Smash Pages Q&A: Kim Dwinell on ‘Surfside Girls’

The animator discusses her first graphic novel, surfing, the ocean and more.

Kim Dwinell has been teaching and working in animation for years, but this years she’s written and drawn her first graphic novel, Surfside Girls, Book One: The Secret of Danger Point. The book, which is out now from Top Shelf, is a beautifully painted young adult mystery/adventure story. Two 12-year-olds, Samantha and Jade, live in the sleepy beach town of Surfside and become involved in s series of strange occurrences that include the titular Danger Point, ghosts, the town’s history, and a group of boys who find what they think is a baby pterodactyl.

There’s a timeless quality to the adventure, but Dwinell is also threading other more complicated stories in the background, stories of the town, of the history of California, and the result is a book that manages to capture some of that spirit and energy found in Scooby Doo and a lot of other old mystery stories that so many of us fell in love with as kids, and establishing a rich setting. This is Dwinell’s debut book, but the way she uses design and layout throughout show just how much she understands about how comics work. Summer is over, but I reached out to Dwinell to talk about the book, her background in animation, and the ocean.

I know you live in Southern California now, but where did you grow up? Were you always a beach person?

My dad was a Marine Corps pilot while I was growing up, so I was the new girl in class every one-to-three years. Our rotation was California, Okinawa, Japan, and Florida. All of these places had very different cultures, but they all had an easily accessible ocean. The ocean was a constant in my life of upheaval. In my teenaged years in particular (three different high schools,) I spent a lot of time out in the ocean surfing, working out my teenaged angst. It is still my go-to place for relaxing, and it’s my gym! I have a boat, a kayak, and a surfboard, and you will usually find me on one of them if I’m not teaching or drawing.

So how did you come to comics?

I did not grow up reading comics. My brother read Spider Man, and it wasn’t interesting to me. It really wasn’t until I encountered Craig Thompson’s Blankets that I fell in love with graphic novels. It seemed to me like an entire film in a book. That sent me to a library in my area with a large graphic novel section, and I spent a good deal of my summer digging in.

I know that you worked in animation. How did you end up in animation and what were you doing?

I really wanted to work for Disney – I grew up with films like 101 Dalmations, Jungle Book and Robin Hood (I was in love with the fox). At the time, CalArts was the school to go to if you wanted to work in animation, and my family just didn’t have that kind of money. I found a professor at CSU Fullerton who made it his mission to help me get my foot in the door. I took classes outside of the university at the animation union hall, and at an ROP animation program at a high school. Through connections I made, I got picked up onto a film for Rich Animation called The Swan Princess. I went on to Turner for Cats Don’t Dance, and Disney for Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan. I got into the industry at a really good time – there was lots of work and it was good fun (along with a ton of hours!) I did clean-up animation for my whole career, taking the rough animation and redrawing it “on model,” adding detail and inbetweening any action that had been left out. I mostly worked on lead female characters, like Megara in Hercules and Mulan herself on Mulan. I treated animation studios like school – I went to figure drawing classes at lunch, went plein-air painting with the background painters at Disney, took sculpture classes, etc. It was a great learning experience!

You went back to school to study comics? Where did you go? And why did you think that you needed to do that?

I went to Cal State University Fullerton. It’s where I had gotten my BFA in Illustration before working in animation. I had spent a few years at home, just being a mom while my boy was small. When I saw Blankets, I knew what I wanted to do, but I knew my skills were rusty. Going back to CSUF I figured I could accomplish a couple of things- my MFA would benefit me in teaching at a university, and I could take a bunch of figure drawing and some actual classes in graphic novel. I love universities. I got a ton of exposure to books and artists I hadn’t known of before, and I met a lot of graduate student classmates that became my friends and support group. We got together and formed crit groups, we tabled together at cons, that sort of thing. Now that we are all out and working in various creative industries, we remain that super important networking group.

What were the biggest differences between animation and comics and what was the hardest part to get a feel for?

One of the biggest differences for me is that animation studios are a hive; there is a whole team of people you work with every day. I am really social and like that kind of interaction. Making comics is a very solitary endeavor. I do like my quiet, creative time, so I am glad that I teach part time – it fulfills that social need. One of the things I had to get used to in creating comics is page design. Storyboards in animation utilize similar camera shots and angles, but there is no larger page design to consider. I had to get the feel for page turns as well – how to leave the last panel with a question, and answer on the next page. One thing that I really like about the graphic novel format is that as a “film in a book,” the reader can determine the speed the film plays. In animation, a scene will go by at a pre-determined pace. But when a reader has a book, the reader can linger.

How do you describe Surfside Girls?

My elevator pitch is “Nancy Drew at the beach.” I love action-adventure-mystery stories, and Surfside Girls is all of that, with strong young girl characters, set in a sleepy beach-town setting. My inspirations, besides Nancy Drew, are Scooby-Doo, Flipper, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I stuffed as much Southern California sunshine and culture into it as I could.

When you started working on this, did you know that you would be telling the story in this middle grade/young adult audience and voice? And how easy was it to capture that voice and tone?

For whatever reason, my writing voice comes out as twelve-years old. I don’t know why. I think for everyone, middle school is such a weird, sometimes awful and sometimes wonderful world. Emotions are definitely more intense – as are friendships – at least in my recollection. When my son was doing Junior Lifeguards at the beach, I would sit in my car and work, and I would get to hear their conversations. Fabulous stuff! Like really intense discussions on belly buttons. Sometimes you just have to be a fly on the wall.

So this is “Book One,” have you started working on book two? Or five? What’s next for Samantha and Jade?

I have books two and three outlined. I will start really buckling down on book two this month. There might be a gold mine. There might be missing cats. There will definitely be a mystery and some surfing! Book three might take a trip to Hawaii. Can I write off a research trip?

One reason I ask is because I feel as though you were weaving in details in the book about the background and history of the town.

Great observation. There is an underlying theme about California’s history, but I wanted to make this fictional town kind of a throwback, sleepy beach town, where all of us might like to live!

I know you’re also a surfer. What do you love about surfing and – asking for a friend – how easy is it to learn?

I fell in love with the ocean early on – we moved all over the planet when I was young, but because my father was a Marine we were always on an ocean. As a young child in Florida we had a boat and had some great adventures. I worked out a lot of my teenaged angst out in the ocean on a surfboard, either alone or with surf buddies. There’s something really primal about being out in the surf early in the morning, while the ocean is still glassy and the dolphins come by to hang out. A large part of the draw of surfing is just that, that ability to be out and be quiet in nature. Catching waves is amazing though, to feel the power of a swell and be able to connect with it. I think anyone can learn – it requires some strength and balance and dedication. A person would have to spend some time learning to see waves – which way they break, where the peak is forming, that sort of thing. I think everyone in the world would be much happier if they surfed.


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