by Carlo Santos,

Fullmetal Alchemist

GN 22

Fullmetal Alchemist GN 22
Brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric are on a quest to restore their bodies by the power of alchemy, but they've since become embroiled in a terrible conspiracy that could bring down the entire country of Amestris. If there is to be any hope of winning this war, Ed and his friends must get past the Homunculus Pride, whose deadly powers can manifest in any place with light and shadow. But how does one defeat an enemy who is only vulnerable in blinding light or total darkness? Meanwhile, Roy Mustang and his band of military insurgents are trying to stop the officers who have aligned themselves with the great evil lurking beneath Central Headquarters. If the heroes can clear the way into the underground tunnels, it'll be time to settle the score once and for all...

Fullmetal Alchemist could, if it wanted to, sit back and coast the rest of the way. The series has already more than proven itself with a rich, multi-layered storyline, dozens of iconic characters, and plenty of memorable fight scenes. But sitting back and going on autopilot just wouldn't be Hiromu Arakawa's way—especially not with the final arc reaching full steam. It's here that we will learn how to outwit an unbeatable opponent, how to infiltrate a military installation from the inside ... and how to fight a horde of mutant alchemy zombies. Hey, just because it's deep and critically acclaimed doesn't mean that it can't have some good old punch-and-kick action from time to time.

Certainly, the first few scenes in this volume are all about punching and kicking: the bad guy's just eaten one of his own kind, his powers have become grotesquely enhanced, and our heroes are fighting desperately for their lives. But this is FMA, where victory is not necessarily to the swift, nor to the strong, but to the guy who can think three moves ahead—which is exactly what happens when Alphonse and dad pull off a brilliant plan to stop Pride in his tracks. Less spectacular, but still just as gripping, is Roy Mustang's daring operation to take down the military: guns and rifles may not be as showy as alchemy, but the action is still just as fast-paced, with hidden allies popping out of every corner and plenty of explosive set pieces.

The second half of the book, however, shows a relapse back into bad old habits—namely, jumping from scene to scene in an attempt to display every side of this multi-faceted series. There's Ed and his gang trying to get to the big bad boss, and then there's Mustang's faction storming the city streets and the halls of Central HQ, then there's Scar and his countrymen striking up a revolution of their own, and even little May Chang is running around trying to save the world in her own way. So which one are we supposed to follow? This lack of focus also results in the battles being not quite up to snuff: the enemy of choice in the later chapters is the military's secret army of clones—in other words, alchemy zombies. Let's face it, this kind of cannon fodder just isn't as exciting as fighting a genuine Homunculus. There are still some promising moments, though: Pride cleverly turns the tables on his adversaries, proving that the good guys aren't the only ones who can think three moves ahead, and Hohenheim closes out the volume with another dramatic finish much like his "declaration of war" not too long ago.

Amidst all the fighting, the chasing, the scheming, and double-crossing, however, one thing remains constant: artistic clarity and sense of purpose. Even the most complicated alchemical attack is perfectly understandable to the eye—and that's because strategy and positioning are as much a part of the fight scenes as speed and stylishness. Likewise, the extensive cast of characters never makes the mistake of having someone look like someone else (except maybe that Denny guy); we can thank Hiromu Arakawa's vast imagination for giving us so many memorable faces of both good and evil. Arakawa's artistic versatility also extends to gruesome monsters and Homunculi—always a shocking sight to behold—and the well-planned page layouts, which despite their strict rectangular borders show a great variety of angles and action shots. Somehow, in its restraint and clarity, Fullmetal Alchemist ends up being a better action series than most of the ones where the artist tries to blow your eyes out.

Clarity is also one of the characteristics of the dialogue in this volume, where heroes and villains alike say exactly what they mean (without getting long-winded about it), and let their fists, or guns, or alchemy do the rest of the talking. The time for secret messages and coded conversations ended a while ago, and the time has finally come for bold declarations of one's ideals. This time around it's elders like Major General Armstrong and Hohenheim who steal the show, delivering dramatic lines without getting too pompous about it. Meanwhile, the other aspect of translation—sound effects—is handled in a rather dry manner, with all the noise and action being converted into English but showing little variety in the lettering aside from size and placement. In a way, though, the bare-bones treatment of the sound effects is a good fit for the series' unpretentious art style.

As the final confrontation draws ever nearer, the formula for Fullmetal Alchemist is simple: just keep doing what it's been doing, with great battles, clever twists, interlocking plotlines, and memorable characters who will stand up for what they believe in (whether good or bad). This volume provides a satisfying balance of all those elements, and does it in a style that is visually exciting while still being easy for the eyes to follow. Whether it involves an all-out brawl, an urban gunfight, or some careful sneaking through the underground, the events in this series continue to move with forward momentum—a momentum that will ultimately lead to a certain bearded man who started this whole mess. The endgame is in full swing, and the final goal is in clear sight, but how our heroes are going to get there ... is anyone's guess.

Production Info:
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-

+ Continues to deliver intense, fast-paced action, with plot developments and turnarounds that will keep readers guessing.
Gets a little unhinged in the second half trying to keep track of all the different storylines.

Story & Art: Hiromu Arakawa

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