584 pages, black and white
Published by Viz
X is a strange little duck in the manga world, in terms of its publication history. Created by the four-person creative collective CLAMP, X began in Japan in 1992, but was halted in 2003 as it neared its conclusion due to concerns by the publisher over the "increasingly violent stories." Meanwhile, in North America, due to Dark Horse Comics’ series X, its publication by Viz ran under the name X/1999, referencing the pivotal year in which the series was set. It’s now 2011 and CLAMP hasn’t found a new publisher in Japan to run the final chapters of X, but the series is now coming back into print in North America in a series of 3-in-1 omnibuses, and under its original title of X. As the comic focuses around the apocalypse, saying "the end is near" is extremely appropriate no matter how you look at it. And based on what I found in X 3-in-1 Vol. 1? I am a little boggled at the idea how just how violent these later chapters must be.
The early chapters of X start off innocently enough. Fuma and Kotori are brother and sister, raised solely by their father after their mother died a few years ago. At the same time, their cousin Kamui and his mother abruptly left Tokyo without a word. Now it’s 1999, and Kamui has returned, but their fun-loving, sweet cousin is now a dark, brooding figure with massive powers and abilities. With two rival organizations both trying to find Kamui (the Seven Seals and the Seven Angels), mystical battles are already starting to break out left and right, and the visions of the end of the world are coming with ever-increasing intensity.
Based on the above description, X sounds like it’s got some basic similarities between it and other manga series, even other series by CLAMP. The strong bond between brother and sister, the outsider returning to the fold but changed, the two agencies trying to grab our protagonist for their own purposes. And at the end of the (original) first volume, I figured I knew where X was going, that it wasn’t until the very end that X would be kicking the violence into high gear. And then, I began what was originally the second volume, and in a matter of pages realized that CLAMP was done with their prelude and that apocalyptic, anything-can-happen nature was already here. It starts with a flashback to how Fuma and Kotori’s mother died (hint: don’t assume that Kotori’s weak heart means that their mother died of one as well), and the level of gruesomeness intensifies. By the time you get to the two-page spread of a ruined Tokyo with corpses impaled on spires left and right, you know that X is playing for keeps. But remember, these are just the early chapters; it’s apparently not until later that X hits the point that the editors decided to pull the plug on the book.
The sad thing is, if you remove the ever-growing violence, there’s a lot more about X that I suspect gets overshadowed by a casual read. CLAMP is playing a lot in these early chapters with mirrors and counterparts. With the appearance of the Seven Seals and the Seven Angels, we’re already seeing opposite sides aligning, and it’s hard to not see even in these first chapters hints of a similar positioning between Fuma and Kamui. As we get visions of two Kamuis and two Sacred Swords, it’s hard to keep from glancing in the direction of Fuma. CLAMP has already hinted that Fuma has abilities of his own, after all, and with this much foreshadowing I’ll be surprised if we don’t see more. And while apocalypse fiction is fairly run of the mill these days (although it is amusing to see all the 1999 references in X, since these days 2012 is a more popular date), CLAMP is clearly having fun mixing in all of the biblical imagery to help set it apart from the others.
CLAMP also introduces an intriguing idea of the kekkai, a mystical barrier that lets massive battles happen without damaging the area permanently, provided the creator of the kekkai isn’t severely wounded or killed. At the end of the fight, everything inside the barrier reverts to normal; it allows CLAMP to tell huge, massive battles that destroy quite a bit of the surrounding city, but there’s also that continual threat that the damage could turn suddenly and horrifically permanent. It’s a clever conceit, and I’m curious to see just where they’ll end up taking this idea. My only big complaint with the writing is that some of the secondary characters are quickly proving to be annoying; based on the fact that there should be seven Seals and Angels before too long, I’m hoping that these annoying ones are pushed to the background by the additions en route, but right now it’s especially frustrating since the annoying ones are also responsible for delivering some much needed exposition.
As X was drawn almost 20 years ago, now, the art isn’t quite up to the higher standards you’d expect from their more recent books like xxxHolic or Kobato. It’s still attractive enough, with large sweeping appearances of characters, and a surprisingly high number of large splash pages and vistas. It’s some of the most dramatic art I’ve seen from CLAMP, perhaps because of its world-shattering nature instead of being a quieter, more personal story. For now, I was also glad that the violence is somewhat tastefully drawn. We don’t get an overabundance of gore, instead seeing just enough to have our brains fill in the detail. While the faces aren’t quite as sharp or distinctive as CLAMP’s later comics look, you can already see here a team of creators carving out their own niche in the Japanese comics world.
Will X ever return? Well, CLAMP did just announce that their series Legal Drug (which came to a halt after the publication it ran in shut down; ironically, the same publication that X had also ran in) is returning after an eight-year hiatus, so anything is possible. With the devastation in Japan due to the earthquake and tsunami earlier this year, though, I can’t help but think that few publishers will be jumping on board for an end-of-the-world manga that has a reputation for high levels of violence and destruction. Still, even though a conclusion might not be around the corner, I’m intrigued enough by X 3-in-1 Vol. 1 to want to see what happens next. X has enough of a reputation that I was already curious, but the ideas that CLAMP’s playing with here has lured me in for round two.