Sunday, June 27, 2004

xxxHolic Vol. 1
Del Rey

Watanuki Kimihiro is burdened with a family curse: Spirits, which appear as large, amorphous clouds, are drawn to him, at times dogging his every move. While fleeing his spectral pursuers, Watanuki stumbles into the curious store owned by Yuko, a seductive and amoral witch who offers to lift the curse if he’ll repay her by working in her shop.

Watanuki agrees, and is thrust into a world of swirling magic and slipping mores in which Yuko’s customers seek her costly solutions to their physically and psychologically crippling problems. One woman is being paralyzed by her pathological lies, while another is destroying her life with her online addiction. Although the premise may seem to border dangerously on After-School Special territory, Yuko’s ambiguous ethics turn the vignettes into intriguing lessons in “be careful what you ask for” (giving a sense that Watanuki may be getting off easy with indentured servitude).

There’s a lot going on in xxxHolic, and CLAMP does a good job of pushing the story forward while introducing subplots and asides. We meet Maru-Dashi and Moro-Dashi -- the odd little girls who are part Greek chorus, part annoying parrots -- but are not yet told who, or what, they are. In-jokes and references to other manga are cleverly woven throughout the story, but the reader is never quite sure whether they’re throwaway gags or clues to something more. It’s fun, intelligent storytelling.

Unfortunately, the story is hampered occasionally by the inconsistent art. Beautifully detailed panels sometimes give way to jumbled messes in which it’s unclear what, exactly, is being depicted. Still, even when the art is at its weakest, it’s easy to see why CLAMP is so popular.

True Story, Swear to God: 100 Stories
By Tom Beland
AiT/Planet Lar

Lucky for us, Tom Beland sweats the small stuff. Nude beaches, Beanie Babies, Big Macs, comics -- they're all fodder for True Story, Swear to God: 100 Stories, a warm and funny collection of his comic strips.

But Beland is at his best when he tackles his relationship with his wife, Lily, and memories of his childhood. Even here, it’s the small things that matter: a comical exchange with his father about Jesus’ middle name, or a bored evening on the sofa with Lily. They’re fleeting moments that most of us would be at a loss to describe, but Beland manages to capture them expertly.

How Loathsome hardcover
By Ted Naifeh and Tristan Crane
NBM Publishing

In the hands of other creators, How Loathsome might have become a “shocking” tale of drugs and sex set against the seedy backdrop of San Francisco’s S&M scene. But Ted Naifeh and Tristan Crane deliver a complex, sensitive and often humorous exploration of the fluidity of sexuality, the ambiguity of gender and the nature of love.

Originally published as a four-issue series, How Loathsome centers on Catherine Gore, a jaded Sandman lookalike who thinks she’s seen it all -- until she sets eyes on Chloe, a stunning pre-op transsexual who seems to enchant everyone she meets. The two launch into an intense, high-octane fling, the kind that can only end badly. With their affair over, Catherine turns to more drugs and alcohol, and friends like the young, heroin-addicted Alex (“a good kid”) and the creepy, drug-dealing Nick (“just repulsive enough to be charming”). They’re both well-formed characters whose stories are nearly as fascinating as Catherine’s.

Naifeh and Crane don’t coddle their readers; we’re thrown into the deep end. Thankfully, there’s no awkward exposition or painful primers on the various subcultures. No, the creators presume the audience is smart enough to figure things out as they go.

Those who’ve read Naifeh’s Courtney Crumrin series will recognize some familiar artistic elements in How Loathsome, especially in his depiction of men. But here Naifeh’s work is more detailed and expressive, particularly during the fantasy interludes, such as the haunting “Nanshoku” fairy tale or Nick’s drug-induced, Kafkaesque adventure.

How Loathsome is a powerful and, at times, profound work that deserves a larger audience and wider recognition.