Picture somewhat relevant: I really don’t understand the collective Japanese obsession with Alice in Wonderland and/or Through the Looking Glass. Is it the cute costuming possibilities? I feel that the works that attempt to use Alice as a motif don’t replicate the best part of those stories, so it ends up being pointless and more nonsensical than intended.
Creating stories is hard. Creating stories that people will enjoy and which will resonate with them is even more difficult. I feel that the reason why adaptations of classic stories such as Alice in Wonderland and other classic fairy tales remain perpetually popular is because these are stories that have proven their value. As children, we enjoyed them as literal tales of adventure, whimsy, and heroism. As adults, we enjoy them because we realize that there are additional layers — some of them dark or subversive — to these stories that we didn’t realize when we were younger, thus the same stories that we thought we knew probably aren’t.
It’s in this aspect of storytelling where I feel CLAMP truly excels. On the surface level, their stories are cute: a masked master thief, a girl collecting magical cards, a teenage trio whisked off to a fantasy world, an android looking for love. There are talking mascots that can eat you out of house and home, winged creatures everywhere you turn, heck, even the creators themselves generally show up in the author endnotes, depicting themselves with bunny or cat ears. Even their more dramatic stories, such as Tokyo Babylon and X, are not immune from a cutesy moment or two.
But not is all what is seems, as CLAMP makes sure that there are additional layers underneath the sugary cute frosting. Not that there’s anything wrong with frosting, but as consumers of their work, the reader is more likely to stick around if there’s more substance. CLAMP stories may start off cute, but their renown was cemented through their handling of tragedy and the repercussions on those who are left. Where most fairy tales only show the hero’s happy ending, CLAMP’s dramatic stories explore the possibility of an ending that isn’t ideal. What if the hero doesn’t win? What if the hero only wins at a great cost? Or better yet, what if there is no ending at all?
I may have been a bit facetious a couple of days ago when I wrote that CLAMP’s storytelling sometimes feels to me like it’s a public exercise in trolling. When I read (or re-read, as it were) their series nowadays, I’m confused whether I need to make notes on what certain characters say or certain events that happen, as I’d never know if it’ll be marginally relevant ten chapters in the future. Most of the time, it’s a red herring. It means nothing and I feel foolish for having looked too much into it. Yet, it’s more common that something will happen one time I’m not paying attention, and the remaining storyline will be predicated on that seemingly throwaway event. Is that why they’re so popular, because they keep us on our toes, keep us paying attention?
CLAMP is among the few manga creators who have had the luxury of being popular with various age groups and audiences. They’ve been published in shoujo, shounen, and seinen magazines. Even leaving out the international and cross-cultural appeal of their stories, I can’t even name another author with their diversity of publication success.
Not many manga creators, therefore, could indulge in something that I believe is a typical CLAMP storytelling device: the crossover. Even before the multi-universe adventure jaunt that was Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, CLAMP was inserting characters from previous published series into new ones, usually maintaining that character’s role and personality consistent throughout all the various appearances. Even as early as 1992, the character Akira IJYUIN, who previously appeared in Nijū Mensō ni Onegai!! (Man of Many Faces) became one of the central characters of the subsequent series CLAMP School Detectives. Eventually, all three characters of CSD would then show up as slightly-older versions of themselves in X.
While using crossover characters is a typical narrative device that has been used in American comics, CLAMP’s history of works has allowed them the opportunity to set up small clues as to which one of their universes that series exists. The uniting thread could be as inconsequential as the “Piffle Princess” brand, or a revised version of a character, such as Chiho/Chise (Kobato) vs Chii (Chobits). With CLAMP, just because a story ends, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the universe ceases. Each universe that they’ve created in one series could be expanded in future series, ad infinitum.
I also love that CLAMP decided to create a psuedo-transformative work based on their own original series. As if the crossovers and references in TRC and xxxHolic weren’t enough, they had to go and create yet another alternate universe work in the Holitsuba Gakuen parodies. This mini-work (and drama CD) re-imagines the central characters of Tsubasa and xxxHolic as the students and staff of a typical high school, again with the characters maintaining the established quirks and behavior from their respective original series. With CLAMP, it’s almost like fanfiction isn’t necessary since they’ll create their own.