Jon and Koko are young adults in San Francisco who both aspire to be better people by following the ill-fitting examples of others.
Jon plans to leave everything behind and follow his girlfriend Emily to Peru, where she will teach at an orphanage. Emily’s sense of purpose and dedication inspires Jon, who imagines his own musical aspirations to be comparatively shallow. Koko, meanwhile, is an aimless, chaotic troublemaker who feels destined for greatness but has no idea how to pursue it. After meeting Jon over a stolen tape recorder, Koko decides to devote herself to becoming “good”, a project that she tackles with the same reckless enthusiasm and manic intensity as any of her previous self-serving schemes.
The further they commit themselves to their plans, however, the less sure Jon and Koko feel about the choices they’ve made. “Is it worth trying to be something you’re not? Just because it’s right?”
“Young people in search of themselves” is not exactly a new literary concept, but author Jen Wang brings it to vivid life with wonderfully expressive artwork. Every panel in Koko Be Good is rich with movement and sensuality; the gracefully exaggerated gestures and expressions of even minor characters convey the immediacy of their emotions while also presenting them in a playful light. This balance of lightness and expressiveness perfectly captures those moments of agonized soul-searching as being simultaneously the most important thing ever and really not very important at all.
The characters have distinct voices and body language, and their interactions make even the most mundane situations feel dynamic and dramatic. I particularly enjoyed every image that paired tiny, abrasive Koko with gangly, thoughtful Jon. Wang refrains from telling us everything about the characters and their situations, creating the sense that the characters and the world they inhabit exist beyond what we get to see of them.
There’s a surprising amount of action, slapstick and some violence for a story that focuses on existential journeys, keeping the story fast-paced and engaging. Characters smoke and drink, including one underage character, so this is probably best suited for older teens and adults.
Koko Be Good
by Jen Wang
First Second, 2010