A title like Hayate the Combat Butler just drips with promise, I tell you. I had images in my mind of a mustachioed, veddy British fellow with a tie and tails, fending off four-armed monsters when they have the temerity to come crashing through the walls and disturb tea-time. What we get is not quite that gloriously demented — it’s more the sort of thing you chuckle at continuously without ever really guffawing out loud — and is enjoyable but miles away from anything I’d call a must-read.
Let’s start with Hayate and how he ended up with the charming appellation of “Combat Butler.” This kid, now in his teens, has been running around since the tender age of nine, cleaning up the mess left behind by his compulsive-gambler parents. Fact is, they racked up so much debt, the only way they had left to absolve it was to put their own son in hock to the mob. After a series of events entirely too complicated to relate here, he winds up becoming a butler to a wealthy young lady named Nagi. Nagi has a bad tendency to land into trouble — the kind of trouble that Hayate can only bail her out of by living up to his title of combat butler.
The major running joke of the series is the clash between Hayate’s personality and behavior, and his innate skills. He’s essentially indestructible and if you give him enough of a reason to fight back, he can take out most any target. It’s getting there that’s the hard part, and so Hayate walks around with a bit of an inferiority complex about his abilities — not to mention a crush on his co-employee, the maid Maria. At one point Hayate delves into his employer’s massive library for some combat tips and comes up with a book that’s essentially worthless but which ends up getting taken very seriously by all concerned (“Lesson 99: Secret Mastery Technique To Get Lovey-Dovey, Step 1: STRIP NAKED”).
All of this is framed and played off in various self-consciously cute ways, some of which do provide fairly big (if wholly inconsequential) laughs. The characters constantly play off the fourth wall — at one point even the narration boxes get into the swing of things and start talking back) — and in-jokey references to other anime, manga, and movies also make appearances. Whenever those things appear, however, they’re almost always quasi-censored (e.g., “Sailor M__n” or “Ka__n Rider”). The plotting for each installment tends to be fairly self-contained, so there doesn’t seem to be much need to pick up the series from the beginning to get an idea of what’s going on — you can dive in, and out, at more or less any time. What few extended bits of character development there are, like the relationship between Hayate, Nagi and Maria, are essentially just mined for future gags.
Hayate isn’t what I’d call essential by a long shot. It’s the sort of series you pick up after you’ve already blown your month’s comics money on a few A-list titles, and you discover you’ve still got a stray Benjamin burning a hole in your wallet. It’s fun stuff, but I’ll stick with Excel Saga for my quasi-monthly dose of screwball action.