“Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost.”
– Alchemy’s first law of Equivalent Exchange
It’s an unfortunate fact that manga companies are only just now putting their properties onto digital platforms. This is the reason I will mostly recommend Viz Manga products, because they are making a concerted effort into releasing new a varied products both in physical and digital editions. Tons of manga are lost because they are no longer in print. Though Fullmetal Alchemist is not available digitally, but it will never be hard to find a physical copy. Since it’s début on Adult Swim in 2004, this series has gained a huge following in the west, and remains a strong staple of the anime and manga community as the perfect gateway for new fans.
Fullmetal Alchemist is set in a world which contains a powerful magic called alchemy, the deconstruction of something into its base elements (and I mean stuff like iron and copper, not wind and fire) and then reconstructing those elements into something else. By drawing a special circle and pouring their energy into the ritual, these alchemists can take the most mundane things and turn them into marvels of art, science, and if you’re particularly ambitious, warfare. However, as the quote from the anime above demonstrates, everything must have the same value. You cannot just turn lead into gold because they’re two completely different elements. There are limits to what an alchemist can accomplish, though a genius can push the boundaries beyond what anyone can imagine. A good example of this is Roy Mustang, the flame alchemist, who can manipulate the oxygen in the air to create an explosion of fire.
The holy grail in alchemy is the philosopher’s stone, a mystical object which breaks the laws of nature, allowing an alchemist to create anything while ignoring equivalent exchange. Two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, are on a journey to find this stone because they believe it can resurrect their dead mother. After an accident while experimenting to bring their mother back with forbidden alchemy, Ed lost his arm and leg, while Alphonse’s soul was implanted into a suit of armor. Ed’s missing limbs were replaced with robotic ones attached directly to his nerves, while Al figured out how to control the suit and walk around, he even learned to talk. The two brothers learned a harsh lesson that night, and they’re determined not to make the same mistake twice. Still, their resolve to see their mother again and repair their broken bodies drives them forward around the world in search of clues to the philosopher’s stone.
These two make up the main cast for most of the first part of the story. Though Fullmetal Alchemist has a huge cast of unbelievably memorable characters, this is completely Ed and Al’s story. You want to follow these two as their resolve and morality are tested through their pursuit of the stone. Every victory pulls them forward, but where they are going is somewhere no person dares to tread. They also don’t know about the larger world they inhabit, having been sheltered in a small farming town called Resembool. Once they begin exploring the world they inhabit, it’s overwhelming for the two when they become embroiled in politics and face the crimes their country committed in the name of progress.
The two brother’s first goal is to become State Alchemists, basically alchemic researcher who receive funding from the government, as long as their research proves to be fruitful and useful. They get huge benefits both monetarily and gain privileges such as access to a huge library of past alchemic research. That’s the reason the Elric brothers want the title, to begin researching the Philosopher’s Stone on a much larger scale. However, it’s not all perks and fancy titles. They’re basically enlisted as part of the military when they become a State Alchemist, and completely under the control of the government. Ed and Al both struggle with the weight of their title, and if it’s worth the benefits while also being closely observed by a military organization they don’t fully trust.
I should probably get this out of the way quickly. Fullmetal Alchemist is dark. Seriously dark. The world of Fullmetal Alchemist is dangerous, filled with death and hatred. Alchemy is shown to be used for the betterment of all mankind, and at the same time twisted into a horrifying crime against nature. Tragedy follows Ed and Al whereever they go, and yet they try to see the light in this cruel world. That’s what makes this series so memorable. Despite shown the worst of humanity, Ed and Al never lose their fun loving spirit for both adventure and helping those they care about. Darkness permeates this story, but there’s always a silver lining, even in death. With each loss something is gained, but with each new victory something is usually inadvertently sacrificed. The first law is more than just a limit to the character’s magical powers, it is a major theme throughout the story.
This manga is brought to us by Hiromu Arakawa. It’s unfortunately rare to see such a successful woman in the manga industry. It’s even rarer to see a woman write such a violent and action packed series in Japan. She also created a very accessible manga since, unlike most manga which are heavily influenced by Japanese culture, Fullmetal Alchemist is based on German, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and even Russian culture. Everything has a western bent, including the character’s names, making it easy for people who have trouble with Japanese names. Because the story has this real multicultural tone, it feels like this is a larger world rather than just a story set somewhere in Japan or a place like Japan. You can also see a real steampunk inspiration to everything, but filtered through a new perspective with the alchemy theme. Ed’s robotic arm is a good example of this steampunk theme really playing a real part in the story. This mixing of themes and influences makes the setting and characters memorable and sets Fullmetal Alchemist away from your more standard shonen manga (this is manga marketed to older males, usually in middle school or high school).
So yeah, if you are at all interested in manga, this is the perfect place to start. Despite reading this manga years ago, if you mention certain parts from the story I’ll tear up a little. Thinking back, there are some moments burned into my memory. Hiromu put true emotion and thought into the story, and despite dealing with heavy subjects such as humanity and morality, it never feels forced or pandering. The artwork is just stunning when it needs to be. I wish I could show you some of the designs Hiromu thought up for her characters, but that would mean spoilers. She walked a thin line between going too over the top and making the art horrifying to the readers. She uses both the art and her writing to build a world that feels almost as real as our own, populated by people who you can’t help but connect with on an emotional level. Honestly, the cast is too numerous to do justice by in this review, so let’s just say everyone has a real motivation you can understand. It can be as simple as loyalty to the military, to dreams of being King, but each character has something the audience can easily connect with or get behind.
If you’re interested, I recommend checking out a few episodes of the anime Fullmetal Alchemist (though don’t watch Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood until you finish the first series. Confusing, I know). It’s what got so many people in the early 2000s into anime and manga. It’s also a great show with beautiful animation and a stellar dub cast. The first two or three episodes gives you a good taste of what’s to come, and draws you into the bigger world of Fullmetal Alchemist.
Unfortunately, no digital version of Fullmetal Alchemist has been released, but like I said it’s not a hard series to find. You can purchase this manga at your local comic book store or any online retailer, though I recommend the three in one volumes. You get three volumes in one book for a very reasonable price. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed.
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I'm James Ristig. I've been reading comics for ten years and I'm a freelance writer and editor. Follow me on twitter @RisTigger