I'm back! It's a brand new year, a brand new month, and a brand new theme! January is the month of my birthday (the 29th, to be precise), and as such I decided to focus on something that I love and on works that I really, really want to review, an idea I've had since the creation of this blog.
Thus, this month will be all about everyone's favorite doujinshi circle turned team of legendary manga creators, CLAMP.
The first selection for CLAMP monthh will focus on one of the many CLAMP series Dark Horse has licenced rescued and released in omnibus form. CLAMP has always made an effort to try and subvert the genres and accompanying cliches of the manga they work on, and today's selection is one of the simplest yet enjoyable subversions.
ANGELIC LAYER (Enjerikku Reiya), by CLAMP. First published in 1999, and first published in North America in 2002.
PLOT: Misaki Suzuhara is moving to Tokyo to live with her aunt, as her mother went away for a job when Misaki was a small child. She barely has time to step off the train before she's exposed to the craze that is Angelic Layer, a gaming tournament where people compete by using customized dolls controlled by their thoughts to fight. Misaki soon runs into a strange man in a lab coat who calls himself "Icchan," who ends up convincing her to stock up on just about everything a girl could need to equip her own Angel. Misaki quickly takes to the game, and she ends up joining the Angelic Layer tournament, where her ability to remember and imitate the moves of others helps her to advance. Will Misaki become an Angelic Layer champion? And why is Icchan so invested in getting Misaki into Angelic Layer?
STORY: The story structure here should be one very familiar to shonen fans: a plucky young lead wants to be the best [insert subject] ever, so they fight their way to the top, all while making friends and learning lessons and so on. So, what makes Angelic Layer different from the rest? Well, this is a shonen fighting tournament series with shoujo sensibilities.
As I said before, you almost expect some sort of twist or subversion with a CLAMP work, and Angelic Layer features what may be the simplest twist on a genre they've written: take a shonen fighting tournament, and make the vast majority of the competitors (and their battle dolls) female. It seems like a simple change, but by doing so they shift the focus of the story - more on that later.
Of course, like many CLAMP works, there's a reference to one or more of their other works. In this case, Misaki names and models her doll off of Magic Knight Rayearth's Hikaru. Also like many CLAMP works, it stars a girl who is not terribly bright, but good at domestic chores, and remains cheerful and friendly through most situations. Because of her gentle nature, she's very different from the usual tournament lead: she has no particular interest in winning Angelic Layer. She's simply in it to learn and have fun, and she's more focused on the well-being of her doll than she is with her ranking. This is where the aforementioned shoujo sensibilities enter the picture - the focus here isn't on winning and losing, but on emotion and friendship. Indeed, Misaki soon assembles a group of pleasant, if not terribly complex schoolmates, including a violent, tomboyish girl and a rather bland Love Interest Guy. There are a couple of character that do stand out, though.
The first of these is Hakuto, the little sister of Love Interest Guy who is an Angelic Layer prodigy. She is a fierce competitor - indeed, she defeats Misaki early on, and only circumstance keeps Misaki in the tournament - but she also admires Misaki and becomes not only a fan, but a friend. The second of these character is easily my favorite, as they bring the lion's share of the humor in this series. Of course, I'm talking about Icchan, with his penchant for wiggly surprise entrances and bizarre punishments for his assistant. We soon learn that he is the creator of Angelic Layer, and that he encourages her at Angelic Layer for still-unknown reasons which seem to have something to do with her mother. Thus, he not only provides comic relief, but he also brings with him another emotional plot thread for Misaki to follow. Sure, he's something of a blatant plot device, always prodding Misaki forward, but at least he's an amusing plot device.
Angelic Layer is built upon a familiar skeleton, but it fleshes out its story with a few little twists and a lot of charm and humor and thus helps it to stand out from its genremates.
ART: Being a shonen work by CLAMP, the artstyle here is much less stylized and detailed than their previous or (then) contemporary shoujo works. The style here is similiar to that seen in Chobits and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles, with simplified character designs and broader, darker linework. Angelic Layer is at time even more simplified that those works, as the characters are transformed in wackier moments into flapping and flailing paper doll-like sihouettes. Even in this simplified form, the characters are distinct, attractive, and expressive.
CLAMP does put a bit more effort into the fight scenes, even if it seems that the dolls damn near drown in speed lines at times. In spite of that, the poses are strong and there's a very strong sense of fluidity in the panels. There's a lot of visual variety in the panel size, which naturally tends to expand during the battles. Surprisingly, the backgrounds are surpringly absent - CLAMP tends to either leave them blank or break out the speed lines. It's a touch lazy for CLAMP, but it's a minor fault.
Angelic Layer's art is as simple as its heroine, but also like her it's not without its charms, namely that it's also light, fluid, and attractive.
PRESENTATION: This is one of the rare situations where I have read both the original single release and the omnibus rerelease. I don't recall any extras present in the Tokyopop singles, but the Dark Horse omnibuses do feature color art at the beginning and end of the book.
Angelic Layer is a simple but endearing entry into the CLAMP cannon, one that would be easy for a CLAMP novice to get into and a pleasant diversion for established CLAMP fans.
This series was formerly published by Tokyopop, and was rescued by Dark Horse. All 5 volumes were released by Tokyopop, and all 5 are out of print. The first of two omnibuses have been released by Dark Horse, and is currently in print.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!