A friend passed along a copy of “In Waves” by AJ Dungo and I ingested it in a single sitting, crying more than once. It’s a graphic novel, or more like a graphic memoir, and in one of the many reviews I read Dungo is described as an “important new voice in comics.” The word “comics” threw me because “In Waves” is full of tenderness and pathos and powerful emotion—it is anything but light. In “In Waves,” Dungo details his love of surfing while interweaving the tale of his late partner Kristen’s battle with cancer against the rise and friendship of surfing greats Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake.
I’d never met Dungo. He lives in So Cal, went to ArtCenter College of Design. We met up at a Peet’s Coffee in Santa Monica. He was much the way I expected—considerate, thoughtful, understated. I sensed a lot happening beneath the exterior of sneakers, shorts, tee, baseball cap. We went for a long walk and talked about a lot of things: love, loss, grief, making art from pain. I was curious about his process, how he translated his emotions to the page. Here’s an edited version of our sprawling conversation. Enjoy the visuals (outtakes from “In Waves”). And check out the book HERE.
If you were to give the elevator pitch, and you probably had to do this on your recent book tour, what is “In Waves” about?
So there would be strangers that would ask me and normally I don’t get into it so I would just say that it’s a book about the history of surfing. But if there was someone that was very interested on a level that it wasn’t just trying to make small talk, I would say that it’s a story that intertwines two narratives that, one, discusses the history of surfing, and the other, discusses my personal history with surfing. And the story kind of straddles both stories and goes from past to present and kind of bounces back and forth.
How long did it take and how did the writing go?
The book itself took about two-and-a-half years. I had gotten the book deal right after school and then I got a job at Skechers as a footwear designer maybe a month after that. It was a big dilemma, like, “Can I pull this off? Can I write this whole book and keep a 9-to-5 job at the same time?” So it was literally like an endless workday. I would go to work at 9:00 in the morning, get off at 5:00, go out and get a sandwich and look at the sunset by the pier at Manhattan Beach, and then get to work from 5:00 to sometimes midnight and then just do it over again for two-and-a-half years. And I’d also go back on weekends because I didn’t have all the materials I needed at home, they had it there, at Skechers, so I made it my makeshift studio. So I'd come in on weekends too and I got to know the janitorial staff really well and they were always very kind to me, letting me work after hours. So it was a very intense, zero-personal-life type of deal.
What was it like to sit with this for all that time, alone, and draw and write?
I have a full spectrum of emotions towards this project. It was such a heavy weight on my back just kind of tearing at me. On the professional side, it was something that was constantly in the back of my mind all the time. I couldn’t sit with anyone for long without thinking that I had a few pages to write and crank out. And so there’s that side of it. And then the other side is the healing, introspective, alone time that I got to sit and really spend time with these characters in the book, many of whom I know very personally. And it was almost like I had a second chance to reanimate them and kind of spend time with them in a very self-induced, isolated way. It was nice to be alone and kind of absorb what needed to be absorbed and experience what I needed to experience.
Get it HERE.