Song of the Hanging Sky, volume 1

by Toriko Gin

Note: This review contains spoilers for the whole manga.  FYI.

This is a strange but rather interesting manga.  The story is about Jack, a doctor who was a soldier in a war, but now lives in a cabin in the snow with his trusty German Shepherd dog Gustav.  While they’re tromping around, lonely, they find an injured boy.

Since this is a manga, the boy has wings.

He’s also Native American: some vague tribe that pulls from the Plains hunting traditions but also includes some farmers.

This could all end in horrible no good very bad stereotypes and awfulness, but oddly, I rather enjoyed it.  For one thing, the Indians are drawn as normal and the doctor is portrayed as white (and different).  The othering going on isn’t the standard Indians heap big weird.

Certainly, there are aspects that are troubling.  The gun is referred to as making thunder: it might as well be the Thunder Sticks of the awful Spaghetti Westerns of my Sunday afternoon childhood.  But other parts are turned on their head.  Eventually, the doctor is adopted into the tribe (much like the Brady Bunch episode, actually) but, instead of getting a dopey Indian name, it turns out the doctor is now the son of the boy he helped.  That’s right, the little boy is now his father.  Unlike a more traditional Western, both the Indians and the doctor seem to suffer PTSD from the wars they’ve been in.  Again, unlike the traditional Westerns, this is not set in a Wild West of the 1800s.  A plane with parachuters appears eventually.

Now we get to a nifty part of the manga that I enjoyed, but that slammed quite unfortunately into a nasty technical translation problem: The names of the tribe members are indicative of what they do or like, names like Bear or Wolf, as per usual.  But, most unfortunately, the manga lettering does not indicate that these are names.  A figure sitting in darkness with wings unfurled, another character says, ” CAVE …?”  Would you guess that’s the guy’s name?  I didn’t.  Nor did I figure out that Cave was the chief until much later.  “HOW IS NUTS?” was another howler.

Nuts Peck turned out to be the name of the little boy.  Until his contact with the human.  Then the human changed the boy’s soul and destiny and Nuts Peck became “Hello”.  Which is great!  It really made for an interesting philosophical change, but do you have any idea how baffling it is to run through people saying Hello with no indication if it’s the name or the regular meaning?  And then there’s the fact that the bird people speak one language (bird songs and noises), the doctor speaks his own language (which is where Hello comes from, I think), and then there’s the local language of the humans–which the doctor speaks and which the birdmen shaman speaks.  Baffling.  Baffling I tell you.

In any case.  The story has its stock components, but it also has its charm.  I’m easily charmed by plucky German Shepherds, but still.  There’s good stuff here.  Introspection, the meaning of communication, destiny, magic, and the line between childhood and adulthood in various ways and who leads whom.  The art is quite beautiful.  Lots of lovely line work, great contrast, and an interesting style.

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