Submitting a reworked version of her book’s opening, Singh more than earned her place on the shortlist for the 2019 Laydeez Do Comics Prize
After being featured in last year’s longlist for the Laydeez Do Comics Prize with an excerpt of her graphic novel I’ll Be Fine, artist and illustrator Jeeti Singh made it onto this year’s shortlist with the same submission.
And rightly so. Singh’s autobiographical story of her mother’s suicide and her own struggles is a moving portrait of mental illness and perseverance. She’s rejigged the opening, opting to begin the graphic novel with the last moments of her mother’s life, which is a bold and devastating statement. Singh’s artwork is a blend of Indian and Western influences rendered in painstaking detail; a reflection of her background in fine art. Every page is a tableau in itself.
Josh Franks: So, when did you get into comics as a creator?
Jeeti Singh: It was a slow process through my MA at Chelsea College of Art and Design. I used to be a painter and more of a fine artist. And when I went to uni here, they banned me from painting because it just was so unfashionable. But what that did, unbeknownst to them, was make me really look at drawing and my love of drawing, and then my love of comics and graphic novels.
I started to create these images that were Indian miniature-related, but combining that with graphic novel and comics stylisation, and it just became more and more apparent that my angle actually was a graphic novel. And that I have a story to tell, and I really wanted to tell it and no singular image was going to do it justice.
JF: I’ll Be Fine is about your mother. It’s a story of suicide. It’s about mental illness; both your mother’s and your own, and your relationship with her. At what point did you know that this is the story that you wanted to share?
JS: My mother committed suicide two months before I came to London. I’d already planned to come here to do my MA, and the decision to come was a pretty big deal, because I had to leave the rest of my family behind. When I came here, I just started to integrate her into the work as a goddess in the corner as little peeks here and there, and that story just became pretty apparent.
She was always a part of my life, in my artwork, and my previous paintings. I always felt that she could never understand me because she grew up in a very traditional Indian way and I didn’t. And then after she died, the relationship that we had just became this thing I had to unpack for my own health and my own well-being. I had to deal with the fact that she left and she committed suicide and what that meant, and the fact that we weren’t allowed to tell the family. So none of my family actually knows that she committed suicide, other than myself and my brother, because it’s such a taboo in Indian culture to have mental illness or to commit suicide. And they still don’t know. They’re probably getting peeks if they have followed me on Instagram and seen some of my work. But it’s been a long process for my dad to even understand why I needed to tell the story.
The biggest thing for me is that having somebody tell you that you can’t even talk about it really pushes you. Because that in and of itself is wrong. It shouldn’t be that way in any culture; you have to be able to talk about mental illness and suicide. It became about self-healing, but it’s not only for my benefit, but for all the people who can’t talk about it and have to deal with it.
JF: Let’s talk very briefly about incorporating your influences and fine art style within your work. Tell me a little bit about your process.
JS: I always thought when you were making graphic novels and comics that you really had to integrate the computer into it and go digital, but my background is in fine art and I love doing everything by hand. It took me a really long time to figure out how I wanted it to look. It was actually through the process of looking at etchings—that and doing some etchings myself—that I realised I really love this look, but I’m going to hand draw it and make it look like an etching. It’s a long, drawn-out process. It’s hell. But I needed to make it beautiful for myself. I think there was something about that aesthetic, and because it’s painstaking and there’s time and effort put into it, each page ends up being a little work all on its own.
I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way or trying to find the shorthand for it.
Read our interviews with the other shortlisted creators of the Laydeez Do Comics prize 2019:
This interview has been edited for clarity.