This week on Off the Cape, I’ve got a recent release from First Second Books from frequent Flight contributor Jen Wang: Koko Be Good. This book has garnered a good amount of buzz without me being aware of it – I simply was walking to buy my books at my local comic book shop when the cover caught my eye, and then when I flipped through it I quickly became enamored with it to the point that I simply had to buy it.
And I’m glad I did: this is a book that is filled to the brim with life – pure unadulterated life and vitality. Wang’s art leaps off the page in a way that I haven’t seen since I first witnessed Craig Thompson’s work, and her writing provides a foundation for the art that is extremely easy to relate to and filled with vibrant and entertaining characters. I was floored by it.
Find out the details as to why after the jump.
The thing about all types of media, be it comics, music, movies, books, TV shows, or anything else, is that everything is experienced not on an equal level but through the lens of your own life and experience. Works of art transform based on who is experiencing them at that very moment. I suppose that could be one of the reasons why Jen Wang’s debut Koko Be Good is something I enjoy so much, as I find myself to be a sort of blend of the three main characters in it. It is an incredibly easy-to-relate-to story and a shocking tour-de-force from a creator who is much more well known for her artistic ability than her writing.
I’ll get the easy part out of the way: Wang’s art makes this book soar. While some may put off by the art having a cartoonish flair to it, I couldn’t possibly implore you more to give it a chance. Wang is an exquisite storyteller, achieving nuances in her artistic narrative that you rarely see from seasoned veterans of sequential art, let alone a relative neophyte like Wang. A perfect example of this is the section entitled “The Ballad of Faron Lau,” a sequence in which third lead Faron is given a wordless origin of sorts that is told with simple yet elegant scene and page design. This type of sequence would mystify many a cartoonist, yet Wang excels, turning this section into a bittersweet ode to a character who would likely have been creatively malnourished in the hands of another, lesser creator.
No character is short changed either, with each person being given their own visual personality both in terms of look and mannerisms. Whether its the manic energy of Koko or the lanky thoughtfulness of Jon, each of the leads are imbued with a distinct look and feel. Hell, even small characters like Koko’s landlord Chin are given moments in time to create an impression on the reader, as this character only appears for two pages yet Wang gives him one of the most oddly resounding visual moments of the book in my mind. The line work is tight, but not in a way that chokes the life out of the scene, but in a way that combines with the oft looser backgrounds to create a real sense of joy to the events that are transpiring on the page.
The soft watercolors Wang overlays on the pages only add to the sense of warmth one takes from the story, and is a delightful touch from the artist.
From a plot standpoint, this isn’t exactly an epic by any means. It is a simple tale of a few characters trying to find the real them amidst the many versions that exist in reality and the minds of others. Just like works of art can shift identities based off the viewer’s sensibilities, so can a person, and our lead Jon spends the majority of the book reconciling those differences. When he meets the effervescent Koko, a young woman whose joie de vivre can barely be contained by her skin and has a splash effect on those around her, he begins on a path towards epiphany.Continued below
I love the way Wang bridges these two characters, as they are disparate characters in many ways, but ones that also find inspiration in each other’s presence. They are each other’s yin and yang, as Koko reminds Jon that perhaps a little short-term, stupid self-interest (thank you Bill Watterson) can lead to a more fundamental revelation of one’s true self, and Jon lets Koko in on the secret that being all about the number one is fun, but life is better when it’s shared and not internalized through a recording of your own voice or otherwise.
The third to their unlikely trio is the aforementioned Faron Lau, a character who barely speaks and is mostly Koko’s partner-in-crime, but one who left an indelible impression on myself as a reader. Faron is an intriguing character, someone who internalizes his own identity and represses it via silence and the all-encompassing glow of video games. Minus the smoking, I saw myself often in this character, and while he was the one who received the least amount of page time, I’d love to see more from Wang about the character in the future (although I completely understand if we don’t).
Deep down, this book is about a lot of things that everyone can understand. The murky nature of the future. Bridging the gap between what your life is and what you want it to be. Recognizing one’s true self in the many that you present on a daily basis. Everyone understands what it’s like to search for your own place in the world, and Wang gives us a story that finds its foundation in those questions that people ask themselves but comes to life when the answers start free flowing. It’s a stunning debut from Jen Wang, and something I truly hold dear.
In a word, it’s sublime, even if my ego is without a doubt tied to my relationship with the story.