In his debut graphic novel, titled In Waves, surfer and illustrator AJ Dungo explores the beauty and complexity of his relationship with his partner, Kristen, as they face her prolonged battle with osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. They share a passion for surfing; it’s a big part of their bond, and it’s the thing that will see Dungo through his darkest days. It’s not a spoiler to say that Kristen doesn’t make it, as Dungo reveals this early on in the story. But that doesn’t take away the sting. The book came out in the summer of 2019 and, on the day I got it, I read it entirely in a single sitting. Or, rather, I wept with it.
There’s a part that comes a little more than halfway through when their romance kicks into high gear: “But as my life felt like it was finally coming together, Kristen’s was falling apart.” It’s a gut punch. You feel their high school, first-love giddiness—and the inevitable pathos.
Interwoven with the story of Dungo and Kristen is the trajectory of Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake, which is its own sort of love story, and which works as a ballast as things get heavy for Kristen. It’s as if Dungo’s mining the myths that will hold him together once he’s left alone.
“Duke represented the blissful nature of surfing,” Dungo writes in the novel. “Tom personified the idea that surfing could provide comfort to those who felt broken—an idea that has consumed me.”
I read In Waves a second time, and again I was a sniffling, sobbing fool. The story hit very close to home: I, too, lost a loved one—my wife of nine years. But I’m pretty sure I’d have been weepy regardless. What’s striking is how minimalist it is. With few words, Dungo conjures so much.
Shortly after that second read, I wrote Dungo a gushing note. We met at a coffee shop in Santa Monica, California. Clad in shorts, sneakers, and a T-shirt, with a Thrasher cap on his head and a skateboard under his arm, Dungo exuded a youthful innocence that didn’t match the weight of his work. But he oozed a deeply empathic kindness, and we fell into step like old war pals as we walked down the street.
The sun was hot. The wind was onshore. The smell of ocean commingled with sycamore, fig, and pine. We passed big expensive homes and shiny black cars. I asked how long it took to write and illustrate In Waves.
“The book itself took about two and a half years,” he said. “I’d 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 nine-to-five job at the same time?’ It was literally an endless workday. I would go to work at nine o’clock in the morning, get off at 5 p.m., go out and get a sandwich and look at the sunset by the pier in Manhattan Beach, and then work on the book until sometimes midnight. And then I’d do it over again. For two and a half years. It was a very intense, zero-personal-life type of deal.”
I got the sense that, as a graduate of ArtCenter College of Design, where he studied illustration design, Dungo was familiar with this kind of rigor. I asked about his upbringing.
“I was born in Fort Myers, Florida,” he said. “I spent my childhood with my four siblings as latchkey kids.
Every day we’d climb trees, race our bikes, and scrape our knees. My parents were both nurses and worked long hours. My family decided to move to Norwalk, California, when I was 12. I spent my teen years ingesting the usual diet of a SoCal teen: Mexican food, skateboarding, and punk music.”
Dungo told me that he surfs often and skates daily. A month before In Waves was due, he quit his job at Skechers. He was then working part-time for the artist James Jean, but was mostly earning his living as a freelance illustrator, working from home at a desk cluttered with lamps, Micron pens, inkwells, books, a laptop,
and an iPad. Each page of those spectacular illustrations throughout In Waves takes about a day to draw, “but there’s also the planning, writing, penciling, inking, and coloring that’s hard to quantify in terms of time,” Dungo explained. And though In Waves is classified as a graphic novel, it is more precisely a graphic memoir—which is to say that it’s all true.
I asked what it was like to sit alone and make the book. I avoided the C word (cathartic).
“I have a full spectrum of emotions toward this project,” he said. “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 crank out. So there’s that side of it. And then the other side is the healing—the introspective alone time where I got to sit and really spend time with these characters in the book, many of whom I know very personally. I had a second chance to reanimate them and spend time with them in a self-induced, isolated way. It was nice to be alone to absorb what needed to be absorbed, and experience what I needed to experience.”
Since our first meeting, In Waves has become a hit, selling lots of copies and connecting deeply with readers. Most of all, it’s created a life for Dungo that he never expected. His book tour has taken him around the world. He’s presently doing illustrations for The New Yorker and The New York Times, among others. Several renowned galleries have asked him to do solo exhibitions. He has groupies.
A few months later, I interviewed Dungo again, for an event at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. He seemed different—more buoyant, self-assured. He was in a relationship. He had a new book in the works. It got me thinking about how this story of great loss has filled him back up. In our Q&A, in front of several dozen Dungo fans, I asked him about it.
“I was in a pretty hopeless place at the beginning of this journey,” he said, “and now I have a bit more lust for life. It’s changed me in terms of feeling connected to people, and it’s changed me in terms of just wanting to live and experience life in a more full way.”
“What’s been the most consistent feedback you’ve gotten from readers?” I asked.
Dungo took a moment to think.
“I guess that people feel seen when they read the book. And they feel like their grief is recognized. They feel validated and less alone. People have come to me with tears streaming down their face, and they’re complete strangers. And people have handwritten beautiful letters and given me gifts. But the impetus behind it is that these people feel like they can relate, and that this was therapeutic for them. They feel it’s helped them in a small way, or a big way. And I think that’s important.”
As our live Q&A ended, we turned to the audience to see if there were any questions. Nearly half the crowd raised their hands.