Summer’s winding down with the dog days of August just ahead - but there’s still time to catch a wave with Surfside Girls: The Secret of Danger Point, a new all-ages graphic novel out this week from Top Shelf. The first in a new trilogy of full-color tales, it’s about Sam and Jade, two girls who see their summer turning into a drag with the discovery of boys and the presence of a potentially dangerous developer in their town of Surfside. But the discovery of a mysterious treasure in a nearby cove is going to open them up to an amazing mystery - and the presence of something supernatural in their lives.
Surfside Girls is the first graphic novel from longtime animator - and surfer - Kim Dwinell. Newsarama spoke to Dwinell about what drew her to graphic novels, and the real-world influences on her book.
Newsarama: So, Kim, how did Surfside Girls come about?
Kim Dwinell: It was really a cumulation of a lot of stuff. I’ve been a surfer all my life, and I was a beach lifeguard in Laguna Beach. And there’s a lot of visuals there, and I just fell in love with the ocean. And also, I’ve always drawn. I worked in animation for a while, and loved it, and then I stayed home for a while to take care of my kids. And then I was in a Borders and found Craig Thompson’s Blankets, and went “Holy Moley, what is this?!” And comics became my new favorite thing.
I actually went back to grad school to learn more about graphic novels, and to sharpen my skills. We have an excellent library in our area, and they have an enormous room with all graphic novels. There’s a large Asian population in our area, so there’s a lot of manga. I just went there for weeks and read everything I could to figure out how to do this, and what made it distinct from storyboarding in animation.
You write what you know, right? So, I just wanted to shove as much Southern California sunshine into a graphic novel - that’s my passion.
Nrama: Just curious - where did you do your graduate work in graphic novels?
Dwinell: I went to Cal State Fullerton - for my BFA, and back for my MFA. When something’s brand new to you, you don’t even know where to start looking! Luckily, I had a good instructor, Christian Hill, who would bring in graphic novels and hybrid books like Brian Selznick’s Hugo Cabret. And you learn that there’s really a crossover world - this place where you can move in and out of storytelling formats.
Raina Telgemeier was also a major influence. I discovered her work, and it all hit home for me - Not only do I love this format, but she is talking to my people. I am perpetually 12, and I kind of write in that junior high voice. Seeing she was writing for that audience made me think, “I want to write like her!” So, she’s my hero.
Nrama: In developing this particular story, what were some of the particular things you wanted to draw from in your experiences in Southern California?
Dwinell: I go to Seal Beach, which is a very flat beach like Huntington, and I was looking into coves - I paddled out into a kelp forest and took some pictures from my surfboard. I found all this history about smuggling rum into caves around coves during Prohibition - there’s so many stories! And there’s a very Main Street feel in my town, and that found its way into the book.
But there’s also some story points about developments - what’s going to happen to our California? And I think there’s a need to understand our history, and what it means.
I don’t want to get too political, but a few years ago, I was at a party and someone said, “Do you know that for the first time, there’s going to be more Mexicans in California than Californians?” Well, there already were, when California was part of Mexico! And there were natives here before that. It really threw me. There are elements in the book, the supernatural elements, that are literally California’s past. It’s going through that history.
All of that is in the book, and it’s subtle, but the book is an ode to this particular place, both in the present and also in the past. I think the more educated you are on all this was, it might have some influence on how we choose to develop the land.
My book is really light, is really fluffy, but there’s some really deep stuff beneath it. You might not pick up on it when you read it, but it’s there! [Laughs]
Nrama: The beach in the book does have this edenic, untouched quality.
Dwinell: Yeah - if you went to Seal Beach, it’s a throwback! It’s very retro. I wanted that endless summer kind of feeling - something with a bit of magic to it. I remember being a lifeguard and out on a training swim, and it was a day when the ocean was so clear you could see right to the bottom, and thinking, “Not everyone has this.” There’s moments when you’re just consciously aware that something amazing is happening, and that it’s not going to last. And it helped when I worked 14-hour days in a basement in animation! You need to remember, “Not everything is going to be like this,” and I hope I conveyed some of that in the book.
Nrama: What did you work on in animation?
Dwinell: I worked on The Swan Princess and Cats Don’t Dance, and then at Disney I worked on Hercules, Mulan, and one called “Kingdom of the Sun” before it became The Emperor’s New Groove. Then I worked on some stuff for Fox with some friends, and then I got into teaching, because I wanted to have a family, and I wanted some shorter hours to manage that.
Nrama: What did you find was the biggest difference between graphic novels and animation?
Dwinell: I tend to think of animation as being very much about moving the camera, and finding the right angle that dramatizes the story. I understood that. I think what I didn’t comprehend was page design and page flow, where you want each page to end on a question mark that draws you into the next page. You can do animation at your own speed, while with comics, you need to be able to draw people from one page to the next at a regular flow.
With page design, you can do things that are unique - a cherry blossom floating down between the panels, for example. I might do more of that with the next book.
Nrama: How long did it take you to put the book together?
Dwinell: I knew when I went to grad school that I wanted to tell a story at the beach, and I had some ideas for characters, and that it would have a Scooby Doo-type mystery. So, it’s been in the works for like 10 years, but it wasn’t until I got an agent that I really worked the idea out. I pitched it to some children’s book companies, and they wanted a finished version to figure out if they wanted it.
Some friends suggested pitching to comics companies instead – and Chris Staros at Top Shelf liked it, and is just a great editor. So it was about three years to get that fully developed, and then about a year and a half to draw the pages.
Nrama: What was that process of working with Top Shelf like?
Dwinell: Chris is really, really smart - he went to school for computers, so he has a very organized, logical brain, which is not my brain. He’s smart and he’s honest, and he tells you if something’s wrong, but not exactly how to fix it. That’s been really amazing. I can say nothing but good things about the Top Shelf experience. I’m brand new to this, but so far, the ride has been amazing.
Nrama: Are you working on any other graphic novel projects after this?
Dwinell: Top Shelf has bought Book Two and Book Three, and I have them outlined and know where they’re going. Hopefully, Chris will like them! And I just got a cool job at IDW, involving a research article about the rise of Great White Sharks in California.
And there’s a couple more books I’d like to do - one is a bit darker, more along the lines of Mouse Guard, very medieval and dealing with the plague. That’s on the back-est backburner I have, but it keeps rearing its head. So, my sunny California universe is still welcoming me, but one day, I might go to that dark place!