Recently, my fourteen-year-old self knocked on my window in the dead of night and asked me to reconsider demon butlers. Or, rather, I went to watch Black Butler: Book of the Atlantic (a movie adaptation of one of the later arcs of the manga) in the cinema with a friend, where we were both promptly reminded why we’d loved this series so much as teenagers. The Black Butler manga is more than ten years old and still going strong, and the movie reeled me back into this world of supernatural action and Victorian Era finery with enough force and finesse that I was compelled to revisit the first few volumes of the manga—the “Jack the Ripper” arc, the storyline I remember being my favorite and starring my favorite pair of villains—and dive back into this story to see if it held up. Is it still good? Certainly. Is it also riddled with problems I’m much more wary of and attuned to now that I’m older and wiser? Absolutely. Spoilers for the arc ahead!
Note: Every character in the story refers to Grelle with he/him pronouns, but Grelle uses she/her pronouns as well as terms like “lady” and “actress” to self-identify. This led to an ugly kerfuffle in certain parts of the fandom that I do not want to throwback to, but extra material has confirmed Grelle as a trans woman (even if those exact words aren’t used), so I will be respecting that and the evidence within the manga and using she/her for Grelle in this post.
Black Butler (untranslated title Kuroshitsuji) is the story of Ciel Phantomhive, the son of a noble English family who has contracted a demon to protect him and help him solve, and avenge, the murder of his parents. This demon takes human form and poses as the Phantomhive family butler, taking the name Sebastian, and routinely wowing everyone around him by applying supernatural prowess to household chores. He can also kick some serious ass when he needs to, leading to some very cool and visually interesting fight scenes, especially when he’s forced to get creative and resorts to murdering intruders with polished silverware.
As fascinating as Ciel and Sebastian and their antics are, we have a whole decade’s worth of series to explore them through, so for the purpose of this post I wanted to look closely at the pair of characters who define the first arc of the manga’s story. One of the duties Ciel has inherited, now that the tiny child is head of his earldom, is the title of “Queen’s Watchdog” and the job of investigating shady, possibly supernatural goings-on that sully the good name of England. The first mystery Ciel is sent to investigate is perhaps the quintessential Victorian horror-mystery, the case of Jack the Ripper. Black Butler solves this fictionalized version of the mystery by identifying the famous serial killer as not one person, but two: Ciel’s aunt Angelina “Madam Red” Dalles, and the Grim Reaper disguised and posing as her servant, Grelle Sutcliff—two of the most dynamic and interesting villains in the series, and my original Problematic Faves.
Unfortunately, I was forced to remember that before you get to the really fascinating, juicy part of the arc that reveals these two villains in all their glory, you have to wade through a bunch of… crossdressing shenanigans. After narrowing down the list of suspects to one shady nobleman, Ciel and co. dive into investigate him undercover, which in this case means putting Ciel in a ballgown and flirting with the suspect in order to seduce information out of him and/or get kidnapped and catch the serial killer in the act. The story rightly recognizes that dressing a thirteen-year-old boy as a young woman and sending him into the jaws of a known child predator and possible serial killer is creepy as Hell, so it… decides to play the whole scene for comedy.
Until the cliffhanger where Ciel legitimately does get kidnapped (and then rescued spectacularly by his infallible demon butler), the entire ballroom sequence is hijinks and laughable shenanigans, complete with comedic chibis and humorous asides. The stress of investigating a murderer is undermined by the stress of Ciel having to hide from his fiancée, who thinks his disguise is super cute and wants to chase him down and talk to the “pretty girl” wearing it—something that would lead to the downfall of the whole sting, not to mention embarrassment!
I’m also forced to remember that the internet used the shorthand “trap Ciel” to refer to this outfit, which I naïvely (but understandably) assumed, at the time, was because Ciel was quite literally in disguise to “trap” and arrest the nobleman. I’ve since learned that “trap” actually refers to characters that appear to be cute girls but are actually male, and has been officially recognized as a transphobic slur. So, yikes. Let’s collectively agree to not ever, ever do that again.
Aside from dredging up the demons of internet fandom circa 2008, this arc-within-an-arc actually yields nothing since Jack the Ripper strikes again that night, rendering the nobleman a red herring. Ciel and Sebastian are then faced with the twist of the century when they change tack and catch the real Jack the Ripper in the act, revealing Madam Red as a secret villain and Grelle as something other than human. It leads to both some heart-rending tragedy on Madam Red’s part and the first big supernatural action scene of the series, as the smug demon who’s been kicking human ass for two volumes finally meets his match.
On the reread, Madam Red is still a great character, and I can see why I fell in love with her all those years ago. She’s complex and layered, and the story manages to get this across within quite a succinct storyline and some cleverly-chosen scenes. Even before you learn that she’s half of Jack the Ripper, you get the sense she has a life of her own that doesn’t relate to Ciel’s storyline, and you get enough of a sense of their relationship to understand how tangled and conflicted Madam Red must feel to be facing off against her nephew. This leads to genuine tension where you aren’t sure, for a moment, if she’ll prioritize protecting her murderous secret over her affection for Ciel, a far cry from the assumption that all women are inherently nurturing to children. She’s much more than the “doting drunk auntie” or the “knife crazy woman”, and though you spend more than a chapter unraveling her Tragic Backstory, she feels, to me, like she’s more than just this tragedy as well.
Am I still wrinkling my nose at how her senseless, violent death is used as a device to reveal the backstory of Ciel’s family, and give Ciel something more to be sad about? Yes. Am I still dubious about the trope of women being motivated to villainy by their inability to have babies? Yes, though that’s admittedly Joss Whedon’s fault for bringing it to my attention. Am I still sobbing because Madam Red is revealed in this flashback sequence to be a soft-hearted but incredibly strong woman who understandably had enough of the endless train of trauma she was trapped on and jumped at the opportunity to take Death’s hand and regain control in her life? God, yes. For the faults in her writing, you can’t deny that she’s a character, fully realized and complex, neither entirely good or bad. And again, author Yana Toboso gets all this across in one of the shortest and most succinct arcs of the story, which I think is masterful in and of itself.
Then we come to Grelle. Oh, Grelle, my original Problematic Fave, even more problematic in retrospect. On the one hand, listen, Grelle is a fantastic character—I mean, she’s an errant Grim Reaper shirking her duties in favor of teaming up with a vengeful woman that she empathizes with, adding enough pizzazz and individuality to her job that she’s customized her soul-collecting scythe into a chainsaw. She makes for a wonderfully chaotic contrast to the demure and calculating Sebastian, and it’s exciting and satisfying to see somebody pose a genuine threat to the demon butler who’s been pretty much infallible up to then. Her murder of her own partner in crime cements her as a terrifying force of whimsy and chaos that reason simply will not beat, which makes for a pretty intense standoff. There’s a certain frightening cool factor to Grelle that makes you watch her in awe.
On the other hand… now that I’m older and wiser, I am intensely wary of queer-coded villains. And even before the creator’s confirmation of Grelle’s gender, where it was more open to interpretation whether she was a trans woman or an effeminate bi man (or an unfortunate conflation of both, because Trans Equals Gay, right?) or some sort of androgynous identity in between, you cannot deny Grelle is relentlessly queer-coded. She’s flamboyant and camp and overtly sexual, and the fact that she’s attracted to Sebastian and this makes him uncomfortable is 100% played for comedy. She’s a Depraved Bisexual twofold, her openly-expressed appetite for men and women combined with her cavalier attitude to murder. She’s gender non-conforming, letting her hair out and slipping on false eyelashes as part of her transformation from her meek human persona to her “true” Death God form, these feminine attributes appearing at the same time as terrifying sharp teeth.
You can make the argument that everyone in Black Butler is a villain in some way—the series functions on the moral ambiguity and irony that the closest thing we have to “good guys” are a revenge-bent teenager and a literal demon. Still, Grelle is very much the antagonist of this first arc—you can tell because she gets the absolute crap kicked out of her at the end, which is also played for laughs. Any argument for Grelle’s gender presentation being part of what makes her nuanced and complex is kind of snuffed when you remember this reveal comes after all that “aren’t men dressing as women hilarious!” flim-flam at the start of the arc.
I’m not going to stop anyone who draws power from this morally-grey, self-serving, self-embracing force of chaos, but, well… as queer representation goes we could definitely do better. I’m still begrudgingly glad that Grelle is there, if only to disprove the notion that queer folk don’t “belong” in historical fiction because it would be “inaccurate”, and I still enjoy Grelle as a character, but… I’m making a long, distressed creaky-door noise right now just looking at this whole debacle.
Still, despite its glaring issues, I can’t deny there’s still a deep appeal about this series and about this arc in particular: it’s a Penny Dreadful combined with shounen genre action, full of complicated character dynamics and dark themes. The art is still gorgeous, the characters still fascinating and fun, and the supernatural mystery twisted and delightful. I’m glad that I took the time to revisit the series with a critical eye, and I’m glad that even with that critical gaze it still (mostly) holds up and holds my attention. I act all hoity-toity, but you really can win me over with some fun character dynamics and a cool supernatural fight scene.
Read more from Alex at her blog, The Afictionado!