Volume 15 of Fullmetal Alchemist gut-punched me good. Told completely as flashbacks, this volume has gruesome scenes of war and its effect on ordinary human beings, one in which characters established as “good” so far show the extent of blood on their hands from events past. This makes the motivations of a different character – known so far as a mass murderer who nearly killed the Elric kids – appear far more noble than we think, and make us examine the motivations of all the characters introduced so far in a different light.
Genocide, political intrigue, and dismemberment – hardly one’s choice of topics for a genre of storytelling marketed at children.It is not strange how Hiromu Arakawa balances the dark themes in Fullmetal Alchemist – there is slapstick humor aplenty. This could be one of the reasons why something that is marketed as an adult comic in the USA cannot compete with shonen manga in terms of the themes explored. With all its doom-and-gloom, there is the inherent fun that comes with reading shonen – chibi faces galore, lots of running gags – about lead protagonist Edward Elric’s short stature and temper, about Alphonse Elric’s armored body used as a receptacle to smuggle girls and cats (!!!), about the idiosyncrasies of supporting characters. I am not sure if scanlation consumers got their share of the short gags that appears at the end of every volume, with zany interpretations of the story events and alternate realities involving the characters, but it’s so so hard to not burst out laughing at them.
I do not intend to go into spoiler-land or even into brief-description land. The best description of FMA is Jason Thompson’s House of 1000 Manga review (and it made me very happy that he happened to write it when I was reading it). If you don’t want to do that either, read the Wikipedia summary – well, not the full article, which gives away everything. But chances are high that if you are reading this, you already know about Fullmetal Alchemist, at least in anime form. There are two anime series, the first one developed in parallel with the manga and therefore with divergent story-lines from the comic from the midpoint of the series, and with completely different Big Bad Villains. The second anime series Brotherhood is apparently a straight-up adaptation of the manga, and that may be the one I get around to watching (eventually, love, eventually). While the story is primarily about the Elric brothers, they transform from the adventures of the two brothers on the road to the methodical unraveling of a plot that involves multiple nations and centuries of planning. At times, the brothers’ concerns become secondary to that of the supporting members of the cast. With a little bit of tinkering, it wouldn’t be surprising if this series was called Flame Alchemist, or May and her Panda, or even Homonculus Prince. (I am a Housewife? ) But yes, this is a shonen manga, and the brothers are the central characters, so it’s not surprising to see them develop as characters, learning the ways of the world from their peers, elders or – the old-fashioned way – the mistakes they make.
I am reminded of Joe Hill’s words in Locke and Key, another of my favorite fantasy series involving children caught up in frightening events beyond their control.
It feels utterly refreshing to read a story that gives you so many payoffs in course of a 27-volume run. In most series, the early issues form the setup, the author using them as throwaway episodes to establish characterization and milieu. And that is what I thought about Fullmetal Alchemist too, but it is surprising how much the stories loop back, and how minor characters and actions in previous arcs seem to have effects on the lead characters’ actions towards the end of the series.
Most of my friends are a little annoyed at my constant sniping at mainstream American comics being published currently. Reading FMA just reinforces my belief even more – that it is possible to create all-ages comics that make you laugh and cry and cheer with and for the characters; where a character meets his end without it feeling pointless or gratuitous; where, when the stakes pile up against the protagonists and their friends, you actually begin to worry for their well-being. Where civilian casualties actually mean something. FMA goes through its story-line without being repetitive (parts of Ranma 1/2 feel that way to me) and the story is not about increasing power-levels across successive boss-fights. And you have characters with ironic lines like this:
If you are among those who has read this series already, accept a belated squee and a high-five from me. If you aren’t, you aren’t even reading this. Good-bye.
(And now I started reading Detroit Metal City. 10 volumes in all, should be done in the next day or two.)