Review: The Illegitimates collected hardcover (IDW Publishing)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Two main things distinguish IDW Publishing's The Illegitimates: one, the premise of the illegitimate children of a James Bond-analogue and his Bond Girls being recruited as super-spies, and second, the involvement of writer/creator and Saturday Night Live cast member Taran Killam (with Manhunter and Batwoman's Marc Andreyko). Aside from those aspects, there is not much more recommend Illegitimates; it's generally entertaining and a fine diversion for an afternoon, but fails to do anything beyond a surface level telling of the story. I'd read the next volume of Illegitimates, but generally I think the story was not all that it could have been.

[Review contains spoilers]

Illegitimates artist Kevin Sharpe has what strikes me as a "safe" style, reminiscent to an extent of the side of the 1990s we don't normally think of -- characters presented very matter-of-factly, pseudo-animated, everyone of about average height and build, the men muscled and the women buxom, without a lot of shadow or dramatic panel angles, that sort of thing. Compare, for instance, to Rod Reis's recent work on Image's C.O.W.L., with thin lines and lots of atmosphere, a la Phil Noto. Sharpe's Illegitimates work is exactly the opposite.

The twist is that Sharpe's art, fairly sedate on most pages, is punctuated in a couple places by panels of extreme gore, usually heads exploding with much blood, pink-hued brain matter, and eyeballs (there always seems to be at least one eyeball). It's a curious choice by Sharpe, Killam, and Andreyko; the book is not given to excessive violence (plenty of action sequences but no torture or the like), nor really is the James Bond source material that inspires the story -- the Bond movies are more likely to hint at a character's grisly death than show it outright.

Because Sharpe maintains this animated aesthetic, the gore isn't revolting or frightening per se, so much as startling at the outset and then kind of weird. Where the creative team shows our James Bond stand-in Jack Steele's death, the extreme gruesomeness makes the moment all about the blood, not about the fact that we're witnessing the death of the Jack Steele/James Bond. It's a mistake, I think, an exercise in shock over storytelling, and it gives Illegitimates a certain immaturity that also suggests the 1990s.

The art difficulties are a good metaphor for the book's troubles overall. Killam and Andreyko write a James Bond story with most of the expected Bond-ian elements -- not so much fancy technology, but a showy villain with an elaborate plot and an intricate home base, weird henchmen, an MI5-type spy organization. Even when James Bond movies are sometimes campy, the writers play Illegitimates fairly straight, and it likely reads as well as it does despite its flaws because the writers seem to want to respect the source material. But just about everyone in the story is a cliche or a stereotype -- the two leaders of the covert Olympus group, a buttoned-up British "chap" and a Southern-drawling US military man; a macho Southern sharpshooter; an Asian car expert; the super-smart, beautiful-behind-her-glasses nerd girl, and so on, none of whom ever rise above their set roles. Again, there's a good premise here, and no big flaws in the execution, but the final product is surprisingly bland.

Not a whole lot is made of the fact that the five "Illegitimates" are family -- there's no moment when any team members recognize any likenesses amongst themselves. I'm curious about a second volume in part because I wonder if, having now finished with the team's origins, the writers might turn more to the team's interpersonal dynamics (though there's nothing in the first volume that foreshadows this kind of depth upcoming). It is an interesting facet of Illegitimates that, given that the protagonists are related, there's no romantic entanglements between them, which distinguishes this from other team books. I would be curious to see a take on the book where the Illegitimates have to fight side-by-side as family, not just as spies.

Ultimately, Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, and Rod Reis's C.O.W.L. comes to mind again, another book with a genre-bending premise and, in C.O.W.L.'s case, a great execution. I think, if Illegitimates had Reis, I might have had a different reaction -- a little shadow, a little nuance, a little suspense, and then even if the characters were wooden, the whole thing might have felt like it had more depth. Illegitimates is not a bad first outing for Killam, but it reads like a first outing, and hopefully the next will improve on it.
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  1. Have you read Jay Faerber and Mahmud Asrar's "Dynamo 5"? It has a somewhat similar concept--a Superman/Martian Manhunter-esque hero dies and left five kids behind from various infidelities. The twist is that each kid has one of his powers (so one just has laser/x-ray vision, one just shapeshifts, etc). It works in a lot of interpersonal drama since their mentor is the dead father's wife. Also, Mahmud Asrar's art is incredible. I'll probably review it soon.

    1. I'd be interested to read that review.

  2. Co-sign Dynamo 5 - it's another solid book with a similar premise.

    Unrelated note: will you guys be doing a review of the first Future's End Trade anytime soon? Would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

    1. Futures End is most definitely coming up. I'm kind of trying to go through some of my older books that've been hanging around plus read all the supplemental Forever Evil material before I turn to Futures End. I'll get there, though.