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Graphic Novels Reviews

Black Jack Volume 1

Writer/Artist: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Vertical
Four stars

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Satyajit Chetri Apr 20, 2009
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In case you didn’t know of the man considered the god of manga, Osamu Tezuka is the most loved and influential manga creator in Japan ”“ with characters as beloved and well-known as Astro Boy, Princess Melmo, Kimba the White Lion (from which Disney borrowed its Lion King liberally), Dororo and of course, the character whose book we review here ”“ the enigmatic surgeon Black Jack. Black Jack is a disgraced surgeon who, despite not possessing an official medical license, can work wonders with the scalpel. He works outside the law, and is often the last resort for many an ailing patient. But the catch ”“ Black Jack is a ruthless practitioner whose services come at a huge price; his seven-figure fees are high enough to bankrupt families. Vertical books, which has been reprinting translations of Tezuka classics like MW, Apollo’s Song and the best-selling Buddha, has taken up the task of reprinting the complete saga of Black Jack in 17 collected editions. A tall order, because Tezuka, over a period of 10 years, wrote hundreds of 20-page stories featuring this character, and even the Japanese editions do not collect all of these tales.

Not too surprisingly, the twelve stories that make up the first volume serve as a brilliant introduction to Tezuka’s saga. The stories do call for suspension of disbelief ”“ Black Jack is portrayed as almost superhuman, his medical skill not stretching medical plausibility as much as ripping apart all semblance of realism. The second story ”˜Teratoid Cystoma’ introduces a major secondary character named Pinoko ”“ originally a telepathic, parasitic tumour until Black Jack extracted her and put her in the plastic body of a little girl. U-18 Knew stretches the concept of medicine to the limit, where the surgeon has to “treat” the circuits of a sentient military computer, which he carries out in defiance of the army who want to shut it down. But there are stories of undeniable humanity. ”˜The Black Queen’ is about an unflappable surgeon whose calm in the face of critical surgery earns her a just comparison to our protagonist among her colleagues, and her loss of resolve when she has to amputate the limbs of her fiancé, while ”˜The Painting is Dead’ is about an artist trapped on an island where a nuclear bomb is tested, and who wants to capture the instant of nuclear devastation in a final painting, and requests the doctor to keep him alive until he finishes his last work. There are also stories that serve as origin tales, ones that give us a glimpse of what made Black Jack the ice-cold man that he has become and humanises him to a large extent, showing us the man behind the ruthless persona.

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Like all other Tezuka works, Black Jack Volume 1 has a quirkiness that is hard to describe. Serious stories have occasional comedic interludes when characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the reader, or acquire a cartoonish demeanour that is at odds with the tone of the book. But get used to these signatures of the master, because Black Jack makes for a very, very enjoyable read.

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