“Drawing a comic is like directing a movie”: Cartoonist Chendi Xu on her European yarns

Hergé's spirit lives on in some very sumptuous graphic novels.

Researching this year's virtual grad shows, I stumbled across the showcase from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), full of promising illustration students on the institution's MFA course.

Among them you'll find one Chendi Xu, a Shanghai-hailing student who'd roamed Europe before settling in Baltimore for her Master's. Their portfolio immediately stands out with its graphic novels set in romanticised versions of Old Europe which Western publishers should look at ASAP. Check out this example art and enjoy our interview with Chendi for more proof that she'll be a grad to watch over the coming years.

Find more on her Instagram @
pilzpilzchen, homepage and grad show portfolio.

When did your passion for Europe start, and how did it cross over into a desire to tell European stories?

I studied German language and linguistics when I was an undergraduate (2014-2018) and I spent one year in an exchange program in Mannheim, Germany.  I like the intimacy in European countries, the close proximity to things and the 'vibration' of the cities.

I believe it is the experience of living in a European country and my love of European history and culture that bring consistent ideas and inspirations to my creative process.

When I first saw your work, I felt an energy similar to that of Tintin classic King Ottokar's Sceptre. Do you see yourself as spiritually following in the tradition of Hergé and classic European cartoonists? 

I am a huge fan of European comics. When I was little, I read Tintin comics all the time. And yes, I think I am greatly influenced by Hergé and many other European comic artists.

Certainly, life in Germany provided me access to the other amazing European comics that cannot be found in China. Classic European comics were windows which let me see the lifestyle thousands of miles away in Europe and triggered my interest in its culture.

The 100 page+ size of your books makes me wonder if you see yourself as a writer as much as an artist? And do you ever dream of writing a novel with no imagery?

I like making long comics since it is the best way for me to tell a whole and complete, complicated story. I write outlines and scripts and then go straight into thumbnailing the pages. I have so many things to tell.

Writing a novel may not be my choice in the near future because I want to develop my career as a comic artist. I think the imagery and painting provide another perspective in expressing the story. Drawing a comic is more like directing a movie, to me. I like to take the characters, the performance, the costumes, the proposition, the lightning, all those things into consideration and present them in imagery.

But you know what, maybe I will wanna write something in the future. Who knows!

You've written stories for young adults and children; what's the key to appealing to both, and to fascinate them with European history?

To keep the comic art appealing to both YA and children with educational purpose, my suggestion will be putting myself as a creator into the readers' shoes. 

I think kids and teens are more sensitive and smarter than adults suppose them to be and the best way to attract them is to make sure that the artwork is attractive to myself, first.

And of course, when you are trying to introduce history to kids and teens, a clear outline of the script is a must. Just try to make the script understandable to the target readers and make the images as attractive as possible.

When did you start creating comics? Has this always been your expression of choice?

I created my first comic about three years ago. It was a short one, fan art-related and I posted it on social media. Since then I decided to create a longer comic with a complete plot, since drawing comics is a great way to tell the ideas in my head.

Drawing comics might be an art career for me in the next five years but I'm also willing to try new things, maybe something unrelated to drawing at all. Life is short and we should make full use of it, do different things, don't you think? 

How would you describe your style, and what tools do you use?

I think my line work is smooth and the colour palette is muted and vintage-looking. I use Sai, Photoshop and Procreate. 

How was your MICA course and what are your plans now as a graduate?

The Illustration Practice program in MICA is a great place where I formed and stabilised my art style. The environment, the faculty and my cohorts also helped me to think creatively and independently.

My plan is to make full use of the one-year OPT (optional practical training) in the US and develop my career as a comic artist. 

A guide to the comics of Chendi Xu

Wings Over Himmelslautern

I'd like to approach publishers in the US such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Scholastic and pitch them my recent project, Wings Over Himmelslautern, a YA graphic novel. This comic project derives from a world-building class I took in MICA. I started from the characters and the world-design and then developed them into this story:

After her parents’ divorce, 14-year-old Natalia wants a new life away from her home, a place that brings her unwanted memories. She insists on moving away from her father and visiting her uncle Alfred in Himmelslautern.

Different from the others in town, Alfred lives an isolated lifestyle. He lives in the deep forest and sells aircraft parts and converts functional items, such as a mobile bathtub. Alfred seldom goes to town and he is reluctant to socialise, except visiting an old gas station owner, Steve. Natalia wants to know why but Alfred refuses to bring this subject up.

The snowy mountainous city of Himmelslautern holds an international ski-flying competition every four years and this year there will be one. Natalia is excited and wants to attend. She tries to convince her uncle to join but he refuses, again. Natalia questions his reasons: Why is her uncle avoiding others? What happened to him in the past? She is determined to find out.

The Historian

The Historian
is about the cultural awakening and self-identity of a socially awkward young student, Aamir Erdem. Raised in Germany, he is of Turkish descent. One day at a demonstration, Amir's Turkish college friends question his cultural loyalties.

He decides to figure this out by joining a history exploration trip led by his history professor, Dr. Leon Larroche. The team travels all the way east to Istanbul, the geographic midpoint of the two grand continents Asia and Europe.

The story is about identity issues, personality issues as well as relationship issues of a young person. I just love to bring up the issues we have in the real world, mix them into fiction and see whether I can give an answer. 

The Guardians of the Byzantine Empire

As a companion for The Historian, I made this picture book depicting the renovation history during and after the time period of the Byzantine empire.

This 28-page picture book is actually designed for children because of the cartoony style and the simple language I used. The idea of this book came to me when I was planning the plot and dialogue in The Historian. When Professor Detelois is introducing the history of the Hagia Sophia on the scaffoldings, he assumes all of the students are familiar with the background history of what he’s talking about, which makes sense, of course, since they are all history grads. But how about the reader?

That’s why I made this book as a companion for The Historian. I believe this book has a broader audience, appropriate for both children and adults, while the graphic novel is designed for the target group of YA and older. This picture book is approachable for both comic and non-comic readers in terms of the fact that it requires no understanding about panel-to panel interpretation.

At the Captain's Table

This comic project derives from a character design class I took in MICA. I started from the character and then developed them into a story. The comic is designed for adults and it deals more with life and death, self-discovery and the 'littleness' of human beings. 

At the Captain's Table is about three characters' life choices and destinies. Due to the great depression in the 1930s, life is difficult for ordinary people. Thus, it is a great surprise that a grumpy detective, a depressed clown and a paranoid housekeeper are invited as special guests to dinner at the captain’s table aboard Critamias, a luxurious ship.

However, instead of having fun, the three end up murdered,without knowing the motive of the perpetrator, the captain. All of a sudden, the three come back to life at the captain's table. They realise that they are all dead but they've forgotten about their real deaths, so the captain reveals the situation to them by reenacting their tragedies. They cope with their deaths differently, but one thing’s for sure: they can never go back. 

Follow Chendi Xu on Instagram @pilzpilzchen, and check out her homepage and MICA grad show portfolio. Hopefully you can buy these book one day from her site or in your local bookstore.

Related: 32 comic-drawing tips for artists and illustrators

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