In 16th-century Germany, a dark legend appeared about a man named Faust. In the story, Faust is a brilliant doctor, but he had grown bored with his knowledge and dissatisfied with his life. He decides that he will summon the Devil, and what appears is Satan's representative Mephistopheles. In return for unlimited knowledge, magic, and earthly pleasures, Faust surrenders his soul. He uses his new powers and Mephistopheles in various ways, and in many versions of the story, he seduces a beautiful innocent and destroys her. He has left morality behind in hellfire. He is irrevocably and eternally damned.
Black Butler isn't Faust, but it enters the long literary tradition of trading one soul to the devil for supernatural abilities. The story opens with Ceil Phantomhive, the child heir to a noble family. He has a household of stupid servants who can't do anything right, an air-headed fiance, and his butler, Sebastian. Sebastian does everything right. When he's not a martial arts expert, he polishes silver till it puts the crown jewels to shame, and that's while he's making a gourmet meal that's drawn in such excruciating detail that saliva gathers in my mouth. As the English translation says, he's “one Hell of a butler." At a snap of his master's fingers, Sebastian takes out criminals and goons, business rivals, and dangerous supernatural visitors. We learn that Ceil has traded his soul for Sebastian, who will consume it after all the family's rights have been wronged and Ceil's revenge is complete.
The London of Black Butler is a dark even when dawn breaks. This London isn't the world of Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, or even Jack the Ripper. This London is a city in a picture book that wound up on the steps of a Harajuku boutique. Servants and nobility's costumes are drawn in minute, sometimes ridiculous detail that would only be allowed at an anime convention or Akihabara, not actually in Victorian England. It's sometimes striking, sometimes goofy, full of frills, bows, and waves of fabric.
In my opinion, Yana Toboso is the best shojo artist in popular manga today. She easily navigates her action sequences, which are fluid and surprising. Unlike many shojo-esque titles, she doesn't indulge in large panels of characters' eyes, instead choosing to keep her story moving briskly. Black Butler is Toboso's debut of sorts, and her artistic finesse is impressive for a first series.
Despite being published in Monthly GFantasy, a shonen magazine, Black Butler has the most fabulous identity crisis ever. On one page there's a spread of Sebastian undressing the camera with his eyes. The next will have all the maids hanging out in various stages of undress. Boys' magazine? Girls' magazine? Who knows? Who cares? It adds to the humor. And if anything stops Black Butler from tumbling into the territory of mediocre manga, it is two things.
First, it is the humor. The comic identifies as a black comedy, and much of the humor is at someone's expense, sometimes their death. If it weren't for Sebastian cracking the one-liner, the bumbling of inept servants, or the random Indian prince popping up, Black Butler would be too dark to read.
The second thing that propels Black Butler is the subtext. Black Butler is special because it plays off of a greater tradition. One reader might not know Faust's story. But there are enough creeping fairy tales and legends that tell us giving our soul away never comes to any good, no matter how many laughs we have along the way. The most popular character in the series is Sebastian. Toboso isn't the first author to create the enjoyable devil -- Paradise Lost's most powerful moments come when you realize you have been thoroughly seduced and have forsaken goodness for... whatever it is the devil offers. The great Faustian and demonic stories that we hold to have one thing in common besides demons -- the feeling of impending doom.
Black Butler's success as a series depends solely on its ending. With a deft twist or a painful collision of our expectations, Toboso can use the subtext, the impending doom, to make something magnificent. Even though we root for Sebastian against the earthly and supernatural enemies, a shadow hangs over each victory, each moment of tension between the devil and his young master. Will Sebastian win in the end? Is Ceil going to burn in the same Hell as Faust and others before him? We'll have to wait and see. No pressure, right?
Black Butler has been incredibly popular in Japan. It has sharp, stylish artwork. It has hot characters, good food, supernatural villains, and wit. It's topped best-selling charts in Japan, and it's topping the New York Times best seller charts in the U.S. It's worth a read.
It's not like you'll have to trade your soul to get your hands on it either.
Volume 8 out of 10 will be released in January 2012. For more information, go to the official website.