With Further Ado #246: ITHACON Student Writing Competition – Taking a Look at Black Butler

ITHACON 46 was a rousing success. It seems like just about everyone had an outstanding experience. As part of the class I teach the Promoting and Managing ITHACON Class at Ithaca College, each year we embrace this annual tradition with the “With Further Ado” column.

Each year, I ask the students to submit a column on pop culture as if they were the author of this space. Our crack editorial staff pours over the submissions and selects a winner, and they get published on this website. (The fact that it gives me a couple of weeks break right after ITHACON is of no concern to anyone but me.)

Anyway, we have three amazing columns to publish this year.

Our second runner-up of this year’s fill-in columnist contest is Collin Longo and his thoughts about manga called Black Butler. Congrats to you, Collin!

Black Butler is a manga series created by mangaka (author) Yana Toboso, published in Square Enix’s magazine Monthly GFantasy. Having been published since September of 2006, the manga is currently ongoing with one hundred and ninety-eight chapters and thirty-two physical volumes released. In October of 2008, an anime television series of Black Butler was released, it now having three seasons, an original video animation (OVA), and a feature length movie. Several other adaptations have also spawned such as a live action movie, a video game, and even five stage musicals.

The story of Black Butler revolves around Ciel Phantomhive, a twelve-year-old earl living in Victorian England who has taken his father’s position as earl after he. along with Ciel’s mother. died in an attack against the family. After the attack, Ciel formed a contract with a demon to help him get revenge on those who killed his parents in exchange for letting the demon eat his soul when his revenge is fulfilled. The demon gains the alias Sebastian Michaelis and becomes Ciel’s suave, elegant butler who is perfect at his job. With Sebastian at his side, Ciel runs a large toy company, serves as the Queen’s watchdog by solving crimes of the London underworld, and is forced to take on other supernatural forces.

Both the anime and manga have been praised by many, with the series being the subject of much fanart, fanfiction, and cosplay. On myanimelist, a website used to log and review anime and manga, the manga ranks 57th in popularity and the anime ranks #114. If you’re in the world of anime and manga, it’s hard to escape Black Butler.

One of the things that makes the series work so well is its mix of tones and genres. Black Butler deals with many horror elements such as demons, grim reapers, and zombies. It delves into some extremely dark and horrific topics, including the kidnapping and murder of children (In a way that treats it as horrible and devastating as it is). At the same time, the manga has many comedic elements, from the antics that Ciel’s other servants get up to, to Sebastian’s love of cats, to a passionate grim reaper named Grell who is in love with focused and stoic Sebastian. Its genre can range from anything from a Sherlock Holmes style murder mystery, fighting zombies on a cruise ship, and Ciel going off to boarding school. Yana Toboso herself has stated that she has trouble placing the manga into one genre.

One of the reasons I love the series so much is the characters and the way it handles morality. The main characters, Sebastian and Ciel, are in many ways bad people. Sebastian is perhaps one of, if not the most evil in the series. The only reason he does anything he does is to achieve his goal of eating the soul of a traumatized child. Sebastian will do anything Ciel commands, killing anyone that prevents the goals of him and his master. Even still, Sebastian is adored by thousands of Black Butler fans due to his charming personality, his witty humor, and sometimes it even is his moral darkness that attracts people to his character. It could also be argued that due to being a demon, Sebastian’s understanding of morals cannot be compared to a human’s, and thus he is only going off of his own understanding of what is right and wrong.

Ciel on the other hand is a bit more complicated. Extremely traumatized at a young age and holding a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, it isn’t surprising that Ciel has a bit of a skewed moral compass. Similarly, to Sebastian, Ciel will kill anyone who has wronged him and helps murder someone and frames it on someone else. Ciel even orders Sebastian to burn down a building full of children, as the children have been traumatized to a point where he feels they are beyond saving. Despite that, it’s hard not to sympathize with Ciel considering everything he’s been through. Plus, however many times Ciel shows his dark colors, he also shows his good side. He treats his servants with kindness and respect, aims to protect those he cares about, and even took in someone who tried to kill him as a servant, as he knew that person had his reasons. On top of that, Ciel’s ambitious, proud, and sometimes snarky personality makes it hard not to love him.

This treatment is not exclusive to Ciel and Sebastian. Most of the other important characters such as Ciel’s other servants, the members of the crime underworld, and the grim reapers also step on the line of gray morality. There aren’t many characters that hold significance to the plot that are free from guilt, but yet all these characters are so lovable, entertaining and full of complexion that they make for one of my favorite ensemble casts in any series.
There are many reasons why people can enjoy Black Butler. I haven’t even touched upon the manga’s game changing plot twist (which I won’t spoil here, you’ll really want to see it for yourself). I strongly recommend Black Butler, especially the manga, as I believe it tells a great story that has something for everyone.