Comics/Graphic Novels

Reading My Bliss: How 20-Year-Old Manga Helps Get Me Through the Day

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S.W. Sondheimer

Staff Writer

When not prying Legos and gaming dice out of her feet, S.W. Sondheimer is a registered nurse at the Department of Therapeutic Misadventures, a herder of genetic descendants, cosplayer, and a fiction and (someday) comics writer. She is a Yinzer by way of New England and Oregon and lives in the glorious 'Burgh with her husband, 2 smaller people, 2 cats, a fish, and a snail. She occasionally tries to grow plants, drinks double-caffeine coffee, and has a habit of rooting for the underdog. It is possible she has a book/comic book problem but has no intention of doing anything about either. Twitter: @SWSondheimer

Somewhere, there is a shop that grants wishes. It will find you when you need it most and only then will you be able to enter. You will sit at a table and an assistant will serve you tea. The shopkeeper will ask you what it is you desire. If it is within their power to grant your wish, the shopkeeper will do so provided you are willing to pay the price. 

A couple months ago (or was it a thousand years? Hard to say. Is it the second of third Blurnsday of Gnudsgary?) my Twitter timeline blew up with excitement (a nice change after the trashfire the was 2020 and early 2021) over a teaser for an anime called Tokyo Babylon 2021. As someone who’s come to manga and anime a bit later in life for a variety of reasons, I’ve spent most of my time focused on newer books (listen, The Way of the House Husband is perfect and I will not hear a word spoken against Tetsu and my disaster muppet sons in Given are perfect. Except Akihiko who is getting slapped) because as a professional comics and manga loudmouth, that’s where the buzz is. It’s what the nice people, such as yourself, who visit Book Riot, want to hear about. And, as a relative newb I have stood on the precipice of the vast manga back catalog ocean and thought, “Sweet chubby baby Jesus, how do I even pick a place to start?”

I’m lucky, however, in that my introductory period has gifted me with not only some idea of the type of manga I enjoy (remember, like western comics, manga is a medium not a genre) but some very generous friends and colleagues who are willing to lend their time and knowledge to help me find those books in the stacks. And stacks. And more stacks of what’s out there. It was to one of them I turned to get the deets on that gorgeous but to-me-incomprehensible teaser. The first question she asked was, “You don’t know about CLAMP, do you?”

I did not. 

She put me in the trebuchet basket, aimed me, and launched. 

I landed smack in the middle of the aforementioned magical shop CLAMP built, and I live here now. 

For those of you who are where I was six weeks ago, CLAMP is an all-female mangaka group that started as a self-publishing circle back in the ’80s. The 11-member team moved into the traditionally published, serial manga market in 1989, and was most prolific from then through the early 2000s. CLAMP’s make-up has fluctuated over the last three decades, and at present only four members continue to work on occasional manga and anime projects together. The mangaka has written and illustrated many, many different kinds of books; the ones that have grabbed me hardest and absolutely, positively refused to let go (I’ve skipped writing nights and saved episodes of Heaven’s Official Blessing for days because I needed to see what happened next in whatever omnibus I was sucking down) are the supernatural/fantasy/horror books with their roots in mythology and folklore like xxxHolic (dig, if you will, the intro).

I started with xxxHolic because I am a sucker for stories that expand outward from a core of “mortal (or apparent mortal) makes deal with being not of this world.” It is inevitable in such tales that something goes awry, and that something is almost always interesting and unpredictable and chaotic. That xxxHolic contains characters with individual personalities and competing senses of humor and variable moods and the best of hearts only raises the stakes for the reader, because you care what happens to them in a way supernatural stories don’t always allow. So many paranormal tales are focused on mystery and the other (which permeate xxxHolic regardless) that writers and artists forget to ground them in places that allow readers to touch them, to feel them, to become a part of them. We’re kept at a distance, unable to forge a connection that allows us access to the characters. We may enjoy such stories but they don’t affect us. They don’t change us the way xxxHolic does. 

The next two epics I took on were Tokyo Babylon (the original iteration set in the early ’90s) and the first RG Veda omnibus (a reimagining of the Hindu epic The Rig Veda which is definitely not The Rig Veda. If you try to substitute this as a source on a paper, kids, your professor is going to notice). I have the first three X/1999 omnibuses, the first three Tsubasa omnibuses, and the rest of RG Veda waiting for me. The xxxHolic sequel series, xxxHolic Rei, is incoming (shush, there was a Black Friday bundle sale). 

As well as several weeks worth of reading, I very clearly have A Problem, A Problem that requires financial outlay at a time during which I’m watching my spending because I left my steady, dependable nursing job to try doing the writer thing full time. Thus my need (yes, need, don’t judge) for these books, and the impact their acquisition has on my bank account, has me reflecting on why exactly, these books by this group have become a priority to me at this particular time in my life.

It’s the chaos and the connection. 

The world is a mess. It’s been a mess. It’s always a mess. But here in the U.S., some of us lived under an illusion of civility for…let’s say the eight years between 2008 and 2016. That’s not to say we ever thought this was a perfect nation. We have eyes and ears. Well, most of us do. The illusion we were living under was that we had made progress and would continue to make it. Did the law apply equally to everyone? No, but it would someday. Was justice blind? Absolutely not, but she had one eye covered and we were getting there on that second one, just had to sew a patch onto the blindfold. Were immigrants welcomed? We needed to do better with that but provisions were being made for their children. Were women equal in the workplace and in society? Again, no but…any little girl can grow up to be president.

How’d that work out for us? 

We watched as it all came apart, and for four years we could do nothing. And then came a pandemic and we lost what we had left: our connections to one another. We fell into chaos and we stared into the void and the void started back. It is absolutely terrifying in there. 

In the CLAMP supernatural fantasies, chaos isn’t any less scary but at least when it reaches back, it has something to offer. And if you decide to accept, to take the leap, there is always, always someone waiting to make sure you come back. And if you don’t then damn it, they’re coming in after you.  

Where there is mythology there is chaos, but in mythology, chaos has a purpose. As Ashura’s birth brings death in RG Veda, as Sheishiro’s true nature brings pain in Tokyo Babylon, as Watanuki’s wish brings loneliness in xxxHolic, as each character is left uncertain and facing so much more than they even knew existed, there is also opportunity. There is the chance to learn and to grow into powers none of them knew existed, abilities they never could have dreamed of even in their magical worlds. Would they have traded what they were asked to pay for those powers if they’d had the choice? No. But there are things we can control and things we can’t and in the end, our lives and our legacies are the choices we make, the changes we make, the challenges we take on when we, and the world around us, are at our worst. 

It’s hard to be brave right now. Yes, the leadership change is here at last, but if last year has taught us anything it’s that there’s tons of work to be done. Yes, everyday that passes is a day closer to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but somehow thousands of doses were wasted and the former administration left no real distribution plan in place. How do we stay brave while we wait? How do we face the chaos?

Find your superpower. Read something. Write something. Bake something. Have fun in your fandom. Cosplay. Make memes. It doesn’t matter what you do. All that matters is that you do it. That you get up and tame the chaos like Yasha, like Subaru, like Watanuki.

It’s easy to hide. Connections made can become connections broken. Having people means the possibility of losing them. In each of the CLAMP books, loss of connection, loss of friends, loss of loved ones, loss of potential loved ones, loss of cherished memories, are prominent themes. It’s easier, in many ways, to be alone, because being alone eliminates not only the losses themselves but the fear of those losses, the anxiety that comes with caring about another living being. But you are as important as everyone else. Whether or not you care about other people, there are people who care about you. Let them. You are worthy of it, just like Yasha, just like Subaru, just like Watanuki. 

Find your comfort where you can. The what and where may surprise you, but if something jumps out, waves its arms, and screams, “I am your jam,” go with it as long as it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else and isn’t, you know, illegal. If someone had told me a year ago I’d be burying myself in 20-year-old manga to get through the day…well, okay, I probably would have believed them but I’m fully cognizant of the fact my brain is a very strange place (people, I smell colors). 

Bliss is rare these days. Enjoy it. And be excellent to each other.