I’ve read almost every CLAMP title available in English, from X (or X/1999, as we called it in back in the day) to Gate 7, and while I can’t claim to love them all, there is a core group of manga that I’ve read, re-read, and recommended to other fans. I make no special claims of excellence for these series, though I will say that these manga impressed me with their technical brilliance, genre-bending narratives, and beautiful artwork, if not their stellar endings.
MAGIC KNIGHT RAYEARTH (Dark Horse; 2 volumes)
It’s easy to forget that Magic Knight Rayearth ran in the pages of Nakayoshi, as it adheres so closely to the friendship-effort-victory template that it almost passes for a Shonen Jump title. A careful reading of MKR, however, reveals it to be a unique fusion of shojo and shonen storytelling practices. On a moment to moment basis, MKR reads like shojo: the heroines denigrate their academic prowess, swoon over the only cute boy to cross their path, and extol the value of “heart” in defeating their enemies. The intense and protracted battle scenes, however, scream Naruto — or maybe Gundam — as the girls are pushed to their physical and emotional limits while casting spells, swinging swords, and piloting giant robots. That CLAMP reconciles such tonally different genres into a coherent whole is an impressive narrative feat; no matter how many times the heroines utter dippy or painfully sincere sentiments, their tenacity in combat makes them every bit as bad-ass as Naruto, InuYasha, or Ichigo Kurasaki. -Reviewed at The Manga Critic on July 22, 2011.
LEGAL DRUG (Tokyopop; 3 volumes)
I hesitate to use the word “intertextual” to describe Legal Drug, as that term is so heavily freighted with academic associations. But intertextual it is, as Legal Drug takes place in a universe that’s been carefully mapped out in prior works such as Angelic Layer, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Suki. Major and minor characters from Chobits and Suki wander in and out of the story, providing comic relief and commentary on the budding relationship between Rikuo and Kazahaya, two handsome young errand boys for the Green Drugstore. As in xxxHolic — a series in which Rikuo and Kazahaya make guest appearances — the supernatural frequently intrudes on mundane existence, giving rise to scenes of sublime comedy and surreal grace. An odd mixture of melancholy and whimsy, with a soupçon of shonen-ai.
CLOVER (Dark Horse; 1 volume)
Clover is a gorgeous train wreck, an unholy marriage of shojo, steampunk, and science fiction that almost — almost — gels into a coherent story. The plot revolves around a class of psychically gifted individuals known as Clovers, who have been rounded up, tested, and sorted into categories based on their abilities. The most powerful — Three- and Four-Leaf Clovers — have been imprisoned, as they pose a threat to humanity.
In the small fragment of story that CLAMP completed, the Clovers’ abilities are hastily sketched; the few demonstrations of their powers are less-than-awe-inspiring, and the government’s reasons for fearing them poorly explained. But oh, the atmosphere! Anyone who remembers what it felt like to be fourteen will recognize the Clovers’ magnificent isolation, as they struggle with feelings of loneliness, rejection, and desire; that they’ve been singled out for being different (and special!) only heightens the emotional intensity of their dilemma. The artwork, too, is a feast for the eyes, with inventive layouts and sensual character designs that rank among CLAMP’s finest. Even CLAMP’s use of soggy, overwrought song lyrics as a narrative device contributes to the story’s moody beauty, if not the pantheon of great love songs.
SHIRAHIME-SYO: SNOW GODDESS TALES (Tokyopop; 1 volume)
Shirahime-Syo: Snow Goddess Tales is testament to CLAMP’s Borg-like ability assimilate any genre or artistic style and make it into their own. The three stories that comprise this slim volume are folkloric in tone and subject-matter, but expressed in a visual language that’s a beautiful synthesis of shojo manga and ukiyo print-making; the characters — with their pointy chins and artfully tousled hair — inhabit stark landscapes reminiscent of the Kishi and Shijo schools. If the overall mood is more subdued than xxxHolic or Tokyo Babylon, the stories are nonetheless moving in their directness and simplicity. The first, “On Wolf Mountain,” is the strongest of the three, exploring how one girl’s quest for revenge is transformed by the discovery that her enemy is, in fact, more courageous and generous than she ever imagined. The other stories — “The Ice Flower” and “Hiyoku no Tori” — read more like entries in Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan and Other Strange Stories, but are nonetheless effective parables about sacrifice. An out-of-print gem.
X (VIZ; 6 volumes)
On many levels, X is a bad manga: the characters are underwritten, the storytelling is lazy, and the dialogue is comically awful. (Don’t believe me? Check out Party Like It’s 1999, a Tumblr blog dedicated to exploring X on a page-by-page basis.) If you can look past the 90s hair and the tin-eared dialogue, however, what you’ll discover is a fierce apocalyptic drama that boasts some of the best end-of-the-world imagery in any manga not written by Katsuhiro Otomo. Oh, and blood. Buckets of blood.
The battle scenes are kinetic and violent, executed with a gory zest that’s difficult to resist. The dream sequences, too, are suitably shocking: characters are dismembered, crucified, impaled, and engulfed in flames, often right before their loved ones’ eyes. I hesitate to suggest that X‘s body count is a victory for women, but it is a sharp and welcome rebuke to the idea that female readers strongly prefer conversation and character development to butt-kicking and carnage. – Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 10/16/11.
So, readers, I turn the floor over to you: what are your favorite CLAMP titles? Which manga do you recommend to friends and new fans? Inquiring minds want to know!
Foxy Lady Ayamea saysJuly 25, 2012 at 8:11 am
Nice choices, especially Clover, X and Legal Drug. But about X I’ll say that whoever wants to make a laugh, it can really happen to any work. I highly disagree that it’s a bad manga, since the characters are multi-layered. Now the storytelling might have an issue with pacing but putting that aside, I think it’s totally ok. It still has shoujo roots and it doesn’t include much of shoujo’s ridiculous lines. So the p/gal can make X seem as ridiculous as anything totally dismembered and out of context. I’ll close this comment by saying that each to his/her own- totally accepted.
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 25, 2012 at 9:22 am
Hi, there! Out of curiosity, what other CLAMP titles would round out your top 5 list? Are you partial to any of their more recent titles, or do you prefer their earlier work?
Foxy Lady Ayame saysJuly 25, 2012 at 9:36 am
I always have problems when I must rate and place things in a list. But I think X comes first in my heart, then Tokyo Babylon and xxxholic are rivals for the second place, since from xxxholic I couldn’t really like the characters aside from Yuuko and Kohane. The last two places would go to CLOVER and The One I love. And we talk only about their manga titles and not the anime adaptions where other titles are prioritized.
I think CLAMP has become somehow old and has streched some motifs too much that they’ve become boring. Also they introduce too many clumsy and naive characters lately (Kobato, Blood-C). But I hope Gate7 will prove to be a good work. I don’t think I’m partial towards a certain period, since there are older works of theirs like Suki that I can’t say I appreciate much.
Melinda Beasi saysJuly 25, 2012 at 8:52 am
This is such a fantastic list, Kate! And I think one of the things I love most about it, is that it’s very different than my list would be. Whatever anyone might say about CLAMP, I think the fact that their body of work has such a broad and varied appeal is significant.
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 25, 2012 at 9:00 am
Thanks, Melinda — that means a lot coming from Manga Bookshelf’s resident CLAMP expert and booster!
And yes, I agree with your main point: the sheer diversity of CLAMP’s body of work is pretty staggering! I can’t think of too many other manga artists who have written in as many different genres and styles as CLAMP, or who have combined those genres so freely. Magic Knight Rayearth is an awesome example: it looks like a shojo fantasy, but then there’s a mecha element, and the romantic subplot involves secondary characters, not the heroines. There’s a PhD thesis in all this, I’m sure!
Melinda Beasi saysJuly 25, 2012 at 9:05 am
To be fair, I think you’re undoubtedly more knowledgeable about CLAMP than I am! I just have some CLAMP favorites and I like writing about things like that. :)
Along the lines of what you’ve said here about MKR, one of the things I plan to post about this week is the artwork in X, because while you’re absolutely right about the content (butt-kicking & carnage), the thing I’ve been most struck by while rereading it in the new VIZ omnibus editions is how gorgeously shoujo the artwork is.
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 25, 2012 at 9:17 am
Nah, I just like to sling around words like “intertextual” when discussing CLAMP…:)
Looking forward to your post about X, BTW — that sounds like it will be a fascinating read. X is another great example of CLAMP’s ability to repackage familiar tropes in fresh and surprising ways.
Melinda Beasi saysJuly 25, 2012 at 9:32 am
Agreed! And I think I’m finally starting to appreciate X, which is… kind of a relief, actually. :D
Okay, so just to answer your question on Twitter, here are my top 5 (I think):
Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (this 5th slot was a tough one… several series come in very close together here—this was *almost* Magic Knight Rayearth)
As you can see, I lean towards the epic. And potentially epic (looking forward to seeing the rest of Legal Drug).
Melinda Beasi saysJuly 29, 2012 at 2:04 pm
Well, here it is!
Phew. My last contribution for the Feast.
Khursten saysJuly 25, 2012 at 9:31 am
Faantastic list and I’d choose some of them myself except in my heart of hearts, I’ve read most of this list only once, so while I love them dearly, I suppose they’re not my favorites. Which is strange. Reading this makes me want to read them again!
For me, I enjoyed X, Tokyo Babylon, XXXholic, Card Captor Sakura, and Clamp School Detectives. :3 <3 The latter two are mostly for Clamp's ability to make engaging stories for children and the first three as a litany on how they tend to lose you in their imagination only to gut your dreams and aspirations in that title. <3 Which is lovely… sometimes. :3
Dawn saysJuly 25, 2012 at 11:25 am
I agree with you on Rayearth, Clover, and X—all of which are favorites of mine. Tokyo Babylon & RG Veda are also faves of mine and I think deserve a lot more credit than they’re usually given (especially RG Veda! I know the artwork seems a bit “outdated” to some, but it’s still beautiful and the story is great.) I also agree that CLAMP School Detectives (as well as Man of Many Faces, which is somewhat connected) is also an overlooked title that many people forget about. I honestly hope that Dark Horse picks up more of their out-of-print works—I know supposedly Tokyo Babylon is one of the next things they’re supposedly releasing. Hopefully that’s still true. I was never a big fan of Tokoypop’s translations, so it’ll be nice to get a shiny new version to enjoy.
Zoe Alexander saysJuly 25, 2012 at 4:52 pm
My Top Five:
1. Suki: A Like Story – The premise seems skatchy — a naive high school girl who falls in love with her mysterious and much older substitute teacher — but it’s actually really sweet and innocent in execution.
2. Chobits – The first CLAMP series I completed reading, it’s still one of my all-time favorites, due to the fascinating exploration of robot/human relationships and the effects they might have on society.
3. RG Veda – Epic to the max.
4. Card Captor Sakura – I like the anime more, but the manga is still really cute!
5. Can I say it’s a tie between Clover and Tokyo Babylon? I can’t really chose.
Kimberley saysJuly 27, 2012 at 10:14 pm
Whilst there are many aspects of X that one could argue to be poorly executed (the early artwork, the pacing, some of the characterisation) I didn’t find the dialogue itself to be one of them.
The author of Return to X (or Party Like It’s 1999, as you refer to it) uses old, awkward & often inaccurate fan translations as the basis for her posts. Obviously that works brilliantly for comedic effect, it’s a very funny blog, but it’s best to regard any dialogue you see there with some degree of suspicion.
Similarly, the original Viz editions (with the flipped artwork) took some massive, massive liberties with the translation. They hammed things up, added lines that seemed out of character (to me at least?), even changed a few lines which were crucial to certain parts of the plot.
I’m not gonna pretend the dialogue isn’t a little hokey in places, because it is, but on the whole I think it stands up well. Hell, there are a lot of beautifully symbolic linguistic tricks & mirroring that CLAMP use in X which I’m not sure translate into English at all. That’d be a hell of a fun thing to write about in full one day, but today… is not that day, haha.
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 28, 2012 at 10:47 am
I’m basing my assessment of the dialogue on the two licensed versions of the manga published by VIZ, not fan translations. If you follow the link above to my own review of X — which is of the latest VIZ omnibus edition — I mention that I found the dialogue kind of obvious and silly in places. The link to Party Like It’s 1999/Return to X is meant to give readers a quick sense of what I’m describing in the opening sentence — “the characters are underwritten, the storytelling is lazy, and the dialogue is comically awful” — not just the dialogue.
It may be that the original Japanese script is subtle and sophisticated, but that doesn’t come across in any of the official (or unofficial) translations, which is how most American readers have experienced X. Hence my comments.
Kimberley saysJuly 28, 2012 at 11:38 am
Ahh, taking a look at your review reminded me that the dialogue early on was pretty sketchy in places. I don’t think it holds true for the entire series though – the writing evolved alongside the art, & things got tighter & more finely honed as the series progressed, in my opinion at least.
Whilst the writing isn’t the most sophisticated or subtle thing I’ve ever read, it really does have its moments, most of which fly under the radar unless you read the Japanese really closely, or just don’t translate well at all. It’s a real shame, I guess :<
But my silly nitpicking aside, this piece was a good read, by the way!
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 28, 2012 at 5:43 pm
Hi, Kimberley! I didn’t realize how cross I sounded in my original comment. I’m sorry for sounding like such a humorless grump!
Your comments about the dialogue in X reminded me of conversation I had with another fan about Gate 7. The English translation is filled with statements such as, “We’re alike… In areas that are… ‘not.’ Where he’s the same is… ‘not.’” I have no doubt that there are three or four layers of meaning that can be peeled away from the original passage that simply can’t be expressed in an English translation — let alone one that doesn’t sound like Yoda-speak! It makes me wish I had the time to learn Japanese properly; I’m sure my appreciation of a lot of titles would be greatly improved by reading them in the original language.