Few artists have as much range as cartoonist Ann Xu, whose line and color work adapts to her subjects to create an incredibly diverse body of work. Here, Xu discusses “Grave Cleaning,” a comic about coming home.
THE BELIEVER: How did this comic start?
ANN XU: The last time I visited China with my family, some images just stuck in my mind, particularly from going to the cemetery where my paternal grandfather is memorialized. The sensations of that memory are still quite distinct to me, and being around my relatives always dredges up old feelings. I believe in writing and drawing from personal experience when you can, so this one was no different.
BLVR: What’s your process like?
AX: I like to start with just writing and notes; if there’s a persistent visual image in my head of a scene, I will draw that first as part of my notes. Similarly, if there’s an impactful line of dialogue or action I’m thinking of, I will also note that. From there, I’ll divide the loose script into pages/panels based on the beats of the story. Then I do thumbnails and pencils. Sometimes I separate the two, but other times it ends up in a state that’s in between thumbs and pencils, so I just end up counting that as the pencil stage. After scanning those, I print them out at the size I’m inking, and then I use a lightbox to ink on the final paper. I usually have a few mistakes to correct digitally, so if it’s something that needs me to manually correct it with more drawing, I’ll do those bits on another piece of paper to edit in later, as well as any hand-lettering work. Coloring is something I almost always do digitally.
BLVR: Was any aspect of making this work particularly challenging?
AX: I definitely hit a roadblock in the coloring process; this is basically the first full color comic I’ve drawn. I had visualized a way that the colors would look—very lush and reminiscent of a hot summer day—and then right after starting to color I think I panicked a little and tried to use a limited color palette instead, but I also had problems with that. So I kept bouncing around a few different options for a while before I ended up just buckling down and going with my first idea anyway, which ended up working out pretty well. It definitely felt like a palpable step up in my comic-making level.
BLVR: What drives you to create new work?
AX: I just want to write and draw the things I have rattling around in my head. Especially for autobiographical work, there are some trains of thinking that are so persistent I felt like I had to make them into comics, as though I were completing the thought. Mostly it just feels really, really good to be able to look at or hold my finished product of hard work.
BLVR: Without naming any comics artists, what influences you most?
AX: I think when it comes down to it, I’m most influenced by work and media that places a heavy value on emotion. I like a lot of anime and manga for that reason as well, because I feel like they tend to hit strong emotional notes more effectively than a lot of American comics. I’m also frequently inspired by scenery, whether it’s the river in the town where my dad grew up or the pink and gray sky after a rainstorm. Things like that stay in my head for a long time, and they usually end up in a comic somewhere.
BLVR: Which comic should we drop everything and read right now?
AX: Diana’s Electric Tongue by Carolyn Nowak! It’s one of my favorite comics from last year; it’s so visceral and beautifully drawn and written. I would recommend it to anyone.
BLVR: What are you working on next?
AX: I’m working on a long-term project that hasn’t been announced! I’m really nervous but excited about it. Other than that, I’ll likely be doing whatever other odd freelance jobs come my way, as well as tabling at several comic festivals this year.