Tokyo Babylon Omnibus, Vol. 1

By CLAMP. Released in Japan by Shinshokan, serialized in the magazine Wings. Released in North America by Dark Horse Comics.

This is one of the big CLAMP series, the ones that first come to mind when you mention the creative team. It was their first really big hit (sorry, RG Veda), and when you read this first volume you can easily pick out why. Some manga are about the storyline and characters, some deal with building a world. But Tokyo Babylon is about building a mood, and it combines terrific artwork and a naive, somewhat somber hero to show us the world careening towards an inevitable apocalypse, one we’d see play out in the semi-sequel to this work, X.

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I’ve made a habit of pointing out CLAMP’s shortcomings in their post-2000 works, so it’s important to note how much they get right here. The artwork alone is worth buying the volume for, with a cute/handsome cast, striking settings, and strong, confident action scenes. Each story is self-contained so far, and has a plot that we’ve seen in many series before – a young spiritualists deals with restless ghosts and helps them find eternal rest – but it doesn’t feel tired, thanks in no small part to keeping the cast small and nuanced. Subaru’s noble idealism shines off the page, and makes an excellent contrast with his sister Hokuto’s eccentric extrovert. and then there’s Seishiro…

Let’s face it, Seishiro’s got something going on. I’m not spoiling anything, it’s just signposted – Hokuto even notes how he keeps changing the subject. At the start of the book he seems to be the most shallow – a nice, always smiling guy who tries to give Subaru gentle, older-man to younger-man advice while making cute jokes about seducing him. But by the time we get to the end of this volume, it’s clear that there’s something dark and unpleasant underneath that, and that Subaru’s idealism is going to run into it with a giant crunch. Honestly, in a way I can sort of see it. Subaru’s shininess is *so* over the top that it’s hard not to look at him every day and want to try to break it just a little bit…

I’ve jokes before about the magazine that Tokyo Babylon ran in, Wings, which is a shoujo/josei/fantasy/BL-lite hybrid that essentially became its own genre. Dark Horse advertises the series as one of the first BL manga to come out over here, but the BL in it is quite mild. Hokuto and Seishiro constantly joke about his love for Subaru, but Subaru’s lack of response beyond the occasional blush means that things don’t really go very far. Honestly, Hokuto is the big reason that this title isn’t completely bleak and grim – she’s a spark of life that brightens every scene she appears in. This will become far more important in the second volume, believe you me.

Dark Horse has done a really nice omnibus here, based on the re-released version from Japan (in case you’re wondering where Hokuto’s side-story got off to – it’ll be in the next one). A little oversize, nice thick paper, it’s a quality release. I’m not certain how changed the translation is from the Tokyopop edition, but it’s likely worth exchanging your old copies for this one anyway. And for those who haven’t tried this series, you really should – it’s CLAMP at their mightiest.

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