With the release of its first hardcover deluxe edition this week, the manga Fullmetal Alchemist has now been blessed with not one, not two, but three English releases, and it’s hard to think of a series more deserving.
Since it began serialization 17 years ago, Hiromu Arakawa’s blockbuster shonen fantasy has inspired not only readers, but also fantasy authors and artists the likes of Brian McClellan and Faith Erin Hicks. On the surface, it sounds like a typical adventure series, following two brothers, skilled young alchemist Edward Elric and his brother Alphonse (reduced to a spirit encased in a hollow suit of armor in the wake of a magical experiment went horribly wrong), seek the Philosopher’s Stone, a fabled object they hope to use to enhance Ed’s power and hopefully restore Al’s humanity. But there’s a lot going on below the surface—fascinating philosophical questions, tricky moral quandaries, and complex character interactions.
What’s so great about this manga? A million things really, but here are just a few reasons Fullmetal Alchemist should be considered essential reading for any fantasy fan.
Shonen Heroes Are the Heroes We Deserve
At a cultural moment in which our heroes seem to be either self aware quip-slingers or cynical, gritty badasses, the sincere heroes of shonen manga (or “boys’ manga,” though it’s hardly just for boys) might feel like a breath of fresh air. Fullmetal Alchemist has all the things you love about shonen manga that you probably don’t even know you love (or soon will). Characters who try, and fail, and try again. Enemies who become allies, then friends. A strong sense of justice that rewards heroes and punishes villains (but maybe not always in the way you expected). Adrenaline-fueled action scenes with exhilarating match-ups and creative uses of special skills. Fighting to protect those you love, even when hopeless.
When shonen manga is good, it fills your heart right up—and Fullmetal Alchemist is very good. Its sincerity is neither naive nor trite: it doesn’t gloss over the ugly, painful, or difficult stuff, but sets its heroes up to conquer it.
Magic That Is Actually Science
As the title implies, Fullmetal Alchemist is about alchemy (the lead-into-gold kind), and Arakawa’s approach should be catnip for any fantasy fan who likes “hard” magic systems. In her Industrial Revolution-era setting, there is no division between technology and magic, because alchemy is not magic, it’s science. Anyone can do it with the right knowledge and materials.
And like any scientific discipline, alchemy has rules. Alchemy is governed by the law of equivalent exchange, viz., you get out what you put in. It seems like a pretty simple deal, until you start thinking about how one might use alchemy on living things. Sure you can scrape together all the elements of a human body—water, carbon, ammonia, salt, etc.—relatively cheap, too. But what is equivalent exchange for a human soul?
Such is the elegance of Arakawa’s worldbuilding, that the first law of her magic system reverberates throughout the series in ways far beyond the alchemical. Who determines the value of an arm, a leg, sight, a soul, a life? When is something more than the sum of its parts? And because it’s equivalent, does that mean it’s just?
Characters You’d Give an Arm and a Leg For
Do you love fantasy with flawed, realistic characters that grow and change over the course of the series? Then this is your new favorite manga. Arakawa’s cast is huge and diverse and so full of interior life, you feel you might meet them on the street (though in some cases, you’d want to run very quickly in the opposite direction). Even the villains are somewhat distressingly humanized, including the ones that aren’t strictly human.
For those looking for female characters who completely kick ass, this is also your new favorite manga. Let’s talk about Winry Rockbell, Ed and Al’s childhood friend who creates and maintains Ed’s complex mechanical prosthetics. Or Riza Hawkeye, sharpshooter and right-hand man of the Flame Alchemist, whose romantic subplot never reduces her to a damsel in distress. Or Olivier Armstrong, a military border commander so formidable they call her the Northern Wall. I could go on, but I don’t have the space.
And let’s talk about Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist himself. Ed is not chosen, he chooses. He owns up to his mistakes (and he makes many), and succeeds more often through cleverness than strength. He is constantly trying to keep his promises, but refuses to compromise his principles. He’s also a brat and a kid, with a serious complex about his height. Watching him grow up over the course of the series is one of Fullmetal Alchemist’s many pleasures, and one of the small details I adore about this manga is how Arakawa gradually ages him up visually over the course of the series (and here he thought he’d never get taller).
Transgression and Redemption
In the words of the sorely missed Ursula K. Le Guin, “Fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality.” And the realities Arakawa deals with in Fullmetal Alchemist are so, so real. The manga tackles themes of prejudice and persecution, justice and revenge, sacrifice, science and religion, the responsibilities and abuses of power, loyalty, the lasting effects of war on those who wage it, hubris, transgression, and the possibility of redemption.
The series begins with transgression: as boys, Edward and Alphonse break the taboo against human transmutation in an attempt to revive their dead mother. Their bodies are a physical manifestation of that violation and constant reminder of what they’ve lost, and why. And while the brothers bear the most conspicuous signs, they are not alone. Mustang and his cohorts carry internal wounds carved out by their actions in the Ishbalan War. Scar, who uses alchemy forbidden by his faith, bears the marks of his perceived sin as tattoos on his skin.
The heroes of Arakawa’s manga are all people who have been weak—have transgressed against nature, against morality, against faith—at some point in their lives. They are driven to seek justice, knowledge, and above all, redemption and wholeness. Finding the Philosopher’s Stone is one answer. There are many others.
When was the last time you read a fantasy series where the most thematically significant relationship in the book was a supportive and loving sibling bond? Ed and Al’s relationship lies at the very heart of Fullmetal Alchemist, so much so that the second anime adaptation was given the English subtitle “Brotherhood.” These brothers have each other’s back through thick and thin, and they complement each other’s strengths, making the journey possible only with both of them.
Ed’s guilt over dragging his little brother into the human transmutation SNAFU is a constant, heart-wrenching background note to his resolve to find a way to restore their bodies, and Al’s trust and belief in his brother is probably the only thing that keeps them moving forward when things are at their worst. The lengths to which these boys will go for each other, the sacrifices they make, and their unquestioning love, brings a tear to my eye as I write this. Look, it’s raining.
Fullmetal Alchemist is the kind of manga that reminds you why you read manga, and the kind of fantasy that reminds you why you read fantasy.