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!