The Earl Ciel Phantomhive is only 12 years old, yet he runs one of the most powerful toy companies in Great Britain! He also has a strange penchant for some rather sinister extramural activities that have an appalling habit of threatening life and limb --- both his and others' --- on a semiregular basis. Good thing he has the loyal Sebastian by his side, a "black butler" possessed of an unholy professionalism and a positively demonic charm. How, precisely, did the Earl acquire the employ of one such as he? Perhaps 'tis better for all concerned not to know….
Volume three brings the mystery of "Jack the Ripper," begun in the previous installment of Black Butler, to its inevitable climax. In the best tradition of mystery fiction, the culprit has in fact been introduced earlier in the story; the supernatural twist and showdown between Sebastian and a Grim Reaper is just an added bonus for action aficionados. The final chapter takes a ride (literally!) on the lighter side as Ciel indulges in a bit of game hunting on horseback. And the concluding panels introduce a handsome pair of bishounen boasting Arabian Nights flair, bound to play key roles in future installments.
In fact, it would be safe to conclude that Black Butler's bishounen --- pretty boys for those not versed in that particular otaku dialect of Japanese --- are the series' main appeal. And it's a strong appeal indeed; the series has appeared on bestseller lists on both sides of the Pacific. However, this is not a manga that succeeds on eye candy alone, for Toboso brings plenty more to each page. Chief among its other pleasures are a Gothic, ominous atmosphere in the vein of Kaori Yuki and CLAMP, and a complicated relationship between Sebastian and Ciel that matures over time like the finest of blood red wines.
The fantastic, fetishized spectacle of Japanese culture is often referred to as Orientalism in the West; it is therefore appropriate to coin the term "Occidentalism" to describe that particular genre of Japanese popular fiction, including manga, which provide similar fantastic visions of Western cultures for domestic consumption. Occidentalism has a noble tradition in shoujo manga, dating back to Moto Hagio's Poe no Ichizoku (Poe Clan). Although Black Butler is not a shoujo title per se, Toboso is a woman who knows how to deliver work with crossover appeal and international reach. Apparently Gothic horror with Victorian flair knows no borders.
Yet even killer style cannot indefinitely redeem a series if it is all style and no substance. Fortunately, Black Butler has enough substance --- particularly in the realm of character development --- to sustain reader interest over multiple volumes. The Earl has made an unholy bargain with the devil who now serves him, and while that devil has also become the perfect "black butler" at Ciel's behest, the reader is always left asking the obvious question: When will this predator finally see fit to pounce? As long as that question is left unresolved, fans will keep coming back for more. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Casey Brienza on October 18, 2011
Black Butler, Volume 3