What’s Going On In Mark Trail? Did Mark Trail leave JJ Looper for dead or what? April – June 2019


I’m glad to bring you up to date on the plot of James Allen’s Mark Trail. If it’s later than about September 2019, I can get you more up-to-date with an essay at this link. And if you’re interested in my pop mathematics writing, here’s some more writing about comic strips. Thanks for considering that other essay. Now on with the story.

Mark Trail.

8 April – 30 June 2019.

Mark Trail had a mortal enemy last time we checked in. Not, so far as I’m aware, Dirty Dyer, who we’d last seen practicing his flamethrower skills on a Mark Trail mannequin. This one is J J Looper, supply store owner. Looper has agreed to supply and guide Mark Trail’s search for gold in the Sonoran Desert. But he is a man with facial hair. Stubbly facial hair. The lowest of the low, in the Mark Trail moral hierarchy.

They find some stuff out in the nature. Strange pictograms telling the tale of the last of the Oso Si-Papu, the “Bear from the Darkness of the Underworld”. (There’s like a 40% chance this is a reference to something I didn’t get.) A herd of stampeding javelinas, running through their group. The ocelot that’s chasing after the javelinas, inspiring a stampede. Remember that an important thread in the James Allen Mark Trail is that nature is working very hard to kill you, personally, right now.

Leola: 'The javelinas have babies, that's why they're being aggressive. Like they're protecting them from predators!' (Panel of a javelina grooming her baby.) Looper, laughing: 'Those dumb animals think we're predators?' Meanwhile an ocelot looks over his shoulder.
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 13th of April, 2019. In the fourth panel, Mark Trail tugs at his collar and makes a “guh … yeah, about that” utterance.

The ocelot and javelinas chase each other off. Looper gets back to exposition. He’s heard of the Vanishing Mine. Looper says he doesn’t think Doc’s treasure map is anything. There might be some gold nuggets out there, but nothing much. And if there were, it would’ve been cleared out long ago. But he’ll look at the map, if he can photocopy it, scan it into his computer, and put it away for safekeeping.

He can make some sense of the map. It even seems to point to a spot where Cochise supposedly had a gold mine in the 1870s. So they agree to the expedition I had thought they’d already agreed to and get supplies. Mark, Doc, Leola, and Looper head out for the Chiricahua Mountains. Leola by the way is the widow of Doc’s friend who had the treasure map. I had mistaken her for Cherry Trail last update because I’m very bad with names. One of the things I like about comic strips is how often characters say the name of whoever they’re speaking to. If a comic strip goes two days without doing that I’m lost again.

Leola, sampling a substance: 'It smells like ... honey?' Mark Trail, alarmed: 'EVERYBODY RUN!' They flee a great buzzing swarm of, as Leola shouts, 'AFRICANIZED BEES!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 10th of May, 2019. Hey, do you remember which hilarious 1970s revenge-of-nature movie this was from? The correct answer is: all of them.

They spend a night at the campfire, thinking of what if the gold were real. Looper points out how the four of them could carry back a million dollars in gold. And it would let him get out of this place where, to be honest, he’s always been stuck.

The morning starts off with nice weather, slopes that are less steep than Doc remembered, and an attack by Africanized bees. The slopes being too gentle is a bad sign. Either the terrain’s changed a good bit or they’re not where Doc remembers being. The bees are a good sign, it turns out. In dodging the bees, Mark Trail falls down a hill. When looks up, he sees Skull Mountain, exactly as on the map. And this is lucky. From another angle it might not be recognizable. Looper, who took a couple bee stings, can almost taste the gold already.

Mark Trail is skeptical, noting that even if there was gold, there’s been plenty of time for it to have been taken. Leola talks about the nature of gold rushes, and the mad dashes they inspire. The ephemeral nature of the rush but the lasting effects of the lives changed by it.

Looper, explaining the the rest of his party, in the background, while some woodpecker-type bird perches on a cactus in foreground: 'I don't think it's hopeless at all, Mark. I'm actually quite enthused by the maps you folks have. I'm just telling you part of the very real, sad history of 'gold fever'! By the way, Mark, wasn't it you who urged caution before we got too excited about the possibility of finding the Vanishing Mine!?'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 1st of June, 2019. This panel is, incidentally, representative of a lot of this story. There have been many single-panel strips with the characters in the remote background while we watch animals in the foreground. Some of them even have clear stories of their own. Theres an owl that swoops in to attack a ringtailed cat (it’s a raccoon relative), the 2nd of May. The next day we see the ringtail has chased the owl off. A few weeks later we see possibly the same owl looking all disgruntled. (I’ve lost just which date this happened, but it was later in May. Comics Kingdom has lessened the badness of its redesign, but it’s still too much work for me to find right now. Week at a glance, why is that something they don’t want us to have anymore? What problem does taking that away solve?)

The next day they come across an abandoned mine claim. Leola points out people here must have found gold. Looper acknowledges this, but that sooner or later the mine runs dry, if it produces at all. Mark Trail gets to wondering why Looper is so down on this Vanishing Mine. Looper explains he knows about gold fever and hey, weren’t you as skeptical about whether the mine exists yesterday? It’s a fair question. Mark Trail and JJ Looper have been trading off whether they think they mine exists, and whether there might be anything in it.

But now Mark Trail’s had enough. He admits to Doc not trusting Looper at all, and Doc admits something seems off. What, exactly? … Another fair question. Apart from salivating over the idea of gold he later says he doubts exists, Looper hasn’t done anything suspicious besides be scruffy. But, again, Mark Trail. You know?

Mark Trail, seeing distant storms: 'It's raining hard over there! ... The ground ... it's shaking!' (He thinks: Rain ... drainage basin ... ) Mark Trail: 'Everybody - get to higher ground, quick!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 7th of June, 2019. “I’ll try to punch the floodwaters!”

Anyway, it’s a new day, so it’s time for Nature to try killing everyone again. The method this time: flash flooding. Everyone gets swept up in the suddenly appearing rivers, and the strong currents. Mark Trail’s able to rescue himself and Leola from the river. They find Doc walking in the rain. And Looper? … No idea. The last Doc saw he was running from the flood, and carrying the map. Which … they don’t have a photocopy of?

Doc: 'Twenty-three people died on Labor Day in 1970 due to flash floods in the high contry along waterways below the Mongollon Rim!' Mark Trail: 'I've got a feeling we won't see JJ again ... and NOT because he got washed away in the flood!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 21st of June, 2019. I understand that James Allen wants to get to the next plot point. And he did show some of Mark Trail and company searching for JJ Looper. But it doesn’t get much on-panel time or emphasis. A casual reader can reasonably think they didn’t make any effort to find Looper. I don’t know how much time, or emphasis, should be put on a search that for plot reasons has to come up empty. But at this point, Mark Trail is ready for Looper’s heel turn before the groundwork’s been established. Or plausibly established, the way (last story) it looked like Raul was some bad guy chasing Rusty Trail and Mara. Anyway, those animals in the first panel are coatis, which are raccoon relatives. There are mammals in the Arizona deserts that are not raccoon relatives, I am told by people who don’t seem to be putting me on.

They search for Looper, without success. Mark Trail suspects foul play. And yet — even without the map, there’s hope. Doc recognizes weird rock formations, and a winding path that seems familiar. They climb for higher ground to spot the mine. Maybe also Looper in case he’s actually dead or injured or lost from the storm. Never know. That’s where we stand: atop the hills, maybe in view of a legendary gold mine.

Sunday Animals Watch

What soon-to-be extinct animals and plants have the Sunday Mark Trail panels shared with us recently? And how long is it going to take before we finally destroy them all? Let’s review.

  • The Vaquita Porpoise, 7 April 2019. They’ve got, like four months to live.
  • Tremella Mesenterica (“Witches’ Butter”), 14 April 2019. About five years.
  • The Crest-Tailed Mulgara, 21 April 2019. 28 months.
  • The Vietnamese Moss Frog, 28 April 2019. Like, maybe through lunch tomorrow.
  • Ocelots, 5 May 2019. 40 weeks in the wild, indefinitely in captivity.
  • Wallace’s Giant Bee, 12 May 2019. Three years.
  • Hammerhead Sharks, 19 May 2019. Ten years.
  • Spix’s Macaw, 26 May 2019. In the wild: not since like 1986. In captivity: for as long as they can convince people they’re the birds from Rio.
  • The Arizona State Tree, 2 June 2019. Is a fictional construct anyway.
  • The Indian Giant Squirrel/Malabar Giant Squirrel, 9 June 2019. 18 years.
  • Bombardier Beetles, 16 June 2019. Two years in its native habitat, then it turns invasive.
  • Syndicated Newspaper Comic Strips, 17 June 2019. Died finally when Richard Thompson had to retire from Cul de Sac because bodies suck.
  • Doc: 'Mark, remind me when we get back home to call my old buddy Barney Google!' Mark Trail: 'Why is that, Doc?' Doc: 'Well, it's his birthday, and I just want to call him and say 'Happy birthday, Barney Google'!'
    James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 17th of June, 2019. So a lot of comic strips did a shout-out to Barney Google and Snuffy Smith on the 17th of June, celebrating that comic’s centennial. Most of them were joke strips, so it wasn’t any weirder or more continuity-straining than those strips where the characters stand together to shout Merry Christmas at everyone. Presented like this, at a tense moment in a life-or-death struggle, raises the question: “Hey, Joseph, why didn’t you say anything about Barney Google‘s centennial? You’re the freak who has some 1,150-word essay ready about what Snuffy Smith meant to you as a child.” And to this I can only say: hey, look, a big distracting thing! (I was on a road trip, and I forgot Barney Google‘s centennial was coming up, and I still might write something, so don’t go provoking me.)
  • Hummingbirds, 23 June 2019. For as long as people decorate their backyards with hummingbird-feeder tubes of sugar water, those people will be visited by situationally-unreasonably angry, angry hornets.
  • Formosan Clouded Leopard, 30 June 2019. Till about the next time you brush your teeth.

Next Week!

Oh. Oh. I have some of the happiest words that any snarky comics blogger can have. I plan to look at Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth next week. How well did it go when Mary and Toby explained to Estelle that, in fact, Artheur Zerro was not a world-famous construction engineer and Nobel-prize winning astronaut rock star who’ll be joining her in Charterstone and his private mansion in Gold Monaco — it’s like normal Monaco, except way more elite because it’s made of gold — just as soon as he sends her (INSERT RETIRMENT SAVINGS HERE ONLY IN BITCOIN) in seed money?

Oh man now I want the Mary Worth story where she explains bitcoin scams and I am not going too far when I say so are you.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

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

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