A Leap Of Faith: gray Folie’s Drop Out

Note: gray Folie’s name is spelled with a lowercase “g,” and they use they pronouns.

There’s simply nothing else out there quite like comics newcomer gray Folie’s bracing webcomic Drop Out. In their ongoing story about two girlfriends on a road trip to the Grand Canyon where they plan to kill themselves, gray utilizes a limited cast, set, and props and an expressive cartoony style to full, powerfully emotional effect. Drop Out plunges deep into gender, mental illness, addiction, and the legacy of abuse, and asks hard questions about what it means to love a person and make yourself vulnerable to them.

Sugar and Lola stop for the night.

As gray Folie establishes in the first few pages, Sugar (who is, this being a Furry comic, a hybrid tarsier/sugar glider animal-person with luminous, mismatched eyes), confides in her girlfriend Lola (a lanky, long-snouted, and four-eyed nonbinary “snail fur” – more on that later) that now that she’s completed her second-to-last semester of grad school, she’s ready to kill herself. Sugar has her heart set on leaping from the Grand Canyon, where her cousin once did the same, because she’s “broken” and exhausted by feeling that way. She proposes Lola join her suicide road trip for several reasons – because she sees Lola as similarly broken, because she’s worried about leaving them behind, and because she thinks that it will be romantic – and Lola hesitantly agrees. And so, they are off on a 40-hour drive towards a final destination that is increasingly anything but certain as each hour passes.

The pair’s choices about how they want to experience their final hours – Sugar choosing to leave her medication at home, Lola deciding to give up on sobriety, what they decide to confide in or ask of each other – lead them in a sort of dance together. They move in closer and spin away, reaching out and turning away in turn; sometimes in step and sometimes colliding painfully. With each attempt we learn more about who they are, why they care about each other, and what brought them to this point, as well as what they’ve held back from each other over the course of their relationship. And with each scene the suspense of the story grows – not just “will they make it to the Grand Canyon before Sugar’s alibi runs out?” and “will they both really do it?” but also, “can they truly connect with each other before it’s too late, and can love be enough to change their minds?”

Sugar persuading Lola to open up over a meal at a diner.

Between gray Folie’s bold character designs, skillfully depicted facial expressions and body language, and breathtaking coloring, the world of Drop Out feels solid and fully-realized. The comic is drawn and colored digitally in Paint Tool SAI, and each “page” is as long as feels right for the scene (in a way that’s only possible in a webcomic). gray Folie’s ear for dialogue that flows naturally, yet also conveys a great deal of information about characters’ mental and emotional states, makes for an engaging read.  Not just that – their writing gets your gears turning, and rewards close rereads. The complex dynamic of Lola and Sugar’s relationship is enriched by a series of symbolic motifs and tiny visual details that are easy to miss the first time around (watch their eyes closely!). But as their destination approaches, and their suicide pact becomes more and more real, each tiny moment takes on a profound weight as we search for answers for what each character really wants.

Drop Out is essentially about an unhealthy relationship between two “damaged” people who genuinely love and look out for each other, in spite of, or maybe because of the damage they’ve experienced in life. Lola and Sugar are characters we rarely get to see in fiction, and if we do we get flat and unsympathetic caricatures. For those reasons, gray Folie’s empathetic portrayal of self-destructive, mentally ill lesbians with nonbinary gender identities feels not just refreshing but urgently vital for all the very real humans out there who share those traits. And the road trip genre, with all its potential for meandering conversations and late-night heart-to-hearts, is the perfect match for understanding these two girlfriends.

Sugar has a meltdown over a past breakup.

As Lola jokes, “We’re opposites!  You know what they say about – opposites.”  She and Sugar embody a wide range of complementary concepts, from their visual designs, to their personalities, to their expressed reasons for joining the suicide pact (“we’re broken” vs “why not”). Fuzzy, soft Sugar is the easiest to read with her huge expressive eyes, toothy mouth, and sudden mood swings, and she physically dwarfs the twiggy, smooth-skinned Lola, whose two independent sets of eyes often give us the only hint at what she’s actually feeling and thinking. But these character designs are more than skin deep – in this Furry alternate universe, the dietary demands encoded into their bodies have a far-reaching cultural impact. Sugar, who is an obligate carnivore (meaning she can only eat meat), struggles with a complicated self-hatred over being a “predator.” Her loathing of her traits she sees as dangerous and selfish – being “big” and “sharp” and “mannish” – share a clear connection to her lesbian identity, her conflicted relationship to gender, and her existence as a mentally ill person with psychosis.

Sugar avoids her reflection while dressing.

Lola, on the other hand, is a plant-eater related to snail furs: the tiny creatures that cling to the shells of hermit crabs. While this knowledge is not directly referenced in the comic (gray instead providing it for curious readers commenting below), her biology holds a logistic and metaphoric weight in the unfolding events. We see them at first as a passive kind of person, who waves in currents rather than resisting them, and lets themselves be led by Sugar onto the trip. They have no nostrils, ears, or even real feet – as they joke, “I think you’ll find I’m lacking in many areas” – and also share the snail fur’s powerful ability of regeneration, beginning the story with clear scars on their torso that have almost all faded away by the next morning as they set off. What does this design choice mean in the context of a character who’s undergone emotional and physical trauma? If the wounds themselves can be knitted over in hours, did they never matter or cause her pain? Lola floats in a numb apathy in response to the trauma they’ve experienced, either deflecting from their past and present pain with humor or seeking to erase it with drugs – but somewhere beneath the surface, that pain remains.

For these reasons, Lola and Sugar can be read as two extreme ways a person’s mind, personality, and choices can be shaped by trauma. Both characters are familiar with a hideous tapestry of pain; the trauma of long-term childhood abuse, the trauma of emotional neglect, the trauma of grief, of losing a loved one to suicide. Through the girlfriends’ conversations and interactions with others along the trip, gray Folie explores the far-reaching and overlapping harm that homophobia, sexism, transphobia and transmisogyny, and ableism inflict on those outside cultural ideas of “normal.” As the story progresses, they dive deeper and deeper into into what happens when the people you trust are threatened by whatever kind of ambiguity you represent to them; how forcefully they can reject you from their world, and the long legacy this pain leaves behind.

Lola reflects on her childhood in foster-care in the backseat.

A sidebar: Race can be a complex and often badly-handed subject in Furry comics, and gray Folie (who is white, like me) attempts to avoid those pitfalls by “coding” their characters with real-world cultural cues woven into the dialogue and background details. Lola’s spectacular dreadlocked gummy-worm hair is the most obvious in-comic example, and gray Folie goes further to establish in behind-the-scenes info that that their Furry “species” do not equal different races or cultures (i.e. Lola’s fellow snail furs aren’t necessarily black or have hair that dreadlocks).  While I appreciate the subtlety of this kind of world-building, the concept of race here is so complicated (especially for readers unfamiliar with Furries in general) that I think the story itself could benefit from more direct references to race and cultural dynamics.

Those issues aside, when it comes to these dynamics in-comic, there’s a real tension in the power imbalances between the pair: Sugar being middle-class and educated, not obviously non-white though she is mixed-race white and Latina, and generally read as a cis woman, while Lola is a Black nonbinary person who cannot easily pass as cis, has no money, and comes from a background in foster care.  One of the heaviest questions hanging over Drop Out is whether Sugar really gave Lola a choice to say “no” to the road trip when, as they point out, they’d be made an incredibly vulnerable person without a place to live if Sugar had left them behind to go kill herself … and might even ultimately be blamed by Sugar’s parents.

Overall, Lola and Sugar’s individual experiences have a solid feeling of truth to them, in part because gray Folie writes from their own experiences as an intersex lesbian, but also because they are a damn good writer. Drop Out captures how fiercely both characters struggle to figure out whether they really want to walk this fatal path, whether they should let things lie at this point or try to open up and release their secrets, and how to do right by each other. Lola and Sugar’s unique voices, mannerisms, personalities, and histories each bounce off the other in deeply compelling ways. The push and pull between their mirrored responses to trauma – Sugar despairing that “I’m always too much” and Lola confiding that “I’ve never …. been enough” – is symbolically rich, yes, but also honest in a very real way.

Sugar and Lola discuss nonbinary gender.

Drop Out takes an unflinching, unromanticized look at the desire to die, and at the tiny cruelties and kindnesses a suffering person can share with those they care about the most. In choosing to make this fateful journey together, both Sugar and Lola are desperately searching for a way out of the structures of “normalcy” that continuously punish them for not being straight, cis, white, and mentally healthy. While Sugar seeks a radical, dramatic explosion of her restrictions, and Lola desires more to dissolve and melt into nothingness, both are in agreement that it isn’t right that they have to suffer in the ways they do. Suicide in its way is an answer – not a good answer, or an easy one, but the most final one they have. Whether they will both choose to take it has yet to be seen (as of writing this article Drop Out is almost complete), but the hours to make that choice are running out.

These are heavy topics intertwined with heavy emotions, and it’s for sure a heavy read. But Drop Out is bittersweet story well worth the pain – not some grim march of misery, but a heartfelt expression of love that we rarely get to see honored in media. Lola and Sugar’s dynamic is so fascinating, so flawed yet loving, that I hang onto their every word. Each moment of connection, of honesty no matter how brutal, each teasing joke, all feel magnified and vivid in the context of this final trip. Despite everything, I’m rooting for them to break through to each other and heal from some of the damage that’s been done to them over their lives, hoping against hope that they’ll both walk away from the Grand Canyon together, alive and happy. But whatever their destinies will be, I know for certain that neither of them will complete this journey unchanged.

 

2 Replies to “A Leap Of Faith: gray Folie’s Drop Out”

  1. Oh, wow. Longtime Drop Out reader here, it is all of this and more. To those interested, now is a great time to pick it up: gray had initially planned the comic to run “about” 100 pages, though it’s pushing that with the end of the current scene and the presumably “final” one to follow. It’s still updating if you’re the type who likes to follow in realtime, but with a good, established backlog to get you immersed in a first read-through. (Trust me you’ll want to re-read it at least once, probably before it’s even finished.) And gray is ridiculously diligent with the update schedule; if I recall, they haven’t been late or missed an update since maybe once in the first 10 pages. Once a week, every week, plus an extra page at the end of the month thanks to their generous patreon goal.
    The nature of the plot means that the suspense is killer as the planned end of the story approaches, and the consistency of that update notification is morbidly bittersweet- good or bad, they’re getting closer. In the meantime, the breadth and the nuance of issues that come out conversationally between the two characters is incredible. It leaves you wanting more, wanting to know more, hear more, learn more and yet, just like in life, the moment’s passed naturally and they’re onto something else. Rather than going for flashbacks or other obvious exposé, a dedicated reader can go looking and find further context in the companion side comics about the characters the artist has done. But, Drop Out stands on its own as a deeply intimate character-driven journey narrative.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on Drop Out, Dominicus (this is Laurel, the writer of the above article)! C: Your message is beautifully put and I couldn’t agree with it more (and great point about the side comics which I forgot to mention!). As I write this now, Drop Out is officially FINISHED – and what an ending it was. I personally was moved by and satisfied by it, and I hope you were too. There just really aren’t many comics or works of art like Drop Out, and it makes me so happy to see what a dedicated and passionate readership gray has! I’m very much looking forward to their neck project.

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