Title: Black Butler
Author: Yana Toboso
Publisher: Yen Press
Volume: Volumes 4 and 5 (ongoing), $11.99 each
Vintage: 2008 by Square Enix in Japan, January and April 2011 (respectively) by Yen Press
Genre: Supernatural, drama, black comedy, action
Volumes 4 and 5 cover the humorous British/Indian story arc, which centers on Indian prince Soma and his loyal butler Agni. It also, much to many fans’ delight I’m sure, sets up the next, much darker story arc involving the Noah’s Ark Circus.
Volume 4 starts off with a rash of strange assaults in which an unknown person has been attacking Anglo-Indians (British nobles who have been living in India) and their associates, stripping them, and hanging them upside down. Ciel steps in to take over the case which is baffling the City Police, much to their chagrin. For help, Ciel and Sebastian visit Lau, the Chinese merchant with ties to the Chinese crime syndicate. Their investigation causes them to bump into a visiting Indian prince named Prince Soma and his curiously strong butler, Agni. Prince Soma takes an immediate liking to Ciel, and imposes on him as a “friend” by immediately moving into his manor for the duration of his stay in England. Soma is trying to track down a servant girl named Mina, who he believes was kidnapped by a British noble. Eventually, Soma’s constant interference in Ciel’s daily life leads to a fencing duel between Sebastian and Agni, with a surprising outcome. During the evenings, Soma and Agni search the town for Mina, but Agni’s midnight outings continue without his master’s knowledge. The gang trails Agni, trying to discover his secret, but it leads them to an unfortunate discovery – Agni has been consorting with and working for Harols West Jeb, a well known British importer. When Soma throws a tantrum as the result of this seeming betrayal, Sebastian steps in to talk some sense into him, in his own, ehm, special way. Then Ciel relates the tale (or some of it, anyway) of his own tragic past, giving us our first real glimpse into how he and Sebastian entered their contract. After a more civil conversation, the group deduces that West plans to use Agni to help him win a curry competition at an upcoming exhibition for Indian culture. Winning the competition will give him a royal warrant, a sort of seal of approval from the royal house, which will increase interest (and therefore, sales) in his company. Ciel, of course, won’t sit idly by and let this slide….
We therefore enter volume 5, which takes on a light and silly tone. With the help of Prince Soma’s taste buds, Sebastian sets to making a divine tasting curry. Unfortunately, Indian curry is a bit outside this butler’s range of expertise (for once), but with some quick pointers from Soma, Sebastian is able to mix and match spices to create all sorts of flavors of curry to test. Something is always just missing, however, until Sebastian discovers a secret ingredient that is sure to make a prize winning curry. Agni has a secret ingredient as well, however, not to mention his “hand of god,” so the competition will be tight. Just as Sebastian is about to be bested by Agni once again (well, I say “bested,” but a tie is as disgraceful in his case), a surprise judge appears to make the final decision. After the competition, Soma is reunited with Mina, but receives a brutal awakening. Somehow, by the end, both Ciel and even Sebastian end up with a new friend. The story line wraps up as Ciel sorts things out (and covers them up) with the City Police, allowing Agni and Soma to avoid prosecution for their various actions in the city. It’s a good look at the contempt the City Police holds for Her Majesty’s “watch dog,” and the inner workings of their relationship that allows Ciel to move about as he pleases in the underworld. Next up, a trip to Noah’s Ark Circus, courtesy of Queen Victoria.
The presence of Agni in the Phantomhive house creates an interesting dynamic. We’ve all been witness to the incompetence of the household staff by now. Yet somehow Agni manages to make good use of their unique talents, which Sebastian has never bothered with himself. To Sebastian, they’re mostly nuisances, and he’d rather just do everything himself. Agni takes each of them and focuses tasks to their individual strengths, making them genuinely useful and productive for the first time. There’s the sense that Sebastian is impressed by this, and also that he feels rather slighted by some other butler coming in and taking over things. But for the servants, they’re simply thrilled to be of use to their master for once, and we even get a (very) brief glimpse into how each of them came to work for Ciel despite their obvious inability to perform simple household tasks. It’s our first real hint that there may be something more to this group of misfits. Ciel and Sebastian’s relationship takes a bit of a back seat in this volume, with little direct interaction between the servant and his master. The only thing of note is the perverse joy Ciel takes in imagining that his butler might fail for once (in the curry competition). He wants to win the royal warrant, of course, but he’s somewhat delighted by the fact that the proud Sebastian might lose to a mere human. Sebastian’s demonic abilities don’t make much of an appearance either, other than in the fencing and curry duels with Agni, during which he is taken aback that a human equals him in skill and ability. It’s the first time this has happened, but he recognizes that as a human, Agni is able to draw on a different sort of power (there’s quite a bit in these volumes regarding Agni and Soma’s faith and beliefs). It is also in this volume (or more specifically, after it) where the manga and anime wildly deviate. So if you’ve previously only seen the anime, now is the time to start picking up the manga if you want a different take on (or just more of) the story.
And another note: This weekend, Irving, Texas will be hosting the Dallas Comic Con at its new convention center. Our very own Jeff Balke will be attending, and I’m going to try and swing by as well on Saturday. Feel free to wave me down and say hello if you see me!