If you like manga, you’ve probably heard of the artistic group Clamp. If you’re new to graphic fiction, Clamp makes for an excellent introduction to Japanese comics, as their ability to cross genres provides something for every age group and taste. Clamp has been around since the 1980s, starting as a college doujinshi (fan comics) circle of female artists, and the four core current members have earned their superstar status through a mix of innovative plotting, fanservice teasing (mostly for the ladies), and unbelievably beautiful artwork, which started out amazing and has had over twenty years to evolve. It’s practically impossible for me to pick a favorite work by Clamp, but if I had to, it might be Clover, a four-volume series from the late 90s that stands at the pinnacle of artistic achievement.
Clover was one of the first manga I ever bought, and picking it up always takes me back to my feeling of salivating joy whenever a new one came out at Borders. TokyoPop released it in four volumes with color pages and delicately translucent overlaying dust jackets, and I have never seen more beautiful packaging on any American release. Now Dark Horse has picked up the expired license and put the series back into print in an omnibus collection, and they deserve kudos for keeping the color pages and adding a bonus gallery of more full-color artwork, as well as publishing it in the original right-to-left format instead of flipping the artwork, but the omnibus design suffers a bit in comparison to the old and its huge size doesn’t make for the easiest reading.
The important part is the book's content, though, which is just as magical to me now as it was ten years ago. Blending cyberpunk and steampunk elements under the chrome sheen of machine age aesthetics, the story takes place in a futuristic universe that mixes psychic powers with technological wizardry. Ten years ago, a secret government program called the Clover Leaf Project sought out children with psychic ability, and those with high-ranking powers are monitored by a Parliamentary Council of five wizard generals. Our protagonists are Sue, a young girl from the project who has lived almost her entire life isolated in a cage because of her extreme level of power, and Kazuhiko, a former special ops officer who leaves the military and turns to freelance jobs after his lover is killed. Kazuhiko is charged by the Council to deliver Sue to a place called Fairy Park, where she hopes to find her own happiness. Along their journey they are helped by Kazuhiko's old military commander Gingetsu, a laconic man never seen without his sensory-enhanced dark sunglasses, and the commander's partner Ran, a mysterious young man with advanced tech abilities. Half the story is told through flashbacks, introducing Kazuhiko's dead lover Ora and the young triplets A and C as we follow the children of the Clover Leaf Project. Ora was a songstress who never made it big, and her music opens each volume and threads through the book like a poetic Greek chorus, keeping her memory alive even as the pages count down on her inevitable end. Because of the out of order time sequence, even when characters die it doesn't necessarily mean they won’t be seen again, and tragedy is handled in an understated way, never allowing the story to wallow or get bogged down in angst.
The art of Clover takes comic books and sequential expression to a new level, using stark black and white panels, negative space, and the overall theme of minimalistic simplicity to showcase beautiful detail. The layout is characterized by the same art deco streamline as the gadgets inside, with small geometric panels arranged to portray movement unfurling over the pages like flowers blooming in the space of a second. Short chapters, sometimes only one or two pages long, keep the action moving quickly by providing snapshots of the story from its various players' viewpoints. Within this sleek as steel framework, the illustrations are a lavish visual feast of the fantastical, from ornate mechanical birds and animal-headed killer dolls in foppish clothes, to curling ribbons that materialize transported objects and people into solid form. The character designs are attractive and distinct, with delicately rendered hair and eyes, and Clamp has a real talent for maintaining realistic and consistent proportions throughout a large range of movements and expressions. They also take obvious delight in designing elaborate clothing, shown off most spectacularly in Ora's stage costumes, gothic concoctions of fishnet, lace, and decorative wings that beg to be replicated for the runway or by the adventurous cosplayer (fans who make costumes and dress up as manga or anime characters).
Clover is designated an unfinished work by Clamp, who has said there would need to be two more volumes to wrap it up. Since the magazine it ran in was cancelled, and it has been over a decade without being picked back up, I have my doubts about ever seeing more, but the ending doesn't feel incomplete. While unraveling the past, the circular narrative concludes with events that spark the beginning, and the wistful end leaves room for more without demanding a continuation. The main song goes,
"I want happiness
I seek happiness
to cause your happiness
to be your happiness
so take me
someplace far away
to a true Elsewhere
please take me there"
Reading Clover fulfills the sentiment by taking the reader on an amazing journey through moving narrative and delightful art. Although it's a bittersweet tale, it's absolutely a beautiful one, and will stay with the reader long after the last page is done.