When I originally read the first English volume of X (back then, it was called X/1999), I despised it. I had some preconceived notions of what comics should be (at the time, I was really into The Ultimates or something stupid like that) and CLAMP's arty, sound effect-laden, high-emotion representation of a world on the verge of apocalypse rubbed me and my cinematic-minded view of sequential art the wrong way. Which is a terrible way to start off a positive review, but I checked out the new X three-in-one collection (actually titled X this time!) to see if my tastes had changed enough to let me appreciate it.
For the uninitiated, X follows a mysterious and standoffish bishonen named Kamui who returns to Tokyo after several years of absence, much to the surprise of childhood friends (and brother/sister pair) Fuma and Kotori. It turns out, however, that Kamui is at the center of an upcoming apocalyptic event that will happen in the year 1999, which involves a whole lot of different parties. Lots of intrigue/physics-defying magic battles ensue.
CLAMP is a team of four female comic creators who delineate and often trade duties among writer, designer, artist and assists, which is an amazing comic creation model that might only be possible in Japan. You hear about creators organized under studios a lot, but you rarely see groups so tight-knit that they're all known under one name (Kieron Gillen wrote about this once). What's our equivalent? UDON? Or that one time Gabriel Bá, Fábio Moon, Vasilis Lolos and Becky Cloonan all collabo'd on Pixu?
Three-in-one editions, by the way, are the best idea anybody ever had for manga distribution. I'm always hesitant of making the commitment of $10 every few months for what might end up being at least a dozen volumes — and if you're reading something incredibly long-form like Naruto? Holy shit! — but $20 or so for three volumes worth of material (or almost 600 pages!) is a tremendous deal. They've already been doing this with a few different classic series (Dragonball, Naruto, Fushigi Yugi) as well as some unlikely candidates (Hot Gimmick, Vagabond), so I'm seriously hoping for some Ranma ½ collections in the same vein.
Having three volumes at in one package also lets you get a proper feel for the series. Volume 1 introduces the characters as going to high school, but quickly jettisons that dynamic as the battles start happening and as CLAMP introduce more and more moving parts, like all the opposing forces bent on either helping or hurting Kamui. I gave up on X/1999 during the first volume, but after reading through three volumes, I'm definitely interested in seeing how the rest of the series plays out.
Ignoring western mags like Shonen Jump and the sadly defunct Shojo Beat and Pulp, manga here generally comes out in full-fledged volumes rather than the piecemeal chapter format that has American comics limping these days. Even so, Japanese comics have a different rhythm from their western counterparts, partially because over here serialized comics have short lifespans and ask the reader for $3 a pop at least. The assuredness of serialized manga (from what I've seen, a series being consistently put out doesn't go away unless the magazine folds or some other factor comes in the way — maybe Bakuman covered this and I didn't get that far in the story yet) allows a given story to breathe, to indulge in the motion of their characters and be cinematic. It's something that, in the west, we call "decompression," mostly out of annoyance for forking over dollars for 22 pages of a guy putting on his costume.
It helps that it's CLAMP working on the manga. Tremendously talented artists, the ladies make every panel count, with a pacing so brisk that even someone like me who obsessively studies pacing and economy doesn't really find fault with the amount of room CLAMP gets to tell their story. Mostly I'm just jealous in the way they can take their time and really explore their world.
By contrast, my first exposure to X was the Rintaro-directed big-screen anime adaptation, which was a cluttered, confusing, ultra-compressed mess crammed full of nearly every character from the manga and reduced to a hilariously maudlin dose of beautifully animated nonsense with lots of tearful cradling of disembodied heads. Akira it ain't, even though the frequent shouts of "Kamui!" "Fuma!" and "Kotori!" are reminiscent of the "Kaneda!" "Testuo!" meme.
Dammit, I digressed again. As I was saying, CLAMP also draw the shit out of this book. Especially impressive are their two-page spreads, which are varied and actually don't waste space (like I said, I'm a stickler for that sort of thing) for once. Sometimes they're arty and metaphysical and other times sprawling vistas of catastrophic vision. Even the average layout is dynamic — by comparison, even the most awesome American action comic you can think of looks subdued by comparison. No wonder this stuff is more popular.The one area I will fault CLAMP for is in the way they render their figures. The draw beautifully ethereal women, but their men look grotesque and triangular, with shoulders so broad that their heads are tiny and out of proportion.
That said, the oddest thing about X is its minor mood shifts. Manga does that a lot, and X creators CLAMP have created work in multiple genres — not just girly shojo comics, but adventure comics, fantasy comics and even comedy. There's something in manga/anime culture that makes strange tonal-shifting accents and transformations into cartoon characters acceptable (let's chalk the latter bit up to diffusion of Daffy Duck cartoons) here they provide a surprising relief from the oppressive Eve of Destruction that constantly hangs over the world of the comic.
X ended up being so viol
ent and similar to real-world events in Japan that their publishers got uncomfortable with the content and pulled the strip, effectively putting it on hiatus for who-knows-how-long. Which is hilariously appropriate, a manga about the apocalypse being deferred indefinitely. Enjoy the ride while it lasts, kids.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.