~by Hiromu Arakawa
My introduction to Fullmetal Alchemist was through the first anime series. The franchise is so popular that it has spawned a second anime series, films, light novels, drama CDs, and video games, among other merchandise, but it all began with Hiromu Arakawa's manga series. Somehow, I am only now getting around to reading the Fullmetal Alchemist manga. Fullmetal Alchemist began serialization in Monthly Shōnen Gangan in 2001 and would later win the Shogakukan Manga Award for shōnen in 2004. The first three volumes of the series (out of twenty-seven) were originally released in Japan in 2002. Viz Media initially published the individual volumes in 2005 before releasing a "3-in-1" omnibus edition in 2011. I really enjoyed the first anime series (I haven't seen the second one yet, though I do plan to); I saw the omnibus as a perfect way to finally give the original manga a try. And as much as I love the anime, I think the manga might be even better.
In alchemy, one of the most important rules that must be followed is the law of equivalent exchange--in order to gain something, something of equal value must be given. Even working within this constraint the science of alchemy is capable of amazing things, but it is still not able to solve all of humanity's problems. Edward and Alphonse Elric learn this difficult lesson the hard way when their attempt to bring their dead mother back to life goes horribly wrong. Human alchemy is forbidden and the two brothers have paid the price. Al has lost his body and Ed lost one of his legs, further sacrificing an arm to save his brother's soul. Now, in an effort to return their bodies back to normal, the brothers are searching for the philosopher's stone. Ed even became the youngest state alchemist to have ever been certified in order to pursue the stone. It's a military position of prestige, but more importantly it's a position with research money and access to restricted resources.
I don't know how far ahead Arakawa had the story planned when beginning Fullmetal Alchemist, but the world it takes place in is solid form the very start. Her artwork is strong and clear and is fairly straightforward with excellent page layouts that ease the flow of the story and help to emphasize emotional climaxes. Occasionally the fight scenes could have used an extra panel or two to clarify the action a bit more. While Arakawa's artwork isn't overly detailed, the world and characters of Fullmetal Alchemist are marvelously complicated and complex. There is a palpable tension between alchemy and religion and no easy answers are given. Science can be used for good or for ill; the alchemists have to make personal and moral choices and compromises and then deal with the consequences of those decisions. Science is capable of wondrous things, and it is also capable of terrible things. The fact that most alchemical research is funded by the military only complicates matters further.
The story of Fullmetal Alchemist is actually fairly dark, dealing with serious matters of life, death, sin, war, and responsibility. However, Arakawa includes enough humor that it never becomes overwhelmingly depressing. And even though the Elric brothers have a tragic past they don't wallow in self-pity. Instead, while always being very conscious of their circumstances, they are determined to reach their goals, pushing forward one step at a time, showing tremendous strength of character. But while they are mature for their ages and have been through a lot together, they are still young. Most of the other characters in Fullmetal Alchemist are also dealing with difficult situations although some of them certainly handle it better than others. Fullmetal Alchemist is a fantastic series and an engrossing read. From these first three volumes alone I know that I want to see the story through to its end.