Thursday 29 October 2020

What’s The Deal With Graphic Novels? Elaine Chiew Chats with Melanie Lee and Arif Rafhan on their collaboration for Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma.


Photo courtesy of Difference Engine
About the Writer:


Melanie Lee is the author of the picture book series The Adventures of Squirky the Alien, which picked up the Crystal Kite Award (Middle East/India/Asia division) in 2016. She has also published Imaginary Friends: 26 Whimsical Fables for Getting on in a Crazy World, a collection of illustrated short stories, together with Arif Rafhan. Besides books, Melanie writes content related to arts, heritage and lifestyle for a variety of platforms including museums, documentaries, magazines and websites.  In addition, she is Associate Faculty at the Singapore University of Social Sciences developing and teaching media writing courses. 


Photo courtesy of Difference Engine

  About the Illustrator:

Arif Rafhan is a comic artist, illustrator and pre-production artist. His work has
been published in more than 10 books to date by MPH, Buku Fixi, Maple Comics,
and Marshall Cavendish. These includes comics, content illustrations and cover illustrations. He’s been working closely with Lat since October 2018 for Lat’s upcoming graphic novel (ongoing). He also works with various production companies creating pre-production visuals such as concept art, character designs, environment designs, and storyboards. 

About the Book:

Eleven-year-old Ash doesn’t have much to look forward to: maths tests, a naggy Mum, and an Ah Ma who doesn’t know much about her. That is, until she discovers something that will change her life—Ah Ma is a superhero! The best part is, Ash discovers that she has superpowers too! 

Life is so much more exciting as a superhero-in-training. However, Ash can’t help but notice that Ah Ma sometimes gets a little absent-minded while showing her the ropes. Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma is a funny and heartwarming story about family and acceptance. Growing up and growing old is never easy—and all the more perplexing when secrets and superpowers are added to the mix. 


EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Melanie and Arif. Congratulations on Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma, a graphic novel dealing with a number of social issues such as dementia and aging and academic parental pressure on children. How did the book come about and what is your collaboration process?


ML: Thanks for having us here, Elaine! 


About two years ago, Felicia Low (the publisher of Difference Engine) and I were having a conversation about how older Asian women tend to fade in the background in books and movies. I asked half-jokingly, “Would there ever be a lead granny superhero?” Felicia then asked, half-seriously, “Why don’t we try to make that happen?” 


Things didn’t happen immediately, though. I’d never written a comic book before, and I had to properly pitch this book idea with a synopsis and detailed outline to Difference Engine before it got greenlit. While I had been reading more comics in recent years (they’re my “comfort reads” when life gets intense), I did spend a few months just zooming in on middle grade graphic novels to get a sense of how these stories were told. 


Roping Arif in as the illustrator was a natural choice. I’d enjoyed working with him on a collection of illustrated short stories, Imaginary Friends: 26 Whimsical Fables for Getting on in a Crazy World (MPH, later republished by Marshall Cavendish). He’d already done comic strips and graphic novels, so with his experience, I felt he could help visualise this story much better than I ever could. 


AR: When Melanie approached me with the idea, I was intrigued with the whole concept; intergenerational relationship, academic pressure and dementia. Of course, working with Melanie is fun so it was a no-brainer for me to jump on board instantly.


ML: On how we collaborated, I actually wrote the comic book like a film script. Along with the dialogue, I would also describe the visuals and indicate the panels that should be on each page (see Image 1). However, I did tell Arif to shift panels around where he saw fit. My visual descriptions were also quite general so there was space in terms of how Arif would interpret them. He often would add really interesting or hilarious details which were really fun to look out for!


So the writing comes first, then Arif’s pencil sketches of the artwork. Besides giving an idea of how the story looked, these sketches also showed where the dialogue needed some work and I’d work with the editor, Sophia, on tweaking the text. Next, Arif would do the “Inks” (which is like a more finalised version of the artwork with more details) and after another round of editing, it was sent for colouring. I realise that I wasn’t as sure about “editing” the visuals as I was with the text and this is where the Difference Engine team, with their comics expertise, were able to give some really interesting ideas on improving things. But for the most part, Arif had actually very intuitively grasped how I’d envisioned the story in my head, so there were actually no major changes throughout this process.  


Image 1. Screengrab courtesy of Melanie Lee

AR: We agreed on day one of the project that the writing will be done in 'screenplay' format and Melanie naturally adapted the writing styles effortlessly. The descriptions in the scripts had clear visual objectives and the placement of the text bubbles and captions and the pencil stage is geared towards the visual objectives (see Image 2). When I constructed the composition of the panels, I made sure every element written in the script was included, and as I sketched these elements, I would add some exaggerations like splashing sweat or comical body movements for comedic purposes or to lighten things up (see Image 3), and made sure they aligned with the characters and the story. After all, this is a young reader book. Melanie also provided me with some visual references for certain parts of the story and that helped too. Sometimes, we had to change the text to accommodate the visuals, especially when the visuals were self-explanatory in order to avoid repetitions. Once the editing was done, I inked the panels with details and added additional elements (dramatic or comedic) when necessary, to accentuate the mood of the panel. I didn't do the colouring but Jocelyn (the colourist) did a very good job on this. 

Image 2. Visual directive from Melanie's Text Translated into Visuals. Photo courtesy of Difference Engine. 

Image 2. Photo courtesy of Difference Engine 


EC: Ok, tell us about the colouring stage. 


ML: Initially, the comic was meant to be black and white! But after seeing the pencils, Difference Engine felt that our story seemed to be better suited for younger kids (target readership is 7 – 12 y.o.) and would work better in colour. They brought in Jocelyn Wijaya, whom we actually have not met in real life. Sophia, the editor, was the one who worked closely with Jocelyn while checking in with us regularly to see if we were ok about how the coloured panels were turning out. Overall, we feel she chose a very suitable palette for the book! 

AR: Jocelyn is great! I tend to use a lot of contrast and strong colours while Jocelyn used subtle and more pastel shades which gels really well with the characters, environments and ultimately the tone of the story.


EC:  I enjoyed the heavy-hitting themes in the book: the difference in perception accorded to female versus male superheroes; dementia; academic pressure in Singapore. In blending these issues (many here to do with physical frailty, perceived failure, perceived weakness) with a superhero overarching story, is there a deeper message you would like to impart?


ML: That’s a brilliant identification of themes! To be honest, I feel this was more of an amalgamation of my life and what I observe in the lives of my friends and family. In many ways, I identify with Ash the most because I really struggled with studies as a kid and constantly wished to have more agency and fun in life. Her mother, Grace — I identify with her fatigue as a working parent trying to be on top of everything, and in many ways, writing this character out made me appreciate my mother better. Ah Ma is loosely based on my late grandmother who passed away when I was a teenager. I actually did not know her that well because she only spoke Teochew which I do not speak. But based on what my father told me about her, this is how I imagine she would have been like. 


AR: We are Asians so intergenerational relationship is a valuable element in our family structure. As our nations develop and smartphones have becoming our best friends, we can't help but to lose some of these important elements like spending time with the elderly, listening to their stories and having quality time as a family. So Melanie's story is like a wake up call for me to take part and promote this wholesome idea. Oh, and it's about superhero, so I'm in!


EC:  What are some considerations peeps may not be aware about in writing a graphic novel? E.g. length, text considerations, panel sizes, colour schemes? Love all the aerial perspectives, by the way! (See Image 4)

Image 4. Photo Courtesy of Difference Engine


ML: I love the aerial perspectives Arif came up with too!  I think for me, writing wise, it has been such an invaluable exercise on writing better dialogue. There’s a tendency to be long-winded. In general, I felt a lot more “immersed” while writing this story because I had to consider how the story would “unfold” visually. Scott McCloud’s book in particular, helped me better understand the comic platform: 

AR: I usually treat comic-making the same as filmmaking. So, on top of understanding how to make comics, I would study how cinematographers get their memorable shots, how actors deliver their lines and how choreographers construct their action sequences. 


EC: Here’s a silly but hopefully fun question: Why do superhero costumes stereotypically have cloaks? And even superheroes need social media, huh?


ML: Haha, I think that superhero branding is a weird mix of mystery and exposure. As Zoe, one of the characters in the book said, you won’t really be a superhero unless you are seen.  But then to stay interesting, you also can’t reveal too much. 

AR: Historically, they embodied mystery, like magicians or Zorro. Nowadays, this style has been adapted for practical purposes i.e. gliding purposes and disorienting enemies. As for social media, superheroes don't want to be called "Ok, Boomer!" Haha! On a serious note, that's because the conventional platforms such as TV and radio were no longer the main channels that promote (or bash) these superheroes as we've seen (when we were kids) in comics.


EC: Should we look forward to more Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma adventures? 


ML: We’re keen to continue the adventures of Ash and Ah Ma and are discussing things with Difference Engine right now  

NB: Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma is available in all bookstores throughout Singapore and Malaysia at local prices. Melanie would like to make a special plug for Singapore indie bookstore 
Closetful of Books.