Fullmetal Alchemist 1-2 by Hiromu Arakawa: B+

I’ve been hoarding volumes of Fullmetal Alchemist for several years. Having heard it praised for its impressive storytelling, I decided to wait until it was nearer to being finished in Japan before starting it, with the idea that I might be spared some of the long waits between volumes that other fans have endured. But now, word is that the end is nigh, and with MJ recommending it to me so ardently, the time has finally come. Cracking open that first volume felt like quite the momentous occasion.

Edward and Alphonse Elric are unlike normal teenage boys. Both studied alchemy as children and when Edward found a way to bring their beloved mother back to life, the boys performed the ritual without a second thought, not realizing—in the “equivalent exchange” demanded by alchemy—that it would cost Edward his left leg and Alphonse his entire body. After exchanging his right arm for Alphonse’s soul, Edward grafted the soul into the one human-shaped thing that was handy at the time: a suit of armor. Edward is haunted by this mistake, not to mention the memory of what they actually managed to resurrect for their sacrifice, and his primary concern is regaining their original bodies. To that end, they travel the world looking for the Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical power booster that might make this possible.

The brothers’ travels bring them into contact with trouble in various forms. Their first deed is to expose an alchemist posing as a religious figure, followed by freeing occupants of a mining town from the corruption of a military official and foiling a train hijacking. While this is going on, Edward is also trying to learn as much as he can about biological transmutation. In the second volume, his research leads him to a state alchemist who’s had some success in this area, which in turn takes the story down a very dark avenue involving human experimentation and a vigilante named Scar who takes it upon himself to execute alchemists who have violated the laws of nature.

I knew exceedingly little about Fullmetal Alchemist going into this, which is great. I knew about the brothers’ injuries, though not how they obtained them, and I knew they’d meet a mechanically inclined girl at some point. That’s it. As a result, I was surprised by a number of things as I read, including the presence of comedy. I’m not sure why I thought there wouldn’t be any, but having lighthearted moments sprinkled throughout is definitely welcome, especially once the story delves into more disturbing territory. I particularly love anything that shows that Alphonse, trapped inside a hulking steel shell, is really just a kid.

I was also surprised (and impressed) that the series tackles the religion vs. science question right away with the story of the fraudulent holy man. This also provides an opportunity to introduce Edward’s feelings about alchemy: because alchemists strive to understand the laws of nature, they are perhaps the closest to God that a human can achieve, but overstepping certain bounds—he likens this to the hubris of Icarus—leads only to sorrow and pain. His conflicted feelings resurface several times in these two volumes; one gets the idea that he would like to avoid the very kind of alchemy he’s been researching, but because it’s his best chance at bodily restoration, he’s got no choice.

Lastly, I was downright shocked by some things in the second volume. Somehow, I had expected the Elric brothers to save Nina, the child of a desperate alchemist about to lose state funding, from her father’s experimentation, but this was not to be. Similarly, I expected them to escape grievous bodily harm when fighting Scar so imagine my surprise when both are gravely injured in volume two. That’s just not normal! Shounen heroes are supposed to sustain wounds that would kill an average guy three times over and then get up for more!

I had originally planned to read three volumes for this review, but so much had happened by the end of volume two that I required time to digest it all. I’m used to a shounen manga’s second volume being the stage of the story where some wacky episodic hijinks introduce our hero to the rivals who’ll eventually become part of his entourage. It’s usually not until half a dozen volumes later that you glimpse the real meat of the story. Not so with Fullmetal Alchemist, which lulls you into expecting that episodic setup but makes with the buildup and continuity right away. I can already tell, and believe me that I mean this as a most sincere compliment, that this is going to be one challenging series.

Fullmetal Alchemist is published in English by VIZ. There are 22 volumes currently available, with volume 23 due out next month. We’re pretty close to being caught up to Japan, where volume 25 just came out in late April.