Of Thee I Singh
Today, I would like to introduce to you all, a man who needs no introduction. I’m going to do it anyway, however, because otherwise there would be an empty space below the headline, and we can’t have that. Mahendra Singh is a man of many talents, author, illustrator, editor, and (as rumor would have it) tin foil hat maker.
There are few in this world, who are able to see our modern society for what it truly is, and are capable of stripping off the superficial facade of existence, laying bare the grotesque reality most of us refuse to acknowledge. Their tool is satire, via the written word. Mahendra Singh is a master of his craft, and once you’ve seen the world through his words and images, you’ll not sleep well at night, for a long time.
Being both writer and illustrator, which do you find more satisfying?
It depends on my mood, I guess. I don't like being told what to think or how to live by mental pygmies, so writing political stuff like American Candide scratches that itch. Frankly, I'm surprised it got into print. It took over a 100 rejections before Bill Campbell at Rosarium picked it up. I've had the same experience doing political art. Telling people that they're behaving like Nazis, and not even smart Nazis, really pisses them off.
Illustrating is a way of saying things more subtly, assuming that you bother to take the time. And some of the things you can say in a picture are very concise in a way that words can never be.
I really can't make up my mind, they both use roughly the same brain muscles and scratch the same brain itch. I do think that a perfect drawing does say more than any text of the same size but I'm certainly not a perfect illustrator so I would have to say, definitely maybe.
With American Candide, you’ve taken Voltaire’s classic, and made it a uniquely American tale. Difficult?
Satirizing American politics is like taking candy from a baby, no, it was not difficult. There is no bottom to the national cesspool, so many turds to fish out (perfect simile to follow baby-candy, eh?). Many of the dumbest bits in the book are adapted quotations from various politicians and media-drones, and many of the scenes depicted are inspired by personal or family experiences, plus torn-from-the-headlines stuff. Depicting America's reality in an honest manner is inherently satirical.
If there is any accuracy to the novel, it may come from the fact that I am a longtime, naturalized citizen of a country that doesn't always regard me as a citizen and hence, I am inside and outside much of the time. This is a relatively objective perspective although not a unique one, there are plenty of us in the same boat but most are smart enough to keep their mouths shut … perhaps my survival skills are finally crumbling and I've let my guard down.
All those years of Reagan's and Clinton's sanctimonious bullshit, the abomination of the Iraq Invasion and finally, the spectacle of a knuckle-dragging street hustler blundering into the greatest bank robbery in history, it finally made my head pop.
So writing about it was easy, heck, I'm not a highly trained American journalist, I can figure out the truth without being told what to think.
“I am a longtime, naturalized citizen of a country that doesn't always regard me as a citizen”. Where are we speaking of, the U.S., or Canada? Your bio reads that you’re from Virginia, but you live in Quebec, Canada. You currently reside in that nation where politeness, etiquette, and general feelings of jolly glad handing are as common as pigeons in New York. It can’t be all that bad.
I'm a naturalized citizen of both Canada and the USA who grew up in rural Virginia and moved to Canada in 2004. Growing up in rural Virginia was reasonably mellow although things are bit different now. You're right, Canadians are a lot more laid-back about a lot of issues and that's a blessing for what Canadians call "visible minorities" although I have to say that the professional/business opportunities in the US tend to be better. But my earlier comments were very much about current developments in the USA, which are deeply unsettling to all immigrants, not just Muslims or Hispanics. Let's face it, unless you speak Algonquian or something like that, your family is an immigrant family in North America.
Canadians are a quiet people who know that kicking a man when he's down is not from the Bible, at least not in the sequel, second book.
Your work on Martin Olson’s The Adventure Time Encyclopaedia: Inhabitants, Lore, Spells, and Ancient Crypt Warnings of the Land of Ooo Circa 19.56 B.G.E. - 501 A.G.E., is a far cry from your previous works, and I’m curious as to how that collaboration came about.
Martin needed illustrators for his first book, The Encyclopaedia of Hell. We have a mutual friend, the well-known space illustrator (and total party animal) Ron Miller, so Ron put him in touch with me. The book is very, very funny, like Ambrose Bierce on acid but even better. That first Encyclopaedia got the attention of Pendleton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time, so when they decided to do the books, they got Martin and his daughter to write them and he very kindly invited me along for the ride.
You're right, I don't do so much pop-culture, the people who run licensed properties tend to be a bit nervous about taking liberties with their concepts, but the people at AT, plus Martin and Eric Klopfer, the editor at Abrams, let me do anything I wanted to. It was an unusual situation, I think the entire team did some good work. Martin may do another Hell book, let's all pray to Lord Satan that he does.
I'm doing another licensed property now, they are letting me go all-out with the super-intricate line-work (diametrically opposed to the model sheets) but they are adamant about not doing anything conceptual. Which is fine, I understand their thinking; I'm pleased that the art director and licensor understands how my style can sometimes play certain kinds of head-games with the typical pop-culture look.
The kids still seem to like those kind of head-games, a promising sign?
Not a fan of pop culture, eh? But what else is there, these days?
I'm an ambivalent fan, some pop culture is quite good (especially technically) and everyone needs some escapism or they'll go nuts. My illustration style is a bit old-fashioned and tends to click with editors and art directors doing more "classical" stuff. Don't know if that's the right word … in any case, doing too much pop culture tends to make one's visual style slick or even clichéd and that's a problem if you take your art seriously.
Badly made pop-culture tries to make up your mind for you or even shut it down entirely. And that's marketing and unfortunately, a lot of pop culture is just long-form marketing. You can say big, complicated things in pop-culture if the guy signing the checks is up for it. Some of them are not deep thinkers, some of them are. Some of them enjoy telling complex, adult stories, others are a bit oblivious to the finer points of the business.
You're right, there's not much else left for the working illustrator to pay his bills with … the main thing is to do all your work as best as you can by cutting corners only in emergencies (#1 rule), trying to work with the best authors and editors (who avoid creating such emergencies) and avoiding projects which are patently crap. It's not easy but it's possible. Most of the time!
Your artwork on the Adventure Time book remains uniquely your style, yet still captures the essence of the cartoon. Was there any trepidation with the publisher that your art didn’t mirror the style of the show?
No, Eric and Martin were in complete agreement that I could do it my way, they specifically wanted the weirdo dissonance that my style would give to AT. They must have had the Cartoon Network's blessing for this and several other unorthodox ideas, and I have the feeling that AT is a lot more illustrator friendly than most properties. They have spread around a lot of work in many styles and they seem to have more respect for their audience's intelligence and sense of curiosity than some of their industry peers.
I had no idea what AT was when I started but I quickly discovered that it's a riff on surrealism made safe for children. So I tried to give my visual ideas a dreamlike sense of logic and then render them obsessively enough to give the dream a sense of authority. You have to make the trains run on time in the republic of dreams.
The kids seemed to like it. The whole AT experience was very unusual for me, I even went to the NYC ComicCon for it and met some highly enthusiastic fans whose devotion to AT startled me at first. Illustrators spend most of their time alone, hunched over a drawing board, it's a hermetic life and we freak out easily.