Dungo’s website states that In Waves is his first graphic novel, but I had figured that out halfway through reading it. The notable ambition, the heft of the book, the autobiographical touches, the adventurous layouts and double-page spreads all suggest a work by someone debuting their first “big book” and eager to make a statement.
Unfortunately, the book bears some of the problems that plague many “first-time” graphic novels as well, namely: a slight plot stretched thin over a long narrative, occasionally awkward perspectives and anatomy, the odd typo and far too many sequences that should have either been tightened up or left on the cutting room floor entirely.
In Waves tells the story of the author’s first true love, Kristen, who, we quickly learn, passed away at a young age after a prolonged battle with cancer. Jumping around in time, Dungo relates how they initially met and their early courtship in high school, before detailing the struggles brought on by her illness and the grief brought on by her passing. He alternates these sequences with an extended history of surfing, drawing back to the early days of Hawaiian natives, and then to the first big icons of the sport like Olympic athlete Duke Kahanamoku, and Tom Blake, who helped to popularize it.
And in case the title didn’t give it away, surfing is a very important motif throughout the book. For Kristen, it offers a way to temporarily escape and forget her illness and physical limitations, though that gift is taken away quickly as her illness progresses. For Dungo and Kristen’s family it’s a way to also put aside the ugly reality of her cancer, but also stay connected to her via a sport she loved.
But while the historical sequences are informative and well-told, they don’t have very much to do with Dungo or Kristen’s story. What is there in the central plot of a young girl and her family battling a terminal illness that parallels Kahanamoku’s life or Blake’s, or the Hawaiian natives that invented surfing? If one exists Dungo has not done a good job drawing the reader’s attention to it. The end result feels like two separate comics, awkwardly sandwiched together.
It’s a shame because that space could have been used to zoom in a bit more on those central characters. Dungo writes with great reverence about his love for Kirsten and her general zeal for life, but by the end of the book we still don’t feel like we know that much about her beyond that she was very brave and very loved. I would have appreciated some sequences spent getting to know Kristen as a person, to see those minute details and quirks that made those around her so devoted to her. As it is, she comes off at times like a noble martyr, almost too angelic to be human.
There are some truly lovely sequences here. Dungo delineates his characters -- their faces often turned away from the reader like Downwind from the Smilin' Jack comic strip -- dwarfed by swirling, striped waves, austere urban landscapes and sometimes even just inky blackness, efficiently conveying the sense of helplessness and sorrow that comes when confronted with terminal illness. I also like the way Dungo draws his figures, loose and slightly rubbery, with a minimal amount of facial details, as though they might melt if they got too close to a heated surface. Sometimes, however, especially early in the book, that rubberiness leads to some seemingly elongated limbs and odd poses, and it’s difficult to tell if that oddness is intentional or not. There are also sequences I had to reread in order to fully absorb the situation, that Kristen was wearing a prosthetic leg or had a scarf on her head instead of weirdly drawn hair for instance.
I have no idea how much, if any, editorial guidance Dungo had in putting together In Waves. We tend, especially in comics, to focus more on editorial interference, the idea being that cartoonists are best left trusting their own instincts and skills and that any editor, no matter how well meaning, will inevitably make suggestions or changes that capitulate to the commercial impulse and compromise the work.
There are certainly plenty of instances in comics history where that is the case (Kirby, Ditko, Wood, etc.) And yet with more publishers releasing “important” graphic novels comes more new and budding cartoonists that could use a bit of guidance. In Waves badly needed someone to put a hand on its creator's shoulder and say, “You need to tighten this up.”