"The Shark King" looks and feels like an early reader book, which is exactly what it is intended to be, but transcends the concept and becomes a quaint all ages read that tells the tale of the shape-shifting shark god, Kamohoalii (or perhaps more appropriately Ka-moho-alii) and his son, Nanaue.
Like David Petersen's "Mouse Guard," this story is presented as a marvelous hybrid of comic and book in the deceptively simple package of a storybook. My children grew up learning to read from Dr. Seuss books of a similar size and design to this one: hardcover books measuring roughly nine-and-a-half inches tall by six-and-a-half wide with approximately forty pages of story. This book would fit right next to those on the shelf and provide just as much reading pleasure.
R. Kikuo Johnson interprets the legend of the Shark King with unbridled, child-like glee as evidenced through his drawings and storytelling. Johnson's art is clean and sharp, reminiscent of Hergé's Tintin, but with childlike innocence. The book is filled with plenty of detail without being over-rendered or over-colored. The artist's interpretation of Hawaii is beautiful and simple, full of vibrant colors and lush with life. It took a second read-through for me to notice that the colors have no gradation to them; they're simply colors, unadulterated by dodges or burns, but vivid and crisp, bringing life to the drawings.
Nanaue is a fun character to follow. He's born laughing, but carries a gaping maw on his back, not unlike a shark's mouth. Johnson plays this up for comedic effect, providing a light-hearted tone to a tale that could easily be depicted through a horror lens. With his jaw snapping and an insatiable hunger, Nanaue tries to find ways to fit in, but frequently relents to the hunger. This makes the character mischievous and adds in the suspense for this book. Oddly enough, the first thing I thought of in comparison to Nanaue was Disney's Stitch. Nanaue is less chaotic and this story is more about finding your place in the world and celebrating your connections to family than redemption. Thankfully, through "The Shark King," Johnson delivers a memorable character and enticing story that has immediately been added to my Hawaii cross-references.
I picked this up after reading this week's "Food or Comics?" column on Robot 6 where all three of the contributors had this in their sights. I chose to forego taking myself out to lunch on Wednesday and picked this up instead. I'm quite happy with that decision and would like to pass along the recommendation. Sure, $12.95 is a steep price for a quick read, but for a quick read that remains timeless and begs to be shared? Sounds like a deal to me. "The Shark King" is a nice sample of comics as literature and folklore captured in comics. It's also a great story that can be enthusiastically shared with the younger readers in your life. I'd like to see more from Johnson, and hope he has a chance to further investigate Hawaiian folklore.