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In Waves

AJ Dungo is an illustrator from Los Angeles that just published the new surf-themed graphic novel In Waves

In this visually arresting graphic novel, surfer and illustrator AJ Dungo remembers his late partner, her battle with cancer, and their shared love of surfing that brought them strength throughout their time together. With his passion for surfing uniting many narratives, he intertwines his own story with those of some of the great heroes of surf in a rare work of nonfiction that is as moving as it is fascinating.

Originally set as an art school project centered on the life of surf pilgrim Tom Blake, “In Waves” grew in scope as Dungo learned about the dignity of men like Blake’s close friend, Duke Kahanamoku, in the creeping face of the commercialization of Hawaiian surf culture. During this work, Kristen, Dungo’s girlfriend and a fellow surfer, was tragically taken away by osteosarcoma—a type of cancer that develops in the bones. Ultimately, Dungo felt compelled to thread his research, art, and grief into the 400 pages of “In Waves”.

Dungo illustrates these stories simply and honestly with clean line drawings that feel at times like a cross between Andy Davis and Raymond Pettibon. And while “In Waves” packs an emotional punch, Dungo avoids sentimentality and is careful not to miscast the ocean as some soppy metaphor for salvation. The book seems to argue that life and death are what they are, and riding waves is no shortcut to health or happiness—it can, however, provide momentary escape, a temporary shelter, a kind of peace. As Dungo states, loss often leaves us alone “with only water to comfort.”

Steve van Rees recently caught up with Dungo to discuss his work.

Why Tom Blake? What is his connection to the story you are telling?

One of my final classes was dedicated to making one project that we would take with us to London. The class was taught by two amazing teachers; Clive Piercy and Paul Rogers. Paul is a veteran illustrator and Clive was a legendary designer who was responsible for rebranding Roxy in the early 2000s. The two teachers compiled a list of famous figures that made an impact in Los Angeles. Both teachers knew I was starting to obsess over surfing and suggested I explore Tom Blake’s life and contributions.

Like me, he’s an outsider to the sport. He is a loner, like I was when Kristen passed away. Stories of outsiders are ones that I relate to, especially in relation to the subject of surfing. Surfing to me has always seemed like a sport of privilege. It requires expensive gear and easy access to the ocean. There aren’t many minorities populating the lineup at my local beaches. I always feel like the other when I’m in the water. When I learned that one of the leading pioneers of the sport was an outsider, it was a revelation. It was validating to learn that I wasn’t alone.

Most importantly, he had a relationship to someone that mirrored my relationship to Kristen. That person was Duke Kahanamoku. Tom revered and respected Duke the way I felt about Kristen. Duke pushed Tom in ways unbeknownst to him the way Kristen has sent me on this trajectory after her death. That idea where a chance meeting could change your life is the reason I decided to focus on Tom’s story.

In the book, you suggest that surfing—even just watching it—had an impact on Kristen. Can you tell us about that?

The last couple of years of Kristen’s life were when her love for surfing really started to burst and bloom. Her surgeries and treatment were so frequent that any time away from a hospital was impactful, especially at the beach.

When she was well enough, she would throw a waterproof casing over her prosthetic leg and paddle with us. She would spend time with us in the water and the joy she experienced from a single day would leave her glowing with stoke for a month. I remember after going so much the metal in her prosthetic was rusting and filled with sand. It got so bad that she had to use a hammer to slam against the button that releases the leg from the sock she wore around her stump. She was hardcore and it filled us all with pride.

When she wasn’t feeling well enough to surf, the next best thing was watching her brother, cousins and I paddle out. I think toward the end of her life those moments were quite meaningful to her. She enjoyed watching us progress, but the simple fact that we were together meant so much to her. Although, surfing had its negative effects as well. Sometimes she would feel left behind when we started to go out more and more and she was unable to keep up. But more often than not, as long as she was included, she was happy.

Can you tell me about Kristen’s surfing?

I wish I knew more about her style. She had been an avid surfer before I met her, long before she was diagnosed with cancer. I know she was regular footed. By the time that I watched her paddle out she had a prosthetic leg and only half of her lungs intact. Before I knew her, she surfed a thruster and was super athletic. When I would surf with her, she was so weak that to witness her paddle and get to her feet was mind blowing. All I can say is that she was fearless.

Many of your line drawings are sparse, only colored in a single color. Why did you take that approach with your illustrations? And why are so many faces hidden?

I definitely employ an economy of line in my work. I try to only illustrate what’s necessary which results in sparse images. Line quality is an important feature to me, stylistically speaking. It requires a focus and sensitivity that resonates with me.

The reason for the two colors delineating each narrative was that it was a way to ground the reader in the timeline they’re reading. Sepia was a pretty obvious choice for the past narrative as it is reminiscent of old, fraying film, and I picked blue for the present because of that color’s connotation to sadness.

The hiding of the faces was something that sort of gives certain moments a bit of privacy and distance. I think I was doing it unknowingly, but I remember a lot of those memories that way. It wasn’t until you and others commented on it that I really tried to figure out why I was drawing those scenes in that fashion.

What kinds of reactions have you gotten from the book? From the surf community or cancer community?

Reactions have been overwhelmingly generous, heart wrenching and deeply personal. I think the subject matter elicits a very specific reaction to those who can relate. It’s become a global affair, which blows my mind. The book has been translated to a number of different languages and those publishers have been releasing the book to their countries the last few months. Each time they come out in a new country, I get flooded with messages from booksellers, teachers, surfers, skaters, artists, mothers, fathers, every category of person you can think of. And they’re all so kind and touching. I am absolutely floored by its reception because I was writing about something so specific to my life and Kristen’s life that I figured it would just have a small niche following. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The surf community was one that I was very intimidated of. I walked into this project with utmost humility for real surfers, real surf writers and the community that exists and has existed for hundreds of years. Because who was I to have a say about this subject? I was and am so new to this that I feel unworthy to have a voice in the conversation. I understood that I was handling a story that didn’t belong to me, one of great magnitude, so I approached it with sincerity and sensitivity. I was just trying to tell people about surfing as I’ve experienced and learned about from much more reputable sources. But again, to my surprise, surfers from all over the world have been some of the most receptive.

The cancer community has also had the same reaction to the book. Kristen’s mother has been ordering books by the box load and has been hand delivering them to all of the hospitals that Kristen was treated at. She’s hand delivering the books to her favorite nurses, doctors, social workers, anyone who helped Kristen out along the way. Each of them has been incredibly moved to see her immortalized in this way. Many of the hospital’s pediatric units now have the book on their shelves in their libraries for the children suffering from the same affliction as Kristen. My parents are nurses and have been doing the same. They order books and give them to fellow medical professionals as gifts. Some have reached back to me and have told me they plan on using it to teach medical students how to deal with oncology patients. It’s all so bizarre and beautiful.

If there is one thing you want readers to take away from the book, what is it?

Life is short, don’t take what you have for granted, and make the most of it.

In Waves is available now on Amazon.


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