By Jamie Smart
You know, some of the time it’s fun writing to limits, to deadlines, to word counts. I try not to abuse the privilege of the FPI Blog too much where we essentially have a free reign over what we write, try to make the reviews timely, try to limit any meanderings, try not to bombard the reader with too many quotes or images from the book. You may have guessed that this is not one of those times.
So… first, the apology. This is WAY late. Picked it up at Thought Bubble 2013, and 5 months to read and review something is rather taking the pee.
Likewise, if you don’t like scrolling through loads of art and quotes to illustrate just how ridiculously, insanely funny (or funnily, insanely ridiculous) Kochi Wanaba is, just leave now, but not before you make a mental note to buy the book asap, as it’s the best tale of pre-teen friendship issues, bee festivals, and totally sweary messed up kids you could possibly have the pleasure of reading.
Right then, if you made it past all that guff, you might want to grab a drink and put your feet up to read the rest….
“Mister Fozzles was a trauma. He traumed me.”
“Fucking Mister Fozzles.”
Kochi Wanaba is absolutely a Jamie Smart production, but not necessarily the Jamie Smart you know and love. So many swears for a start, right from the word go, where a full page of magnificently wrong text sets the scene, throwing you off kilter, totally in your face. Bad form usually to start a comic off with SO much text, but no, Smart’s so far off reservation, even this works. The madness encroaching from the off, slowly, slowly building.
It’s the weirdest, sweariest, funniest thing I’ve read for a long time, right up until an ending that takes all those weird, sweary, funny feelings and royally screws with them, the madness engulfing all. Pay attention, this one’s worth the in-depth read.
Smart’s style is all still there, but it’s lost the full colour we’re used to, gained sepia tone on a light mocha paper. There are no panels, the eye instead guided by the freeform figures existing loose on the page… but guided nonetheless, no panels doesn’t mean no storytelling.
You might find it all a little strange, you might wonder just who this is aimed at, the cute big-head faces might be familiar to anyone who loves his work in The Phoenix or The Beano, where the delights of Fish-Head Steve, Bunny Vs Monkey, Looshkin et al await. But in tone this is touching on the sort of things Smart did in Bear, his series from Slave Labor in the early 2000s or in his more recent Corporate Skull. But where those were/are weird, violent, funny bits of madness, there’s something about Kochi Wanabe that takes all that weirdness and insanity, adds a big, unhealthy dash of disturbing, and then proceeds to turn it all up to way past 11.
Way, way past 11…..
“You’re hungry for butter?”
…says the girl talking to what she always thought were her imaginary friends.
“Hey at least PRETEND like you’re listening. I’m hurting here. How come you’re always drawing anyway? What is it? What you drawing! Is it a secret?”
No don’t look it’s just.. sniff.”
“Do you ever draw … me?”
Oh, Kochi, always drawing. Why don’t you draw her Kochi? What secrets are there in your sketchbook?
Do you See? Madness runs deep in Kochi Wanaba. The sweary kids are there to throw you off balance straight away and that sense of strangeness just gets stronger the further you go. The language, the actions…. it’s all completely wrong, incredibly rude…. and riotously funny.
Frankly, despite surface appearances with all those cute, big-head kids, it’s actually about as cute and fluffy as the Wicker Man. On which note…
All of this takes place against the backdrop of ‘Bee Fest’, where the townspeople build a giant bee, fill it full of notes from the residents begging the bees to leave them alone for another year, drag the bee through town and then burn it. All because of an ancient curse that unleashed a plague of bees on the town back in 1593, killing everyone through mass anaphylactic shock. It used to be human sacrifice, now it’s begging letters for bee heaven.
Kochi isn’t so sure on the whole bee thing though. He’s going to risk the wrath of the bee gods and not even bother putting his note in this year…
Yep, that’s Kochi… quiet, introverted little Kochi, who really doesn’t fit it, always sketching secret stuff in his secret little sketchbook. His little group of friends are all weird and nasty and cruel and generally pretty much either the strangest, most exaggerated group of pre-teens you’ll ever meet, or completely, childishly normal. Kids can be scary weird at times. Although even the scariest, weirdest kids might not take swearing into this competitive level.
Kochi’s got a girlfriend, Lhys, a manic, over-excitable, continual sugar rush of a girl, with a bit of a thing, a phobia about Mr Fozzles.
Whether at school or at play, Kochi, Lhys and their group of socially dysfunctional mates spend most of their time bickering, arguing and generally being borderline bonkers, the arguing and nastiness get more and more intense and there are questions to be asked. Important questions, about popping stones and dead kids…
“I didn’t think anywhere sold these any more, not after those kids went blind.”
“Man I loved these things, they fuck me up so badly.”
“I know someone who died from eating them, I can show you.”
Thing is, this time Dweevil isn’t making it up. There IS a dead kid out there in the woods,
“his face all exploded and all his guts fell out through his face”.
But perhaps the biggest, most pertinent question of all comes early on ….
“The bugs, Kochi. Why DO you attract the bugs?”
Yep, bugs, popping stones, dead kids. Weird stuff happening all over. Funny weird stuff.
Then Cuchilla turns up… Lhys might be just that little bit jealous….
“Who is she?”
“I dunno, she just kinda turned up. Doesn’t really talk to anyone. I tried to say hi a few weeks ago but she totally blanked me. She’s so rude.”
“Maybe she’s shy.”
“Maybe she’s rude. Unwilling to crack her fashionably surly disaffected grump except to bitch in her blog about Asian extreme cinema, Lovecraft and bands no one’s heard of. She’s a walking cliche. And kinda dowdy.”
Maybe, or maybe she’s more.
In fact there’s a lot in Kochi Wanaba that comes under that idea of “maybe its more”. Maybe it’s way more. Maybe the whole bee festival thing is going to go majorly wrong this year, maybe Kochi does seem to attract bugs, maybe the world is going to fall under something as bad as the curse. Maybe worse. Maybe everything is going to get worse?
It all comes to a head on Bee Day. Lhys is all cute and bee shaped, barely any of the group have written to the Bee Gods, there’s a load of well weird costumes going on…. Tubby’s dressed as a gay sailor…
“Gah leave it out!! … I’m in the Navy“
Dylan’s dressed as a voodoo shaman…
“So don’t antagonize me because I’m deathed to the tits!!“
…complete with Little Dylan as a Dylan voodoo doll. Bad move Dylan. Squeeze. Ow. Squeeze. Squeeze. Squeeze.
“Ow!! Shit, ow!! Quit it!! Fuck!! Not a toy!! Not a toy!!“
Everything is building, the kids are on edge, sugar buzzing, hyped up, too close, too weird, too full of popping stones, or childish insecurities, jealousies, the sort of mercilessly cruel, idiot stuff that kids have always fallen out over. And it all comes to a head here, as they’re ripping each other apart over stupid Bee Day costumes….
“Oh shut up George, you’re such a dickhead!! Everyone knows it!! Even your buddies here say it, but they still hang around with you because they don’t have any real friends!!”
“You’re all losers. You can all fuck off.”
“I’m sick of you too, George. Soon as you say I look like a gay sailor, everyone else agrees with you!!”
“But you are a gay sailor!!”
“See? You’re all fucking sycophants. I don’t even know why I’m here.”
“I do Tubby. It’s because you’re a weirdo, an outcast. You’re not socially acceptable. We’re all you’ve got. You’re here same reason all of us are. Till we find somewhere better.”
Ouch. Cruel. Harsh. Vicious. True. But Ouch all the same.
Somewhere in the midst of all this painful group examination, Lhys’ sister starts throwing up. Might have been the dead bug on a cupcake.
Lhys finds out Kochi’s been talking to Cuchilla.
And George knows what’s in Kochi’s sketchbook.
Well, he thinks he does.
We think we do.
Maybe we’re all wrong.
Everything I’ve talked about thus far happens well within the first half of Kochi Wanaba. I’m not going beyond that, not going to spoil it beyond what’s right there on the back-cover blurb… “events spiral horrifically out of everyone’s control“. Yep, that they do.
Smart’s created something special in Kochi Wanaba, completely over the top, totally weird, brilliantly mad. The art, all lovely and cute, is perfect for masking the sheer vicious nature of the kids, and the absolute spiralling out of control-ness of the ending. The sketchy brown pencil line work on the coffee coloured pages gives it a unique look, very loose compared to Smart’s usual stuff, but bloody gorgeous still.
The best of Kochi Wanaba comes via the plentiful dialogue, utterly over the top or totally spot-on, depending on your dealings with young kids. The sheer, ridiculous joy of swearing here is just damn funny. But even without the swears, the bitchiness and vicious chat between the kids is pitch perfect and hilarious. After that, the second half’s descent into observing how the group falls apart, the nature of friendship breaking down just as the Bee Fest goes really wrong, is absolutely compelling, funny turns to horror turns to revelation, and always completely engrossing.
Smart talks in his afterword that the response to reading the ending as it was originally published online was a real Marmite sort of thing, a lot loving it, a lot hating it. I’ve got to admit that when I read it all first time round online a few years back I was simply lost, failing to make the connections I needed to, and was more than a little wary of revisiting it here. Me now would like to take me then outside and slap me then around the head. How did I not get at least one possible interpretation? was I asleep? one too many G&Ts? or simply not in the right place to get it?
Now, with a couple of rapt rereads, I can’t help but get it, it seems so obvious. Yes, very weird, the wild and ridiculous ride suddenly going completely off the rails in the final part, the silliness transforming to existentialist madness, but all the ideas, all the clues, all the things I needed had already been planted prior to this.
Now, both of my possible interpretations of the finale may be completely off, completely 180 degrees to what Smart had in mind when he wrote it. But that’s immaterial, the essential point is that putting Kochi Wanabe down after finishing I felt that I’d just read something very special, weird but absolutely readable, dark but deliciously funny, an achievement on the part of Smart, a book that’s taken many years to get published. I’m so glad it has.
You can get hold of Kochi Wanabe from any (good) book and comic shop, online from the FPI Store, or direct from Blank Slate.
I shall leave you with Lhys once more. You may well feel a little like this whilst reading. Or maybe you need enough popping stones to drive your sugar levels up to ‘potentially blinding’….