Friday, December 28, 2012

Extremely Short Take, Another Take: Black Butler

Oh my God stop me, Christmas is somehow making me vindictive. I.e., one sure way to bring out my Monday morning cranky side is by talking about Black Butler.

Title: Black Butler
Author & Artist: Yana Toboso

I first read Black Butler two years ago. I'm still reeling from the car crash.

It's not that I object to the creepy sexual undertone between a butler and his pre-pubescent master, because that would severely limit my reading materials if I were into manga at all, right guys? Right? Black Butler is merely an unholy marriage of every seedy underbelly aspect of manga. You see, the one thing that a person loathes more than the success of the things she hates is the failure of stuff she loves.

Let's analyze the premise: In Victorian England, snot-nosed brat Earl Ceil Phantomhive and his butler Sebastian look devastatingly handsome while battling the forces of evil. Except Sebastian has earned his perfect house cleaning degree (sarcastic) from devil school (metaphorical). Unadvertised/real reason anybody would read this thing: yaoi subtext that crosses age, species and gender boundaries.

Let's face it, yaoi subtext? Right up my alley. All the other trappings? Not so much. I have long detested the Gothic vein in manga, especially manga outright set in Europe, since not only do I prefer Eastern to Western aesthetics, but also because these manga have nothing in the way of substance, believing that frills and master-servant or sheltered heroine dynamic brings readers by the hordes and sustains their interests.

For the record, of course I have exceptions, after all, Fullmetal Alchemist is steampunk.

Anyway, the Victorian England settings often does disservice to the manga, because we all know how much mangaka like to research their subjects thoroughly, not taking liberties with period fashion right? Turns out that's the least of my worries.

Because Black Butler opens by establishing three things: Sebastian is perfect, all other characters beside Sebastian and Ceil are hapless, and the series is totally pointless. If I strip away the sparkles (of which there are lots,) the awkward exclamations (of which there are several too many,) and the decidedly unamusing interactions (which should be stronger since that's where you hang your hook,) the "plot" of the first chapter is thus: Sebastian wipes the floor with some martial artist. They both look the opposite of cool and the epitome of stiff human anatomy with the former posing a finishing move and the latter posing the 1000-hand crane (what, you say, what?) Sebastian proceeds to save a super important dinner (that's super important guys, Ceil is discussing children toys with a genial old man - a long-time business partner and everything) because the other servants have all chosen to simultaneously cock up. Cue exaggerated reactions all around and crude portrayal of foreigners and household servants.

Seriously, the world does not have to hang in the balance for something to have gravitas, but dear mangaka, for introduction to your characters and a simple dinner you don't need that level of melodrama. In fact, sometimes I prefer my first chapters to be non-action oriented if I was delving into the slice-of-life variety. Black Butler could be mining for dark comedy in treating dinner with life-or-death drama, but I didn't find the chapter funny in the least. It was plainly overdone. Waiter, send it back please.

Another problem is Black Butler's minor characters, in the sense that they are character traits slapped onto humanoid figures and an inconsequential echo chamber for the sheer greatness that is Sebastian. Why bother giving them names? Why not just label them the cook, the maid, because that's both easier to remember and what they ultimately amount to anyway. Their services become their identity, which, nice job of portraying Victorian England mindset.

My predictions for the following chapters, having heard so many wonderful ravings about the boys: Black Butler will attempt to adopt a "dark" tone (murder on the agenda! Unhealthy symbiotic relationships!) which will mesh well with the first chapter since evil was practically crawling underneath the surface and all. Sebastian and Ceil will engage in pseudo-sexual acts (it's not a kiss, it's mouth-to-mouth resuscitation! And butlers bridal-carry their masters all the time, et cetera.)

There is no saving grace. The art is clumsy and not nuanced; it merely ridiculously fetishizes Victorian fashion. Add that to the hopelessly objectified cardboard cut-outs of characters and the clunky storytelling, you've got my nightmare manga.

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