Mahendra Singh has worked on a variety of SF, humor, children’s and literary titles, such as Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award winner D. A. Powell’s Cocktails, BSFA-award winner Adam Roberts’ Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea and Martin Olson’s NYT-best selling Adventure Time Encyclopaedia. His novel, American Candide, has just been published by Rosarium Publishing. You can find more of his work on Behance.
Mahendra provided art for this week’s story, “The Thanatos Mode” by Tom Hadrava.
This interview was conducted by email in November 2016.
Tory Hoke: As an illustrator, how did you get where you are today?
Mahendra Singh: I started out at the bottom, as a technical illustrator in the 1980s (mostly military work), then sank even deeper into a twenty-year morass of periodical/advertising design and art directing. I still did freelance illustration on the side, from T-shirts to SF magazines to alternative comix—anything to make a buck until I took the plunge into full-time illustration in time for the Great Recession to annihilate my entire pre-existing client list. I rebuilt my list by switching to mostly book illustrations for SF/F, literature, kids—even verse.
For me, the pinnacle of illustration is book interiors. Unlike ad work or (most) periodical illustration, with books you can work up multiple ideas that tell a complex narrative, plus you get to work with very good editors and authors. Getting to visualize the long-form ideas of a top-tier SF author like Adam Roberts or a contemporary poet like D. A. Powell—it's so addictive. And still legal in most states.
I haven't had to draw a parking lot or an anti-ballistic-missile weapons system in twenty years and I don't miss it.
Tory Hoke: Your work often combines a structured, engraving-inspired style with wild imagination. How did you develop this style? What do you find it has the power to do?
Mahendra Singh: Style is such an issue for younger artists but it shouldn't be, it's just a distillation of influences, inclinations and—above all—your own personality. Style should be like sleepwalking: totally automatic.
Developing a style is all about letting your obsessions run wild. The hyper-linework of Dürer and Doré has always fascinated me, and also the work of such conceptual masters as Milton Glaser and the Pushpin Studio, Brad Holland, Heinz Edelmann, etc. The Surrealist masters—Magritte, Dali, Ernst, Savinio, De Chirico—opened my head to the idea of applying dream-logic to waking-logic.
My style is a subliminal free association of pictures, films, books and ideas that have somehow gotten stuck to my mental fly-paper and which I try to render in the most complex way possible. The key is to take your time, mentally and physically, and if the client refuses to allot enough time, look for smarter clients. Slow food is all the rage with hipsters today, so why not slow illustration?
The easier it is to explain an illustration in words, the less effective it tends to be, but if pressed I'd say that my style tends to titillate our perpetually curious monkey-brains with the tantalizing suspicion that nothing is as it seems.
Tory Hoke: Your surrealist and satirical works are somehow upsetting and appealing at the same time. They keep me engaged longer than I am by most art that is either one or the other. What inspires these creations? What effect do you hope to have on your viewer?
Mahendra Singh: Truthfully, my deepest inspiration is the fear of screwing up a picture. Being an artist is not a very profitable line of work, so you have to ask yourself, what am I doing this for? The money? The groupies? The interviews with cool SF people? No, it's because I love art, and so I better come up with the best ideas I can think up and draw them as well as I can. When you love something (or someone), you should give it your all. The trick is being objective about what constitutes your "all," at least in art.
The bottom line in illustration is catching the reader's eye and then telling them your story once they can't look away. I did a novel, American Candide, crammed with surreal, satirical art, and my goal in that instance was upsetting readers of all political stripes into questioning their most cherished received opinions. It's difficult getting work like that published. Only a handful of North American publishers like Rosarium and Rotland allow alternative viewpoints into print without self-censorship.
I try to do the same in F/SF and literary works—not in a political sense but in a narrative, structural sense. Sometimes it's necessary to let the visuals rhythmically desynchronize from the text. The cognitive dissonance is like musical syncopation: highly effective in judicious doses. Or maybe that's just a fancy way of saying I like to keep it weird.
Tory Hoke: What is the art community like where you are?
Mahendra Singh: I have no idea, I am a total hermit. Montreal is probably crammed with artists, but I am so busy drawing and doing family stuff that I don't have a spare moment for meeting other artists or authors. You might suspect me of being a bilious misanthrope long past his sell-by date, utterly unfit for the company of any slack-jawed idiots he might find outside the walls of his bunker-like studio … or maybe I'm a cute, cuddly illustrator who only happens to look like a more feral version of Mr. Bean. Ring my door-bell and find out, kids.
Tory Hoke: What other artists inspire or interest you?
Mahendra Singh: Hogarth, Sebald Beham, Lucas van Leyden, the Northern engraving tradition, the French inking style, Callot, Moebius, Claveloux, Serge Bihannic. Jeffrey Catherine Jones' later inking still blows me away, Kaluta's Starstruck, ditto. Hans Rickheit's Squirrel Machine surprised me, didn't think guys like that were still around, doing real surrealism. Matt Madden, Paul Tunis and some other artists are doing very sophisticated work in constrained and verse-comix, which is a fascinating genre. The synergy between certain types of verse and sequential art is one of the few genuinely new things going on today.
Tory Hoke: What would you like to see more of in contemporary F/SF art?
Mahendra Singh: There seems to be a trend towards visually amazing art without much substance, or conceptually clever art diffidently executed. In some houses' SF cover art style, story-telling is often eschewed in favor of mood setting, the penultimate stage before wallpaper. It's not just F/SF, the whole book industry seems a little … bloodless? … about covers. Covers should be chatterboxes, not entries in design shows.
Using crosshatching is so unfashionable now that it may be fresh again, the business is so cyclical. 1970s French SF art showed how effective the pen could be (especially versus scratchboard). The picture I did for "The Thanatos Mode" is very much a homage to Moebius, Caza, Bilal, and Nicollet. In Montreal, the libraries have been throwing out their French SF, and I've been feasting on the cover art of those cheap paperbacks. Quite impressive. Less bound by genre conventions than American SF art.
That's the cool thing about F/SF: it's the only genre that encompasses all other genres. You can write a rom-com SF or a mystery SF or a War-and-Peace SF and it will work on every level. F/SF can accommodate a lot visual styles.
Tory Hoke: What's your dream project?
Mahendra Singh: In F/SF, illustrating anything by Adam Roberts—the James Brown of the genre—or the Masters: Verne, Wells, Lem, Cordwainer Smith. Further afield, anything by the Old Enthused Ones: Savinio, Michaux, Chirico's Hebdomeros, even the Popol Vuh. And of course more Lewis Carroll. I did his Snark as a GN in my salad days.
Tory Hoke: What's next for you?
Mahendra Singh: Between jobs I'm working on sample chapters for another GN that a publisher has requested. I'm superstitious so I won't jinx things by naming the title, but I will say that it's a surrealist's dream project. I hope to do more F/SF, hopefully more covers, not just interiors.
I sincerely hope that readers enjoy "The Thanatos Mode." I thought it was a smart updating of the Frankenstein theme for our squeamishly agnostic times. I slipped in some explanatory Sanskrit (in plain view, really) in the picture. I like to do that—hide Easter eggs for OCD readers on the prowl for cheap thrills. Happy trails, guys!