Black Jack (Manga)

Also known as ブラック・ジャック (Burakku Jakku)

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Black Jack (1973-83)

Black Jack (1973-83) was originally published as a serial in Weekly Shōnen Champion (週刊少年チャンピオン) from November, 1973 until September, 1978. This continuous run was followed by thirteen sporadic special issues, the last of which was published in October, 1983. Although it is considered one of Tezuka's masterpieces, along with Astro Boy (1952-68), Phoenix (1967-88) and Buddha (1972-83), Black Jack certainly didn't start out that way.

What it's about

The manga series focused on Dr. Hazama Kuroo, better known by his nickname, Black Jack - an unlicensed and shadowy doctor with inhuman surgical skill.  Shunned by the medical community, Black Jack operates on the fringes of society, often providing medical services to crooks and other nefarious types who have no where else to turn. Although he is almost always able to save his patients, bringing many of them back from the very edge of death, his fees can be astronomical.  Yet, his distinctive appearance, with a large scar across his face and a streak of white running through his jet black hair, and his carefully cultivated image of being heartless and corrupt, conceal a heart of gold. As kind of "medical robin hood", Black Jack often wields his scalpel in the name of honor and justice, righting wrongs that no one else can.

What you should know

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Black Jack and Geta

In 1973, Akita Shoten, the publisher of the popular Weekly Shōnen Champion, decided to commission Tezuka for five weeks to write "anything he wanted".  According to noted Tezuka scholar, Natsu Onoda Power, in her book God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga, "the editor, who felt sorry for Tezuka for his declining popularity, offered the commission as Tezuka's "last work" before retirement" (2009, p. 106). Originally conceived as a special commemorative project celebrating Tezuka's (then) 30-year career as a manga artist, it was developed under the banner of "Osamu Tezuka's One-Man Theater Production", with the idea being to publish five independent stories that would spotlight Tezuka's Star System and feature many of his characters.

However, what Tezuka came up with, was Black Jack.

Far from the planned farewell tour, Black Jack was an instant success, appealing both to his die-hard fans as well as a more general audience, and it catapulted Tezuka to one of the highest levels of popularity of his career.  The short 5-week commission ended up being 5 years long, from 1973 to 1978, and produced 230 chapters.  What's more, its popularity proved to be so lasting that another 13 chapters were produced intermittently over the next five years, from 1978 to 1983. It also revitalized Tezuka and spurred him on to creating other popular series such as The Three-Eyed One (1974-78).

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Pinoko and Sensei

Black Jack, like Astro Boy (1952-68) and Rainbow Parakeet (1981-83), is an episodic manga series that can be read in any order because, with the exception of a single two-part story, each chapter is self-contained. Although the story plots can vary greatly, with Black Jack himself sometimes taking a back seat in the action, they usually focus on Black Jack being called in as the last hope and asked to perform some kind of medical miracle.

True to its original concept, Black Jack is also a haven for Tezuka's Star System, with many of his characters making multiple different appearances, often as doctors or patients. While many of Tezuka's regulars, such as Hamegg, Rock and Shunsaku Ban pop up, others not often seen outside their own series, such as Sapphire, from Princess Knight (1964-66), Hyakkimaru from Dororo (1967-68), Toppei from Vampires (1966-67), and even Leo from Jungle Emperor (1950-54) also make appearances.

Although Tezuka drew on his personal knowledge as a physician, and interjected a great deal of medical accuracy into the story and artwork (indeed many of the drawings are anatomically correct and could conceivably be used in a medical textbook), in general he chose to eschew medical plausibility in favour of a good story. As such, Black Jack's medical feats are truly superhuman, such as operating while totally blind, completely from memory, or transplanting an entire nervous system. One of these miraculous operations resulted in his comedic sidekick, the irascible Pinoko. Despite originally being a rare type of parasitic twin, basically a formless jumble of organs, Black Jack is able to surgically extract her organs and then place them in a body specially constructed as a plastic exoskeleton - resulting in a pint-sized fireball daughter figure for the emotionally distant doctor.

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Black Jack's love

In many ways Black Jack is the medical doctor Tezuka wished he could have become - operating outside the constraints of the Japanese medical establishment.  As such, many of the themes explored in Black Jack contain Tezuka's social commentary in regards to the deficiencies he perceived in Japanese medicine, including such things as the level or corruption, doctors cultivating hero-worship, and a general adherence to hierarchy at all costs. However, given the level of Tezuka's fame as well as his recaptured popularity, Black Jack became increasingly vulnerable to criticism from various sources, the harshest being the medical community. He later confessed that, in an effort to manage complaints and criticisms, he began to avoid naming specific medical conditions - effectively making Black Jack more of a simple E.R. surgeon. This is one of the main reasons he decided to end the regular serialization of Black Jack in 1978 after 230 chapters.

Tezuka himself was sensitive to even the slightest complaints regarding certain conditions/diseases - especially from patients or their families. As such, if he felt he had offended his fans, he often changed dialogue in, or even excluded certain chapters from, future collections of Black Jack.  These excluded chapters were usually left out for controversial or political reasons, but in some cases simply because Tezuka wasn't satisfied with a story he'd felt he rushed on, or thought was incomplete.  While many of the excluded chapters have been printed in at least one Japanese collected edition, there are five 'sealed' or 'semi-sealed'  chapters that have almost never been reprinted since they originally appeared in Weekly Shōnen Champion.

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Accurate medical images

Where you can get it

For English-speaking fans, there have been two Black Jack translated editions. The first English language edition, containing a selection of chapters, was released by VIZ. The chapters were originally serialized in Animerica Extra, and then collected in 1999 in two paperback editions: Black Jack, and Black Jack 2 - Two-Fisted Surgeon. Nowhere near complete, this edition is long out of print.  Black Jack was again released between 2008-11 by Vertical, Inc.. This seventeen volume edition is based on the hardcover Akita Deluxe Edition - the collection Tezuka himself arranged and edited. This "nearly complete" set is only missing the sealed, semi-sealed and some of the excluded chapters.

It is interesting to note, the first three volumes were also released as special "exclusive" hardcovers with different cover artwork and design. Each exclusive volume contains one special chapter not included in the standard Akita release. These are three of the excluded chapters that Tezuka himself removed from the collection, however Vertical, Inc. received special permission from Tezuka Productions to include them.

Special note: The third exclusive hardcover volume also contains an essay by Tezuka in English's own Ada Palmer, titled Black Jack: the Excluded Issues, and Osamu Tezuka's 'Star System'.

Published Mar 26, 2012 (Updated May 7, 2013)