Author: A J Dungo
Publish Date: June 2019
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1910620632
Author website: https://www.ajdungo.com/
Guest Review by Kiki Havos
AJ Dungo’s 2019 debut graphic novel, In Waves, is a poetic tale of loss and love. The graphic novel has been awarded the 2020 American Library Association’s Alex Award and the 2020 Prix Des Libraries Du Quebec Comic category award. In Waves honours the mirroring of life and relationships—both past and present. With what had originally begun as an art school research project on surf history, Dungo expands to include a personal narrative of how the sport offered solace while grieving the death of his long-term girlfriend, Kristen. Dungo illustrates the evolution of losing someone to cancer over a period of time, and how the search for meaning beyond death is a constant process of reflection and connection. In Waves explores how, by their nature, surfing and grief are transitional processes, and how surfing has always offered “comfort to the broken”. This understanding is continuously reflected back to both Dungo and readers through the interlacing history of two surfing legends: Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake. In effect, Dungo’s graphic novel immortalises two heroes of surfing and Kristen in the process.
The title In Waves is an ode to grief’s indistinguishable pattern. It’s as unpredictable and impulsive as the ocean. The metaphor of the title complements the inconsistent and haphazard storytelling of the text. We jump through time and place with Dungo as he recounts Kahanamoku and Blake’s history with autobiographical memories of Kristen injected throughout. This non-chronological theme runs parallel with the incoherent narrative echoed of a young person dying too soon to cancer. It does not and should not make sense. Kristen’s cancer treatment throughout the graphic novel is not the primary focus of the text, although it is clear that her treatment journey is long. I believe this may have been a deliberate choice by Dungo as, despite facing many challenges—like having to amputate her leg and go in and out of remission—Kristen is described as someone who “never gave up”. This is highlighted by the panels depicting her surfing, bike riding and road-tripping across country between chemotherapy treatments. Even when her body stops her from participating in activities like surfing as her condition worsens, this is not represented or illustrated as something that holds her spirit back. The limitations of her illness are thus seen as a secondary storyline in the text.
Dungo depicts surf history flashbacks in warm sepia tones and Kristen’s present-day story in deep shades of blue. This clarifies the essence of time for readers while also emphasising the depth and fluidity of the grief narrative. There is a distinct minimalist yet essential design to the backgrounds and characters in the piece. There is additionally an air of calmness to the story imbued by many double splash page spreads showing characters in the water and distant American landscapes. This is further emphasised by panels that keep Dungo’s narration and illustration separate—with white background text hovering beside panels full of colour, emotion and movement. It is almost as if Dungo is providing a space to breathe while reading In Waves, and to perhaps not overload audiences with what is already such a deeply complex story. For me, the gentle pace of the graphic novel was what left the deepest impact and helped to digest the heartbreak and the honesty of it all.
Reading In Waves feels like paddling out into the ocean with a friend. Dungo gently holds our hand and takes us to where it all began for him. The graphic novel is for all ages and for anyone interested in discovering how the parallels in another’s life story can help support another to navigate the painful periods of their life. In Waves is for anyone who is ready to plunge into the water and immerse themselves into life’s chaos—even if that means facing some tsunamis along the way.
Kiki Havos is a Greek Australian comic artist inspired by the human condition and condition of the world. She advocates for sequential arts as a critical therapeutic practice in her current art therapy training.