Although Yana Toboso doesn't strive for realism -- far from it actually -- her portrait of a 19th century British butler and his young charge is energetic and intriguing.
Black Butler is almost a fun house mirror image of Kaori Yuki's gothic, melodramatic Godchild. Toboso plays with the Victorian age much more freely than Yuki (although no one is ever going to accuse Yuki of "realism" either), but with a much lighter hand. The "butler" in question is the ever unflappable Sebastian, who is perfectionism incarnate and runs young Ciel Phantomhive's household with an iron hand. Ciel is a very wealthy, precocious child and we're lead to believe that at only 12 years of age he handily heads the Phantomhive family business and fortune. Three other servants round out the cast, but they basically exist as comic relief and to "ooooh" and "aaaaaaah" over Sebastian's ability to pull social occasions from the jaws of disaster (often because of their screws up, demanding guests, or a cranky Ciel).
The first chapters set up a series of impossible tasks with Sebastian filling the role of cook, butler, gardener, dance instructor, social instructor, father confessor and generally proving that he's much more than "the help." He's basically a Master of the Universe, skillfully manipulating all variables to a suitable resolution. Amusingly, his talents are practically super-human and Toboso drops a number of hints that neither Ciel and Sebastian are exactly what they appear to be. At times, Sebastian's pleasant demeanor can suddenly darken as a malevolent glint enters his eye, which is when the title's gothic premise starts to bloom. Sebastian is the kind of versatile fellow that can save Ciel's butt not only from losing face at a dinner party but from a threatening kidnapper or two as well.
The first volume of the series builds a highly unconventional relationship between a 12 year old who is the head of a vast industrial empire and a butler with other-worldly abilities. On first appearance the two have an almost teacher / student relationship, with Sebastian acting out the role of officious taskmaster and Ciel as the rebellious pupil. In reality, their bond is revealed to be even more antagonistic in nature and it becomes clear that the two are connected beyond their traditional class-based roles. The art nicely accommodates the back and forth between the upstairs / downstairs comedy of manners and the gothic underpinnings of Sebastian's origin. While sometimes silly, the story offers enough depth to Sebastian and Ciel's strange dynamic to keep me wondering which one is truly the master here and which the servant. I look forward to seeing their struggle for dominance continue in the next volume and finding more about how this strange arrangement came to be.
Review copy provided by Yen Press.