Sebastian is the loyal butler at the Phantomhive residence. He serves the current master of the house, 12-year-old Earl Ciel Phantomhive. As is fitting for an earldom, there are multiple servants, but none are as devoted or as good at their job as Sebastian. But is the butler too good to be true, or just too good to be human?
In Yana Toboso’s manga, the traditional master/servant roles take on a creepy new meaning, leaving readers intrigued by the relationship between the calm butler and the powerful young earl. And it’s no doubt that they are the main focus of the story. The petulant young earl is obviously a damaged boy, but we don’t find out why here. Readers just learn the beginning of his life and see his dark, brooding personality. Sebastian, by contrast, is the quintessential British butler, perfection beyond belief. The other servants are all witless and inept, used purely for comic relief.
Toboso easily juggles comedy, action and mysticism with the merest hint of boys’ love. Indeed, with the first half of the book, the story seems like it is going to be simply humorous with a slight paranormal twist. In the second half, however, readers discover that the earl and the butler have a relationship that will prove to be eternal. Not much more than that is said, however, so readers will be eager for volume two to learn more. The setting is faux Victorian, where top hats, pocket watches and ball gowns exist alongside cars, cell phones and machine guns. This allows Toboso to draw frills, beautiful costumes and romantic locales without worrying about anachronism. The action scenes at the end of the book are easy to follow and dramatic and creepy at the same time.
To spice things up even further, Toboso makes both Ciel and Sebastian bishonen, or beautiful boys, of the type often found in boys’ love comics or girls’ romance manga. This element allows female readers to read into the relationship between master and servant, attracting those who might not otherwise pick up an action title such as this. But the effect is so subtle that it will not take away from readers who just want to read this for the humor and action.
Violence in the form of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, as well as the occasional pratfall, make this for older teens, and the mystical elements seem likely to grow darker over the life of the series. Though not much is said about who Sebastian really is, readers are given plenty of clues by the end, and they will want volume two to confirm their beliefs. Give Black Butler to fans of gothic tales like Vampire Knight by Matsuri Hino or Godchild by Kaori Yuki (both from Viz), and they will thank you.
Reviewed by Snow Wildsmith on October 18, 2011
Black Butler, Volume 1