“And everyone lived happily ever after?”
“Well, no, almost everybody died.”
— David Addison and Agnes DiPesto, Moonlighting
(Spoilers for the ending of xxxHOLIC are within this article)
I’d been going back and forth about what to write for this month’s Manga Moveable Feast. I could always just punt and link to the many prior CLAMP reviews I’ve done – but that would be wrong. So I started pondering titles of theirs that I really enjoyed that I could discuss. Man of Many Faces, CLAMP School Detectives, Card Captor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth, Wish, Suki…
Hey wait, aren’t those all over 12 years old? Why don’t I talk about the more recent CLAMP series I’m a huge fan of?
Yeah, it’s time to come out and say it. While there’s lots of recent CLAMP stuff I enjoy for a certain character, or a story arc, or maybe an interesting idea to start things off… when it comes to modern CLAMP I always find more problems than I really want to. It’s not even that they used to ‘write happy endings and now they don’t’, as I sometimes whined about on Twitter. RG Veda, Tokyo Babylon and X are not exactly happy fun times. And Kobato is a recent light and fluffy series that really never appealed to me at all.
As CLAMP have matured over the years, they’ve gained a depth to the quality of their storytelling. And while this is normally a thing to applaud, I think with their group it highlights that they come up with fantastic ideas and are not always so good at following through. Their first major epic will likely never be finished, partly due to events beyond their control and disagreements with Kadokawa Shoten, but also I think due to a lack of desire to return to it (let’s face it, I think if they really wanted to, X could be completed, apocalyptic earthquake images or no). Chobits was their attempt to write a seinen manga that also examined the otaku obsession with perfect virgin toys, but it was designed to discomfit as much as entertain, and also had enough fanservice that I felt they were trying to have their cake and eat it too.
Then there is Tsubasa. It has to be said, the main reason why I have so much difficulty with CLAMP in the 00s may be Tsubasa, if only due to its kudzu-like qualities. Tsubasa was CLAMP starting up a ‘star system’ for their characters, similar to Tezuka, where beloved characters we’ve seen before are shown in new and different roles – particularly Card Captor Sakura’s stars. And I quite enjoyed the first few volumes. It ran in Weekly Shonen Magazine, so there was a lot of action and magic, as well as the usual CLAMP BL tease between Fai and Kurogane, the manga’s only two ‘original’ characters. Indeed, seeing Sorata and Arashi as a happy couple (well, as happy as Arashi gets) in one world almost made the entire manga worth it.
But starting from around the second half, where they run into most of the X cast in an AU retelling of that world… epic plotlines that bring together elements from all your worlds are all very well and good, as long as you can keep things understandable and have a simple logic to everything. This became impossible towards the end of Tsubasa. I’ll be honest, I’m still not quite sure what happened, and after about the 4th clone I didn’t really want to go back and read it all again to find out. More to the point, everyone became so MISERABLE. Granted, Kurogane and Syaoran are normally not happy go lucky, but the angst was piled on in a way that felt overdone.
I’d mentioned Tsubasa was kudzu, mostly as I felt it grew to strangle everything it touched. No work felt that touch more than xxxHOLIC. The series were always intended to be lightly connected – the two had occasional crossover chapters when Yuko’s magic was needed – but for a while it was possible to read xxxHOLIC without bothering with Tsubasa at all. And then came the revelations about Watanuki. Now, I am totally biased about this. If I had to pick my favorite post-2000 CLAMP series, xxxHOLIC would win in a walk. And Watanuki is the main reason for this. He’s their best character in years, snarky without being a jerk, angsty without being overdone, and the perfect straight man to Yuko’s shenanigans, Himawari’s cheeriness, and Doumeki’s deadpan style.
And then, right around Volume 13, it becomes impossible to read xxxHOLIC without understanding what’s going on in Tsubasa. Now, this is hardly unique to CLAMP, and is a great way to get people to buy multiple series. The problem is what it does to xxxHOLIC: the plot stops. Seriously, all forward motion for the remaining few volumes simply halts. CLAMP must have been aware of this, they certainly telegraphed it enough. Watanuki ends up not even being able to leave the confines of the shop. Himawari and Doumeki both leave offscreen, Himawari to get married to someone we never see or hear about, and things finally grind to a halt 100 years later, where… everything is still in stasis. If Tsubasa ends with a giant 50-car pileup of plots, xxxHOLIC drifts to the side of the road and fills with carbon monoxide.
Another issue with the way CLAMP’s star systems work is that they continue some of their characters’ stories after the ‘happily ever after’ of their own titles… even if you don’t want them to. Tezuka, at least, never pretended that when you saw Rock in one title and then another, it was the same Rock later in his life. But two of my favorite cute and fuzzy early CLAMP series, Campus Detectives and Man of Many Faces, both have their leads show up in minor roles… in X. Really, CLAMP, really? I went through two volumes of adorable fluff between Akira and Utako (you too will believe in the romance between a 9-year-old and 5-year-old!) only to see them in THIS plot? So I guess they lived happily ever after until their world was consumed in fire, then.
Part of maturity is in seeing that things aren’t just black and white, and that every happily ever after is followed by ‘until they died’, because such is life. And yet this is fiction, not reality. And dammit, I admit it: I liked CLAMP better when they did sugar-candy coated happy endings. They didn’t even have to be shallow: no one is accusing Card Captor Sakura or Rayearth of a lack of drama. But in getting deeper and more complicated, CLAMP has also made things far more convoluted than they needed to be, developed ideas that tended to have unforeseen and unfortunate issues if you really thought about it (hi, Angelic Layer!), and show off a disturbing lack of pacing that may also come from ‘we are famous enough so that we can be serialized whenever we put a few pages together’ (xxxHOLIC, towards the end of its run, sometimes ran for only 8-9 pages per issue).
This is not apparently going to be ending soon. Their new continuation of Legal Drug, now retitled Drug & Drop, apparently has Watanuki popping up, and also crosses with Kobato. CLAMP just likes doing this. Which is fine. I just miss the old, uncomplicated CLAMP, with simple plots in a shoujo vein. Modern CLAMP is fascinating, but that fascination can also turn into a fatal attraction.