Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Reprint This! 5. Black Jack

UPDATE: Black Jack has been reprinted in 17 volumes by Vertical. Go, buy 'em all!

Reprint This! is a periodic feature where I talk about some out-of-print comic book gems that are not available in collected form for readers to enjoy. This is hoping to let rights owners know that, yes, readers are out here, and we'd like to buy the things we can't get at this time!

Despite such an enormous variety of books available these days, and genuine efforts to present the material in reasonably-priced, archival volumes, there are still countless fabulous series from the US, Britain and Japan which are overdue for new editions. I've selected two dozen titles which should be on bookshelves, but at this time are not.

One missing gem is BLACK JACK by Osamu Tezuka. Black Jack is a mysterious doctor, who specializes in bizarre medical mysteries, and who crosses paths with criminals and dangerous fugitives who are willing to pay any price for his service and his discretion...

Black Jack's format is one of 15-page episodes dealing with utterly messed up illnesses and ailments - the sort that would drive Hugh Laurie to the priesthood - and accidents that require the most unusual surgeries ever seen. It's not like it's unrealistic due to a lack of research - Tezuka held a medical degree - but rather, realism is deliberately thrown completely out the window in favor of using the format for parables about greed and the debt one owes society, built around outlandish grotesqueries that are completely captivating.

Just to tell you how nutty this gets, in one of the few stories available in English, Black Jack serves as a supporting character in a story about his favorite sushi chef, who loses both his arms in a freak traffic accident. The contrite driver devotes his life to making up for his crime, and trains under the chef to become his new "arms." Black Jack's services are needed years down the road, when the driver is killed in a later, grisly accident. You can tell where this is going, only if you turn off your common sense circuits and think "utterly insane."

As engrossing as the stories are, the art is its own draw. I've been reading comics for three decades, and Tezuka remains the only artist who has ever tricked my eyes into actually seeing motion on the page. I'm absolutely drawn into Tezuka's weird world of heavy lines, sumptuous detail and stumpy, cartoony-people, and then he pulls an optical illusion and I swear the character on the page just moved. And hey, I'm the sort of guy who drives eighty miles off the interstate to see a gravity hill, so you're damn right I want more Black Jack in print.

Black Jack originally appeared as a weekly series in the pages of Shonen Champion from 1973-1983. Most of Tezuka's enormous output (said to be more than 150,000 pages over a 43-year career) came from short stories or 50-week serials or periodic installments of much larger works, such as Phoenix 2772, which was never actually completed. Black Jack was one of Tezuka's handful of series to be published regularly over a several year period.

You'd think that since Black Jack requires no backstory and has almost no continuity that it would be ideal for repackaging in the US. But only a handful of episodes have been published in this country. Viz released two volumes of translations, in their old "neither-fish-nor-fowl" trade paperback format, which were taller, wider and had fewer pages (around 160) than standard Japanese digests, but shorter and narrower than everybody else's graphic novels, priced at a too-high $15.95, and with the artwork flipped so the book's spine is on the right. Viz has done right with some of its older properties, issuing them in the more common size and under $10, but Black Jack hasn't been seen again since they switched formats. We'd like to see the rest of the series, so how about it, Viz?

(Originally posted July 17, 2007, 08:13 at hipsterdad's livejournal.)

(Update 10/07: Vertical has announced they have licensed the series for North American publication!!)

(Update 4/08: First look at Vertical's design for the series.)

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