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Black Butler, vols. 1-8 (Yana Toboso)

Twelve-year-old Ciel Phantomhive is an orphan and a victim of a horrific past, but he is also a special agent of Queen Victoria, a head of industry (toys and sweets), and master of a palatial estate near London. Keeping house for the young master are a set of curiously and comically inept servants - Finnian the air-headed gardener, Mey-Rin the horrifically klutzy housemaid, Bardroy the lethally bad wise-ass cook, and Tanaka the (mostly) inert steward - plus Sebastian Michaelis, the super-efficient and multi-talented butler.

The charming yet steely Sebastian is, in fact, a demon from Hell. Literally.

This beautifully drawn series careens vertiginously from horror-tragedy to broad comedy. Ciel investigates Jack the Ripper, is befriended by a feckless South Asian princeling who gets the household involved in a very serious curry-cooking battle, and most recently delves into a strange circus that may be playing a role in the matter of some missing children. Flashbacks reveal the nature of Ciel's relationship with Sebastian, why Ciel has that eyepatch, and what happened to the rest of the Phantomhive family. And Queen Victoria is not the only 19th century celebrity to make an appearance.

 

Black Butler, vols. 1-8 (review)

To quote TVTropes, "Mix and stir Hellsing and Count Cain with Loveless, at least toward the beginning. No, seriously." The gorgeous illustrations always have a kinky air about them, a number of characters are motivated by various sorts of barely-bridled lust, and mangaka Toboso loves to cross-dress Ciel. Although the series runs in a shounen magazine, the slyly elegant sexuality running throughout is just one reason that this is not a series for kids of Ciel's age (Yen Press rates it as "Older Teen").

The series features yet another take on shinigami, who in this case are spiritual bureaucrats/investigators who have to collect and account for the souls of the recently departed. BB shinigami are always turned out in natty Victorian dress suits (black, except in the case of the flamboyant Grell), wear glasses, and are equipped with "death scythes" that can be just about anything in the outdoor tools department: a long-reach tree-pruning saw, a lawn mower, and a chain saw have all made appearances.

I have just finished Volume 8, which wraps up the Noah's Ark Circus arc. Frankly, I had to close the book for a moment and just breathe at one point. It wasn't so much the death and destruction. Although there was plenty of that, it was certainly no worse than scenes in many of the seinen series I've been following. It was more the emotional cruelty of the various situations: for the child performers of the circus who paid the ultimate price for their master's deeds (and some of whom learned, just before they died, what he had actually been doing) and for Ciel, who was in reality their executioner (although his servants did the killing) and who is prevented from performing the one act of mercy that he hoped would expiate some of his guilt.

Ciel and Sebastian remind me of what sanada told me at one point about Samurai Deeper Kyo: "In most series, these would be the villains." I certainly plan to keep reading Black Butler, but I'm a little disturbed by the type of enthusiasm I'm seeing from some of the fans. There are some very dark, deep currents running under the beautiful artwork and slapstick humor.

 

This entry is also posted at Dreamwidth. Comment at either location, as you prefer.

Comments

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
lawless523
Jan. 29th, 2012 03:16 am (UTC)
I certainly plan to keep reading Black Butler, but I'm a little disturbed by the type of enthusiasm I'm seeing from some of the fans.

That's part of the reason why I haven't picked this series up. I wound up bailing out of Godchild (the successor to Count Cain) because it was too unremittingly dark. I didn't get past the first volume of Pet Shop of Horrors because every story ended unhappily. Given that, I think this one would be too dark for me as well.
chomiji
Jan. 30th, 2012 03:12 am (UTC)

Actually, as PSOH progresses, some of the stories start to break out of the "sour Aesop" mode. Rather like Yuuko in xxxHolic, Count D gives people what they deserve. I'm not sure why the mangaka chose to lead with a series of grim ones, but there are some rather sweet stories later.

I'm curious about where this one is going to take its concept. The last issue in the volume seems to be all light and fluffy filler.

lawless523
Jan. 30th, 2012 01:53 pm (UTC)
I've heard that about PSOH, but there are other manga out there I'd like to read more of that I've liked from the beginning.
chomiji
Jan. 31st, 2012 12:50 pm (UTC)

Well, I didn't know whether you knew that. Not to worry - I have no intention of trying to badger you into reading PSOH.

lawless523
Jan. 31st, 2012 01:00 pm (UTC)
No, I know -- I didn't mean to imply that. There's someone else on my f-list who writes PSOH fanfiction on occasion and she told me. But first impressions are hard to shake and the sadness and sometimes vicious tone of the first volume would color my view of later ones and of Count D.
7veilsphaedra
Jan. 29th, 2012 03:30 am (UTC)
I dropped it after the second volume because the creepiness was going over the top. I got the impression that the mangaka was enjoying the sadism just a bit too much.
chomiji
Jan. 30th, 2012 03:14 am (UTC)

Toboso does seem to be a bit of a sicky as far as that goes. Actually, the circus arc was masterful in what it accomplished - it just wasn't very pleasant. I'm wondering where the story will go next.

sanada
Jan. 29th, 2012 03:52 am (UTC)
Hmm, there are some things about Black Butler that I really like - fantastic art, memorable characters, moral ambiguity, decently written dialogue, an author who actually did the research instead of just cashing in on the current popularity of Victoriana in Japan - but the fans are such an obnoxious and frankly creepy bunch that it's really dampened my appreciation of the series. There's a bitter fan war over whether Grell identifies as male or female, despite the troubling implications of both. There's an unfortunate fandom tendency towards fetishizing rape and bashing female characters, both of which I blame more on the (frankly terrible) anime than on the manga.

Ciel and Sebastian have a very interesting dynamic, though, and Ciel is the sort of antihero (antivillain?) I want to see more of.
lady_ganesh
Jan. 29th, 2012 07:57 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I have one friend who really enjoys the series and another who writes it and basically my only interactions with fandom are things they read/rec. Which, as I have no real craving to read the fic, makes it much easier for me to enjoy the series.

Also, I really enjoy Grell, which makes me stay very far away from the main discussions in fandom.
chomiji
Jan. 31st, 2012 12:54 pm (UTC)

I love Grell a lot. (Which is kind of odd because she is a homicidal maniac ... .) I don't think I've ever come across any meta discussion, and anyway, I'd rather have it with people I know and trust.

I tried glancing over some of the fic recently, and it's almost all Sebastian/Ciel porn. Which, given that the series raises all sorts of issues, seems an awful waste.

chomiji
Jan. 30th, 2012 03:18 am (UTC)

I have a feeling that a lot of the fans are anime fans. They did have a rather gorgeous huge group cosplay at Katsucon two years ago.

The costume and food research seems very good - technology research, not so much, maybe?

I like Grell very much, and I'm willing to just have her as Grell - no need to worry too much about which sex exactly. But than, Akari remains one of my favorites from SDK.

Glances at the fanfic topics revealed what I was afraid of - shota and bondage and dubcon oh my.

helliongoddess
Jan. 29th, 2012 04:06 am (UTC)
I can take a fair amount of dark, as long as it is leavened with a little humor, or at least romance or something, to balance it out and keep it from feeling relentlessly grim. Trinity Blood is a good example of one I consider pretty dark, but well worthwhile nonetheless, and as you know I am a big fan of Samurai Deeper Kyo. I don't think any mangaka melds the dark and tragic with humor nearly as well as Minekura Kazuya, though.

I think I tried reading a few chapters of BB on one of the online manga sites, and for whatever reason, it failed to reel me in. I haven't tried watching the anime - sometimes watching a few episodes of a series will spike my interest enough to go ahead and pursue the manga - it was like that with Yami no Matsui. I may try that with BB, and see how it hits me.
chomiji
Jan. 31st, 2012 12:58 pm (UTC)

I guess I ought to have an SDK discussion here sometime - or try to have one, anyway. I never talked through the end of the series with anyone. I had actually read it a couple of years ago, through sanada's scanlations, but it's different when you have the volumes in hand.

No worries about BB. It's an odd series: it's not involving me emotionally enough to feel any stories coming out, but it's so stylish in its visuals and inventive in the plot that I want to see what happens next.

badtzphoto
Jan. 30th, 2012 06:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reviewing this series. I've been curious about it.
chomiji
Jan. 31st, 2012 01:02 pm (UTC)

The art is very stylish, and the plot is interesting. But it's got some unpleasant scenes ... .

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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