Reviewby Lissa Pattillo,
The hunt for Jack the Ripper may have ended in volume two, but the fight to survive the encounter continues here in volume three. While Ceil is confronted by his Aunt An in a bout of emotional flashbacks to the woman's past, Sebastian is left to battle the Shinigami, Grell. Wielding a weapon that draws out the memories of those whose blood it spills, Grell's attacks against Sebastian have more than just his physical being on the line and young Ceil's life at stake. After that it's back to the mansion for another round of surviving its other housekeepers' good intentions and appeasing the high standards of another concerned family friend.
The charm this series holds over its fans is clear and perhaps no time more evident then when the devil butler Sebastian flashes his confident smile and brushes back his short flowing black hair atop his faintly androgynous features. He's a character who instead of feeling flat from being near-perfect, is actually all the more entertaining and the core of the series. An acrobatic fighter of great skill and demonic strength, a master chef and housekeeper, a snappy dresser and on top of that shares a deep, master-servant relationship with the young and somber head of the household, Ceil Phantomhive. Yana Toboso's revels in teasing about the events that transpired between them years ago.
Inconveniences to the perfection of their mansion have proven the most consistent threats to Sebastian from previous volumes, though to which he confronts with unnerving amounts of patience, but here in volume three the continuation of his fight with Grell offers up a considerably more exciting use of his abilities. Of course there's also a bit of sadistic fun in simply seeing someone so intentionally flawless take some damage and breaking a sweat.
Grell is entirely different beast altogether and it's clear why he's able to prove such a strong opponent for Sebastian. His otherwise pretty-boy design is creepily marred by a mouth of jagged teeth and his personality proves just as off-kilter. Sadistically relishing the fight with Sebastian and every drop of blood spilled, he jests and jeers with his opponent the entire time with an array of suggestive commentary that leaves even the reserved Sebastian with the heeby-geebies. He attacks relentlessly amidst cackles with his unorthodox weapon and whether it's by being creepy or just outright hilarious in both his achievements or failures, he's definitely a memorable character.
Much the same can be said for the book as a whole - how often do you get the chance to read a story about a dashing butler fighting a chainsaw-wielding psychopath with a passion for pregnancy? Well if it's drawn half as well as Black Butler, then you may find yourself hoping for it more often. Yana Toboso's art is gorgeous. If lithe pretty-boys with Gothic flair rendered in crisp detail tickles your fancy even a little, then prepare to melt. Whether you're watching these characters back flip off walls, stare venomously at their adversaries or just striking a pretty pose in their classy clothing, there's no shortage of eye-candy here. It's easily arguable that the visuals are the strongest element the series has. It's hard to imagine each scene holding even a fraction of its poignancy or interest-grab if the art wasn't one attractive illustration after another.
The storytelling itself is reminiscent of shoujo-horror creator Kaori Yuki. Victorian-era theatrics with blood-soaked alleyways, serial murderers, tormented pretty-boys and family lives that are anything but functional. Once Sebastian and Grell's fight is essentially completed, things detour to Ceil's Aunt An and her bleak back story. It proves considerably more engaging than one may assume it'd be going in, beginning in her years as an awkward teenager and eventually leading to her being molded by circumstance and psychosis into a medically licensed prostitute-killer. Her story is actually effectively heartbreaking to a point and surprisingly believable in its time-spanning evolution, save for perhaps the single-panel time skip of her medical degree acquisition.
Alas the affection for a cast of colorful characters is sullied by the return of the terrible trio – the gardener, cook and maid – who inhabit Ceil Phantomhive's home. Continuing on with all they've done in the past, they successfully appear just long enough to lay waste to Sebastian's hard work. Ruining the garden, blowing up the conservatory and destroying the living room - these characters seem poised to act as nothing but contrasts to Sebastian's unequal skills. Why? Presumably to ensure there's some life in the mansion aside from Ceil and his butler, though the resulting enthusiasm they exude leaves more a desire to see the devilishly well-dressed servant strangle it from them instead. Subjectively speaking of course.
A bonus chapter in the book, which happens to sport the three, is an otherwise entertaining affair however. A visit from Ceil's uptight and outspoken Aunt Francis, the Marchioness of Midford, sends the estate into a tizzy as Ceil and Sebastian set to the task of pleasing her. Unfortunate yet hilarious hair-dos and a close-call encounter after a hunting duel mark a chapter that reaches a good balance of humor and character exploration.
This volume achieves some great atmosphere bolstered by the eye-candy but once you get past the sugary-sweet coating, the story beneath leaves something to be desired. It relies too heavily on teasing the back-story it's yet to fully divulge instead of weaving a truly compelling present-day plot. There are some hints something more substantial is coming though so it'll be interesting to see what this results in. While the big picture may not be in focus just yet, there's still a lot to be said for the short-term charms of Black Butler. Comedic interactions, dramatic confrontations and angst-ridden pasts all rendered with Victorian flair make it easy to see why this is a bestsellers' list topper and a fan favorite for sheer entertainment-value that caters brilliantly to what its target audience desires.
Overall : B+
Story : C+
Art : A
+ Gorgeous artwork and plenty of bait for boys' love fans; a great dark atmosphere for many of its scenes with scattered strong comedic moments throughout
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