“The Cliff,” Drawn & Quarterly’s newly published graphic novel by French artist Manon Debaye, starts shockingly. Two adolescent girls, both at the edge of thirteen, meet near the edge of a cliff on a Monday afternoon. Brandishing a knife that she swings around like a toy, the dark-haired and androgynous Charlie slashes a line in the center of the hands of herself and the fair feminine Astrid. Mixing the other’s blood in their palms, they promise to reconvene on the cliff at the week’s end to end their lives together, timing their deaths to Charlie’s birthday.
The tone thoroughly set in this moment, “The Cliff” is a dark story that joins the ranks of “Lord of the Flies” and “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” in looking unflinchingly at childhood’s twilight. Drawn and colored in pencil, “The Cliff” looks like a children’s book gone wrong, a feeling that only intensifies as disturbing events happen on the page. There are certainly some trigger warnings to discuss, suicide being the obvious, but this is a book that also includes animal death, parental neglect and abuse and bullying, whose inclusion here is both more central and more upsetting than the suicidal ideation of these two young women.
It is bullying that is the largest threat to the one thing we have an immediate investment in: Astrid and Charlie’s friendship, a relationship whose queer subtext is brought to the fore with the yonic imagery that dominates our first meeting of the pair. There’s a push and pull to that investment, as a successful relationship likely means their deaths, but there’s still disappointment and heartbreak as school life breaks their bond. Both are outcasts at school, but while Astrid is a meek target, Charlie has fallen in as the token girl in a group of bullies. Prized for her strength (she’s the strongest of her clique), Charlie is yet constrained by the same threat of exclusion that Astrid suffers. This threat controls Charlie and forces her to fail and even bully her closest friend.
It is in this failure Debaye shows an understanding of the nature of suicide, especially as it exists for the vulnerable children featured here. It is meant to be an escape from one’s miseries, pressure and disappointments. But that escape is only a fantasy, whose nature is encapsulated by a school-hall exchange following a test result. Charlie asks the sulking Astrid why she cares about the test result: death should make it meaningless. Astrid responds “If that’s true, why do you still pretend to hate me?” Despite suicide being a proposed solution to their lives, Charlie and Astrid fail to act with the freedom their escape falsely promises. Is the disintegration of this bond a bleaker truth than the dark aspirations of adolescent suicide? I don’t know, but in witnessing the end of this friendship, I see a pattern resembling one that played out over the course of my adolescence. Perhaps you’ll find something painfully familiar too.
By Manon Debaye
Drawn & Quarterly, 160 pages