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Carroll, Cross-Contour, and the Demi-Fecund Ram: An Interview with Mahendra Singh

ROBINSON: I think it’s a really interesting look to it, but I was marveling at the technical achievement there. And I did notice the cross hatching was almost exclusively for their coats and for the smog coming out of the ship.

SINGH: Yeah, stuff like that. That stuff we went really dark. In general when I ink … you know, inkers have little quirks. One of my really big quirks is I don’t tend to go to the dark end of the grayscale too much. That’s because I love showing the lines. You know that delicate line moving around, whether it’s modeling or making value. I like to look at my lines. It’s kind of like the opposite of what Faulkner said. He always said to kill your babies. I can’t bear to kill my little line babies sometimes [Robinson laughs] and put that next layer on top. All of my little lines, and I’ve counted every one of them, every one. Each one has a name [laughter].

ROBINSON: So, is there anything in the book that was an applied texture versus actual ….

SINGH: No, no no. [laughs] Oh no. We don’t do that here at Chez Snark [laughter].

ROBINSON: That foggy background that appears on “Fit the First”, the inset illustration that starts it off. That’s incredible. Like cheesecloth or something.

SINGH: That’s an old technique. That’s one of the very first stylistic techniques that I did. I remember my step-dad when I did it, I remember very vividly, I must have been 20 or so. And I remember him pointing to me and he said ‘you better keep doing that’ [laughs]. All that is is just very careful inking where you get a rhythm going … you know, the rhythm of a line. The calligraphic line is embedded in there. It really is, the way thing is twisting and turning. So you’ve got that twisting and turning, but you also have the patterning of the broken line and then you also have a little bit of grayscale variation. And that’s just inking very very carefully on the Mylar. And that entire background, I totally erased it and redid it. The original version of that was much less ornate. When I was finishing up the book, I realized I needed something a little bit more oomphy. So I threw in that little background from twenty years ago and it worked in perfectly. I liked that look. That’s my natural style right there.  And it doesn’t actually have anything to do with wood engraving. Which is why I don’t use it so much in The Snark. That first drawing there is totally – almost completely – stylistically, except for the landing – the concrete on the landing, that straight vertical stuff – that’s almost completely out of character with the rest of the book. Visually, which kind of bothers me …

ROBINSON: It works really well as an introduction. Not only do you have to obvious introduction of the open door, but the actual image fits… the break up of the cloudiness in the background, and the abstraction of having the three flat planes together.

SINGH: Yes. There’s also a pun involved because, throughout the ages, Snarkologists– you know, people who study The Snark—believe it or not, there really are such people in they write to me all the time [laughter]. But anyway, Snarkologists have always wondered what is a snark. So, in theory you should look at his opening drawing and say to yourself ‘what is a snark?’ And then you can reply, the snark is I. And there you have a little existential conundrum. And if you look carefully on every frontispiece for the Fits the Snark as I will be hidden in each one.

ROBINSON: Hmmm. Like the dog …

SINGH: It’s the spots on the dog. In one of them, it’s the eyes on the peacock fan. The monkey who’s holding it above Karl Marx. You know that’s Karl Marx, right?

ROBINSON: Yeah [laughs].

SINGH: Okay, good. That’s important. I’d like to point out that this is the only comic book ever published in which Karl Marx is posing seductively as an odalisque from Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque. Okay? [laughter] And then Heidegger’s in there too. Heidegger is the barrister. And the bonnet, is of course Friedrich Nietzsche. I can’t stand Heidegger and Nietzsche and Marx. I find their philosophy so dull and boring. I figured this was revenge.

ROBINSON: [laughs] I found it really, strangely moving at the end.

SINGH: Why? Did you have to study philosophy to at some point in your life? [laughter] These guys are such pompous shit heads, you know? What was it Heidegger said? He said that anxiety was caused by the approach of nothing. I mean, Goddamn. What rubbish [laughter]. If that doesn’t deserve inclusion in a work of nonsense, I don’t know what does. Those guys … okay, then Erik Sati is the broker. Ray Roussel is the billiard marker, and I love him very much. The French author. He was another guy whom the surrealists adored. And he was an extremely wealthy amateur author who paid publishers to print his stuff. He was also quite a drug addict and a homosexual. And the surrealists would attend all the performances of his plays and he was just horrified. They were loud and noisy and shouting and he just wouldn’t have anything to do with them. He died under miserable circumstances. But I do like his stuff. Let’s see, who else is in there. The beavers are Canadian, obviously. And the bellmen is, actually a triple recursion. The bellman is based on the white knight from Through the Looking Glass. But the character of the white knight, fictionally – the textual character – is based on Lewis Carroll himself. It’s a self-portrait. But the image of the White Knight is a self-portrait of the illustrator Sir John Tenniel. So you actually have multiple levels going on … and the boot is, of course, Charles Darwin, who’s pretty cool, I think. And I think that’s the whole crew, isn’t it? There’s a lot of little things like that in there.

ROBINSON: And then there’s the Easter Island head.

SINGH: Oh yeah, they’re called Moias. I don’t know how you pronounce them but they’re spelled M-O-I-A.

ROBINSON: The interaction between him and the beaver is really priceless. Him sitting on the bench …

SINGH: Yeah, yeah, I liked that one, too. Again, that’s a Snarkologist thing because traditionally Snarkologists believed that the beaver was a he. Now there is debate in certain rarefied snark hunting circles, to whom I belong – I’m one of the heretics who believe the beaver was a she. It’s a very complicated grammatical point actually. I won’t go into it, but this is my way of committing some kind of heresy in Lewis Carroll circles. They’ll probably stop me at an airport and ask me to step into a taxi and drive me off. I’ll be like Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles and say ‘just drive me out of this picture’ [laughs]. Yeah.

ROBINSON: This seems like a project that you’re pretty uniquely qualified for. As in, it’s a combination of all these different threads in you’re life and interests. Where can you possibly go from here?

SINGH: I do have a bunch of other projects that I’m trying to get off the ground. You know how that goes. I think I sent you that script for the western. I may do that if I can’t find anyone who wants to do it. I don’t think that has a lot of commercial possibilities, actually.

ROBINSON: I Rode With Satan is a pretty great title.

SINGH: Yeah, the title is actually better than the story. [Robinson laughs] I’m thinking, if I could just nail the title, you know? Actually, it’s based on Marlow’s play Doctor Faustus. But it’s also based on this book that Marlow took his plays from. But a lot of it is interwoven with the story of how Marlow was killed. He was supposedly killed in a bar brawl. But in fact, it’s pretty clear now that he was killed in a government safe house by secret agents. I mean, Marlow himself was definitely a secret agent. In other words, he was betrayed by some pretty satanic forces.

The other one, there’s a very famous Indian romantic comedy written in the Middle Ages about a king, and a young girl of course, who fall in love and he gives her a ring and promises to be faithful. And she comes to the city to claim what’s due to her, because she’s pregnant. And she’s lost the ring. It fell off her finger while she was swimming or something. And he doesn’t remember and he sends her away. And, years later, when he’s given a fish dinner and they open up the fish and there’s the ring. It’s a very famous play in India. I’m working on that one right now. Because it’s full of Gods and monsters and demons and magic things, I’m hoping it will be like the Snark but much more emotional. I’d like to do something a little more … you know, about love. Love’s cool. I can do love.

ROBINSON: I’d imagine that your style would suit that really well.

SINGH: Actually, I’ll have to use a different style for that. It can’t look so Western. It has to be more fluid. Actually, the style I really want to do that in would be sort of like the style Moebius used in his earlier phases when he would do some of that color work. Some of those more simple color … melodic, lyrical stories he would do. The problem is, it’s going to take, I don’t know how many bloody years to do. That’s the problem. The drawing will be much more calligraphic. Not so tonal. Because that also suits the Indian subject matter, you can’t do cross-hatching on an Indian subject – of Indian mythology basically. Just, it would look weird [laughs].

There’s one other idea I have for a story. You know, the first English landings in North America were down in North Carolina. The very first one expedition, when they first made contact with the  Native Americans- they did a book about it, by a guy called Thomas Hariet and the artist named John White. … it’s available now from Dover. It’s really worth looking because it’s very odd. And both of these men had pretty open minds about things. They were also associates of Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh and another poet whom I love dearly, George Chapman. And they were what was called the School of Night. And it seems to have been a group of, probably, atheists – some of them were definitely homosexual. They were into the new mathematics, they were doing stuff with calculus. These guys, I don’t know how to put it, they were the freaks. They were Elizabethan freaks. And they were kind of undercover and low key about it, because, you know you could get your head chopped off. But they were the guys who made first contact, in other words. And I would love to do a story about that because there was a lot opportunity that was lost afterwards, but first contact was pretty cool. And I had a feeling they had a pretty darn good time. There was probably some pretty, you know, high living. [Robinson laughs]. Why not?

ROBINSON: That’s a great setting. We don’t really have that opportunity anymore. Everything is, not just homogenized, but we reach into each others space so often that you don’t really find that … that moment of finding the other and having that connection…

SINGH: Exactly, the finding of the other. And not the rejection of the others, but the true finding of the other on both sides, is an unusual thing and it happened so many times in human history, it’s rarely recorded. This is one of the few times where we have artifacts from that. And the artifacts are artist artifacts. It’s not just a businessman writing an account or a historian writing an account. And that intrigues me greatly. Also, because it’s so involved with Christopher Marlow and George Chapman. Again it’s involved with poetry, too. And I really love doing poetry.

That’s another thing about the Snark, when you do a text like that for a comic book, everything changes. It’s not like a regular comic book text at all. It’s a pattern of words, you can’t mess with it. And you have to make a pattern of pictures that bounce back and forth with the words. Poetry really demands the most from you as an artist. It demands so many different skills as an artist. It’s kind of Olympian training, really. You got to be concentrating and on the ball. I’ve done several poetry jobs now, and they just drive me nuts with happiness. They’re not money makers.

ROBINSON: The illustrations you did for D.A. Powell’s Cocktails are really incredible.

SINGH: Yeah, that was a fun job. The payoff on that was so bad I’m not even going to discuss it. My wife is still pissed about that. I knew, the moment they sent me the poems. I just … you have to do it, man. I just love his work. He brings this poetry, it’s very fashionable at times to bring your poetry to the point of being unintelligible. But his poems, his words always hover on that edge just before falling apart. And he gets very condensed. Very tight and very condensed, but he never falls into that crappy New Yorker style, where they just vaguely roam around. Poetry, where its just prose with a lot of returns, doesn’t turn me on [laughs]. Yeah. D.A. Powell is the man.

I hoped he liked it, because I know what his vision was. His vision was very urban. And I don’t do urban, because the textures and patterns of modern urban life are so boring, usually. God they’re boring to draw. There’s only so many ways you can draw concrete. [laughter] And cars, I mean try cross-hatching a car. I’ve done it, it looks like something that’s escaped from some weird baroque time machine [laughter]. It’s just not going to fly.

ROBINSON: I definitely feel like the textural elements to your drawing is a really interesting flavor for Snark. Not only because of the time period and technique. There’s a slight bit of…  falseness to the surface [Singh laughs] that fits the theme so well, you know?

SINGH: Yes, I know exactly what you mean. It’s a non-verbal hint.

ROBINSON: Yeah, the fact that the grain itself is visible. I realize it would have been economically unfeasible. But let’s say you had done it twice up and reduced it so we wouldn’t be looking at the surface as illusion. Whereas you’re kind of inviting us to …

SINGH: It’s the skin.

ROBINSON: Yeah, right.

SINGH: It’s the skin, and it’s a fake skin. And it’s almost as if there are forms underneath. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Plato. It’s almost as if Plato’s ideal forms underneath the skins of their reality of this world. I know exactly what you mean. Basically in cross-hatching, you do a drawing if you need to, you do a tight modeled pencil drawing if you have to, to figure out where everything goes. And then on top of that, you start wrapping things. And so you’re always living in a kind of dream world that doesn’t exist. You’re putting a skin on top of things that exist in a pure form and again, like you pointed out, this works good in the Snark because of the the Snark itself…

You know, people have always wondered what the Snark is about– it’s a big industry in the Lewis Carroll world. There’s a lot of theories. One guy thinks it’s about consumption– t.b. Another guy thinks it’s about Arctic expeditions and another about a famous legal case, and so whatever. My own opinion is that the Snark, what it really is, is the simulation of a code. In other words, it’s a skin. It’s a skin that looks like a code on this lump of stuff that really has no meaning at all because it’s all been disarranged. In which case, the real meaning of the Snark is a verb, not a noun. In other words, to unlock the meaning. That leads to another whole other adventure in life. In this case, Lewis Carroll provided us with a little stimulus. And a fake code, which I find very intriguing. It looks like a code, it smells like a code, it talks like a code, but it’s not. Which again is a level of recursion. Because you could say the same thing about reality. You could say that reality is a code for something else, but we’ll never know what that is. I mean, some people think it’s God, some people think it’s this. But reality, and being alive, sure does give me the feeling of unraveling a code, all the time.

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12 Responses to Carroll, Cross-Contour, and the Demi-Fecund Ram: An Interview with Mahendra Singh

  1. DanielJMata says:

    Never heard of the guy, but a lot of what he’s saying about the lower classes is true. I’ll need to check out the book. Great interview, but, jesus christ, so many typos.

  2. Farah Ahmad says:

    Thank you for such an impressive dose of intelligence in surrealism and illustration techniques. The Snark is a really good example of how Mahendra Singh has been successful in transmitting his ideas into art and beyond. A very vigorous interview indeed!

  3. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    Daniel–glad you’ll be checking out the book. It’s a really compelling read, with plenty to dig in after a first appraisal. As for errata, I accidentally reverted a whole mess of edits this morning–hopefully everything is in place now. If you have corrections, you can always write to editorial@tcj.com.

    Farah–vigorous indeed!

  4. Alec Trench says:

    Ray Roussel is the billiard marker, and I love him very much. The French author. He was another guy whom the surrealists adored. And he was an extremely wealthy amateur author who paid publishers to print his stuff. He was also quite a drug attic and a homosexual.

    I’m not surprised the Surrealists adored him so. To become a drug attic is a rare accomplishment for a person, involving acute physical discomfort and considerable social sacrifice.
    It’s almost heartbreaking to note the absence of such dedication in today’s young pretenders.
    We can only hope that the weight of our collective guilt sends this tragic planet plummeting sunward sooner, rather than later.

  5. Thanks, Sean.

    I misspoke when I noted that the lower classes need a good pummeling. I should have said that the non-job-creating classes need a good pummeling. Preferably with a lead-weighted feather duster, eh, Jeeves?

    • DanielJMata says:

      Oh, don’t back down now, Mr. Singh! As a member of the tired, back breaking lower and non-job-creating classes, I fully support your stance. They need to be mentally whipped with a bicycle chain until they understand what’s crap and what’s not. That they’re to blame, and need to correct themselves accordingly.

  6. Alexandre Buchet says:

    What a wonderful interview, Sean. You’ve won Mr. Singh another booksale with it.

    The original Snark illustrations were just competent…none of Tenniel’s inspiration. I have, though, a wonderful Faber edition illustrated by Mervyn Peake which I recommend highly.

    Contour hatching: there are some great contemporary examples in every issue of The Wall Street Journal, of all places. In Britain it seems to be still quite popular with many publications.

  7. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    Alex-

    Shortly after completing the interview I saw a fairly convincing bit of cross-contour hatching on the top of a pizza box! So perhaps the rumors of the death of this technique, as well as the tragic fate of this planet, have been overstated. Or perhaps Mr. Singh is moonlighting as a pizza box illustrator? If more information comes to light I will let you know, but in the meantime, rest assured that Americans with no taste in pizza whatsoever may enjoy their cardboard wedges from a delightfully decorated bit of packaging.

  8. Pingback: Sequential | Canadian Comics News & Culture

  9. DanielJMata says:

    I’m also surprised that Fantagraphics turned this down, even though they had the gall (in a good way) to publish Squirrel Machine.

  10. Regarding Raymond Roussel … he suffered little public approbation (except for his literature), enjoyed his enormous wealth & position in society with grace & courtesy till his ultimate financial difficulties and was regarded by those who knew him as an eccentric but well-meaning friend to man and beast alike. His work may be regarded as a complex linguistic code designed to activate what can be called a sympathetic-magic-device for success and happiness that evades the usual processes of traditional literature.

    The drugs were just a front. And the rent-boys.

    Today’s young pretenders prefer to skip all of the above and go straight to the sensory goodies.

    If only I were moonlighting as a pizza box illustrator and wallowing in the the inky glamour, the crosshatching groupies, the marble-tiled drawing table!

  11. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    So you deny this is your work, Mr. Singh?

    http://hortschlaki.blogspot.com/2011/03/dominos-p

    One day the public will know the truth…

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