BLACK BUTLER (Kuroshitsuji), by Yana Toboso. First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2010.
Ciel Phantomhive is a 12 year old orphan, an earl, and the head of a toy and confectionary company. He's also a member of a secret organization that protects jolly old England from foreign criminals in the name of Queen and country. He is not alone, though - he is aided by his butler, Sebastian Michaelis. Most of the time, Sebastian is simply trying to wrangle the comically incompetent servants of the Phantomhive home, but when aiding his master he is a fighter of incomparable speed and strength. How is that possible? Well, as Sebastian would put it himself, he is simply one hell of a butler.
Black Butler is one tonally mixed-up sort of manga. It doesn't know whether it wants to be a wacky version of Upstairs/Downstairs or a supernaturally tinged shonen-style drama. Now some manga can make this sort of duality work for them, but here it mixes as well as oil and water.
I admit that I kind of liked the darker, more dramatic parts of the story, if simply because I wanted to know more about Ciel and Sebastian. Why is Ciel an orphan? How did such a young boy get wrapped up in secret societies and international affairs? Just how did Sebastian end up in Ciel's service? All we get are tantalizing hints at answers for these and similar questions. What I didn't want was more of the lame comedy with the rest of the Phantomhive servants. There are four of them: Finnigan, the overly excitable gardener; Mey-Rin, the clumsy bespectacled housemaid; Baldroy, the fire-happy chef; and Tanaka, the silent steward who is often found doing silly things in the background. They're all too broad and annoying to be of interest, and all of the time spent on them verges on painful. The same goes for Ciel's fiancée Elizabeth, who is obsessed with all things cute, pink, and frilly.
At least Ciel and Sebastian are tolerable. Ciel struggles between his duties as an agent and as a Phantomhive and being a mildly sulky preteen. Sebastian, on the other hand, is nothing but smooth and cool at all times, with a solution and genteel phrase for every situation. Honestly, their relationship is so interesting that it honestly doesn't need the moments of fujoshi bait that Tobono throws in to keep the fangirls' interest. What, you thought there was a plot-related reason that Sebastian has to waltz with Ciel? Anyway, Black Butler is at its best when it's focused on its greatest strength - its two leads. Now if only they would create a plot and supporting cast that could stand equally with them.
The character designs are clearly geared towards the shoujo crowd. It's not the sort of style where everyone looks 13 and their eyes are threatening to eat their face - here, the kids look like kids, the adults look like adults, and everyone is distinct looking. Still, all the young men have a case of bishies, and Sebastian's artfully tousled hair, cryptic smile, and dark, elegant uniform ensure from the first panel that this is a character destined for a million pervy pictures on DeviantArt, with or without Ciel.
Now, in a historical setting like this it's crucial to get the details right. Things like costume and backgrounds are important towards selling the time and place to the reader, and if something anachronistic slips through, the illusion is broken. Black Butler succeeds pretty well on this front until the end, when we see both Ye Olde Cellulare Phone and facial piercings on an Italian thug. These are such glaring, obvious mistakes, and it's clear that even before the first volume's end Toboso couldn't be bothered to think about it. The backgrounds are nicely drawn when present, as they tend to share half their time with a lot of screen tone and effects. The panels and pages aren't terribly remarkable, save for the fact that Sebastian gets more of the larger, showier panels. Black Butler's art is overally quite confident and polished. While it get some of the details shockingly wrong, the art suits the story well and sometimes verges on attractive.
There are a couple of color pages in the front, and in the back there are some omakes about the creation of the manga (surprise surprise, Toboso got overwhelmed with research materials) and translation notes.
This series is published by Yen Press. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 16 volumes available. 15 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.
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