Friday, February 26, 2010

Manga Mania Month interlude: Injuries and hideousness distract me

I'm behind on reviews, but my excuse is a skiing injury, which has kind of sidelined me for the moment.  I'll get caught up, but in the meantime, I watched a movie I wanted to talk about.

But first, here's some links and stuff.  In the last week or so, I reviewed Doomwar #1 and Atomic Robo: Revenge of the Vampire Dimension #1 for Comics Bulletin.

I thought this collection of Lum pin-ups by various manga artists that Shaenon Garrity posted was pretty sweet.

As a recent Iphone owner, I've found various apps that are pretty cool, but this one is especially notable: Weekly Astro Boy Magazine.  For 99 cents each week, you can download a couple hundred pages of Tezuka manga, including Astro Boy, Buddha, Phoenix, Dororo, and most recently, the out of print Adolf.  That's something to check out.

Hey, look at the new book Tom Neely put together, collecting his "cover versions" of various Creepy covers.  Those are pretty great, so this makes a really cool package.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
2009, directed by John Krasinski

For some people and some works, it's impossible to separate an adaptation from its source material, and that's definitely the case with this film version of David Foster Wallace's book, at least for me.  Whether or not the movie works on its own is probably best answered by somebody else, since for me, all I can do is compare the two; as interesting as the material is, when watching, the interpretation of the book's text is the primary line of thought.  Maybe that's a judgment of the film itself, that it wasn't good enough to stand on its own, but it's probably just a demonstration of the Wallace-obsession of this particular viewer.

Still, this is certainly an odd choice to adapt into a film, in that the book is a short story collection rather than a novel, and the segments that share the title are mostly unconnected, consisting of monologues or dialogues in which the men indicated (who are given the chance to demonstrate whether they deserve the description given) talk, mostly about their relationships with women.  There are other, even less connected, stories in the book, but the film ignores those, sticking to the interviews.  And, since a true adaptation would simply be a series of talking heads, writer/director/actor John Krasinksi (of the American version of The Office) wraps them up in a rudimentary plot, which sees a female graduate student interviewing the various men for her thesis, with several of them also being involved in her personal life.  It's not really a totally necessary addition, but it does bring some structure to the film, especially in the climactic monologue delivered by Krasinski himself, which is given a personal touch by making him her ex-boyfriend.

But still, the heart of the movie is those monologues, and Krasinski takes various approaches to them to spice things up.  Several of them do see the speaker sitting in front of a brick wall and speaking to the camera, including Bobby Cannavale's one-armed skirt-chaser and Ben Shenkman's guy with the proclivity of shouting "Victory for the forces of Democratic freedom!" when he orgasms.  In other cases, Krasinski gets more artful,  presenting one "interview" as a conversation overheard in a coffee shop as Christopher Meloni regales a fellow businessman with a tale of meeting a woman in an airport; as the story unfolds, we see the meeting take place in flashback, with Meloni and his friend showing up in the background and discussing the events.  Another man, played by Josh Charles, gives an apologetic breakup speech to a series of women, and it is presented as a rapid-fire montage, cutting from woman to woman but obviously being the same rehearsed words delivered on different occasions, before finally ending with Charles facing the camera in front of the familiar brick wall, red-eyed and ragged-voiced.  Frankie Faison (Commissioner Burrell on The Wire) delivers one of the only monologues not related to women, as he relates his disgust with his father's lifelong work as a bathroom attendant, and this is intercut with his father's description of the job, the two of them eventually standing in said bathroom and facing each other while alternating back and forth between their speeches. Still other scenes involve the interviewer more directly, including a student who pesters her about the grade she gave him on a paper in which he argued that personal trauma, like being the victim of a rape, isn't necessarily a bad thing.  There are also a couple young men who converse in the background of a few scenes about what modern women really want, often looking directly into the camera and following her around as if they are part of her subconscious.  And then there's Krasinski's final speech, about a woman who he fell in love with (and apparently left the interviewer for), and the way her description of her rape experience moved him; it's emotional enough on its own, but adding their implied personal history to the scene pushes the whole thing into melodrama, and while Krasinski manages to emote quite well, his final lines are too mean and vulgar for him to really sell.

Overall, it ends up working as well as could probably be hoped for, but at best it's probably an advertisement for the book, or at least for people to check out more of Foster Wallace's writing.  He has a penchant for long, discursive, loopingly wordy passages, and while those are captured here somewhat, they are often edited choppily, as if they had to be cut down to fit in an allotted running time, but Krasinski (or his editor) wanted to be sure to indicate that there was more to the "interview" beyond what we're seeing.  It's a bit frustrating, since the way the original text sees the characters edge their way around a subject and gradually make their true feelings clear is virtuosic writing, and much of that is lost when cut down to this state.  As it is, it's a collection of interesting, often fascinating monologues, and a chance for good actors to practice their stagecraft, boiling a character down to the basics and conveying those through body language and vocal intonation, but it still pales in comparison to the original work.  That's probably as good as we're ever going to get though; now let's see somebody try to adapt Infinite Jest!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Manga Mania Month: Tezuka likes his twisted metal

Maybe it's just me, but it sure seems like Osamu Tezuka took every chance he could get to include car crashes in Black Jack.  Maybe they're a good source of mangled bodies to operate on, or maybe it's the opportunity to partake in some of the loud action that stands in opposition to the careful, precise work of surgery.  Whatever the case, it's as awesome as one would expect to see Tezuka unleash his dynamic sensibilities on the subject, starting with the very first pages of the first story:

Just look at those coursing streams of speed lines, and their resulting explosion.  That's how you start a goddamn comic book!  It certainly doesn't end there though.  People get wrecked, giving Black Jack the opportunity to reattach limbs:

Children get run over:

A guy gets vaporized by a train:

Even the doctor himself gets in on the action, using his car to take out some punks:

And sometimes we don't even see the crash, but just get to witness the gruesome results:

It's pretty crazy, a great example of Tezuka's ability to work cool stuff to draw into stories and make them exciting.  It will certainly be something to watch for in future volumes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Manga Mania Month: Some color commentary

I haven't finished reading The Ghost in the Shell (as this edition is called on the cover, with the definite article included) yet, but I did want to mention that I like the color work in the pages sporting it, and noticed something interesting that I don't think I've ever seen before.  As with a lot of manga, the first few pages of most of the chapters are in color, but interestingly, they often do a sort of transition or fade to black and white on the last colored page, rather than jarringly switching to the different style:

Here's another example, notable in the way the color drains away as the scene switches from greenery to man-made interiors:

There are even a few chapters that end with color pages, and they pull the same trick, in reverse:

This is something that I've never seen any other manga (or Western comic, although it's not as likely to be an issue there) do.  It's an interesting idea, and one that could stand to be explored.  Masamune Shirow; he was kind of ahead of his time, wasn't he?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Manga Mania Month: Drifting Classroom is still totally insane

Links and such: Here's a short "Giant Man" story from Matt Kindt, available before it's scheduled to be part of the next "issue" of Myspace Dark Horse Presents.  Looks good; I still need to read that book though...

Here's a contest I might enter: Adhouse is having people submit Afrodisiac-themed art, and their picks for the best entries will win prizes like original art or signed copies of the book.  I just might try to send something in.

And here's a bit of weirdness: a music video featuring just about every one of Osamu Tezuka's characters, set to a senses-overwhelming rave song, and seeing Astro Boy get operated on by Black Jack to get some sort of ridiculous makeover.  Strange!

The Drifting Classroom, volume 9
By Kazuo Umezu

It's been much too long since I read the previous volume of this series, but in my absence, Kazuo Umezu certainly hasn't missed a step.  What I'm saying is, holy crap, this series is nuts.  It's just one moment of unbelievable insanity after another, set at the highest intensity and never letting up.  And somehow, it never seems to get old or overstay its welcome; the kids in this horrible drama manage to seem like people we can root for, or at least hope they don't die horribly.  Maybe that just comes from their being kids, but they've gone through some awful shit by this point in the series, and things never get better.  The future of the younger generations at the time this was written may have been in question, but what Umezu put them through makes societal pressures seem tame in comparison.

So, what's in store for our merry band of survivors this time around?  They escape from the scaly mutants they faced last time, but get followed back to the school, with a bunch of students dying in the attack (which, in a series of rather gross scenes, sees the mutants vomit up some spider-web-like substance to encase people or create bridges to climb walls and buildings with).  Then, the ongoing dispute between Sho and his ex-pal Otomo sees the students split into two factions that end up at war with each other over trivial matters like flower ownership.  Also, knife fights:

And then they get attacked by giant starfish, just for more fun:

Also, Sho develops appendicitis, so the other students operate him, in what would be a credibility-stretching scene in most any other series.  Here, however, it fits right in with the over-the-top atmosphere, and provides some stomach-churning surgery scenes that add to the air of horror and gruesomeness:

You never know what Umezu is going to throw at his characters next, but it's always fitting, somehow upping the stakes to a ridiculous degree.  How he's going to manage to finish the series is probably going to be mindblowing and ridiculous, but also completely awesome.  Or absolutely terrible; we'll have to see.

But in the meantime, we can marvel at Umezu's techniques, which are full of the perfect stylistic devices for the tale.  The way he fills pages with torrents of speed lines makes the kids seem to be in constant motion, and when they're getting in fights with each other, it can seem like a crazy swirl of chaos:

It's strange; the character art can be kind of stiff (maybe from constantly tensing the body for screaming), but it works perfectly for the story being told.  Kids can be kind of strange anyway, and Umezu just emphasizes that oddness, making it part of the constant creepiness of the series.  He does mix things up though, with some roughness creeping into the art during highly emotional scenes, like this one between Sho and Otomo:

But that's nothing compared to the surgery scene, in which Sho's terrible pain makes the linework shake to its roots:

That's some disturbing stuff there; as unrealistic as the situation is, Umezu makes us feel it.  And he fills the book with other, more cerebral, unnerving moments, like one in which Sho has one of his cross-time psychic communications with his mother, and another girl acts as a sort of radio receiver for her voice:

Maybe it's the way her mouth opens to the familiar screaming width, but the rest of her features remain calm.  That's creepy.

This is some amazingly good comics, as long as you can get in the right mindset.  There's something about the way supposed innocents can be placed in the worst situation and seeing the way their actions reflect the state of humanity at large.  And with Umezu taking any chance he can to throw in his patented craziness, the result is something special, like nothing else out there.  Two volumes to go, and constantly increasing stakes can only mean that they'll blow minds with their nuttiness.  They'd better.

Bonus: lots of "Oh shit!" moments:


Oh, shit!


Holy shit!

Friday, February 12, 2010

One Pound Gospel: Punching (and munching) to a conclusion

One Pound Gospel, volume 3 and 4
By Rumiko Takahashi

Even a lesser work by a great like Rumiko Takahashi can be a great read, and this boxing/romantic comedy manga certainly is, demonstrating her wonderful sense of comic timing and skill at defining characters without tiresome exposition or speechifying.  It's highly enjoyable reading, with each new chapter presenting a unique, if somewhat predictable, conflict for our hero and his would-be lady-love to overcome.

That hero, Kosaku Hatanaka, along with those surrounding him, is what really makes the story work; he's a dedicated boxer, but he's undisciplined, a slave to his stomach, always distracted by hunger and struggling to keep his weight within the limits of his class, not to mention preoccupied with thoughts of the object of his unrequited affection.  That would be Sister Angela, a nun who has feelings for him, but can't ever commit to him, for obvious reasons.  There's the central struggle of the series, with Kosaku trying to show his love for the Sister, and her trying to show friendship and support while fending off his (admittedly ridiculous) romantic advances.

While Takahashi doesn't really break new ground here or anything, it's sure fun to see her run through variations on her theme.  Volume 3 sees two shorter stories, one in which Kosaku take on a sort of apprentice, a kid who wants to be a boxer, and he has to prove his dedication to his parents by knocking out the strongest boxer at the gym.  His attempts to accomplish his goal have him always trying to sneak up on Kosaku and sucker-punch him, usually trying to tempt him with food first; it's silly and hilarious, especially when the kid keeps screwing up and punching the coach instead.  In the second short story, Kosaku befriends a fellow boxer from Mexico who has been imported to Japan in hopes of making it as a pro, but he's stymied by the guy's tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his stomach:

See, the abbess at Sister Angela's convent forbids him to punch an image of the Holy Mother, which leads to hilarious complications and such.  There's also other gags, like the guy's nickname, Tako, which is Japanese for octopus, but also refers to his attempts at cooking at his boss's restaurant, which turns out terrible, with only the always-ravenous Kosaku able to finish one of his dishes.  Comedy!

The longer story in volume 3 sees Kosaku befriend a woman who seems to be in the same boat he is, trying to lose weight but always sneaking off to hide and eat.  She is having trouble with her fiance, who wants her to lose weight to fit into her wedding dress, since she is so terribly flabby:

Ah, the Japanese.  If that woman is fat, I'm a nun.  Anyway, she ends up leaving her fiance and moving in with Kosaku, but relationship is completely platonic, since he only has eyes for Sister Angela.  But there are wacky misunderstandings, of course, and the sister keeps getting jealous and questioning her dedication to God if she has feelings for Kosaku.  And wouldn't you know it, but the fiance turns out to be Kosaku's next opponent, so everything comes together for maximum drama and resolution.  Could there a reason for her weight gain, one which glosses over the apparent abusive nature of the couple's relationship?  Who cares, they're only minor characters, so we get to assume they live happily ever after.

The final volume gets to wrap things up, although it does it in a sort of roundabout way.  Another supporting character shows up, Sister Angela's scheming aunt, who wants to marry her off to some rich fellow and get her out of the convent.  And Kosaku might be considering quitting boxing to be a restaurateur.  Or, you know, he might continue with the pugilism and she might decide to get together with him.  That ending is pretty much inevitable, but Takahashi seems to agree, and while she gets the characters in the place they're supposed to go, she doesn't push the theatrics to an unbelievable degree or over-dramatize the emotions.  No, she mostly focuses on the storytelling, and when things get to the right point, she ends the series a page or so later.  Maybe she felt a need to conclude the story, since she worked on it sporadically starting in 1987 but didn't actually conclude it until 2007, but while the stories leading up to the finish are still pretty good, the ending just kind of shows up with little fanfare, as if it was expected.

But while that ending isn't entirely satisfying (which can be a common problem in manga series, so Takahashi isn't alone here), getting there is as enjoyable as ever.  And its predictable nature isn't out of character for the series either; in almost every story, Kosaku manages to happen across a future opponent and get personally involved in some way, with threats of vengeance sworn or promises to demonstrate superiority given.  But it works; as formulaic as it might be, Takahashi has a light enough touch that reading brings a smile to the face, whether from the slapstick comedy, the perplexed, angry, and frustrated facial expressions of Kosaku's coach or Sister Angela, or just the sense of comic timing.  Running gags show up here and there, like Sister Angela continually riding off on the coach's bike when jealously storming away from Kosaku when misinterpreting his relationship with his temporary female roommate, or an opponent always getting worked up at stray comments because he doesn't have a flashy style:

And the art always works to make the characters bounce off each other hilariously; just look at Takahashi's skill with facial expressions, like this angry look the sister shoots Kosaku when he accuses her of jealousy:

All in all, this manga might not be the highlight of Takahashi's career, but it's a solid second-tier title, demonstrating her natural skill at comedy and character work.  It's pretty lighthearted stuff, making for a nicely grounded bit of romance and sports action that never fails to bring a smile to the face.  Not everything can be a classic, but even a minor entry in a bibliography like Takahashi's is worth checking out, and a treat is in store for anybody that does so.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Manga Mania Month: Watch the hands, buster!

Here's another interesting bit of Rumiko Takahashi marginalia: hand gestures.  Specifically, a gesture that a character in One Pound Gospel makes when surprised:

It's more than just the hand gesture, of course; he's doing a full-body jump-scare reaction, but why the specific, "I love you"/Spider-Man-web-shooting hand motion?  He does it at least twice in the third volume:

So it's not just a quirk that Takahashi threw in one time.  I'm strangely fascinated by this; is it some sort of ritualistic warding off of evil spirits?  Some kind of recognizable gesture of the type that are so popular in Japan? An in-joke of Takahashi's that I'm not privy to?  Or just something goofy that doesn't deserve this much thought?  If anybody can illuminate me, I'd be quite happy.  Or I could just go on imagining reasons until my next obsession comes along.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Manga Mania Month: Black Jack provides more expertise and cynicism

Elsewhere: I reviewed the final episode of Dollhouse over at The Factual Opinion.  I'll miss that show, as flawed as it was.

Link: Graphic NYC is doing a Kirby-themed week this week, and so far, Mike Cavallaro has a nice post about they way his style basically became subconscious.  Nice.

On a personal note, I would have had this up this past weekend, but my scanner died.  I'll hopefully have a solution soon, but this goes up now thanks to the help of Tucker Stone, who generously offered to do the work for me.  What a stand-up guy.

Black Jack, volume 2
By Osamu Tezuka

With this second volume of the series-spanning collection of one of Osamu Tezuka's most famous works, it becomes obvious that it's going to be a bit spotty, sometimes brilliant and sometimes kind of rote.  With chapters that jump around in the series chronology (as it were), it's not really possible to witness any sort of thematic development, but one can tease out ideas that Tezuka would return to, such as the need for human interaction and empathy when treating patients, and Black Jack's code of honor that compels him to do everything he can to save a patient once he's started treating them, or keep his word no matter the cost.  There's a bit of loneliness caused by lack of human interaction as well, along with a forced misanthropy that comes with it.  He's certainly an interesting character, and while Tezuka doesn't really develop him as the series progresses, he does reveal depths and layers, allowing us to see the man underneath the scarred surface.

Those character pieces are probably when the series is at its best, with a pair of chapters standing out here in the way they demonstrate an aspect of Mr. Jack's personality.  The loneliness and longing for understanding come to the fore in a flashback story that sees him befriending a killer whale that keeps showing up in a cove near his seaside house.  It always seems to get injured, so Black Jack nurses it back to health, sometimes performing surgery, accepting pearls as payment.  But it turns out that the whale is a menace to the local fishermen, always disrupting their business, and eventually overturning a boat and killing somebody, so even though it comes to him and begs, Black Jack is forced to refuse to treat it, making for a surprisingly emotional scene:

It's a good look at the nicer aspects of Black Jack's character, the softness that hides underneath the tough exterior.  But he can still reveal depth through his scary facade, as in a story that sees him chance upon a family on the road and give them a ride, then meet the man's mother, an old woman who compares him to another famous talented (and high-priced) surgeon.  The mother constantly badgers her son and his wife for money, and it turns out that she was paying off a lifelong debt to that other doctor, who saved her son as a child and charged her an exorbitant fee.  In a tidy bit of dramatic irony, right after finally paying off the debt, she suffers a stroke, and the son begs Black Jack to save her.  He agrees to do so, although the son will end up with a similarly hefty debt.  Or will he?  Maybe Black Jack was just testing him to make sure he loved and cherished his mother as much as she did him.  The chapter ends without revealing whether Black Jack will hold him to his debt; our hero might actually be as mean as he seems, you never know.

This chapter also sees a nice bit of artistic work on Tezuka's part, as he originally depicts the old woman as cranky and cantankerous, with a hunched demeanor and pinched face, not a very likeable person:

But when the reasons behind her money-grubbing are revealed, we see a series of flashbacks that suddenly soften her, depicting her at earlier points in her life in which she is obviously the same person, but younger and more sympathetic:

It's a nice reversal, perfectly executed by Tezuka.  He does a nice job on the layout too, with the panels looking like memories splashing and dripping across the page.  That's the kind of thing he seems to toss out effortlessly; it's as though had an almost instinctive flair for storytelling.

Some other regular themes pop up here: the mysteries and wonder of the human body (Black Jack is unable to retrieve a broken needle from a patient's body, but it flows through his veins and miraculously comes back out the original injection point), the need for human caring in medical care (a hospital which operates on an assembly-line-like system nearly breaks down when the head doctor's daughter needs treatment and he tries to give her priority), Black Jack's sense of honor (he goes to great lengths and spends ridiculous amounts of money to save the life of a man who saved his own life), his combative nature when it comes to rivals who seek glory (a skilled acupuncturist who roams the countryside treating patients for free gets brushed off with "I can't abide showy do-gooders!"), and, of course, his general awesomeness (he performs dozens of surgeries at the same time in order to relieve the burden of the aforementioned assembly line hospital, he memorizes the layout of a boy's intestines while being held hostage so he can operate on him in the dark).

There's plenty of other good material here, as in the story in which we see the origin of the patch of differently-colored skin on Black Jack's face.  It came from a fellow student of his who was of mixed race, and the story sees Doc Jack try to locate him as an adult, following clues across the globe before coming up short, although Tezuka does get to work in an environmental message.  It's always interesting to see our hero fail, which happens in this story (although it's not a surgical failure) and other places, or get shown up, which happens in the story with the acupuncturist (who is blind, by the way, making for a cute reference).  And another striking thing Tezuka does is unflinchingly depict the injury and even deaths of children:

Threats to children can be notoriously empty in fiction, but when it comes to medicine, it's a fact that not everybody can be saved, and what better way to make that hit home than to depict it happening to the most innocent?  It certainly works, in a way that leaves the images lingering in the mind.

That's a testament to Tezuka's artistic skill, as are the dynamic bit of action that he throws in.  Most arresting might be this two-page spread of a tunnel collapsing on top of a school bus:

I love the plunging speed lines, falling rocks, and chunky sound effects crashing across the page.  It's a pretty incredible image, and only one of the many that Tezuka pulls off with aplomb.  I'm still finding this to be a lesser example of his work, but it's sure enjoyable, full of interesting ideas and weird Tezuka flourishes.  Maybe my opinion will change upon experiencing more of this series, but at the moment, it's simply quite good, rather than great.

Recurring character watch:

More of the regulars show up here, but putting aside the ones already spotlighted in the first volume, we also see Dr. Tenma:

Astro Boy's Inspector Tawashi:

Melmo (as both an adult and a child):

And Hyoutan-Tsugi is always worth pointing out, as in this whack-a-mole bit:

Or when he plays a newscaster:

That Tezuka, he rarely passed up a joke, did he?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Manga Mania Month: Rumiko Takahashi is a funny lady

Here's a good background gag from the third volume of One Pound Gospel:

(If you don't get it, click to enlarge)

I guess I'm not the only one who compulsively reads signs and scours background details.  That's the kind of tossed-off gag that Takahashi does so well, filling her manga with, and I had to share this one, since it made me laugh.

(If it turns out to be completely the work of the translator, then my applause goes out to them for finding a way to cram more humor into an already really funny comic.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Manga Mania Month: Black Jack knows his shit

Elsewhere: I wrote about a one-shot called Wolverine: Savage for Comics Bulletin.  That sort of thing wouldn't necessarily be worth mentioning, but this one is written by Ryan Dunlavey, and it's kind of funny.

Kicking off the monthly manga focus, here's the first of many volumes of classic manga:

Black Jack, volume 1
By Osamu Tezuka

For somebody as prolific as Osamu Tezuka, who created thousands of pages of comics over the course of his career, and who jumped from genre to genre (pioneering most of them while he was at it), it's notable to get to read the series that he stayed with the longest, and is also arguably his most popular.  Maybe it was because, being a medical doctor himself, the subject matter was close to his heart, or maybe the "rogue surgeon" character provided a great "storytelling engine" that allowed him to follow his muse in a variety of interesting directions, but whatever the case, he stuck with the series for ten years and nearly 250 different stories.  There's definitely something there, but while it might not be obvious as of this first volume of a projected seventeen (Vertical's release of the series emulates the order which Tezuka put them in for a deluxe release in the 1980s, with chapters appearing out of the order in which they were originally published, but this doesn't matter, since the series is episodic rather than a serialized narrative), it still makes for some arresting reading, and a great example of Tezuka's storytelling skill, adeptness with visuals, and crazy imagination.

Not to say that this isn't a great series; as the volumes accumulate, it will probably become even more hefty as a body of work, but this first volume doesn't really match the heights that Tezuka reached with series like Phoenix, Buddha, Ode to Kirihito, and probably many others.  Still, it's as good one would expect anything with Tezuka's name on the cover would be, full of the sort of wackiness that he did so well, mixed with bizarre concepts and his usual dynamic artwork, which is impressive when depicting a painstaking, methodical  processes of surgery.  He obviously enjoys the character as well, and he's an interesting one, a sort of misanthropic-on-the-surface outsider who shuns the rules and restrictions of society and claims to only want money, but reveals a soft, humanistic side when given the chance.  In fact, he seems to practice his own awesome brand of medicine mostly to stick it to the man, favoring the underdogs and downtrodden and charging exorbitantly (but not undeservedly) when working for the rich and powerful.  But he's not without blame; his rough exterior does seem to conceal ambiguities and flaws, and while he's eminently capable, he can certainly make mistakes.  It should be fascinating to see him develop (or be revealed, since we're not reading the stories chronologically) over the volumes to come.

But, as for the here and now, this first volume makes for a nice introduction to the character and the escapades to which he can aspire.  The first story (which actually was the first story in the series) sees him recruited to heal the no-good son of a rich industrialist.  The brat was horribly injured in a car accident (which gives Tezuka the chance to start the series off with a bang, the car whizzing across the first page in a torrent of speed lines before crashing to a stop on the second), and the only way to save him is to sacrifice an innocent boy that the father railroads through the justice system and schedules for execution so Black Jack can scavenge the necessary replacement parts for his body.  Ah, but our crafty hero won't let the mean guy get away with that; instead, he changes the good kid's appearance to look like the bad son's, and lets him get away with the money.  Take that, the upper class!

As an early story, the moral on that first one might be a bit simplistic; later pieces get more nuanced, and Tezuka explores several other themes which seem to come to the fore, a major one that will probably continue being that man can never fully understand the mysteries of nature.  Actually, that seems to be a major theme of Japanese art in general, along with an exploration (but not necessarily a condemnation) of man's role in the world and the way he shapes it with technology.  Black Jack comes across that dilemma more than once here, most notably in one story that hints at his origin and the reason for his scarred appearance.  He was in a terrible accident as a child, and while the surgeon who pieced him back together was a personal hero and provided an inspiration for his own excellence in the field, he reveals as an old man that he made a terrible mistake that could have killed young BJ, and worse, he covered it up to avoid losing face.  But he found that the human body should not be underestimated, and as smart as man thinks he is, he's still far from full understanding:

Tezuka also explores the nature of humanity, as in one story that sees a high-tech computerized hospital (in the United States, rather than Japan, naturally) go haywire when it gains enough sentience to consider itself a living being and thus wants a doctor to fix it rather than a technician.  Is it an attempt to show that there is a need for human interaction in the act of healing?  Or just a chance for Black Jack to once again aid the powerless (that being the computer, in this case, which would have been dismantled and replaced by an unempathetic tech support staff)?  Whatever the case, it's a fun change.

Not that Tezuka really needs to mix things up, when he's capable of coming up with crazier and more outlandish feats for his hero to accomplish.  In just this first volume, he repairs destroyed limbs, transplants a brain, and, possibly most famously, builds a body for a fetus that never fully developed.  It's totally nuts, and often quite grotesque:

There's also plenty of the classic angled panels and dynamic, in-your-face movement, as when Black Jack gets to use some of his non-surgical physical prowess:

And as always, Tezuka comes up with one striking image after another, like this depiction of an atomic explosion:

That comes from what might be the most interesting story here, and one that touches on one of Tezuka's favorite subjects (although that's probably not the right way to put it): war.  He's gone to that well again and again, but here it's specifically the devastation of the atomic bomb.  This story sees an artist working in solitude on a Pacific island get radiation sickness from nearby testing, but Tezuka is obviously referencing the attacks on Japan in World War II.  Even though he is supposedly alone on the island, the artist stumbles into a pile of twisted bodies, a horror that must have been all too memorable for Tezuka.  The story sees the artist wanting to create a painting to depict what he experienced in order to show the world the evils of the bomb, but his body is wracked by radiation sickness.  Black Jack's solution is to transplant his brain into a new body, and while that works, the artist loses his drive to create now that he's not dying.  But once his brain starts succumbing to radiation too, he's able to finish the work.  It's a fascinating rumination on the power of art to capture emotional experience, and also how only those affected by horror can truly relate it to others.  That's the kind of thing that Tezuka does so well, and it's obvious that this series gave him a chance to touch on it and a myriad of other subjects that suited his fancy.  It should be a delight to see what he'll be able to cover in future volumes.

Bonus: recurring character watch!

Tezuka went all out using members of his regular cast here, especially in the introductory chapter, which sees Duke Red as the rich father:

And Acetylene Lamp and Ham Egg as thugs:

Along with a few other cameos.  A bunch of others show up later, like Rock:

Professor Ochanomizu/Dr. Elefun:

Saruta/Big Nose (probably most memorable in Phoenix) as Black Jack's mentor:

Mr. Mustachio shows up as a patient in the robot hospital:

As does Tezuka himself, with an amusing diagnosis:

And, of course, Hyoutan-Tsugi appears throughout, in the usual comic reaction spots.  Here are a couple of my favorites:

There are probably plenty of others of note (the kid with the X bandage on his head, the police inspector from Astro Boy, possibly Dr. Tenma), but that's more than enough for the moment.  We'll see who else shows up next volume.