A Beginner’s Guide to CLAMP

A Beginner’s Guide to CLAMP

-Written by: Lisa Marie Cooper

It has come to my attention that some newer anime and manga fans are not aware of super-star manga group CLAMP. This greatly pains me as a long-time fan, so I have taken it upon myself to introduce the newer generation to one of the most prolific, popular, and influential groups of manga artists of the '90s and '00s.

Who is CLAMP?

When you see CLAMP credited on a project, it refers to a group of four women: Nanase Ohkawa, Mokona, Tsubaki Nekoi, and Satsuki Igarashi. Depending on the project, a different member will take the lead or handle most or all of the writing or art. Nanase Ohkawa generally serves as the group leader, speaking for the group at appearances and coming up with most story ideas, but they’ve all stepped up to bat on occasion.

Because of their semi-interchangeable roles, reclusive nature (it was a big, BIG deal when they agreed to attend Anime Expo in 2006), and collaborative work, it’s perfectly fine to talk about "CLAMP’s designs," "CLAMP’s writing," and so on without specifying a certain member. Leave that for when you’ve read a dozen volumes in one weekend and are debating the story direction of xxxHOLiC Rei online at two in the morning while simultaneously convincing yourself that no, really, X/1999 is going to be finished one of these days for sure.

A Brief History

CLAMP got their start in the late '80s the way most manga-ka do: in doujinshi (fan comics). At the time, the group actually had 12 members, but most of the members left the group in the early '90s. Not only did they write doujinshi for series like Saint Seiya and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, they published original stories in their own anthologies, called CLAMP BOOK and CLAMP NEWS. Their unique style quickly caught the eye of publisher Shinshokan, who asked them to submit something for their magazine Wings. RG Veda was their first professionally published work, and it was popular enough to become an extended series.

Other titles followed thick and fast. RG Veda, Tokyo Babylon, and X/1999 set the tone for CLAMP’s complex relationships between characters with different ideals and conflicting goals. Man of Many Faces, Clamp Campus Detectives, and Clamp School Defenders were an early example of CLAMP’s penchant for writing multiples series set in the same world, with characters crossing over not just for cameos but important roles.

In the mid '90s, CLAMP went a little cuter with stories about young girls in Magic Knights Rayearth, Angelic Layer, and Cardcaptor Sakura. 2000’s Chobits, about a young man and his adorable amnesiac robot, was the group’s first major foray into seinen and proved the group could be popular in any genre they chose. Over the years, they’ve been published in magazines covering almost every demographic Japanese publishers have.

A little past the turn of the century, CLAMP capitalized on their empire and announced two new series, xxxHOLiC and Tsubasa RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE. Not only did these series cross over with each other (you had to keep up with both to get all the nuance behind events), but Tsubasa in particular featured a slightly older version of Sakura (from Cardcaptor Sakura) world-hopping and meeting characters transplanted from (almost) all of CLAMP’s other works. But they didn’t end their career there. CLAMP has continued to produce new series and expand on old ones, though they’ve never matched the pace of production they had in the '90s.

Fans have been just as likely to learn about CLAMP from anime as they have manga. Nearly all of their multi-volume series have been animated. (Wish and Clover only got music videos, but at least fans get to see some of the characters properly animated in Tsubasa and Kobato.) You can also find CLAMP behind character designs for some original series, like Code Geass and Blood-C.

In the US

CLAMP titles have always been popular licenses, and just about every major US manga publisher has published at least one CLAMP title. Chobits and Cardcaptor Sakura were two early feathers in Tokyopop’s figurative hat, along with many of CLAMP’s shorter stories. Viz, meanwhile, was publishing X/1999. Del Rey, as part of their deal with Kodansha, published xxxHOLiC and Tsubasa, while Yen Press nabbed the license for Kobato.

In ’09, Dark Horse made a splash by announcing a deal for most of CLAMP’s older titles and began publishing their catalog in gorgeous, large omnibuses, with new translations and color art. They were perfect for both appreciating the tiny details in the art and accidentally injuring yourself when you drop one on your foot. Viz followed suit with high quality omnibuses for X/1999, and Kodansha Comics (which absorbed Del Rey's catalog) began re-releasing xxxHOLiC and Tsubasa in collected format almost as soon as they ended. There’s truly nothing stopping you from owning a nice edition of just about every CLAMP title. Even older copies from Tokyopop are still floating around because they were printed in such large quantities, so it’s not too hard to get your hands on Shirahime Syo or Suki.

What do they write?

Short answer: Whatever appeals to them.

Longer answer: Stories about relationships, fate, and the shockingly high probability of losing an eye when it's most dramatic to do so. They write cute mascots, scary villains, and robots with really cool outfits. Be prepared for a lot of introspection and a lot of costume changes. Regardless of whether the magazine they’re currently publishing in is shojo, josei, shonen, or seinen, assume that love is love regardless of gender (or lack thereof), but don’t expect much in the way of kissing or even hand holding.

What don’t they write?

Endings. ::ba-dum-tssh::

I kid, but only a little. If you can’t handle Hiatus x HiatusHunter x Hunter, you’re gonna have a rough time with CLAMP. Several of their series are infamous for being unfinished or having endings that don’t exactly wrap things up. There have been rumors of X/1999 getting an ending for two decades now. Legal Drug got three volumes before being put on hiatus, came back a decade later as Drug and Drop, and got put on hiatus again. Even when a series does get an ending, it’s not unusual for CLAMP to come back to it with a continuation of indefinite length (xxxHOLiC Rei, Tsubasa WoRLD CHRoNiCLE).

If the idea of reading an unfinished series bothers you, stick to works in their catalog listed as ended or watch the anime versions instead. This goes even for works that they ended properly like Chobits and Kobato - the anime versions often gave the series somewhat different endings if you want to try on another finale for size.

Where should you start?

Unlike other crossover titles, starting with Tsubasa can actually be a very good choice. While you won’t notice all the cameos or have the pleasure of going "Oh, it’s my favorite character in a new outfit!" every chapter, it’s got a good story, great characters, and a proper ending. Furthermore, it combines CLAMP’s cute aesthetic with its "noodle people in impossible clothing" art to show off the best of both and similarly mixes happy chapters with the dramatic plot twists that are CLAMP’s hallmark. Plus, if you find yourself really enjoying a certain side character, now you know what to read next!

If you like all-out dramatics with pretty people and a high probability someone’s going shopping for an eye patch, go for CLAMP’s earlier works, like RG Veda and X/1999. Want something lighthearted and with fanservice for the male gaze? Chobits or Miyuki-chan in Wonderland. Girls with big robots? Magic Knights Rayearth. Girls with small robots? Angelic Layer. Girls who are robots? Look, I already listed Chobits.

Of course, if you just want to feel good inside and appreciate some adorable art (and be certain no one’s about to lose an eye or an arm), you can’t go wrong with Cardcaptor Sakura. Not only is it one of, if not the, best works by the group, the complete series is available in both manga and anime form right now (even the movies!) and the sequel, Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card is currently being published. What better time to dive in?

-Lisa Marie Cooper

Lisa was thrilled to be in the far, far back of the auditorium for that 2006 CLAMP panel, but sadly did not get a chance to have anything signed. She did, however, mistakenly call Fai "Shirogane" for the rest of the convention and owns complete collections of both CLAMP no Kiseki and CLAMP in 3D Land. Long-time Right Stuf fans may recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as the OG RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com.