Lyn Jensen's Blog: Manga, Music, and Politics

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Location: Anaheim, California, United States

Regular contributor ("Carson City Limits" and other content) for Random Lengths (circulation 56,000) in San Pedro, CA, 2001-present. Manga reviewer: LA Alternative (circulation 150,000), 2005-2006. Some manga reviews also ran in NY Press around this time. Entertainment reporting: Music Connection (circulation 75,000), 1983-1906. Travel writing: Oakland Tribune (1998) and Life After 50 (2006). Other bylines: Goldmine, Star Hits, Los Angeles Reader, Los Angeles Times, Long Beach Press Telegram, Blade, BAM, Daily Breeze, LA Weekly. Specializations include community news reporting, writing reviews (book, theater, concert, film, music), copywriting, resumes, editing, travel writing, publicity, screenwriting, lecturing, and content development. Education: B. A. Theater Arts, UCLA. Post-grad work, Education, Chapman University.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Manga Review: Fullmetal Alchemist

This review is updated and revised from one that originally appeared in LA Alternative, Feb. 3-9, 2006.

Whether as animation (anime) or graphic novels (manga), the genre of Japanese comics most familiar to Americans are what the Japanese call shonen or boys' comics.  That particular part of the pop-culture universe has given the world such enduring international hits as Yugioh, Dragonball, Naruto, Inuyasha, and one particularly mind-bending franchise called Fullmetal Alchemist.  In these blockbuster multi-media hits you'll find the likes of giant robots, dueling monsters, and martial arts battles over the fate of the world, drawn with a flurry of hard-edged speed lines. 

Boys' and girls' comics in Japan may be compared to young adult literature in the United States.  Comics for a teen male audience tend to be about action (although close personal relationships exist, of course).  Those for a teen female audience are usually more about domestic relationships where the drama plays out internally (although they often load on the martial-arts battles, too).  Such a division may seem sexist but it also fits conventional marketing wisdom.  As any middle-school student will explain, boys read boys' books including comics, while girls read girls' books and comics, and although a girl may cross the line, adolescent males don't.

Fullmetal Alchemist, however, is one franchise (manga, DVDs, prose novels, video games, and other products) that has more crossover potential than most, starting with the fact that it's drawn by a woman, Hromu Arakawa, which is still a rarity in the shonen manga scene.  Its strong characters and relationships are as much a part of its popularity as its battles, which are mostly built around the ancient pseudo-science of alchemy. Over twenty-seven volumes it combines elements of sci-fi, steampunk, cyberpunk, allegory, and alternative reality.

In history, actual alchemists spent centuries searching for a philosopher's stone and never found it.  In FMA (as fans abbreviate it),  heroes and villains are competing to find the stone, and the lead character is the brilliant teenage alchemist Edward Elric, whose skills made him a military recruit at age 12.  He and his younger brother Alphonse had a little mishap with an alchemy experiment, altering their bodies and making the title something of a play on words. Ed has a prosthetic steel arm and leg (auto-mail in the FMA universe) that he's always busting up in some battle and needing attention from a feisty female mechanic.  On military assignments his codename is Fullmetal Alchemist.  But Alphonse is a full metal alchemist of another variety. He's essentially a ghost haunting a suit of armor.  Characters often mistake him for the other fullmetal alchemist.

VIZ brought the manga series to America in 2005 and for a while Jason Thompson was its editor.  It's recommended for teens but the themes are adult, dealing with matters of politics and religion in a way few teen action hits do.  FMA appears at this date to be solidly established as an essential element of manga (and anime) fandom the world over.