Koko Be Good by Jen Wang
Submitted by Xaviar Xerexes on October 5, 2010 - 06:48
Koko Be Good by Jen Wang is a beautiful book. The art is just a joy to look at; there are many, many panels I'd consider works of art all by themselves. The comic as a whole is absolutely worth getting, it's a very interesting, thought-provoking story with lively characters and a tone that mixes seriousness with fun.
But let's stick with the art for a bit more. Wang paints each page with watercolors -- not full color, but beautiful sepia tones washes under very crisp inking. In an interview with CBR, Wang says the art style was a result of the publisher wanting her to do the book in color:
That was a decision brought on by [publisher] First Second. I'd originally intended the book to be in black and white, but First Second publishes their books in color. If I wanted to work with them, that was a deal-breaker. I didn't want a hired colorist, I wanted to color it on my own, but if I did it digitally it would've taken me forever. So the compromise was to keep it essentially one color but have it painted so it would look more varied. I do a lot of watercolor painting, so it was a style I was comfortable with for 300 pages.
Technically the story is a remake of a short story comic that Wang created circa 2003-04, but it is a complete rework in terms of plot and artwork. Both of the two main characters, Koko and Jon, are well-developed and a great contrast when thrown together in this book. Title character Koko is a mad, free spirit (a bit Something Wild) who is pretty impetuous and decides to take on trying to be good (a little bit How To Be Good). She's the more outrageous character but has a more straightforward narrative arc. She is learning about herself and others as she tries on different ways to be good and in the process grows up a bit. Jon on the other hand is a fairly mature guy who starts off the book planning to move to Peru to be with his girlfriend Emily -- who has moved there to do good (she's also part Peruvian) by working in an orphanage like her mother was from. He has the much more complicated path as he tries to unpack his own motivations and assumptions and make decisions about what he really wants as opposed to what he may just think he is supposed to want (or is simply afraid to lose).
Jon and Koko collide when Koko steals Jon's tape recorder which just happens to have a tape in it Jon's girlfriend Emily has recorded for him (she's in Peru when the book opens). When Jon and Koko meet they wind up testing each other's assumptions about their own lives. There is a lot of plot in here but Wang handles it all very deftly with a few key flashbacks and allowing us to follow Jon and Koko apart and when they come together. The moment of truth for Jon and Emily late in the book is a great scene.
And all throughout there is a whole bunch of kinetic motion and joyful moments. I can't emphasize that enough. It's not quite slapstick, but there is so much movement of the characters in this book and Koko is such a unstoppable force that even as we learn about these characters we get pulled through some set-pieces filled with comedy and chaos that give the book a really energetic tone.
Part of me wants to write a great deal more but I would have to give away too much of the book yet. So I'll leave it here. But this is a great book and you really owe it to yourself to go check it out.
By the way, I've been happy to see some great press for this book so far. Wang was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal here and below is video of an MTV Geek interview with her:
The publisher provided a free copy of the book to ComixTalk for review purposes.