Review: Black Butler, vol. 1

BLACKBUTLER_1-199x300Black Butler, vol. 1
By Yana Toboso
Rated OT, Older Teen
Yen Press, $10.99

Black Butler is set in Victorian, or maybe Edwardian, England, but anyone who is looking for a male version of Emma will be sorely disappointed. This is really an action story, and by the second half of the book—when the car chases begin and the characters all whip out their cell phones—all pretense of period elegance is gone.

The problem is that there is no action in the first half of the book. It’s all about Sebastian, the perfect butler, pleasing his 12-year-old boss, Ciel Phantomhive, with his superhuman butlering skills. This is made difficult by the fact that the rest of the household staff is bumbling idiots, a setup that the creator is desperately trying to play for laughs. It doesn’t work; the staff are too exaggerated and shrieky, and the pratfalls quickly become monotonous.

Ciel is apparently the last remaining member of the Phantomhive toymaking dynasty. He lives alone, except for his household staff, in his enormous, luxuriously appointed mansion, and he alternates between whining and lounging around looking bored. He’s your basic affectless manga guy, and he is the least interesting character in the first half of the book. You would think a toymaker would have some interesting toys scattered around the place, but all Ciel has is a generic boxed board game that serves as a plot device but has no entertainment value of its own. Instead, the focus is on the household staff, with the butler obsessing about the garden and the food and everyone else getting in the way.

The first half of the book should be setting up the story and providing some context. Who is Ciel? Why does he wear an eyepatch? What happened to his parents? Is there something sinister about his family’s toymaking business? Has something terrible happened to the rest of his family? These are things the reader wants to know, but we get no answers, just more poorly drawn teacups and mutterings about poached salmon. Then his childish girlfriend shows up and dresses everyone in frills and bows, throwing tantrums to get her way. Halfway through volume 1, there has been zero plot exposition, but the annoying side details have reached critical overload.

And then, a few pages into chapter 3, after another slapstick scene in which the household staff spazzes out about mice, the whole story starts to change. Suddenly Ciel is playing pool with adults and practicing a little extortion as well, in exchange for getting rid of … someone. Everyone speaks in metaphors, so it’s hard to say who. Then there’s more business with pastries and dropping the china before the book takes a final lunge in the opposite direction: Ciel is kidnapped and beaten, and Italian mafia guys threaten to kill his household staff because apparently Ciel has stolen some drugs from them. Then there’s a lot of yelling and speedlines and eventually Sebastian shows up and kicks everyone’s ass with some slick moves, including a cool Wolverine thing with the cutlery (which, sadly, shows the sort of potential this book would have if the author had tried a little harder). But wait! There’s a Sinister Secret! Ciel and Sebastian have a special bond, and Sebastian is no mere mortal butler, which of course comes as no surprise—it’s the sort of thing you expect to happen in this sort of book, even if the creator has neglected to foreshadow it at all. The end of the book is only marginally more coherent than the beginning, but at least the characters seem to have some motivation and the story is morphing into an action/revenge kind of a thing.

Black Butler has the makings of a great story, but it’s never really realized. The toys, for instance, could have been exploited for atmosphere, and toys are much more sinister than pastries and tea sets. The first two chapters are just floating out there with no context; if Toboso had used them to fill in some of the backstory, they would have been a lot more compelling. As it is, the Victorian schtick has an off-the shelf feel to it, and the whole Upstairs, Downstairs thing is so poorly executed that it detracts from the main story.

The book’s one redeeming feature—and it gives me hope for volume 2—is the way Sebastian totally kicks ass in the last chapter. Toboso’s artistic weakness—his figures are too thin and insubstantial—becomes a strength when Sebastian starts swinging from the ceiling and delivering kicks to the face. There is a nice, dynamic feel to those last pages that is totally missing from the beginning.

Dedicated shonen fans who like slapstick and prefer ass-kicking to narrative will probably enjoy this first volume more than I did, but I’m willing to stick with the series to see if it gets better in the long run.

End note: I read Lianne Sentar’s review of the anime, and if you don’t mind spoilers, you should check it out, if only for her excellent descriptions of what went wrong. Like this:

Unfortunately, most of the comedic potential is wasted on a bevy of side characters who couldn’t be less funny if they were gassing kittens, and the homoeroticism between Sebastian and his pre-pubescent charge is definitely more disturbing than amusing.

Yup. But here’s the thing: Lianne likes the story, and she explains that the anime gets better as you go along. Hopefully the same will be true of the manga.

(This review is based on a review copy supplied by the publisher.)

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Comments

  1. I loved the anime, but I actually thought it got worse as it went on….. I still thoroughly enjoyed it, but once the anime steps away from the manga, it creates this really ridiculous plot line (with a psychotic angel and a demon dog) that gets totally out of hand by the end of the show. That’s the only thing that kept it from being a really stellar show, I think. But it doesn’t keep me from wanting it licensed so I can buy it myself.
    My review of the manga will go up tomorrow, and I rather enjoyed it…. It’s selling amazingly well, so I’m hoping someone will notice and grab the anime.
    As for the manga…it gets better. I really think that for a first volume, it’s pretty weak; but I hope that doesn’t turn people away.

  2. I knew if it was you it would be a non fan girl review. I read past that much and its still poor in pacing or giving any info on the story to the readers. Many have said that the circus arch is better but come on, if I dont like the main characters (and majority of the side characters) that much I dont want to read a story where they get so much ‘screen time’.

  3. > Dedicated shonen fans who like slapstick and prefer ass-kicking to narrative will probably enjoy this first volume more than I did,

    Oh, woops. You totally missed the audience there.

    Black Butler was never for shounen fans. And it’s not meant to be read as a narrative at all.

    Black Butler’s audience is women, adult, who like demon butlers, shota and pretty clothing on pretty boys. You know, like those women who obsess over $500 jointed dolls and their clothes?

    Think of it as a carefully crafted series of off-the-shelf pieces strung together with some unsubtle comedic characters designed not to be funny, but to allow Sebastian to suddenly show his unnatural abilities.

    This series is not haphazard at all – it’s simply not something we see here very often in the US, even in manga. It’s a careful construct of building blocks to sell to an audience of adult women who like shounen and shounen-like stories for the BL (often shota) that they can read into it – like all those women who wrote Yu Yu Hakusho and Prince of Tennis fanfic back in the day. This audience has a lot of buying power, but no name. Don’t be fooled, Black Butler is not an action, and not a romance – it is entirely designed for this audience, and it knows exactly what they like. Shota BL with pretty Victorian clothes and brooding. QED.

    Cheers,

    Erica

  4. @laurie

    I’m no fangirl, but I was expecting to like this series. I like the Superbutler concept, I just didn’t think it was well executed. As for saying what the story was about, it’s so episodic and disorganized that it’s not easily summarized, and I didn’t want to give away the big reveal to those who haven’t read it yet.

    @Erica

    Really? Eewww.

    And, OK, the clothes are pretty, but the rest of the period atmosphere was a total fail. The creator got details wrong (Royal Doulton is a china maker, not a type of tea) and the art wasn’t very good—there was one panel where the teacup and saucer seemed to be in different planes. It’s almost Cubist. There’s lots of surface detail but no form underneath…

    Oh, never mind. Obviously I’m trying to impose logic on something that is not logical. But given that people were dancing in the streets (well, the internet streets) when this was announced, I guess your point is well taken.

  5. @Kris

    I thought that the manga-ka had finally hit his stride by the end of the book, so I’m definitely going to give the second volume a try.

    And since it made the NY Times best-seller list, it must be hitting someone’s resonant frequency.

  6. I don’t recall the first volume that well, but I find myself surprised that so few of the critics are seeing what the fans of this see. Of course, we do love what’s on the surface: the pretty characters and setting and clothes and comedy and simmering sexuality. (It’s not really meant to be a period piece, btw. It’s a fantasy setting, Victorian trappings with some modern tech, a bit like steampunk.)

    But more than this we love the psychological story. There’s a lot in Ciel that we identify with, sadly, and a lot in Sebastian that we recognize from the kinds of fantasies that victims have. I discuss the manga frequently with a friend who was abused as a child, and she notes how accurately the mangaka depicts the aftermath of abuse, and we’ve discussed how Sebastian is the personification of the price that’s paid by such victims when their swallowed by what happens. This in an allegory of sorts, the mangaka putting pain on the page in these forms.

    So that’s why I was happy to see it licensed. I enjoy the surface trappings. But when you sit down to actually think about Ciel and Sebastian and what they mean to each other, and in light of each other, it’s a story with a lot to say about psychological trauma. The mangaka understands victims. This is a series I’ll read many times.

  7. I guess I’m part of the “ewww” you referred to above. ;-) I LOVED Black Butler, thought it was funny and yes, I love yaoi. It’s not a yaoi title but I knew it was meant for me and ‘my kind’. The ‘homoeroticism’ as mentioned above only gets worse… or better depending on which side of the boys’ love fence you’re on. :-)

    ~Jennifer LeBlanc

  8. Good review. This volume has a real love it or hate it following that I think you actually address very poignantly on its lack of initial cohesion. To be fair though, the first couple chapters were almost certainly meant as one-offs before the story was picked up as a series, so I can accept a change in direction.

    On what fans of the series enjoy, I have to echo Erika and say it basically amounts to fujoshi moe and along the lines of that fine tradition, some assembly may be required.

  9. @Kate

    That’s interesting. I didn’t see it at all, but I can see how it would show up in the later volumes, now that the relationship between Ciel and Sebastian has been established.

    @The Yaoi Review

    Just to be clear, I have no problem with homoeroticism or yaoi. It’s the shota part that raises my eyebrow.

    @Jade

    I can certainly see the first two chapter being one-offs. It’s almost like they are part of a different series.

  10. From what I understand, the second half of the anime is pretty much entirely original, and that’s the part of the anime I found the most interesting, gutsy, and subtle (although it isn’t without its flaws). Most of the stuff in the anime that’s especially terrible and not at all funny is pulled straight from the manga, so I admit I’ve kinda been dreading the release of the manga. What I’ve read of it is so terrible I can barely get through it, even though I want to know the completion of the manga plot points the anime left unanswered in favor of exploring new ground.

    Did you know they’re making a second season of the anime? With a new kid and a new butler? Seriously. I’m pretty sure the anime staff has their own idea of what to do with Black Butler, and from what I’ve seen so far, they’re doing a better job with the idea than the original mangaka. (And no, I don’t think this is the first time this has happened…I still think the manga for Fruits Basket, Natsume’s Book of Friends, and Loveless all have anime adaptations where an anime staff actually IMPROVED the ideas they were working with.)

  11. P.S.–Good review, Brigid. But I always love your reviews.

  12. Thanks, Lianne! The feeling is mutual!

  13. I think I totally missed out on the homoeroticism when reading this.

  14. Caimekaze says:

    Just thought I should mention, Yana Toboso is a girl.

    That being said, the beginning of the manga is quite shaky. It begins to develop (and becomes far, far darker) as the series progresses. As does the art.

    It’s almost a shame, really; the first volume can really put people off, while the later ones are really quite good.

  15. I knew the Black Butler from an anime magazine. . . firstly,I thought “crazy”
    but, i bought those comics. . . and, i just realized that i had liked it already. . . ^^ sugoi wa, Yana-san
    I give you my best appreciation. . . because the only manga that entertained me so much in my boredom was only Black Butler. . . ^^ but, i quiet confused when i saw the ending of Black butler in serial version. . but i keep my eyes on Sebastian and Ciel. . . sorry if my english bad. . . I’m just a little girl. . .

  16. To be honest it starts of very slowly. When I started reading it I almost dropped it but it really takes off during the Circus arc. Currently, it’s one of my favorites. Ciel has a brilliant mind and the psychological aspect of the show is truly fascinating. To be honest, the homoeroticism is worse in the anime than in the manga. I usually don’t notice it most of the time except someone points it out in the manga but it is glaringly obvious in the anime and I can be pretty oblivious.
    I would advice skimming through the first arcs to get an understanding of the characters and the story so far then read from the Circus arc. Also, right now you can see the amount of effort the mangaka is putting into her work. Everything even the situation and characters she borrows from history are more historically correct. The servants get cooler but Lizzie is still annoying.


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