Valuable commentary can be found in any media, even if it wears the guise of an edgy teenage boy with daddy issues.
The insistence that any media dipping its toes into the world of popular culture, cannot possibly offer anything of academic substance is both annoyingly pervasive, and growing increasingly dated. As Marvel continues to sweep the world with its formulaic yet far-reaching cinematic universe while DC scrambles after them, as Netflix and other TV-entities pick up the diamonds dropped in the ongoing duel, trying to write off comics and the stories they tell as inconsequential is a pointless endeavor. And many people in academia have begun to accept this revelation. Black Panther has been lauded for changing what used to be the face of a “successful super hero” into something less white, as has Wonder Woman into something less male. And even the earliest hesitant steps made into this global phenomenon by Iron Man brought with it criticisms of capitalist giants and military weapons manufacturing.
Yet it seems, people are still so easy to write off these stories, and it seems there is one consistent factor that plays in to such a mindset: Any story with bigger-than-life heroes and villains is incompatible with a smaller sense of nuance.
You can see this idea reflected everywhere; From the classroom, where literature teachers keep a wide distance from fantasy in favor of historical and realistic fiction, from the academy awards, where a popular culture film loses annually to its obscure, drama counterparts, and from the idea that a book with pictures has as much depth as the 2D characters on the page.
And yet, one of the most complex, relevant, nuanced, intelligent stories I have ever read stepped off the pages of a Japanese manga from the early 2000s, in a gaudy red coat.
Fullmetal Alchemist is a sci-fi fantasy manga (Japanese serialized comic book) written by Hiromu Arakawa. I had grown up in a household that championed comic books, and while I never quite gravitated towards “Western” comics the way my father had, I was exposed to the worlds of anime and manga relatively early. While Fullmetal Alchemist — colloquially shortened to FMA among fans — was surely not my first comic series, it’s the one that sticks out in my mind as the quicksand that sucked me into the medium.
The story itself follows two teenage brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, as they seek to get back their original bodies after a botched attempt to bring their mother back to life, using the story’s very stylized version of alchemy. Even in the most basic form of its premise, FMA champions identities often not seen in common literature: It’s a story about two areligious disabled siblings — Edward wears a type of prosthetic to replace his arm and leg known in-universe as “automail” — and is written by a Japanese woman. Even amongst its Western brethren, it’s difficult to find a comic series written by anything other than a straight, white man.
While the series itself begins as a hunt-for-the-macguffin styled adventure romp, FMA gradually reveals a larger story, and a larger conspiracy, using a young and naive boy as the audience surrogate. By the end of the series, FMA has addressed the danger of a corrupt military state in the pocket of powerful individuals seeking to gain things for their own end, racial genocide disguised as nationalism, the role of women in engineering and the military, religious zealotism, manipulation of scientific methods for personal gain, and the dangers of hubris.
And yet, there will still be people who are too distracted by the novelty of a 16 year old fighting a shapeshifting immortal being with his Magic Science and sick metal arm to believe there is anything more to Fullmetal Alchemist than fun action.
Comics are more than their action, more than their tough leads and silly sound effects bubbles. In a world where media is either fun or meaningful, comics have time and time again dared to be both. Every manga I have read has had something behind it’s explosions: A story about a boy with a magic killer notebook challenging the ideas of doing bad for the greater good, a story about a dog demon boy that’s also encouraging forgiveness and patience, a story about killer vampires that also just happens to have a gay male protagonist.
More things happened in the story of Fullmetal Alchemist than Edward Elric punching god in the face.
It’s time to stop letting those “POW” bubbles obscure the deeper lessons in comics, and any popular media that dares to get you excited to watch it.