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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