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The Shark King
posted June 14, 2012

imageCreator: R. Kikuo Johnson
Publishing Information: Toon, hardcover, 40 pages, 2012, $12.95
Ordering Numbers: 1935179160 (ISBN10), 9781935179160 (ISBN13)

The Shark King is a ridiculously pretty, fun and flat-out pleasurable little comic book. It's also the second substantial work from cartoonist R. Kikuo Johnson and a new entry in the continuing onslaught of books from Toon. That second group of descriptives may allow for a round of complaining from regular comics fans far more easily than the book itself. If you go into Shark King hoping for a continuation of the delicate yet assured artistic sensibility that Johnson unleashed on an unsuspecting comics world in The Night Fisher, you're likely to be disappointed. I'm sure someone out there can read both and connect the two, but for most of us it will seem like these are the works of two different artists. Similarly, I know that some comics readers have expressed to me in informal fashion worries about Toon's meticulous attention to certain kinds of editorial prescriptions on how their book line will work, for instance, paying attention to the complexity of sentences according to projected age group. I don't see any of that having an effect on the comic resting on my lap, but I know that it's hard to resist looking for these things.

I almost never suggest this, but I think there's a danger in over-thinking a book with the specific charms brought to the table by The Shark King. If Johnson's work seems different here than what we saw in his debut graphic novel, it's equally attractive. My goodness. It's good comics, too: the deliberate aspect of the story puts a lot of Johnson's choices on display in easy-to-access ways. For instance, Johnson varies his page design to great effect. Some pages in Shark King bleed out to the edges in a way probably more familiar to manga readers than those of North American comics but that would seem to underline the richness and exuberance of the fable being told, while others are broken into panels that fairly bounce off one another in a way that emphasizes the action as depicted on the page. It's also fun to track the very bold manner in which Johnson commits to motion. There are a number of sweeping moments left to right, something action comics in general do very well, but Johnson is also smart enough to send us careening in the opposite direction when the narrative calls for a stop. Shark King may look and feel different than our first exposure to Johnson did, but the starling confidence on display seems to have stuck around. It's sort of like watching a jazz drummer pound his way through a Zeppelin song.

I can't predict what kids will like -- I can't predict what anyone will like, but kids are tougher plus you can't insult them when they fail to back your guesses up, at least without feeling like a heel. I think I would have liked this work a lot as a kid. It's a little bit offbeat in terms of its story, setting and details; its basic through-line is indulging our de facto lead as he raises havoc and causes trouble; the world depicted walks that fine line between universal representation and specific, return-to detail, additionally flattered by the first-class presentation (an endpaper chess game is worth the entirety of certain other comics for kids). I liked The Shark King as an adult reading it with child's eyes, that's for sure, ones attuned to spectacle and pleasure. All of my perceived hang-ups failed to last for very long in this comic's bright light.