Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, December 15, 2005
      ( 12/15/2005 02:38:00 PM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY MINUTE MANGA – After finishing a review of Jill Thompson's Dead Boy Detectives recently, it occurred to me that I hadn't yet written anything about the manga series I compared it to: Clamp School Detectives (Tokyopop). Back when I first started doing manga explorations, the debut volume in this series was one of the first I'd picked up. It was not a good choice at the time: I was still unaccustomed to reading comics in traditional manga lay-out, so an "All Ages" young girl's mystery series was probably not the best place for me to start. Looking back at my earliest manga explorations, the ones I most fully keyed into were horror action series like Battle Royale (on the verge of reaching its conclusion) or full-tilt murder mysteries like Kindaichi Case Files (unfortunately cancelled by Tokyopop, I read) – genres that I already feel a strong affinity for. A lightweight shoujo manga devoted to mop-topped golden schoolboys who specialize in "rescuing" damsels in distress is not a series aimed at me as a reader . . .

So I read and quickly consigned the first volume of Clamp School Detectives to the mebbe later pile and forgot about it. (Apparently, a goodly percentage of its potential audience did likewise since the series only made it up to Volume Three.) After finishing Thompson's Vertigo GN, however, I wound up dusting off the book and giving it another try. Second time, I found it a much more readable, if still minor, entertainment.

The series centers around Nokoru, a blond sixth grader who is Chairman of the elementary school class, and his buddies on the class board: martial arts master Suoh and Akira, who also occasionally dabbles in some on-school cat burglary and is a master chef besides. Nokoru is able to detect a woman in trouble from two kilometers away: in the book's first adventure he can see a weeping woman in a tower from the cabin of a flying zeppelin ("It's uncanny where women are involved," Akira notes, "it's like he's got psychic powers or something.") The threesome goes to Clamp School, an enormous institution that presumably is also the site for other series written by the prolific manga team Clamp (Nanase Ohkawa, Mokono Apapa, Mick Nekoi & Satsuki Igarishi), where they apparently half their days dodging scores of screaming schoolgirls like the Fab Four in A Hard Day's Night.

Of the four stories included in the first book, only the opener – an elderly widow being strong-armed by her wicked brother-in-law into moving out of the family estate – has any real dramatic stakes to it. The other three mysteries (a missing microdisk, a vanished peacock plus a puzzle created by a girl student in an attempt at humiliating Nokoru) are much milder affairs. As a mystery writer, scripter Ohkawa is more interested in her boy heroes than she is in the dilemmas she's given 'em, so while we get the obligatory scenes of our threesome cogitating, there are more focusing on their status as Big Men on Clamp School, like a sequence concerning the abundance of Valentine candies that all there boys receive from the girls at school. The tone of Clamp School Detective is essentially cheerful with a few brief flights of poignancy (that elderly woman mourning a lost love, the peacock owner's love for her pet) and broad All Ages comedy.

The art, primarily handled by Mokono Apapa, may over-focus on Clamp's big-eyed heroes, but I bet I've had a different take on this if I were a pre-teen girl. Her women appear to be more distinctly expressive than her male figures, though this may be more a factor of story than of art: the girls, after all, are the ones with the problems, so they get the more emotional panels, where all the boys primarily have to do is occasionally do a funny double-take. (One of my favorite gimmicks is Apapa's use of the small inner panel to show the reaction of one boy to something being said or done by another – it's even more effective in the small hand-held manga GN format where the postage stamp-sized panels work like comic punctuation.) As with much shoujo manga, Apapa delights in filling the corners and backgrounds with flowers and decorative patterns – she especially likes to frame Nokoru in the former – clearly, Clamp School is no place to go for a student with hay fever.

In the end, I found that two years of reading American translated manga have made me more receptive to a work like Clamp School Detectives, though when it comes to girly comic fantasies of blooming heart-throb heroes, I prefer my leads bleedin' demised like the boys in Jill Thompson's manga tribute. Perhaps I need to take a shot at one of Clamp's "older" manga efforts. Something like this perhaps?

# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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