First tankōbon volume of the Kuroshitsuji manga series. Yana Toboso, 2006
Hell hath no fury like… or so they say. Perhaps, Hell can hath the fury of a demonic butler and his noble master bound together by a wicked contract. The Victorian era still fascinates almost everyone with its vanilla and powder fragrance, despite the sickly sweet scent of gloom and creepiness underneath. Taking a look into how these two opposite qualities are manifested in one work, through the eyes of a Japanese manga artist, nonetheless, will indeed be an exciting journey.
The book publishing industry grew throughout the Victorian era due to the development of technology, mainly printing. There was a dramatic increase in literacy which came hand-in-hand with the growth of libraries and public schools. Not so long ago, people without today’s technology were forced to find their affordable entertainment in inexpensive books. As a result, the genre of penny dreadfuls was introduced. The name is derived from the fact that these stories emphasized shock value instead of quality. They were generally between 8 to 16 pages long and they were issued weekly, costing exactly one penny. The basis of their content was the escapades of detectives, criminals, or supernatural entities. (Springhall, 1994).
Gothic fiction's decrease in popularity notwithstanding, penny dreadfuls became widely accepted and marketable to interested individuals seeking thrill and entertainment. There are some tropes in the latter that originate from the former; these are: terror, mystery, exoticism, supernatural elements, madness, and heredity curses.
Toboso’s Black Butler (original title: Kuroshitsuji) can be considered a neo-Victorian (Loh, 2019:1) or even Victorian work of literature, despite its country of origin and contemporary publication, simply by virtue of its traits. Still retaining the features that characterize mangas, it displays aspects of Victorian literature, particularly gothic fiction. Under the silliness that is sometimes present as comedic relief, there is palpable tension. The story itself is based on a demonic contract between Ciel Phantomhive, a 13 year old earl and his butler of infernal origins, Sebastian Michaelis. After utter destruction is wrought upon the House of Phantomhive by mysterious perpetrators for undivulged reasons, Ciel and Sebastian begin working together. Ciel unknowingly summoned the demon when trapped by a cult and decides to employ him when the creature offers to lend his power and service in exchange for Ciel's soul. They intend to solve the enigma of "Why?" and look for a chance to avenge the attack and humiliation the boy and his family suffered. Thus, this manga has both mystery and fear, two of the elements that a work must have to be considered a piece of Victorian gothic fiction
In this fictional setting, which Loh (2019) cleverly named the 'informal British imperialism,' there are plenty of the aforementioned tropes. Setting aside Sebastian, the obviously supernatural being, the hereditary curse element can be observed in Vol. 1. Ciel hints at a curse that follows the head of the family, who inherits the title of earl, and a position mockingly called the 'Watchdog of the Queen' in England's underworld, from his predecessor. The queen that the soubriquet refers to is the historical figure Victoria, Queen of England, who ruled between 1837 and 1901. In the manga, Victoria displays a warm, dignified, and grandmotherly persona to the characters who interact with her in various chapters. Queen Victoria is also one of the characters used as comic relief. In the occurrence of something upsetting her, her silent aid cheers the queen up by using a puppet representing her beloved husband, Prince Albert. of this charming side of her, the Queen's personality takes a drastic turn when surrounded by her most faithful subordinates. A rather ironic parallel can be seen between the relationships that tie Queen Victoria and the demonic Sebastian to Ciel.
Left: Yana Toboso's Kuroshitsuji, Volume 5, chapter 21. Right: Queen Victoria (copy after an original of 1899), Heinrich von Angeli, 1900
The ruler heavily depends on Ciel to enforce her rule in the underworld, and the less "savoury" part of England. Yet, she tests his loyalty and distrusts him. In comparison, Ciel and Sebastian share an unbreakable bond of trust. It is not affected by the fact that one day, the demon will consume the youth's soul, and the earl mockingly christens the fiend after their family dog, in spite of being aware of Sebastian's hatred of dogs.
Alongside the presence of tension, mystery, villains, supernatural and detective fiction elements, exoticism is also shown in the work; particularly demonstrated by four different characters. One of these is Lau (劉, Pinyin: Liú), a Chinese nobleman and the protagonist's occasional ally who oversees the British branch of a Shanghai trading company. Another is his sister, Ran-Mao (藍猫, Pinyin: Lán-Māo) , who works as his personal assistant and assassin. The latter is marveled at by many, mainly because of her free nature and easily distinguishable outfit. Both Lau and Ran-Mao deeply dislike Queen Victoria and hold a grudge against her. This can be seen in Vol. 5, chapter 21, when they are woodenly standing and refusing to sing the British National Anthem praising the ruler (Toboso, Vol. 5). The other two are Soma Asman Kadar, a prince of Bengal, and his retainer, Agni. While Lau and Ran-Mao know about the customs and expected mannerisms of the country they reside in and choose to dismiss them, the prince and his servant are truly ignorant. They interfere with Ciel's duties by loudly worshipping Kali and other gods, thus interrupting his work and bothering him during fencing. Both of them have the best intentions, even in the face of failure, thus being the source of the protagonist's constant vexation (Toboso, Vol. 3).
Many academics do not take mangas or other visual works of literature seriously because regrettably they are often deemed too juvenile and pointless. Many of them can be used as new sources or to discover new angles for interpreting various literary works. (That is to say, to gain new angles upon reading various works. )Black Butler by Yana Toboso is an excellent example of this.
In conclusion, a contemporary Japanese manga can reconstruct the penny dreadfuls from the Victorian era, connecting the present with the past.
Loh, Waiyee. (2019). Japanese dandies in Victorian Britain: Writing masculinity in Japanese girls' comics. Neo-Victorian Studies, 11(2), 40–63.
Loh, Waiyee. (2012). Superflat and the postmodern gothic: Images of western modernity in "Kuroshitsuji." Mechademia: Second Arc Vol. 7, Lines of Sight (2012), University of Minnesota Press, pp. 111-127.
Springhall, John. (1994). "Disseminating impure literature: The 'Penny Dreadful' publishing business since 1860." The Economic History Review, New Series, 47(3), pp. 567-584.
Toboso, Yana (2007), Black Butler Vol. 1, 2010 edition, New York: Yen Press.
Toboso, Yana (2007), Black Butler Vol. 3, 2010 edition, New York: Yen Press.
Toboso, Yana (2008), Black Butler Vol. 4, 2011 edition, New York: Yen Press.
Toboso, Yana (2008), Black Butler Vol. 5 2011 edition, New York: Yen Press.