Only Grace

Only Grace is a comic project I drew between June 2020 and April 2021. In that period, lots happened: I sold our old flat, bought and moved into a new one, and had yet another scary medical episode.  In the last couple of months, Only Grace was made into an actual comic book ol' skool ampulets style - printed at home and bound by hand, in a limited first edition of 50.  This was the way us amps made them books ways before I met J, before J started ampulets design studio, and before we created Neighbourgoods for these projects. 

I have only just realised that Only Grace has appeared only on IG and FB and not this blog - ah, how social media has taken over our lives. So here is a quick documentation of Only Grace.

First sketch of "Only Grace" characters in Sept'20

1. Above is the first sketch I made of the characters in June 2020. It was after one of my post-dinner walks during the lockdown season. I sketched these characters quickly. They didn't need much editing or thinking - it was a rare moment of "first inspirations"! I took the photo with this very early edition of Nabokov's Pnin, which I was re-reading at that time. I think Nabokov (oh my greatest literary love - NA - BO - KOV!) and this book cover illustration might well have been the true source of inspiration.


2. From that point, I didn't draw the first comic sequence until September 2020. Above is the first sequence. I didn't know then where this story would go, but I had the characters and I knew I wanted to just introduce them. 

3. I finished drawing the comics in April 2021. While I had drawn the penultimate sequence in January 2021, I felt it was near the end, and that I could not continue with this. But I did not know how to end it. Then things got busy with the renovation of my new flat, getting A Day to Wake Up To published for launch at the Singapore Art Book Fair...and soon after, handling that medical episode that scared me lots and saw me having to both rest and re-evaluate how I was seeing the future.  It was during this enforced rest in my new flat that I thought about the final sequence and drew it.  During that period, I also wrote the "Afterword" for the comic book. 

4. The Afterword of Only Grace is re-produced here:

When you are walking, some part of your body is always in touch with the ground. Walking with my late husband J was something we did together everyday. It was J's preferred mode of transport. And wherever he walked, he was very observant of the world around him. He saw faces, shapes, light and shadows - stories in things and places most people would overlook. I enjoyed walking with J because of this, and because I liked to hold his hand. It was a way of grounding for me. 
 
Without J, I now take on the task of being observant and staying present to the immediate environment around me. Some days I imagine myself as the character in one of my favourite graphic novels, Walking Man by the late Jiro Taniguchi. A bespectacled, stocky man moves into a new neighbourhood with his wife and dog. He takes walks around the neighbourhood and in each vignette, he encounters and learns about an aspect of himself, the seasons, nature... There is scarcely any dramatic confrontation in this graphic novel that would constitute our usual understanding of a story. But it is never banal or boring. Instead, we start to pay attention to the subtlest movement or event. Perhaps if a person’s whole life was compressed into a stroll, it would be such. A romance may just be that wild rush of wind; the trials of our work life may just be the most monotonous stretch of a walk that bears the decaying stench from a nearby canal in the heavy humid air; the birth of one’s child like the moment you chance upon the most adorable kitten in the neighbourhood; while illness or bereavement may just be that one part of the walk when we feel we cannot go on -- but of course we do, until the walk brings us eventually home.
 
We go on because walking is motion -- it has its own momentum. The start of the COVID restrictions was also the start of my habit of taking a post-dinner walk, since there was little more one could do at that time.  As there was also an outbreak of dengue all over the island then, I walked only after the sun has set and the Aedes mosquito was less likely to bite. My typical route was a 45min leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood. In those early months of COVID, the shops would be shut early and the pavement, void decks and roads were mostly deserted. And in a world that seemed to have stopped, it felt like only my body was in motion. 
 
Walking is ultimately restorative. 2 years ago, when I was recovering from the surgeries, J would make sure we took walks 2 to 3 times a day - first along the corridors in my block of flats, and subsequently when I didn't need to be so careful, around the neighbourhood. 
 
I like to think that these daily walks, particularly during the quiet of COVID, was a time of both mourning and restoration. It was during one of these COVID walks that I had an idea for a new comic! 
 
I knew that Furrie and Shortie (an earlier comic series) would be coming to an end, and I would need a new distraction soon. So why not a new comic? It would be of an old lady's daily walks and the creatures she encountered in her neighbourhood - my own version of Walking Man.... Walking Auntie! 
 
That night I got home and started immediately to sketch the characters. They didn't take much work to invent. Because I saw them everyday. The old lady. The area in Toa Payoh that our flat was in had lots of old people. They walked alone or drove their little mobility scooters. Some were wheeled in their chairs by helpers. Occasionally we would encounter an old couple, one holding on to the other - J would always remark that he wished only that we would grow old together like them... 
 
There would be a cat (or several) on most walks. So of course there would be a cat in the comic. It would be a ghost cat. And there would be a nightjar. I have never seen one, but the one time I saw a photograph of it I remembered that it was such an odd looking frog-mouthed bird, I had to draw one. And then shrews, not rats. There are so many shrews (and rats) in Toa Payoh and the one stressful thing on my walks would be the thought of encountering a shrew or rat running across my slippered feet. Oh, and a lizard - every comic needs a villain - and lizard poop, the villain's evil posse. It would be funny.
 
The name OG came about during a dinner party during Phase 2 of COVID... we discussed what the acronym for the department store stood for. Everyone knew the joke - Old Girl. Once I completed the first   episode, I inked the title. And it was Only Grace (OG).
 
Several months after I started to draw OG, I met someone who was just over the age of ninety. Let’s call her M. She gave me another perspective of Grace. Because of my work, M and I had earlier already started a very occasional correspondence, the old-fashioned way of cards and letters. She said she didn’t use a computer or a smart phone, and so she wrote in her shakey hand. Our last meeting she was on the hospital bed. She had broken her hip just before Christmas but because of her age, the doctors did not want to operate on her. 
 
It was a Saturday. We chatted for over two hours. She told me a little about her life, about how much she loved music and going to the theatre, even when she was living in London after the war. And although she never got the hang of ballet, despite trying out lessons as a child, she loved to dance. All the way until just before COVID forced live performances to stop, she would attend monthly concerts of music from the 1960s - she took the seats at the back of the concert hall by the entrances because steps would be perilous. Yet she would stand to dance when the music took her fancy. I asked her what her favourite dance was. Her answer: the slow foxtrot and, sometimes, the quick step. She said, towards the end of our conversation, that she missed attending concerts, but there was only one thing she would have liked the chance to do: to take a boat around Singapore at night. I said if she got well we should go. Was I being cruel to say this - she looked at me with disbelief. A week later, I got the news that she was moved to a hospice and was barely conscious.
 
There was no wake. Right after the funeral, her ashes were taken out to sea and scattered. The funeral was attended by a small group of friends from her church and her old workplace. COVID restrictions were such that only fifty people were allowed at the Kranji funeral hall. She had made preparations for this day. As she lay in her casket she wore a beautiful pale pink cheongsum, gloves up to her elbow, an ivory fan made of lace in one hand, and her only jewlery a thick gold band on her ring finger. She looked all ready to dance the slow fox trot.
 
The only human the reader encounters in the comics is Grace, but she's never entirely alone. And only by the grace of God, we are able to walk - and laugh - never alone.


5. I bought these "Auntie" fabrics from the market beside my new flat in January 2021, during the Chinese New Year period when I was checking out my soon-to-be neighbourhood. I chanced upon these colourful fabrics and I thought how some of them would look amazing if they were made into cheongsams for Maggie Cheung in her Centrestage or In the Mood for Love roles. When I bought them I did not know what I would use them for, just that I would surely make something fun with them. When I finished drawing Only Grace in April, it felt right to use these fabrics for the book cover. 





6.  These books are still available for sale. I've made and sold about 30 copies out of the 50. I have yet to make the remaining 20 or so. The content is printed on RJ Paper's 100gsm Maple Snow. The cover is a fabric wrapped softcover, with RJ Paper 135gsm Colorplan Smoke as the end paper.  The pages are digitally printed, and each copy is individually numbered and signed. They are bound Chinese Kungful-manual-style (well, that's my name for this binding anyway).

If you would like a copy, please email ampulets@yahoo.com.sg. They are $40 each. I will donate all proceeds, plus top it up with an equivalent amount, to a charity for eldercare. 

*To date, $2440 has already been donated from this project to the St John's Home for the Elderly.

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