Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-27

Fullmetal Alchemist 1When their beloved mother dies, precocious young Edward and Alphonse Elric resolve to do anything to bring her back, even breaking equilibrium-bound alchemy’s greatest taboo. But when the crackling energy from their transmutation circle fades, their mother’s still dead, Ed’s lost an arm and a leg, and Al’s lost a good deal more. Repentant, the brothers count themselves lucky to be alive, if not whole, and adjust to their new circumstances, vowing to make right their mistake by someday getting their original bodies back. For that, they’ll need more than their long-absent father’s alchemy books or the counsel of their former teacher (who’d totally kill them if she knew what they’ve been up to), so Ed passes the test to become a state alchemist, a “dog of the military.” With their new access to cutting-edge alchemical research and funding, he and Al throw themselves into their personal quest for knowledge and alchemy’s fabled Philosopher’s Stone. But the more people they meet and the more they learn, the more the boys realize they’re not the only ones with secrets and that their sins pale in comparison to the transgressions others have been–and are still–all too willing to commit.

Complete at 27 volumes, Fullmetal Alchemist (or FMA) is an involving, satisfying, and well-crafted action fantasy that reminds me why I love comics.

Through patient, precision plotting, and without losing sight of the series’ emotional core, creator Arakawa gradually draws her characters’ individual stories into a brilliantly imaginative epic.

For her setting, she breaks down early twentieth-century European history and alchemical lore into isolated elements and recombines them to create something new yet not entirely unfamiliar. The result is Amestris, a military dictatorship with a charismatic f├╝hrer-president, imposing architecture, and a turbulent history marked by frequent foreign and domestic conflicts. In its employ are a number of highly skilled alchemists expected to make themselves useful to society in times of peace…and to their commanding officers in times of war. (Young Ed crosses his fingers that he’ll only know the former, having encountered too many colleagues still haunted by their experiences with the latter.)

Arakawa’s bold, clean-lined art achieves an attractive balance of black, white, and screentone ideally suited to her well-choreographed action scenes that smoothly blend firefights, fisticuffs, and alchemical throw-downs. It also supports one of the series’ greatest assets, its morally complex cast. Young, old, male, female, human, homunculus: all are as distinct from one another visually as they are in personality (not an easy feat, considering how many wear Amestrian military uniforms). And by subtly depicting family resemblances and physical maturation over time, Arakawa further strengthens the sense of realism within her carefully constructed fantasy.

Ultimately, the concept of “family” defines FMA’s heart. The bonds between siblings, soul mates, parents and children, leaders and followers, friends, colleagues, and countrymen influence–for good or ill–every decision these characters make and drive the story forward as they explore what it means to be human. Despite some of the dark places that question leads and loved ones lost along the way, Arakawa manages to keep the overall tone hopeful through her sarcastic characters’ tested but inextinguishable optimism and her own gentle wit (showcased in her wonderfully silly, snarky omake).

FMA isn’t perfect. Ed’s sensitivity about his diminutive stature becomes old hat very quickly (though his shortness cleverly proves more than a gimmick) and the series gets off to a slow start with a few exposition-friendly, mission-of-the-month chapters. More distracting are the English language edition’s serious quality control issues regarding consistent translation of names across (and sometimes within) volumes. Such flaws, however, are easily overlooked, as few shonen titles so successfully balance horror-tinged fantasy with reality, action with drama and humor, or achieve such substantial thematic and emotional depth.

Spawning a handful of light novels and video games, and twice adapted into excellent anime series (each with its own original feature-length film), FMA raises the shonen quality bar. Thanks to the inclusion of strong female characters and surprisingly minimal fanservice, the series will engage teens and adults of both genders who can appreciate the gravity of the story’s violence along with the mildly strong language and a few hard-smoking / drinking grown-ups.

Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-27
by Hiromu Arakawa
Vol. 1: ISBN 1591169208
Vol. 2: ISBN 1591169232
Vol. 3: ISBN 1591169259
Vol. 4: ISBN 1591169291
Vol. 5: ISBN 1421501759
Vol. 6: ISBN 1421503190
Vol. 7: ISBN 1421504588
Vol. 8: ISBN 1421504596
Vol. 9: ISBN 142150460X
Vol. 10: ISBN 1421504618
Vol. 11: ISBN 1421508389
Vol. 12: ISBN 1421508397
Vol. 13: ISBN 1421511584
Vol. 14: ISBN 142151379X
Vol. 15: ISBN 1421513803
Vol. 16: ISBN 1421513811
Vol. 17: ISBN 142152161X
Vol. 18: ISBN 1421525364
Vol. 19: ISBN 1421525682
Vol. 20: ISBN 1421530341
Vol. 21: ISBN 1421532328
Vol. 22: ISBN 1421534134
Vol. 23: ISBN 1421536307
Vol. 24: ISBN 1421538121
Vol. 25: ISBN 1421539241
Vol. 26: ISBN 1421539624
Vol. 27: ISBN 1421539845
Viz Media, 2005-2012
Publisher Age Rating: T(13+)

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