What Is Going On With Mark Trail?

[ Edited the 10th of June, 2017 to add ] Thanks for coming to me to try figuring out what’s going on in James Allen’s animal-based adventure comic strip Mark Trail. This article’s out of date. Near the top of this link you should find my most recent articles about plot developments in the comic strip.

[Edited 25 September 2020: James Allen left the comic strip earlier this year.  Jules Rivera is taking over Mark Trail as of the middle of October.]

It was a strange interlude between two stories on Jack Elrod’s long-running, epically stodgy, nature-adventure strip Mark Trail. Mark’s son, Rusty, paused from being a homunculus to nap in the yard, and he dreamed of the tens of millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed what would become the Lost Forest. It lasted only a week, not even an eyeblink in story strip times. But this August 2013 sequence signalled important stuff about how the comic strip would change.

'Rusty dreams he is being chased by a carnivorous dinosaur.' And he trips and faceplants.
Jack Elrod’s Mark Trail for the 24th of August, 2013. Drawn and written by James Allen. Now why would you dream about tripping like that? Could it be that Rusty Trail secretly wanted to meet Todd The Dinosaur?

Mark Trail.

For decades now Mark Trail has been a dependable member of the family of comic strips you can’t quite believe actually run. I never read the strip when creator Ed Dodd wrote it. I knew it from Jack Elrod’s tenure. By the 2000s and this decade it had an identity so charmingly square it threatened to be hip again. Mark Trail, square-everythinged nature reporter, would get a call from his editor that there was nature somewhere. He ventured out in some direction where there might be a tree. He would introduce himself to the local women, most of whom I think were named Kelly, by speaking every thought that came into his head. The locals were charmed by Mark Trail’s ever-imaginative choices of which words to stress. And then Mark Trail would find there were smugglers, or poachers, or maybe smuggling poachers, doing mischief to nature. He would punch the bearded among them, and return home with an empty promise to take Rusty fishing.

'OKAY MR RABBIT, OR WHATEVER YOUR NAME IS, YOUR FUN IS OVER!' Rabbit is baffled. 'That's a PET raccoon, and I came to take it home!' 'You've got to be kidding!'
Jack Elrod’s Mark Trail for the 13th of November, 2008. While every word that Mark Trail utters here is completely true and correct it’s still an odd thing to say. I recommend it as a challenge for new actors to make this come out sounding natural.

The dinosaur interlude was a week when Jack Elrod gave his assistant, James Allen, the chance to do what he’d really like. Elrod’s main concern, Allen explained in comments on the Comics Curmudgeon blog, was that the fantasy sequence not go on too long. After all, whatever else Mark Trail might be, it is a strip about nature and how people interact with it. We can learn about the time of the dinosaurs, but we ought not have Professor Challenger-style antics in it. Allen took that, and a lot of thought into what makes Mark Trail, to heart.

He loosened some things up. One of the first things he did was make good on Mark’s promises to take Rusty fishing. (The poor kid’s hopes were often dashed in order to make a new story start with urgency.) Mark would openly hold and even kiss his wife Cherry. Stories became less ruthlessly linear. They stopped reusing or tracing old artwork or at least got better at hiding it. Rusty Trail was drawn to look less like an unsuccessful ventriloquist dummy. Mark’s editor began calling him out on implausible expense account items. Mark sometimes even had internal thoughts.

This has mostly been good for the comic. I admit missing the gleeful moments when a strangely-placed word balloon would suggest the dialogue was taken over by a giant squirrel. Indeed that was one of the iconic jokes to make about Mark Trail this past decade. But it is a good thing to make the easy jokes about the comic harder to justify.

And the stories have gotten more diverse, and less ruthlessly linear. A storyline earlier this year started with human trafficking, discovered by its effects on wildlife that were under observation. And it didn’t proceed to the inevitable conclusion of Mark Trail punching someone: Mark and his companions got caught in a cave and preoccupied with finding their way to safety. The triggering smuggling, as best I remember, went unresolved. You never saw that in the day, but it’s interesting to have it happen.

The storyline just concluding began with an actual honest-to-goodness flashback. Yes, people in normal media wonder what could be interesting about that. But that’s a literary technique unknown in story circles. And it was run immediately after Mark’s escape from the cave, without the traditional pancake breakfast that signals the start of a new story.

'I'm sorry something bit you, Darling!' says Honey, and then they go kissing on the beach. Meanwhile in the way foreground an ant climbs off their firewood onto a remote Pacific island.
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 2nd of July, 2016. A flashback set “two years ago” as Darling and Honey bring to a beautiful Pacific island the untold doom of something like normal human affection! Or it would be the doom except …

And it had great promise as the story started. It wasn’t about anyone particularly trying to do mischief to nature. It started with a couple that unintentionally brought ants to a Pacific island, ants now overrunning the local fauna. It’s the sort of honest, small-scale nature story that happens all the time and makes you wonder if humans shouldn’t just give up on this outdoor stuff since we’re clearly no good at it. And it included a great bit, albeit one run too long, when Mark Trail’s editor refuses to authorize his renting a boat to examine the island. The last few storylines included boats in Mark’s care getting blown up. Is the world ready for a self-aware Mark Trail comic? We’ve got one, ready or not.

So here’s the thing. Mark got an abundance of good evidence of the invasive ants and what they’re doing to the wildlife on the island. And it would be one more of those terrible little tragedies. Except that we might argue there’s no harm done. The past couple weeks the island’s been blowing up as the volcano returns to life. It’s exciting stuff, but it wipes out the whole storyline about humans unintentionally damaging nature.

Abbey and Mark Trail call each other's names while the island they're on blows up, catches on fire, sinks into the ocean, and everything else happens.
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 26th of November, 2016. Now there’s really no blaming the ants, or Honey and Darling, for the island tearing itself up. This is the sort of problem you need the starship Enterprise to drop a science thingy into a volcano for.

It reminds me of many Lost World-style stories in which a band of explorers comes across a strange, wondrous land, has some adventures in it, and then flees as the land destroys itself. It particularly reminds me of great yet awful movies like Lost Continent or First Spaceship On Venus, the first of which I think Allen has mentioned as liking. And that’s fine, although it does remind me that the previous story, the human-traffickers one, turned into an extremely long slog through an enclosed cavern. Mark and company found all sorts of wonders of nature, but escaped with their lives ahead of an earthquake and its aftershocks. The cave, who knows if its natural wonders will survive? A previous story had a grove of trees saved from spreading blight by a massive wildfire burning up the infected trees and making enough of a clear path that something might be saved.

There’s an unsettling pattern here. One is this motif of people finding a wondrous land as it’s destroyed. Another is this: Nature? That stuff is gonna kill you. Something’s awry when Mark Trail is making a good case for staying in bed with the windows covered and the air conditioner puttering all day.

I doubt James Allen is trying to push a stay-inside-for-your-own-sake agenda here. I suspect he’s just caught up in the fun of telling adventure stories and trying to avoid poaching smugglers. And enjoys the slightly obsolete genre of wilderness-explorer action-adventurers so thoroughly that he’s letting the less reputable parts of the genre in. (Edge of Adventure, his and Brice Vorderbrug’s weekly strip on Gocomics.com, is nothing but this sort of wilderness adventure.) But this is why Mark Trail has been a different and more action-packed strip lately.

The Sunday installments have been miscellaneous illustrations and facts about animals, as they have ever been. Allen has a fondness for insects and deep-sea creatures that send me hiding under the covers, especially when they’re lushly illustrated. But he’s absolutely right to be featuring that stuff in a Mark Trail Sunday installment.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose one point in trading today. Investors had no particular plans after the successful merging of the mainstream and alternate, or as the alternates put it, the alternate and the mainstream indices. They just wanted to get through a day without anything weird happening and they did. And they’re not falling for the bit about that being the strangest thing of all.


Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

21 thoughts on “What Is Going On With Mark Trail?”

    1. Well, yeah, you’re right. Allen does have some pacing problems. I can get behind the big action climax of a scene taking up time; after all, a volcano explosion that isn’t at least a bit too much isn’t a volcano explosion. But he did take a frightfully long time getting past the Mark-can’t-rent-a-boat thing and renting a helicopter instead. I think Allen may not realize when he’s essentially writing for the trade publication instead of the daily reader.

      The grass, well, that’s not his fault. For reasons best known to some mad jester, daily comics — particularly from King Features Syndicate — are not colored by the original artist. Or even under the direction of the original artist. (There are exceptions, such as Wiley Miller of Non Sequitur or Bill Holbrook of Like Seventeen Daily Strips Somehow Does This Person Even Sleep.)

      Just who does the coloring is shrouded in a curious secrecy. The joke is that it’s done by Korean wage slaves who can’t read the text and are forbidden from learning what they are coloring in. And it’s hard to say the joke is false, not when something doesn’t match the color of the thing given in text. I remember one Barney Google in which Snuffy Smith complained the Wanted poster of him was in black and white, and sure enough, the poster was colorized.

      So, we’re probably doing well that the grass is at least a color that appears in actual grass.

      The outright stupid coloring scheme does produce some embarrassing fiascos, some of which are coming up this month. If the cartoonist, designing for black-and-white, uses a patch of black to denote some solid and strong color, such as a solid blue pool of water or a red Santa Claus suit, the colorist is helpless. Apparently recoloring the solid black patch is prohibited, so in the summer Hi and Lois visits the beach beside a dark-black oil lake. And in December they visit the mall’s Santa Johnny Cash. It’s all funny but so very much unintended.


      1. Maybe I’m just an old fart, but in my opinion James Allen has ruined the Mark Trail strip. The story lines are dull and drag on for weeks. You rarely see Andy anymore, and Mark’s editor, Bill Ellis, has been written out of the strip. The characters don’t look like those from the Jack Elrod days….Rusty is often looks like a droopy-eyed nerd. And, he didn’t call Mark “Dad” back then either. I miss Mark punching out the bad guys too! Wish someone else would take over drawing the strip.


        1. While I do miss the reliability of Mark Trail punching out some poaching smugglers every few months, for the most part I’m happy with the places James Allen’s gone with the strip. Making Rusty less of a nightmare, particularly, is a good direction. That Mark can have internal thoughts and even scheme in his delightfully square way I think’s an improvement too.

          The stories do drag, though. I hadn’t paid conscious attention to it until starting to do these What’s-Going-On-In summaries. I check in on any strip about once every three months. It’s disconcerting how many times I’ve had a summary that just continued, rather than concluding, the same story that had been in progress at the previous summary. There are a lot of strips about traveling to a place, rather than doing something there.

          I’m torn on the tendency of characters to break into these little shaggy-dog side stories. The punch lines rarely land, for me, and they slow the main story down. But they do help Allen keep the stories from being too relentlessly linear, and that’s worth something.


    1. I don’t have an official story, no. The word that has been passed around on Comics Curmudgeon has been that James Allen has had to move in with an ill relative, and is working without his usual studio, and that’s taking time to adjust to. If he’s switched from physical to digital media, particularly, then I fully understand taking a long time to get up to speed. That transition is harder than people credit it for being.

      The “orphans on a camping trip” storyline has prompted a hypothesis that I find convincing, that what we the readers are seeing is actually a comic strip created by Rusty Trail. This makes the irregular art and scattershot plotting a strength, if this is true and if we get the revelation that we’re watching an in-universe fiction. So far, of course, there’s no in-strip reason to suppose that, other than the desire to think that all this is part of a plan.

      I’m sorry to not have more definitive word, but I will post Mark Trail news as I get it.


      1. Good guess! I hope it’s true. This artwork, though, looks like completely different artist with totally different school of training. The art is so painful to look at, that I probably won’t try to bear its ineptitude for very long. I always loved the detailed forest creatures who showed up in the foreground, and now it seems designed for 3 yr old approval.


        1. I’m sorry to say that this story turned out not to be an in-universe fiction; the art issues just reflected, apparently, James Allen having trouble producing strips the old way. (I had heard rumors of what happened but not anything from a primary source.)

          And, of course, now we have an entirely new artist. I can understand someone not caring for Jules Rivera’s style (but would, always, ask for some time to see whether it grows on you). But one could not fault her technical skill.


    2. The quality started to slip when Jack Elrod passed away in 2016. When James Allen took over the strip, I picked up on a few things he changed. I’m sure it’s difficult for another cartoonist to draw characters exactly like his predecessor, but the last few weeks have been terrible. Mark’s dog, Andy, has virtually disappeared from the strip. Also, Doc and Cherry are not as prominent as before. Rusty was an orphan if I remember correctly, and he used to call Mark and Cherry by their names, but now calls Mark “Dad.” Long time readers know Mark used to routinely cold-cock the bad guys, but that rarely occurs anymore. Finally, the story lines drag on incessantly and sometimes leave me hanging. The most recently one about the professor obsessed with finding the Yeti, they never properly ended that storyline. Did he survive or not?


      1. Well, the strip changed some with James Allen taking over the whole thing. Some of the changes are certainly improvements, such as stories that run a bit less linearly, and that make it harder to guess from the start what peoples’ roles are. The adventure in Mexico, for example, had Rusty Trail and whats-her-name pursued by a guy on a bike who was posed as a menace, but was actually just a cop who thought these kids were making his life harder. I doubt anyone could seriously complain about that.

        The storylines dragging on, though, I agree I don’t like. There’s been a lot of meandering the last several stories, and not the good kind where it feels like we’re meant to enjoy the mood of people in an interesting spot. It’s felt rather like Allen hits a point where he isn’t sure how to get from here to the ending, and tries to vamp while something turns up. This isn’t a unique problem to Allen — the Thimble Theatre reruns on Comics Kingdom show off how much time Elzie Segar spent spinning wheels to no point — but it really stands out when the climax doesn’t seem to satisfy things.

        The Yeti story, I agree, had a really poor ending. I believe we’re meant to take it that Camel died, but that it’s left just open-ended enough that if Allen has a really good idea for a follow-up story there’s room to make that not-impossible. But, as I’d said in the plot recap for that storyline, I never felt confident that Allen had decided what the truth of Camel’s backstory was, and that made what should be some pretty good revelations, about his childhood Yeti encounter and Genie’s debunking of it, not land as well as they should.

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