Anime Reporter serves up our take on Black Butler manga volumes 1-5 (Chapters 1-23). Set in Victorian England (give or take several technological advancements), the series focuses on the illustrious Phantomhive family, fine purveyors of toys and games.
The Phantomhive family really consists of Ciel, the thirteen year old heir to the Phantomhive estate, guided and protected by his faithful servants. One servant in particular, Sebastian, is the butler alluded to by the title and has many dark secrets well beyond the Phantomhive family’s. Ciel’s life occasionally comes under threat by people seeking his fortune or revenge for the dark deeds of his family and Sebastian is prepared to step in and dispatch of foes with utmost ferocity.
Despite his terribly dignified appearance, Sebastian is a demon, sworn to protect and serve the young master until such a time as his parents’ deaths can be avenged. In addition to overcoming and, if necessary (or allowed), killing enemies with great efficiency, Sebastian also insists on keeping the Phantomhive home running smoothly, despite the incompetence of the other servants. The first volume of the series sets up Ciel’s and Sebastian’s relationship smoothly and in an entertaining manner while establishing a tone of humour, intrigue, violence and a lot of supernatural scariness to follow.
As a young gentleman, Ciel must navigate the social circles without arousing suspicion and always strives to keep his family’s name intact. Luckily, the demonic-domestic servant is more than capable of doing anything and everything that his young master wishes. There is an almost affectionate bond of trust between the two, until the very moment when they remind you that Sebastian has every intention of claiming Ciel’s soul the second his work is done. Not too shabby for a lifetime of domestic servitude. Truly, Sebastian is the star of this show, providing the supernatural elements that give the manga its flavour as well being the most interesting character to watch.
The second volume sees our young master upholding one of the more covert duties of his noble family, hunting down Jack the Ripper on behalf of the crown. With prostitutes being murdered left right and centre, Ciel has only until the end of the social season to find out who is behind the ghastly crimes. This story arc lends itself to a clever twist on macabre history and continues into Volume 3. As you might expect from the series’ premise, things soon manage to take an even darker turn and even Sebastian’s abilities are pushed to new extremes.
Volumes four and five deal with some unrest surrounding Englishmen returned from India. Some dastardly culprit has been assaulting these men and the Phantomhives are called upon once more to get to the bottom of it all. Throw a clueless Indian prince and his oddly familiar faithful servant into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. That would have been funnier if I’d mentioned that a large part of the storyline has to do with cooking curry… In any case, this story arc continues the detective theme from the previous arc, but offers a lighter tone with more opportunities for humour. Ciel’s personality reveals itself to be increasingly cold and hard, outdone only by Sebastian’s serial killer smile.
The series offers a great blend of genres, offering very light, humourous tones which don’t dilute the tension of its more otherworldly elements. Each story arc is light, enjoyable reading, but it manages to keep the suggestion of much darker, twisted things to come. Black Butler takes quite a bit of pride in conveying itself as distinctly British in setting, but also manages to sprinkle in hints and elements of other countries and cultures beyond the British Isles.
Black Butler Volumes 1-5 and quite a few more are currently available from Yen Press. For more information, check out the Yen Press website and Twitter feed. Come back and join us next week when we’ll be taking a look at another fine batch of Black Butler shenanigans.
81% – “Exemplary” – Black Butler volumes 1-5 set the series off to a superb start, setting up the blended tones and dark characters for what will surely prove to be a great tale. Humour and gothic elements mix in beautifully without stepping on each others’ toes and the overall effect is pretty damned intriguing. Give this one a shot if you haven’t already.