I really enjoyed reading Jen Wang’s first offering to comics via publisher First Second. It’s a beautiful and quite large edition that is, despite its high page count (it clocks in at 304 pages), a surprisingly light and quick read.
Wang’s art is simply stunning. The book is clearly the work of an animator that’s gone off the reservation, and it’s much to the benefit of comic readers everywhere. Wang will likely be a powerhouse in comics one day with the skill set she’s already bringing to the table. She strangely reminds me a young Skottie Young, even though her style is entirely different It has that same freewheeling risky abandon that I always feel in Young's work. That complete commitment to the heart and soul of whatever is being drawn, to the exclusion of all else, the result is beautiful interesting stuff. The characters are sublimely designed and have great fluidity and movement. The colors, a kind of monochromatic sepia watercolor wash with subtle pops of blue and green are rich and well fit Wang’s loose not quite sketchy penciling style. One of the best things about Wang’s book are the aforementioned character designs – which veer creatively quite far away from “typical” comic book characters. She’s not afraid to give her characters distinctive non-traditional looks and it’s a welcome change from just seeing pretty people that all look the same. Yet another of Wang’s strengths here are the facial expressions, which are exceptional throughout, full of life both beautiful and not.
Unfortunately, the writing and to a lesser degree the plotting is the weakness of Koko Be Good. Overall the book is quite confusing, and while I understood it better on a second read, and I don’t mind a book that needs a second read in order to be more fully understood, it’s not because it’s dense or complicated that it needs a second read, but because it’s confusing and unclear. Some of the storytelling is difficult to follow and it’s even unclear frequently which word balloons to read when and which word balloons belong to which character. In a book where the character voices are more developed that’s usually not too big of a stumbling block (though annoying) but here they were not distinct enough (another problem) to be sure without the clarity of a balloon tail pointing to character X, Y, or Z. Interestingly enough, Wang has one very clear, very well done section midway through Chapter 4 called "The Ballad of Faron Lau", which is funny, emotional, smart, well paced, and quite frankly a delight in every way. But instead of raising the material as a whole it just calls out more loudly to the weaknesses of the rest of the book. The silver lining of course is that "The Ballad of Faron Lau" also calls out quite distinctly to the intensity of Wang’s potential.
The book purports to be about three characters who I’m assuming are 20-somethings, but frankly it’s not clear, and in Faron’s case I originally thought based on his design and behavior was much younger…but upon completing the book I think he too is supposed to be in his early twenties. Anyway, it’s about these three characters - Koko, Jon, and Faron - who are each on a fairly traditional search for self and where they fit in the world. In theory that’s a story I’m very interested in – it’s a nice message and I personally don’t need a lot of heavy plotting as I love books heavy on character work - but though this book seems to be trying for something insightful and perhaps even existential, we never really scratch the surface of who these characters are. I didn’t feel I understood Jon or Koko more at the end of the book than I did at the beginning and I’m afraid that is a bit of a failure for a book leaning so heavily on character work. Faron, thanks to the one quite insightful chapter I mentioned above, I did feel like I learned a lot about, but there were other areas (like his confusing age and living situation) that even by the end didn’t quite make sense to me. Koko has been living a crazy somewhat selfish existence looking out for only number one, but when she becomes friends with Jon, a guy getting ready to move to Peru to teach in an orphanage with his girlfriend Emily, she’s forced to confront her reality and tries to remake herself into something “good”. I’m honestly not sure what Faron’s story is supposed to be other than, he’s unhappy and by the end he is trying to find his own way rather than the way being dictated by his family, and that seems to bring growth (and some amount of happiness) for him…but it comes very abruptly and not through any hard work, but almost through chance. Though Faron turned out to be my favorite character of the three, he also seemed like an afterthought jammed into a story that was supposed to be about Jon and Koko and the development of their friendship and ultimately how they changed as people because of it. But in truth the friendship of Jon and Koko never really resonated with me. They definitely brought some insight to one another through their friendship, but I never quite understood why they were friends. There was no chemistry, I never felt the connection, which was disappointing.
Some stunning sample pages:
Part of the problem for me stems from title character Koko, a frenetic, eccentric girl who sets the pace for the book and keeps it frenetic and eccentric even when it is not focused on her and should perhaps settle down and behave more reasonably. Jon and Faron are both quiet calm types (though living very different lives) and while I’d appreciate the contrast between the frenetic and calm…the book never really gets to calm. It tries on occasion but then Koko comes crashing through and I’m all upended again. It’s not that I didn’t like Koko, I appreciated her eccentric ways, and as the title suggests, her attempt to be good is interesting and almost noble, but I never really felt her struggle to get there. It felt haphazard and random, like Koko does, rather than like any kind of character growth and real change. Which is maybe fine and fitting to the character, but it definitely kept me from connecting more emotionally to her. Similarly, Jon and Faron both had interesting stories that got short shrift considering the 304 pages. Faron has the one excellent partial chapter, the previously mentioned "The Ballad Of Faron Lau", which well explores him and develops him greatly, but I was never able to connect those perfect seven pages (which is essentially a flashback) with the rest of his time in the book.
Though I was unable to fall in love with Koko Be Good, there’s still a lot to recommend here, and mostly, a bold exciting new creator to watch. When Wang’s writing and plotting catches up with her brilliant artistic ability we are going to be blown away. In the meantime I’d love to see her teamed up with a really strong writer, so I could see her massive drawing skills put to use in an environment with slightly more restraint and editing. I think the results might be quite exceptional.
Koko Be Good is available in comic book and bookstores everywhere, as well as online. It was released September 14th, 2010 by First Second.
And with this review, I have to announce that She Has No Head! will be on hiatus for the month of August. For the haters and stalkers, this, I'm sure, is great news, though I must ask, why are you still reading anyway? For the fans, I hope that the knowledge that I have to take a break because I have so much positive stuff going on that I have to concentrate on will be good news in its way. In addition to my long overdue "final" revisions on my novel that my agent has been expecting, I also got into Womanthology (woo!) where I'll be writing a piece for the insanely talented Stephanie Hans; there's also an essay due for the forthcoming book Chicks Dig Comics from Mad Norweigian Press; a comics mini-series that is ever so close to being finished so it can be pitched; the ongoing gig writing reviews for CBR; and of course thing like the ever present Drunk Cover Solicits on 1979 Semi-Finalist...can't forget those and their time consuming madness!
As I said it's all wonderful, positive, encouraging forward moving stuff, but it takes A LOT of time, and that plus a day job and some semblance of a life (not much of one I assure you!) and sometimes something's got to give. For the month of August it will have to be She Has No Head!, but expect me back (and hopefully reinvigorated!) in September. 3 Chicks will still be here every other Monday...so don't feel I've abandoned you entirely. Thanks as always to all of you for reading and for the amazing support and encouragement so many of you have offered.
If you miss me TOO much, make sure to track me down on twitter...where I'm sure I'll still be managing to waste far too much time.