Mahendra Singh is an illustrator best known for work that is meticulously researched, intelligent to the point of phosphorescence and executed with obsessive craftsmanship. It should go without saying, then, that his illustrations for steampunk Jules Verne tribute 20 Trillion Leagues Under the Sea are nothing short of fantastic.
I first met Mahendra—a self-described "ink-stained wretch"—nearly twenty years ago when I saw a collection of totally convincing postage stamps he'd created, based on the premise that the Confederacy had won the Civil War (he eventually condescended to provide the uncanny illustrations for my anthology, Pathetic Selections). His beautiful work, which is often disturbing and almost invariably rendered in pen-and-ink, evokes the surrealistic collages of Max Ernst (whom Singh admits has been an enormous influence on his art).
Singh recently adapted Lewis Carroll's surrealistic poem, "The Hunting of the Snark", as a graphic novel. As a long-time member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and an editor for their journal, the Knight Letter, Singh—who describes himself as a "Carrollian Nutter...harmless as long as I have access to drawing materials. And pictures of Snarks"—was uniquely suited for the task. His illustrations are as much a kind of intellectual treasure hunt—full of riddles, puns, and allusions—as the poem is itself. Singh is also one of the contributing illustrators to the recent New York Times best-selling Adventure Time Encyclopaedia (of all things), created by card-carrying genius Martin Olson. I may as well add a plug for Olson's The Encyclopaedia of Hell,which also was illustrated by Singh. About as different as two books could possibly get...
When young, Singh read everything "from 70s SF to Aristophanes to the Ramayana... What I usually liked was a complex, completely furnished fictional world, along with a nice musicality with words. What really turned me on was when that fictional world would be logically intertwined with the real world, past or present." It seemed natural that one of the authors Singh admired was Jules Verne—a sterling quality we both share. And, like me, he has always had a fondness and admiration for the beautiful woodcuts that accompanied the original editions of Verne's novels (as one of the best-selling authors of his time, Verne's books demanded and got the best illustrators in the business).
When BSFA award-winning Adam Roberts wrote his new steampunk novel-tribute to Jules Verne, 20 Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, that it needed Mahendra Singh's illustrations was probably a no-brainer. "Why not," Singh asked, "illustrate steam-punk with a visual style that actually reminds the reader of the Victorian era?" This was no doubt also the reasoning behind Singh being chosen to illustrate Jean-Christophe Valtat's steampunk epic, Luminous Chaos. The illustrations below are selected from these two books.
Like Franklin Booth, the classic American illustrator of the 1920s, Singh evokes the appearance of the woodcut illustrations of the 19th century by means of a meticulous pen-and-ink style that has a uniquely compelling quality of its own. Just as it's hard to imagine Alice in Wonderland without Sir John Tenniel, it may be that for future generations it will be hard to imagine Jules Verne without Mahendra Singh.