Pulp Fictions: Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack
Black Jack Volumes 1-3
The dour doctor known as Black Jack, whose medical exploits manga godfather Osamu Tezuka serialized from 1973 to 1983, is arguably the closest Japanese comics ever got to a typically alienated silver-age Marvel superhero. Black Jack's superpower is surgery, and he operates, so to speak, as a shadowy unlicensed healer at odds with the Japanese medical establishment. On the outside, he's callous rebel with a new-wave haircut, black gothic garb, and a bad attitude. He charges the rich exorbitant rates for his services but also works pro bono for the poor.
Tezuka, still best known as the creator of Astro Boy, earned a medical degree prior to devoting himself to comics. Black Jack, which Vertical is publishing as a seventeen-volume translated series (volume three arrives this week) is rife with Tezuka's gorgeous depictions of surgical procedures both normal and outlandish. Black Jack connects a mother and child, so the former's lungs can filter the latter's blood. He repairs the wiring of a sick computer that has shut down a completely automated hospital ("just like fiddling with neural blood vessels"). And BJ even operates upon himself, removing a parasite while stranded in the Australian desert surrounded by a pack of vicious dingos.
Vertical's translations follow the standard Japanese collections of Tezuka's 242 Black Jack tales rather than their original order of appearance, and BJ's back-story emerges only in bits and pieces. Following a childhood accident, Black Jack was stitched together in Frankenstein fashion by Dr. Honma Jotaro, his life-long mentor and inspiration. BJ created his own sidekick, Pinoko, from the jumble of limbs and organs contained in a fluid-filled sac attached to an eighteen-year-old girl. A fairly innocent sexual tension is generated by the childlike Pinoko's assertion that she is BJ's wife rather than a lisping cyborg with the mind and body of a kindergartner.
The Black Jack series, like much of Tezuka's work, is a fascinating blend of the serious and comedic. Bulbous-nosed Dr. Honma serves as a constant, if unlikely, reminder to BJ that even his supersurgical skills can't alter the natural order of life and death. And BJ has fairly regular William Shatner moments, raising his arms to the sky to scream the Japanese equivalent of "WHY???" whenever he loses a patient or friend to some random act of violence (speeding cars have a tendency to mow down his patients shortly after they depart the hospital). What makes Black Jack so great, in addition to Tezuka's artwork and whirlwind narrative velocity (you can either breeze through these volumes or linger on the details), is his bottomless bag of stories. Tezuka effortlessly integrates scores of different surgical procedures into short, sharp tales that eviscerate the codified vicissitudes (especially reticence and duty) of Japanese society with, yes, surgical precision.
JEWISH COMICS. Mad magazine's Al Jaffee will deliver snappy answers to presumably smart questions posed by Danny Fingeroth during the first installment of the Institute for Jewish Research's three-part series on Comics and the Jewish American Dream. January 21 at 7 p.m. $25. Institute for Jewish Research, 15 W. 16th St., 212-246-6080.
PANELS FOR PEACE. Keith Mayerson moderates "From Batman to Gandhi: Comics From Super Heroes to the Nonviolent," a panel discussion with Mark Badger and Dian Killian. January 22 at 7 p.m. $5. Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, 594 Broadway, Suite 401, 212-254-3511.
PAPING PUPPETRY: John Mejias and other artists behind Paping comics present a free three-act puppet extravaganza this Sunday, January 25, at 4 p.m. at the Desert Island comics oasis, 540 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, 718-388-5087.