In 2008, during a trip to Japan, I picked up a copy of Kuroshitsuji in a book shop. This was before the manga had made its way into the West and I was unfamiliar with the premise. Little did I know it would become the huge success that it is today. In Japan at the time, maid mangas were something of a common fare, but (aside from a few exceptions) butler mangas had failed to take off in any significant way.
Whilst it was not Yana Toboso first manga, it is safe to say it will most likely be the most successful series of her career as a manga-ka.
The story of Kuroshituji (meaning Black Butler) is a fairly simple one. Sebastian Michaelis is a demon who also happens to be the butler of a young aristocratic boy named Ciel Phantomhive. This came about when Ciel's parents died in a house fire and he was orphaned, through a series of unfortunate events, Ciel finally met the demon and made a contract with him. He orders the demon to serve him without question and help him exact his revenge on those who killed his parents. Sebastian agrees and draws up a contract with the boy, on the condition that he can eat his soul once he has helped him achieve his goals.
Set in a Victorian Gothic house which is a self described 'stone's throw away from London' the first book is nothing more than introducing the characters and their roles in the Phantomhive Manor. There's Sebastian, the demonic butler whose tagline is often translated as 'I'm simply one Hell of a Butler' (there are plenty of demonic puns for those who are wondering). He is vastly overqualified for his role, particularly when compared to the other servants in the manor, yet treats it with the care and seriousness that would be expected of any manservant. Then of course we meet young Ciel Phantomhive, the deadpan snarker who clearly needs Sebastian, despite his arrogant attitude and massive intellect.
This is a bizarre move by Toboso, as she's taken great care to illustrate beautiful and accurate backgrounds, costumes and houses, yet seems to throw history aside when including chainsaws and lawnmowers as weapons (yes... you read it correctly) and mobile phones when it's convenient to do so. It doesn't create dissonance per say, but does sometimes make the reader wonder whether we're to believe this is 'Victorian London as we know it'.
After book one is out of the way, the series becomes much more interesting. The 'Jack the Ripper Arc' is superb and I would say the best of the whole series. Aside from utilising some of the characters the in unexpected ways to move the story along, we get to the heart of what makes Kuroshitsuji so unique. The series has a macabre whimsy that will leave readers wondering what Toboso will come up with next. The inclusion of the character Grell Sutcliff (below) really adds to this, he is one of the campest and at the same time sinister characters in any manga...ever). The second and third book are particularly dark and the series takes a turn for graphic horror at times (which will no doubt please those who had become tired of the domestic trivialities of book one).
Toboso should also be commended for her inclusion of Prince Soma and Agni: an Indian Prince and his 'God-like' butler who appear after book 3. The costumes are stunning and their back stories square up to be as interesting as Ciel's and Sebastian's. The ethnicity of the characters is well communicated (if not a little too stereotypical as they are eventually involved in a curry making contest) and even the translation makes an effort to use Toboso's original Hindi wording where possible. Unlike the other Master/Servant relationship in the manga, this one is played very much straight and it's easy to become more attached to these characters for a couple of chapters than Ciel and and Sebastian... and also Queen Victoria appears with them... enough said really.
If you're looking for stories that are on the comedic macabre side with beautifully drawn characters and scenery, Kuroshitsuji is definitely a series worth looking into. Although book one is nothing more than a collection of short tales that are mainly told for exposition purposes, the story takes wonderful twists and turns as the series progresses. Books 2 to 4 are (in my opinion) the best to date. There 10+ volumes and the manga is still running in Japan.