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Review: A lover of surfing, AJ Dungo finds connection and solace in ‘In Waves’

“In Waves”
A page from “In Waves” by AJ Dungo.
(AJ Dungo)

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning surfing memoir, journalist William Finnegan looked back on the first time he’d paddled out to sea off Diamond Head, on the east side of Waikiki. His father accepted a new job in the 50th state, so the family moved out from the California suburbs in 1966. At 13, Finnegan marveled over these waves in the surfing magazines that marketed a detached, bohemian lifestyle to kids nationwide, but he never envisioned actually wading into Honolulu’s storied waters. It was a dream come true.

“I was beside myself with excitement just to be in Hawaii,” wrote Finnegan in “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.” “All surfers, all readers of surf magazines — and I had memorized nearly every line, every photo caption, in every surf magazine I owned — spent the bulk of their fantasy lives, like it or not, in Hawaii. Now I was there, walking on actual Hawaiian sand (coarse, strange-smelling), tasting Hawaiian seawater (warm, strange-smelling) and paddling toward Hawaiian waves (small, dark-faced, windblown). Nothing was what I’d expected.”

Hawaii proves pivotal to a work of graphic nonfiction called “In Waves,” even as Waikiki is thousands of miles from its setting. Los Angeles illustrator AJ Dungo shares Finnegan’s reverence for surfing and its long lineage, which he expresses in his debut comic’s narrative captions and lucid, sepia-toned illustrations.

There are Polynesians hauling oblong vessels into the breaks off a pre-Westernized Hawaii in as early as 1800.

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There is Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, surfing pioneer and Olympic swimmer, flanked by the slim members of his surf club, Hui Nalu.

And there is Tom Blake, an early Malibu surfer who was the first to chronicle surfing’s origins and revolutionized surfboard design.

“In Waves” has a rich history, but it’s secondary to an account of heartbreak. The book details Dungo’s falling in love with a Lakewood girl named Kristen Tuason in the early 2000s and losing her to cancer eight years later. The book’s surfing evolution contextualizes the culture treasured by him and Kristen, who helped him beat his fear of the ocean and introduced him to surfing. Digitally colored visualizations, sharp and minimal, are set on aqua-blue pages, a scheme that distinguishes Dungo’s autobiographical sections from the brown, sun-baked surfing history herein. Surfing is a salve and a distraction while a “cruel cycle of remission and relapse” for Kristen sets in, although little else is made plain about their relationship.

Compared to its exacting surf studies, specifics on the couple — as well as the pair navigating Kristen’s painful physical battle together — are scant. Their connection comes into view at a slow clip by the time “In Waves” has already shared a sizable chunk of surf history. When Dungo first laid eyes on Kristen in 2005, it wasn’t yet meant to be. Later, when the artist, “nervous and self-conscious” in a nondescript baggy sweatshirt, begins skateboarding along the manicured shrubbery of Orange County’s suburbs with Kristen’s brother Jeff, Dungo and Kristen finally get a meaningful start, but it’s limited to surfing and recounted by way of a nonsequential timeline. Kristen’s personality and background aren’t built out, and we’re acquainted with her through other people. While the tracking of surf history from the tourism boon to “Blue Crush” is linear and crisp, the “In Waves” pair’s eight years are free of substantial dialogue or any prominent attributes other than the gutting tragedy, the events of which swivel from modern day, to Kristen suffering, back to their early dates in 2008. The cross-cutting clutters what’s already mysterious.

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Zipping around suburban Orange County in AJ Dungo’s “In Waves.”
(AJ Dungo)

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What’s unmistakable is Dungo’s well of adoration for Kristen and their shared affection for surfing — eventually a receptacle for the brokenhearted that takes shape just past the shoreline. Nature is massive: Human forms are diminutive when measured against Dungo’s spare representations of starry skylines, butterflies, mountain ranges and, primarily, the ocean, a striking and dense blue against the panels’ abundant white space. Peripheral figures are mannequin-like in their lack of features, and luminous cellphone screens pop adjacent to the predominant ocean-blues. Buena Park’s single-story ranch homes get cold, mechanical-drawing-styled portrayals, and machines in hospital room corners are barely defined. The comic is instead visually worshipful of the natural world and its vast waters, as Dungo remains “consumed” with Tom’s idea that “surfing could provide comfort to those who felt broken.” The tides that pulled him and Kristen together are the same that cradle him now.

On two-page spreads that recall Raymond Pettibon’s mesmerizing large-scale paintings of Hermosa Beach’s wave riders, Dungo is engulfed by marble seawater, its dark swirls more closely resembling snaking wood grain than they do any ocean. A silhouetted Newport Beach pier bands out across the horizon and reduces the foreground’s surfers to mere flecks, patiently scoping out the next set of waves. Kristen, “her breathing now shallow and forced,” monitors her boyfriend, brother and cousin Eon along an aqua-toned coast from her wheelchair in the sand. After seven lung surgeries, she can’t join them in the water. The image is devastating.

Following a glimpse of Kristen’s funeral, Dungo is perched upright on his board, alone again in the ocean with his back to us. Water laps the hand resting on his knee. Blanketed in the book’s serene blue save for whitecaps in the distance, it’s a portrait of calm that mirrors his drawings of early Hawaiian islanders.

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A page from “In Waves” by AJ Dungo.
(AJ Dungo)

Surfing for Polynesians was spiritual, serving later as a communal haven away from colonizers. When developers and tourists ransacked early surf culture, Kahanamoku became a universal symbol of surfing’s intrinsic worth. His friend Tom, a drifter abandoned by his father when his mother died, found structure and order in the waves and shared it the world over. “Surfers have always found solace in the water,” writes Dungo. And for all that’s changed since those first swells off Waikiki, in the profound sensory rush and brand of solitude unique to this cherished, centuries-old endeavor, one hopes that surfing is still a home to the brokenhearted — at least for AJ Dungo’s sake.

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In Waves

AJ Dungo

NoBrow, 376 pp., $19.95

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Umile’s writing has appeared at Hyperallergic, the Chicago Reader, the Washington City Paper and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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