There’s something elemental about the desire to do the right thing. To help the needy, assist the dispossessed, provide a voice for the lost. But being a good person isn’t so simple or easy, not just because it involves hard, unglamorous work, but because sometimes society’s perception of “doing good” doesn’t jive with what "good" means to you.
This is the premise for Jen Wang’s debut graphic novel Koko Be Good, a lovely coming-of-age story about two young people trying to figure out what this business of being a good person means.
Title character Koko, a precocious street urchin-ess, meets Jon, a fresh college grad, at a party and steals his tape recorder. The two meet up soon after and become hesitant friends.
Jon has promised he will follow his girlfriend to Peru, where he’ll start a new, meaningful existence as a teacher there. He ignores his doubts about the venture and focuses on wrapping up his life in the States. Even Koko’s little-sister bullying can’t shake his made-up mind.
Koko, however, is actually deeply inspired by Jon’s plan and devotes herself to volunteering, determined to be a good person by the conventional sense of the term. Not surprisingly, things don't go the way she planned.
The coming-of-age plot arc sounds terribly cliché, but much of the story is actually refreshing and touching. We have all dealt with Koko and Jon’s dilemmas of idealism and disappointment.
There are definite holes in Koko. Sometimes they're OK, as with Koko's background. All we know — and, really, need to know — is that she’s a drifter with a wise streak befuddled by childlike impatience and impulsiveness. But other times, the plot feels a bit thin. A tertiary character Faron can't seem to find his place in the book.
Wang thrives on subtlety, and the almost deliberate flatness to the story narrative is oddly compelling and driving in itself. But the ending arrives suddenly and a bit anti-climactically. Another page of copy is all it would take to tie things up nicely.
As for the look, Wang’s drawings are unparalleled. Beautiful sepia-toned frames gain energy with the author's excellent handle on human expressions. Often I turned to the character’s faces when I was confused about the run of the story.
As someone generally new to graphic novels, I not only enjoyed Koko, but came away with a craving for more. As someone who also tries to be good, I enjoyed a kinship with the characters that any novel would strive to create.