Monday, February 16, 2009

Clover: Manga for People Who Don't Like Manga

Not only am I late with this installment of ‘Manga for People Who Don’t like Manga,’ but I forgot that I was going to do a piece on CLAMP. I choose CLAMP because I wanted to challenge myself. Not that I don’t like CLAMP, I’m actually a huge fan. CLAMP is a four woman super-group who have produced dozens of different manga titles. The make-up of the group (one writer, three different artists) allows them to play with multiple genres and styles. Sometimes the stories will even intersect and influence each other. For American superhero fans, imagine if all of the titles from Marvel or DC were created by four people, and you have CLAMP in miniature.

The challenging part of focusing on them for this series is that CLAMP’s works embody practically every cliché and staple of every genre they use. And for most anime fans, we love it. We’re like goldfish, and CLAMP’s series are the fish food: we forget that we’ve already eaten this stuff before, we’ll just keep gulping it down as long as you feed it to us.

They’ve done giant robots, magical girls, harem sex comedies, a tournament style fighting series, school girl romance, apocalyptic fantasy, and everything else in between. The problem is that while everything is nice and familiar to anime fans, what to recommend to non-manga readers?

I have a few suggestions. These aren’t even my favorite CLAMP titles, but even non-manga readers should be able to get into them.

First up, Clover. Clover ran in ‘Amie’ magazine in Japan and was released in four volumes before the magazine went under. Even though it’s unfinished, I kind of like it in its incompleteness. There may be holes in the story, but at least Clover has atmosphere to spare.

Suu is a young girl with the ability to control machines. In the dystrophic world she lives in, children like her are controlled by the government and labeled ‘Clovers.’ One day, a retired soldier named Kazuhiko is asked to take her to ‘Fairy Park.’ Why does she want to go to an old amusement park? And why does Kazuhiko have to be the one who takes her there?

Like I mentioned before, CLAMP’s art differs widely from series to series, but the art in Clover is special. Not only does it not look like nothing they’ve done before (or since), it doesn’t look like anything else out there. The pages are sparse, often with about one to three panels on a page. Sometimes those panels will show things, other times they’ll just hold a speech bubble, or sometimes nothing at all.

But what you do see is beautiful. Clover has an aesthetic that draws as much from Victorian England as steam-punk. The character designs are graceful, though may take some getting used to (Kazuhiko is burdened with a disproportional hip to shoulder ratio, an affliction that many CLAMP men have).

CLAMP sometimes seem like savvy marketers than artists. Many of their series have spawned anime series and oodles of merchandise, but Clover really doesn’t fit that mold. It’s just this arty, angsty little series that could use more love. It’s kind of hard to track down copies that Tokyopop published, but Dark Horse is supposed to be coming out with an omnibus edition of all four volumes later this year. If you want to see sequential art down in a different way, than keep your eyes open for it.

Since CLAMP has such a huge catalogue, I was going to do more than one series for this article, but now I think I’ll save it for another time. Next week however, I will continue on this theme of suggesting a series from well-loved manga-ka, only instead of CLAMP I’m going to try and sell you on my favorite Rumiko Takahashi title.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Short Program: Manga for People Who Don’t Like Manga

Sorry for getting a late start into February. I have a whole shopping list of excuses (snow storms, boyfriend in town, new Scott Pilgrim book out) but let’s just get on with the show.

Today I’m showcasing a manga that’s very near and dear to my heart. I credit it with not only getting me into manga, but comics in general. It shifted my perceptions of comics away from tights-and-capes and made me see the breadth of story telling available within the medium. So, if it could do that for me, maybe it could get you into manga.

The name of the series is ‘Short Program,’ written and drawn by Mitsuru Adachi. It’s a two volume collection of short stories, usually of the romantic-comedy variety. While volume two is fun and has the occasional flash of greatness, volume one is pretty much perfect. It’s on that volume that’s I’ll be concentrating on.

Adachi’s art is simple to the point where some might find it a little plain, but Mitsuru is a masterful story-teller. Instead of being a sorcerer who wows you with dazzling images and dramatic moments, Adachi is more like a magician, calling your attention to certain elements and then surprising you with some deft sleight of hand. Little details, gestures and throw-away lines, all end up being the key to everything in these stories. Mitsuru rarely makes a big deal out of the big reveals; he gives the reader just enough so that they can figure it out themselves. And instead of feeling manipulated, you end-up feeling like a participant in the story, as close as the situation as the characters.

My favorite stories in volume one include junior high school reunion. As we see the kids (now in high school) mingle, the story flashes back to their junior high school days. The back and forth makes for a much more powerful story than if it had just been told straight-up. My other favorite takes place in a guy’s living room as he and his buddy watch the Olympics. How do you get a romance story from that? (And no, they're not gay). Adachi manages and it’s great.

Short story is a difficult medium, no matter if it’s print or comic. None of Adachi’s longer form work have been translated into English, which is a shame because it’s wonderful to see the same deft touch he uses in Short Program in a long, serial format. But at the same time, he has the short story format nailed. If you like short stories and want to see how their best utilized in comic book form, you need to check out Short Program.

If there’s one pain about Short Program, it’s how hard it is to find. Published back in 2000, the artwork was flipped so that it read the western way (a bonus for people getting into manga who haven’t gotten the reading from right-to-left thing down yet). Amazon doesn’t have it for sale, though you can buy it secondhand. Still, it’s worth your while to track down a copy.

Next week on MFPWDM: Shannon takes a long, hard look at manga mega-stars CLAMP and sees if there’s anything there for non-otaku.