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Comic Book Review: Black Jack Volume 1 by Osamu Tezuka

I must admit, I didn't know what to expect when I first picked up Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack Volume 1. While Tezuka's Astro Boy is often hailed as the cornerstone of modern manga, reading it has always felt to me like more of a 'study of the grand masters' than an honest-to-goodness engaging read. (Sort of like reading the first few dozen issues of Superman or The Green Lantern -- the art's amazing and the characters are iconic, but goddamn if the stories aren't repetitive.) But Black Jack? Wow. The collection's first story, Is There A Doctor?, quickly establishes the series' playful perversity. The plot: When a famous tycoon's good-for-nothing son is disfigured in a car accident, genius surgeon/man of mystery, Black Jack, is called in to save the boy's life. But there's a catch. In order to obtain the body parts needed for the operation, someone else is going to have to be sacrificed. With no time to waste, the tycoon bribes the police and the courts into convicting an innocent pauper of causing the accident, thereby getting a suitable set of replacement parts. Although Black Jack appears disgusted, he agrees to perform the operation -- so long as he's paid his multi-million yen fee. I won't spoil the details of the ending, but suffice it to say, heads are swapped, paupers become wealthy, and the scarred surgeon known only as 'Black Jack' sees to it that justice is served.

In the stories that follow, things just get more and more bizarre. Take for instance, Pinoko, Black Jack's pint sized side-kick and comic relief. She's literally an old doll filled with the living remains of an unborn Siamese twin that was removed from the psychic tumor of a famous actress in chapter 3. (Go on, read that last sentence again. I'll wait.) Or how about the return of Black Jack's long-lost love? Pinoko is jealous until she finds out that years ago, Black Jack had to perform a sex change operation on his true love in order to save her (now: him) from uterine cancer. And then there's the close-up, gross-out panels included in nearly every story. Usually occurring during an operation scene, these are the one place in the comic where Tezuka switches from his normally cartoony style to something closer to life drawing. While it could be argued that these are there for educational purposes, truth be told, I think that Tezuka just likes giving his readers the willies at the sight of an abdomen being pried open by medical equipment.

All of this would just be mind-warping eye-candy, though, were it not for the fact that Tezuka makes each of these stories so emotionally affecting. There is a genuine undercurrent of sadness throughout, a haunting sense of heartbreak, and even, at times, moments of inspiration and elation. As strange as this is gonna sound (especially after the tumor-becomes-a-main-character reveal), while reading Black Jack, I kept being reminded of Carl Barks' classic Disney duck stories. Both series feature moody, misanthropic leads. Both use short, self-contained adventures as a means of slowly exploring the backgrounds and motivations of their lead characters. Both are drawn in an unabashedly 'cartoony' manner; their deceptively simple styles showcasing their creators' mastery of the artform. Oh, and both comics are hella fun to read. Yes, Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack might be the answer to that age old question: What would an EC Comic by Carl Barks look like?
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