Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-3: Slow Starts and B-Movies

Cover of the first 3-1 volume of Fullmetal Alchemist, comprising volumes 1, 2, and 3.Title: Fullmetal Alchemist, volumes 1, 2 and 3

Author: Hiromu Arakawa

Publication Date: For this omnibus edition, 2011. These three volumes were originally published in 2002.

LC Call Number:  PN6790.J34H3313

Okay, at this point we all know that this is really a Fullmetal Alchemist blog, right?  Okay, then I don’t have to apologize for writing about this again.  So, having been pretty fascinated by the anime, I’ve decided to read the manga.

Let me step back a bit for those who want context; manga is Japanese for comics, anime is Japanese for, y’know, cartoons. Most anime is based on manga series.  In the case of Fullmetal Alchemist, there are actually two anime series.  The one I’ve seen is Fullmetal Alchemist, which apparently follows the manga for about half of its run, but then it diverges and has a different ending, because the manga wasn’t finished at the time it was being made.  There’s another one, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which many fans seem to prefer, and which (I’m told) follows the manga more faithfully.  At some point I’d like to see it, but that’s where I am right now.  The manga has a few different editions, but the one that I’m reading is a set of “3-in-1” volumes—so what was originally volumes 1, 2, and 3 are together in this book. I’m reading them one at a time and will continue to write about them as I go along. I was a little surprised to find that the manga actually moves a little faster than the anime does, and by the end of the third volume, we are perhaps not to the halfway point of the anime, but probably more than a third of the way through.

When I tried to write this post, it turned out that I wanted to write about so many different aspects of this that it is was very long. So, I’m splitting it up; I may or may not publish all the parts that I wrote, but there’s probably more coming.

In an early post on Fullmetal Alchemist, I wrote about how it achieved a strange combination of engrossing and ridiculous which I couldn’t quite explain to myself.  In a quotation included with this edition, Arakawa confesses that this was more or less the effect she intended:

I love B movies.  I love the way they make me think “What the hell is this? That’s crazy!” yet     still draw me in so that I watch the whole thing.  I really like that feeling, and I like to bring a  little bit of that over-the-top flavor to my own manga. … As you read [Fullmetal Alchemist],   please criticize it by saying to yourself, “What kind of alchemy is that?!”

Does this self-awareness make the general B-movie aesthetic of this thing a little more sophisticated?  Maybe. I’m not a B-movie fan myself, so it’s difficult for me to say how this compares to them.  Fullmetal Alchemist definitely produces this sensation, but combines it with a possibly surprising depth of character and, eventually, a little bit of philosophy. The story ramps up to this slowly, but it is more obvious that this is happening the second time around. At the beginning, we are still being introduced to these characters and this world.

True, the very first page, before the title page for the first chapter, shows the trauma of the initial failed experiment, revealing the stump of Ed’s missing leg by the end of the page, while the images are set against a black background, with the words, “Teachings that do not speak of pain have no meaning, because humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return.”  This is not ramping up slowly. But the next scene takes us to Lior, which looks like a very sleepy town in the first few panels, with nothing going on but the sermon on the radio.  The first time we see Ed and Al within the context of the story, Ed is eating at a cafe while being grouchy and inquisitive, while Al sits quietly next to him.  There is no sign of the intense fear and pain of the earlier page.  Instead, the first volume spends some time establishing characters, explaining how alchemy works, and setting up a little mystery that reveals itself quickly.  There is an explanation of that original scene, but it just seems like backstory at this point—Ed and Al suffered this experience and now they wander through the world looking for the Philosopher’s Stone. This first issue includes three quick consecutive plotlines—there’s the exposure of the priest Cornello as a fraud in Lior, there’s the incident in the mining town where Ed outsmarts the corrupt official, and there’s the fight against the hijackers who kidnap the general on the train.  These are three unambiguous wins for Ed, in which it seems that his cleverness, with some assistance from his alchemical skill and his combat abilities, allows him to show up in any given town, expose the truth, and solve all the problems. So despite the initial hint that this is about suffering, Ed and Al appear at the beginning to have everything under control, their suffering in the past.  Well, Lust and Gluttony are lurking around being terrifying in the background, but they haven’t touched the Elric brothers yet.

Of course, near the end of Volume 1, Roy Mustang and company show up, and the main plot kicks in, and there aren’t unambiguous wins anymore, but there is plenty of horror—Volume 2 brings in Shou Tucker, the state alchemist who really sets the bar for disturbing, amoral behavior, and Marcoh, the former state alchemist who knows secrets he can hardly bear to remember, and Scar, the serial killer who targets state alchemists for religious and political reasons, and in Volume 3 we get Barry the Chopper, who is a more mundane, run of the mill serial killer despite his unusual features. Still, this story is really about information, not violence. Whereas Volume 1 was all about exposing the truth to make things better, from here on out, it’s all about the horrible realizations.  Ed is no longer demonstrating to people what they need to know; instead, he’s uncovering information that makes it more and more difficult for him to go on, not only because it’s horrible but because it calls into question his entire project.  Arakawa’s success in her attempt to draw me in the way that she describes being drawn in by bad movies depends on this, on watching Ed react to things nobody should have to see.  Ed is  a very effective empathy-generating machine, due to some combination of youth, sensitivity, pure bullheaded egotism, and really, really good stress faces.  He’s not the most likeable character of Fullmetal Alchemist—for starters, he’s certainly less likable than Al—but his pain, especially his emotional pain, is not just intense but nearly tangible.  So, the story needs to keep these moments coming, and—well, it’s kind of hard on Ed, and on Al, and on the reader. We’re just getting started here, folks.

But Arakawa has a sense of humor about all this.  She knows that she is writing something very close to horror, and she knows that Ed is, essentially, a Byronic hero, but this is still a series by a person who, in her self-portraits, chooses to depict herself as a cow.  At the beginning and end of each volume, she includes little strips that make jokes about the ongoing plots, including the serious parts. Not only that, there is a small “in memoriam” cameo at the end of each volume dedicated to the people who have died in that volume. Aside from indicating something about the body count in this series (it’s high), it’s also quite remarkable that they are… cute. Humorous.  The events in the story are very intense and often (not always) absolutely dead serious, but as soon as you hit the boundary, they’re jokes.  That’s the B-movie effect.  I haven’t read much manga and suspect that this is a fairly common practice, but I can’t imagine that many are quite the shift that this is.

(Also, Gluttony’s attempt to eat Arakawa makes me wonder what it’s like to live with this work brewing in one’s head. Then again—even reading it kind of gives the same effect.)

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2 Comments

Filed under Comics & Manga

2 responses to “Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-3: Slow Starts and B-Movies

  1. Pingback: Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-3: Evil Doubles | onereadleaf

  2. Pingback: Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-3: A Quick Note on Heroism | onereadleaf

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