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My first visit to a therapist as an adult happened only three years ago, hounded into the doctor’s office by suicidal fantasies. I felt in no danger of actually hurting myself, but I did feel subjected to an unwanted mindworm that seemed determined to dangle the possibility before me just the same, all day long, compounding an already stressful time. The therapist helped me dig through my mental attic, too long uncatalogued, and recognize the runaway film projector. I could acknowledge it, shelve and label it, and shut it off.
So I feel I know a little, even if only a little and entirely subjectively, about the desire to willfully remove one’s piece from the game board, to just stop playing. And once I had read far enough into gray Folie’s Drop-Out to understand what the title referred to, I recognized it as a place I’d visited myself, in my own way.
I didn’t know I would revisit it when I started reading this comic five months ago, spurred by Leon Arnott’s tweet-link to it, which captivated me with its depiction of one character’s emotion across three panels. I would proceed to read it from the start, past that first jolt of recognition and then across several sittings over several months. My most recent visit coincided — to my surprise — with the story’s conclusion, posted just last week.
(Yes, this means it wrapped up at the same time as Twin Peaks for me, and Twin Peaks also affected me strongly — but I started reading Drop-Out earlier, and so it comes first here.)
Drop-Out presents a structurally simple story of two young lovers on a road trip with a deeply troubling goal. It populates its world with funny animals, including its protagonists: Sugar, naive and broken, a butch and barrel-shaped opossum girl who wants to move past her pain by any means she can. Her girlfriend Lola, a wispy and agender four-eyed tentacle-creature who tucks their head-fronds under a knit cap, wants to save Sugar by feather-gentle and patient redirection, helping her achieve her goal without self-harm.
The story begins when, long marinating in self loathing about her bipolar disorder, and wracked with guilt about losing a loved one to suicide, Sugar discovers joy in the realization that nothing stops her from taking the same route. Practically glowing with electric purpose, Sugar asks Lola to join her on a terminally one-way road trip to the Grand Canyon.
Writing this now, I recall my horror and — I won’t lie — stunned fascination at this raw depiction of self-destructive manic energy. I don’t recall seeing a depiction of suicidal ideation in popular media quite like this, and at the beginning of a long story to boot. I suspected I bore witness to something frightfully real.
Lola agrees to ride along. They don’t say it out loud, but we know from the very start that Lola joins Sugar only to very, very gently guide her back from the edge even while driving towards it with her for days at 70 miles an hour. The fraught pleasure of reading Drop-Out comes through how subtly Folie brings out the characters’ thoughts and motivations, eschewing thought bubbles for dialog and highly emotive character expression. Sometimes whole episodes pass in silence.
And it all looks so good. In spite of the visual restrictions inherent in a story about two people mostly sitting in a car, Folie’s characters always evince a fluid, confident cartooning style that makes them feel so alive, every panel feeling like a real and distinct moment. (I especially loved Sugar’s design, all awkwardness with her Popeye arms and her large, ever-animated face full of crazily serrated teeth, resembling a Muppet come to life in the best possible sense.) The cartoonist clearly hand-lettered the whole work, and manually laid out the panel borders for each episode, making the entirety of every episode feel that much more organic and breathing.
If you don’t mind skipping straight ahead to peek at a climactic scene, look at episode 98, involving a boiling-over of emotion that leads to near-disaster. See how the panel shapes, the page layout, the use of exterior angles serves to build up and then release tension so effectively that you can almost hear it. So good! This happened to be the most recent strip up when I discovered Drop-Out, and it too helped sell me on taking the time to read the whole dang thing.
According to their Patreon page, the cartoonist is scarcely older than Drop-Out’s college-age characters, making me feel lucky to have caught Leon’s tweet to discover a master so early in their career. Even if the comic feels lumpy in places — I don’t mind admitting I may have paged a little faster through the characters’ text-heavy wee-hours contemplation about gender identity, for example — I have nothing but admiration for its honesty and its marvelous use of the medium. I very much look forward to more work from this talent.
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