Interview: AJ Dungo

by - 10/16/2021

Foto: Divulgação | Reprodução Scream & Yell 

Entrevista publicada originalmente no Scream & Yell, em português. AJ Dungo é autor de Em Ondas, graphic novel lançada em 2021 no Brasil pela editora Nemo

Below you can read my interview with author AJ Dungo, regarding his graphic novel In Waves. This was originally published in Scream & Yell, in Portuguese.

Can you tell us a little about how In Waves came about? It is obviously a beautiful tribute to Kristen, but I read that you were already thinking about doing a project on surfing before you started it. If that is the case, how did the idea to merge both project came about?

So, I took a class when I was in my graduating term at art school called “Ancient/Modern.” It was a class focused around one project that we would create during the term. The objective of this project was to share an aspect of California culture to someone that was not from California. At the end of the class we would present our work in London. For two weeks, with my classmates and teachers, we shared our work with various creative professionals; animation studios, advertising agencies, graphic designers, and book publishers.

For my project I chose the famous surf figure Tom Blake, as suggested by my instructors. I created a box filled with printed ephemera from Tom Blake’s life. I spent hours in the printmaking shop lining the box, making accordion fold silkscreen prints, making a set of risograph prints, pressing a set of buttons with Tom’s photography, printing a zine filled with tiny graphite drawings of famous surf photos, and pulling a newsprint poster. I tucked all of this away into a 5” x 7” box that I silkscreened the covers of. I made an edition of 15 or so to deliver to each of the contacts we were to meet in London after graduation. It was this special box that piqued the interest of one of our contacts in London. It was the contact that I was most looking forward to meeting; Nobrow Press.

After our Nobrow presentation, my teacher pulled me and a classmate aside to tell us that our presentations went very well and that we should expect a call from them.

Two months later I received an email from Sam asking to Skype with me to discuss working with Nobrow to create a book. He was interested in making a picture book about the pioneers of Surfing and Surf Culture in North America. We corresponded on and off for a few weeks while he had me brainstorm ideas.

Eventually he was less interested in the initial idea of a straightforward historical picture book and wanted a more personal narrative. So he asked me about my relationship to the sport and why I was drawn to it in the first place. I told him that Kristen was the reason I got into surfing. I told him all about her, about our relationship, and about her recent death. By the end of the conversation Sam was intrigued and had suggested I find a way to intertwine the two histories together. He gave me a list of two books to read regarding grief and multiple intertwined storylines that fused past and present. “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” by Marina Lewycka and “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald. Both books combine personal stories alongside historical writing. Long story short, my publisher suggested that I explore merging the two stories.

Kristen has only one line in the comic (I mean, one dialogue balloon). Nevertheless, she is a very expressive character in her attitudes throughout the story. Did you choose to portray her this way because that's how she was in real life (I mean, a quiet/reserved person), or is there some other storytelling reason behind it?

That’s a very interesting and acute observation. Kristen could be quiet and reserved at times but not always. She was full of life. She was so funny and witty and smart and kind. The book in general lacks a lot of dialogue. These were quiet moments and specific feelings that I wanted to portray and capture. A lot is said through our actions. Also this story is incomplete. It always will be without Kristen’s input. This is my flawed recollection of precious moments to me. If she were here with me, this book would be so much more vivid and her voice would give it more depth and probably a longer page count.

About your choices for In Waves' color palette: the colors are really beautiful, yet simple. And it's obvious that there's separate palletes for each story you are telling here, but I'd love to know a little more about how you chose the warmer and colder tones and if you were trying to express something else with them, besides helping to guide the readers while they moved forward in the story.

The reasons are a bit simple and straightforward. The sepia brown tint is reminiscent of old fraying newspapers, aging film, a throwback and nod to the past that is sort of a default in our collective consciousness. The blue was chosen for a few reasons. Blue was Kristen’s favorite color, blue is the color of the ocean, but mostly I chose this color because I was feeling very blue when I wrote this book. I correlated the blue tone with my mental and emotional state during the writing process.

How involved are you in the animated version of In Waves that is being developed? Do you know at what stage production is? When can we expect its release?

I’m not completely hands-on in this whole process. I’m a bit like a consultant. There are scriptwriters that have reached out for more back-story on Kristen’s life and my life. I was told they might need me later on to help provide some new drawings for a certain part of the film. Silex Films, the production company, pitched the project in development at the Annecy Film Festival. The movie is expected to go into production at the end of 2022 for a delivery in late 2024. It’s all very exciting but this story has sort of a life of it’s own at this point.

In Waves was your first graphic novel. Have you already started thinking about its follow-up? Do you already have any other projects in mind? If so, can you share a few details about it (storyline, characters, or at least a theme or title)?

I’ve definitely been toying with some ideas. It’s the main question on everyone’s mind at this point. Writing In Waves was very draining; physically and emotionally. I think I’ve had enough distance from that experience to start something new. I have been thinking about exploring short stories or some sort of shorter length project. I’ve also thought about another graphic memoir but exploring some different themes that are more cultural and familial. Mostly I’m just trying to make time to surf and skate and enjoy my time away from work.

Here is a question sent by your translator in Brazil, Érico Assis: the "disease graphic novel" is a genre by itself. Have you read any of those before writing your own? Did you have to break any barriers to convince yourself - or to convince your editors - that it was worth it to tell your story among so many other biographies and autobiographies about tragedies? How did you do it?

When I was in art school I was required to read Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.” To me this book is the quintessential “disease graphic novel,” as you put it. I’ve definitely explored books of this nature before writing this book but I don’t think I dove into this project thinking I’m going to write a disease graphic novel. I was writing the story of my best friend. 

I think the barrier to entry for me was myself.

At the start of this project, I was given a certain amount of time to produce drafts for Nobrow but I felt too much pressure to even begin. The pressure being that I was still processing what had happened to Kristen and that I had a full time job that kept me from having more time to work on the book. I didn’t even know if the timing was right for me to be telling her story. I feared that it was much too soon. The anxiety I was feeling paralyzed me. I had actually typed up an email thanking Nobrow for the opportunity but that I was unable to follow through with our book.

Eventually, I thought about Kristen. Her hopes and dreams for me were always to make books and comics and art that could inspire others. She would constantly tease me, saying that I would write a book about her one day. I took those light suggestions to heart, picked up my pencil, and deleted that email.

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