Review: Koko Be Good by Jen Wang

Koko Be Good is a graphic novel by Jen Wang published in 2010. This makes it a little old for reviewing, but I’m disregarding that fact because until I plucked it off the shelf at Mantor I had never heard of it. I’m talking about it because it needs to be talked about.

The story revolves around a cast of young characters in San Francisco—Jon, a recent college grad with Big Plans; Koko, a young woman tripping through life and leaving much chaos in her wake; and Faron, her quiet, unhappy young friend. Each one is facing the big question: What on earth am I going to do with my life? A surprising theft brings the three together, and the friendship between Jon and Koko inspires both of them to really consider their freedom and place in the world.

At the beginning, Jon thinks he has it figured out. His girlfriend, Emily, is Peruvian, and the two are planning a move to Ayacucho. There, she will work at the orphanage her mother came from, and he will do—something, probably. He’s working on that bit, along with his Spanish. Koko knows she doesn’t have it figured out—she always has ideas and projects, but she’s hanging in the listless, meaningless certainty that none of it is the Right Thing. Inspired by Jon and Emily’s Goodness, Koko decides that her new mission in life will be to be Good (Good is always capitalized in the book—Koko is the kind of person who uses Emphasis Capitalization).

Koko Be Good both praises and questions the idea and desire to be Good. For Emily, who is driven by purpose, Goodness is easy to achieve. Koko wants to be Good because being Good sounds better than what she’s been doing—she is constantly vigilant and receptive to ways in which she could make the world a little better, determined to be a hero to someone. She sponsors a child through the World Children’s Fund, joins in a rally for Mexican rights, and volunteers her time at soup kitchens and care facilities. She struggles, though, because none of it feels like pure goodness. She hates changing diapers and doing mountains of dishes. She causes trouble with the old folks. And she feels different when she’s around other do-gooders.

Aligned with the discussion of Goodness is the constant struggle with Selfishness. Koko wants to help the entire world, but is thwarted because this plan is, obviously, much too big and, frankly, not the right humanitarian project for her. Jon just wants to help Emily, but in doing so he is forced to put aside something which is very important to him, which is music. It is revealed gradually throughout the book that Jon is a talented musician; by moving to Peru, he is choosing to help Emily follow her dreams instead of following his own, a decision which may not sit as easily as it first appears.

The artwork is fantastic. Jen Wang uses a light, feathery stroke that complement her sepia watercolor style. The focus on hands is entrancing, the movement graceful, the faces and large eyes endearing. The artwork was what made me pluck it off that library shelf in the first place. Wang’s panels are the perfect platform on which to tell this story, which is at times funny, sad, incredible, and heartbreaking.

This book will appeal to anyone with an internal struggle between Goodness and Selfishness, doing what is right or what is fun and easy. I believe it is particularly relevant for people in their twenties, because at this age the future is big, looming, and full of possibilities. Like Koko, we will all have to decide how we want to exist in the world, and this story offers a comforting array of ideas.


Koko Be Good

Jen Wang

300 pages. First Second. $18.99.

Kate and Eileen – The Aunts of Inishmaan

The Cripple of Inishmaan is a narrative about a small group of acquaintances on an even smaller Irish island. There’s Cripple Billy, his aunts Eileen and Kate, the town gossip-monger Johnnypateen, not-nice-girl Helen, and her foolish younger brother, Bartley. There’s also a doctor, a fisherman named Babbybobby, and Johnnypateen’s alcoholic mother. This cast represents a parade of disabilities—most of them not of the physical sort. To me, two of the most interesting characters are the aunts, who are undeniably good but nevertheless manifest a particular style of disability.

Billy was born with a physical disability. His body is weak and he walks funny. However, Billy is intelligent, shown reading more often than not, clever, and thoughtful. He becomes the bar by which the disabilities of the other characters are measured. Billy’s own differences become a scale on which to judge the deformities of the able-bodied characters.

Billy’s aunts open the play. They are quite elderly, but very sweet in that Irish grandmother sort of way. They are very fretful and compassionate towards Billy, concern which manifests as clinginess and ultimately irritates their little ward. These two also own the little town store, which becomes the locus of interaction where most of the show takes place. When they begin to worry, though, their comfortable shroud of fragile normality shows its cracks.

Early on, characters comment on Kate’s talking-to-rocks phase. When she gets nervous, it seems, her recourse is to lose touch with reality. She begins to talk to rocks. In the show we see her slip to this level in reaction to Billy’s disappearance. While she is in this state of mind, she is shown to be incredibly absent-minded (going into the back room to look for Bartley’s sweets, she returns a long time later having forgotten that he was even there) but nevertheless pleasant. In the UMF production of the show, the actress playing Kate spoke all of her dialogue during this time with a sweet, upward lilt that communicated harmlessness. It was actually quite close to distress.

Bartley also reveals for us the root of Kate’s collapse by explaining a conversation he had overheard, between Kate and her rock, where Kate asked the rock how Billy was doing in America. Compared to characters in the show whose drives were less pure, Kate appears to be a veritable beacon of loving tenderness encased in a timid mentality.

Aunt Eileen, though able to maintain her grasp on reality, shows her anxiety in other ways: namely, stress-eating. She lies to Bartley about what sweets they have at the store, and is then revealed to have eaten them all herself. She also displays irritability and a short temper, mostly aimed at her sister. The moment when the two clash (which is before Kate slips into full-on rock-mode) is an interesting moment in the play where the two accuse each other of their worst faults, then dissolve in how terribly they miss Billy.

Billy’s disabilities are entirely physical. Intellectually, he has a significant advantage over most of the rest of the cast. The other inhabitants of Inishmaan, such as Kate and Eileen, are explorations of this important idea: all disabilities are not physically, and physical disability is not everything.

Hope for Teenage Girls: Character Development in MTV’s “Daria”

About twelve years after it went off the air, I fell in love with MTV’s animated series Daria, which is remembered today for its wealth of excellent writing, compelling characters, and genuine emotional impact. It also boasts a variety of interesting, complex female characters filling a variety of important roles in the home, in the school, and in the “real world.” These characters, it is fair to say, rule the men in almost every case. There are many ways to read Daria in as a feminist show, but what I want to discuss in this essay is Daria’s younger sister, Quinn. First, though, a smidge of context.

The Morgendorffer family consists of four players. Helen is a working mom, a powerful, intelligent, ambitious lawyer who often struggles with balancing her family’s needs with her work demands. Jake is a bumbling freelance consultant who struggles with feelings of inferiority due to his unstable relationship with his father and his inability to support his family. Daria is the older daughter. She is seventeen, erudite, and abrasive. Her intelligence makes her just strange enough to be weird, but gives her the confidence to be her own person with her few loyal friends.

Quinn, the younger Morgendorffer sister, finds Daria to be—to put it lightly—a shame. That is, for four seasons, she tries to hide the fact that they’re sisters. She has a high, nasally voice that makes her sound peppy, vanity up the wazoo, and a nice army of dedicated admirers to assure her that she is a goddess walking on earth. On her first day at Lawndale High, she is appointed vice president of the Fashion Club. And this is how she is for approximately three seasons (the show ran for five, with two films). People who don’t watch the show closely might be tempted to believe that this is what Quinn is intended to be: a superficial foil to Daria’s intellectual depth. People who hold this opinion are doing the character, and the show, a disservice, because, like all fifteen year-old divas, Quinn grows. She evolves as a human being, and this is the value of her character: she is a case study of a fifteen year-old girl and the way she is shaped by society’s expectations, but most significantly, she is capable of overcoming these limitations in the end.

Clockwise from top left: Jake, Helen, Daria, and Quinn

The Morgendorffer household is supported by a strong mother who obviously holds feminist values (she rants more than once about Daria and Quinn eventually competing in “a man’s world”), and, in comparison to her Fashion Club friends, Quinn’s character reveals these influences. Unfortunately, at fifteen, the pull of popularity and the desire to be accepted at school overpower any sense she might inherit from her mother. This is actually a fairly accurate picture of the kind of pressure that young girls still face in high school. Quinn can see how people treat Daria, who is known for her brain and, intellectually, soars over her clueless peers, and decides that it is easier to be bubbly and well-liked. Of course, it helps that she is attractive and outgoing—these qualities enable her to achieve her desired popularity. As she is praised for these qualities, she fixates on them even more until they define her identity. On her first day of school at Lawndale High she is elected vice-president of the Fashion Club; this can be seen to represent her conformity with society’s beliefs about who she should be. Her only concerns are clothes and boys, and she dresses well to please boys. Eventually she begins to realize how constraining these limitations are, and how much potential she truly has.

One of the benefits that Quinn enjoys is a gang of boys devotedly worshipping her. Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie represent another challenge that teenage girls have to figure out in high school—the challenge of boys. Quinn’s dating life, in fact, is a fascinating subject all on its own. She is shown constantly going on dates with many different boys, manipulating the boys into buying her things and spoiling her, and talking to her friends about boys and the benefits of each one. Overlooking the shallowness, I believe that this is an area in which Quinn shows remarkable, is misused, intelligence. In every interaction between Quinn and a boy, Quinn is clearly the one in control. She is shown employing planners, schedules, and exhaustive lists to organize this part of her life. On top of that, it is always clear that the boy is lucky to be on a date with her, and they both know it.

What Quinn never does in the series, even once—that’s five seasons and two movies—is kiss a boy. For all that she and her Fashion Club friends are “boy-crazy,” their interest, or at least Quinn’s interest, seems much more strategic than sexual or even romantic. From boys, Quinn gets physical things, displays of affection that may boost her self-esteem, a sense that she is valued as a human being, and a way to bond with her female friends by sharing a hobby with them. On the one hand, this shows that Quinn is in control of her physical relationships; she has agency. On the other hand (and the show examines this idea a few times), it looks like Quinn lacks the emotional maturity to engage in a serious relationship. Whenever this comes up, however, it is concluded that there’s nothing wrong with that; the show tells the viewer that it’s okay to enter into a relationship with different goals, even though it doesn’t necessarily condone manipulating boys into buying you things (this is shown by the scorn that the other characters show in response to her serial-dating).

Later on, in the first movie (which aired between seasons four and five and was called Is It Fall Yet?), Quinn gets a tutor to raise her standardized test scores. For the first time in the series, she engages with a boy on a strictly intellectual level. When she tries to slack off during their session, he scolds her about wasting his time and hers, but he also tells her that he recognizes her intelligence and wants to help her. There are times in the series leading up to this when Quinn is revealed to be thoughtful, but no character has ever called her smart (barring the “Quinn the Brain” episode, where it was all a fluke), and she is surprised when she starts to develop feelings for her tutor. This reveals a problem with the way we treat young girls today: if all we expect from them is low-performance vapidity and sex, we will never learn their true potential. Quinn is excited by a relationship with a boy that challenges her intellectually, and her respect for the tutor allows her to develop genuine feelings of desire. By the end of the movie, she has achieved a clear improvement in emotional maturity and responsibility, and her grades improve.

After this experience, Quinn can be said to come into herself. She maintains her Fashion Club friendships, but with a seeming awareness of how empty it truly is. She continues to date, but she no longer neglects her schoolwork and begins to do quite well. Her relationship with her sister is shown to become very strong in this season. In the episode “Lucky Strike,” the teachers go on strike and Daria is hired as a sub in Quinn’s English class (just roll with it). When Quinn goes to her to ask if the test will be easy, “because if it’s not some popular people might not like it and might take it out on another popular person even though it’s not her fault,” Daria demands to know why Quinn is “defending the stupid when [she’s] not one of them.” Quinn gets a good grade on the test, then, in response to bullying from Fashion Club president Sandy, publicly admits that Daria is her sister.

By this point in the series, Quinn is shown to have realized her own skewed viewpoint and corrected her beliefs. Although she is merely a fifteen year-old girl in the eyes of society, she is shown to be thoughtful, capable, and in control, while she knows that she still has some growing to do. She recognizes the importance of her family ties, particularly the support she is given by her brainy big sister. This is why Quinn is my favorite character: her character growth is equally fascinating, refreshing, and exhilarating. At the end of the series, the Fashion Club disbands, but the four girls decide that they will continue to be friends and spend time together, valuing the individuality that each girl brings to the group. This is Quinn’s irrevocable liberation from the restraints of society. From this point, she is a strong, independent woman, and you’d better believe she’s a feminist.