tezuka's art provides some visual entertainment along the way, even if his old-school style takes some getting used to. The stories within these pages are by no means perfect—the divide between good and evil is oversimplified at times, and the chapters don't always end neatly—but it's all those flaws, along with the numerous good qualities, that make Black Jack so fascinating.

Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B-

+ Maintains the series' high standard of storytelling with unique personalities and situations—especially in the extended-length chapter at the end.
Characters straight out of the 70's and archaic gags can be visually jarring. Not every storyline reaches a satisfying ending.

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Story & Art: Osamu Tezuka

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