Black Butler 9

August 13, 2012

Yana Toboso – Yen Press – 2012 – 14+ volumes

I was really looking forward to the new story arc, mostly because the last one absolutely blew me away. I was very surprised when the story format took a turn from the action of the last few volumes to an intimate mystery setting, where the Phantomhive mansion is sealed and a murder suspect is among those attending a soiree thrown by the young Earl. And it’s still good! The volume ended with one of the absolute worst cliffhangers imaginable, so I’m glad 10 is out already.

As a necessary act of good faith to the crown after his last disastrous mission (where Ciel wound up roasting children alive), Earl Phantomhive is asked to host a party in honor of a German businessman that the English government wishes to impress. There are a handful of people still around at the party’s end, including Arthur Conan Doyle, when the mood turns sour and the guests retire for the night. But! Then! The most disagreeable guest is murdered! And the only one without an alibi is the young Earl! Paranoia! Chaos! A storm prevents anybody from entering or leaving the mansion, and as the volume continues, the bodies keep piling up.

Honestly, there aren’t too many supernatural shenanigans at work here. This is basically a straight-up mystery, in the tradition of… well, you know. Having Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the people in the mansion is an interesting touch, although at this point he’s more of an outsider, a blue collar perspective among the other high society guests.

As a straight-up mystery, it’s still really great. I love this kind of thing, and I can appreciate the break from the weird stuff that was afoot last time, as much as I would love to know more about it. I can’t really go into much more detail than that, unfortunately, because the reason I liked this storyline so much was at the end of the volume, and it would be absolutely criminal to spoil the surprise. Rest assured, it’s an awesome one, and I almost wish I fell for such things still. Even if I know it’s not true, I still badly need to know how things go down from there, though.

Black Butler 8

February 5, 2012

Yana Toboso – Yen Press – 2012 – 13+ volumes

As if to prove my complete dismissal of the staff at the Phantomhive manor was unjustified, Black Butler suddenly makes all those characters useful as well as bad ass. I was wrong, terribly unfunny staff of the Phantomhive manor. I was wrong.

And that was only the first chapter! Various members of the circus show up to wreak havoc at the mansion, and are… dismissed by the staff. I can’t tell you how much I loved this entire chapter. Not only was I reeling from the complete reversal on these characters, it was also an excellent action scene, with every manner of fighting you could want. There’s even a garrotte at one point.

And while all this is going on, Sebastian and Ciel are simply sneering at Joker, completely confident, when Joker tells them their home is being invaded. I’m not sure how this could have been any better.

Things get quite serious over at the mansion where Ciel and Sebastian are confronting Baron Kelvin, his mad doctor, and Joker. Joker asks what he could have possibly done, since Baron Kelvin made the circus staff do his bidding in exchange for his monetary support of their handicapped brothers and sisters still in an orphanage. Ciel states he did what he had to, and Ciel was simply stronger and was taking all that away from him. It was interesting, and surprisingly straightforward and bracing, logic. Later, Ciel has an uncharacteristic moment where he loses his composure, and the matter at the mansion is resolved, rather messily, in a matter of moments. It really is that simple in this series.

There’s lots of other interesting story after that, too. We get a closer look at what it is that the grim reapers actually do, courtesy of Joker. We find out just how cruel Baron Kelvin really was to the performers in the circus. And there’s even a cute little one-shot at the end of the book that serves as a nice non-sequitor and a wind-down to all the action in the past couple volumes.

After this last storyline, I am a raving fan of this series. It’s just the right mix of mystery, evil, black humor, and faustian bargain begging to go bad to keep my interest. It’s well-written, it dwells on some truly cruel topics, and all the period details keep the story rooted quite firmly in the Victorian era, and are much appreciated. There’s honestly not very much I would change about Black Butler at this point. I love it almost unconditionally.

Black Butler 7

December 27, 2011

Yana Toboso – Yen Press – 2011 – 13+ volumes

I can’t believe I haven’t talked about this one yet! I like this series more and more with every volume I read, despite the terrible first impression I had. This storyline is the best yet, though. This volume leaves off on a terrible cliffhanger after a lot of exposition, and it really, really left me wanting volume eight.

This is the continuation of the story that began last time, where Ciel is investigating some kidnappings in relation to a traveling circus and has joined, along with Sebastian, in order to determine whether or not the performers are abducting children. Ciel and Sebastian start the volume by snooping in order to determine who the patron for the circus is. An old illness of Ciel’s, along with shinigami interference, means the investigation at the circus doesn’t go extraordinarily well, but they get enough information to leave and track down the culprit.

The culprit is a magnificent villain. Absolutely, repulsively evil, but he doesn’t seem to understand that he’s doing wrong. His flashback is almost hard to read, because… well, his motivation is that he wants to be one of the “beautiful” people that is “accepted” by society. Ciel’s father and relatives are at the beginning of all this, and what happened to Ciel is actually what this is all leading up to. More of Ciel’s past trauma is explained, and Ciel has to come face-to-face with a situation that literally killed him last time.

The villain uses leverages of debt and guilt to get the circus staff to do the terrible things he bids them, rather than blackmail or force. They do terrible things because they love him for rescuing them, and want him to help other orphans like themselves. The villain also seems to think that Ciel, because his family is involved in the underworld, will appreciate the awful things he is doing to the children, and even the ceremony that left Ciel with Sebastian. He’s a really bizarre kind of oblivious, and more than a little sad, which is saying something considering the fact that he’s a child murderer.

Yana Toboso talks a bit in the back about how long it took her to develop his character and get him just right. The time was well spent, and his evil makes for a wonderful story. She was upset, however, that most of the feedback was about the page or two that had Ciel’s father and uncle on them. He is an excellent bad guy, so that’s a real shame.

I was happy with the villain, the unusually dark tone of the story (the light tone of the circus gets dark really quick after they trace things back to the nobility), the flashback for Ciel, and all the extra insight this volume offered for Ciel and Sebastian. Plus, it ends with an awful cliffhanger that leaves the safety of Ciel’s mansion in question. What’s not to like? I’m completely sold on this series now.

Black Butler 6

July 9, 2011

Yana Toboso – Yen Press – 2011 – 11+ volumes

As I said, I think I didn’t appreciate volume 5 as much as I should have because I read this one first. This one has Ciel and Sebastian investigating children disappearing in the wake of a traveling circus, akin to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. To make the most of the investigation, Ciel and Sebastian go undercover as members of the circus. This had the fact that it was a story with just Ciel and Sebastian going for it, as well as the circus theme. I love stories about circuses.

The investigation is surprisingly fruitless for quite some time. Sebastian has no trouble being admitted as a circus performer, given the number of “talents” he has, and he also aids Ciel’s acceptance as well. But Ciel isn’t very good at circus performance, and he has a hard time adapting to the rough lifestyle. This is interesting to see, given how self-possessed he normally is, and it is also interesting to see Sebastian giving him a hard time about it.

And, while we have been let in on some facts of Ciel’s life and how he came to possess a demon butler, there are still some things that are left… a little mysterious. One of the circus performers stumbles onto one of these things. Odds are this isn’t going to be explained by the end of this particular story, but it’s interesting to see all the same.

Or maybe it has been explained, and I just forgot. I’m not good with details sometimes, although for series I like, they tend to stick around a little longer.

As a bonus, we get to see the manager Grim Reaper again. His presence isn’t adequately explained, and he has a way of speaking that leaves a lot of red tape laying around (something that I love, it matches his personality perfectly), but with him here, I’m sure the ending to this story will be spectacular.

The sense of humor that this series insists on fits a little better with the circus themes, too. The performers are varied, and I love the various jokes and happy-go-lucky natures that are wandering around. Normally I hate it when this series throws gags around its murder investigations, but it fits well in with this story. Hopefully that’s a sign that it will be slightly more tasteful in the future.

But yes, this volume is good stuff. I was won over after the second or third volume, but there are always a few things about the stories I don’t like. This volume does away with almost all of them, and does wonders with Ciel and Sebastian as characters. I’m dying to read more, and it’s going to be quite a long wait for volume 7.

This was a review copy provided by Yen Press.

Black Butler 5

July 6, 2011

Yana Toboso – Yen Press – 2011 – 10+ volumes

I have grown slowly addicted to this series since the rough start in volume one, but I wasn’t a big fan of the “curry battle” story that started last volume. The characters were a little too silly, and the comedy elements of this series are definitely not my favorite thing. Plus, the premise, how Sebastian desperately needs to make good curry, was also too light for my taste, where Sebastian’s skills are traditionally used to solve murders, rather than find missing persons indirectly by shaming them in a cooking battle.

On the other hand, seeing Sebastian work so hard at something he knows nothing about is wonderful. Soma’s zaniness is dialed down quite a bit in this volume, and Soma helps Sebastian on the hopeless task of beating Agni in a straight-up battle of curry mastery to gain a royal warrant. Sebastian knows nothing about curry, but of course he needs to come up with a way to beat someone with the “hands of God,” a master at the task.

You know, maybe what bothers me is that this is straying into Yakitate Japan territory, but is doing so with a sinister demon instead of a cheerful kid, and isn’t as funny.

Anyway. It’s still pretty great. Sebastian is obviously not used to failure, so he uses his special speed and knowledge-gathering capabilities to make Soma eat bowl after bowl of curry to perfect his seasonings, the body, et cetera. Seeing him pretend to be humble as he dishes up serving after serving of curry, mastering one thing right after the other without really getting the hang of what makes it good, was fantastic. As was Ciel’s smug comments on the sidelines, hoping to see Sebastian fail at something.

While most of the humor falls flat, everything about Sebastian is executed perfectly. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, but he’s just a little too perfect without being smug, completely humble while doing extraordinary things, and really knows how to quell disaster handily. I’m not sure how he does it. It is funny, but it’s also more than a little unsettling, and I think that’s what pushes it over the edge for me.

Sadly, there really isn’t a whole lot of Ciel in this volume, and it’s the Sebastian/Ciel interactions, Ciel’s bitterness paired with Sebastian’s bizarrely evil caregiving, that really make this series enjoyable for me. This volume was pretty good, but not quite as good as the stories before it.

Thankfully, I read volume six before this one (I lost my copy of this one and didn’t realize it until I had read six), so I know that Ciel and Sebastian both come back with a vengeance in the guise of circus performers next volume. Maybe that was part of why I didn’t enjoy this one as much, too. The circus story is really fantastic, much better than the curry story.

Black Butler 4

March 6, 2011

Yana Toboso – Yen Press – 2011 – 10+ volumes

I’m still rather torn on this series. I love Ciel and Sebastian. They’re both pretty great, and Ciel gets to shine in all his gloomy glory in this volume. A cheery Indian prince comes and irritates him for the better part of the volume, and when things go wrong for the prince, Sebastian gets to rub his face in it, then Ciel tells him that giving up will never get you anywhere in life. Then we get to see most of how it was that Sebastian and Ciel met. Both of them are perfect bearers of bad news, and this volume only cemented that role for both of them. They were the perfect opposites of the cheery prince and his “butler,” a man with powers that rivaled Sebastian’s.

I also liked the mystery. Someone is hanging British Indian returnees upside-down as a kind of prank, and Ciel has to find out why. He winds up tangling with Prince Soma, who insists on “helping” Ciel, sure that the culprit of the pranks is the same man who kidnapped a beloved servant of his. The unwinds and more or less concludes by the end of the volume, and we have most of our answers. It’s not straightforward at all, and the showdown for next volume is so unusual that I was laughing at how straight-faced everyone was taking the news.

But this joke was one of the unintended ones, I think. Well, it was certainly intentional, but it wasn’t set up like a joke. Many, many other jokes make an appearance, though. I hate this series’ sense of humor, and it tries very hard to be funny. The jokes fall flat, since they are mostly gags and are completely out of place in such a dark series. The back-and-forth between Ciel and Sebastian is fairly light and enjoyable, and I love how the gloomy Earl Phantomhive reacts to most of the other characters. But the other characters in this volume, especially Prince Soma, just aren’t funny. Prince Soma spends the better part of an entire chapter simply annoying Ciel, and it’s just… too much. The Phantomhive staff are still hanging around, though. Prince Soma’s butler, Agni, gets the most interesting scene I’ve seen the three staff members in so far, where Agni brings out the most useful qualities in them all, but otherwise… they’re simply there to make silly jokes that are too tired to be funny.

I like this series a lot. I really do. I want to see how the bizarre finale to this prank situation will play out next volume. But reading it is just… so annoying. At least the staff members have fallen further and further into the background. That gives me hope that the sense of humor may be downplayed later. But Prince Soma does not.

Black Butler 3

November 6, 2010

Yana Toboso – Yen Press – 2010 – 9+ volumes

I’ve had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about this series since the first volume. I love the art, I love the Victorian setting, and I love demons. I am not fond of its love for dumb gags, and I hate the other three servants, who serve no purpose aside from serving up predictable, un-funny jokes. They’re almost completely gone at this point, though they make a brief re-appearance in the last chapter of this volume, when Ciel’s stickler aunt comes to visit and of course those three make a mess of everything Sebastian’s done to meet her approval. Otherwise, that chapter was a nice, lighthearted break from the darker story this time around. I got a kick out of Ciel’s aunt, and luckily his fiancee kept her mouth shut for the most part (she was annoying when she was introduced, too). I loved the contest between the two of them, and I loved the dynamic between the aunt, Sebastian, and Ciel. She was great. She can come back to visit anytime she likes.

The story was a continuation of the Jack the Ripper story from last time, but this time we see all the emotional fallout. Saying too much about this will spoil it, but I would have been upset had there not been generous flashbacks that delved into Ciel’s family history and an awesome fight between Sebastian and a Grim Reaper, followed up by an even better Grim Reaper that steps in at the very end. He was the perfectly cool, level-headed executive type that let his disdain for Sebastian be known without actually changing his facial expression or saying more than about a sentence. The kind of stuck-up snob that this kind of series would have a lot of fun with. Plus, he caught a chainsaw between his index and middle finger from behind his back. AWESOME.

Oh man, I could not deal with the overwrought emotional garbage here, though. Ciel couldn’t shoot the killer, the killer couldn’t shoot Ciel, some lengthy reaffirmations between Ciel and Sebastian, and later, Sebastian calling Ciel out on the emotional garbage, which turns into even more emotional garbage. The action, the setting, and the premise are the best things about this series. Plus, Ciel and Sebastian are great characters with a great dynamic. I understand the dynamic between them, so there’s no need to go over and over the master/servant relationship if nothing new is going to be revealed. I love their personalities, but I did not love all the baggage that came out around Ciel this volume. To be fair, it wasn’t even Ciel’s garbage, and he didn’t even get really angsty about it, but it was still about him, and it didn’t really add anything interesting to his personality, nor any insight into how he became who he is. Bah.

Wow. I actually meant to compliment this volume for being better than the other two I read, but I don’t know how it turned into a complain-fest. I did think this was better for the action, and also because we get to see more of Ciel and Sebastian’s personalities, plus three more genuinely interesting and quirky characters (really, two, since we met the first grim reaper last volume). Again, there’s a lot of great stuff here, and it seems like the stuff I don’t like is falling away little by little with each volume. The annoying servants are almost gone, and to be fair, I didn’t hate all the talking this volume like I hated them. I’m well and truly interested now, and at this rate, even if it doesn’t get any better, I could see it holding my interest for at least two or three more volumes.