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.
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.
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.
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.
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.