Yana Toboso’s ongoing manga Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji) debuted in 2006. Volume One collects the first four issues.
Gloomy twelve-year-old Ceil Phantomhive is an orphan and a tween. He is also a canny businessman: he has guided the family business, Funtom Company, towards domination of the game and candy industries.
Business success has not lifted his profound depression. He never smiles. Nonetheless his fiancée Elizabeth Midford (a fiancée at twelve?) and his servants adore him.
Most of Ceil’s servants (Bardroy the chef, May-Rin the maid, and Finnian the gardener) are well-meaning but easily befuddled nincompoops who don’t seem at all suited to their jobs. (How such a canny businessman could be so inept at hiring household staff is not explained.) The sole exception to the run of incompetence is the butler, Sebastian Michaelis, who never fails to rise to the occasion. As Sebastian often says “If I couldn’t do that much for my master then what kind of butler would I be, really.”
In addition to his duties as head of Funtom, Ceil is the Queen’s Watchdog, protecting England from the criminals who would prey on it. His success in this role has angered Italian mobster Azzurro Vanel, whose plans to flood England with drugs have been confounded by Ceil’s efforts. Determined to force information from Ceil, Vanel kidnaps him. When torture and threats fail to break the boy, the criminal orders his waiting men to kill Ceil’s servants. Carnage ensues! But the slain are not the servants, but the unfortunate mooks sent to dispatch them. Sebastian is a one-man killing machine, as the would be killers soon discover. In short order, Sebastian has sussed out where Ceil is being held, has fought his way past Vanel’s guards, and has confronted the mobster.
Sebastian suffers a minor set back when hidden guards manage to shoot him in the head. His splendid butler outfit is ruined; he seems to be dead. It is at this point that — surprise!— Sebastian is a demon. He can’t be killed by mundane means and he’s utterly at Ceil’s beck and call. This is shocking news for the criminals. They have little time left in which to be shocked.
The art in these early issues is pretty rough. Even distractingly bad. At times it’s hard to work out exactly what is supposed to be going on in each panel. I peeked at later issues; there, the art seems more polished.
The wacky hijinks of the servants (for example, the episode in which they spend hours trying to figure out if an ambiguously phrased order meant that they were to eat a cake or they were NOT to eat it) are probably funnier to other people than they were to me, lacking as I do much in the way of a sense of humour.
This manga is set in a version of Britain that is in no way inhibited by research or plausibility, The stereotypes — class-ridden society full of forelock-tugging servants, graced by hyper-competent butlers and a ruling queen — are there in an odd, distorted form that might seem reasonable to anyone who had seen Remains of the Day or Upstairs, Downstairs and knew nothing else about the UK. I suppose this is a richly deserved revenge for all those Western takes on Japan that were researched by reviewing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. Imagine a British Batman who was still just a kid and an Alfred as competent as Jeeves; then imagine Jeeves as a demon straight from hell. That’s the story.
This volume serves to establish the characters and setting and culminates in the big reveal (Sebastian is a demon). The story continues in many more volumes. I cannot imagine where it went from here. The current volume has given me no reasons to find out.
But … as we all know, sometimes the first episode, or the first season, are the weakest. If any of my readers have gone further in Black Butler, you tell me if it’s worth my time to slog on.