I thought I’d end the xxxholic roundtable by highlighting some of the more interesting comments it generated, both here and on other sites.
Starting off, Kristy Valenti had a longish and thoughtful defense of the series.
I personally enjoy xxxHolic very much. The first few volumes made it as an honorable mention, paired with Petshop of Horrors, on my 2006 TCJ best of lists: at the time, I praised their low-key, late-night cable horror-anthology feel (something that the critics in this roundtable have also identified, as a fault) and wrote, “these are not significant works by any means, but they are good reads and an interesting study in rhythm and narrative structure.”
I find this rhythm to be key to xxxHolic (I realize that a strong argument can be made that if it doesn’t grab you from the beginning, it’s not worth your time, but xxxHolic, in particular, is quite the slow-burn: as Melinda pointed out, it founders a bit for a while, and shifts gears, but then it begins to build to the show-stopping, stunningly drawn Vol. 12 (though no, the philosophical and existential themes in Vol. 12, and of the work overall, are not particularly novel or complex (one’s ability to affect one’s own destiny, how even our tiniest actions affect ourselves and others, hence the butterfly motif (which: not new)); but I appreciated the getting there. My patience was rewarded).
There’s a certain coldness, or distance, about the work which is tonally in concert, considering that it’s concerned with the supernatural and the inhuman. Equally, my attachment to xxxHolic isn’t particularly sentimental: it’s the only thing I’ve ever read from Clamp that I liked, and I don’t particularly even care for the characters (well, Yuko is entertaining), even 13 or so volumes in. I also wasn’t able to stomach Tsubasa.
That’s why I find it somewhat perverse to review only the first three volumes of this series (or for the majority of the critics to have only read the first three volumes). I realize it’s from a practical standpoint, and I realize that a strong argument can be made that if it doesn’t grab you from the beginning, it’s not worth your time, but I do hope that one forthcoming roundtable participant has read the series to date and will look at the first three volumes in retrospect.
Narratively, xxxHolic is a genre work in which I derive pleasure, as a reader, from seeing the ways in which genre conventions are or are not fulfilled, side-swiped, or discarded in favor of other genres. (Suat explains that there much better works in this genre; I submit that it’s no accident that I followed xxxHolic for as long as I have because I can get it for free at the public library.) And I confess that, after having my eyes assaulted by hundreds of hideous comics with absolutely zero literary or artistic merit, sometimes I find it aesthetically soothing to look at lovely art for art’s sake.
Matthias Wivel had several interesting comments discussing his lack of interest in manga. For example:
I wonder too about the blandness of most manga criticism, but my focus was clearly narrower: it basically concerned what I can’t help but see as an idealisation amongst certain critics of shojo and yaoi especially, simply because, it seems, they’re different from American comics.
Inspired by this enthusiasm, I’ve tried to read a bit of it, and definitely recognise the mastery of, say, Ai Yazawa, but at the same time it’s not only clearly targeted at a completely different audience than me to an extent where I can’t sustain even my intellectual enthusiasm for it, but it also only goes so far.
What I’ve read — and perhaps it’s not a sufficient amount — has been rather formulaic, even if driven by a different (and initially fresh-seeming) cultural coding than the one that makes a lot of American and European comics so instantly dull.
At the same time, like Suat, I find much more to think about, much greater emotional resonance when I read a comic by Dan Clowes or, say, Yoshiharu Tsuge. A comic not only more clearly directed to me, but one invested by much more careful attention to emotional reality.
This prompted a reply from Vom Marlowe:
“A comic not only more clearly directed to me, but one invested by much more careful attention to emotional reality.”
I think that says more about your perception of emotional reality than it does about the comics.
I hate to point out the elephant in the room, but you know, what a lot of this boils down to is that Matthias and Suat are arguing that girls comics aren’t getting criticized hard enough, that if they were held to the same standard as the lit comics, more critics would be saying the comics suck.
This is the same argument that is leveled against romance novels all the time. There’s a reason that almost all deep-level romance novel criticism takes place in female-dominated, frequently locked realms. That’s because if you do it in the “mainstream” the criticism tends to boil down to: Girl stuff (like, say, romance itself) is icky (or emotionally shallow). I hear that enough already, and I’m really not interested in hearing it again. If I thought romances were emotionally shallow, I wouldn’t be reading them. Arguing that they’re worth reading is EXHAUSTING.
I’ll just say that I actually read a LOT of good, thoughtful, fierce criticism of shojo, and most of it is in locked spaces where the boys aren’t allowed.
Pallas provided a really sharp assessment of the differences between Japanese and American comic art:
This is so subjective. Its kind of apples and oranges. Clamp’s art suits the stories they do- I think if they were assigned Captain America: the Return #1 to draw, it would be a disaster.
I think that many American comics tend to have more complex character designs and more complex backgrounds- certainly, the use of color alone adds a lot of complexity. I get the impression the ideal in American art is closer to realism than the ideal in a lot of manga.
I think there’s a number of shoujo with very muddled storytelling- some shoujo creators try to do action oriented material but fail at it, because the minimalism that can work for emotional storyline doesn’t necessarily work for an adventure. (Are Clamp fight scenes ever engaging? I remember absurd proportions in Tsubasa fight scenes ticked me off. Actually, I’ve barely read Sailor Moon, but I got the impression it would fall into the muddled fight scene category.)
I think that you can argue that American comics are far more “plot” oriented while manga is more “emotion” oriented.
Its interesting that I think Takahashi it at least somewhat impressed with the art in American comics:
Question: Do you read American comics?
Takahashi: There are a number of titles that I collect. One of them is, of course, Spider-Man.
Question: Using Spider-Man as a reference, what do you think are the differences between manga and American comics?
Takahashi: Hmmm… In a certain sense, the quality, the art of American comics is very high. I think the element of storytelling through images is strong with American comics. Japanese manga are really… manga can be created even without drawing any action into them. Even boring everyday things, such as portraying that it’s a really hot day or that something is really hungry- even just that is enough for manga. I guess it’s a difference of how people see the world, what people think makes a story. I believe that’s where the difference lies.
And Shaenon Garrity chimed in:
Argh…I have so many nerdy, nerdy thoughts on this subject. To me, American comics, even most “art” or “literary” comics, are very external and plot-oriented in their storytelling. This is even true of comics that go in for a lot of visual experimentation; Acme Novelty Library, for instance, never gets inside the characters’ heads in a visual/visceral way, and in fact all its brilliant formal tricks seem designed as distancing mechanisms, like the comic-book equivalent of a Stanley Kubrick film.
Which is a perfectly legitimate approach, of course, but one of the things that draws me to manga is that even the most formulaic genre work is so internal and character/emotion-oriented. By comparison, manga makes American comics look dry, disengaged, and emotionally stunted. I guess a lot of American comics readers see the emotional intensity of manga as silly or shallow or embarrassing, but my reaction is the opposite; to me, American comics are shallow and silly for shying away from any deep depiction of the characters’ internal lives.
Look at the Takahashi quote above: she comes from a comics tradition where a character being hot or hungry can be depicted in a visually rich, exciting way. To me, that’s interesting and worthwhile, and a “genre story” that successfully captures such moments is possibly more interesting than a “literary” work that stays safely confined to the cerebral level.
Elsewhere on the interwebs, David Welsh responded to the accusation that manga critics are too nice. And Bill Randall, in response to the same discussion, posted his decidedly not nice review of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s Good-Bye.
There’s lots more of interest in comments; among others, Melinda Beasi (whose own lengthy discussion of xxxholic on her own site is here) chimes in frequently. Thanks again to Kate Dacey and Adam Stephanides for their guest posts, as well as to all the commenters and readers. Again, if you missed it, you can read the entire roundtable here.
Update: Melinda Beasi provides some more thoughts on the roundtable and on manga reviewing.
Update 2: Coffee and Ink weighs in with a scathing assessment of the roundtable.