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Friday, October 20, 2017

Selah's Manga Mania Reviews: Black Butler by Yana Toboso

April 8, 2014
Book 1 of 41 in Black Butler (Issues) (41 Book Series)
192 pages
Publisher: Yen Press World
Just a stone's throw from London lies the manor house of the illustrious Phantomhive earldom and its master, one Ciel Phantomhive. Earl Phantomhive is a giant in the world of commerce, Queen Victoria's faithful servant...and a slip of a twelve-year-old boy. Fortunately, his loyal butler, Sebastian, is ever at his side, ready to carry out the young master's wishes. And whether Sebastian is called to save a dinner party gone awry or probe the dark secrets of London's underbelly, there apparently is nothing Sebastian cannot do. In fact, one might even say Sebastian is too good to be true...or at least, too good to be human...

Since it’s October, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at manga series with a horror bent this month. Some of the more interesting takes on horror staples I’ve seen have been in manga, and it’s really interesting to see what different creators do with what they’re given, and how tropes differ and are the same in eastern and western cultures. This week we’ll be looking at the ongoing series Black Butler.

Set in Victorian England, Black Butler follows the adventures of Earl Ciel Phantomhive, a young boy who is not only the head of an impressive business empire but also known in certain circles as the Queen’s Guard Dog, who solves crimes that take place in the criminal underworld. What makes things particularly interesting is that Ciel’s butler is not only very attentive, but also very good at his good…supernaturally good. You see, Ciel’s family was murdered and his house destroyed before the series starts, and his butler Sebastian is actually a demon who is working with Sebastian to bring down those who attempted to destroy Ciel’s family…in exchange for Ciel’s soul.

There’s so much going on in this thing, I’m going to try to break it down:

The good: The plot is really interesting for a long form series. It’s not quite episodic, but there are mini arcs within the larger problem. Also important to note – when a longer series like this hinges on a particular issue (what’s going to happen when the demonic contract comes due), it’s a pretty good bet to say that we won’t actually see that play out until the last volume, or at least the last few. So instead of reading with the intent of focusing on that one plot device, kick back and enjoy it for the horror tropes…because oh mah gawd, the horror tropes are awesome.

What’s intriguing is visually this looks somewhat like a shojo 
series, and you get a lot of the smiliar tropes (Ciel’s cutesy, loving fiancé, the huge amount of decadent visual imagery, the slender, beautiful antagonists of varying types), but it’s very much rooted in plot and the macabre. There are severely uncomfortable plot elements – what Sebastian also rescues Ciel from is being abused and enslaved by a Satanic cult of aristocrats. It’s not specifically stated what kind of abuse he undergoes, but there are flashbacks to being strapped to an alter and there are some asides by former cult members that are particularly uncomfortable if you think about it for more than three seconds.
This series also rocks at revealing the unexpected – incompetent servants become amazing at other things, the adorbable fiancé turns out to have one of the best character twists on the loli type that I’ve read in a long time, and the creepy undertaker takes on a whole new level of creepy at a certain point, and there are lots of interconnections that will rock your socks. It’s also really, really good at giving new twists on old tropes. There’s a really interesting take on creepy circuses, there’s zombies on an ocean liner, an unnerving look at secret societies in a boys’ school, and a truly unique look at witchcraft and werewolves in a haunted forest mixed with pre-WWI-ish technology. The creator makes huge use of the time period (Queen Victoria shows up for some amusing and unnerving asides), and the horror and action interludes are just drawn so well. The gore isn’t too disgusting but achieves maximum effect for a teen series. The characters are also pretty good for this kind of series – Sebastian can be extremely uncomfortable knowing what he is, but you can’t deny the odd friendship that he and Ciel have, for better or worse. Ciel can be arrogant and manipulative, but also incredibly vulnerable. Everyone has some sort of high point to their character and their own intrigues, so it is interesting to watch everything unfold.

The bad: However, you have to stick with it because the pacing is so freaking slow at times. I’ve stayed with it mainly because the pros are so good and original, but there are times when I really wish things would get to the point and get a move on. A lot of episodic manga has interludes, so I’m used to that, but sometimes it seems that getting to the actual plot elements are a windy road that isn’t necessary. It’s strange, because as much as it plays on tension and cliffhangers and kind of seems to push forward momentum and urgency (especially in locked room mystery sequence), it really does feel like it drags between action sequences. The places each volume leaves you off at also can be weird – in some volumes one plot arc ends and other picks up mid-volume but can’t really develop much because of the volume size (yes, I know these are released as single chapters monthly in Japan. Let me tell you how horrible I am at reading single chapter anything because of my impatience). 
Some of the humor is also hit or miss with me (this could just be a me thing because I’m old), but where I can enjoy or at least acknowledge ‘okay, yeah, I get why this is here’ in other series, it doesn’t seem to meld as well in this one for me. The balance seems off. And the problem with this is that I could see readers not giving it the chance before it gets really good. I hated the servants from the get go and felt there existence made no sense with how amazing Sebastian is at everything, until a certain reveal..but it takes like seven or eight volumes to get there. Same with the fiancé. I could see tossing it aside as a typical Victorian era horror series and missing all the really interesting stuff and great action sequences.

I’m also really not a fan of the reaper characters (save for one that I think makes for an interesting plot twist). While an interesting concept in their own right, I don’t know that you need them to legitimize that this is a paranormal series – Sebastian on his own does that. Especially with how most of the mysteries are also routed in a combination of paranormal and real world methods, it just seems to add more noise to the mix. It also contributes to the kind of slightly missed humor beats for me, as well, and tends to just be so over the top that it takes me out of actual story arc. I get why they’re there and all of that, but I can’t say that I don’t page faster whenever they show up.

Ick factors: This is a definite horror series, so if seeing bloodshed and gore illustrated on the page aren’t your thing, you may want to give a pass. Also keep in mind that Ciel is thirteen and is, more or less, treated as an adult because of his station, so he’s thrust into some uncomfortable situations at times. If depictions of the occult aren’t your thing, probably also not for you simply because of how much the series hinges on those references. That being said, I personally don’t think it’s horrifically jarring or any worse than stuff on tv. Definitely lighter than a lot of horror movies. If in doubt, do what I do and see if the library has it, then try the first three or four volumes to get a feel.

Manga or Anime: To be honest, I usually get manga over the anime, but in reading the synopsis and talking to people who have seen it, it looks like the anime changes a lot of the things I like about the series. If you just want a streamlined version or want to see how it hits you, go anime, but if you’re willing to stick with it or read it a couple volumes at a time whenever you’re feeling like it, I’d stay with the manga.

Disclaimer: I’ve also only read this series up to vol 23, because that’s what I’ve been able to get so far. Whenever I can keep going on it, I’ll probably give an updated review.

3.5 Sheep

About Selah Janel:
Selah Janel is a writer who is trying to start doing that again instead of reading manga all the time.


  1. I can't help but smile, for some odd reason, at the cover. :-)
    sherry @ fundinmental

    1. The art is a lot of fun! And Sebastian is an interesting character - fairly serious, but devious and somewhat tongue in cheek in his dangerous behavior. It's a good series if you can stick with it!

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