Shounen – Drama, historical, horror, mystery, supernatural
26 Volumes (ongoing) of 28 Volumes (ongoing)
Ciel may be young, but he’s already inherited the title of Earl Phantomhive and is running the family conglomerate. Fortunately, he has a capable butler to support him and help keep the household running smoothly. But Ciel’s family history and his connection with Sebastian may be more than just that of a talented noble and his even more talented butler…
While I do have a large manga collection, there are still many titles that slip through the cracks. Unless one day I win a mega lottery prize, I won’t be able to get every manga that has been published in English. Sad face.
At the time Black Butler started its English release, the economy was just plain awful, and Yen Press was pretty much the only major publishing charging over the $10-11 standard manga price. I had heard positive things about Black Butler, but it was already pretty long back then. At the time, it just wasn’t possible to invest in an expensive and long series.
Over the years, of course I’ve picked up bits and pieces about the story, but I also never paid much attention to it. I knew it would be hard to catch up with the manga so late in the game. Well, fortunately, that’s where my local library came to the rescue.
So, what do I think now, after finally reading Black Butler?
Yes, I am now the proud owner of the entire (to date) Black Butler series.
This is exactly the reason why Yen Press needs to do more omnibuses and box sets, and not necessarily wait until a series is complete. Provide a way for readers to catch up (or get within striking distance) of the newest volumes. Sales of the older single volumes will probably stagnate, but Kodansha Comics and Viz Media can both do it with several of their major titles, so why can’t Yen Press?
At first glance, Black Butler looks like nothing but bait: bait for the lonely female hearts crowd in the form of either a capable, slightly wild hot guy or an cute, tragic young boy, and bait for the boys’ love crowd. Most people would agree there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fanservice or shiptease, but some series can take it too far.
Black Butler is set in Great Britain during the Victorian period. Ciel is a young noble who has already inherited the title of Earl Phantomhive and also runs his family’s toy and confectionery business. The titular character is Sebastian, a butler seemingly devoted to and capable of doing anything for his young master. The manga quickly reveals the truth: Sebastian is a demon contracted to Ciel (and is awaiting a dark payment for his services), and Ciel’s true mission is to investigate the underworld and other odd dealings for Queen Victoria.
Black Butler has very distinct arcs. Like most mysteries, it goes from case by case with only small chapter breaks in between. These mysteries are not short, lasting several volumes each. It’s almost hard to believe the series was originally only scheduled for a single volume. But I guess it’s easy to attract a lot of attention when this
is one of the many mysteries Ciel and Sebastian have to unravel. As you might guess, death and blood is fairly common, but the series isn’t graphically violent. (Some sexual references are included as well, but they usually go over Ciel’s head.)
A lot of the enjoyment of the manga is trying to figure out if the cases are due to supernatural forces. Besides Sebastian, Ciel also meets some grim reapers, so readers are never quite sure if author Toboso is going to pull a Scooby-Doo-style reveal or not. As a mystery, it can be more enjoyable than series like Professor Layton which involves some convoluted, far-fetched schemes. But even when the truth is revealed, the cases aren’t wrapped up with a tidy bow. Some masterminds flee for another day, and other criminals force the main twosome to just sigh about how foolish humans can be.
Speaking of people, Black Butler features some real-life figures (most notably Her Majesty) despite being set in an alternate universe. For instance, RMS Campania was a real-life ship, but the ship arc in the manga is clearly inspired by that of the RMS Titanic. The series doesn’t run parallel to history like some other manga (Rurouni Kenshin, Kaze Hikaru). Some slight steampunk and futuristic elements are present, so expect a car phone and an idol group.
As in most mystery series, Black Butler features many characters. What may be surprising is how quite a few return later in the story. Of course, you’d expect Ciel’s servants or the men of Scotland Yard to make occasional appearances, but I wasn’t expecting to see the top students at a school Ciel infiltrated to show up again. The only issue is at the start of a case, as we are introduced to a whole bunch of people at once, and it may be difficult to determine who should be kept a close eye on versus who just plays a minor supporting role.
But despite princes from other lands and Chinese mafia bosses, this is very much Ciel and Sebastian’s story. No one else knows why Sebastian is so amazing (and Ciel’s duties are a secret as well), but the manga never reveals too much about their history at once. Rather than a puzzle, it’s more of a fuzzy picture coming into clear view. The servants, for example, include an overly strong gardener, an chef whose food is explosive, and a klutzy maid. It isn’t until later we learn why Ciel and Sebastian put up with a destructive staff when Sebastian is more than capable of doing their work himself (and he often has to anyway).
The interactions between the two leads are also a riot. Sebastian can carry out any order of Ciel’s and will always ensure his safety and comfort, but they have a hidden game of hostility beneath their master-and-servant contract.
And despite Sebastian’s long life, he still can be taken aback and even has something he adores. Ciel, meanwhile, is far more mature than other young men his age (even in an era where children were expected to grow up quickly), but he can’t fully seal up his emotions and perform his mission like an infallible robot.
Meanwhile, the art and the presentation is just amazing. The front covers feature a single character on the front cover. The back includes a relevant picture, and there is also a small design at the top that changes with each volume. It’s minor, but it shows how much detail goes into the series. Color inserts are included in each volume, first opening with a duotone illustration and then a full-color one.
For a series with “black” in the title, the visuals aren’t too dark and gloomy. In fact, for being her first long-running series, the art looks great in both the first and the latest. The layout is relatively smooth, if a bit text-heavy sometimes, but at least the backgrounds don’t interfere with the words. Gothic apparel plays a huge role as well the architecture and furnishings. I imagine some of the outfits are more of the exaggerated Goth-loli (or boy-loli) than typical Victorian fashion, but at least the seamstress is shown in the story to be pretty progressive to give an in-universe explanation. Toboso has also drawn boys’ love works, but it doesn’t to be as strong of an influence as some other BL –> shounen/shoujo artists, probably because of the large amount of blood and Ciel’s relatively young age. Toboso also includes some visual gags, most notably servant Tanaka often being shown in SD form. Much like Blue Exorcist, Toboso has quite a few assistants, and they all put together one great looking manga.
No honorifics are used. But being a historical piece, they aren’t usually abandoned completely, instead using English equivalents.
I was very impressed at the amount of notes included in each volume. Not just explaining some of the Japanese jokes that didn’t carry over but explaining a lot of the real-life historical figures, novels, food, and other aspects of Victorian culture. It really feels a lot of love and effort went into bringing over Black Butler. Some parts may be familiar to anybody with a basic knowledge of Western (English) history, but it’s still a nice refresher.
“Sebas-chan” is “Sebastian darling”, and other honorifics are replaced with English equivalents. Here is a more in-depth analysis of Sebastian’s catchphrase in the manga versus Funimation’s version in the anime.
Black Butler is a manga based around secrets, but it’s no secret the series is immensely popular. For good reason, as I learned for myself.
Yen Press also released Toboso’s Black Butler Artworks and the RustBlaster manga. Funimation licensed the anime, but the licenses for the first and second seasons are currently held by Aniplex of America.