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King Shark, otherwise known as the demigod Nanaue, is having a moment, beyond even Gunn's new DC movie (out in theaters and on HBO Max this Friday). The character with his XXXXL hoodie, by way of voice actor Ron Funches, has become a mainstay of the popular Harley Quinn animated series. He'll also star in an upcoming Suicide Squad video game and headline a new comic series starting this September. The shark man is everywhere.
To those who have set the stage for King Shark's current pop culture spotlight, his popularity makes sense. "Imagine you went to a dull party, and you have a choice to bring along either an accountant friend from work, or a 7-foot-tall carnivorous fish who tells jokes and proclaims his shark-hood every few minutes… which one is going to be more popular?" Gail Simone, who penned a prominent King Shark story in her Secret Six comics, tells EW. "His dad is the god of sharks. I guess that makes him, basically, shark Jesus," says Tim Seeley, who's writing this year's Suicide Squad: King Shark.
Mairghread Scott, a writer on DC animated films like Justice League Dark: Apokolips War and Wonder Woman: Bloodlines, calls the character "a Rorschach test for how you feel about comics in general." "There's a man dressed as a bat and we're all going to pretend that's serious and not just weird," she says. "When you get to the level of King Shark, you really have to stare the weirdness right in the face."
Karl Kesel first created King Shark in the pages of his Superboy comic in 1994, but, according to writer Adam Glass, it's like everyone since has been building upon the character. And now, he's made it to the big screen with Sylvester Stallone voicing the aquatic royalty.
EW spoke with some of the creators behind key moments in King Shark's evolution to show just how far this guy has come.
Additional reporting by Clark Collis.
The origin story of King Shark is perhaps the most organic origin story in DC Comics. Kesel, a comic book writer and inker living in Portland, was looking for a villain to put up against the star of his current series, Superboy. The hero was operating in Hawaii, "he's surrounded by water, there's sharks in the water," Kesel remembers. He researched local mythologies of the islands and came across various shark gods. "Somewhere in there I decided one of the shark gods has a child with a human. It's a demigod character except as a shark. And that's how King Shark really started."
Finding a name for this villain was an equally easy process. DC's Green Lantern comic at the time featured a humanoid shark figure called "The Shark," but Kesel admits he didn't want to jump through the editorial hoops to secure that name for this new character he was creating. That iteration also had a fair amount of human intelligence, and Kesel wanted his creation to be "more animalistic... someone who is a barely functioning human."
"So, I couldn't call it 'The Shark,' but Hawaiian myths kept referring to 'The Shark King,' and I thought, 'I'll take those words and flip it around.'" Voila!
The impact of the character's main issue, Superboy #9, cannot be overstated, especially for comic book writers like Glass, Seeley, and Simone, who would all write stories featuring King Shark in later years.
"I have been a fan of King Shark's creator, the great Karl Kesel, since forever, and bought the first appearance of the character right off the stands years ago," Simone writes to EW in an email. "Above all, I loved the visual — just this hulking shark creature with massive jaws."
One aspect of Kesel's original concept that has been lost in later iterations are the two tattoos in a "shark-toothed pattern" he included as a nod to the character's mythological roots. Though, he finds the character's current pop culture prominence astounding. "Never in my wildest dreams when I put the name King Shark on a piece of paper did I think that someday Sylvester Stallone would be saying a half dozen words as King Shark [in a movie]."
<em>Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis</em> (2006)
While Kesel had a clear idea about King Shark's backstory, a few comic book characters, including Superboy, would pooh-pooh the idea of him being some kind of demigod. Special agent Sam Makoa would posit he's the result of a savage mutation in a separate comic. But Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis firmly established the ocean brute's godly origins. In this run from Kurt Busiek, Jackson Guice, Tad Williams, and Shawn McManus, King Shark becomes an ally of Arthur Curry, thanks to the Dweller of the Depths.
<em>Secret Six</em> (2008)
Simone was asked to be a part of a "massive DC crossover" with a focus on villains. Folks like Lex Luthor and Catwoman were being tapped elsewhere, so out of necessity she came to the conclusion, "Let's take the real losers of the DCU and make them the focus." Thus began this new iteration of Secret Six. "It's a book full of the dregs of the DC Universe, but unlike their thematic cousins in the Suicide Squad, the Six never actually win," Simone says.
Among the characters on the team are Catman, Ragdoll, Black Alice, and, yes, King Shark. Glass, Seeley, and Mairghread all give praise for Simone's arc, specifically in regards to fleshing out King Shark's story in a way that still influences the character in the current DC comics run. Glass mentions how she added a "quirky sense of humor to him"
"I wanted him to have big, simple appetites. He's not just hungry, he wants to eat everything," she says. "He gets his feelings hurt a bit when people are afraid of him. Beyond that, he had a genuine joy at the simple pleasures of our world and I think that made him tremendously endearing. And of course, he loves telling people he's a shark."
One of her inspirations? 1983's Jaws 3-D. Why? "No reason. I just think it's funny."
<em>The New 52</em> (2011)
Whenever Glass saw a King Shark panel drawn by Federico Dallocchio, he immediately thought, "Landshark!" It's a reference to a recurring Saturday Night Live spoof on Jaws in which Chevy Chase played a shark pretending to be a plumber, a telegram, a flower delivery guy, and the like in order to eat people. "We all have a fear of sharks. Imagine if it had legs and could move on land," Glass remarks.
King Shark became Glass' version of the Hulk in his run of Suicide Squad in DC's New 52 era. He was the muscle. Among the revamps was a makeover of the character as a hammerhead shark-man. "To me it's always, what's the familiar but fresh thing?" he says.
There were three characters on Glass' must list when he took the reins of Suicide Squad: Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and King Shark. One was the leader, one was the femme fatale/comic relief, and one was the muscle. At one point, he planned to expand on King Shark's story but there were so many arcs and characters to cycle through. On top of that, Harley became the run's breakthrough star. Glass presented her in a scenario where she could stand on her own apart from Joker and that abusive relationship, which was something his editors Mike Mart and Pat McCallum fought to keep in the story. Fans then took to her in a big way that the focus of Suicide Squad shifted to Harley.
One element that was lost from Glass' original plans, but was hinted at slightly, was the tragedy of King Shark. "Basically, it was that he was not stupid, he was not simple. Amanda Waller was drugging him and he was losing his humanity and he wasn't telling anybody," Glass says. "It was almost like Alzheimer's because he was scared to let anybody know what was happening." That, too, goes back to the Hulk comparison. "Beneath the monster is humanity."
<em>Batman: Assault on Arkham</em> (2014)
Nanaue felt more like a mutated serial killer than the child of a shark god in this animated movie focused on the Suicide Squad. Case in point, Waller recruits (and by "recruits" we mean "forcibly drugs and kidnaps") him from a motel room where he had strung up the corpses of his victims from the ceiling as he bathed in the tub with their blood. Voiced by John DiMaggio, he sported a metal mask that made anything and everything easier to digest. He just had one rule: "No heights!" The king didn't like heights.
<em>Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham</em> (2014)
The moment that surprised Kesel the most was the day he "got a royalty check for King Shark appearing in a Batman LEGO video game" he didn't even know existed. "That's when I thought, 'Oh my god! This guy's got legs!"' That game was Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham. The character doesn't have a major role in the game, though he can be unlocked through the Suicide Squad DLC. Kesel, meanwhile, is still waiting for LEGO to send him a King Shark figurine. "I would love a little LEGO King Shark," he says.
<em>The Flash</em> (2016)
Before there was CGI King Shark in The Suicide Squad, there was CGI King Shark on the CW's The Flash. Interpreted for this specific world, Dr. Shay Lamden was a meta-human with the characteristics of a shark — with an accompanying six-pack. He first appeared in a 2016 episode and later returned for an arc in 2019 where he battled Gorilla Grodd.
<em>DC Rebirth</em> (2016)
The Rebirth era of DC comics saw King Shark becoming an agent of the Black Manta-led terrorist organization Nautical Enforcement of Macrocosmic Order (N.E.M.O.). In one of these series, All-Star Batman, he was hired by Killer Croc, his former Suicide Squad teammate, to help fight Batman. At this point, Trixie, another alias for King Shark, looked more like Killer Croc than his past visualizations. Unfortunately, he was no match for shark repellent.
<em>Harley Quinn</em> (2020)
Weighing in at 2,730 lbs., the son of a shark god who accidentally devoured his brother in a berserker blood frenzy is now the lovable tech-saavy, hoodie-loving member of Harley's crew in Harley Quinn. Funches called this one of his favorite jobs in an interview with Bleeding Cool. "They just came in and said, 'He's you... Be you. And then when you gotta murder people... just be aggressive.'"
<em>Justice League Dark: Apokolips War</em> (2020)
This was the moment King Shark became a queer icon.
In the animated Justice League Dark film from directors Matt Peters and Christina Sotta, envisioning a world conquered by Darkseid, humanity's last hope is John Constantine. But he seems more worried about running into his ex than he is saving the day. When we finally meet his former lover, everyone thinks it must be Harley Quinn. Nope, it would be King Shark, and we have Scott, who wrote the film with collaborator Ernie Altbacker, to thank for this revelation.
"I wanted to include King Shark [in the film] because I love King Shark," she says. "It was really important to me that we make clear that John Constantine is a bisexual disaster, so we had to explicitly reference someone. When we were going to have the Suicide Squad, it just was the perfect opportunity." The joke wrote itself. "Oh God, no. No one wants to date Harley. Harley's a mess," Scott remembers of the evolution of this scene. "I don't touch crazy. I slept with King Shark."
Earlier drafts of Apokolips War fleshed out the relationship a bit more, including how Constantine could understand King Shark, who had a very limited Groot-like vocabulary. ("I am King Shark!") "There was an implication that King Shark got a little clingy and John is a disaster bisexual and cut and run," Scott remembers. But it was all cut for time. Scott's still really glad she was able to be very explicit about Constantine's sexuality on screen and that Warner Bros. and DC were on board for it.
There were a few viewers, Scott said, that voiced their issue with Constantine being portrayed in this manner. She expected that might happen, as tends to happen with any kind of LGBTQ representation, but she wonders if those people actually read the John Constantine comics. "Of the list of things John Constantine has f---ed, a mutant shark is really just skirting the middle of the road," she says. "I think at one point it was the living incarnation of a city [and] various kinds of demons."
<em>The Suicide Squad</em> (2021)
Joel Kinnaman never really got to see his costar Steve Agee on the set of The Suicide Squad. He was always dressed in grey tights, a foam body suit, and sporting a "weird shark head" that would later be transformed through CGI into the King Shark we see on screen. Stallone may voice King Shark in Gunn's movie, but Kinnaman says, "A lot of the physical comedy came from what Steve brought to the table."
Gunn first wrote the part of Belle Reve's John Economos for Aglee because the comic book character "looks exactly like my buddy Steve," he explains. Then, he realized, "Steve is 6-foot-5, he fits King Shark, and so he played King Shark on stage."
As for Stallone, Gunn also wrote the King Shark role with the Rocky actor in mind. The filmmaker had gotten close with Stallone, having worked together on Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. "[King Shark's] kind of like a really, really, really, really, really dumbed down Rocky," Gunn explains. "But for some reason, that was something that some people were hesitant about as we were moving forward. We auditioned hundreds of people for King Shark and we actually recorded it, in full, three times with three different actors: two voice actors and one actor-actor, a very good actor. It just never filled out the character."
At this point, Gunn went back to producers Peter Safran and Charles Roven and told them how he originally wrote King Shark for Stallone, asking if he could make the offer. "That's always the danger with these things. If you get a big star, what if they don't work?" Gunn says. "But by this time, we had lost our way and they agreed to it. So, I called up Sly. He didn't take much direction. He got it pretty quick. We went in there and he did the thing. He had the luxury of being able to watch the entire movie before he did the voice, and I think that helped a lot."
<em>Suicide Squad: King Shark</em> (2021)
Seeley is the latest creator building on the character of King Shark with a new solo comic, and it's really a culmination of things that have come before. He credits past incarnations as influences, like Harley Quinn (he can't help but hear Funches' voice in his head as he writes for the character), Gunn's The Suicide Squad (artist Scott Kolins pulled from the design of King Shark in that film), and Secret Six (for having previously given King Shark's story a limelight).
Suicide Squad: King Shark sees its title character on leave from Belle Reve with Defacer when he's swept up in a mystical tournament at the behest of his father. Seeley sees a camaraderie between King Shark and Defacer, two characters who "tend to blow up their relationships." "I think the main thing is trying to find the heart and relatability of a character," he says. "You have to find the emotional through line, the thing that makes them relatable, the thing that makes the reader want to keep reading about them other than just that they look really cool."
The comic arrives this Sept. 21, not too long after The Suicide Squad movie's premiere in theaters. Seeley acknowledges himself as being almost like the James Gunn of DC comics. It's something he gathered after publishers kept returning to him to follow something Gunn did with a new project. For instance, Gunn was writing the screenplay for 1997's Tromeo and Juliet while Seeley was working on a Troma comic. "I think our influences are the same," he says. "I do have a feeling that somewhere DC needed it to feel kind of James Gunn-y, and they're like, 'Well, Seeley writes fart jokes.' And so I got the call."
<em>Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League</em> (TBD 2022)
As for his next appearance, King Shark has a sweet spot as a main character in Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, the upcoming video game from Rocksteady. The first trailer, showcasing a more vocal and intelligent King Shark with blades and a machine gun, came about during DC's FanDome event in 2020, the same venue for a King Shark-centric reveal for The Suicide Squad. You can track the emergence of King Shark Twitter to the day both those announcements came to light. The game is currently expected for a release in 2022.