Smash Pages Q&A: Kim Dwinell on ‘The Science of Surfing’

The creator of ‘The Surfside Girls’ graphic novels focuses on the science of the ocean in her new nonfiction graphic novel from Top Shelf.

Kim Dwinell made a splash with her comics debut, The Surfside Girls, and its sequel. The two fictional mystery books were about a pair of friends, Sam and Jade, who explored the natural world and the historical past of their fictional seaside town.

Dwinell’s new book is The Science of Surfing: A Surfside Girls Guide to the Ocean, which is a nonfiction book, but it feels very much like her other books. Some of this is simply because the book is narrated by the two main characters of the series, but it goes beyond the style of the book. Dwinell has from the beginning been interested in building a fictional world that is a character in its own right, but in finding ways to present a very tactile world to readers.

This new book is a nonfiction book that is just as masterfully told as her comics debut was. The book is out this month, and we spoke recently about how science is more than math, finding joy in nature and crafting a field guide to the Southern California coast for surfers.

So after making two books, why did you want to make a science book?

It’s been a long time coming. I worked in animation, had a baby and stayed at home to be a mom, and then went back to school to learn about comics. Surfside Girls began as my MFA project and in my graduate show I had 25 pages of the first iteration of the first Surfside Girls book, and on one wall I had a “How to surf.” I did in comics style my girls, Sam and Jade, bantering about what do I wear, where your feet go, and people liked it.

As I was making these books, I always had it in the back of my head that I’d like to do a companion about how to surf. I had a spiral-bound notebook, and when I would think of something else I could do, I would write it on a sticky and stick it to a page in the notebook. I thought it would be cool to show how to read a tide chart. That goes with surfing, and it’s important. It just snowballed from there.

All of this came out of this love of surfing. I’ll be honest, I love science, too. I was that girl in school who loved physics and biology, and I thought I might go into marine biology because I was such an ocean kid, but I’ll be honest, I’m not good with math. I wish I had known that science is a lot more than “Can you do calculus?” When you’re on your board and that swell hits and the back of your board starts to rise and you’re feeling the power of that energy that’s coming at you from thousands of miles away – that’s all science! That’s physics! That’s where the book came from. It became the science of surfing and how all this relates to surfing. 

I can definitely relate to that relationship to math, but in the book you take apart and explain and explore a lot of things. It’s more than an elementary guide to surfing.

It’s a tactical guide to science. What are you going to see and smell and feel when you’re surfing? That’s science. I just got back from Alaska and it’s all about nature there. Nature is so big and powerful that everything is dictated by nature. If you’re a surfer, it’s true too. When you have an office job and you leave your house and drive your car and go to a building, you get disconnected from that. But if you’re the kid who’s surfing or fishing or hiking or anyone who’s out there in nature, you’re noticing the temperature dropping two degrees, you notice the wind shifts, and what that’s going to do. I’m more alive when I’m picking up on those cues.

There were years in my teens and 20s where I probably spent every day in the ocean between lifeguarding and surfing. That close and personal relationship connects us with something really human in us. Something elemental. So I pitched this to Chris Staros and I thought, “He’s going say this is nuts,” but he was all behind it. I’m so grateful that he could see what I was trying to say.

In all your books, you’re very concerned about trying to covey this very tactile sense of the world.

I always said that California is a character in these books. It has a large presence and in some of the books I explore going back through history but California as a being and different iterations of what it’s been and what it’s meant to people. 

As a concept I understand why exciting, but how do you go about thinking about what to cover and how to structure and format it? I imagine that was the real work.

Where do you start with the ocean? [laughs] Where do you even start? I got very excited and this could have been a thousand pages long and so I had to reframe. Let’s pretend we’re in the fictional town of Surfside, which is a combination of San Clemente and Seal Beach and Laguna. So we’re in this fictional Southern California town, what are we seeing? I’d love to cover coral reefs and a million other things but they don’t relate specifically to my girls in this environment. That put restrictions on me and let me focus.

I was really grateful because I started working on this book January 2020 and then COVID hit and for several months I was terrified and I threw myself in the research. I was on the NOAA websites and Natgeo and NASA and it gave me a really nice escape. One of the things I had open on my desktop all the time is the Monterey Bay Aquarium live kelp forest cam. I would just sit and watch it and try to relax. I am in love with all this stuff and I was really grateful. Then I had to learn it and process it through why is this important to a surfer, and how is this interesting to a kid, and how do I explain it in a narrative way. To do all that in a way that’s not going, “Hey kids, let’s learn science!” 

I have friends who teach and one joke I heard was that your role is to learn and study for years and know it inside and out – and then walk into a classroom of kids and simplify it all.

Right! Kids can smell “My mom wants me to read this science book.” It says “The Science of Surfing” on the front, so I’m not hiding that, but I do hope that it’s entertaining. I put that chapter in how to surf so you understand where it’s coming from and here’s a guide to experiencing all this. I hope that it’s fun and relatable so that it won’t just smell like a science book. [laughs]

I was also conscious of trying to leave a lot of white space in the book and keeping it open and friendly visually, because so many of these concepts, especially in the physics chapter, can get really heavy. I really tried to push a lot of white space around the text and the pictures to make it inviting.

As you were saying, you always relate it back to “If you’re going out into the water, this is what you’re seeing and experiencing.” There’s a practicality to all the knowledge.

I wanted it to be a field guide to the ocean.

A lot of people struggled to read and write fiction during the pandemic, so I’m sure a project like this helped.

Absolutely. The process of this was that there were days of me not drawing because I was on the computer researching and shifting through the facts and trying to find a narrative thread through it. I had to pitch a lot of it because either it didn’t relate or it was just getting too complicated or too dense. Or it wasn’t specifically about Southern California. I’m doing an auction piece for the National Cartoonist Society, and I drew Aquaman surrounded by all of his ocean mammal friends. So many of these creatures are fascinating, but I couldn’t include them. Why would you want to read a science book in the summer? It has cute otters and dolphins in it! [laughs] I have a lot of readers in Southern California and I know that I have readers other places. I get fan mail from all over the place. I was trying to explain that this is what the tides look like here, you should go down to your own beach and see what the tides do there. And if you’re not by a beach at all, go find your own piece of nature.

I did especially enjoy the demonstration of how the tides work with a water balloon and vacuum.

Thank you. I came up with that and I was so proud. I went back to 12 year old girls, and what would they have to explain this? Mom’s vacuum and water balloons.

It sounds like you want to make another nonfiction book.

Well, I want to make another fiction book. I’m working on the third book. But, yes, absolutely. A while back I did an article for IDW’s Full Bleed Magazine and it was the year of the shark here in Southern California, so they asked if I would research it and report in comic form. It was the coolest thing. That was how I met Dr. Chris Lowe, who ended up reading my manuscript and making sure that my science was solid. He’s the director at the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab. I looked into his research and talked to him and came up with this article about what’s happening with great white sharks in Southern California. I love science, but I can’t love statistic charts because numbers swim in front of my head, but I should be able to love it. So to deliver this information in pictures is really exciting. So yes, I do want to do another nonfiction book. When working on the first two books, when you research the history of California, all this stuff comes up that I don’t think most people know. But people need to know it. And it needs to be done in comics.

I’m sure he has to do a lot of paperwork and administration, but director of the Shark Lab sounds like greatest job title ever.

Right!? They track sharks, and there are pictures of all of them in boats looking all boat-y and science-y in Mexico and Hawaii. [laughs] I teach animation at Cal State Long Beach and how many boats does animation have? None! How fair is that? Their Instagram looks like the best life ever. And you’re right, I know there’s a lot of grant writing and paperwork, but it sure does look cool.

You mentioned that you’re working on a third Surfside Girls book.

Yes! I’m working on it now. I can’t really say much, but I’m super excited about it. What I like is that there will parts of historical California involved in it and it will be the girls out there on their own being smart and adventurous and strong and rescuing things. That’s what I’ve got so far, but I can’t say much.

We spoke when the first book came out, and you’ve really taken to the medium and you keep finding new possibilities.

I love it. It’s limitless. It allows either story or information to be told in a very accessible way to people. As a young person, I would have benefited from pictorial understanding. I teach animation and we always do some project that involves an animal. I give them an animal and we have a setting like feudal Japan or Victorian England. The first thing I do is march my class to the children’s section in the library and I tell them to pull out books about their creatures. They sit at these tiny tables and the class suddenly turns into, oh my god, did you know frogs swallow with their eyeballs?! They’re like five year olds. These are visual people, like me, who probably don’t do math well – like me – but they’re interested in science. That shouldn’t be embarrassing. If I took them to the stacks and had to read these text books, that wouldn’t inspire them because we’re visual people. It’s so exciting to see. What happens is that I make them draw the animal’s skeleton and draw it realistically, and understand the animal and then cartoon it. But it starts in science and anatomy and understanding the animals. It’s fun to watch that discovery. Some people turn 10 or 12 or whatever and they stop drawing. I think some people stop being excited about science because of barriers of thinking that it’s all math. I told Dr. Lowe that when we were talking and he said, “Don’t think that.” Plenty of scientists are like artists and are creative out of the box thinkers and that’s what we need. You don’t need to be a statistician to understand science. You need energy and enthusiasm and out of the box thinking is what science needs. If it had been laid out for me like that, I would have been happier back in the day. 

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