Part memoir and part history book, A.J. Dungo brings both together in a tender examination of grief and healing for his debut graphic novel In Waves, finding the connections between the two focuses of his interest and emotion and uncovering how all these part can work to keep him going.
The book opens in the Hawaiian Islands in 1800, delving back into the moment just before the tradition of surfing began to shift from a Polynesian activity to a worldwide one. It’s a presentation of tranquility and tradition coming together into a visceral sporting activity that has the effect of communion or meditation, a picture of a world that will never be the same again.
Dungo then brings readers to the Summer of 2015 and a surfing excursion in California for his girlfriend Kristen’s birthday. It’s a joyous occasion, but there’s also something wrong that looms behind it all. Her sickness is mentioned, but Dungo takes care to let the moment live as its own without the heartbreaking context that will follow.
Dungo continues to split his scope for the rest of the book into alternating chapters. In one series, he recounts how Hawaiian surfers adapted to the encroaching White Imperialist culture that was descending onto their home and how their sport spread far beyond the islands thanks to the celebrity of Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaiian native and five-time Olympic swimming medalist. It was Kahanamoku who influenced Wisconsin-born Tom Blake to devote his life to surfing and perfect the traditional native design and fashion the board that allowed the sport to become so popular.
In many ways, these historical breaks are necessary for the reader, as the autobiographical sections would probably be too emotionally overwhelming to endure. As Dungo’s narrative continues, we learn about Kristen’s cancer, her setbacks and struggles because of it, and how it is a constant presence in their relationship that sets the structure of how they actually interact and express their love for each other.
But surfing also becomes something between them and a link for Dungo to who Kristen was before her cancer, and who she is inside. It gives him something to hold onto and strengthens the bonds he already has. The historical chapters compliment these by providing an inner, deeper context for the richness of tradition that they have connected with, and also giving the best possible understanding of what is being tapped into for strength and solace.
Dungo’s clean lines and figures unite the two narratives, as well as his images of the billowing, pillow-like waves that create ridged patterns that surround so many of the people in In Waves. The ocean becomes a giant presence that carries humans along, demanding a collaborative effort between them in order to reach the maximum moment. So many of us think of the ocean as an untamed entity, but in Dungo’s surfing panels, we see it as a symbiotic one that surfers are able to meet with a humble determination, and the cooperation between them helps access a spiritual expanse as vast as the physical ocean on earth itself.
That’s really the emotional core of In Waves and the source of what Dungo draws on as he and Kristen face the inevitable with dignity and compassion for each other. This is a heartbreaking book, make no mistake, but Dungo is able to provide a mechanism for translating the pain he’s expressing into perspective that can help his readers, and that’s a remarkable and gracious achievement for someone’s first graphic novel.