My answer is long. Let me defer it until after the plot recap. This plot recap should get you up to speed for mid-November, 2020, and the start of Jules Rivera’s tenure on Mark Trail. If you’re reading this after about February 2021, or if there’s more Mark Trail news, you might find an essay at this link more useful.
Also! Remember that Comics Kingdom survey? It hasn’t come to anything yet. But D D Degg, at Daily Cartoonist, reports how Comics Kingdom is doing a Flash Gordon Anthology strip. Flash Forward started this past Sunday. It’s in honor of the 40th anniversary of the movie, and they seem to have forty artists lined up to do stuff. I don’t know whether it’ll have an ongoing story. If there is one, I’ll try and do plot recaps.
Last, my A-to-Z of mathematics terms resumes this week on my other blog. Would you like to see me say something about velocity? The answer may surprise you.
23 August – 14 November 2020.
When I last checked with Mark Trail, it was a Jack Elrod-era rerun. I did not know when it was from. I’ve since learned. The story ran from the 13th of March through to the 29th of May, 2001.
And, now, a content warning. The story features a pet — Andy the dog — being harmed. He comes through it fine. But you folks who don’t need a pet-harm story in your recreational reading right now? You are right. I’ll put all this text behind a cut and we can catch up with the first Jules Rivera story.
[ Edit: I turn out to have overestimated my ability to just put a couple paragraphs behind a cut. Well, I tried. Zip ahead to the horizontal rule and resume reading from there if you want to skip the pet-harm stuff. ]
The Trails had adopted Tabby, an abandoned cat. Andy the dog took up the task of watching her. They’re exploring the forest. A pack of wild dogs that have been in the area catches them. Andy fights them off, but is wounded and exhausted by the fight. The confused dog, with the cat following close by, gets out of the rain and into a deer trap.
This turns out to be dumb good luck. They’re sheltered from the storm, while Mark Trail assures his family that the missing pets “will be here when it stops raining”. When they don’t appear for several days Mark Trail sends out lost-pet notices. A ranger finally checks the deer trap and finds the lost pets.
Tabby’s all right, but Andy is in awful shape, being weak, hungry, and having lost a lot of blood. The vet diagnoses Andy with a fever and pneumonia, and that it’ll take time to know if he’ll recover. Mark Trail determines to stay nearby, waiting for news.
This has professional implications. The Conservation Awards dinner is coming up in a few days, in New York City. Mark Trail is nominated and his editor, Bill Ellis, is sure Mark Trail will win. But he can’t win if he doesn’t attend the dinner, because that’s what the publishing world was like in 2001. Woods and Wildlife owner J R Williams orders Mark Trail to New York. Mark Trail refuses, and Williams fires Mark Trail.
There’s some good news, though. Andy’s fever breaks, he’s hungry again, and the veterinarian says he’s ready to go home. It’s possible he could get to New York City that night, but he won’t go. They watch the Conservation Awards on TV, because that’s what television programming was like in 2001.
And everything keeps turning up Milhouse. Yes, the rules call for a person to be present to accept the Conservation Award. But Mark Trail staying with Mark Trail’s sick dog exemplifies their values better than attending would. So the committee gives Mark Trail the award, in a unanimous vote. And, with a newly-certified award-winner, Williams calls to apologize and say he was wrong. And asks Mark Trail to stay with the magazine. And take more money. You know, like we all dream will happen to us someday. But with the 10th of October, this story — and the one Jack Elrod reprint we’ve gotten — concludes.
Jules Rivera’s era started the 12th of October. The glow of the Conservation Awards has worn off. Mark Trail hasn’t had a real assignment in three months. Mark Trail’s trying to record nature videos, although Mark Trail’s natural squareness is getting in the way. (Though from what we see, I could see Mark Trail fitting an Internet Niche like the Raccoon Whisperer.) Bill Ellis finally e-mails, which shows you how different things are.
Not with a Woods and Wildlife assignment, though. For Teen Girl Sparkle, one of their new sister magazines. Teen Girl Sparkle editor Amy Lee is a chirpy, bright-eyed, fox-centered Millennial(?)/Gen-Z(?) person. She’d like Mark Trail to go to Florida and investigate Happy Trail Farms. She says the name, and we see Mark Trail flashing back to a figure in the rain, running away from a building. He pulls himself together to pretend he never heard of them.
Happy Trail Farms, founded by Marcus “Happy” Trail III, from a suspiciously-named line of “famous nature dudes”, makes trail mix. Neighbors claim Happy Trails is stealing their land, using it for farm runoff. Mark Trail says he’s taking the assignment despite obviously being freaking way the heck out. Mark Trail goes for a walk, thinking whether Mark Trail can even take this job.
In town, Mark Trail’s reverie — “tell Cherry everything. Tell Cherry just enough. Break my silence. Or break my ethics” — gets interrupted by Kelly Welly on a motorbike. Welly had been a regular rival of Mark Trail’s at Woods and Wildlife. Welly also had been a sometime rival of Cherry Trail, flirting with a Mark Trail who had no idea how to respond to their appeals. They never appeared during the James Allen run.
They look different, too. Kelly Welly explains how they ditched Woods and Wildlife and because a nature personality. They show off their popular-looking Instagram. I don’t know if this made King Features open an extra Instagram account. Welly’s stopping in town for a coffee on the way to “a job in Florida”, though. The visit spurs Mark Trail to action, and committing to the job.
Mark Trail goes to Florida first. Cherry and Rusty will follow later, when they can. And Pops? Cherry says he “has to stay here and take care of the animals”. But Pops admits Cherry has to “clean up my mess”, too. Cherry thinks of some unfinished business and looks at a picture of Gator Golf mini-golf, thinking, “the gals called. They need me”. What is its significance? We do not yet know.
Sunday Animals Watch!
As best I can tell, none of the reprinted Jack Elrod Sunday strips were from 2001. I don’t know when they are from and admit it doesn’t make much difference.
- Squirrels, 23 August 2020. First reprint of a Jack Elrod Sunday strip.
- Cone Snails, 30 August 2020.
- Bats, 6 September 2020.
- Mountain Laurels, 13 September 2020. They’re evergreens.
- Harvest Mice, 20 September 2020.
- Ruddy Ducks, 27 September 2020.
- Grizzly Bears, 4 October 2020.
- Bird Bills, 11 October 2020.
- Chipmunks, 18 October 2020.
- Platypuses, 25 October 2020.
- Monarch Butterflies, 1 November 2020.
- Portuguese Man-of-Wars, 18 November 2020. First Jules Rivera Sunday strip.
- Gardening, 15 November 2020.
Do I Hate The New Mark Trail?
No, no I don’t.
I don’t hate any of the comic strips I recap. I don’t hate any of the comic strips I read regularly, although Funky Winkerbean is trying very hard to make me ragequit it again. If I need a comic strip to refuse to read, there’s always Zack Hill.
The more interesting question is what do I think of the new Mark Trail? What’s my impression one month into Jules Rivera’s tenure?
And do I need one right away? Why the need to judge this soon? At least let me see a whole story and see how she handles setting up and resolving a problem. I understand Rivera’s been making web comics and graphic novels for years, but I don’t know them, so I can’t use that as any guide.
I have some impressions, though. I like comic strips and I like thinking about comic strips. So let me share them.
There is an energy to the comic that I enjoy. This is a difficult thing to make precise. But consider that the story so far is: after a long layoff Mark Trail got an assignment. Despite his reservations, he accepted it. That’s not much for four weeks’ strips. It hasn’t felt slow, though, nor padded. (And I don’t think the pace is any different from that of James Allen or Jack Elrod.) The storytelling has been more textured, as well. James Allen was moving Mark Trail away from its monolithic linearity already. Now? We’ve had some strips with cutaways and short flashbacks to mysterious information. It’s not been confusing or sloppy, and that’s a good accomplishment for someone new to the constraints of newspaper comics.
I like Rivera’s art style, but I understand people who don’t care for it. She particularly has a style of lineless shading, and I wonder how well that prints on actual paper. Or how it looks in black-and-white, if people still get black-and-white daily comics. There has been a relative shortage of animals in the strip. We’ve seen a couple of snakes, in the daily strips, some of which Mark Trail talks to, is about all. This has been appropriate as the action has been Mark Trail talking to specific people. If you’re comfortable with the traditional Mark Trail style where one panel of every three is a close-up of a squirrel or something, though? I understand people worried by that.
To date, I’m interested in the story. But I’m also aware of what the story has been. What we’ve been told is there’s a mystery in Mark Trail’s past. And an independent, but geographically close, mystery in Cherry Trail’s past. Every part of a story is hard, of course, but it’s relatively easy to set out a hook. I don’t have any way to guess whether either mystery will resolve well.
There are things I’m not sure I like. There was, in the first week of Rivera’s strip, a joke where Mark Trail talks about how he fixes things, often because he broke them. As an admission that, especially under James Allen’s run, a lot of stuff blew up when Mark Trail was around? That’s fun. If it’s a warning that the new Mark Trail is a handsome screw-up? I don’t care for that. Cherry Trail and Mark Trail do a lot more flirting than they’ve done … possibly from 1946 to 2020 combined … and I do like that. Yes, part of the Mark Trail chic is that he’s a relentlessly asexual creature. I remember a Comics Curmudgeon gag presenting Mark Trail as studying without understanding the strange behavior of this Cherry creature that was co-inhabiting his living space. I enjoy joking about Mark Trail’s powerful squareness too. But I also like seeing a husband and wife who enjoy that they get to be with each other.
But there’s more unsettling things. We’ve seen Mark Trail talking to animals. His editor at Teen Girl Sparkle observes that is very on-brand for him. I’m a little suspicious of someone who never talks to animals. They’re very good listeners and we all have things we need to have listened to. But we’ve also seen the animals apparently talking back. This may be Mark Trail imagining the answers. Mark Trail is shown on the brink of freaking out when he does this, and when he “hears” animals.
If this is a way for Mark Trail to have internal dialogues that also get some animal action in? That’s great. I like it even though I know it will confuse the more literal-minded reader. If we’re getting Mark Trail as having a magic power to communicate with the animals? That seems likely to be a bit too much. I know how much hedging is in that statement. I have to allow that it might be done too well to dislike.
And then … boy, does this Happy Trail Farms stuff worry me. The depiction of the famous nature dudes are representations of the Ed Dodd, Jack Elrod, and James Allen eras of Mark Trail. There’s Mark Trail shown, apparently, fleeing the Happy Trail Farms. And there’s a long heritage of snarky explanations for Mark Trail’s non-neurotypical behaviors. At least his idiosyncratic choices of what words to emphasize. (Story strips keep the old custom of emphasizing key words, rather than words a speaker would stress.) It’s not nice to joke that Mark Trail is a clone raised in some Skinnerian experiment to perfect a humanoid’s ability to punch bearded poachers. But we do it anyway. There is something delightful and off in, say, Mark Trail declaring the poachers chained the raccoon of a friend of his to that log.
So when we fans are doing it, that’s all basically harmless. At least once we assure our slightly weird friend with a fixation on mollusks and an inability to parse whimsy that no, you we like. It’s one thing for a comic strip to have a snarker’s layer, a common interpretation we pretend to believe. I don’t want that to be text, though. It’s not that you can’t do a self-aware, ironic adventure strip. Dan Thompson is doing fine with Rip Haywire. I doubt that one can make Mark Trail a wry joke about itself, not without burning out the premise. (And, again, I agree that if it’s done well, then the author is brilliant for trying it.)
I do not know what Rivera plans. I know some of the big-league comic strip sites worked out ways to read strips weeks ahead of publication. I’m not in those leagues. I’ve only once ever gotten inside news about a comic strip, almost a decade ago, and that was under an injunction to not publish. (You’ll notice I’m still not even saying what strip it was about.) So everything I write about for the future is my own speculation.
I understand people feeling that they’ve already seen enough and that no good can come of this direction. Or who feel the strip has already taken too many steps away from the proper Form a Mark Trail story must have. I remember deciding after three episodes of Star Trek: Voyager that I did not need to watch quite so much Star Trek.
So I offer this to people who’re upset. First, that you might want to give Rivera more time. This is still a quite new gig, and you only learn over the long haul how to do a job in the long haul. Compare the first month of any comic strip to the way it looks, say, three years in. There’s a great difference. (Not so much, I admit, when James Allen took over Mark Trail. He had been Jack Elrod’s assistant for years, and could rely on that experience.) The things you find annoying may be dropped, or be muted into something more palatable.
And if, in the end, you can’t make peace with Jules Rivera’s style? I’m sorry, and it’s unfortunate that you don’t have new Mark Trail that you like to read. You’re no worse off, though, than if the strip were cancelled altogether. And are likely better off, since this state of affairs guarantees that Comics Kingdom will keep its archives — going back to December 1999 — online. They might even expand them. And the new strips will bring in new readers. Some of them will discover they like the older strips more after all. They will join you in appreciating the older ones. Nothing that you liked will go away, or be altered, and if the new strips reveal something about Johnny Malotte that you don’t like? You don’t ever have to care what they say. The comic strip is written and drawn by someone else; the love for it, though, is your doing.
And, at least for this Happy Trail Farms story? Mark Trail’s assignment is to investigate the farms over an adverse-possession claim. That is a very square thing to put in the comics. I can believe things will be all right.
Can muffins overcome reasonably-grounded relationship fears? Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth may have the answer, next week. If all things go to schedule.