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Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010

Dastardly doctor with a mean scalpel and a heart of gold


BLACK JACK, Volume 11, by Osamu Tezuka. Vertical, 2010, 306 pp., $16.95 (paper).

It is probably not excessive to say that every Japanese male between the ages of 15 and 40 knows Black Jack, the outlaw surgeon who features in the series of comics that Osamu Tezuka created in the 1970s and early 1980s — comics that remain (thanks in part to movies and TV) popular today.

The 12 volumes of Black Jack stories that the publisher Vertical has made available in English will certainly expand that already large circle, because these stories will appeal not only to Japanese, males and manga-freaks, but also to anyone in search of artfully told tales made all the more gripping by visuals that are exquisite and effective.

The collection under review, Volume 11, is typical in that it contains several stand-alone stories, each about 20 pages long. And, typically, each tale is a page-turner that one can either race through with pleasure or go back and reread to study Tezuka's art more deliberately.

Tezuka's first masterstroke is his protagonist, Black Jack. He is undeniably a hero: He always, in the end, does the right thing. Perhaps in keeping with the ethos of the times in which the stories were created, an era in which antiheroes had come to the fore, Black Jack's character is not untarnished.

Greed, for example, appears to be the driving force in Black Jack's life. Although, by the end of a tale, he usually reveals a more philanthropic side, initially it is almost always money that motivates him. In "Smithereens," he has agreed, for ¥15 billion, to care for a dictator responsible for a reign of terror. The dictator's son confronts Black Jack and beseeches him not to save his evil father, arguing, "if he dies there will be peace." Black Jack says he cannot let the dictator die.

"I've been paid," he tells the boy, "to look after his life."

"Would you do anything for money?" the boy asks.

"For fifteen billion yen, why yes," Black Jack responds.

In his conflation of unbridled avarice with the Hippocratic oath, Black Jack is undeniably something other than a selfless paragon. Tezuka's stories are escapist fables, so we can't end on that dark a note.

When the contract he has made to care for the dictator is voided — he can't be expected to heal a despot who's been blown to smithereens — he is able, thanks to his surgical skill and to those smithereens — to do the right thing for 150 war orphans injured in a plane crash. Tezuka follows this template — ignoble motives displaced by noble ones — in several of the Black Jack tales.

We move from the geopolitics of "Smithereens" to the family drama of "Call Sign," where, having raised a paralyzed boy's hopes by telling him that he believes he could cure him, Black Jack goes on to explain that his fee is ¥40 million. "My husband is a salaryman. We can't raise so much," the boy's mother protests. "Then forget it" is Black Jack's response.

We can be sure that at the end this tale, as in every other Black Jack story, the master surgeon will relent, but that Black Jack's lust for money never dissipates suggests that Tezuka wished to retain the ambiguity at the doctor's core, the ambiguity that keeps the dashing healer a mystery, one we can't wait to explore further in the next story, and the next.

The broad strokes of Tezuka's narratives are compelling, but subtle touches, easy to miss, increase their effectiveness. In the midst of Black Jack's operations, for example, Tezuka (who qualified as a doctor but never practiced) will use odd bits of medical terminology to convince us of the reality of the scene. It doesn't take much: "Stomach-intestine anastomosis on 12, Haeckel method," Black Jack bellows during one tense operation, and with that odd bit of jargon brings us into the operating room in just the same way that Shakespeare puts us, with a few choice words, among the sailors at the beginning of "The Tempest."

Black Jack, with his gothic black cape and his hard-boiled cynicism, fits perfectly in the black-and-white world — never simply realistic, sometimes quite fantastic — into which Tezuka has placed him. Splitting that world up into frames that are often other than the simple rectangles and squares to which comics-readers are accustomed is just one of the innovative tools Tezuka uses to mold his readers' reactions, a tool he employs to great effect.

We are, in the world of Black Jack, in the hands of a master at the top of his game. Black Jack is a hero everybody should know.



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