Black Jack Vol. 1

By Osamu Tezuka
288 pages, black and white
Published by Vertical, Inc.

With more and more of Osamu Tezuka’s comics being translated into English, it was just a matter of time until Black Jack came back into print. With just two volumes of material originally translated and out of print for years, I knew about Tezuka’s stories of a renegade surgeon more by reputation than anything else. Now that Vertical is bringing its 17-volume run into English? I have to admit, I’m ready to go under the knife a few more times.

Need an impossible operation performed? Look no further than the mysterious Black Jack, an unlicensed doctor known for his facial scars and his incredibly high fees. And when only the most powerful or desperate people come to Black Jack for help, that means that Black Jack’s list of cases are some of the strangest and most unique patients you’ll ever find.

I have to admit that I was a little worried at first that Black Jack would easily fall into a rut; Black Jack meets patient, Black Jack discovers the patient’s strange problem, Black Jack cures patient against all odds. It’s very much to Tezuka’s credit, then, that he’s able to keep from going over the same story over and over again, and find variety in the character’s doings. Tezuka mixes things up by showing us stories of Black Jack’s past, bringing in strange patients like self-aware computers, or sometimes making the story about what happens after the operation. What remains constant, though, is that Tezuka always keeps the story moving at a brisk pace and there’s a little something waiting in each story. Some are certainly better than others—I don’t think it’s any small coincidence that my two favorite stories both have to do with Black Jack’s past more than anything else—but I never felt like I was reading a filler story.

Tezuka’s art is, unsurprisingly, good as always. His characters are all well drawn, and I think it’s a disservice to not see how much expression and nuance he puts into each character. What really stands out for me in Black Jack, though, is his panel and page structure. I love how he uses different layouts to aid telling stories; in "Confluence" when Megumi is attacked at night, the panels on the page start angling and dropping down to the right even as her attackers drag her in that direction. It’s a smart trick, making you feel like she’s actually being dragged into the depths, with the bottom panel borders lined up parallel to the arm that they’ve grabbed onto. Likewise, in "The First Storm of Spring" the page is split into lots of diagonal shards; each panel draws your eye down to the next, letting Tezuka give a series of narrow-looking scenes to accentuate the mysterious person forever escaping. It’s a neat trick that breaks up the monotony, and works quite well.

When I first heard there were 17 volumes of Black Jack I was a little unsure that I really wanted to jump in for the long haul. After this first volume, though, I’m excited about the second book being right around the corner. This is a fun series; it might not be as deep as some of Tezuka’s books like Buddha, Adolf, or Phoenix, but it’s still a worthy addition to a Tezuka fan’s library. As an added bonus, comic book stores are getting a direct market exclusive hardcover edition (bookstores are only getting a softcover option), which are also including the dozen stories that weren’t included in the series’ collection in Japan (mostly because the stories were decided to be too bleak). It’s a good time to be a Tezuka fan.

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