Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: The Shark King, by R. Kikuo Johnson

R. Kikuo Johnson's The Shark King is another wonderful comic for younger readers from TOON Books. I'm not sure if this tale is an actual myth or just feels like one, to its credit. Set in old Hawaii, the story concerns a woman who falls in love with and marries a mysterious man, and their child Nanaue who, born with special abilities, goes on adventures and meets his destiny. The cape you can see him wearing on the cover helps conceal the boy's strange and somewhat goofy birthright.

Johnson's art style is deceptively simple in its directness - clean and clear, with a muted palette almost out of the 1950s, the drawings often inhabit relatively complex page designs. Readers encounter lots of angular or jumbled panels along with more fairly standard griddings, giving the pages a real life and kinetic energy. (I'm reminded at times of Stephen R. Bissette's page designs in comics such as Swamp Thing and Tyrant - and coming from me, this is high praise indeed.)

The Shark King is what TOON Books calls a "Level Three" book ("Chapter-book comics for advanced beginners [...] Reader needs to make connections and speculate"), and Johnson's work certainly fits this bill. Parts of the tale are told via suggestion rather than statement, encouraging the child reader to ask questions, to guess what has happened or will happen next. This isn't lazy storytelling; it's exactly the opposite. Johnson knows what to emphasize and what to allude to, in order to engage young readers' imaginations. TOON Books expects that kids will be reading these books with their parents, and a story like this will certainly encourage the active engagement of both older and younger readers that can lead to thoughtful reflection and - that grail of grails - re-reading.

I think kids will really enjoy this book, for its artwork, for its imaginative and evocative setting, and for the impish pluck of young Nanaue. Plus, it will give kids yet another reason to tie a towel around their neck like a cape...

The Shark King
by R. Kikuo Johnson
TOON Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 1935179160
ISBN-13: 978-1935179160
40 pages, $12.95