“Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is Alchemy’s First Law of Equivalent Exchange. In those days, we really believed that to be the world’s one, and only, truth.”
October 3rd is an incredibly important day to a great deal of people. Aside from the German Reunification (and now I sit here wondering how many of you are going to Google that to make sure I’m right), it is unofficially known as “Fullmetal Alchemist Day”. The fanbase of Hiromu Arakawa’s “Fullmetal Alchemist” chose this date as such because it is the day in story that protagonists Edward and Alphonse Elric burned down their family home, along with their childhood memories, so they wouldn’t be able to turn back on their quest for redemption. As such, I thought I would talk about the book, its themes, it’s impact, and, most importantly, what it means to me.
And I guess that is as good a point to start as any. To put it simply: “Fullmetal Alchemist” is my favorite story in the medium. Not just “favorite manga”, my favorite piece of sequential art storytelling. It is the story that I compare every comic to, regardless genre, of being creator-owned or work-for-hire or whatnot. Subsequently, you can also blame my love for this book for when I criticize company-owned properties for not evolving their characters and concepts or just outright ending a franchise.
But I am getting ahead of myself. So, first things, first:
What is Fullmetal Alchemist?
“Fullmetal Alchemist” is a manga written and illustrated by Hiromu Arakawa that ran in Square Enix’s Monthly Shonen Gangan from August 2001 to June 2010 and last 108 chapters. In a world that combines medieval and WWI-era Europe aesthetic, the science of Alchemy (analyzing an object’s composition, deconstructing it and recreating it as something else) has become a driving force in the world to the point where it is militarized. After the death of their mother, Edward and Alphonse Elric, two kids who are pretty talented at Alchemy, try to resurrect her.
And as it is want to, things go colossally wrong, which results in Edward losing an arm and a leg and Alphonse losing his body, his life only saved by Edward being able to attach his younger brother’s soul to an old suit of armor. From there, the two begin a journey to find the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that allows Alchemists to bypass the Law of Equivalent Exchange in order to get their bodies back. What follows is an adventure that takes them all across their country and backs them into some very interesting corners and meeting a cast of incredibly complex and infinitely likable and dangerous characters.
Now I know what it is, what’s it about?
“Fullmetal Alchemist” wears it’s themes proudly on its sleeve. The largest example deals with that aforementioned “Law of Equivalent Exchange”. Like the quote above says, it is about how to obtain something, one must prepare and be willing to give something up. The Elric brothers gave up precious parts to them, even though what they received back wasn’t what they wanted. This theme is further exemplified through Colonel Roy Mustang and his own path of redemption by becoming the leader of Amestris, the country the story is located, in an attempt to atone for his own sins. What is he willing to go through and who is he willing to sacrifice in order to accomplish this?
Revenge is a great theme in this book as well and the idea of the Cycle of Revenge. Unlike books like “Naruto”, which bludgeoned you over the head with this until it lost all effect, the theme is done with a much defter hand here. The clear character out for revenge here is Scar, a man from the country of Ishval that was destroyed by Amestris in, and I’m serious when I call it, “The Ishval War of Extermination”. As such, he has become a hunter, a serial killer after State Alchemists that did the majority of damage to his country and his people. As he continues onward and discovers the true purpose of the war, his ideals begin to go under a fascinating metamorphosis as well.Continued below
Cultural identity is also a major topic. Scar is one manifestation of the horrors of the fate of Ishval (a stand-in for middle eastern nations scarred by war). Another Ishvalan of interest is Major Miles, one of the few Ishvalans within the Amerstrian Military that was not imprisoned or executed. His own view is different from Scars is that he seeks to change systems from within. This is partially due to the influence of his own superior officer, Major General Olivier Mira Armstrong’s own methods and philosophies.
Finally, Family is a massive theme in the book. Who is your family? To what lengths do you go to protect them? Is family by blood or by bond or both? These questions are looked at ranging from Ed’s own problems with his father, to the fact that the main villains are essentially brothers and sisters, to a bunch of outcasts united under a charismatic leader, Greed. Family was the catalyst that began the story and it is the final image of the series we see.
All the Ladies!
I had to put this in its own section because the amount of compelling, three dimensional and awesome female characters in this is astonishing. And yes, that is probably due to the fact that Hiromu Arakawa is a woman, but still! Female characters in shonen manga have… well… sometimes… not been great. But FMA stood out with it’s array of female characters with agency.
And these characters aren’t cut from the same “Action Girl” cloth that sneers on traditional “feminine” traits. There’s variety of personality, skill, and morality. There’s the perky and optimistic Winry Rockbell who is a skillful automail (think prosthetics but kinda steampunky and awesome) mechanic as well as a medic, the young alchemy prodigy May Chang who is determined to find the secret of immortality to save her family but also likes to daydream about cute boys. And then there’s Izumi Curtis, alchemy teacher to Ed and Alphonse and within the top three badasses of the series (eclipsed by Hohenheim and Father… maybe) who takes pride in the fact that she’s a housewife.
Of course, there are those female characters that take on very “masculine” traits and plays with them and make them work. Perhaps the biggest example is the above-mentioned Major General Olivier Mira Armstrong. She’s commander of one of the most skilled military units in Amestris, an absolute badass with a sword, cunning strategist and her philosophy centers around “Survival of the Fittest”. That being said, she is not without empathy, loves the soldiers under her command and it makes her all the cooler for it.
To list and discuss the amount of kickass and compelling women, Riza Hawkeye, Lan Fan, Maria Ross and more, would perhaps double the intended length of this article, so suffice to say, if you are worried this is a series where the women are props, you are severely wrong.
It’s Impact on Me?
It was the early-mid 2000s. I had decided to start moving away from superhero comics (partially because books like “Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day” and “Identity Crisis” were everything I despised about the Big 2). Like most of my generation, we were in the right spot when the anime boom really began in America. Dragonball Z, Rurouni Kenshin, Cowboy Bebop, Gundam Wing and more.
And then Fullmetal Alchemist came to Adult Swim and there was no going back for me.
The first anime was the first one where I watched and immediately wanted to pick up the original source material. The dub performed by Funimation was the first one where I actively looked for the voice actor names (and to this day, I can’t watch the first anime in Japanese). Devouring the manga over the years, it was one that I examined for storytelling conventions, thematic resonance and pacing. It led me to want to learn about manga and comics on a more technical level. In fact, if it wasn’t for FMA, I probably would not be on this site reviewing comics and writing this editorial.
But it didn’t just impact my love for the medium. There was something more to the story. While Fullmetal Alchemist didn’t give me my philosophy or moral code, it helped focus and crystallize it. It helped me learn what I believe to be some of the strongest traits we as humans can have and what I continue to work on as myself:Continued below
Edward Elric taught me that nothing comes free and that you have to give to receive.
Alphonse Elric taught me that kindness and empathy aren’t weaknesses.
Winry Rockbell taught me to never underestimate my own skills.
Roy Mustang taught me how to value my friends.
Riza Hawkeye taught me that loyalty can be a virtue.
Maes Hughes taught me to cherish and care for family, even if it causes you to be a goofball.
May Chang taught me that I shouldn’t let my ambitions prevent me from doing what’s right.
Ling Yao and Lan Fan taught me to never forget those who help you.
And finally, something that I will forever love for this series: I was able to share it with my little brother. While he only watched the two anime adaptations, it is something we can bond over, discuss and love together. And considering how well we usually get along, that is something major.
I could go on and revisit so many awesome, hilarious, poignant and downright tragic moments that I had with this series. To put it simply: Fullmetal Alchemist holds an enormous place in my heart and I highly recommend anyone check it out.
Take us out, NICO Touches The Walls