Manga Friday: Doctors & Lawyers
This week, I have two fat books about the unlikely adventures of (on one hand) a scarred, secretive, arrogant doctor and (on the other) a self-doubting lawyer who defends the innocent. And since I couldn’t see throwing anyone else in between Black Jack and Phoenix Wright, those two will get the whole column to themselves, in a grand showdown between medicine and law.
Black Jack, Vol. 1
By Osamu Tezuka
Vertical, September 2008, $18.95
Black Jack is reportedly Tezuka’s most popular series among Japanese adults – kids prefer Astro Boy, as you’d expect – but there’s only been one (quickly aborted) attempt to publish it in the US before this. And it’s not like Black Jack is a quick little thing: it ran for ten years in Japan, and totals well over two hundred stories of about twenty pages each. But Vertical now is stepping up to the challenge, and plans to publish Black Jack every other month for three years until they get all seventeen volumes out. It’s an ambitious plan, certainly, but ambition is to be applauded, especially in publishing.
So this book reprints some of the earliest Black Jack stories – it doesn’t explicitly say that all of the stories will be reprinted in order, and several stories have never been reprinting, for various reasons, but these are probably from the beginning. It doesn’t start with an origin: some of these stories fill in bits of Black Jack’s backstory, but he’s in the middle of his career as the book opens, already legendary.
Black Jack is a supernaturally gifted surgeon, capable of amazing and unlikely feats, such as transplanting a brain into a new body or building a body for an intelligent parasitic twin and installing her loose, attached body parts into that body. To be blunt, he does the impossible, generally at least once per story. He’s also an outlaw, unlicensed anywhere in the world though still respected and commanding immense fees. (In these stories, his unlicensed status is mentioned but doesn’t affect the action at all.)
These stories are strongly moralistic: a nasty rich young man gets his comeuppance, a serial killer is tormented by an ugly “face sore” representing his conscience, the cornea transplanted into a young woman reveals a murderer, a dying painter is transplanted into another body to finish his anti-nuclear testing masterpiece, and so on. Along the way, Black Jack also returns to visit his dying mentor, Dr. Honma – who also saved Jack’s life through a similarly unlikely and amazing surgery when Jack was very young.
Tezuka has an image of medicine, and particularly surgery, as powerful, but not godlike – a skill that men have developed that can be of almost limitless use for good…almost. There are things even Jack can’t do, and saving Dr. Honma – importantly, in the fifth story, very early in the series – is one of them.
These are dramatic, even melodramatic, stories, quickly told in broad strokes – the equivalent of a TV show in comics form. They’re presented in the original right-to-left manga orientation, but the panels are mostly square and the flow of action is always clear; this would be a good first manga series for new readers. I’m not sure if Black Jack can find a broad general audience, but there are a lot of people out there who would like it if they tried it.
Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney Official Casebook Vol. 1: The Phoenix Wright Files
By various; translated and adapted by Alethea Nibley and Athena Nibley
Del Rey Manga, September 2008, $14.95
Phoenix Wright is also famous, but for a different reason – and these days, and on this side of the Pacific, certainly more famous than Black Jack. Mr. Wright has been the hero of three videogames (over here, at least), as a defense attorney fighting for justice.
This book includes twenty-three stories, all by different manga-ka, at different lengths, from 4-panel gag strips to twenty-page adventures. A few are courtroom dramas, like the games, but most are explorations of the characters (or extended jokes based on the characters). I could run through the stories one-by-one to fill up space here, but…what would be the purpose? If you’ve played the game, then you know who these people are – and to you I say that they show up and do amusing things. If you haven’t played the game, then you’re likely not even reading this.
The stories are all pleasant and entertaining – even to me, and I haven’t played any of the games – but I can’t see why anyone who hasn’t played the game would want to read this. (Unless they had an online manga-review column, of course.) The art is mostly on-model, and, though varied, mostly stays in easy-to-follow variations on a standard shonen look.
There’s some matter-of-fact supernatural content in this book, mostly involving channeling (which can extend to the physical transformation of the medium into the person being channeled), but hardly any actual law. I can’t recall Wright, or anyone else, actually citing a specific law – they all seem to either have memorized everything so thoroughly that citations are superfluous, or are running on common beliefs, like “murder is bad.” It’s all pretty silly.
There are nearly three hundred pages of comics here, which should help console those shattered when Wright was relegated to a supporting character in the last game in the series. If you’ve never played the game, you could pick this up and enjoy this, but I don’t expect you will.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.