I finally got round to reading Black Butler today. So much of manga makes me feel out of touch and I have to confess that if I'd given up after the first two chapters I'd have come away very unimpressed. Luckily I left it over night and finished the first volume this morning.
To begin with I had a few hurdles to get over. One is the "wondering what the hell is going on" stage, which I've had a few times. Tiny little drawings, alternating between cartoon and realistic styles, with a host of characters running around doing something not adequately explained to do with serving tea to someone not adequately introduced in a scattershot fashion I found very difficult to follow.
The next thing I had to get over was the dreadful translation. Not that I speak Japanese, but some of the dialogue is just awful. Here's the opening words of the whole book:
"In the morning, The Butler, skilled.
"A short distance from London, just beyond the fog-cloaked forest, there stands a well-kept manor house."
And the star of the book, Sebastian, introduces himself with this snappy catchphrase:
"I am the butler of the Phantomhive family. It goes without saying that I can manage a technique as elementary as this. Now then, young master, as I have won this battle, please review what you did today and prepare for tomorrow's lessons until dinnertime, as promised."
But it's not snappy dialogue and knowledge of London's geography that Black Butler's all about, and once it gets stuck into the action (kid gets kidnapped, Butler rescues him) it's rollicking good fun and you can see why it's been adapted into an anime series and sells half a million copies a volume. It's now on volume 8.
Reading Black Butler reminds me how out of touch I am with manga. I struggle to know what is innovative and what is cliched. I'm impressed by the dynamic compositions and pacing of the action scenes here, but then I'm sure I've seen every bit of it somewhere before. 25 years ago when I was reading Alan Moore, Alan Davis and the like, I was pretty sure I was seeing things done in comics that I'd never seen before, and that therefore they'd never been seen before. I knew what was innovative and what was more of the same. With manga like Black Butler I just can't tell. And maybe I shouldn't be bothered. Just because the "chibi" style of little cartoon faces interspersed through the action is something that seems to happen in lots of manga, does that make it repetitive or just part of the process that should be as familiar to me as a drumbeat in a pop song? In my Comic Art Masterclasses I'm regularly asked "do you do manga?" and asked to teach manga, and I strive to show how comics as I know them and manga as the kids see them are one and the same thing, with different styles and traditions. But am I right?
I'd be interested to hear what others make of Black Butler, and what fellow "old school" comics readers make of manga.