Osamu Tezuka is known as the Grandfather of Manga. His involvement in the genre even predates the word manga. Though the only work of his that’s widely known in the US is Astro Boy, one of his most beloved series has now come to American shores. The publisher Vertical has been bringing out several of the classics of the formative years of manga, and one of these is Tezuka’s Black Jack series, and it all starts in Black Jack Volume 1.
Black Jack is an anomaly of the medical community. He refuses to get a medical license, and is not affiliated with any hospital. He has an almost magical talent in the operating room, but no one can make him practice on a patient that he doesn’t want to work on.
On top of that, he only practices on people who are willing to give whatever they have to be cured. When he’s working with millionaires, he’ll charge them exorbitant fees for his services. When he’s working on normal people, however, he only charges what they can give. In one story, a barkeep needed help, and all he asked for was a month of free drinks. He’s not exactly cold-hearted, he just wants people to value his work, and to really be willing to give something that is of worth for his talent.
Each chapter is a self-contained story, with only a little bit of a continuing plot or characters. Pretty much only he and his assistant Pinoko are seen more than once. It fits his personality, though, since he does seemingly have a problem connecting with people. As the stories go on, we get to learn a little bit about his backstory and how he became the person he is, but he always remains a bit mysterious.
Originally published in a men’s magazine in the 1970s, some of the art reflects on the prejudices and mindset of Japan at the time. Americans aren’t always seen in the best light, and people of African descent are drawn in a much more cartoonish manner. There doesn’t seem to be any real malice intended, it’s simply a product of the environment in which it was created. Also, one story involving a woman who has a hysterectomy shows very old-fashioned ideas of gender and gender identity. Occasionally the medical stories brush the border to horror, but there’s nothing to keep one up at night.
The entire Black Jack series, along with most of the rest of Tezuka’s work, is very special in that they show the evolution of comics from the newspaper strip to continuing stories that was pioneered in those days. One can see the innovation with frame layout, and the more mature and intricate storylines that became popular at the time. What happened then still continues to shape manga to this day, as well as comics around the world.
Highs: Great stories in speculative fiction genre
Lows: Relatively simple and old-fashioned art, though very well executed
Verdict: A must-read for any fan of comics
Further Reading: Ode to Kirihito, Amazonia