Review: Illegal (Hodder Childrens)

Having successfully adapted the Artemis Fowl series into graphic novel format, writer Andrew Donkin and Eoin Colfer have teamed up again with Italian artist Giovanni Rigano to bring us Illegal, a poignant story about economic migrants and the lengths to which they will go to achieve a better life in Europe.

Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books
Writer: Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin
Artist: Giovanni Rigano
Price: £10.99 from Amazon

Illegal begins with 12 year old Ebo and his brother Kwame adrift in a boat on the Mediterranean. Along with a dozen other African economic migrants they are packed into a boat which shouldn’t carry that many people and have run out of petrol in the middle of the med.

The story then cuts back and forth between the brothers perilous time on the raft and the reasons behind why they are there in the first place. We start with the humble beginnings in their village where they are inspired to go and find their fortune in the big city (like their sister). When Kwame leaves without telling Ebo, his younger brother follows him to the big city and while working as a singer they cross paths once again. Reunited, they risk everything crossing the desert before finally getting on board the fateful boat and setting sail for Europe.

Writer Andrew Donkin and Eoin Colfer are in very different territory to their work on the Artemis Fowl graphic novel adaptation. However the strong working relationship they forged on those books reaps rewards here. The book is wonderfully written, building the brothers’ story scene by scene and making it feel as if it could be a true story even though it is fictitious.

The relationship between the brothers is the heart of the story and the reason the book is so readable. While the subject matter is harrowing and all too real, the relationship and the banter between the brothers gives the story a lightness that stops it being too intense. But also allows the more serious moments room to breath and have the potency they deserve, as you genuinely care about what happens to them.

The artwork from Artemis Fowl collaborator Rigano is an equally essential part of this fantastic book. It has the polish of a mainstream book, but with the subtlety and range of an indie, or even a band designée. Superficially it reminded us of John Romita Jr’s work (especially on the most recent Kick Ass series) with its squarish faces, hatch based shading, and almost pencil like finishing. However it has a much lighter and more sensitive tone than that comparison might suggest and is is not as stylised as some of JRJR’s more recent work.

Rigano’s work  brilliantly balances the simple quiet moments of the brothers in a boat or working at a wedding, with the epic scale of their journey. The story is told with relatively simple panel structures, which allows the double page spreads of deserts, city or the foreboding sea the chance to really have room to make an impact – and Rigano’s artwork really steps up to the plate when required. The colours range from the cold blues of the sea to the warm yellows of the desert and give each location a richness of atmosphere that sucks you into the story.

Illegal manages to make a very serious subject into a very readable and enjoyable graphic novel. But one which will also leave you contemplating the incredible and arduous journey which these people undertake. While it may have flown under the radar of many comics fans as a result of Colfer’s association with YA fiction and Artemis Fowl, and because it was published by Hodder Children’s book rather than a comics publisher, but this is the kind of graphic novel that should appeal to readers of all ages and deserves to cross over from the comics nice into mainstream appreciation. This will certainly go to the top of books we recommend to non-comics readers looking to get into graphic novels or comics fans looking for something different, but engaging and thoughtful.

Illegal is a poignant and powerful story, which is beautifully told with some truly stunning artwork. A book that will make you appreciate the comfort of your own life and the extraordinary lengths to which some people will go to obtain something similar.