As a vehicle for introducing manga readers to some of their titles, Del Rey Books' manga omnibuses provide plenty of value for the buck. Recently picked up a copy of Clamp's xxxHolic Omnibus Edition, a $12.95 thick-as-a-brick paperback collecting the first three volumes of this shoujo series that's currently available through Barnes & Noble. I found the teen-rated (Ages 13+) book to be both a good bargain and a decent introduction to the series proper. Some first volume manga pbs are so focused on providing background info, often through short self-contained stories, that you don't fully get a sense of where the series is going until you finished two or three volumes. By the end of the xxxHolic omnibus, though, you'll probably have a clear sense whether you want to continue with the series or not.
The series' hero is a young lad named Kimihiro Watanuki, a bespectacled youth who lives by himself and is plagued by recurrent visions of ghosts. Beset by nebulous, yet monstrous looking, creatures, he unwillingly takes refuge ("My legs ran me in here on their own!") in a mysterious house inhabited by a hard-drinking, long-legged "time-space witch" named Yūko Ichibara and two hyper-cutesy kid assistants named Maru and Moro. To Yūko, the young boy's appearance is "hitsuzen," a naturally fore-ordained event, and though the quick-tempered boy doesn't have much patience with a lot of the woman's mystico-babble, he still finds himself working for her in the house as chief-cook-and-bottle-washer on the promise that she'll eventually take away his spirit sight. As it happens, Yūko's house is a shop "where wishes are granted" for whatever the witch deems a fair price.
Not an unfamiliar premise: the mysterious shop where unsuspecting customers come to find their lives ironically, sometimes horrifically, changed (see, for example, Pet Shop of Horrors). The Omnibus edition gives us two stand-alone tales which adhere to this format. In the first volume, Watanuki meets a young habitual liar who is experiencing an increasing paralysis as a result of her lyin' ways; Yūko gives her a ring to stave off the paralysis, but it proves only a temporary stopgap. If the girl doesn't deal with her bad habit, the witch asserts, she won't have a lot of time. In the third volume, a second young girl customer purchases a container with a monkey's paw inside it. As expected, the new owner makes a series of disastrous wishes that eventually leads to her doom.
But xxxHolic proves to be more than a collection of separate shoujo horror stories: the four woman team of manga creators who comprise the monstrously successful Clamp are also invested in trying this series into their other successful series. Thus, the first volume concludes with introduction of several characters from Clamp's Tsubasa series and a storyline which consumes the first third of the second volume. Though Del Rey's editors hasten to reassure us that "it isn't necessary to read Tsubasa to understand the events in xxxHolic," to this reader that part of the books had the same unsatisfactory feeling that I get picking up an American comic by DC or Marvel – and realizing that full appreciation of the story requires that I've already read every issue of 52 or Civil War. Elsewhere, the Clamp women toss in references to Chobits (at one point, our hero has to wear a pair of ears which are right out of that series) and Cardcaptor Sakura, which are thankfully explained to us neophytes in a series of notes at the end of each volume.
More accessible is the remainder of the second volume, which introduces Watanuki's fellow schoolmate Shizuka Dōmeki, a lithely attractive athlete who is our hero's rival for the attention of long-haired schoolgirl Himawari. Dōmeki also has the power to exorcize spirits, which, of course, makes him the perfect odd couple partner for Watanuki, even though our splenetic young lead can barely stand to be in the room with him. This leads to many panels showing a spittle-mouthed Watanuki cartoonishly frothing over real and imagined displays of one-upmanship. "From the first time I met him, something about him has always ticked me off!" he says at one point, showing that the writing part of Clamp has a handle on young male adolescents. Unfortunately for our cheesed-off hero, he and his rival are fated to fight more evil spirits in the volumes to come: in volume three, the duo bests a large demonic snake that's haunting a school, a remnant of years of students' "innocent curses."
Yūko, the witchy shopkeeper, generally stays back and provides the lengthy explanations, leaving all the heavy lifting to the boys. Frequently drawn in languid repose like some decadent beauty in a pre-Raphaelite print, she's manipulative and maddening, often holding back information from our hero and her customers in the interest of keeping the story going. She's definitely not averse to exploiting the hardworking Watanuki as much as possible – we repeatedly get panels of the boy with a kerchief on his head, as he cleans the nooks of Yūko's house. It's clear our hero has his work cut out for him, since the cluttered place is as smoky as Doctor Strange's sanctum sanctorum.
The Marvel Comics comparison is not inapt, since I see elements of the Lee & Ditko era sorcerer supreme in Clamp's art, though Steve Ditko never drew his figures as elongated as the Clamp-ers do. Per the supernatural subject matter, the artists put more solid black into their art than this admitted Clamp dabbler can recall from looking at their other series. But they still hold to their friendly visual style, even if it occasionally works against the spookier visual moments. I never bought, for instance, the climactic panels to the monkey's paw piece, though I suspect the exact same compositions could've worked in the hands of a different artist.
Would I buy another volume of xxxHolic? Probably not. I prefer my supernatural thrills with a bit oomph to 'em. The Clamp Juggernaut will proceed without me, I suspect – one of the big announcements to come out of this year's San Diego Comic-Con was for a new series of "mangettes" that the foursome will be producing with American publishers Dark Horse Comics – happily filling the needs of that fangirl and fanboy audience still largely eluding American comic creators . . .