7 Reasons to Read: Fullmetal Alchemist

It’s impossible for anyone to read, watch, play, or experience everything media has to offer us these days. This is a space for us to fangirl over something you may have missed.

When Anika mentioned she was starting the “7 Reasons” feature, I jokingly said I could do a piece on Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa, which is my favorite manga series. I was joking because I feel like I mention FMA all the time, in Q&A’s and especially if you follow my tumblr. But then I realized I’ve never done a proper FF post on what’s been my number one fandom for the past two or three years.

So give you seven reasons.

1. Bros!

Do you like stories about brothers who love each other, look out for each other, sometimes fight, but in the end would do anything to protect each other? Well, take a look at Edward and Alphonse Elric:

All right, that’s mostly Ed. Ed likes to hog the spotlight a little bit, probably to compensate for the fact that he’s a tiny little shrimp of a kid. His brother Alphonse is the massive suit of armor hanging in the background there. Don’t let his intimidating looks fool you though!

He’s actually a sweetie who likes to play with kittens:

Together they have adventures!

2. Magic and transformation

Alphonse, as mentioned is a suit of armor. He doesn’t wear a suit of armor, he is a suit of armor that is was bonded to his soul in an alchemical accident. Before that happened, he was a normal ten-year-old boy, but he and Edward broke the laws of nature by trying to bring their mother back from the dead. This is just one of the examples of transformation — sometimes veering into body horror — that the series has in store. If you’re intrigued by transformational themes, this is a story for you. And if you like quests, Ed and Al’s journey to get their original bodies back gives the story its narrative engine.

3. All of this is told in a single coherent narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. . .

. . .4. That reflect the vision of a single creator.

This is a feature manga can offer that you don’t get out of DC or Marvel comics, or television or even anime. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Arakawa made the 27 volumes of FMA all by herself — manga creators rely on assistants for crucial production work — it nonetheless looks and feels and sounds like her story from beginning to end.

This is why I recommend the FMA manga over (or in addition to) the popular 2003 anime of the same name (which has most of the same central characters, but a significantly different storyline), or even the more recent Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which follows the manga storyline much more closely. These shows are fun, and you should check them if they’re available. But I love the manga for the opportunity to watch Arakawa’s style and storytelling grow over the years, along with the characters. (I’m still going to use images from the various anime series in this post, though. Because they’re in color and they’re easier to find.)

I love (a lot of) American superhero comics, and their constant reboots and rebirths and relaunches are a part of the appeal. But sometimes I just want a story to give me a satisfying ending. And while 27 volumes isn’t as pithy as, say, Naoki Urasawa’s nine-volume Pluto, it’s concise by the standards of most long-running (many still ongoing) manga series. I got the whole thing from my public library. (At one point, it was all in stacks on my dining room table. That was a fun month).

Now, for more of what’s in the comic:

5.Ladies!

FMA is a shonen/shounen manga, which means it was originally published in a magazine for teenage boys. The main characters — see Bros! above — are teenage boys. But look at all these excellent ladies!

A brilliant mechanic:

A cunning pickpocket with a heart of gold (and a gun for a leg):

The scariest sniper you don’t want to come up against:

And that’s just for starters. It’s been noted that the female characters in FMA don’t have character arcs as developed as those of the men, and that they interact with men more than with other women. This is generally a fair criticism (though I defy anyone to show me a more awesome technical-Bechdel-fail than this sequence)

(Read right to left, the manga image is unflipped):

Judged by its main protagonists, FMA is primarily a story about boys and men. However, Arakawa populates her boys’ world with smart, diverse, hyper-competent women, which is one of the reasons I keep coming back to it.

6. These two idiots

I’ve gotten this far in the post and I haven’t said anything about Roy Mustang and Riza Hawkeye. I haven’t talked about how they watch each other’s backs and finish each other’s sentences and how they really really need to smoosh their faces together. There is a reason for that, dear readers, which is that whenever I talk about FMA, I always talk about Roy and Riza first. This creates the misapprehension that they are the main characters of the story. This isn’t actually the case.

They are my favorite part though. I’m not going to lie.

And you can tell they love each other because they call each other idiots, so very convincingly:

7. Feelings!

When I say Roy and Riza love each other, I don’t necessarily mean they are going back to quarters and smooshing their faces together. I mean, they should! I feel very strongly about this. But the canon doesn’t force this interpretation, and romance, or love triangles, or what have you, never figure very strongly into the story.

However — this does not change the undeniable fact that they are having intense feelings at each other. Just like Ed and Al have intense feelings at their childhood friend and mechanic, Winry Rockbell, and everybody has intense feelings about Roy’s goofball BFF, Lt. Colonel Hughes:

. . .who mostly just has feelings about his adorable tiny child:

The canon doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to define what those feelings are, and which ones are the most important. And that’s the way it should be. Families, and lovers, and comrades and arms — they put it all on the line for each other, and that’s what matters.

  • Stacey

    Hi–Just wanted to let you know that you’ve gained a convert. I started reading “Fullmetal Alchemist” based on this post, and I’m about to start volume 5. Loving it so far (even if the events of volume 4 broke my heart a little)–and for many of the same reasons you outlined here (I can’t resist devoted siblings, awesome ladies, and badasses who need to “smoosh their faces together” already). Thanks for sharing this!

  • Caroline

    Stacey — Thanks so much for letting me know the post captured your interest. (And sorry for the heartbreak, but I know EXACTLY the part you mean.) FMA is one of my favorite things & I’m always glad when a new fan joins the fold!

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