How hard is it to be a good person, and what exactly does it mean? For Koko, the young girl at the center of Jen Wang’s original graphic novel “Koko Be Good,” the notion of being good is a new fancy, inspired by a chance encounter with a man who’s about to embark on a journey of his own.
After stealing and then returning a tape recorder that Jon, an aspiring musician, had been using to communicate with and learn Spanish from his girlfriend in Peru, Koko decides that Jon and his girlfriend are “good people” because of their work with the poor, and she realizes that she wants to be a good person as well. Her rebellious spirit lends a certain wildness to her altruistic efforts, however. Meanwhile, Jon begins doubting his own planned expatriation.
CBR News spoke with Wang about the book, which will be published in September by First Second.
CBR News: You’ve got a few things going on in this book, but at its most basic, what would you say this story is about?
Jen Wang: The story centers around a flighty young girl named Koko. She meets this guy Jon, a recent college grad, who’s about to make a big change in his life and move to Peru with his girlfriend to do humanitarian work. This tickles her imagination and inspires her to be a good person, too. It turns out to be much harder than it sounds.
You did an earlier, shorter version of “Koko Be Good” as a webcomic. What made you want to return to these characters and flesh out their story?
I did the short comic very quickly sometime in late 2003, early 2004. I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college and going through some major changes in my life. I was really struggling with the kind of person I wanted to be and Koko was a perfect way for me to channel that angst. I felt like there was more there to explore, but I just didn’t have the perspective since I was going through it all at the time. So I waited until I graduated and had more time to reflect on a complete story. I had decided the first thing I wanted to do after graduation was draw a graphic novel, so everything just fell into place.
That original strip was in black and white. For the novel-length version, what led to the sepia tone water color style?
That was a decision brought on by 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.
Who is Koko when we first meet her? What makes her so susceptible to such profound shifts in direction?
Koko is very self-centered and her life mainly centers around having lots of fun. She pretty much lives in her own bubble. Despite not having any stability or having any real friends, she’s pretty content. But she’s very restless and gets bored easily, so when Jon comes around, she jumps at the chance to try something different. In the beginning, it’s all a game to her.
Jon, like Koko, seems to be in search of something, though he seems to think he’s found it. What draws him to Koko throughout the story?
When Jon meets Koko, he’s at a point in his life where he’s kind of lonely and unable to connect to his peers. He can’t connect to his coworkers, his friends have moved on and he’s unsure of his relationship. So when Koko inexplicably latches onto him, he just allows it. Koko’s trouble, but she has the ability to draw people to her. [This] allows her to take advantage and get away with so many things. Like a con-artist, without the bad intentions.
Jon’s tape recorder plays an interesting role in the story, beyond introducing him to Koko. What do you think Jon’s and Koko’s feelings about recording themselves (and others hearing their recordings) say about them as individuals?
Hrm. To be honest I didn’t think too deeply about the role of the tape recorder. I wrote and drew the book as I went along, so it was one of those things I originally had more plans for but ended up dropping by the wayside. But the basic idea is Koko, in all her glory, wants to be seen and heard. The reason she’s trying to be “good” in the first place is to be recognized for her deeds, and putting her ideas where they could be broadcast is just a natural extension of that. With Jon, it’s something he and Emily had been doing long-distance to keep the relationship alive. But it’s a very intimate process, and as Jon mentions, he has a hard time recording himself. He’s way too self-conscious.
Faron, who I believe only says two words in the entire book, is another fascinating character. How does his own situation relate to or reflect on Koko’s journey?
When we’re introduced to Faron, Koko is using him as a sidekick in her bar routine. They’re not really friends, but they’ve settled on this comfortable dynamic. She needs someone reliable she can push around, feel superior to, and Faron needs an outlet for his boredom and probably for anyone to pay attention to him.
But as Koko changes she begins to see him as a real person and that, despite all the grand gestures of goodness, is the first indication that she does have a heart.