Eric Andriantsialonina at work in Lake Turkana, Kenya, November 2021. DAWNING | Rafe H Andrews

A Master at Work

A conversation with Eric Andriantsialonina about his creative process.

February 2024

Anywhere he goes, every single day since he turned 23, he carries a self-made sketchbook, a folding chair, a portable watercolor set, and his lucky fountain pen. It is so hot that chickens sit still, and the noises from a welding shop sound like the culmination of a battle, but Eric Andriantsialonina manages to draw a perfect scene in less than one hour, surrounded by a crowd of children who will not relent until they see a final smile from the street magician.

For much of the 20th century, comic books in the West were indelibly associated with adolescent hijinks and superhero fantasies, a far cry from the preserve of “serious” artists and critics. It was not until the 1960s and 70s that comics gained recognition as a form of cultural expression, with the pioneering science fiction of Jean Giraud and the counterculture satire of Robert Crumb.

Landmark memoirs like Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-1991), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000), and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) pushed graphic storytelling further into the mainstream. At the same time, the acclaimed “comics journalism” of Joe Sacco demonstrated the medium’s value to in-depth investigative reporting.

At DAWNING, our work builds on this lineage. We view graphic storytelling as a powerful tool that transports readers to unexpected places: the home of a Maasai herder whose dreams are haunted by lions; a sweatshop in Kuala Lumpur where Bangladeshi migrant workers toil under often fatal conditions; a safe house in Costa Rica where Nicaraguan exiles hide out from the long arm of President Daniel Ortega.

In our non-fiction graphic novels, readers become witnesses where there weren’t any. In the process, they develop more intimate connections with the protagonists of the story–their hopes and struggles, their fears and aspirations–because they suddenly share a common space: the space of imagination.

The person making this possible is Eric Andriantsialonina, also known as Dwa, an award-winning sketch artist and graphic novelist who serves as DAWNING’s director of graphic storytelling. We recently visited Dwa at his studio in Madagascar to ask him about his early inspirations, his artistic process, and what it’s like working with DAWNING. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you first become interested in the visual arts?

I was born in 1982 in a rural town in central Madagascar called Alatsinainy Bakaro, about 70 km [44 miles] outside the capital, Antananarivo. For the first 8 years of my life, we had no running water or electricity.

My parents were both schoolteachers; at the end of each month, they would drive into the capital to collect their salary. I looked forward to their return from those trips because they would bring home comic books, which I mimicked by drawing my own. One of my early influences was Noël Gloesner.

In Madagascar, most people don’t have opportunities to see art at exhibitions. So, I found art on the street, in my neighborhood. People would gather around me when I practiced outside, so I got used to drawing with an audience.

When I was 11, my family moved to Antananarivo, where I was exposed to a wider variety of comics from France and Belgium, as well as Japanese manga. I was also able to attend guest lectures by French artists at the Alliance Française.

Did you always know you wanted to have a career as an artist?

I actually got my master’s degree in economics from the University of Antananarivo and went to work at the Ministry of Finance. One day, I was dispatched to a local jail to see how they were spending their money. While touring the facility, I saw two young inmates playing football in the courtyard. Later that night, I sat down and sketched a story with characters based on those inmates, which later became one of my first published comics. That was when I knew.

How do you approach your work with DAWNING? Is it different from your other projects?

When I’m in the field with DAWNING, I try to draw in situ when possible but it’s hard to capture everything, so I also commit a lot of things to memory. Not just what I see, but also the smells, the sounds, the ambiance, the feeling. Fortunately, even if I miss something, our team captures a lot of field notes and photographs that help later on.

When trying to put a story together for DAWNING, it can be hard to decide which characters and events to focus on since we’ve gathered so much material. The hard part is not the drawing–it’s choosing what to draw. Fortunately, the team is very collaborative, and Raul Roman and the other team members always have a lot of good ideas. What appears on the page is not only my idea, or Raul’s idea. It’s the product of teamwork.

My work at DAWNING doesn’t stand alone either. The graphic novels are in conversation with photography and text in a typical DAWNING piece. When a graphic novel is in this environment, surrounded by incredible photography and in-depth research, a lot of interesting things happen.

Can you demonstrate your process for us, with some illustrations?

Recently, we went to Kenya to investigate how climate change and water crises–both floods and droughts–are affecting the rights of women and girls. We interviewed Mr. James Sindiyo, chief park warden at the Maasai Mara National Reserve, who told us about how Maasai herders have been illegally bringing their cattle onto the reserve to graze due to a lack of grazing land elsewhere.

I drew a rough portrait of Mr. Sindiyo during our conversation in his office. I remember being very tired from all the traveling, and wanting to sleep. So the sketch is not very good, but drawing it helped put his image in my mind and made the rest of the work easier.

When I returned to Madagascar, I read all the transcripts from the interviews and went through all the photographs from the trip. Based on that, I sent Raul and initial idea for a storyboard. This is the first page of that first draft:

Raul then sent me back a lot of detailed notes in a Word document, frame by frame, and suggestions for what to keep and what to add to make the story flow. Sometimes, he sketches out his own ideas to show me what he means:

Based on that feedback, I sent back a second version of the storyboard. There are still a few more things to change, but this one becomes the basis for the final product.

Once Raul signs off on the storyboard, I do the pencil work and send it off to him to see if he has any final thoughts or changes:

Once we agree on the line work, the last step is to add the watercolors. The dozens of graphic novel pages we did for Kenya were all pencil and watercolor on paper:

We can really see from this that it’s an iterative and collaborative process. But also very labor-intensive!

For the project in Kenya, the story had lots of characters and the chronology was pretty complicated, with flashbacks and dream sequences. At certain stages, there were lots of details and nuances to convey, which could slow the story down. Then at other times the story felt too fast, so we tried to include more spaces to slow it down. You need to understand the time, and timing, of the story to build the narrative.

When I first started working with DAWNING years ago, I was a bit nervous. It was a new challenge, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. But I was able to figure it out, and now, it’s just a great opportunity. It continues to be a great challenge because every DAWNING project is different, and they are all complex projects, but now we’re building on everything we’ve learned together.

One thing I really appreciate is the opportunity to work with someone who has a vision of what he wants. Going back and forth with Raul Roman is like a ping pong match. It has helped me to level up my own game as an artist, and hopefully that will help improve our future projects, as well.

Article by Elliot Waldman | Photographs by Rafe H Andrews | Artwork by Eric Andriantsialonina | The photograph of four-year-old Dwa is from Eric Andriantsialonina’s family collection.

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