Super granny fights villains and dementia in 'Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma'


Award-winning Singaporean junior graphic novel series 'Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma' ends on a poignant note. — Photos: Difference Engine

The idea for a comic book about a superhero grandmother first came to Singaporean writer Melanie Lee in 2019, when she realised that there weren’t many elderly people in comics.

“I had rediscovered my childhood love for comics after my son started reading them as well, but I then started to wonder why it was so rare to see elderly people in comics,” she said in an email interview. “In 2019, I pitched a story about a ‘super granny’ to (publishers) Difference Engine.”

The result was Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma, which Lee created together with Malaysian artist Arif Rafhan. It tells the story of Ash, an eleven-year-old student who one day discovers that her grandmother, Ah Ma is actually a superhero, and that she also inherited superpowers from her.

After that, Ash’s life changes as she juggles between her studies and growing up, and training to become a superhero. However, all is not well with Ah Ma, as she is struggling with dementia as well.

The final book in the 'Amazing Ash And Superhero Ah Ma' series trilogy, End Of An Era, was released earlier his year.The final book in the 'Amazing Ash And Superhero Ah Ma' series trilogy, End Of An Era, was released earlier his year.

The second book in the series, Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma: Coming Of Age, was named Best Young Person’s Title at the 2023 Singapore Book Awards, and its third and final book was released last November, titled Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma: End Of An Era, which sees the granddaughter-grandmother duo embark on one final mission as they embrace the reality of Ah Ma’s worsening dementia.

From the stresses of being a pre-teen juggling the looming national exams and caregiving responsibilities, to the disorientation that the loss of a familiar neighbourhood resource could bring, the running thread through the third book is that change is inevitable – but that support from our loved ones and community can go a long way in helping us cope.

Dealing with dementia

The series has been praised for its heartwarming story as well as the way it tackles the topic of dementia and how families cope with a loved one who is suffering from it.

Lee says that the most challenging part of coming up with the story for Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma was understanding the nuances of dementia and the impact it has on an individual and the people around them.

“At that time, there were many local news stories in Singapore about how dementia is on the rise, and I also felt a bit uncomfortable about the media portrayal of this condition as being hopeless and burdensome,” she said.

While she knew people in her extended family and friends’ families, being someone who was not a full-time caregiver of someone with dementia, she was acutely aware of her ‘blindspot’ in terms of personal first-hand experience.

"I tried to do as much ‘primary’ research as possible, including talking to social workers, caregivers, and persons with dementia,” Lee said.

The final book sees the granddaughter-grandmother duo embark on one final mission as they embrace the reality of Ah Ma’s worsening dementia. — Photos: Difference EngineThe final book sees the granddaughter-grandmother duo embark on one final mission as they embrace the reality of Ah Ma’s worsening dementia. — Photos: Difference Engine

Besides that, Lee also spent time volunteering at a centre that caters to people with dementia, and spoke to people living with dementia who are active advocates for themselves and their peers.

The insights she gained from these activities helped inform not only the story but also the supplementary content at the end of the book.

This includes suggestions for meaningful inter-generational activities young readers can do with their family members who have dementia.

Arif said that he had an auntie with severe dementia on his wife’s side, and he was always amazed at the jovial way in which her family took care of her.

”It’s not an easy job and it takes a village to make it work. So as I read Melanie’s script, in which she focuses on the people around Ah Ma as well, it really blew my mind!” he said.

“I fell in love instantly with the story and gave my fullest creative (and emotional) input in this venture."

Creating together

Lee and Arif first crossed paths in 2014 when the former published a collection of short stories titled Imaginary Friends, and Arif was commissioned to do illustrations for it.

“We found that my writing style synced with his illustration style and we generally worked well together,” Lee recalled.

“Fast forward to 2019, I was pitching the superhero granny series and asked Arif if he wanted to collaborate, as he already had an impressive comics portfolio. “Also, given that this graphic novel series would take a few years to create, I knew that I needed to work with someone who is patient and easygoing!”

Melanie Lee (right) and Arif Rafhan, the co-creators of the Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma trilogy.Melanie Lee (right) and Arif Rafhan, the co-creators of the Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma trilogy.

Besides being a cartoonist, Arif is also a well-known illustrator and artist in these parts. According to him, their working process was simple – Lee would write the script first, then he would do the black-and-white sketches.

“After Melanie writes the script, we would discuss the visual direction, such as characters, the world they would live in, the fashion, and so on,” Arif said. “However, these concept artworks would change or have their own ‘evolution’ as the process moved along.”

According to him, the visual look of the book was crucial, as he had to be truthful about how he portrayed the emotional aspect of the characters involved.

“Dementia develops gradually over months and years. So the way people deal and respond to it would be unique and different,” he said. “However, the common factor is usually the naked emotion of each person in this book, so I focused on that and tried to portray it as delicately as I could.”

Ash is also struggling from the stresses of being a pre-teen juggling between her studies, being a superhero, and caring for Ah Ma.Ash is also struggling from the stresses of being a pre-teen juggling between her studies, being a superhero, and caring for Ah Ma.

Arif, who is credited in around 40 publications to date, is currently working with a Singaporean poet, Felix Cheong, on a graphic novel/ poetry project. “I’ve also been working with (veteran Malaysian cartoonist) Datuk Lat as the inker for his new graphic novel as well,” he said.

For Lee, Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma was her first graphic novel series and she hopes it will not be the last. “I’ve really enjoyed working in this medium for the last few years, and also hoping we can explore seeing Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma in other media formats,” she said, adding that for now, she will continue her work writing and editing children’s picture books.

When Lee first pitched the series, she already had a rough outline for it to be a trilogy of stories. However, she admitted that she struggled with the ending of the story a little, with it changing a few times over the years.

“On one hand, dementia is a degenerative condition and it is not something that I can overlook in the story,” she explained. “On the other hand, I really wanted the story to end with acceptance and hope in a realistic way.

“After getting many different perspectives on this, I finally worked out an ending that readers have not complained about... so far!” she concluded.

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