Dive into the world of The Shark King
By R. Kikou Johnson
Francoise Mouly’s Toon Books have only been in existence a few yars but they’ve really set a high standard for producing quite magnificent comics for children. We have a set in the school library and they’re invaluable, a wonderful source of fun and a great way to introduce comics at a very young age.
But just when you think they’ve settled into a pattern, a new release comes along and completely sweeps all those preconceived ideas away. It happened with the last release Nina, which evoked the finest of classic American illustration thanks to Hilary Knight’s deliciously out of time artwork.
And now we have R. Kikuo Johnson delivering a good old fashioned mythological folk-tale. And, just as with any good, old fashioned myth, legend, or folk -tale there’s a far darker tone surrounding this Toon Book. We’re out of the realms of cuddly teddys and gentle exploration here.
Instead we get a traditional Hawaiian folk-tale of the shape-shifting shark God Kamohoalli; The Shark King, and Johnson brings in all sorts of grimmer elements; trickery, deception, the classical absentee father (Gods always make terrible dads), isolation, that sense of being an outcast, even an mild bit of body horror as Kamohoalli does that thing that all Gods seem to do…. falls in love with a mortal woman, fathers a child, and then has to leave.
The child grows, the strange mark on his back soon becoming a ravenous set of jaws (there’s the body horror), and any hopes of being a normal little boy disappear. Problem is, he’s a curious thing, and even though his mom tries to protect him, he finds himself draw towards the people, his sense of playfulness and an unatural hunger means he spends his time stealing the fish from their very nets, until there’s a potentilly dangerous showdown, and the boy is left with little choice but to seek out his birthright.
It’s not terribly dark by any means but it’s certainly far darker than Toon Books thus far. And Johnson handles it ever so well, creating something very fast, very kinetic, pages bursting with action, but action that’s flowing and absolutely graceful, befitting a story of the seas.
The story is clear, Johnson proving himself a masterful storyteller, but it’s not the story that really got me, it was the art. This art:
Johnson’s gorgeous, clean, colourful, wonderful artwork. Whether on those beautiful full pages or the simply laid out pages of 4-6 panels, it just works so well. The comics fan in me sees a little Hernandez, a little Steve Rude. From the very first page he had me, colours and shapes combining so spectacularly. Just look….
How can you possibly resist this? Every page has something beautiful, all expertly laid out for younger eyes. So much thought has gone into the layout of The Shark King, to gently guide a young reader’s eye through the story.
Yet again, a Toon Book manages not only to entrance me, but genuinely surprise me. Slightly dark, a thrilling story, action and adventure, and the art, oh the art.