In Waves

The graphic memoir has become an increasingly important genre for the comics medium. With his graphic memoir In Waves, A.J. Dungo is joining the likes of Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Tom Hart. It’s heady company to be in, especially considering that Maus, Fun Home, and Rosalie Lightning are all different kinds of survivors’ stories. Dungo’s first-person narrative—when it is a first-person narrative—tells of his survival even as Kristen, the love of his life, slowly succumbed to cancer. Combined with tales from the history of Hawaii and the history of surfing, it’s an odd story, but that’s okay. Comics is an odd medium, and some of its best work is done in the service of strange tales, strangely told.

In Waves is Dungo’s first book and began as an art school project focused on two major figures in the history of surfing: native Hawaiian Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku and surfboard innovator Tom Blake. The project’s ambitions expanded naturally when he decided to incorporate his partner Kristen’s story into the existing narrative. The results are eccentric, but overall quite moving. It’s a slow-paced story whose moments seem to come and go like tides. From the beginning, the reader knows that Kristen will not survive this story, but that does not lessen our attachment to her, nor does it reduce her significance. And while his inclusion of Blake and Kahanamoku’s stories in a book about a loved one is an unusual choice, it adds a pleasing ebb and flow to the narrative. Dungo and Kristen were both surfers, so learning about the sport’s royal Hawaiian origins and its many developments fits into their story more naturally than one might expect. There’s a sorrow to both of these men’s triumphs, and to surfing itself, and a kind of parity in the way that these great surfers used their boards to escape their worldly problems. Using this same technique, surfing is everything to Kristen and “her boys” as well, and the narratives flow unexpectedly naturally between the past and present. The result is an emotional portrait of different times, flowing together into one. Adding in the visual influence of Hokusai—the Japanese artist most famous for The Wave—this book is an elemental experience rather than a plot-driven one.

In Waves has its limitations. Dungo sketches his historical figures carefully from photographs, but his contemporary characters have sparse facial features. He sometimes seems aware of this problem, as he often draws the backs of his characters’ heads. This can limit their emotions as well as make it easy for readers to confuse different characters, and it minimizes the impact of the fact that his primary characters are largely Asian American. Even so, his art is patient and directed, with monochromatic pages skillfully dictating mood and pacing through color, panel structure, and design. His words are largely dispassionate, but somehow a passionate mood infuses everything his characters say and do. As a result, this book transcends both its apparent limitations and ambitions. In its words, pictures, and silences it has much to say. It is a book that one person could read many times, and never quite get the same meanings from twice.

Death is a part of life and history, and every library—public, school, or otherwise—serves people of all ages who have lost loved ones. This is a very valuable book for any collection because it speaks honestly and accessibly about loss but not just about loss. Dungo is describing loss as part of a living tapestry. It isn’t the end, but it can’t be discarded. This book is a significant graphic memoir and is highly recommended for all libraries and is unusually accessible for such an artistically-rendered story. That said, In Waves is most appropriate for libraries with teen and young adult comics collections, though it wouldn’t look out of place in an adult collection. Other than the fact that it is a book about a loved one’s death, there are no content warnings attached to this book.

In Waves
By AJ Dungo
ISBN: 9781910620632
Nobrow, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Teen+

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Character Traits: Characters with Disability Japanese, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

Petro and the Flea King

Everything about the day was normal before Petro broke his grandmother’s vase. Petro, who is an ungrateful young boy, breaks the vase while throwing a tantrum and then, struck with contrition, sets out to make it up to his grandmother. But when he gets to town, he sees a strange sign warning about fleas—and that’s just the beginning.

This whimsical, black and white graphic novel spins out the yarn of Petro’s fantastical journey. Finding the town occupied by the frightening Flea King and his army of minions, Petro embarks on a quest to capture the Flea King so he might replace his grandmother’s vase with the promised prize money. Petro encounters many characters and situations along his way. He’s imprisoned in a birdcage by a kapre and escapes the fierce adarna bird through teamwork. He’s even swallowed by a whale at one point, and, meeting in its stomach a little man and a monkey, helps the three escape by using a sling-shot fired spicy pepper aimed at the whale’s uvula! Elements of these thrilling adventures are drawn from Filipino folklore and literature, and the very few words of text that are included in the book are in Filipino. Readers who don’t speak Filipino should have no trouble getting the sense of the text without translation due to the expressive illustrations which, while appearing simple at first glance due to their thick lines and black, gray, and white tones, are full of surprising details.

Though the sheer speed and fantasy of the plot does sometimes result in confusing moments, many readers will find themselves swept away in the story’s magical characters and slapstick humor regardless. Petro and the Flea King is accessible to a wide range of readers due to its near-wordlessness, but elementary and middle-grade readers will likely find it most appealing: some will find the physical humor and imaginative scrapes Petro finds himself in most compelling; some will find themselves curious about the Filipino cultural elements threaded throughout the graphic novel. An introductory note written by publisher Jean Marie Munson contextualizes the Filipino influences of the graphic novel. She writes of how she always wanted to see “familiarities of [her] ethnic identity in pop culture” growing up and that she hopes the reader will “take away from this book how wonderfully colorful Philippines (sic) storytelling can be…”. (The note is not translated into perfect standard English but is perfectly comprehensible nonetheless).

The combination of near-wordlessness and a fantastical, fast-moving plot results here in a tale that is sometimes a bit difficult to keep straight, but this drawback is outweighed by the graphic novel’s humorous spirit, rich infusion of Filipino folklore, and dynamic illustrations. Petro and the Flea King is an invitation to suspend disbelief and enjoy each new transformation, capture, ally or enemy that Petro encounters.

Petro and the Flea King
By Kenneth Kit Lamug
ISBN: 9781717379238
Rabblebox, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: All Ages

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Traits: Filipino,
Creator Highlights: Own Voices

The City on the Other Side

Two years after the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, a potentially greater disaster looms behind the veil of sight. The Seelie and Unseelie, rival Fairy kingdoms, engage in a conflict which threatens the city’s very existence. All this is unknown to San Francisco’s human population including young Isabel, whose high-society mother keeps her sheltered from the life of the city. But then Isabel is sent to stay with her sculptor father, and her clean and orderly world is changed forever. When she discovers a fairy in the woods, the fairy’s magic necklace transports Isabel to an adventure like she’s never experienced before. Along with an orphan thief named Benjie and a mushroom fairy named Button, Isabel must return the necklace to its rightful owner, restore peace between the Fairy kingdoms, and protect the city of San Francisco from disaster.

The City on the Other Side features likable main characters of diverse origins: Isabel is Latina and Benjie Filipino. Each plays the reluctant hero in various ways, as Isabel is freed from her strait-laced upbringing to discover courage within, and Benjie realizes he can be something greater than a thief. Neither character is developed much beyond these tropes, but they still provide positive representation of the diverse peoples of turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Readers are given assistance with Spanish terms in the text which are defined the first time they appear.

The full-color illustrations utilize a variety of panel structures from simple to complex, and the mood of scenes is often conveyed through the layouts. Full-bleed pages and artistically-framed panels help define the transition between the real and fairy worlds. The creatures which populate the Seelie and Unseelie kingdoms are cleverly derived from the natural world, comprised of a variety of plants, animals, and even fungi. The variety of fairy characters can make it difficult to distinguish the Seelie from the Unseelie at first. However, a few key characters begin to stand out on each side as the story progresses, keeping key plot elements relatively clear.

While the story is set in a particular time and place, few landmarks or events other than the earthquake and resulting fires are mentioned. It is possible for readers to enjoy the book without any knowledge of the historical setting. However, for readers interested in learning a bit more, an afterward entitled “Button Knows Everything” is included which explains the historical and cultural context of early twentieth century San Francisco.

The City on the Other Side will appeal to middle grade readers interested in fantasy and adventure, as well as those who enjoy historical connections. This title is also a good read-alike for fans of the 5 Worlds series.

The City on the Other Side
by Mairghread Scott
Art by Robin Robinson
ISBN: 9781626724570
First Second, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12