In 2004, then twenty-year-old artist Jen Wang made a short, 13-page webcomic in which an eccentric young woman named Koko meets a more straight-laced young man named Jonathan at a bus stop and the pair have a conversation about some fairly deep issues (The story is up on Wang’s website, if you’d like to read it).
By 2010, Koko and Jon stretched, swelled and changed shape, their coversation spread out all over San Francisco and included many more participants and their 13-page bus-stop story together grew into a 300-page graphic novel, Wang’s first, entitled Koko Be Good.
Koko is still an eccentric young woman, and on who seems to be trying very hard to prove that she knows exactly who she is while she’s actually stil trying to figure that out. A chance encounter with Jon, a young man about to move to Peru to join his long-distance girlfriend Emily in her work, helping Peruvian orphans, gives Koko a new direction to throw herself in. She’s tried to be many things, but now she’s going to try to be good, whatever that means, exactly.
Set in San Francisco over the course of some very dramatic, transitional times for two people, Koko Be Good features accomplished, confident, fluid renderings of expressively designed characters, flowing from panel to panel and emoting through big saucer eyes, subtly-shifting mouths, dynamic posture changes and really,really well-drawn hands.
If the artist herself hasn’t yet discovered exactly what it means to be good, her artwork certainly demonstrates that she is good—in the comics-making sense, if not the orphan-saving sense. We took the opportunity of her book’s recent release to talk to Wang about the characters, the work and goodness.
Blog@Newsarama: Koko Be Good began as a short story that unfolds in a single scene. How did that version of the story grow into a graphic novel?
Jen Wang: 2004 was a year of changes for me and the short comic came to me really quickly as an reflection of that time. Even before finishing the comic I felt I had more to say. Koko felt like the perfect character to channel my feelings, and I knew when I had enough time to process everything, I wanted to return to the character and do a more fleshed out version. It felt like the perfect thing to work on after graduation.
Blog@: Reading the original story on your website after reading the graphic novel version, I was struck by how the two Kokos are so similar, but the Jons look very different from each other. How did the characters evolve from between the two stories?
JW: The original Jon wasn’t much of a character. He was a bit of cipher, and for the book I wanted him to have his own story. Koko’s a pretty unreliable narrator so I needed someone more grounded and realistic to contrast. Once I figured out what Jon needed to be it wasn’t too hard to come up with a different design.
Blog@: Can you tell us a little bit about the technical process of drawing this particular book? Like, how you drew it and what you drew it with?
JW: I did the pencils on 9-by-12 Bristol paper. I scanned those and printed them out in light blue on an inkjet printer on 8 x 14 paper. That part was experimental. In retrospect I should’ve just inked on top of the originals since I didn’t end up messing up much. I inked with a Papermate pen and watercolored on top of that.
Blog@: There are a lot of little blue lines and what look like sketch lines here and there in the artwork, of the sort that artists often erase or obscure in the final product, yet you chose to leave visible.
JW: I feel close to my raw pencil sketches. It’s the part I spend the most time on, getting the expressions right. If I could draw a readable comic just out of pencil sketches I would. Around that time I was looking at a lot of European cartoonists like Gipi, Joann Sfar, Nicolas deCrecy and Blutch who have these really loose expressionistic styles. Art that looks like someone really sat and drew, sweated and spilled coffee on. It felt real and I wanted that intimate feeling for Koko. Again, in retrospect I could’ve made it a little cleaner for clarity, but I’m fine with what’s there.
Blog@: What about the color choices you made? The palette of the book is all brown, black and blue, although we do see what the characters would have looked like in full color on the covers.
JW: Having a limited color palette worked with my original desire for the comic to be black and white. I don’t like how colors can dictate too much in the story. Plus it would’ve taken much longer to do. I do love painting in colors, though, so it was natural for me to do the covers in full color.
Blog@: I noticed quite often your dialogue balloons don’t have tails, particularly in panels where two characters are conversing for a while. I was curious about that stylistic choice.
JW: I think that must be a manga thing. I wager 70% of what I’ve learned in comics came from manga.
Blog@: Your biography notes that you’ve worked as an animation assistant. How did animation inform your comics work as seen here?
JW: Animation was my first big love. I think the first things I ever drew were Care Bears, and not long after that it was all Little Mermaid fan art. It’s still very moving to me that something so 2D, and unrealistic, and drawn by hand can feel so alive. You really feel for Dumbo when his mom is taken away.
Cartoon characters are like avatars. You channel who you are and how you feel into these drawings. Even though I don’t really watch cartoons much anymore I feel like I’m still trying to capture that feeling, as a kid, watching Ariel on TV. It’s pure magic.
Blog@: You also went to school in San Francisco, where this was set and, I see, partially drawn. Is there an element of biography in the story for you? Do you see a lot of yourself looking back at you from any of the characters, or do you feel any particular kinship with any of them?
JW: All of the book is me looking back at myself. The whole book was a cathartic reflection on who I was during those years in San Francisco. Koko and Jon obviously represent the questions I had about the person I wanted to be or could be. But as angsty as that sounds, those were some of the most exciting years of my life. The book is also a love letter to San Francisco and what it means to me.
Blog@: This is your graphic novel debut. I was wondering if there was anything about the process of creating it that surprised you?
JW: I was surprised by how emotional it was. Writing and drawing a graphic novel is such an enormous undertaking, it becomes such a big part of your life. When things go well you’re on such a high. Then when you’re stuck (which is most of the time) it feels like everything is on the verge of falling apart. It’s an obsession.
Blog@: Because Koko grew from a short story to its current form, I wonder—do you think you’re done with the story or the characters, or is it possible the story might grow or expand again in the future?
JW: No, that’s it for Koko. Koko came from a particular time in my life and that time has passed. If I were to write a similar, biographically-influenced book it would be totally new characters and situations. If I really had to revisit Koko Be Good, it’d probably be a short spin-off comic around Faron. But at this point I’m ready to move on.
Blog@: Do you consider Koko Be Good to be a romance? There are certainly elements of it that seem to suggest the pattern of some romantic films or stories, but the two leads seem interested in each other in a way that isn’t quite romantic.
JW: I’m a romantic in the artistic sense, no doubt. Is it a romance between the protagonists in the traditional sense? Not really. I don’t want to rule out whatever readers want to believe, but for me Koko wasn’t ever going to find herself in a romantic relationship. She’s got a lot to figure out in her life before that can happen. I do express myself in a very romantic way though. The Jon and Emily scenes were some of my favorites to draw.
Blog@: Without spoiling the ending for readers, do you think Koko succeeds in her goal to be good? Do you think her desire to be good is a universal one that she simply expresses in a unique fashion, or do you think the desire to be good is itself rather rare?
JW: She comes to accept something in herself, that’s for sure. And she’s able to empathize with someone, which was not a quality she had before. I do believe the desire to be good is universal and people express it in different ways. Most of us try our best to be kind and are moved when we see people hurt. Not everyone gets a chance to be Angelina Jolie but who doesn’t want the world to be a better place?
Blog@: So what’s on your drawing board at the moment?
JW: Lately I’ve just been doing little paintings but I’m gearing up to start another comic! Wish me luck!