CLAMP is an all-female group of comic creators from Japan, made up of four manga artists: Nanase Ohkawa, Mokona, Tsubaki Nekoi and Satsuki Igarashi. Originally formed in the mid-80s, their work spans several decades and countless genres, including Cardcaptor Sakura, Chobits, X/1999, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, and Magic Knight Rayearth.
They’re also the main reason why I—a Canadian English Lit. professor-in-training—met my best friend and creative partner, Capp—an Israeli artist from the UK. These days, Capp and I draw the comic Shaderunners, a 1920s-style heist webcomic. Years ago, though, we bonded over our love for CLAMP. Now comic creators ourselves, we often look back on CLAMP as an early influence in the way we make comics and our decision to make them at all.
After Capp made a tweet about CLAMP’s early influence, back in September, we were invited to discuss that influence on WWAC. We got together to have a chat about what appealed to us about CLAMP in the first place, and how we feel about them today.
Lin: I discovered CLAMP in late high school. I was a very shy person, so I started getting into fandom and connecting with people over their comics.
Capp: I started reading CLAMP comics when I was about 12. Where I lived there weren’t a lot of comics out there that were marketed for girls, so when I found their work I immediately got into it. The most important thing they brought to the table, in my opinion, was the idea of self-indulgence. There’s lots of other things that make them stand out to me now, but at that age that was really revolutionary.
Lin: Yeah! I feel like a lot of CLAMP’s works have this operatic quality, but their stories can also be really profoundly domestic, and they get that slice-of-life quality down really well, too. So I suppose what I like most of them is the combination of those two elements—the big, dramatic, world-ending twists and turns paired with the sweet, simple routines of daily life. I think it’s that self-indulgence, like you said.
Capp: They do something that I often criticize other media for not doing enough—they really fully commit to whatever concept they get into. Their work is usually focused on things that are considered “cheesy” or embarrassing in our culture, like vampires and grand love stories and handsome sad boys, but they always go all the way.
Often, we find ourselves taking a step back from our work—writing and art, respectively—and commenting on the obvious influence, visual or thematic, that CLAMP has had on it—for better or worse.
Lin: CLAMP definitely influenced the way I write romances. They’re really big on soulmates in their work, and while I’m less interested in that in a literal sense, I like the idea of certain people being so invested in each other that there’s a strong sense of destiny or inevitability to their love.
And one thing that I really love about CLAMP that I feel like I often explore in my work as well, is the idea of ‘bad’ soulmates—soulmate pairs whose stories go really, really badly. I love sweet romances, but I feel like CLAMP gives the best of both worlds; really complex, challenging pairings that can be either sweet and fluffy or grim and damaging.
Capp: One thing I definitely I took from them is that I try to approach every new project with a blank canvas in terms of design, instead of using the same style and technique for everything I do—almost every CLAMP title had a different art style and a look that fit the new genre they’re exploring. The idea of doing what’s right for the story over what your established “style” is, and the notion that you can change and shift your style from project to project is something that I definitely appreciate.
Over and over, the conversation turns to CLAMP’s particular mode of self-indulgence, both in terms of art and writing. We both feel that there’s something deeply gendered about the way ‘self-indulgence’ in media is defined, and how CLAMP’s work in particular feels so unashamed or self-conscious of its more obvious tropes.
Capp: I think what CLAMP showed me as a teen was that I was allowed to draw whatever I wanted, even if it would have been considered ‘too girly’ or ‘fluff’ by my peers.
Lin: And usually that’s the sort of thing I want to read, too, because it’s what that the author is clearly excited about. I think I can afford to learn that lesson more from them—I still feel self-conscious sometimes about how my work is being perceived, if it’s too dramatic or silly, etc.
Capp: Something that I was personally not influenced by but I know a ton of other artists who were, is CLAMP’s costume design. CLAMP’s outfits are absolutely gorgeous, they’re beautiful, but so often they make no sense at all. And it doesn’t matter!
Lin: Totally! Their costumes are so detail-oriented and they really stand out on the page. It’s not economical at all but it’s just like visual cake to look at.
Another major reason that we both found ourselves attracted to CLAMP’s work so strongly was the prevalent—often common—depiction of queer characters. When we were growing up, such characters were rare, let alone normalized as they often were in CLAMP’s works.
Lin: I think one thing we’re also circling is that CLAMP’s work often is very casually queer. That was really refreshing and exciting to me when I was younger. Back then, I remember a lot of stories centred around the experience of being queer, but less that simply used queer characters to tell stories. I imagine that was a big draw for you, too.
Capp: It was a huge draw for me. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure it’s why my realization that I was queer myself was super casual—being so heavily invested in CLAMP’s comics sort of made me feel like being queer was normal, just a fact of life.
Lin: Yeah! They’re not perfect—they can be frustratingly ambiguous at times, and a lot of their explicit queer characters (women especially) end up dead—but the casualness of their queer romances was such a revelation to me.
Ultimately, the thing that interests us both nowadays is the way that the work of one generation of female comic creators has inspired and influenced a whole new generation of female artists in the West.
Lin: You can always just tell whenever someone’s a former CLAMP fan.
Capp: Sometimes I read a comic and I find myself wondering if the artist used to be into CLAMP, too. I recently posed the question on Twitter, and so many female artists and writers whose work I admire said that they grew up with CLAMP!
Lin: I do recognize that there’s a lot about their work that I carry with me still—they’ll always be kind of literary parents to me, and from talking to other creators, I can tell I’m not the only one who feels that way. A lot of the people who responded to your tweet even cited CLAMP as the reason they got started in comics.
But of course, despite our love for CLAMP, they’re far from perfect. We both feel that our appreciation for them is complicated at best—there are a lot of problematic tropes and regrettable themes in their work that neither of us wants to minimize or defend.
Capp: Should we talk about the bad stuff?
Lin: Yeah, I don’t want to imply that they’re without flaws or that they only create masterpieces.
Capp: There is a lot of sexualized violence in some of their early titles, which is harder for me to stomach now, and they fridge female characters a lot as well. Their lesbian romances are always somehow doomed, usually dead. In general their treatment of women is sort of a mixed bag, sadly.
Also, CardCaptor Sakura had not one, not two, not three, but four teacher-student relationships that were all presented as totally cool and even romantic. There are obviously more problems, these are just the ones I can remember most vividly nowadays.
Lin: I think it’s healthy to look back on your childhood influences with a critical eye, too. Some of their stuff is messed up, but it’s valuable to think about why. I think at some point every creator has to look at their inspirations and decide what it is they want to carry with them and what they want to leave behind.
As the conversation draws to a close, we talk about what CLAMP has meant to us in the past, and what it means to us now that we no longer actively read or follow their work.
Lin: I think CLAMP’s work hit me when I was in a transitional phase as a person and as a writer, and I think any creator’s work always bear the fingerprints of the people who influenced them during those moments. It’s really cool to think that those fingerprints, for me, come from a specifically female band of storytellers. It’s nice to think about storytelling as an exchange between one generation to another.
Capp: Honestly, I owe almost everything to CLAMP. Realizing my sexuality, getting into fandom, drawing comics, and maybe most importantly my friendship with you—those are all things that happened as a direct result of being exposed to CLAMP’s work. I seriously have no idea who I would even be without it.
Looking back on early influences can be both a blessing and a curse, but it’s an experience that many creators likely undergo as they begin to make creative works themselves. Our current project—the webcomic Shaderunners—as well as the other, shorter comics we create together or apart, are all ultimately the inevitable culmination of our early influences by other female comic creators.