Snark, Strangeness and Charm

Mahendra Singh is an illustrator from Montreal "busily fitting Lewis Carroll into a protosurrealist straitjacket with matching dada cufflinks" on The Hunting of the Snark (now in book form). In March he won my Raymond Roussel illustration contest. This is the first of hopefully many posts with Mahendra.



Mahendra Singh, Fables of La Fontaine, work-in-progress (The Stag Upn the Vine)





Mahendra Singh, Fables of La Fontaine, work-in-progress (Sir Crow and the Fox)





Mahendra Singh, Fables of La Fontaine, work-in-progress (Madame Bird Wounded by an Arrow)





Mahendra Singh, Fables of La Fontaine, work-in-progress (A Dog Who Took His Prey for Shadow)





Mahendra Singh, Fables of La Fontaine, work-in-progress (Fox Contemplating the Bust of a Truly Great Man)

These first five images come from an unfinished book proposal for the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Mahendra writes: "The art & style of the European Baroque era is my favorite, besides certain Surrealists, and Fontaine's verse is a perfect example of the Baroque outlook: a focus on the physical feel of language, a theatrical presentation, a holistic sense of connected meanings & structures. The Baroque era was the last time in Western culture when the arts and the quotidian culture of all social classes were roughly the same. A perfect sense of style, deep emotional & structural rhetoric, fleshed out with a theatrical distancing technique plus an unwavering attention to craftsmanship.

"The actual inking style owes a bit more to the Renaissance really. The first artists I fell in love with were Albrecht Dürer and Salvador Dali (an odd couple) and from an early age I’ve been fascinated by the Northern German sense of line in the graphics of Dürer, Schongauer, Cranach, Holbein, etc. Crosshatching encourages a certain obsessiveness and this obsession, when combined with Surrealist conceptual techniques creates an aura of false authority, like Ernst’s collages. For the La Fontaine I wish to give the feeling that one is listening to a coloratura aria within an opera by Purcell or Rameau, sets and costumes designed by a disciple of Alberto Savinio … what I call Protosurrealism." [more on that below]



Mahendra Singh, illus. for Cocktails by D. A. Powell, 2009 (cover)
English/German en face, get it: amazon.de / publisher's page





Mahendra Singh, illus. for Cocktails by D. A. Powell, 2009
English/German en face, get it: amazon.de / publisher's page





Mahendra Singh, illus. for Cocktails by D. A. Powell, 2009
English/German en face, get it: amazon.de / publisher's page





Mahendra Singh, illus. for Cocktails by D. A. Powell, 2009
English/German en face, get it: amazon.de / publisher's page





Mahendra Singh, illus. for Cocktails by D. A. Powell, 2009
English/German en face, get it: amazon.de / publisher's page

Mahendra writes: "This is one of my favorite jobs ever. The poet, D. A. Powell, has recently won the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and his verse richly deserves it, very tight, very compact, very lean. But he never descends into linguistic solipsism, it's always a high-wire act between the mouthfeel of English and a very crystalline conceptual structure. Texts like Powell's verses come across an illustrator's board very rarely and I was very fortunate to do the job. I know that one can never match art to words—especially poetry—but I think Cocktails works fine on a certain level, a visual syntax which supplements Powell's very baroque linguistic world."



Mahendra Singh, Dream Book, work-in-progress





Mahendra Singh, Dream Book, work-in-progress





Mahendra Singh, Dream Book, work-in-progress





Mahendra Singh, Dream Book, work-in-progress [more]

Mahendra explains: "An unsold proposal, a Dadaistic parody of a Dream Book in which one looks up the subject of one's dreams to discover both their meaning and the numbers you should play for that day. They used to be big in the South, I don't know if that's true anymore. The humorist Martin Olson keeps threatening to work on it with me but we never seem to have the time at the same time … his gigantic, power-packed wit would be perfect for it.

"Martin has a book coming out from Feral Press in May, The Invasion Manual of Earth, a how-to from Lord Satan to which the very talented Tony Millionaire and myself did some illos. The book is a sort of alphabetized, rated R, Satanic Verses for freethinking hipsters and is guaranteed to generate some well-publicized fatwas to round out our CVs."



Mahendra Singh, illus. for The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, 2010 (spread)





Mahendra Singh, illus. for The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, 2010





Mahendra Singh, illus. for The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, 2010





Mahendra Singh, illus. for The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, 2010





Mahendra Singh, illus. for The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, 2010





Mahendra Singh, illus. for The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, 2010





Mahendra Singh, illus. for The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, 2010





Mahendra Singh, illus. for The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, 2010



These final images are from Mahendra's sure-to-be-legendary version of Lewis Carroll's HUNTING OF THE SNARK, coming out this November from Melville House.


I'll turn the rest of the post over to Mahendra:


"Although my style is a bit top-heavy for comix, they are my favorite format. I mentioned how I started out with Dürer and his ilk. Later on, the first stirrings of the new French BD style hit the US in the form of Heavy Metal and I was transfixed … Moebius, Bilal, Claveloux … all of them using classical pen techniques where the American artists were usually doing speedy brush work. I did some stuff for Fantagraphics in the 1980s but I always had to concentrate on other venues to make money.


"Doing verse, especially Nonsense verse, allows one to get really structured and tight in the conceptual sense. If you are running out of ideas and flounder, it really shows. On the other hand, my style can make the page flow static but I think the verse has enough of a bouncy meter that it carries things through.


"The meaning of the Snark? The meaning is the meaning is the meaning. Why do people persist in searching for meaning whenever they find patterns? An atavistic simian instinct, in my opinion. Carroll himself admitted that he didn't know the meaning and I think he was being serious … in any case, I used the Snark as a scaffold to hang a lot of Western art, philosophy, semiotics and literature upon. The Surrealists (or cryptosurrealists) De Chirico, Alberto Savinio and Max Ernst loom large in my version; the style I call Protosurrealism.


"So, what is Surrealism? The simultaneous dream-memory of everything. And Protosurrealism? The same as above with an added frisson of remembering an impossible future.. We might add that Protosurrealism is the 21st-century application of 19th-century answers to 20th-century problems or even that the true Protosurrealist is a postmodernist (or even a postpostmodernist) who telescopes his Surrealist past into a Victorian intellectual's expected future until his own past becomes his future and his nostalgia becomes his anticipation.


"In any case, I hope that younger readers & artists will be intrigued enough by my Snark to explore, on their own, some of the ideas and techniques and styles that I rummage through in the work. I think Carroll would have approved of that sentiment."



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Mahendra also gave a glimpse into the book of my dreams: "Gilbert Alter-Gilbert and I are working on an illustrated, full-length version of his Poets Ranked by Beard Weight. It's going to have a bit of an Edwardian look, a little Edward Gorey, perhaps even a soupcon of the Police Gazette… more to come!"



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This post borrows its title from Hunting of the Snark, which I can only assume borrows it from Hawkwind