By R. Kikuo Johnson
40 pages, color
Published by Toon Books
When R. Kikuo Johnson’s Night Fisher graphic novel was published in 2005, I remember a lot of people proclaiming him to be the next big thing in comics. The book and Johnson got their fair share of awards, but since then there’s been remarkably little in the way of new creations from Johnson. I think I was as surprised as anyone else when The Shark King was announced; a book for young readers was almost certainly not where I’d expected him to show up next. This retelling of a Hawaiian myth, though, is going to enchant readers of all ages.
The Shark King is in many ways one of those classic mythological stories; a woman who is seduced by a god, then raises their child and tries to find a balance between his human and divine sides. Nanaue, as a half-human/half-god, comes across as a charming character in Johnson’s retelling. This is a good thing; if you look at the character from a clinical perspective, I can see where it would be easy to make him unlikable. After all, this is a kid who steals from the fishermen around him and is increasingly stubborn. Here, though, you want him to succeed anyway. He’s got a certain sweetness and innocence about him, and that’s a perfect balance to his other actions.
His mother Kalei comes across a little less developed, although she’s most certainly just a supporting character in The Shark King. She’s there to deliver a child and warnings, but while she comes across as a bit naive from time to time, I found myself appreciating her spirit. Her position in The Shark King is not an easy to be in, but Johnson had me liking her a great deal as the book progressed, for her spirit as much as her warmth. Even the little details of The Shark King stick out, be it introducing the reader to a sea mollusk known as the opihi, or the idea of the shape-shifting Shark King himself. It’s ultimately an enjoyable book, one that made me feel like I did when I’d first learned about Greek and Roman mythology; it makes me want to seek out more in the way of the Hawaiian mythos.
Johnson’s art in The Shark King is beautiful, using soft, graceful lines to block out characters similar to the way artists like Peter Snejbjerg and Gilbert Hernandez draw their comics. Watching Nanaue run around the island is fun, and the scenes with Kalei and the Shark King having a surprising amount of body language on display; you get a strong feel for their personalities by the way that they carry themselves. The best part about The Shark King‘s art is probably how Johnson draws the setting, though; Hawaii bursts to life in gorgeous landscapes, and the number of aquatic animals that Johnson draws can’t help but enchant the reader. Even something as simple as the constellation of the Shark King is perfectly executed, in a way that creates a memorable image that the reader will certainly take away from the book.
Toon Books regularly turns out excellent graphic novels for kids, but The Shark King is definitely up in the top part of that list. I’d cheerfully read a series of Hawaiian tale graphic novels from Johnson (hint hint); this is the kind of book that I think parents would enjoy reading together with their children as much as the kids would. For people all ages interested in mythology, you can’t go wrong with The Shark King.