Previous Retro Reviews...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
- AKIRA Vol. 1 *** Vol. 2 *** Vol. 3 *** Vol. 4 *** Vol. 5 *** Vol. 6 *** TRIGUN Vol. 1
- LITTLE NORSE PRINCE VALIANT *** DRAGONBALL Vol. 1 *** GHOST IN THE SHELL
- MACROSS II *** LUPIN III: THE SECRET OF MAMO *** SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA
- BAKUMAN Vol. 1 *** MONSTER Vol. 1 *** DEAD LEAVES *** 20th CENTURY BOYS Vol. 1
- LONE WOLF & CUB Vol. 1 *** Tezuka's BUDDHA Vol. 1
Tezuka’s reputation as “the Walt Disney of Japan” honestly gets harder to reconcile as one delves deeper into the man’s body of work. Certainly, Astro Boy’s a family-friendly scamp of much the same stripe as Mickey Mouse, and Kimba the White Lion ultimately proved Disney-like enough to “inspire” one of the company's most popular features, ever. The earlier SILLY SYMPHONIES, ALICE and OSWALD THE LUCKY RABBIT shorts - - basically anything his studio animated before SNOW WHITE, really - - all do have a kind of surrealist sensibility that seems undeniably outré in comparison to today’s family entertainment, as well.
However, to read a comic like BLACK JACK with an understanding of all that still feels like reading outsider art created by the head shaman of some cargo cult residing on the Island of Lost Cartoons. This comic is weird. Fascinatingly weird. It’s stranger than any consciously weird comic, manga, film or anime you can name because there’s a puzzling lack of self-awareness to its weirdness.
This isn’t the work of some snarky, genre-savvy mischief maker intentionally trying to get a reaction. This is the sort of serial where, in one episode, Black Jack sculpts himself a cute lil’ sidekick out the ill-formed, excess flesh that’s dwelling in a patient’s belly like some malignant, telepathic tumor - - and nobody treats her like she’s even remotely horrific. There isn't even a wink or nudge to the reader. “Pinoko,” as she’s called, quickly settles into a role as Black Jack’s envious Girl Friday; and the way the comic makes you forget that this lisping cherub is actually some unholy, Clive Barker-esque monstrosity is a trick that never ceases to be a little unsettling whenever you step back from the story a bit.
Vertical Press brands this as a “medical thriller,” and that label’s accurate as long as you understand it’s being filtered through several, oft-conflicting layers of classification. Black Jack feels a bit like some lost creature from the old Universal monster gallery - - an at-times superheroic riff on gothic horror who’d fit right in with the Studios’ highly liberal reinterpretations of Count Dracula and the Mummy, et al. These two volumes offer pieces of the character’s origin, presenting an outlaw surgeon who overcame childhood injuries, got stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster and eventually earned his way into the unlawful black market practice of making medical miracles happen for inordinate and frequently exploitative fees.
So you shouldn't be surprised that he can wield scalpels like deadly throwing daggers. How could you expect anything less?
Time progresses in spurts throughout these volumes (Pinoko becomes a fixture of Black Jack’s routine after her introduction, for example), but there isn’t much of a mega arc to net all these one-offs together. Indeed, the stories aren’t so much “episodes” as they are scattered pieces of the greater Black Jack enigma.
Most times, the outlaw doctor will be faced with a seemingly-hopeless, bafflingly-abstract or otherwise insurmountable case that he’ll have to stretch the limits of reason and dream logic to solve. In one case, he’ll try desperately to remove a sharp, micro-sized metal scalpel fragment from a patient’s circulatory system. Another time, he’ll perform “brain surgery” on a homicidal super computer.
The payoff of these challenges are usually harsh morals where the wicked get their comeuppance, the innocent’s virtue rewards them in the end or penny-pinching clients see their stinginess thwarted by Black Jack’s inflexible, nigh-Randian sense of capitalist integrity.
Then there are the shorts which seem less like structured stories with any sort of message and more like factual records of happenings in Black Jack’s topsy-turvy world.
Saying that these particular shorts feel like Tezuka’s just making plot up, ad hoc, is a touch ill-representative... but still accurate. How else can one describe the story where Black Jack meets a guy who’s initially introduced as the brother of his first, lost love? After they recount the story how the girl got ovarian cancer and had to immediately renounce womanhood - - because, clearly, that’s the only option after such an operation - - we’re subtly informed that this “brother” is actually Jack’s old flame after a sex change. It’s a well-told story, certainly. Quite moving at times, even. But the story about the killer whale who tragically becomes too reliant on Jack’s charity has motivations that feel more believable to the human condition.
“Outsiders” stereotypical view of anime generally holds it to be weird and incomprehensible. In this regard, we can see how Tezuka’s “Godfather of anime” sobriquet is more accurate than any comparison to Disney. While reading these books definitely reveal a conceptual lineage of which the likes of MUSHI-SHI are the latest fruit, I see BLACK JACK as more of a trail blazer for how the strange came to be taken so matter-of-factly in this niche that, to the Western observer, it all quite often seems like something’s been lost in translation. Indeed, I look at this and see the mold-maker for contemporary titles like PHOENIX WRIGHT which take such bizarre, lionizing angles on otherwise sedate professions.
With oddly-inappropriate, cartoonish art and translated dialog that tries to convey complex moral dilemmas and conceptual challenges in the simplest terms possible, this is a work from another time and place that really has to be enjoyed whilst paying mind to several of the contexts it was created in. It's mesmerizing material with a certified place in pop history that I wouldn't question on even my most iconoclastic days of Retro Review. But... it's still an extended curiosity piece that I wouldn't neccessarily recommend to any reader who isn't adventurous enough to appreciate a comic that satisfies few "rules" of storytelling.