Black Butler (黒執事) is a shōnen, dark fantasy, historical manga series written and illustrated by Yana Toboso. It was originally published in 2006 and is an ongoing series with 27 currently released volumes. Square Enix (Japan) and Yen Press (North American) publish it.
Recently, I got the urge to watch the anime for Black Butler—I blame the Halloween vibes going on—and instead of picking up the anime again, I decided to turn to the original source material and see how it fares. I’ve only read the first volume, but my infatuation with Sebastian Michaelis has been re-ignited anew and it feels bloody fantastic.
Black Butler follows Ciel Phantomhive, who is a twelve or thirteen-year-old boy that is the head of an aristocratic, British family, the Phantomhive household, as well as the owner of the largest and most successful toy company in England. He resides with his butler, Sebastian Michaelis, and four loyal servants. Together with his household, he works for the Queen of England in solving crimes and maintaining order.
This is a difficult series to write a first impressions for, even though it’s my first time reading through the manga, because of how much I already love the characters, the setting, and the overall story of Black Butler. It was one of the first anime I had seen where I had fallen so brazenly in love with a fictional dude, not including Sephiroth. Sebastian is the epitome of a sexy-as-fuck badass. There is no denying that at all. Naturally, my adoration for the franchise probably prevents me from being super objective here. But you know what? That is okay. Sometimes it’s good to be unapologetically in love with something that makes you happy, as long as it doesn’t cause you harm. The only harm that Black Butler causes me is the agonising impatience for more anime adaptations. Nevertheless, I will try to express my thoughts in a way to help folks unfamiliar with the series.
The first volume is your basic introduction volume. You won’t get a lot of content in terms of the background of Sebastian and Ciel’s relationship, why Ciel has no family, what the hell Sebastian really is—things of the sort. Instead, you are acquainted with cast. We see how Sebastian helps Ciel start his day and the basic business practises that the Phantomhive house partakes in. We also meet Finny, Mey Lin, Baldo, and Tanaka-san in hilariously catastrophic situations. A very light dusting of Sebastian’s physical prowess is revealed, which (if you’ve never read or watched the series before) makes you really fucking curious as to what he is or how he does what he does.
There is a lot more humour in the first volume with the silly theatrics of the Phantomhive household than I expected there to be. Finny, Mey-Lin, and Baldo are walking balls of clumsy chaos that tend to destroy whatever they touch. It adds to the entertainment factor because we see how creatively Sebastian cleans up their messes. However, it also makes you wonder just what is so damn special about them that they haven’t gotten fired yet? If someone ruined my very important business dinner shindig thing, especially in similar ways that these three did, I’d probably fire the hell out of them.
There is a lot of subtlety in the volume as well, particularly where word play is concerned. This can be an issue with the translation at certain points as it’s a literal translation versus being a contextual translation. I cannot stress the importance of the two enough. There is a difference and when executed incorrectly, it can change the tone of whatever is being read. Luckily, it isn’t too terrible with Black Butler, and really only die-hard fans of the anime will recognise the discrepancies for the most part (or people who have read/are reading it in Japanese). Either way, this vagueness will add mystery and intrigue for some readers, while causing a drift and being off-putting for others. It depends on whether you want narratives to cut straight to the point and be more upfront, or if you find a spot of ambiguity to be pleasant and intellectual. I’m of the latter, so I appreciated it.
The artwork is lovely with fine details and cute character designs. There are chibi variations of the cast during comical scenes. It isn’t overdone and repulsive, which can be a problem for me in a lot of manga (usually shōjo). The chibi style is cute and adorable, but when used way too damn much, makes me eye-roll and uninterested. Only one dude seems to always be in chibi form in Black Butler and that is Tanaka-san. He’s a quiet guy who only shows up every once-in-a-while, so as a persona quirk it works well. During the action sequences the details can pile on, and maybe require some focusing to make out every single thing. However, it isn’t so disordered as to be decipherable. There is an organised nature to the presentation that is aesthetically charming. The best part of the illustrations are Sebastian, of course.
I swear, it is virtually impossible for him to look bad. Even in an ugly ass bonnet. He is so handsome, ugh, my poor little ovaries just can’t handle the ooey, gooey, deliciousness of this butler brute. When he gives that devilish smirk, it’s an instant-kill. I felt compelled to keep reading more often than not because I thoroughly enjoyed gawking at Sebastian for those two-hundred pages and didn’t want that to end.
Overall, I recommend you check out the manga if you like dark fantasy stories set in Victorian era with characters who seem to have much more depth to them than initially indicated. I also recommend it if you are a fan of irresistible bishies and good humour that’s occasionally a bit twisted. The first volume is as basic and average as you can get in terms of content and quality, but it holds potential to become significantly better as you read onwards.
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