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Clarence wakes up in a bloody bathtub, victim of his own depression. On the mirror is a cryptic message: "Find me". Discovering himself to be in the strange and twisted world of the afterlife, he must search for meaning in his death. Along the way, he encounters a host of bizarre and compelling characters, all of whom seem to be struggling in a similar way.
Of all the western manga tales we've read, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest as an offering which is not only visually outstanding, but is also thematically complex and altogether fascinating.
Reading The Clarence Principle is very much like watching a Tim Burton movie - it's grotesque, it's gothic, it's morbid, and yet it's gloriously inventive; a window to a peculiar new world which feels worth exploring. That's not to say that The Clarence Principle feels particularly derivative - in many ways the world created by Said and Chankhamma is deeper and more thought provoking than those presented in, say, The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The world of The Clarence Principle is as much a part of the plot as the leading characters - a place which is somewhere between hell and purgatory. It is this world that Clarence must explore in order to unlock the secrets behind the mysterious note left for him on his bathroom mirror; and the events surrounding his suicide.
After wandering from his bathroom, Clarence happens upon a multitude of characters who are making what they can of their strange existence in the afterlife. The man in the moon is one of the first characters he happens upon, and it's here that he finds a sense of purpose - to discover how the dead can die in order to relieve the moon man from his 236 years of suffering. Many of the characters Clarence meets have a sense of dark humour about them, from the argumentative judge in the lift to the tailor who seems to be much friendlier than he turns out to be. The juxtapositioning of this humour and joviality with the gloomy surroundings tinges everything with a disturbing edge and drags you that much deeper into Clarence's world.
Visually, the story is a breath of fresh air - borrowing much from the world of manga without feeling plagiaristic. The cute round eyed character designs are very Japanese, but Chankhamma has imbibed them with a new lease of life thanks to some stylistic touches around the eyes and ears. The supporting cast are as interesting in design as they are in character; particularly the man in the moon (who brings us right back to Burton's Jack Skellington) and the macabre tribe of clock worshippers who provide a grisly diversion early on in the story. It's this originality and detail in the character designs that makes Clarence such a fantastic read, and means that you'll want to dip back into it time and time again.
With elements of myth, fairy stories, dark humour and age old themes, this compelling and beautiful story is a must for fans of gothic fiction and western manga alike. Like all the best manga and anime, it tackles philosophical, moral and emotional themes, but ultimately leaves the final conclusion down to the individual reader. Deep, dark and striking, this standalone novel deserves huge success - and Said and Chankhamma are a duo to look out for in the future. More of their work can be found in the upcoming Best New Manga anthology from Mammoth.
(5 Stars) - Awarded 'Editors Choice' in July '07 issue -- NEO Magazine, July 21, 2007 - By Gemma CoxFrom Publishers Weekly:
Chankhamma's gorgeous manga-inspired art makes this book. She draws moody, evocative landscapes, densely twisting trees, ornate banisters and big-eyed characters all with the same skill and emotive touch. Unfortunately, Said's story isn't quite as original. The angsty tale takes place following the suicide of the main character, Clarence, who is searching for a kind of healing in death. An implicit romanticization of death and suicide is drawn out over an episodic narrative that relies much too heavily on atmosphere and offers little substance, as Clarence wanders an afterlife encountering various mysterious beings all on their own quests. While some gloom-loving readers may find comfort in the ruminations on emptiness, the self-conscious stylings are often flat and forced. An introduction by Hayden Scott-Baron does little to enhance understanding of the story. Wisely, however, the book concludes on a high note with a series of sketch studies. It's a pleasure to look into Chankhamma's lovely designs of scenes including the courtyard and the book tree and the Death flower shop. (May)
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