X by Clamp
X is an eighteen-volume manga by Clamp. It is also known as X/1999, but the more recent six-volume omnibus edition refers to the storyline as X. The series should not be confused with Clamp’s xxxHolic, my favorite series by Clamp (so far). X comes in a close second place for me in terms of plot while perhaps coming in first place on the level of art.
Clamp is one of my favorite modern creators of manga, and I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that Clamp is an all-female collective. Though they’ve had in the past a rotating membership, for the most part, Clamp now consists of a fairly stable roster of four women: Nanase Ohkawa, Mokona, Tsubaki Nekoi, and Satsuki Igarashi. They started out in the 1980s as an amateur, self-published indie writers (known as “dojinshi” in Japan), and in the 1990s, they turned into a highly successful, professional creative enterprise. Ohkawa leads the group and writes most of the material, and the other three women vary their roles from lead to back-up artists from project to project.
X is a story on a grand, mythic scale. After the death of his mother, the main character, Kamui, returns to Tokyo to be with his close childhood friends, the sister and brother Kotori and Fuma Monou. The three of them get caught up in the approaching apocalypse that only they can stop, particularly Kamui. Kamui must join forces with the Dragons of Heaven in order to fight the Dragons of Earth. I was confused early on in the storyline because the Dragons of Heaven are called “The Seven Seals” and the Dragons of Earth are referred to as “The Seven Angels.” At first, I didn’t realize the “Angels” were the bad guys.
I enjoy all the magic and occult elements in X: There’s a blind seer, wind magicians, magicians who can make swords appear out of the palms out of their hands, as well as visions, premonitions, and dire warnings from various sources. There’s also a cyberpunk element, since one of the characters favors the digital over the human world. Mixed in are traditional Japanese religious references, keepers of shrines, and stolen sacred artifacts. Clamp managed to put just about everything into X.
The work will appeal to about anybody interested in manga, but if you’ve never read Clamp before, X might seem a bit overwhelming. I recommend starting with xxxholic. Clamp almost always produces work at the highest level, and X is no exception. Even the most clichéd interactions are interesting in a Clamp work. As a fan of DC and Marvel superhero comics, I was very much impressed with the way Clamp showed us battles between super-powered individuals. It’s common in superhero books to show all the damage superheroes do to a city during a battle, but Clamp borrows the concept of kekkai, a type of spiritual boundary, from Buddhism. In X, kekkai is employed by The Seven Seals when they do battle; this field allows for a violent battle to take place without any damage to people or buildings nearby.
Clamp also suggests that Tokyo is the center of the world’s planet-sized kekkai, so that if Tokyo falls, the apocalypse will come. I find this explanation satisfying on a certain level. Tokyo is important to the world’s salvation, and Kamui is necessary for the salvation of Tokyo; therefore, the world’s salvation depends upon Kamui. The local impacts the global. It works well I think and is representative of the way Clamp writes storylines that go beyond local concerns.
I have to give a few warnings. First, the series was never completed. I hesitate to give this warning, since it might prevent somebody from reading X. Most people agree that the story is so beautiful and ambitious that it’s worth reading even without a tidy ending.
Secondly, I found the plot confusing at first at the page level. I’m used to American comics, and I don’t like much ambiguity from one panel to the next. Clamp has taught me to accept this visual confusion to a certain degree. Sometimes, to be honest, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on: Certain pages merely look like swirls of exploding ink. I’ve noticed this feature is not uncommon in manga. I don’t really get it. It doesn’t work for me, but I no longer allow it to stop my enjoying other aspects of a work.
Manga is designed to be read much faster than American comics, and Japanese readers flip pages very quickly (this information comes from several scholarly works on Manga as well as from Japanese college students I know who read manga regularly). They devour weekly comics published in large anthologies while Americans savor the expensive twenty-one pages doled out to them per publication per month. So, if I ever get lost in an American comic, I usually reread carefully; if I get a little lost in a manga, I usually plow ahead as long as I get the big picture. And at times, particularly with Clamp, I stop and stare at some of their stunning artwork, even if a panel or page doesn’t make logical story sense to me.
Rating X is difficult for me; I get the sense that many manga fans would give this work five stars, but for me it’s a solid four stars. That missing star could be a result of my lack of experience and knowledge as a manga reader, but I offer my reviews to those of you who, like me, are perhaps new to the field of manga and have expanding reading tastes.