Thursday, March 18, 2010

Black Jack: I apparently can't make this flow together very well

Hey, I'm still alive!

Elsewhere: In my absence of posting, I did manage to finish some writing, reviewing PunisherMAX #5 and Siege #3 for Comics Bulletin.

Links: I thought this story that the Same Hat! guys posted from Epic Illustrated by Keiichi Koike was pretty great.

Hey look, Salgood Sam has a webcomic called Dream Life.  It's purty.

I'm not really all that interested in Savage Dragon, but this announcement of a indie-creator-focused series of stories along the lines of Marvel's Strange Tales or DC's Bizarro Comics interests me.  We'll see if I ever read any of them.

If I was anywhere near New York, I would definitely try to make it to the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art for their NeoIntegrity exhibit, which Connor Willumsen informed me about.  It contains work by over 200 incredible comics artists, mostly of the indie variety.  Damn, that looks like something to see.

And now, some fairly unfocused thoughts on the two most recent volumes of Black Jack that I read.

Black Jack, volume 3 and 4
By Osamu Tezuka

Black Jack: still badass - Volume 3 has what might be the most famous example of our awesome surgeon's skill, as he ends up performing surgery on himself in the middle of the Australian Outback, while fighting off attacking dingoes at the same time.  Holy crap.  There's also a story in which he replaces the skin of a dying man as a favor to a lost love (the guy wanted to get rid of a tattoo; it's a long story).  And he gets to explain why he charges patients so much in a typically pompous statement (which gets undercut by his kindness in the same story):

And check out how he manages to chase off some gangsters who want to kill one of his patients:

Ha ha, guts are stinky.

Tezuka: still a weirdo - Man, Tezuka could sure come up with some crazy stuff, including a case in which an African country is struck with a plague that makes people and animals physically shrink until they end up dying at the size of babies:

Or a boy who has a heart condition that Black Jack solves by surgically connecting him to his mother until an organ donor can be found:

And there's plenty of other acts of medicinal awesomeness, but at some point, the parade of amputations and reattachments, open heart surgeries, and who knows what else starts to blur together.  But then something will stand out again, like a chapter in which BJ has to cut Pinoko open to remove a poisonous pill from her intestines before it dissolves.  It's pretty amazing how Tezuka could make this all seem fresh, over and over again.

Black Jack gets a nemesis - Volume 3 sees the introduction of Dr. Kiriko, a sort of opposite number to our hero, who functions as a proto-Kevorkian, offering patients a high-priced, painless suicide rather than curing them.  He's a good character, with a similarly dark appearance, sporting long white hair and an eye patch.  The two of them end up fighting over a seemingly doomed patient:

It's a pretty cool idea, and hopefully he'll show up again.

The Star System works - The regular Tezuka "actors" show up in these volumes as always (with an especially good one being Acetylene Lamp as a good-hearted bandit in a sort of Western-themed story), but perhaps the best use yet is one chapter that features a cop and pickpocket who both frequent a Tokyo train line and have had a long, adversarial relationship over the years.  They're "played" by Acetylene Lamp and Mr. Mustachio:

Which gives them instant characterization, painting the cop as the mean persecutor and the pickpocket as a sort of lovable scamp.  As of their first appearance, they seem fully realized, and their long history as Tezuka characters lends weight to their history together.  It's pretty impressive that Tezuka could make this work, and it's a technique that he used incredibly well, something that few others have even attempted.  The story itself ends up being pretty good too, with Mustachio injured and Lamp blackmailing Black Jack into healing him so he can go on to pick pockets another day.  Ah, bromance.

Continuity creeps in - These chapters are all stand-alone, functioning as single units that don't flow together as a serial story.  But it's interesting to see the continuing elements that show up from time to time, like recurring characters or mentions of past cases.  Notable examples here include a sailor who shows up having fallen for Black Jack's lost love, a woman whose reproductive system he removed due to cancer, taking away her femininity.  And a man carrying a valuable package in the subway gets bumped by a familiar face:

Of course, the way these stories are presented out of the order in which they are published does have the opposite effect at times.  Pinoko's status is kind of in constant flux; at one point she'll show up as Black Jack's capable assistant (he even says she's a doctor herself at one point), then a couple chapters later she'll be a child attending elementary school.  It's an odd consequence of the presentation, but it's certainly no dealbreaker.

Tezuka guest stars - Tezuka inserted himself in his comics pretty regularly, usually as a gag or cameo, but there's one story in volume 3 that sees him show up as a regular character, a doctor that Black Jack encounters:

It's another case in which the Star System works, since Tezuka was a doctor himself, and he had developed a sort of persona as a kind person, so he works perfectly in the story.  It also gives him a chance to do something funny with the pimples he would always draw on his nose:

It's yet another fun use of his regular techniques.

Metafiction is fun - And speaking of enjoyable techniques, the fourth wall-breaking gags that Tezuka often used are another thing he did really well, whether it's characters commenting on how many pages are left in the story, people smashing through panel borders:

Or the occasional wacky joke/self-insertion:

Those always crack me up.

Car crash watch - There isn't a huge amount of vehicular damage in these two volumes, with the automotive wreckage limited to a standard pedestrian run-down:

And a car chase that includes another moment of tossed-off silliness:

So in lieu of automotive damage, how about an awesome plane crash?

Awesome art: still in effect - As great an artist at Tezuka was, his techniques could begin to feel almost rote simply through sheer volume.  So it's always great to see something new that makes you realize all over again how incredible he was.  For just two examples here is a scene of an earthquake interrupting an operation that's startling in its jostling intensity:

And a description of the circulation problems caused by gigantism that's demonstrated by a remarkably effective image of a tiny heart in a big body:

That's the mark of an amazing artist there, and there's always something to grab onto with Tezuka, some astonishing flourish that makes you excited to be reading his comics.

The smaller, sweeter stories are often the best - As much fun as it is to see all the goofy jokes, gruesome surgeries, and awesome ideas that Tezuka would throw into the series, the stories that really stick in the memory are the ones that establish well-drawn characters and situations that tug at the heartstrings, which is yet another thing Tezuka did so well.  A girl with a beautiful voice nearly loses it, but Black Jack manages to cure her after insisting that she remain completely silent for a full year.  A mother makes a connection with her disowned son, who cares for her more than the other children she is so proud of.  A young boy who once helped nurse a bird back to help is in turn saved when the bird keeps delivering money to Black Jack for his medical treatment.  A cancer-stricken medical student strives to save just one fellow cancer patient while he has the strength.  Every story has something fascinating about it, but these tales where Tezuka put together simple situations and characters that feel like real people struggling to survive are the ones that really stand out, and make me want to keep coming back for more.