Manga Review: Black Jack 2

Manga Review: Black Jack 2 by Osamu Tezuka

Before Osamu Tezuka became a full-time manga creator, he was  a medical doctor.  He drew upon this training and experiences with Japan’s medical establishment for his work on Black Jack starting in the 1970s.

Black Jack 2

Black Jack (birth name Kuro’o Hazama) is a brilliant physician and surgeon who is unlicensed (reasons differing between continuities) and therefore operates outside the law and the established medical system.   For reasons that are not revealed until late in the manga, Black Jack requires large sums of money and will often charge outrageous fees.  On the other hand, he will also often treat a patient for free or a nominal payment if the whim strikes him.

The stories are mostly episodic, and the order of presentation is not necessarily the order they occur.  Most of them features valuable lessons about life, usually for the patient or another civilian, but sometimes for doctors or Black Jack himself.

In most of the stories, Black Jack is accompanied by Pinoko, a cyborg he created from a parasitic twin that had never fully developed.  Her artificial body makes her look like a small child, and she usually acts like one, but Pinoko considers herself a grown woman and Black Jack’s wife.  This can get pretty disturbing, but Tezuka never takes it in a sexual direction.

The first story in this volume is “Needle”, a thriller which begins with Black Jack successfully completing a tough operation.  But an earthquake causes the tip of an IV needle to break off and travel down the blood vessel.  Now Black Jack and his surgical team must try to locate the foreign object and remove it, before the heart is reached.   Truly, the human body should not be underestimated!

“Where Art Thou, Friend?” is a flashback story that explains Black Jack’s mismatched skin tone.  As a child, Kuro’o was in a horrific accident, and needed a large skin graft immediately.   The only donor available (because the other classmates either chickened out or were forbidden by their parents) was a mixed-race child named Takashi.

Decades later, medical techniques have advanced, and Black Jack could get matching skin and have his facial scars ameliorated, but feels he would be dishonoring his friend by rejecting the lifesaving gift.  This becomes his permanent attitude when Black Jack learns that Takashi died fighting for the environment in Algiers.

“Assembly Line Care” and “The Blind Acupuncturist” both have Black Jack clash with other doctors.  In the first, a hospital director is keeping  costs low by running operations like an assembly line, which is efficient, but gives an impression of impersonality.  In the second, the title alternative practitioner donates his services freely, and dislikes Black Jack’s onerous fee structure.  But he’s a little too hasty to volunteer, and makes a needle-phobic patient’s condition worse.

This volume also contains a “sealed chapter” (one that was excluded from the standard collections), “The One That Remains.”  Sextuplets are born in Germany, one hideously deformed.  The doctor in charge calls in Dr. Kiriko, a specialist in painless euthanasia.  On the plane, Kiriko encounters Black Jack who violently objects to allowing patients to die.

Black Jack gets Dr. Kiriko detained by the police, and shows up in his place.  While the sixth infant is deformed to the point of never being able to have a normal life, it’s also the most likely to survive, as the other five sextuplets are sickly.  Indeed, one has just died!  Black Jack suggests an audacious plan.  He’ll use the organs of the dead sibling to fix some of the mutant’s deformities.

In the end, all the normal-looking babies die, but the sixth sibling is now no longer deformed and will survive.  The public (who had not been told about the deformity thing) cheers, and Dr. Kiriko (finally released from custody) no longer has a patient.

The disturbing images and morbid subject matter caused the story to be pulled from compilations aimed at the original audience of young boys.

Although Tezuka felt no compunctions about just making up diseases for a good story, his anatomy is excellent and the operation scenes look realistic.  This may be difficult for more sensitive readers.

Some physical depictions of other races are done in the then considered okay in Japan burlesque style that is now seen as highly racist.   This translation has left this in place rather than have them redrawn.

Recommended for fans of medical drama.

Here’s the opening for one of several animated adaptations:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQUEZ4kGwMU

Comic Strip Review: The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume Two 1937-1939

Comic Strip Review: The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume Two 1937-1939 written by Lee Falk, art by Ray Moore

Almost five hundred years ago, a sailor named Christopher Walker was accompanying his father on that man’s last voyage when they were attacked by the Singh Brotherhood, a bloodthirsty band of pirates.  The pirates killed the rest of the crew, but Christopher survived and washed up on a beach in Bangalla.  The native Bandar people, pygmies who were known as the Poison People because of their knowledge of botany and chemistry, healed the young man and brought him to the Skull Cave, supposed home of their god.

The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume Two 1937-1939

Donning ceremonial garb modeled on that vengeful spirit, young Walker became a Phantom, a Ghost Who Walks.  He destroyed that iteration of the Singh Brotherhood and vowed on the skull of his father’s murderer to oppose all forms of piracy and injustice.  When the Phantom died, his son took his place, and in each generation, another son takes over the role, creating the illusion  that the Phantom cannot die.

This long-running comic strip was created by Lee Falk in 1936, two years after creating the also-successful Mandrake the Magician.  Skilled artist Ray Moore brought the characters to life.  In the first story the proto-superhero succeeds his father, who has been treacherously slain by a member of the Singh Brotherhood.  (In the early stories, Bangalla is near India, but has wildlife and native customs closer to Africa at times–later on the country would move to sub-Saharan Africa.)  Also early on, the Ghost Who Walks also meets Diana Palmer, who becomes the love of his life.

This volume opens with the Phantom engaging in a bit of stagecraft (with the connivance of the local witch doctor) to perform his annual duty of acting as judge for a village’s disputes.  The witch doctor turns out to be aware that the Phantom is actually a series of men, but finds it useful to pretend otherwise to keep the superstitious natives in line.  During his visit, the Phantom realizes that village boy Toma is actually a white kid who’s been disguised as a native via skin dye by his purported father.

Somehow, the other villagers had never cottoned on to this, but in retrospect they admit having some suspicions about Beeli’s behavior and excellent cash flow despite being the laziest man around.

The Phantom takes Tommy Reynolds to England, to search for answers as to why he was sequestered in that native village for years.  There turns out to be a convoluted reason  for the bizarre events, but justice is served and there’s a bittersweet ending.

After that, Diana’s meddling mother pressures the young woman into marrying one of her more suitable suitors, as it’s unlikely the masked man Diana loves will ever turn up again.  Diana’s mother is wrong, but before the Phantom and Diana can tie the knot, the British government alerts the Phantom to an emergency situation in the Himalayas that only he can solve!  (The star-crossed lovers wouldn’t finally get hitched until the 1970s.)

The Himalayas situation resolved, the Phantom is on his way back to Diana when he’s waylaid in Algiers.  Mrs. Palmer successfully meddles by preventing the lovers’ communications from reaching each other, making each think the other has broken off the relationship.

The next story introduces Baron Grover, a modern-day pirate who would become a recurring foe of the Phantom.  Grover is an actual nobleman who began piracy as a lark, only to lose all his money and thus take up the profession seriously.  The Phantom has a lot of fun making it appear that he truly is immortal; this is also the first time we learn that supposedly seeing the Phantom’s real face is lethal.

Back in Bangalla, a white trader is forcing natives to become pearl divers for him, overworking them and ruining their health.  Roark turns out to be trickier to deal with than he should be, as he has not only bought off the local law, but the Phantom becomes mistakenly convinced that Diana is now Roark’s wife!

The final story in this volume has the Phantom saving Diana from slave traders in North Africa–in a story where they never actually meet!  Comic relief is provided by an elderly hermit who is getting more visitors in a few days than he’s had in the last forty years; and could probably resolve the romantic subplot in seconds if he were told a few pertinent details.

This is great adventure strip stuff, with Lee Falk working out just how this masked hero thing works, and getting the balance of action, humor and romance right.  Over the short term, the separation of the Phantom and Diana creates a nice tension, and the misunderstandings and missed connections draw out the relationship nicely.

Because of the period it was written in, there’s some unfortunate stereotyping of native peoples,  a certain amount of presumed white superiority and a bit of period sexism.  (Played for laughs in the case of the hermit–“women get fat when they have children, therefore I do not regret escaping the bonds of matrimony!”)

Recommended to adventure lovers, those interested in the roots of costumed hero comics, and well worth checking out at your library!

 

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibault Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1

Book Review: Better than Bullets: The Complete Adventures of Thibaut Corday and the Foreign Legion Volume 1 by Theodore Roscoe

The Légion étrangère was created in 1831 as a way to remove disruptive elements from French society, primarily foreigners of all sorts, and put them to good use fighting far away.  Their first and primary posting was in Algeria, but the French Foreign Legion has fought in all of France’s wars, even to the present day.

Better than Bullets

Fiction created a romanticized version of the Legion as a haven for lost men, criminals escaping their pasts and disappointed lovers.  Most influential in this field was Beau Geste by P.C Wren, about a trio of brothers joining the unit.  Naturally, the pulp magazines also loved the Legion, especially during the 1920s and ’30s.  One of the most popular series of stories appeared in Argosy from 1929 to 1939, the tales of a retired Legionnaire named Thibaut Corday.

Corday is an elderly man, though his beard is still a rich cinnamon hue.  He served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War before enlisting in the Legion, and has seen many strange things, which he is willing to tell to people who will listen as he smokes at an Algerian café.  This first volume has six stories.

“Better than Bullets”, the title story, introduces Corday and his buddies, Yankee Bill the Elephant and Christian(ity) Jensen the Dane.  They’re stationed near Casablanca and out of edible food, so Bill suggests they go on an unauthorized forage expedition.   They have to leave their weapons behind, so when the trio is cornered by fanatical Muslim enemies, there’s not a bullet or blade to be had.  Thus they must improvise!  As might be suspected, through all of these stories Corday shows a strong prejudice against people of color and Muslims.  He does admit from time to time that as the French are an invading/occupying Army, the locals do have good reason for their hostility.

“The Dance of the Seven Veils” has Yankee Bill get into an altercation with a handsome rake over a dancing girl.  The real trouble starts the next morning when our heroes discover the rake is their new commanding officer, who’s taking them on a seemingly doomed mission into the Sahara Desert.   The fortress they’ve been assigned to crack seems impenetrable…until a ghostly dancer appears in the desert night.  Pretty obvious twist, but evocative imagery.

“An Eye for an Eye” tells the tale of feuding cousins Hyacinth LaDu and “La Carotte” who are students at the military school of St. Cyr.  They are already furious with each other when a lovely young woman comes along and provides an excuse for a duel.  Hyacinth puts Carrot’s eye out deliberately.  Years later, the two men meet again in the Foreign Legion.  One of the twists is slightly hidden by the tradition of joining the Legion under an assumed name.  A chilling tale of revenge.

“The Death Watch” changes things up with a horrific tale set at sea as the few Legionnaires aboard a troop transport have to deal with a mutiny by native soldiers.  Massive coincidence plays a part in the outcome.

“The Bearded Slayer” is a tale of a quite young Corday, who was inordinately proud of his fearsome beard.  Unfortunately, this same beard made him the primary suspect in a series of murders in a remote Legion outpost.   The tension ratchets with each killing, and the mounting evidence against our hero.

“The Mutineer”, which closes out the volume, features both the secret origin and final fate of Yankee Bill the Elephant.  He loudly declares his love for the beautiful daughter of the commander, in public no less.  While pursued by military police for his insolence, Bill and Corday must also deal with a native uprising.   The streak of sexism that was a minor point in other stories comes to the fore here, as it uses the old “if a woman says ‘no’, and ‘go away’ and ‘I hate you’, that means you should totally keep pestering her until you can prove your manliness and she falls in love with you” plotline I know many readers despise.  Exciting story though.

There’s a nice introduction to the series, and two biographical sketches of Theodore Roscoe, one printed in Argosy at the time, and a more recent one.

While this is sterling pulp writing, full of excitement and twists, some readers may find the period sexism and racism too much for their tastes.  On the other hand, if you loved other French Foreign Legion stories, this is a good selection.

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