CLOVER (Kuroba), by CLAMP. First published in 1997, and first published in North America in 2001.
PLOT: In a futuristic world where military force reigns supreme, an ex-soldier named Kazuhiko is given a mission: he must deliver a package to a place known as Fairy Park. Imagine his surprise to learn that the package is in fact a lovely (and occasionally bewinged) girl named Sue, who has been kept isolated in an ornate aviary for her whole life. Subtle, CLAMP, reaaaaaal subtle with the metaphor there.
Anyway, Kazuhiko enlists the help of his old friends, Gingetsu and Ran, to help transport him and Sue out of the country. You see, Fairy Park is in enemy territory, and it is imperative that Sue be kept hidden and safe from them. Unfortunately, their efforts fail and they are discovered by the opposing army, and in particular by Bols, who harbors something of a creepy sexual obsession with Kazehiko. You know it's love when he sleeps with your severed hand every night!
Kazehiko and Sue manage to escape, and as he recovers Kazehiko begins to wonder who this Sue really is, and how she is connected to his lost love, Ora.
STORY: Clover is nothing if not frustrating, from a storytelling perspective. You get hints of a greater backstory, one about a world racked with war and intrigue, a world with teleportation and cybernetic weapon-hands, and a world dripping with oddly steampunk-esque trappings. The frustration comes from the fact that little of of this backstory is explained; instead, we must grasp what we can through experience and inference, and you can't help but want more. Too bad that this is highly unlikely, as this is one of CLAMP's unfinished works. This was meant to be a six volume series, but only four were published before the host magazine for this work was shuttered.
The same goes for the characters themselves. We get brief glimpses of personalites and pasts, but never enough to full flesh them out. The closest we get is with Bols, with the whole 'calmly psychotic sexual obsession' thing. Of course, the biggest cipher of all at this point is Sue herself, who is understandably naive about everything and seemingly obsessed with Ora's signature song, with lyrics describing a desire to fly away and be free (again, reaaaaal subtle CLAMP. Doubly so when you repeat them every few pages). What does it all mean? Only CLAMP knows.
I do like that CLAMP tried something radically different with Clover, through their choice of setting and the purposefully sparse dialogue. I'm glad they were willing to experiment with the story. I only wish that the end result wasn't quite so vague.
ART: Now here is the part where CLAMP's experimentation paid off. The linework is fine and lovely, lending everything a degree of delicacy. The page layouts are as sparse as the dialogue, where a few panels of various shapes and sizes drift over stark white or black pages. It's a distinct and stunning look, one unlike any CLAMP work before or since. The character designs are a little more familiar, being very much in the vein of X/1999, where everyone has pointy chins that could cut glass, shoulders like linebackers, and hips like skinny 13 year old boys. The characters are highligted with plenty of stark black washes and shading, which actually reminded me of some of their later works such as xxxHolic.
Artistically, you could view this as something of a transitional work for CLAMP, bridging the classic, highly stylized works of their past and the sleeker, simpler style of their latter day works with a result that is beautiful in its sparseness.
PRESENTATION: I read this from the omnibus edition, which like so many other Dark Horse omnibuses features plenty of lovely color artwork, both for the beginning of the story as well as splash pages intersperce between the volumes.
This wouldn't be the first work I would recommend to a CLAMP novice, but anyone who considers themselves a fan of their works should check this out this beautiful little visual experiment. Just don't get too attached to the story.
This was published in single volumes by Tokyopop, and was later rescued by Dark Horse Comics. The 4 Tokyopop volumes are out of print, but the Dark Horse omnibus edition is in print.
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