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Full Metal Alchemist is the title of a manga series that has spawned not one, but two hugely popular animes (both of which I would rank amongst my favorite cartoons of all time.) Penned by Hiromu Arakawa (who was raised at a dairy farm, which possibly explains why she illustrates herself as a cow) the series has received critical acclaim in both its native Japan as well as overseas. Viz Media are responsible for bringing over the books to the U.S and thanks to the wonders of online shopping English speakers like myself can purchase their translated versions to read over here in Europe. This first release, which I am reviewing today, collects the first four parts in what is a one hundred and eight chapter long saga.
The series is set in the fictional nation of Amestris were alchemy is treated as a bona fide science. Accomplished alchemists can instantly transmute materials from one form to another, providing that they adhere to the law of equivalent exchange, which states that in order to obtain something of equal value must first be lost. By drawing a transmutation circle it's therefore possible to instantly turn a few wooden planks into an Ikea grade table, but you can't create giant statues out of a mere pebble due to insufficient mass. Oh and before you get any fancy ideas, no you cannot transform base metals into gold. The practice is outlawed, as it would collapse the economy faster than an investment banker suffering from gambling addiction.
Edward Elric and his brother Al are the stars of the show. The duo are travelling across the land seeking the Philosopher's Stone, which they hope can restore their broken bodies (hopefully Mr Potter won't find it before they do.) In case you are wondering, the pair are missing body parts as a consequence of unsuccessfully trying to resurrect their mother via forbidden human transmutation. Edward lost an arm and a leg during the attempt, which he has since replaced with auto-mail (pretty much steam punk's answer to bionic limbs.) His brother Alphonse fared even worse, losing his entire body forcing him to bond his soul onto a suit of armor (which for some reason comes complete with a snazzy apron.)
Although Full Metal Alchemist has a rich story packed with many twists and fleshed out characters, this opening volume eases the reader into the F.M.A universe with a trio of self-contained tales. The first of these has the brothers visiting a desert town were they must confront a false prophet who has tricked the populace into believing that his feats of alchemy are miracles bestowed by "the Sun" God Leto (a deity who showcases topless girls on page three.) The next adventure sees the Elrics help out a struggling mining town that is being oppressed by a corrupt military governor. After that the book concludes with Ed and Al using their alchemic gifts to save a group of hostages who are trapped on a train that has been hijacked by rebels.
Readers of this first volume will note that the narrative is identical to the animated adaptation save for a few minor differences. Knowing how things would pan out didn't however prevent me from having a blast revisiting Full Metal Alchemist in its original printed form. My enjoyment of the book was mainly due to how well written the lead characters are. The stories themselves are fairly straightforward affairs, which combine action with amusing banter, although a brief flashback sequence involving the Elrics' mother shows how the series isn't shy about exploring darker themes when the situation demands it. Visually speaking, the artwork is easy on the eyes and does a good job of seamlessly switching to a cartoonier look that enhances the more goofy comedic moments.
Overall this is a solid opener to the Full Metal Alchemist franchise, serving as a foundation from which one of the finest animes of all time was built upon. Any consumer who decides to follow the law of equivalent exchange, by losing money to attain a copy of this book, is unlikely to be disappointed with their purchase.