Jen Wang’s debut graphic novel, Koko Be Good (First Second), traces the lives of three San Francisco residents: Koko, a mod-styled cigarette girl scamming for free rent and extra cash; Faron, her teenaged partner in crime; and Jon, a shy musician preparing for a move to Peru with his long-distance girlfriend.
A chance meeting results in an unlikely friendship between the rebellious Koko and the sensitive Jon. Jon’s recollections of his altruistic girlfriend and their college romance compel Koko to trade in her shyster ways for an onslaught of well-meaning, albeit misguided, charity efforts. In one cringe-worthy scene, as a new volunteer at Mission Bay Home for the Elderly, Koko launches a resident head first into the street from her wheelchair. Readers will be struck by the sepia wash and cinematic grace Wang lends to illustrations of San Francisco’s neighborhoods. The drawings of church steeples and morning traffic function as quiet, meditative spaces between Koko’s renegade pursuit of humanitarian causes and Jon’s bewildered decision making. While the graphic novel verges on trite sentimentality in moments of the characters’ youthful speculations, Wang’s expressive drawings bestow a wistful depth and humor to the characters’ endeavors in bringing a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives.
Here are some pages from the novel: