Have you ever read a graphic novel and think "Damn! I wish I had drawn that!" That was exactly the feeling I had reading "Illegal." "Illegal" was written Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin and drawn by the EXCELLENT Giovanni Rigano. It is the story of two young migrants from Niger, Ebo and Kwame, who make the desperate trip across the Mediterranean in order to find a better life.
The story alone is fascinating enough. The book opens with Ebo and Kwame stuffed into an under-fueled, overstuffed rubber raft in the middle of the ocean. "Seahawk Inflatable Rubber Dinghy," the narration box states, "Maximum safe load 6 people. Currently carrying 14 passengers." How Ebo and Kwame, two young boys, managed to get from their rural village in Niger to out in the middle of the ocean is an odyssey in itself. The storyline is harrowing. Traffickers abandon them in the middle of the Sahara after taking their money. Street gangs in Agadez and Tripoli try to rob them as they use all their energy to earn money to get to Europe. And for all their suffering Ebo and Kwame are more fortunate than other refugees. They're teen boys and thus less vulnerable to rape. A small, self-contained novelette at the end of "Illegal" tells the story of one refugee woman who had to endure not just starvation and exhaustion on her journey but rape, pregnancy and miscarriage. Ebo and Kwame were at least spared that horror.
For all the terrifying parts of "Illegal" you can't help but admire the sheer resourcefulness of Ebo and Kwame as they make their way towards Europe. Ebo uses a box of wet wipes that fell off a truck to offer skin-cleaning services around the slums of Agadez. Kwame works as a day laborer. Ebo uses his beautiful singing voice to sing at weddings. In this way they collect a little more money each day.
There are a few parts of "Illegal" that made me scratch my head. Unlike refugees from Iraq or Syria, Ebo and Kwame are traveling to Europe for economic reasons only. They are in no immediate danger in Niger, which is a poor but fairly stable country. Why not simply stay in Agadez for a couple of years, earning money, maybe buying a small house, and then travel to Europe by safer means? Like a plane ticket? Why trust the brutal human traffickers who care nothing for your life once they have your money?
The best part of "Illegal" are Giovanni Rigano's illustrations. Rigano evokes a wonderful sense of place with his drawings. It's clear that he did a lot of visual research for "Illegal." Every setting is spot-on. A dusty village in Niger. The inside of a rusty, overcrowded bus going to Agadez. A slum in a North African city. A storm drain in Tripoli. The inside of a jeep filled with desiccated corpses in the Sahara sun. An overcrowded fishing boat filled with refugees. A peaceful underwater view of drowned corpses, small fish nibbling on their dead fingers. Rigano's ilustrations are masterful.
"Illegal" is an amazing book. I cannot recommend it enough.