I finally went back to reading Fullmetal Alchemist, by Hiromu Arakawa, when I heard that a new anime was on the way. Enough time had finally passed from my watching the original anime that I could enjoy this on its own merits, which are considerable. (The new anime appears to be much more closely based on the manga, so it was read it now or not for a long time.)
I started by reading the new-to-me volumes that I had on hand, volumes three through eight. I enjoyed these so much I went back to the beginning and re-read all eight straight through. Like the anime, the manga of Fullmetal Alchemist has great characters, fascinating worldbuilding, and gripping angst and action. (I talked about the basic premise in the entry for the first volume.) It eventually develops some pretty significant differences from the anime, but at this point these may also be strengths: certain aspects of the underlying plot seem to remove some logistical questions I had, and the worldbuilding and range of characters are wider and more diverse [*]. I’m not sure how I’ll feel about their relative strengths when it comes to themes and philosophical musings, but the manga certainly has its eye on the questions. Finally, it may just be the difference between screen and page, but the manga doesn’t feel as unsubtle about emotional matters.
[*] There are a couple of isolated instances in which this isn’t a good thing. The series is set in a European-equivalent country, and a handful of characters are obviously meant to have African-equivalent ancestry; they’re not characterized in a stereotypical way, but they do tend to have balloon-like lips, which is unfortunate. And the sole homosexual to date is extremely effeminate and has a thing for underage boys.
Roughly speaking, volumes three and four are the Lab 5 arc, which is where the anime began to diverge—well, rather, there were small hints of divergence from the very beginning, but the different outcomes of this arc start pointing toward the significant changes to come. Volume four is also a convenient point for comparing the overall progression of the two story lines: its end corresponds to episode twenty-five, that is, halfway through the anime, while the manga currently stands at ninety-three chapters, four chapters to a volume.
Volumes five and six take the Elric brothers to Rush Valley and into an extended flashback of their childhood and training. Volumes seven and eight play out the Devil’s Nest arc, and then introduce manga-only characters from the adjacent empire of Xing. The divergences become very apparent and quite fascinating here, and it took a fair effort of will to write these volumes up first instead of diving into the ones that had arrived from Amazon.
Some other comments: the art is generally clear and fairly detailed. Over these volumes, I found myself noticing it more, in a good way, during emotionally-intense sequences. The fight scenes are usually not difficult to follow and not too prolonged, though I tend to skim them anyway—hey, I like stuff with dialogue. And I’m not crazy about the publisher’s decision to overwrite the Japanese sound effects with English translations; I find it distracting when enormous “BOOM”s and such integrated into the artwork, and prefer the original Japanese with translations outside the panels where the meaning isn’t obvious.
A spoiler post follows.