In his seminal work ‘The hero with a thousand faces’, Campbell states that the hero is one who faces a ‘call to adventure’ [i] which draws him from otherwise ordinary worlds. On entering the ‘special world’ the hero receives advice from a mentor, gains a new ability which he uses to overcome certain trials, then returns to the normal world rewarded by the experience. Campbell's structure is not rigid or requiring of a superhero as such – stories may differ or feature elements in a different order – yet the ‘special world’ has often implied a super-heroism, as if ordinary heroism was not enough. This journey is one made by many individuals every day, who leave their comfort zone to overcome some form of trial and thus they fulfil the need to mark the heroic in themselves. Black Jack is one of these heroes of the everyday.

The character certainly does not fit the super hero stereotype. He does not fly or shoot laser beams from his eyes. Nor does he drive about in a souped-up car. His only ‘power’ is his skill with a scalpel. Created by Osamu Tezuka in 1973 and originally published in Shōnen Champion weekly magazine , Black Jack represents Tezuka's own 'fantasy about life as a surgeon-Robin Hood with a scalpel’[ii]. Black Jack performs godlike feats with the scalpel, running surgeries that for other doctors would be impossible. Despite his world-renowned skills he has been ostracized from the medical industry and is therefore an outlaw forced to operate as a ‘backstreet doctor’, practicing from a dilapidated shack and charging extortionate fees in exchange for granting patients a lifeline.

His appearance backs up his social alienation. Tezuka admits that when he designed Black Jack he didn't put much thought into why he looked the way he did "What was the meaning of the scar on his face, to say nothing of his parlor costume, his outdated bow tie and cloak". (Mcarthy, 2009) Whilst the scar on his face is discussed in a later episode, his costume receives little explanation apart from its utilitarian function,  to conceal his medical tools. Another explanation could be that he wears a large coat to cover his heavily scarred body. His “creepy” appearance – which has the feel of a modern-day Jack the Ripper – coupled with his cold personality, causes characters to distrust him. It isn't until the layers of appearance and personality are peeled away that we aware of his genuine humanity

But Black Jack does fit the hero archetype of Campbell’s journey. He is called to adventure as a result of some terrible accident as a child. This is only hinted at initially and it isn’t until volume seven of the series that we finally get the full story. His childhood home had been built on a plot of land that was originally a minefield, but due to several government blunders residential housing was given the go-ahead. A dormant bomb explodes, leaving Black Jack and his mother severely injured. The resulting surgeries leave his body heavily scarred and his hair white from shock.

On the road of trials, there are always two important characters or elements to lend aid as the hero of any story never becomes a hero alone. One is the mentor figure that guides the hero at the beginning of his journey. The second is an enemy or trial that challenges the hero's strength, intelligence or ideals. Both of these characters force the hero into finding out something new about himself or the world, regardless of whether the hero seeks this knowledge. For Black Jack the ‘supernatural’ aid comes from his skill with a scalpel which, as with all doctors, is something he needed to be taught. He has several mentors throughout the series, mostly elderly doctors, but none as important as Dr Honma who ‘first encountered Black Jack when he arrived at his hospital with numerous broken bones and damaged organs from an unknown accident. This wise old doctor performed his own kind of miracle on Black Jack and gave him a second chance at life -- a gift that inspired Black Jack to go into medicine.'[iii] With Dr Honma as his guide, Black Jack crosses the threshold of maturity, turning from an ordinary boy to a surgeon with supreme skill. Without Honma, there simply wouldn’t be any Black Jack and it is with his skills that the hero  becomes ready to face the road of trials.

For Black Jack the road of trials is an ongoing series of individual ‘episodes’ where the character is confronted with some form of dilemma, usually medical but not in all cases. Black Jack either succeeds in overcoming these trials or he fails. Either way, at the end of the episode, he learns a new life lesson. So, unlike many hero characters, Black Jack does not always succeed in his endeavours to save others and this is crucial to viewer identification with him, for, in his own words, 'doctors are not omnipotent'.

There are times when Black Jack is unable to save the day with his surgical skill, an aspect of the journey Campbell refers to as being in the ‘belly of the whale’. Sometimes an operation is beyond even his skills, or he doesn't have his medical equipment with him or it’s not his field of expertise. In some cases he is ready to admit to failings, however in other instances it falls to a much older and wiser character to lecture him. In Campbell's book, the belly of the whale is described as a kind of rite of passage where you must die in order to be reborn as a greater being. In Black Jack’s case, failing teaches him valuable lessons in order for him to succeed next time.

Every hero needs a nemesis and Black Jack finds his in Dr Kiriko. But the two do not fight each other in hand-to-hand combat as with other superheroes. Instead, they challenge each other's ideals. Black Jack will do whatever it takes to succeed in saving a life, no matter the odds or complications. Dr Kiriko, on the other hand, believes his duty lies with relieving a patient’s suffering, through euthanasia, if this is the kindest thing. Consequently, the two doctors have regular ethical battles. Kiriko Is one of the few recurring characters in the series and is therefore an essential part of Black Jack’s journey. Each time they face each other, Jack has to defend his views on doing what it takes to conserve life against Kiriko’s views of euthanasia, starting from Kiriko first appearance in the series Two Dark Doctors. In this episode, each is called to treat the same patient who has been fully paralyzed as a result of a car accident. The patient’s children, who are willing to do anything to heal their bed-ridden mother, hire Black Jack to treat her. But Kiriko is hired by the patient herself to put an end to her life and free her children from the burden. After Jack discovers that they are treating the same patient, he makes a deal with Kiriko. Jack succeeds in curing the patient but Kiriko ominously points out that ‘all things die when the time comes, humans alone try to change that’. Not long later, the ambulance carrying the patient and her children is in an accident killing all three of them, causing Kiriko to laugh hysterically at the irony.  

For Black Jack it is another difficult lesson, and one it is his fate to struggle with. In the very first volume, Sometimes like Pearls, his mentor taught him that a doctor can only provide people with a little extra time.  With each episode he reflects on Honma’s words and, whether he succeeds or fails, it is a lesson he must gradually learn to accept. His journey defines him as a hero with extraordinary skills, rather than a super-power as such, but also as an extraordinary humanitarian. This combination of conscience and power is what makes Black Jack a superhero. 

Must All Things Die? Black Jack as Everyday Hero by  Francesca Long

[i] Campbell, J. (1993) The Hero with a thousand faces, London: Fontana press.

[ii] Mcarthy, H. (2009) The art of Osamu Tezuka God of manga, Abrams Comic Arts.

[iii] Aoki, D. (2013) Black Jack Manga Profile and Story Summary, [Online], Available:  [Febuary 2013].

Tezuka, O. (2008) Black Jack Volume 1, 1st edition, New York: Vertical.

Tezuka, O. (2008) Black Jack Volume 2, 1st edition, New York: Vertical.

Tezuka, O. (2009) Black Jack Volume 3, 1st edition, New York: Vertical.

Tezuka, O. (2009) Black Jack Volume 4, 1st edition, New York: Vertical.

Tezuka, O. (2009) Black Jack Volume 6, 1st edition, New York: Vertical.

Tezuka, O. (2009) Black Jack Volume 7, 1st edition, New York: Vertical.

Tezuka, O. (2009) 'Two Dark Doctors', in Tezuka, O. Black Jack, 1st edition, New York: Vertical.

Tezuka, O. (2009) 'Unexploded Bomb', in Tezuka, O. Black Jack, 1st edition, New York: Vertical.