“I want to ask you, listeners…if you think you’re good people. And if you are, how do you know?”
It takes nothing more than a tape recorder to completely understand these characters.
The story opens with Joe receiving an unknown tape from Emily. In her one way conversation, Emily lays out their relationship, expressing her guilt in not bringing Joe with her to Peru. Joe obviously wanted to go, but Emily, in thinking she was protecting Joe, left without him. It’s in the casual tone of two lovers, the intimacy implied by the breeziness of Emily’s tone and rhythm, despite the topic being a heavy subject between the two. The scene out so brilliantly. By having Joe provide the visual, while Emily gives the narrative, the reader see that these two are meant to be, as they are two halves of one whole. Joe is passive and still, like the still pictures, while Emily is assertive, as her words move the story forward. They are two pieces of one whole. And that’s the way it is meant to be.
Until you realize it isn’t.
Koko Be Good by Jen Wang is the story of two people who realize that they have gotten life completely wrong. It’s the familiar feeling that appears just as life is about to drastically change. “This isn’t the life I’ve wanted.” Through life, we make sacrifices for love and relationships and progress and the millions of other excuses we give when we change our dreams to fit into the path our lives have taken.
Wang presents this idea through two lenses. The first is the aforementioned Joe, who is faced with picking up his life and moving it to Peru with his girlfriend, the well-traveled Emily. Joe is a wet behind the ears 20 something who still longs for his youthful passions, specifically in expressing himself through music. The other lens is the titular Koko, who can only be described as a whirlwind in human form. Whether it is her mouth or her body, Koko is moving at a million milies a minute, always going after a new thing, a new belief, a new job. She is coasting through life, not realizing that she wants anything more, let alone that she is capable of following through with it.
Separated into eight breezy chapters, the story moves with a rhythm that is usually reserved for dancing. It moves across the pages, intertwined with the pictures in the way a couple would be: twisting, twirling, swinging, spinning, occasionally at arm’s length, but always ready to pull close. I haven’t read many comics that so deftly allow the personality of the characters determine the rhyme and meter of a story’s pacing. The story flows with the same furious energy of Koko during a sale’s pitch, but also can slow to the speed of the quiet melody of Jon’s music.
Though funny and outrageous, this is an intimate story. The humor comes from a natural place, not some sitcom set-up. Wang has created fully realized characters and placed them in a very human story. What do we do with our lives when they hit a wall? What can be sacrificed? With a lesser writer, the reader would received cookie cutter answers to these questions, but Wang does a beautiful job giving honest answers, with no definitive right or wrong outcome. Like Koko, we all face the problem of that eternal question: “What is good?” Each character must ask themselves this question and deal with the consequences of their answer.
Along with the great story, Wang is able to make this book a beautiful example of her artistic skills. The book has a feeling of a modern day Disney cartoon. I was reminded of the classic work of Bill Peet as I read Koko. In a word, this book is gorgeous. Each panel is a wonderful piece of cartoon art, dressed in Wang’s wonderful pencils and finished with an array of watercolors. Various browns and grays mute the world, but don’t make it any less striking. The real strength of the art is in the eyes of every character. I can’t recall an artist that makes eyes so expressive and lively. This book could consist of only extreme close-ups and I could probably write even more praise about the art, which is not to diminish the quality of what is on the page already.
Koko Be Good is utterly charming. It is delightful and fun, but also a serious work of fiction. The good feeling the sat in my stomach when I closed this book only affirmed how strong the story is. Always witty, Koko Be Good offers an honest look at what it means to be a good person and what must be done to reach such an elusive quality.
All artwork is copyright of Jen Wang and First Second Books.