CLAMP, love ‘em or loathe ‘em, are a highly influential and powerful force in manga. Here we discuss the visuals of their work, how the elegant and decorative CLAMP style both contributes to and detracts from certain elements of storytelling, and the appeal this holds for different types of readers.

Contributors: Robin Brenner, Jenny Ertel, Caitlin Plovnick, Eva Volin and Shelli Hay.

First, a little background…

Robin: Full disclosure: a CLAMP title, Clover, was one of the first manga I ever actually sat down and read, so I have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for them despite all logical criticism.  Their art is what drew me in and convinced me manga was a format worth reading, and that it was far more than I’d been expecting from the covers of other manga at the time (Mars and Peach Girl.)

Jenny: I put off reading CLAMP for the longest time just to be contrary.  They were popular and gushed about, and therefore I didn’t need to get acquainted with them.  (I said the same thing about Harry Potter.  And then I read them.  Now I own all seven in hardcover.)

Eva: Gah. As much as I want to be a part of this discussion, you two are already way beyond my, “Meh, CLAMP doesn’t work for me” attitude toward their books. Although, saying that, *some* of their books do work for me, so…

Caitlin: I’m not as familiar with CLAMP as I’d like to be, but I have some questions for those of you who are. First, what’s unique about the artwork in different CLAMP properties? Is there a recognizable CLAMP style?

Robin: And how! (yes, now I feel like a wise-cracking gent from the 1940s.  Period slang aside…)

Despite the fact that CLAMP is made up of four women, three of which are artists and take the lead on different series, their overall style is immediately recognizable.

Clothing is always very important and frequently elaborate.  From their first fantasy epic RG Veda to the latest titles, including Gate 7 and demonstrated vividly with XXXholic witch Yuuko’s gorgeous kimonos, clothing defines character and is beautifully delineated.  One of CLAMP’s members, Mokona, also designs kimonos (check out her Okimono Kimono book all about it!).In their earliest work, I always remember noticing the character design, especially the men: they’re all incredibly tall and lanky, with heavy eyelashes (almost the permanent eyeliner look), and their torsos are distinctly triangular.  Wide, WIDE shoulders go straight down to very narrow hips and long legs.  The girls are always very cute, with similarly long, thick lashes, and frequently not nearly as curvy as they could be, although in series aimed at older guys (like Chobits or XXXholic) they’re more buxom than in their shojo titles (as is customary no matter who the artists are.)

Caitlin: What do you find appealing about this style?

Robin: The precision of CLAMP’s character design and costuming has only grown more assured over time, and their recent series (particularly in the paired series Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles and XXXholic), their style has been whittled down to its streamlined, affecting essence.

Gate v. 1, p. 3 of preview at Dark Horse

That being said, what is most noticeable to me, and is the bulk of my reasoning for liking CLAMP, is their layout.  The progression of sequences, the edits between panels, and the layout of panels are all accomplished and occasionally breathtakingly beautiful.  They think cinematically (always a plus in comics!) and they are unafraid to break down traditions for artistic and emotional impact.  Shojo manga was and is still defined by a lot of artistic risks including breaking down the borders of panels, using petals, clothing, mist, stars, and symbols to indicate borders and placement.  This style was started by the Year 24 Group, the female artists who developed the style that came to denote shojo, but CLAMP are (I think justifiably) considered the current masters of shojo excess (the petals! the feathers! the sparkles! the screentones!).

Jenny: When Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle‘s first handful of entirely wordless flash-forward panels nearly made me cry the first time I read them, piquing my curiosity as to how things arrived at that moment, I proceeded to interlibrary loan them until I’d read them all, starting up with XxxHolic at just the right time so as to be reading the corresponding overlaps.  With their self-contained yet crisscrossing stories, these two series also share a style defined by dramatic use of solid black and white spaces, lo(oooo)ng, elegant lines and figures, and highly ornate elements (like Yûko’s fashions) balanced with simplicity (like the boys’ solid black uniforms).  Tsubasa‘s style is a little softer and more complex, XxxHolic‘s a little sharper and simpler, but they still clearly belong together.  For me, it was these two visually polished, paired titles, with their ridiculously complicated plots and intrinsically attractive characters, that pushed me from mere admirer to full-on fangirl.

Gate v. 1, p. 2 of preview at Dark Horse

CLAMP excels at converting imagination into two dimensions.  Graceful, swirling, giant fire griffins guard a library’s entrance (and exit).  Wild magic flies off fingertips and spell circles and takes on physical, sometimes deadly, form (such as all-encompassing blackness or smothering tar).  Delicate yet knifelike feathers hold years of memories and are absorbed into their owner’s body like a spaceship going through a wormhole or a boat sliding beneath the water.  And even when horrible things are happening– eye-gouging and sword-skewering and people disintegrating into those infamously lovely petals–the art never fails to be beautiful.

Caitlin: How does the artwork differ when the team is working in different genres?

Chobits v. 2, p. 2 of preview at Dark Horse

Robin: CLAMP are known for bringing shojo style (i.e. petals and inventive panel layout) to what are ostensibly shonen or seinen titles.  As I mentioned above, both Chobits and XXXHolic were originally anthologized in seinen magazines while Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles was serialized in a shonen magazine. X/1999, although run in a shojo magazine, had a more shonen edge of apocalyptic violence.  They stick to what suits the audience they’re writing for, so if it’s a younger girls action adventure, like Cardcaptor Sakura, the cute style, younger body types, and more innocent content reflect that.  If it’s for older teens, then the characters get more complex and amoral, the figures more mature, and the violence more explicit and unsettling.

Caitlin: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the artwork in terms of how it serves the overall stories?

Jenny: Repeated character-based images, such as feathers (Sakura), bats (Fei-Wang), butterflies and pipe smoke (Yûko), can be used directly or incorporated into the background (such as the architecture of a building or the design of an ornament) so that whether the characters with whom they’re linked are physically present or not, their traces remain and their influence (good or ill) is felt, consciously or unconsciously.  This can lead to some lovely imagery and to fun, careful rereads to pick out hints hidden in the panel details.  CLAMP may write themselves into complex corners, but they leave the most tantalizing bread-crumb trails, convincing you they’ll lead you out again if only you find them all.

One thematic motif that seems to be a favorite of CLAMP’s across many of their titles is that of exchanging eyes–voluntarily or otherwise.  Eyes contain one’s powers, so giving, stealing, or consuming them carries great significance.  Tsubasa, XxxHolic, Tokyo Babylon, and X/1999 all feature this fairly prominently, with characters sporting eye-patches and bloodied bandages or unmatched irises.  The latter effect can be quite arresting (and unsettling, depending on the intentions of the bearer).  The taking of an eye by force in Tsubasa is one of the most startling, effective tonal shifts I’ve come across in a manga.  And the willing sharing of eyes in XxxHolic defines one of its central relationships.

I think one of the reasons I’m so attached to Tsubasa and XxxHolic is because the art so skillfully incorporates and supports the story.  For instance, because they’re longer series (and Tsubasa involves a lot of jumping about in time and space), we see the characters physically grow, gaining inches and losing baby fat (or the opposite, as when in a memory we see a child we instantly recognize as the younger version of one of the adult members of Tsubasa‘s main cast).  In another example, both series often focus heavily on silent observation, with multiple characters surreptitiously watching one another as they attempt to interpret each other’s true needs, motives, and hearts–and the reader follows their gaze, picking up on the subtle emotions and actions of both the watchers and the watched, without anyone having to say a word.  That level of confidence in the art to tell its story and in the reader to understand it makes me love these all the more.

Robin: The weakness to CLAMP’s work, really, is that their titles feel frequently like they’re much more about the art and the style than they are about a coherent plot or satisfying character development.  They create notoriously complex plots where many things are hinted at, but never explained fully, and while the art is gorgeous, the plots are rarely cleanly executed.  As a very visual reader, even of comics, I find I don’t mind this, but I know it is what drives other people absolutely mad when trying to parse a CLAMP book.

Caitlin: I’m interested in how the artwork dominates the stories – on the one hand, it could be a problem of style over substance, with fancy artwork masking slight stories. At the same time, it sounds like the artwork uses certain motifs, patterns, details etc. to control the pacing, emotional impact and overall experience of the story, which sounds way more sophisticated than if it were just a lot of really cool and stylish pictures strung together for no particularly good reason.

So maybe these are stories that rely more on conveying an experience than following a plot? It sounds similar to dreams, where minute details stick out and everything else is kind of hazy, but it makes sense so long as you don’t try to make sense of it. What do you think?

Eva: I think that the “conveying of an experience” is what frustrates me about their stories. As many of you know, I’m a reader first. While I can now read the words and pictures almost simultaneously, it’s the words that carry the most weight with me, both intellectually and emotionally, when I’m reading. As both Robin and Jenny pointed out, much of CLAMP’s stories’ emotion, symbolism, and growth is conveyed through the artwork, with the narrative left hanging. The unresolved storylines, underdeveloped characters, and stream of consciousness plotting leaves me as a reader feeling burned. I don’t care how pretty the pictures are, if there’s nothing for my imagination to cling to, I’m not likely to read the next volume.

Sheli: Let it be known, I’m someone who loves visuals, so CLAMP has got me no matter what. Really, they could have no story, and I’d love their work.

To build on what Eva said, I think one of their biggest problems is lack of originality. For women who redefine an art style, that’s a really hard thing to type but the more I think about it, the more I agree with it. Their characters are usually very extremely one-way. This character is pure innocence (Sakura)! This character is very, very bad (Clow Reed)! Most twists that will humanize a bad character come at the exact end of a story, where they can’t affect the readers’ emotions anymore. Even with the few tricksters you may have thrown in, there are very few plot reveals that jar the reader. You can tell me something horrific about Syaoran’s past, but I know that that character will never falter, and that means at the end of 28 volumes the story will end happily ever after.

Surely, there is something to be said for the journey of getting to that ending, but most stories seem to rely on happenstance and guesswork. And when all else fails? Magic! For a lot of their plots CLAMP seems to start with a similar premise, “losing everything”. For which the characters then need to go on a journey to pay it back, get back memories, build relationships, collect cards. But since the inception of the characters story starts at the lowest point, there is no height for them to fall from for the reader. You know what was the worst thing that could happen to Syaoran and Sakura? Sakura losing her memory of Syaoran. That’s arguably a fate worse than death. We see that….right in the first pages. These ideas being the starting point isn’t bad at all. However, when you flavor that with the knowledge that no main character can die and that your characters are good so they’ll always win, you’ve got a mix for a pretty stale story.

All of this is masked behind gorgeous interludes and often large fantastical spreads. So when my eyeballs are being treated to lavish sky races, or giant monster battles, I don’t really care what the story is. I just want to read more.

Clover v. 1, p. 2 from preview at Dark Horse

Robin: I think that, in general, manga is much more focused on the emotional experience than the nitty gritty of plot (although they can get quite plotty, don’t get me wrong.)  Manga as a language is I believe more visual than western comics, even, precisely because early on as the current manga traditions were being cemented, Osamu Tezuka emphasized two major ideas: one, that manga could be cinematic in how it uses edits, space, silence, noise, and gesture, and two, that manga should go on as long as it needs to in order to tell its story.  That may be 30 pages, but most of the time it’s a lot longer than that, up into the thousands of pages, and that freedom from a page limit allows artists to pace their stories much more deliberately.  They may be paced slowly for a calm, meditative effect or lightning fast during a fight sequence, but ultimately their focus is on taking the time they need to provide the impact the creator seeks.

And, most of the time, manga creators, even if it’s a silly action comedy, want you to feel something more than almost any other goal. That’s why, to my mind, the majority of manga symbols are about telegraphing emotional states and messages.

CLAMP is just a particularly vivid example of this kind of storytelling, and in my opinion, some of the best showing how manga can proceed visually.

  • Caitlin Plovnick

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support!

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