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

ROBINSON: For some reason, they had difficulty resisting the temptation of going with the image.

SINGH: Oh yeah. They could not resist the temptation to make this into a nostalgia for a nostalgia. [Laughter] Because the American south was a hellish place – as was most of North America – and it still is for a lot of people. Shit had happened, man. But the Cohen brothers have made such good movies in the past and I know they’re getting older, and they’re getting tired, and it’s hard to find financing, I’m aware of that. Tell me about it. [Robinson laughs] You know man, c’mon guys. Once in a while, let loose. Just don’t tell the producer what you’re doing [laughter]. Pull a Terry Gilliam.

ROBINSON:Terry Gilliam was the other more modern one that I almost asked you about in the first place in terms of pulling back ...

SINGH: He’s very good at that, isn’t he? Look at the last scene in the movie Brazil. This guy’s fantasy of escape pulls back through recursion and is actually found to be embedded in the reality of his death, or his going crazy or whatever it is. Gilliam is another good example of how you can embed old cultural ideas and imagery and so forth into modern work. And if you use a little finesse and you’re careful, you can package stuff that kids – younger people – enjoy. That Munchausen movie of his, which is the one that probably drove people more insane than anything else [Robinson laughs]. I don’t know if you’re familiar ...

IIlustration from Aventures du Baron de Münchhausen by Gustave Doré

ROBINSON: Yeah, I saw it.

SINGH: First of all, it’s kind of an unacknowledged rip off of the old Nazi version, which is really worth seeing. Because the Nazis, they commissioned a special version of that movie in, I think, ’44 or something. It’s quite odd. If you want to see what the Nazis thought of the idea of a Technicolor cinema spectacular was, it’s quite interesting [laughter]. It’s more fun than you think it will be. It’s like Hunter Thompson once said, if you ever wanted to know what fun would be like if the Nazis won the war, go to Las Vegas [laughter]. But anyway, Gilliam took that version. But he also took Gustave Doré's illustrations for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which are superb. Gilliam follows some of those very closely. He had a great respect for that visual look. Gilliam is such a great visual guy and it’s a shame, in a way – again its probably financing problems – I doubt if he’s allowed to really show us what he can do. What a waste. What an utter waste. And I know he feels it, too.

Since there’s not a lot of money at stake in comics we can do what we want to do if we push and scream and kick some ass once in awhile. And one of the things that really upsets me about modern American comics is, there are some guys who are technically very talented but the level of draftsmanship is really starting to plummet off of a cliff at full speed. I mean, you know? Yes, sometimes you don’t need to draw well to tell a great story. I think of Persepolis. I mean, she couldn’t draw worth a darn. [laughs]

That's what was so nice about your Gerhard interview. It was good to hear a guy talking shop where he wasn’t kind of talking … stupid shop. I guess we’re kind of the same age, Gerhard and I. And I kind of knew where he was coming from, because [some of his techniques are] no longer really relevant to illustration anymore in certain ways. Old habits that die hard, actually.

ROBINSON: The digital stuff seems to be mostly about convenience versus aesthetics …

SINGH: Oh yeah. If you’re doing pen and ink the basic tools haven’t changed since the late 1800s. Which I kind of like , because it’s cheap. It’s easy. I mean, I buy supplies in bulk and they last for years and I don’t need anything.

ROBINSON: Right, we’re holding on to this thing that was a cutting-edge technology at the time. Which is kind of interesting to think about.

SINGH: Yeah, and what’s weird about pen and ink is that it really started in the Renaissance – the late Middle Ages Renaissance – and they used it as a sketching method originally. But they really adapted it for the technology of the time, which was woodcuts. You see those old woodcuts and the guy really was drawing like that on the masters. And as time went on, they went into engraving, so pen and ink kind of fell out of fashion. Then when they got back into litho and wood engraving, they would match the pen and ink drawing pretty closely. For instance, when you see those Tenniel drawings for Alice in Wonderland, his original drawings were done in pencil. But if he had inked them up, it would have been the same. So, pen and ink has always walked hand in hand with technology, up until recently.

ROBINSON: And the technology now is almost diametrically opposed to reproducing fine line black …

SINGH: Exactly, exactly. There is no longer is an overwhelming economical or technological need to do pure line black and white art. It’s really nostalgia, in a way. There’s things you can do with it that are really cool and neat, and you couldn’t do it any other way. But if you have a little money in your pocket and you have a good printer and they know what they’re doing, your continuous tone grayscale art will look just fine.

ROBINSON: I've been wrestling with this myself, if it's a nostalgic impulse or an aesthetic impulse.

SINGH: No, no, for me the aesthetic impulse for black and white line art is so powerful and so strong. I’ve done plenty of work in other media and I enjoyed immensely … it’s nice to get away from it every once in a while. But for me that black – the really good, detailed, crisp black and white line look just makes every little neuron and particle in my body quiver with joy. It’s a personal thing, you know?

ROBINSON: Yeah, that’s the side that I’m going on, too. I remember the first drawings I ever did were line, in the dirt with a stick.

SINGH: [laughs] That’s it, that’s how it started. You know, when you’re doing a lot of inking work, it gets super physical very quickly. What you realize, really fast, is the way you hold your hand and the speed and rhythm with which you work with are very very important. I’m sure you’ve noticed in my artwork there’s a lot of weird dotted line arrangements. You know, that sort of half stipple, half line. I don’t even think when I do that stuff; my hand just does it automatically because it’s a rhythm. And if the pen isn’t working right or the ink is weird, suddenly my hand will just stop. And it says ‘what’s wrong?’

It’s really important to get that physical aspect going if you want to do good inking. That’s what kind of puzzled me about Gerhard [moving to] the Rapidograph, which jumps over that step to a degree. It is convenient; there is no doubt about that. Inking with a Rapidograph is a piece of cake compared to a dip pen. It has different challenges, of course. But you don’t get that physical oomph.

ROBINSON: I think he’s analytical enough that the calligraphic aspect of it is at odds with his analytical impulse. You know?

SINGH: Yes, very well put. There’s two basic ways to ink, you can go calligraphic or you can just go value. Gerhard has definitely gone value. He has gone value about as far as you can really go. The last step would be to stipple every single page he ever draws. [laughter], which would be great if you had a thousand years and some really powerful drugs or something. Gerhard definitely has staked out a strong position on one angle and I think Robert Crumb is another good example. Although his inking – I don’t know how to put it – is so American. It’s so old fashion and so American. It’s nice, I like it.

ROBINSON: It’s interesting to me that you put him out there because he is somebody that along with – I think about Jim Woodring, too, and your work on the Snark – that somebody can have a physical reaction to the actual line itself. For a long time I always felt nauseous looking at a Robert Crumb drawing.

SINGH: [Laughs.] Really?

ROBINSON: Oh yeah. It wasn’t the content necessarily – and not really drawings that he did with a brush. Something about the anxiousness of the line kind of gave me this real strong physical reaction that was unpleasant.

SINGH: One thing about cross hatching, and hatching actually, is that there’s a very careful proportion you have to keep between the width and the amount of white between the lines and the width of the black lines themselves. If you get very loose, it looks kind of scratchy and clicky and doesn’t look that great. If you get too heavy, it just blobs up. If you look at really tight, good cross hatching up close – like under a magnifying glass or blow it up on your screen – it almost gives you a sort of stroboscopic effect. A nauseous effect, as you’ve said. That proportion is kind of hard to hit. And you get it by looking at the white of the paper when you’re doing the inking. Which again, makes you feel dizzy and nauseous … after a while your eyes totally flip out. I find after a while my eyes – especially as I get older – they get so tired because I draw pretty small. I usually draw roughly the same size you see it.

ROBINSON: Really? The stroboscopic effect, that’s an interesting way to put it, especially because you use so much cross contour where you’re actually manipulating the line across the form instead of using it flat.

SINGH: You know what? The flat is cool. There’s a place for that, but going with the contours is the juiciest part. I still sometimes get hung up on which contour, which angle to attack, especially if I overthink it. But that’s why I ink on denril, because I have an electric eraser and I can just zap it and start over again. I’ll usually do a pencil on tissue paper. And sometimes I’ll draw in pencil the direction of some of the contour lines if it gets complicated. Then I just put some denril on top and use some acrylic ink. It usually works out okay if you’re not too hasty and smudge things with your shirt cuff. And when I make a mistake – which is forever, always, all my life – I just go back in with my electric eraser. And the only problem with this system is that now that we’re doing scanning instead of Photostats – you know, optical camera work – is when you scan it, you do have to be pretty careful. Because the denril is translucent and it creates a sort of bounce behind it. So you don’t get super crisp, clean lines like you used to in the old days. Doing a good scan with denril is actually an art form.

You know, I can’t even think anymore who is doing contour cross-hatching anymore. Even in illustration. I really can’t think of anybody offhand.

ROBINSON: Maybe there’s some specialty person out there...

SINGH: There’s a few guys who do the stuff on dollar bills and, you know, those really fancy wine labels? Or some kind of corporate logos where you see an orchard with an Italian peasant girl walking across it with a box of pasta, where they’re kind of faking a wood engraving look. Which is sometimes contoured. The contour cross-hatching gives such energy, such a snap and if you combine that with texture and that stroboscopic effect, it can really ... It blows off the page. The drawback is that it takes forever to draw.

ROBINSON: You actually have to internalize some of the skills in order to make it happen, which, you know, a lot of people ...

SINGH: Yeah, you know if you want to do really good cross-hatching you have to sit down and say to yourself ‘I’m going to spend a lot of years learning how to do this and I’m not going to go to parties on Friday nights.” Because that’s really what it boils down to. There’s not a lot of parties in my life. But also, you have to really look at stuff.

ROBINSON: Right, studying the technique itself.

An unpublished, colorized Snark panel.

SINGH: How do you really learn a visual technique? There’s some who think you just need inspiration. The art schools sort of peddle that point a bit, I think. It’s not true. The best way to learn a technique is to copy someone who is really, really good at it. That’s how I learned to cross hatch, I copied Moebius, I copied Dürer. I copied these other guys, and it looked like shit. But I had a picture in my head of how I wanted it to look and I just kept at it. To tell you the truth, the style that I used in The Snark was pretty throttled back for me. I had to force myself not to overdo it and I think I kind of lost control at times because I tried to make it less complicated then I usually do things, visually [laughs].

ROBINSON: For what purpose?

SINGH: Well, so I could get through the book [laughter]. Let me tell you something, if I had made that book the way I really, really wanted to make it look, I’d still be drawing it. I mean, each panel would be wood engraved and ... you have to stop at some point. When you do pen and ink cross-hatching, after a while you collect a few styles. That’s really not my native style. There’s more flamboyant, baroque style I prefer, but it’s not suitable for comic books. If you over do it in cross-hatching, the comic book tends to sort of slow down after a while. Look at Moebius.

ROBINSON: Yeah, I definitely noticed the speed difference when you have a super dense page. It definitely invites you to look rather than to read.

SINGH:The two things that Moebius did that to this day make me weep with joy and bang my head against the wall in utter envious frustration is the Airtight Garage and Arzack. They were both perfect, absolutely perfect. I know looking at the Airtight Garage as a kid, it was like a pen and inkers how-to do it. He did every style. Every single style. And he knocked them all, perfectly. Bastard [laughs]. You better strike that one.

From Max Ernst's Hundred Headless Woman

ROBINSON: I noticed when I was looking at the Ernst collages, the different line weights were interesting because of the collage elements. There were some arbitrariness to it in that sometimes you’d have foreground things that were really thick compared to the background things and sometimes it was reversed. And actually, it almost seems like you carried a little bit of that over into some of Snark, too, in that sometimes the line weight seemed a little counter intuitive.

SINGH: Yes, I know what you mean. Sometimes it was conscious, sometimes it was me just totally exhausted and forgetting what the hell I was doing [laughs]. Because when you’re doing a lot of lines like that on a drawing sometimes it gets so confusing. On The Snark I wanted to go from the upper left hand corner of each panel to the lower right hand corner of the panel, pretty much, in one pass. Sometimes I had to go back in ... there’s actually not that much cross-hatching if you look carefully. Except on the guy’s suits, usually nothing is cross-hatched. Because I wanted to get a wood engraving look. Sometimes I did screw up the line weights, you’re definitely right on that. But sometimes it did look a little bit better, so it was fifty-fifty.