One Hell Of A Butler: Should You Be Reading ‘Black Butler’?
When you look at the sheer range and number of original stories being told in comics form today, it’s hard to imagine a better time to be a comics reader. Online and in print, from all around the world, artists and writers are telling stories with their own voices and styles, and there’s so much to choose from that it’s sometimes difficult to know what to read next. With Should I Be Reading… ?, ComicsAlliance hopes to offer you a guide to some of the best original ongoing comics being published today.
If you ever go to an anime and manga convention, you might notice a lot of people in formalwear. Specifically, you might notice somebody dressed up in Victorian finery with an eyepatch and someone else in black tails, black hair and red eyes. No, you didn't accidentally wander into some sort of bizarre etiquette school. You're seeing people dressed as the main characters of Black Butler, one of the most popular shonen franchises of the 21st century. It's a mix between mystery, comedy, and even horror that has some disquieting undertones but is still captivating to read.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
In an alternate Victorian England --- that seems to have cell phones and modern flamethrowers --- the Funtom Corporation runs a vast toy and candy empire. Unbeknown to most, the company is headed by a 13-year old boy of noble stock, Ciel Phantomhive.
Always wearing a black eyepatch over his right eye, Ciel is an arrogant, haughty kid. However, he has a deep devotion to Queen and country. Actually, he serves as the infamous "Queen's Watchdog," seeking out threats to England both domestic and abroad on Her Majesty's orders. That might seem impossible for a kid, but Ciel has help on his side; specifically, his ever-present, eternally loyal butler Sebastian Michaelis.
A charismatic, proper butler, Sebastian could give Albert Pennyworth a run for his money. He seems to know how to do everything, from baking ridiculously large chocolate sculptures, to preparing afternoon tea at a moment's notice. It's a good thing he can do all that, because no one else at Phantomhive Manor is of any help. Between farsighted, klutzy maid Mey-Rin, bumbling gardener Finney, incompetent chef Baldroy and goofy steward Tanaka, Sebastian basically has to do everything himself.
But Sebastian and Ciel have a dark secret. Sebastian is an immortal demon who appeared to Ciel after the brutal murder of his parents and made a contract that he would serve, protect and help Ciel exact revenge on his parents' killers. In return, Ciel offered his eternal soul up for Sebastian to devour. It's with that hanging over its head that Black Butler becomes a sprawling, well-made, intriguing manga.
WHO'S IT BY?
Known as Kuroshitsuji in Japan, Black Butler is written and drawn by Yana Toboso. After completing the six-part vampire manga Rust Blaster in 2006, Toboso began publishing Black Butler in Square Enix's Monthly GFantasy magazine, which has also run series like Pandora Hearts and Saiyuki.
The series has been a phenomenal success, spawning several anime series, stage musicals, and a live-action feature film. Black Butler has been published since 2010 in North America by Yen Press.
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL?
Like its fiercely beloved anime adaptation --- and other series of its kind, like Case Closed --- what makes Black Butler irresistible is its deft combination of mystery, action, comedy and horror. The series alternates between wacky stories of domestic hijinks and more serious outings, such as an early arc where Sebastian, Ciel and other characters investigate the Jack the Ripper murders.
Adding to that is Toboso's meticulous attention to detail and setting. Despite fudging on historical accuracy at points, for the most part, Black Butler looks like a Victorian period piece. And an ornate one at that. Toboso and his assistants really sell the detail, allowing the pulpy story to fit right in alongside classic penny dreadfuls and gaslight mysteries.
I should point out that there's a not so subtle undercurrent of yaoi (homosexuality) between Sebastian and Ciel that a ton of fans have picked up on (seriously, don't Google Image Search this series with Safe Search off). Normally, that sort of thing is well and fine, but for frig's sake people, one of these characters is an actual child. Don't ship that biz.
WHO SHOULD READ IT?
Mystery fans. Fans of Victoriana. Anybody who liked the Tim Burton Sweeney Todd. Fans of Case Closed, Earl Cain, and Emily the Strange.
WHERE CAN I BUY IT?
Black Butler is available in print from a variety of retailers and your local library. It's also available digitally on Comixology, Kindle and other platforms.