“Illegal”, a graphic novel best suited for middle graders and up, aims to remove the political and the “us” versus “them” mentality that is so prevalent in nationalist narratives and sets out to reintroduce the humanity of those less fortunate with whom we share the world.
Written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin
Illustrated and colored by Giovanni Rigano
Lettered by Chris Dickey
This fictionalized tale of the young refugee Ebo – written by Colfer and Donkin and stunningly illustrated by Rigano – conveys an all too true and all too common journey taken by those in search of a better life, and delicately balances its portrayal of despair and loss with hope and love.
In a world ravaged by greed and war, it can be easy to lose sight of the humanity of those from different cultures and backgrounds, or so Colfer and Dunkin seem ready to argue.
For years, images and videos that tell the stories of the refugee experience have poured into Western homes. We have been exposed to news of their exodus from war-torn places and destabilized economies, of their horrific interactions with smugglers, their difficult journeys across deadly terrains, and the hostility rather than welcoming faced in the countries where asylum is sought. Despite this coverage, the stigma surrounding refugees as different, other, and dangerous remains, in large part due to their use as political talking points. Colfer and Donkin thus start this story with a subtle yet direct piece of commentary on this problem.
The single word title, set off-center, to the far right of the cover and presented in a bold yellow that strikingly contrasts with the darkness of the rest of the imagery, is weighty. It offers an arresting juxtaposition with the contents, narrative, and dialogue of the story itself, in which the word “illegal” is never again used so explicitly after the epigraph. The epigraph powerfully enlists the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s quote on the impossibility of a human being illegal. Beyond this, the story instead bravely opts to call the refugees by their true names: survivors, passengers, or, as found on page 57 when Ebo insists in the face of despair that help is certain, simply “people.” Though Ebo speaks this line, “We are people,” with a dangerously youthful naivety, it is no less than the truth. It’s his very youth and naivety that gives his statement its ultimate power.
This message is furthered by the moving depiction of the struggles, indignities, and the pain suffered by those journeying across desert and sea. The story is partially told in a set of flashbacks, and alternates between the desert and sea settings every few pages, with one representing the past (the desert) and one representing the present (the sea), until they converge near the end and move the story forward to an uncertain future.
Even though the journeys embarked upon by Ebo and his companions were full of violence and death, they are largely depicted with a deft artistic hand. This is spectacularly exemplified by Rigano’s depiction on page 76 of the desert crossing by Ebo, Kwame, and Razak, among others. The first panel shows a full caravan of 12 but as the reader continues down the page, that number shrinks panel by panel until the fifth and final, which shows just four survivors. The reader is not explicitly shown death, but instead witnesses the loss of precious life through implication, from a place of safety. To make matters worse for those in the story, the remaining travelers aren’t truly at their destination; they’ve merely survived one set of obstacles with more on the horizon. There is more terrain to be crossed.
The art itself is something to behold. The linework is incredibly detailed, delicate, and intentional, and Rigano employs a color palette that is at once both highly contrasting and incredibly complementary. There are rich cool blues, purples, and the aqua of the misty and freezing sea (the beauty belying its deadliness), which are used in conjunction with the dusty sepias of the harsh desert and the red heat of the unforgiving sun. The spread on pages 82 and 83 beautifully merges the desert and sea palettes through its similar treatment of the scenes, which are awash in the golden rays of sunlight. In other places, such as the spread on pages 68 and 69, there is no mistaking where the protagonists are or what dangers it is they are facing. Although the settings themselves are separate and distinct, the dangers are surprisingly similar: a lack of water and food, vast spaces needing to be traversed, and predatory people ready to harm or take advantage. The characters are sympathetically depicted in their all too recognizable expressions of exhaustion, elation, surprise, sorrow, and desperation.Continued below
In terms of the writing, Colfer and Donkin ultimately offer the reader optimism and hope. Ebo, our 12 year old main character, is portrayed as a young child who at times seems unable to understand the full reality of the world he lives in. Ebo believes in the inherent goodness of people, even when confronted with the worst of humanity, as epitomized by the smugglers. Yet, despite his youth and all that he has seen, Ebo is often the greatest source of guidance, strength, and bravery when situations seem particularly bleak. This is not to say he doesn’t experience sadness, doubt, or hopelessness at times; he simply seems better equipped than others to rise above those feelings when needed.
Although the story is not a true account of any particular migrant, the acknowledgements indicate that the creators spoke with those who have actually made such journeys and used elements of their experiences in order to create a collectively true story. While it would be preferable to hear a story of this nature more directly from those who have lived it and not from a group of Europeans who have not, to their credit, the creators treat the subject with care and respect. They also do include a short comic called “Journey: Helen’s Story,” which is an adaptation of a true experience as told to the charity Women for Refugee Women. Besides this adaptation, the back matter includes a map of Ebo’s journey, a creators’ note, a sketchbook, and acknowledgements.
It’s impossible to determine if a more explicit and graphic telling would have a more lasting impact on readers but Colfer, Donkin, and Rigano were able to powerfully depict loss and tragedy, as well as hope and love, with subtlety and a touch of tragic beauty. In this, they rather wildly succeeded.