Why does Mark Trail look funny? Did something happen to James Allen?

[Edited 25 September 2020: Good news!  Jules Rivera is taking over the comic as of the middle of October.]

Edited 5 June 2020 to add: James Allen is going to leave Mark Trail sometime soon. It’s not yet announced when, but it is to be before the recently-begun story, about a movie adaptation of an earlier adventure, is finished. It’s not known whether that story will be finished. Allen says the decision to leave was mutual, between him and King Features Syndicate.

I addressed this in a strip caption on Sunday, but I’m aware people are poking around looking for explanations. Particularly since this week and in the new story the art style has gotten cartoony and loose in a way that’s quite an adjustment for Mark Trail. Say what you will for emotional authenticity, but a big part of the comic strip has been that its characters are drawn photo-realistically, which is part of what makes the animal and plant and landscape art count. And then this week, well, here you go.

One kid: 'Rusty, want to be in our group?' Rusty Trail: 'Nah ... I'm going to stick with my dad and help him with his article! Kevin, do you want to tag along with me and my dad?' The non-Rusty kids are drawn slightly bug-eyed and with mouths hanging open not really attractively.
Another point supporting George K Atkins’s hypothesis, mentioned below: the strip has put in a LOT of characters all at once this week. A Mark Trail story always has guest characters, of course, and isn’t always as good about giving them names up front. Someone writing their first story may not understand how to keep the story’s cast to a number, and spread, of people that the audience can follow. Or might understand the principle but not know how to act on that.

So. I do not know with the confidence that I would like just what’s happened. Many commenters on Comics Curmudgeon have reported that James Allen has been taking care of a family member in need. And this has forced him away from the usual studio, so that he’s trying to draw without the usual setup. And, one may imagine, with less time and less ability to focus on the art. Also perhaps the writing, if you thought the conclusion of the Yeti story was an abrupt halt rather than a planned resolution.

This is a plausible and understandable story. What it is not is confirmed, at least to my eyes. I have not seen a comment from James Allen, who would post on the Comics Curmudgeon under the screen name “The Real Mark Trail”, about this. Nor any comment from him in months. Nor have I seen a comment from King Features Syndicate about this. Nor an article on Daily Cartoonist, nor on rec.arts.comics.strips.

On Mark Trail snark-reading blog The Daily Trail, commenter George K Atkins had an interesting hypothesis about this week’s strips particularly. This proposition is that this week has been a strip drawn in-universe by Rusty Trail, who’s been established as very intersted in comics and sharing them online. This would not explain rough patches in the art in the Yeti storyline. But it would be an interesting reason for this week’s art to look so weird, particularly with characters being inconsistent between strips. It would also explain a weird bit Monday where some kids could identify another as “a homeless kid” on sight. We can understand a kid writing a story not knowing how to set up backstory with grace. Or not quite being able to keep a character from sometimes looking like Li’l Funky Winkerbean.

It would be new for Mark Trail to slip into “fiction” without warning the reader ahead of time. But Allen has been trying to add some narrative complexity and nonlinearity to the comic. Pulling back to show Mark Trail reading the comic strip his son created would fit that nicely. And if that is the intention, then it’s well done.

But this is again all guesses. It is not confirmed. All I can say with certainty is, yes, there’s something weird in the art of Mark Trail lately.

Author: Joseph Nebus

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

26 thoughts on “Why does Mark Trail look funny? Did something happen to James Allen?”

  1. The current Mark Trail characters are unrecognizable. The drawing is so bad that even though it has been one of my favorite reads, it is as if someone else is drawing the characters and they don’t know what Mark Trail is supposed to look like. Hard to follow a strip when everyone has had bad plastic surgery..


    1. I haven’t had trouble with the regular characters. The guest characters have been harder, though. I’m bad with names to start with, and rely on identifying hooks. Usually comic strips are great for that, since every character will have a different build or at least a different accessory and I can count on that.

      Again, if I can find any definitive word from Allen, or a representative, I’ll pass it on. All I have really seen are the rumors that get passed around Comics Curmudgeon’s commenters or the like, and I’m not happy with that as my only source. This isn’t to say they’re wrong, just that I don’t have confirmation.


    2. In the last year it has gone from being one of the best drawn to, on Sunday, October 11th, the worst that I have ever seen. A total lack of professionalism. If a proper job can’t be done, it would be more merciful to simply let it go. My days of looking to it ended last Sunday.


        1. I’m sorry you aren’t enjoying Rivera’s work. Perhaps with some more time you might find it more palatable, or she might settle into a style that you find more enjoyable.


        1. Well, I’m sorry you’re finding it so distasteful. Maybe after Rivera’s had a couple months to work out the daily grind of the strip you’ll find the tone a better fit for you.


        1. Now, there, the print does appear to me to be a bit smaller than James Allen or Jack Elrod’s lettering. I don’t think it’s appreciably sloppier, but a slight change — especially in all-caps lettering — can make a big difference in readability. It obviously also depends whether one’s reading in newsprint or on the computer. I still have problems with Comics Kingdom’s web site, but it does provide excellent zooming-in.


      1. I’m sorry that you’re not enjoying it. If you are a Comics Kingdom subscriber, you can read archives going back to the start of December 1999, which is something to enjoy at least. And it may turn out after some time that Jules Rivera’s style settles into something you find more enjoyable. Can’t guess yet.


      2. I completely agree – I would rather have seen the comic strip end instead of how it looks now.

        Just let it die and stop taking up wasted newsprint


        1. Oh, no; cancellation would be worse for the comic strip. Whether one likes Jules Rivera or not, someday she will stop writing and drawing the comic strip. The next writer and artist may be more to your liking. It’s far more likely that the strip will have a next writer and artist if the comic is sustained (or, better, thrives).

          The only comic strip I’m aware of that successfully returned after a long hiatus is Little Orphan Annie, which went into reruns for about five years before the success of the musical stirred demand for new comics. I don’t expect any story strip to be the next exception; so, even a Mark Trail you don’t like is better than no Mark Trail.


    3. It has gone from one of my very favorites to a strip that I will no longer waste my time looking for. As bad as the artwork is, the story line is now worse. Congratulations!


      1. Well, I am sorry that neither the art nor the story are working for you. Maybe you’ll find the strip settles into something more your tastes sometime, and, if not, maybe at least Jules Rivera will keep the strip viable enough that when she leaves for another project, creators more to your liking can resume the strip.


  2. I’ve been feeling for some time that James Allen had got sick of Mark Trail and was intentionally trying to sabotage the strip. The Yeti story was execrable. The orphan story was followed by the Andy Finding His Way Home non story and by that time Allen was obviously trying to get fired. He managed that with his infamous tweet, and now that King’s Features Syndicate are rehashing Elrod era tales we know that they didn’t exactly have a replacement available. Possibly nobody wants the job.


    1. I have trouble believing anyone working the syndicated comics game tries to sabotage their own careers, with the exception of people who’ve gotten into some tiresome contract argument with the syndicate. (The way, famously, Tom Batiuk did with John Darling.) Otherwise, especially for strips like Mark Trail that aren’t artist-owned, it’s easy enough to just not renew the contract, or to ask to be let out early, and it avoids picking up a reputation that might complicate future work.

      The Yeti story certainly ended up a mess, but I don’t know how much of that to blame on the real-life worries that — the story I haven’t been able to directly confirm — had James Allen moving away from his studio and taking care of a sick family member. Not that Allen’s stories had been tightly plotted before, but that kind of big personal problem will screw up anyone’s writing.

      For those not in on James Allens ”infamous tweet”, it’s regarding a pretty lousy and sexist joke, aimed at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that Allen tweeted from the TheRealMarkTrail Twitter account. You can find it discussed some at https://joshreads.com/2020/07/soapy-meta-drama/ and in the comments on http://www.dailycartoonist.com/index.php/2020/06/30/james-allen-and-mark-trail-take-different-paths/ and the Comics Curmudgeon link mentions a weird Twitter feud with a podcaster that seems to have maybe fueled the Yeti storyline. It’s hard to suppose Allen’s leaving mid-story is related to anything else, but that is still supposition.

      I would be surprised if nobody else wanted the job; heck, I think I could probably find two candidates just from my circle of friends, although they might not think they could draw quite so many giant talking squirrels. It’s probably more a matter of finding someone on short notice. Were I running King Features Syndicate I would probably ask Dan Thompson — whose Rip Haywire is pretty near to “self-aware Mark Trail” anyway — if he wouldn’t mind taking over for six months while we look for a permanent creative team. But I fear King Features may figure that reruns will draw about the same reader base anyway, at least in the short run. I hope not indefinitely.


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