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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Manga Review: Black Butler GN 1

Black Butler volume 1
Author: Yana Toboso
Yen Press
192 pages

When a terrible fire claims his parents, Ciel Phantomhive must step up as the head of his father's company and as Earl Phantomhive. It would be a lot for the young boy to handle were it not for his faithful butler, Sebastian. Ever at Ciel's side, it seems there's little Sebastian can't do, whether it's saving a dinner party gone awry or probing the dark secrets of London's underbelly. He's almost too good to be true . . . or at least, too good to be human . . .

Huge honking caveat: I love Black Butler with all of my heart and soul – and I love Sebastian and Ciel, the butler and his master, with the heat of a thousand suns. That said, I will try my damndest to provide a fair and critical review of Black Butler’s first volume, released in English by the always quality and timely Yen Press. As someone who has actually read ahead of this volume – enough to know that this series is not a pure comedy manga – I find this volume rather misleading for new and prospective fans. Despite some hints that Ciel and Sebastian’s relationship isn’t what it seems at first blush, this collection of chapters is a mix of madcap humor and action that makes it seems like said things are the primary focus of the story. Which they are not; this book doesn’t even give any inkling of a plot beyond “Sebastian does awesome things and Ciel is a frowny rich boy”.

Still, for an entire volume of “Sebastian does awesome things and Ciel is a frowny rich boy”, it is very entertaining. Sebastian proves time after time that he is truly one hell of a butler and wins in every scene he is in, whether he is showing his disheveled fellow help how to spruce up the mansion or teaching a mess of kidnappers not to mess with his master through the painful application of silverware to their bodies. He is not only a butler with the most precise skills but apparently the greatest fighter in both hand-to-hand combat and weaponry that has ever stepped upon England’s shores . . . so far. Still, watching him beat the crap out of some punks with relative ease and lots of class.

Of all the things this manga-ka does well, there is one thing that Yana Toboso does excellently – and that is her art. It becomes obvious that Toboso did some serious research on the attire and architecture and daily life of Victorian era England, although her Victorian England is populated by some more supernatural elements than ours. She also dedicates a lot of effort into the details in her character’s outfits; she clearly had a lot of fun dressing up Ciel in his various outfits (and remembering later chapters, the outfits get fancier and fancier and pinker). Plus: Sebastian, the butler who would make a small fortune was he to consider a modeling career – just saying! Let’s just say that for many people, they’ll be picking this book up based on the delicious cover alone.

So: is Kuroshitsuji/Black Butler’s premiere volume perfect? No, not really. The first half is all jokes and the second all action with some melodrama mixed in as well, and there’s no coherent plot flowing between these sections. But it’s great fun to read and does hint at the darker plots that lurk beneath its bright sunshine-and-mayhem surface, especially when it comes to the story of the Phantomhive family and how Ciel came to make his contract with his ‘butler’, Sebastian, in the first place. At reaching the end of the book, I imagine most readers will definitely want to return to Ciel’s company as soon as possible.