Ann Xu is an illustrator and comic artist currently based in Baltimore, Maryland. Xu grew up in San Jose, California, and graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Her work can be found on the women-focused newsletter The Lily, published by the Washington Post, and has an upcoming comic featured in The Believer's June/July issue. Read more about her work and process below!
Your work always has fantastic texture and line quality, what are your favorite mediums to work with, and what is your process usually like when approaching your pieces?
Nowadays, I mainly have two modes of working I like to use: if I want thin ink lines, I like to use a very basic fountain pen, and for something more shape-based, I’ll tend to use a dark color pencil. Graphite is fine too, but I prefer color pencils because they’re less shiny and a little more crayon-like. If I’m planning a piece with less detail or simpler shapes, I’ll use pencils, but if I know I want to go wild with line detail I’ll use the pen.
Does this process change when approaching narrative works?
I don’t think it changes much; a lot of it is also just the vibe I have in my head while I’m thinking of what I want a drawing or comic to feel like. Or if I have one particular thing I want to draw in a certain way, then everything else will fall in line behind that. In a comic I did for an anthology called The Sun and the Wayward Wind, during planning all I knew was that I wanted to draw a lot of smoke and fire, and I wanted to build up all the smoke using pencil, so that’s what I decided to use for everything.
Your work often features dreams, such as the dream sequence in Sleeper Train, or the drawings based on dreams of your own in your autobiographical work March Snowfall. How do you think your dreams influence your work or daily life? Do you keep a dream journal?
I don’t keep a dream journal anymore, but I used to do that a lot when I was a kid! I was really into lucid dreaming, so I would record my dreams in a lot of detail so that I could be in that mindset. Nowadays I only really take notes about a dream if it was particularly memorable or interesting, although I do have some more nightmare-adjacent dreams in the back of my head for making into comics sometime. I simply really like the feeling of dreaming, where anything can happen and you’re alone in your thoughts. They’re also quite vulnerable and I love having moments of honesty in a comic.
You also have several works about moving, traveling, or generally being in transit. Do these themes come from your own experience? What draws you to that narrative?
Yeah, I did White Tape the earliest, and I was thinking of it as the prologue to something longer, so the main character’s family moving in that story was a way to set her up in a new situation. When I drew Sleeper Train half a year later I realized that I had accidentally written almost the same thing into the story—a girl moves a long distance away because of her parents. The theme of moving is definitely there in both, but for different reasons.
Sleeper Train is much more personal to me. Every time I go back to China to visit family, there’s just so much traveling involved. The train ride between my parents’ hometowns is about 8 hours long and I have a lot of memories of those trips, climbing onto the top bed and lying there between waking and sleeping while the train clatters around me. I love the empty scenery and the long hours spent alone, even though you’re also frequently in the company of strangers. And I think in the case of Spring Break, a lot of the appeal of the bus ride to me was also the feeling of independence. Like if I really wanted to, I could just buy a ticket and get on a bus for half a day to go see my best friend in another state.
Can you tell us about your piece in Arboretum, Princess?
I always liked The Tale of Kaguyahime when I was younger, which is about a moon princess who was found as a baby inside of a stalk of bamboo. The piece I made, “Princess,” isn’t so much directly based on that as it is inspired by the feeling that folktales like that give me. I think in general, stories about princesses and girls who were shrouded in mysteries really appealed to me, as well as the idea of people being born from or found inside of plants. When I was thinking about the theme of Arboretum, I kept coming back to Kaguyahime.
What are some narratives you want to tell in the future? Is there anything you’d like to explore more within your work, technically or content-wise?
I definitely do want to try writing more fiction. Personally I feel like that’s a weakness in my skill set. I made a sci-fi-ish fiction comic a year ago that I just haven’t been fully satisfied with, but I might try going back to that sometime. I love autobio and won’t stop doing that, but I want to be able to write and draw all kinds of things. I want to keep polishing my writing and drawing to be not only more technically competent, but more sensitive and emotionally detailed.
Who are some of your favorite artists right now? What other media or sources do you take inspiration from?
I love Niv Sekar and Carolyn Nowak’s illustrations and comics. They have very different ways of working but they both have really great skills in conveying emotional depth. I read Nowak’s Diana’s Electric Tongue last year and it just changed me. Other than specific artists, I do also love turning to anime or manga for notes on atmosphere and feeling, which I think a lot of them really excel at compared to Western media overall.
Any last thoughts? Where can people find you on the internet?