Thursday, February 26, 2009

Graphic Lit: Black Jack

How phenomenal is the mysterious, rogue surgeon known as Black Jack?

He can perform arm transplants! Heart transplants! Even brain transplants!

He’s a whiz at cosmetic surgery, capable of turning the most ugly mug in the world into a Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie look-alike.

He can even operate on himself! In the middle of the Australian outback! While fending off wild dingoes!

I’ve written about creator Osamu Tezuka at length before. Suffice it to say he remains one of the most significant cartoonists ever, having almost single-handedly birthed the manga industry since coming to the fore in 1947 (he passed away in 1989).

And “Black Jack” is one of his most famous creations, at least in his home country of Japan.

Now Vertical, a small-press imprint that has made a habit of translating Tezuka’s works for U.S. audiences, is serializing in what will eventually be a 17-volume collection of these medical tales. The first three volumes are in stores now.

Written for young audiences, the series combines high melodrama (the main character has a thing for wearing long, black capes) with an eye for medical detail (Tezuka trained to be a doctor).

As a result, the squeamish might have trouble with the manga as organs, bones and blood are plentiful and drawn as realistically as possible (in sharp contrast to the series’ more cartoony, slapstick style).

Often, “Black Jack” takes a turn toward the bizarre or downright implausible: That story about Black Jack’s sidekick, a baby-faced, lisping cutie named Pinoko.

She looks 5, but she’s actually 18, as she lived for several years in the body of her twin sister as an amniotic sac of organs before Black Jack built her a synthetic body. Oh, and she thinks of herself as Black Jack’s wife.

I cherish that sort of inspired lunacy from Tezuka. But I think ultimately what makes the manga work is its ongoing themes of humanism, sacrifice and the cruelty we constantly inflict on ourselves.

As a surgeon, Black Jack might be superhuman, but ultimately his adventures tell us a lot about our own frailty.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2009

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Well, that was fun while it lasted

Back when the newspaper that employs me had a books page, I'd occasionally run short reviews of comics, more as a space filler than anything else. One of the higher-up editors, however, who was in charge of redesigning the Living sections at the time, was a comics fan and said "You know, we should turn that into a weekly column. It would go great with that new Friday section we're putting together."

Thus Graphic Lit was born. Overall, the weekly column has been extremely good to me. I got to talk to a lot of artists and writers I admired, I got to be exposed to a lot of great books and new talent, and it led to some interesting and exciting gigs, like giving lectures at my local library or blogging regularly over at Blog@Newsarama, er, I mean Robot 6.

But all that is over, for now at least. The last Graphic Lit column ran a few weeks ago and I've been pretty much told there's no real interest in bringing it back. There's a number of factors responsible for it's passing, the biggest one being a simple lack of space. With the ever-shrinking news hole, we don't have the space to run full-length movie reviews, let alone a weekly column extolling the glories of folks like Kazuo Umezu. Add to that a renewed focus on local news and some changes in my job duties and you've got a death knell.

But what about the video games I hear some of you cry? Well, those are pretty much dead in the water as well. Again, the lack of space is mostly to blame, but to be honest, I've been less and less able to get fired up about video games lately. They require a huge time investment that I just don't have right now. More to the point, though, I find it harder and harder to get interested in the constant cookie-cutter sequels and third-rate "party games" that are glutting the market right now. It seems there's little inspiration or creativity going on in the industry, at least from where I'm sitting.

Don't worry, I'm not going to stop blogging. I'll still be contributing regularly over at Robot 6.

As for Panels and Pixels, well I haven't quite figured out what I want to do with this blog yet. I'd like to keep it going -- I have a lot of ideas, some comics-related, some not. Robot 6 eats up a lot of my free time, though, so I don't know if I could commit to keeping track of two blogs on a regular basis.

At any rate, I have a few more GL columns to post here, including an interview with Ed Brubaker that never got to see the light of day. In the meantime, if you feel like it, drop me a line in the comments and let me know what you'd like to see me do with this space. Should I try to keep Graphic Lit going online? Thrust myself into the video game breech again? Write about something else entirely, like movies or macrame? I'd love to hear your thoughts.