To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, people aren’t divided into good or bad—just charming and tedious. And without a doubt, Jen Wang’s titular character is anything but tedious.
Koko Be Good opens in sunny California with a listless university graduate named Jonathan Wilgur. Disconnected from his daily routine, we first meet Jonathan as he listens to an audio tape sent to him from his older girlfriend whom he is planning to follow to Peru. But after his cassette player is pilfered by precocious and semi-feral young girl named Koko, both of their lives take a sudden turn for the meaningful and a gradual turn for the fruitless.
When first flipping through Jen Wang’s first graphic novel, it appears to be a coming-of-age slacker story gone bland. However as the events unfold, Koko and Jonathan slowly learn that character arcs and personal growth might just be beyond their reach. And for those reasons, Koko Be Good reads more like a coming-to-terms slacker story gone right.
The most engaging parts of the book all revolve around Koko, who ricochets through an unsuspecting population leaving a hilarious trail of serial-mooching and performance-art-chaos in her pint-sized wake. After returning Jonathan’s tape, Koko decides to find meaning in her life through charity and good will. But in a riotous series of self-serving philanthropy, Koko quickly gathers that being good and being happy are two very different beasts.
In stark contrast to the disorder that Koko inflicts upon the world, Jonathan seems to find her influence both calming and contemplative. A classically-trained musician and former member of the up-and-coming band My Perfect Day, Jonathan begins to write music again and rethink his noble goal of teaching in a Peruvian orphanage.
A weak point in the narrative is the too-little utilized third character, Koko’s apathetic accomplice, Faron. But in the end, Wang’s sepia-toned ink and watercolour artwork provides unity for the loosely linked storylines, and ensures that Koko Be Good is more charming than tedious.