When three adventure-seeking friends sneak into a remote, abandoned mine to go cave diving, an unexpected accident leaves them stranded—fighting for survival against the circumstances and themselves.
In Sunlight, Kevin, Carol, and Eva are allegedly fast friends, exploring and cave diving their way from one adventure to the next. When they get details on a flooded mine, they decide that exploring structurally unsafe tunnels while keeping their location a secret sounds like a great way to spend a day. After a night of clubbing, they slip away at dawn, escape an encounter with some creepy hunters, and manage for Eva to get injured before even reaching the mine. Deciding that a deep cut to the leg is nothing to worry about, they bandage her up and begin searching for an entrance to the flooded underwater maze they’ve selected for their day trip.
Rather than find an entrance, they accidentally make one when they fall through some rotten boards, 150 feet down a mineshaft and into some water—without injury, of course. Far from civilization and with no one looking for them, the trio intersperses their survivalist strategies with plenty of bickering, as well as some interludes of dreams and creepy hallucinations. As supplies dwindle, it will take all their combined survival knowledge—and a fortuitous dose of luck—for the three friends to ever see daylight again.
From French writer Christophe Bec, Sunlight presents itself as a survival-thriller, opening with desperate medical attempts to save at least one of the characters rescued from tragedy, the premise and opening tension do hold possibility of an engaging graphic novel. However, this promise falls apart as quickly as the friends’ plans for nice day of diving.
None of the elements set up by the opening feel realized as the story progresses. The emphasis on not telling anyone where they are going is as cliché as it is ill-advised. Considering their supposed experience with outdoor adventures, the characters make a series of bad decisions showcasing how unprepared and uninformed they are about survival. And even the friendships that are intended to be the bedrock of scenes feel strained, with the characters criticizing and insulting each other even before tragedy strikes. Info-dumps about survival techniques are interspersed with clunky bits of backstory as the story delivers little momentum or character development beyond the passage of time.
Despite these shortcomings, the story could still have delivered a somewhat enticing survival story about three people whose sense of adventure far outweighs their own preparedness, but Bec adds a further layer to the narrative by weaving in themes of predatory men and sexual assault. While there are moments when the depictions of sexually aggressive men ring painfully true, the social commentary is handled with the finesse of a sledgehammer, from wandering hands in the early club scenes to a sequence shoehorned into the final act that’s as unexpectedly uncomfortable as it is laughably introduced. When assault is also revealed as the central piece of a character’s backstory, the revelation and implications feel as though they are handled with only the most basic empathy and nuance of understanding.
Run through with choppy dialogue and flat, uncertain characterization—I recognize that some of the issues could possibly be matters of translation rather than Bec’s writing itself, but it’s hard to say for certain. Even with that allowance, any effective moments of storytelling are not enough for this Sunlight to escape the pit of its own flaws.
Bernard Khattou provides the art to Bec’s writing. The black, white, and grayscale palate does deliver some dramatic visuals along with effective use of light and shadow over the course of the story. Unfortunately, the art is inconsistent—one moment conveying the danger of the environment where our characters are trapped, and the next pulling the reader out of the story with facial expressions and bursts of emotion as subtle as the story’s thematic work. Khattou is clearly a skilled artist, and for the most part, the illustrations do their best to carry the story. Page to page, the art is often more enjoyable than the narrative, but when the art falls short it often coincides with the roughest elements of the script, further emphasizing the ways the comic doesn’t work. And the final nail in the coffin is the way the visuals treat the female characters. While not as gratuitous as it might have been, repeated views of undressed female bodies—coupled with the shoddy thematic work—come away feeling more exploitive than humanizing, despite the assumed best intentions of the creators.
Clover Press, the English language publisher, does not provide a specific age rating for this title. However, with strong language, graphic injury, and on-page sexual assault, Sunlight is clearly intended for an adult audience. It’s a stand-alone story aimed at fans of adventure-survival stories as well as thrillers with a slight paranormal edge. Unfortunately, fans of any of those genres or readers looking for comics in translation would be better served elsewhere. There are passing elements to appreciate in Sunlight, but from the flawed storytelling to the final, aggravating twist, the experience ultimately left me both disappointed and upset—neither of which is the mark of a good reading experience. These characters never should have wandered into an abandoned mine, and readers are better off giving this title a pass.
By Christophe Bec
Art by Bernard Khattou
Clover Press, 2022
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: French,