As those who watch my LiveJournal know, I've fallen in love with the anime of Fullmetal Alchemist (see these "anime" LJ memories). The story started out as a manga by Hiromu Arakawa, and while I wasn't planning on reading the manga until after I'd finished watching the anime, the library had volume 1 and it seemed like a good idea to encourage their acquisition of the series.
The anime of Fullmetal Alchemist is complete at 51 episodes, and is being aired in the Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" programming block and released on DVD; there's also a movie that was recently released in Japan. The manga is still ongoing, and accordingly the stories diverge substantially (apparently. I'm only up to episode 16 of the anime, and so if you spoil me for future developments, I will kill you with my brain). When I asked a while ago which to try first, people were unanimously in favor of the anime, and they were right: the anime hooked me very fast, and upon comparing the changes that it made from the manga, I don't think the manga would have had the same effect.
The premise, briefly, for those unfamiliar: it's the early 1900s in a world somewhat analogous to our own, except with alchemy practiced as a science. Edward and Alphonse Elric are gifted young alchemists; at ages eleven and ten, they try to resurrect their dead mother through (forbidden) alchemy. They fail, spectacularly, at the cost of Ed's arm and leg, and Al's body (his soul is affixed to a suit of armor). After Ed is fitted with automail replacements for his limbs, Ed becomes a State Alchemist and they go on a quest to restore their bodies—which is still forbidden human transmutation, and dangerous and uncertain to boot. But they're determined to try.
It's a great concept, and the show caught me from the very beginning of the first episode, a flashback to the resurrection attempt. More specifically, it shows the brothers finishing their preparations and beginning the transmutation; their realization that it's going wrong; Al's empty clothes and Ed's missing limbs; and then the thing that their attempt produced (the second picture on this page)—which is a very attention-grabbing thing to go to black on. The manga also opens with this, but much more briefly: one page, as Ed realizes that Al's body is gone, showing only Ed. I suspect the story would have grabbed me anyway, because it is such a good premise, but the manga version strikes me as less immediately engaging.
The four chapters in volume 1 correspond to episodes 1, 2, 9, and 5 of the anime. The first two chapters/episodes tell the story of the town of Lior, where Ed and Al have gone in their search for the Philosopher's Stone, following a rumor of resurrections by a religious prophet. They meet the prophet and a girl, Rose, who's been promised that her lover will be miraculously returned to life; they expose the prophet, try to convince Rose to not make the same mistakes they did, and leave the town to pursue their quest. These sections also introduce mysterious characters called Lust and Gluttony (and, in the anime, Envy), who were behind the false prophet.
The broad outlines of these portions are the same between the anime and the manga, but the anime adds some events and changes the sequence of others; the net effect of the anime's changes is to make Rose more sympathetic (she reappears in the anime, at least), and to add to the viewer's list of "creepy alchemy uses."
In the anime, Al tells Rose their life story as part of explaining why resurrecting the dead shouldn't be attempted, and thus episodes 3 through 9 are all flashbacks; Lior takes place between episodes 9 and 10. In the manga, the events of episodes 9 and 5 take place not in flashback, but after Lior. Chapter 3/Episode 9 is their trip to a coal mining town called Youswell. In the anime, Ed's sent there to inspect the mine, as his first mission; I think in the manga they're just passing through. They best a corrupt military official by judicious use of alchemy and trickery, and Ed is hailed as an alchemist of the people.
I found this somewhat of a minor episode in the anime, and in my opinion it's even more so in the manga, for three reasons. In order of increasing importance: First, Ed is slightly less sympathetic in minor aspects. Second, it lacks an alchemist who works for the corrupt military officer, which hints at a distrust of how the military uses alchemists. Third, Ed's not starting out his career as a State Alchemist, meaning that it's less of a challenge for him, and not an opportunity to establish his reputation and the path he's going to follow.
Chapter 4/Episode 5 takes place on a train that's taken over by a group of extremists. Again, in the anime, this is a flashback; the eleven- and ten-year-old brothers are on their way to become State Alchemists after their recovery. In the manga, they appear to be heading back from Youswell. Ed and Al subdue the extremists and turn them over to Colonel Roy Mustang, Ed's nominal supervisor and the Flame Alchemist.
I also found this episode fairly light when I first watched it, and was mostly interested in Mustang's manipulativeness—something completely absent here. The anime also gives the extremists' leader a grudge against the military; while I didn't quite follow his reasoning, it laid foundations for the worldbuilding in much the same way as the alchemist in Youswell. And once again, by having Ed be a State Alchemist of some years' experience, it removes a layer of peril that the younger anime versions faced.
Overall, Fullmetal Alchemist is a great story, and if you've any hint of tolerance for anime or manga, I recommend checking it out. I do agree with everyone who said to try the anime first: it's more immediately involving and better structured, compared to the first volume of the manga. I'll probably read the rest of the manga later; it is interesting to compare ways of telling a story, and I believe the manga may appear in a better light once the plots start diverging. It's not that the manga is bad, certainly, just that the anime is a better introduction.
A few other notes: The translation seemed pretty good to me; there were only a couple spots where the English seemed to clunk. Unlike Saiyuki, the sound effects here are translated, which took me a little getting used to; subconsciously "whoosh" and "bam" and so forth remind me of brightly-colored superhero comics, which makes me take it a little less seriously (the humorously-exaggerated emotional reactions and fight scenes, while within genre conventions as I understand them for both anime and manga, have a similar effect).
The art here strikes me as clean and with slightly more delicate, less detailed lines than Saiyuki. The panel layout is mostly straightforward and linear. I've been doing detailed art commentary posts on Saiyuki, but I only found a couple of additional things to say about this art; the LJ post is here if you're interested.
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