Before I go anywhere, I want to stress that this is a review of the manga of Fullmetal Alchemist. Not the first anime series, not the Conqueror of Shamballa movie, not the second anime series, not the Star of Milos movie. Just the plain old manga. A few color pages, mostly black and white, comic book what have you. Anywho, now that we have that out of the way… Yeah, Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s a pretty popular manga and spawned a myriad of different media based on and around it. Done by Arakawa Hiromu, Fullmetal Alchemist ran from 2001 to 2010. It got 2 fairly successful anime series. The first aired before the manga had ended, so it had its own filler ending. The second anime (though I haven’t seen all of it) followed the manga much more closely, and ended about the same way. So how does the source material stack up? Let’s find out.
Fullmetal Alchemist has a rich background and an expansive world. The world is modeled after what is essentially the western world of the late 1800s to early 1900s period. Lots of train travel, some cars, and a lot of guns. However, the key difference here is that there are some crazy powers in the world of Fullmetal Alchemist. The main one is called alchemy. Unlike a lot of shounen manga and concepts for battle manga which oftentimes create something out of nothing, Fullmetal Alchemist prides itself on approaching these powers a bit more scientifically. Of course it’s still kind of nonsensical, but it’s nice that Arakawa tried. So alchemy in the olden days was the concept that you can turn one material into another. Most people wanted gold. Here it’s a little bit different, but the concept is the same. Say you wanted to create water using alchemy. You’d still need the base ingredients of water (hydrogen and oxygen), but with just those and a fancy little sigil, poof, you got water. Of course the alchemy in the manga isn’t quite so simple, but it essentially follows those concepts. At the heart of alchemy and one of the major themes of the manga is the concept of equivalent exchange. It posits that to gain something, you have to give something of equal or greater value. This applies to all alchemy, to a degree.
Insofar as the plot is concerned, we follow a pair of boys. Edward and Alphonse Elric. Of course, at first glance, something is horribly off about the two of them. Edward has a metal arm and leg, and Alphonse seemingly inhabits a giant suit of armor. Well, what had happened was that the boys’ mother had died. Edward and Alphonse, in desperation, tried to transmute her human body back into life. I mean, it’s just base elements, right? However, this is one of the big forbiddens of Alchemy, and for good reason. They were just kids though, and their attempt to revive their mother failed. In the process, Edward lost his leg and his brother nearly lost his life. In a stroke of brilliance, Edward actually traded his right arm to bring his brother’s soul back, and affixed it to a suit of armor that happened to be nearby. As such, Edward gets his prosthetic (badass metal ones of course) limbs, and Alphonse is now a suit of armor.
They’re searching for a mythical item known as the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s said to be able to bypass the law of equivalent exchange, and give Edward the power he needs to restore his little brother’s body and get his arm and leg back (though those are secondary concerns). To that end, Edward joined a group known as State Alchemists, which are alchemists that work for the central government. With their resources at his disposal, he begins his journey with his brother. Of course, it starts that easy. It never ends that way. Along the way, the brothers learn the horrible truth behind the Philosopher’s Stone, and uncover sinister plots against the world they live in. It’s a entertaining ride full of twists and turns, and the plot is definitely really fun to read.
The scope of the story is so grand though, the characters lose out a little bit. There’s an impressive cast list of many, many characters. Most of them have motivations and backstories. Some are pitiful, some are rage-enducing, but they’re all fairly interesting. However, the character development within the manga is a little bit weak. The plot is just too large to give the characters too much time to shine. While there are some awesome characters given some awesome moments and development, in a story this big you expect just a bit more out of the characters. That’s not to say they’re bad or anything, but the manga comes across as a zero sum game between plot and characters, and the plot definitely has the majority share in development. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that the main characters are kind of boring.
Those characters being the brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric. Sure, their past is awful and you feel for them. There’s sympathy there, but after 100+ chapters, it’s hard to really feel anything else for them. The brothers Elric seem less driving forces of the plot, and instead are driven by the plot. This has a lot to do with many powerful characters working behind the scenes to lead Edward and Alphonse, but… it feels a little lame that they don’t really take too much charge until the very end, I’d say. However, the side characters are definitely quite awesome. There’s a lot, and diving into all of them is a bit out of the scope of this, but I’ll mention one of the most important. Edward’s superior at the military is Roy Mustang. He’s an alchemist as well (the Flame Alchemist, as opposed to Edward’s Fullmetal Alchemist) and generally comes across as a fairly lazy guy. Still, he’s got some deep-rooted scars about his past, and some grand ambitions as the series follows. He’s funny, he’s dramatic, and above all he’s very cool. I won’t go much further in-depth, but Roy definitely has some of the most interesting development throughout the manga.
I enjoy the art of the manga. While the characters and backgrounds aren’t the most detailed, they look fairly nice. The art does a great job in building the rich expansive world that is Fullmetal Alchemist, and putting us in the shows of the various characters that inhabit it. Besides that, the character designs are quite good. Edward and Alphonse maybe not so much (well, Alphonse is just a suit of armor) but a lot of the others are super cool. From the fabulous Lieutenant Armstrong to the suave (and slightly murderous) Kimblee, all of the designs lend themselves well to the character they represent.
Fullmetal Alchemist is a shounen manga. There’s a lot of battling, and plot generally comes secondary. However, Fullmetal Alchemist actually manages to build a rich world (well, most shounen manga manage this fairly well) and have a great plot to go along with it. More than that, though, it’s a plot that has a clear beginning and end. So unlike your Bleaches or Narutos or Fairy Tails (though those are fun in their own regard), Fullmetal Alchemist has a nice, concise and complete story. It’s an ideal read for a lot of people, and I think how its laid out makes it easy to enjoy even if you’re not generally a fan of anime or manga. One major point of praise I have for Fullmetal Alchemist is that the action is done well. A lot of times in shounen manga, action can be a confused mess as you jump for panel to panel. Trigun Maximum was especially poor at this. However, Fullmetal Alchemist does it quite well, and it lends itself to some really cool battle scenes. That alone gives it a great presentation, but it has more going for it too.