I don’t want to make my readers feel any older than they already do. But sometimes you just have to pause and marvel at how quickly time passes no matter what we do about it. Consider: the last Tyrannosaurus Rex lived closer in time to the J J Abrams Star Trek reboot movie (2009) than to us today (2018). Really gives you pause. Also paws, if a Tyrannosaurus Rex has paws, and is stomping you.
Do you need to know where we are in Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop? I’m happy to do my best to catch you up on the storyline. I have my limits, though. I’m writing this in mid-October 2017. If you’re reading this much later than that, the story might have got so far advanced that this isn’t useful. In that case, try checking the top of this page. If I’ve written a further update it should be at or near the top there. Meanwhile, story. here.
If you’re interested in comic strips that talk about mathematics stuff, you probably already saw this on my other blog, but what the heck. Never hurts to remind people that a thing exists, until they get tired of it and turn to rioting.
24 July – 15 October 2017.
Last time you’ll recall Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop was still wrestling with a spinoff of the pantsless-alien-frog storyline. The alien plant-frog-guy had left behind a mind-control ray gun that Alley Oop smashed and tossed all the way to the rival kingdom of Lem. There, King Tunk patched the thing together and figured to zap his way into, at last, the conquest of Moo. His attempt backfired, and shooting the thing left himself zapped and in King Guz’s power.
Guz orders Tunk to turn over his lands, his power, and his crown, and Tunk can’t refuse. Oop, fed up with this disrespect for consent, smashes the ray gun to pieces. Tunk comes to his senses, calls “no way” on his cession. He chases Guz, and the last pieces of the pantsless mind-controlling alien-frog storyline, out of the comic.
The new, and current, story started the 1st of August. “Meanwhile” in the 21st century (it’s their convention, run with it or read some other comic strip), Doctor Wonmug faces civilization’s greatest current menace. Rich white guy idiot M T Mentis III is interested in the time laboratory. His objectives are unclear at first. But the Time Lab could always use some more money. How could you make a profit with just the ability to traverse space and time to an exact spot at any exact second? So after a tour of the slick modern computerized time machine Mentis says what he’s up to.
He’s bored of his career of fixing up struggling companies. He wants to do something with meaning, by which he means buying the Time Lab and using the machinery to fix history. Wonmug is aghast at the idea of deliberately altering history. Even trying could force the comic strip to face potentially premise-wrecking consequences. You prove everything is strictly ordained somehow. Or you make the time travellers complicit in all the atrocities of human history. Or you make the time travellers responsible for destroying every living thing in the present timeline. Any of that’s heavy stuff for a comic strip that does better with, like, Alley Oop punching dopes. Yes, I am aware none of those verb tenses withstands any thought but I’m not getting paid enough to give them proper thought.
Since Mentis isn’t getting this, Wonmug sends himself, Mentis, and Mentis’s bodyguard to Moo and says, “see what you can do with this”. What he does is get chased by dinosaurs until he runs into Alley Oop and falls over, knocked out. When he recovers what he uses as his senses Mentis, shaking the idea that this is a movie set or something, works out a plan: he needs to kill the dinosaurs. After all, humans and dinosaurs shouldn’t coexist and they’re drawn kind of off-model and colored all weird. Alley Oop isn’t having any of it.
Oop does admit that King Tunk of Lem is a problem, what with his invading now and then and being kind of a jerk the rest of the time. Mentis proposes a wall, and Oop rolls his eyes so far back into his head they threaten to come around the other side. Mentis figures, well, how about better defenses than Oop’s ax and his fists? Mentis’s bodyguard Gunther epically failed trying out Oop in hand-to-hand combat. But how about if Mentis shows off his superior strategy? Mentis shows off his plan. It’s “holding enough spears and axes and swords and knives at once that Oop barely has to stop laughing long enough to kick him unconscious”. I’m not saying I’d be much better at uplifting the poor noble cavemen if I figured that was my business. I’m not sure what I’d introduce them to, exactly. Soap, I guess. Clean water. A Lockean concept of the social contract. Potatoes. The categorical imperative. I know I wouldn’t try showing off that I could hold too many weapons at once to be able to hold without the whole pile falling and stabbing my foot.
Here Oop asks a good question: the heck is Mentis’s deal, anyway? Before the rich idiot can mansplain why he figures he can patch up history despite his manifest incompetence some actual plot intrudes. It’s raiders from Farzoon, seeking slaves for some massive project. Mentis wonders if it might be Stonehenge or the Great Wall because I’m going ahead and assuming he thought Chariots of the Gods was nonfiction. Oop and Mentis hide, but the Farzoonian raiders have their scent.
And that’s got us caught up.
So, still not answered: what is Mentis’s deal, anyway? It’s hard to square someone being bright enough to save struggling companies repeatedly with not being able to see any problems whatsoever in meddling with history. So what’s h out for? I guess it would be admirable if he did just want to fix the messy, terrible sides of history. And that would show up Wonmug and Oop for laughing at him. But if he is then he’s done a pretty poor job thinking through what that implies which, yeah, isn’t impossible. Especially given the casual, light tone of the Alley Oop world.
But it’s also baffling story for the Benders to write. As far as I know Alley Oop has avoided setting out the rules about whether, and how, history can be changed in its time-travel view. The storyline seems to threaten to commit them to something. Dr Wonmug says that history can change and time-travellers have to take care not to screw things up. But I don’t know what his evidence for that is. They seem to have a pretty casual attitude about time-travelling if they are afraid of messing up stuff. Alley Oop can activate the time machine to destinations of his choosing. Alley Oop’s an upstanding person, and he gets up to speed in situations quickly. But would you want to count on a caveman dropped into (say) the Battle of Manzikert to not do something off-script?
I suppose it’ll be avoided, or at least left ambiguous. I’m also curious how Wonmug figures that getting his hat stomped by dinosaurs will help Mentis learn about the interconnectedness of events or whatever his vague lesson is. You’d think just “what if you set it so your parents never met?” would get the point across. I suppose a reasonable person might learn from being shoved headfirst into Moo just how complicated and messy and big the world is and so how implausible it is to “fix” the timeline. But I’m not sure a reasonable person would have done more than have fantasies about history-fixing either.
So, I’m curious whether we’ll learn Mentis has some ulterior motive, or whether he simply believes he’s worked out the killer app for time travel.
We pop back in on the Bandar tribe and learn whether Tony DepPaul and Mike Manley’s The Phantom Weekdays continuity has seen the Ghost Who Walks try out dying.
I know I’ll feel like a fool if we get to Friday and the world as we know it hasn’t ended, but I’ll deal with that if it comes. You know how your neighborhood has that vaguely creepy, inexplicable shop? Ours is this office supply shop. It’s got a faded poster for Fischer Space Pens on it, and a sign advertising their typewriter repair, and about four billion office chairs forming a sea of chair-space in the front half of the shop, and you never see anyone going into or out of it. Been there forever.
I have gone into it. We needed some manilla envelopes and I figured, hey, if I don’t patronize the weird local shops they might go under and we’ll have to rely on multinational-corporate creepy stores. Those are nowhere near as interesting, although they do have better bathrooms you can use. But it still seemed like a good idea so I went in, bumped my shin into fourteen different kinds of office chair, and eventually got to the cashier’s desk, in the middle of the shop, where nobody was.
And I stood, faintly anxious, and realizing that the store seemed to have a lot of desks and office chairs and typewriter supplies, but manilla envelopes? Not so clearly there. In back someone was talking on the phone, but I couldn’t make any sense of the conversation. Well, also I didn’t want to eavesdrop, since I was concluding the shop was a front maintained by aliens, possibly robot dinosaurs from another dimension, who were examining mid-Michigan most likely in advance of an invasion. Eventually someone wearing her finest human guise did come out, and was startled by me. I admitted my manilla-envelope needs and she went into the back room for what seems like too long, unless the room is much vaster inside than the laws of ordinary geometry would allow to fit in the building. She came back with four, not all the same color, and apologized that they were not properly manilla envelopes. She wrote out a receipt on one of those pads the waitstaff at a diner uses to scribble down nothing that looks like anything you ordered and a price that isn’t what the register actually rings up.
So yeah, secret portal back there where the alien robot dinosaurs keep enough office supplies to answer the curious venturer. Bear in mind, I didn’t let the manilla envelope thing stop me from ever stepping inside again. I went back a couple months later when we needed some security envelopes. Also this makes me realize our household envelope need is bigger and more diverse than I thought. But once again it was a good five awkward minutes before a “clerk” came out of the “back room” to see how to get me out of the base with as few suspicions raised as possible. And he had to go in back again for a dusty box of security envelopes and wrote out a receipt by hand for it all.
Wednesday, the local alt-weekly says, they’re going to be closing up their office-supply-store cover operation. The paper was vague about why they’re closing up just now, but my love reports that their Facebook page says … in July … some grumbling things about the landlord selling the building. Ah, but, before that: the news that their typewriter repair guy is back. And before that? That their typewriter repair guy is going to be out for “surgery” a while. That takes them to the start of the year.
So, I have to figure, the cover story of being an office furniture and typewriter repair shop has outlived its utility, and they’re going on to the next phase of their operation, and we’re going to have to live with the consequences. I’m figuring to spend the day no closer than Grand Rapids.
Thanks for trying to work out what’s going on in Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop. I’m writing this in mid-July 2017. If it’s a lot later than July 2017, the story might have moved on, although I admit right now that’s not looking very likely. There might have been enough story development that this stuff isn’t useful anymore. If I’ve written a fresh follow-up since this essay, it should be at or near the top of this page. Let me know if you don’t see something and if the story has got so baffling you need an update.
And before I continue may I point out that on my other blog, I talk about whatever comic strips the past week touched on some mathematics subject. These are almost never story strips, but that’s all right. There’s interesting stuff brought up by them. Also, this week it features bunnies wearing eyeglasses, although not as well as they could.
1 May – 22 July 2017
The current storyline in Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop started sometime in October of last year. The end of April and my last update of the strip coincided with what looked like the end of the story. Volzon, an alien plant-frog-guy with a mind-control ray gun, had been foiled in his attempts to colonize prehistoric Earth. It turns out dinosaurs, like Dinny the brontosaurus, aren’t subject to alien mind-control rays and don’t see any reason they couldn’t eat invading alien spaceships. Good stuff to know.
Alley Oop, knowing a loose end when he sees it, tosses the remains of Volzon’s mind-control gun out of Moo, and rejoins the quest for food and whatnot. King Guz, reasonably annoyed at yet another attempt to overthrow Moo, starts talking crazy about building a dome that will keep invading aliens out. Alley Oop reminds him that just because someone has an idea doesn’t mean that idea isn’t incredibly stupid. And he soothes the mind-control-wary Moovians. Even if Volzon or another Jantrullian return, it’s not like dinosaurs are going to vanish from the face of the Earth.
This fine example of dramatic irony gets a little bit weirder when you remember the premise of the comic strip. Alley Oop is a time traveller. He’s been, repeatedly, to the present day and knows that dinosaurs do vanish. On the other hand, he also knows the Jantrullians don’t manage to conquer the Earth, not before about 2016 anyway. (I don’t know if he’s ever been to our future.) I’m not sure how wry this is all supposed to be.
Meanwhile in the loose end, it turns out Alley Oop threw the remains of Volzon’s mind-control gun all the way into Lem, where King Tunk found it. As he only just got in the story he doesn’t know what it is or what it should do, but he can tell these are a bunch of sparky wires that got ripped apart. He figures he could twist the wires back together, cover them with tar, and wrap the whole remains of the gun in a palm leaf and maybe then it’ll work again. I admire his ingenuity and his success. I mean, I’ve needed the help of the car care place down the street just to take off my license plate holder. Twice. He’s fixing up an alien mind-control gun using sticks and leaves.
At least he’s trying to. He tromps into Moo with the repaired gadget, accusing King Guz of designing a weapon to attack Lem. His attempt to use it backfires, leaving him in a dazed and suggestive state. King Guz sees an opportunity, figuring “I think it’s high time Tunk did something good with his life”. This serves as a reminder that there are people who can’t be trusted with mind-control technology, and that would be pretty much “people who’d use it on the unsuspecting”. And I’m not sure it should be trusted to people who’d volunteer to have it be used on either. I get the idea, but there’s such major issues about consent and the respect of personal autonomy that I can’t see a way around it.
Anyway, this storyline keeps puttering on at the lethargic pace of a strip that makes sure the Sunday strip contains all the plot of the six weekdays around it. I would have bet the mind-control ray story was over with the end of April, so I’m not going to make guesses about when this story will end. There’ve been some teases that King Tunk needs to learn about working with people, and maybe that’s where the mind-control gun is going. We shall see, I assume.
Next week: News about Tony DePaul and Mike Manley’s The Phantom. The weekdays storyline, not the production of the comic strip.
And I’m back around to Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop. While I’m writing about the current storyline, it’s possible you’re reading this while trying to figure out what some other storyline in my future is about. That’s only fair given we’re talking about Alley Oop, isn’t it? Anyway, if you’re reading this much later than about May or June of 2017, you may want to look at whatever essay’s at top of this page. It should have my most current low-daisy review of what’s going on.
Alley Oop, 30 January – 30 April 2017
When I last checked in on Alley Oop the land of Moo was invaded by this pantsless alien plant-frog guy with a mind control ray gun. The planet Jantrulle has an exploding population. Their explorer, Volzon, found Earth to be a lovely spot with plenty of ecology, raw materials, and nipple-free cavemen who’d be a good labor pool. At least would be once they stopped complaining about the mind control, which is after all part of how mind control works.
Dire? I suppose, although the comic strip — while taking its adventure seriously — never get all that dire. Plus at that point only Alley Oop himself had been taken over. He was joined by Zan, while fellow Moo bit player Bug ran back to his sergeant to report on the alien invasion. Ooola overhears; the soldiers work up a story about how Oop’s just got so much meat to bring home he hasn’t had time to get mind-controlled by an invading pantsless alien plant-frog guy, a story she pretends to believe.
Volzon, warming stuff up for the reinforcements by having Oop and Zan punch trees, spots Bug and the Sarge and takes them over in time for the mind control ray to wear off Alley Oop. And while Oop had been under the ray for like six weeks of reader time, in story time it can’t have been more than a couple hours. It suggests there’s some practical problems in an economy built entirely on mind controlling cavemen. At least it means they’d be spending a lot of time re-zapping Moovians instead of enjoying stealing the fruit of others’ labor.
While Volzon gloats about preparations for his totally hip log-cabin spaceport being underway Ooola gets tired of not being in the story. She teams up with Dinny, Alley Oop’s pet/friend dinosaur, and go looking for him by the ancient Moovian technique of trying. Volzon’s startled by the big charging dinosaur somehow living at the same time as cavemen, but before he can question the plausibility of this worldbuilding the invading pantsless alien plant-frog guy discovers his mind control ray doesn’t work on dinosaurs. Yes, I enjoyed writing that sentence. I’m going to be cheery about it for days to come.
It gets worse for the invader. Even when Ooola’s separated from any dinosaurs it turns out her boogie board is an effective defense against mind control rays. With Oop coming out of control and Dinny coming close to suppertime, Volzon retreats to his pocket-dimensional spaceship and takes off for some easier invasion target. Possibly, like, the place forty miles down the road but, that would be in a different comic strip.
If this isn’t the end of the story it’s darned close. The past week has been Oop explaining what was going on to Zan, Bug, the Sarge, and someone else who joined the story while I wasn’t looking. There might be another week of transition left in things, but we’re getting onto a new story soon enough. I thank Jack Bender and Carole Bender for organizing stuff that neatly.
- The announcements on the event board that it was going to be open-mike night until someone went up on stage and said, “check, check one, check one” and then left, ninety minutes before the event started.
- Someone who thought he was signing up for karaoke night. But who was game for this and did his best by pulling up The Bangles’ Walk Like An Egyptian on his phone and singing along to it until two-thirds of the way through when the phone crashed.
- An excessively long anecdote that might be personal. But the central premise is that it’s a very funny thing to suppose that grandmothers might be on Facebook, and even moreso that it would be hilarious that they might get snarky at one another when talking about their grandkids over what seems like a minor misunderstanding to start with.
- A singer who’s really working hard on getting this “I say”/“You say” call-and-response going, even though the audience somehow doesn’t seem able to quite get what they’re supposed to say back. It’s hard to pin down blame except that he seems to be rallying pride for the vaguely-defined neighborhood that ends about two blocks over from the bar and that the audience has only vague impressions of. “Isn’t that where they have all the hot tub showrooms?” asks someone leaning over from the nearly functional Getaway pinball machine. Did you even notice there was a second hot tub showroom? Be honest.
- Oh, Lord, someone workshopping a bit for their comedy troupe and they’re interviewing a Folkmanis raccoon puppet about Donald Trump’s tax returns. Cute voice on the raccoon. Good puppet work.
- Another fellow who figured to make this into karaoke night since that worked nearly right for the first person. So he pulls up the theme to Transformers on his phone and after the very long intro discovers he’s somehow got the Spanish-language version, which is a thing that it turns out exists? He laughs and retreats, head under his arms, into the corner until he comes back and just pantomimes like he’s Tom Jones to this whole thing.
- Guy straddling the line between a rant and a comedy bit about how the promise of genetic engineering was how it was going to let us turn into werewolves and dinosaurs and cool stuff like that. But now it’s here and what is it about? Doing stuff to Progresso Lentils-with-Vegetable soup that’s so boring they can’t even bring themselves to specify what it is on the labels. He’s got something there.
- They’re going to take a twenty-minute break now which turns out to be thirteen minutes long.
- Quickly-delivered beat poem that’s doing very well at sounding like what you hope for out of an open-mike night. It’s way too dense to actually parse but there seems to be something going on with nation-duration-obliteration and fence-dense-Pence-offense that suggests they know what they’re doing. Probably the highlight of the night even if the audience is going to spend the whole next day trying to work out what fit between nation and duration and obliteration and whether there’s a fourth word that could fit the rhyme scheme. Abomination, sure, but right-wingers wrecked that word when they mashed it up with Obama’s name to denounce stuff like non-binary people being allowed to pee.
- Guy who can’t be heard even though he’s standing so close to the microphone it may actually be inside his mouth. He apologizes for not “speaking up” and “louder” four times over the course of his two-minute set.
- They take the other seven minutes of break now. It takes twelve minutes.
- Some guy staring close at his iPhone and reading They Might Be Giants’ Birdhouse In Your Soul with all the words in alphabetical order until he gets dizzy.
- Fellow who wanted to read the classifieds from the free weekly in a funny voice. In a courageous act he didn’t vet the classifieds beforehand, and apparently didn’t realize how much they change week to week, so he’s trying to build something out of Dave’s offer for snow removal.
- Someone telling a comic anecdote and who’s just assumed that of course we’re on her side in this encounter with a Kmart cashier whom she’s decided was asking stupid questions. The saving grace is supposing that the storyteller is making all this up after deciding that she should’ve been a worse person after leaving the store, but then, oh yeah, remember working retail?
- Thanks everyone for coming out to another great open-mike night, it’s the great audiences we get here that make it possible for everyone to come out and …
- Sorry, we missed this woman who signed up to tell about just how crazy her phone call to her Congressman turned out but you’ll give her a listen now, won’t you? Thank you. Thanks for coming out and supporting creativity in the neighborhood.
[ Edited 29 April 2017 to add: ] Thanks for coming here in search of catching up on what’s going on in Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s Alley Oop. The essay here was right and so far as I know just fine when I wrote it in late January 2017. If you’re looking for what’s gone on since then try this link; the most recent posts I’ve had about the comic strip should be at the top of its results.
I know, I bet you all thought I was going to go from The Amazing Spider-Man over to The Phantom, as that’s the other newspaper-syndicated superhero comic strip. I admit I’m not sure when’s the last time I saw Alley Oop in a newspaper. It might have been decades ago at my grandparent’s house, when I also saw The Amazing Spider-Man there on the cover of the New York Daily News comics section and nowhere else. (People with records of the Daily News comics page offerings, please write in to let me know if that’s possible!) Big deal. It certainly used to run in newspapers, and for all I know it still does. It looks like one. Plus it’s easier to explain than The Phantom and I had a week far to distracted to deal with complicated strips.
So, Alley Oop started in 1932 by V T Hamlin as essentially a sitcom/adventure strip. It was about Alley Oop and his prehistoric land of Moo. He’d do caveman-type stuff, like adopting a pet dinosaur Dinny and being alternately indispensable to or on the run from Moo’s King Guz. Sometimes they’d be in the sort of low-scale war with Tunk’s neighboring kingdom of Lem that you got in those days when the world had maybe twenty people in it. Hey, caveman comics and cartoons were a viable thing back then, and if the whole genre’s been taken over by The Flintstones that’s not the fault of the properties working a generation before them.
And surely Alley Oop would have gone wherever rambling story comics go if not for a 1939 tale (recently reprinted by Dark Horse, so you can read it in book form). In that, the brilliant 20th-century scientist Dr Elbert Wonmug, testing out his time machine, plucked Alley Oop into the present day and suddenly the strip had that touch of madness that allows for greatness. A mildly humorous adventure strip about cavemen is fine enough. But a mildly humorous adventure strip about time-travelling cavemen? That’s brilliant. I don’t know how the thing has resisted adaptation into a goofy 70s live-action show or a modern movie.
So it’ll say something about the strip that the 20th, now 21st, century scientist is Dr Elbert Wonmug. Do you get it? Because I had been reading the strip reasonably faithfully for like six years before someone, I think an essay at the front of a collection, explained it to me. How would you translate won (one) mug into German?
I mention that not for it being the record-holder in me only belatedly getting the joke, as it’s not. There’s a Far Side cartoon that holds that record at something like 15 years before I got it. I mention it to calibrate the sort of humor the strip has. It’s never a thoroughly serious comic, and a lot of silly business does go on, especially slapstick. But it’s not primarily a joke strip. If something’s funny it’s because there’s an absurd situation, such as (last year) Guz deciding that the fantastically unqualified Alley Oop should be the kingdom’s doctor. Alley Oop didn’t do very well. But I think that’s because the whole storyline was (in-universe) done in a couple of days, and nobody’s at their best their first week on the job. He’s pretty good at picking up stuff; anyone who can go from primitive Moo to 1939 Long Island with only a few missteps has got solid resources.
The current storyline started around October of 2016. (There wasn’t a clean break from the previous story, a common feature of Jack Bender and Carole Bender’s writing.) And it’s built on a premise designed to shake seven-year-old me out of watching In Search Of and reading the paranormal-events section of The People’s Almanac 2. Aliens have come to invade Moo.
Oh, they didn’t talk about invading at first. Volzon, of the planet Jantulle, spent some time showing off his superior technology and negging on Alley Oop’s sensor readings. Volzon then declared ancient Earth to be just about perfect for their needs: the Jantulle population’s exploding and their plant-frog-men need colonies. Earth will do nicely. Alley Oop pointed out that their superior technology was no match for his big stick. And it must be said, he’s quite good with sticks. And punching. Alley Oop does pretty well satisfying the gap left by Popeye not really being a comic strip anymore. And then Volzon went and spoiled things by whipping out his mind-control device. That’s about where things stand just now.
Of course the Jantulle invasion is going to be foiled. For one, comic strips like this just don’t end in aliens conquering Earth. Not permanently, anyway. For another, we know that since Earth isn’t a colony world of alien plant-frog-men the invasion does come to nought. And it’ll be up to Alley Oop and his team to do something about that. The comic strip, as best I can determine, doesn’t try to pull any nonsense about time travel resulting in alterante timelines or histories or anything like that. There’s the history of how things worked out, and it works out that way because the protagonists of our stories did something about it.
For a premise that’s got time travel baked into it there’s refreshingly little talk about paradoxes, or fixing up a solution by planting the stuff you needed to escape it afterwards. It’s rather like (most of) the old-school Doctor Who serials that way. The time travel is a way of getting to interesting settings. Mostly, of late, they’ve been ancient Moo, or the present day. There was recently a curious story where Alley Oop and his partner Oola travelled to 1941 and left a message with then-contemporary Dr Wonmug. This didn’t threaten the stability of the spacetime continuum or threaten paradoxes or anything; it’s just, history worked out like that.
And yeah, somehow, 1941 Wonmug wasn’t impossibly young nor 2016 Wonmug impossibly old. All the characters are holding at about the same age and if you don’t want to accept that maybe you should read some other comic strip about time-travelling cavemen and their dinosaurs.
Oh yeah, the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and cavemen never lived together, never even got close to together. To my delight the comic strip acknowledged this back in 1939 or 1940, when Hamlin was discovering he had a new premise taking over his comic. They explained how there could possibly be dinosaurs in Moo: they don’t know. Obviously things are more complicated than they realize. So far as I’m aware Hamlin and his successors writing the strip haven’t gone back and filled in some explanation for how this impossibility came about. It’s just part of how this fictional world works. I’m honestly impressed that they resist filling in some explanation. You could come up with any number of explanations that work as long as nobody thinks through their implications. “We don’t know; the world is more complicated than we realize,” though? That’s irrefutable. And it’s even what an actual scientist would say to an unanswerable mystery like that. (Oh, they’d work up hypotheses and start testing, yes, but it would start from an acknowledged ignorance.)
A last note. I’d mentioned with The Amazing Spider-Man the problem story strips have with Sundays. All the soap opera comics adopted a Sundays-as-recap-days policy. The Sunday strip would repeat the action of the Monday through Saturday preceding, a mercy for people who get only the Sunday comics but killing the pacing. Amazing Spider-Man just barrels through Sundays as though nothing weird were going on and trusts people to fill in the blanks. Alley Oop works closer to the soap opera model. Sunday strips largely recapitulate what happened the previous week, but in a clipped, notes-for-class version. The daily strips have more texture, more of the fun little asides filling in plot points. If you were to adapt Alley Oop to another medium, you’d use the Sunday strips to guide the plot and the daily strips to write the scenes.
And the Sunday strips don’t recap the previous Monday-to-Saturday. They recap, roughly, the previous Tuesday to the coming Tuesday. That is, the Sunday strip tells you what’s going to happen the coming Monday and Tuesday. (More or less.) Of course a comic strip about time travelling cavemen would be a little out of synch with the weeks. That just makes sense, surely.
[ 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.
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.
I know it’s been a rough … year … so let’s take a moment to relax. Here’s “Beauty And The Beast”, by Henry Kuttner, cover story for the April 1940 Thrilling Wonder Stories and it’s about a Venusian giant kangaroo-dinosaur monster that accidentally crashes his way through Washington, DC along the way to destroying the world although it’s not his fault. Um. Well, all right, how about this totally different story from the July 1940 Thrilling Wonder Stories about a gigantic reptilian monster that melts the ice caps and crashes through the New York harborfront and everybody acts like he’s the jerk?
Science fiction: the literature of pleasant escapism.
“Well, that’s funny; whatever happened to the tube of Dinosaurs? … And why is the tube of Carnivorous Dinos so heavy?”
It amused me, is who. And my love knew I was going to take a picture of that so I’m comfortable sharing it with you. If you’d like more writing try my mathematics blog, which did its weekly-or-so comics review yesterday. Thank you, won’t you?
In an ancient streambed on Kenya’s Rusinga Island, scientists have unearthed fossils of a wildebeest-like creature named Rusingoryx that boasted a weird nasal structure more befitting of a dinosaur than a mammal.
I’ll save you the click. None of the article says how they know the Rusingoryx boasted this. For that matter, it doesn’t even say who the Rusingoryx boasted to. The animal’s from about 55,000 to 75,000 years ago, so I suppose there might have been someone around to hear it. But how did we hear about their hearing about it? Writing hasn’t been around all that long, and 55,000 years is a long time to spend gossipping about some wildebeast-like creature from Kenya.
But maybe it really made a name for itself. Imagine if Rusingoryx turned everything into a chance to boast about its nasal structures. “Yes, it’s nicely warm for February. Warm spells are important when you have my kind of nasal structure, one more befitting of a dinosaur than a mammal.” “A new Portlandia episode? That feels extra-good when, like me, you have a nasal structure more befitting of a dinosaur than a mammal.” “Oh yes, I’d love to try the tomato basil cream cheese on my toasted everything bagel. I really appreciate novel combinations of tastes, what with my nasal structure being more befitting of a dinosaur than a mammal.” Yes, I could imagine someone acting like that becoming a creature you talk about for 55,000 years after all.
We’re catching up on TV shows around here. There’s this commercial coming on just about every break of every show, though, advertising some program where you get to see animatronic dinosaurs. Apparently you could even ride some of them, which we have to admit would be cool. The thing is, here’s the first line about this animatronic-dinosaur “educational” show:
“For the first time, prehistoric Earth comes alive!”
I keep looking at that sentence. And walking around and coming back and seeing that it’s still that, once again. I try hissing at it, but it’s still the sentence, “For the first time, prehistoric Earth comes alive!” And it’s for a show of animatronic dinosaurs.
I kind of admire the advertiser for coming up with a sentence that logically self-destructs so completely.
I clarified to someone who wasn’t sure exactly what kind of early bicycle was under discussion by explaining that a velocipede was the one made with “one giant wheel and one attack dinosaur”. And people corrected me, rather than leave me unable to tell the penny-farthing bicycle apart from the one that’s got attack dinosaurs. I am so delighted.
I’ve learned that Comments Of The Week posts are extremely popular, and what the heck, I’m not opposed to doing popular things myself even if I do get kind of suspicious of mass displays of any feeling. Anyway, I can give it a try and see how it works out. So here goes, Comments Of The Week for the week ending the 12th of October, 2014:
- Yes, if you make that out to be the defining characteristic of a V-neck sweater.
- Maybe they’re a band that just supports the concept of ‘girl’?
- He’s been trying to gain fraudulent renown for his ability to see lighthouses?
- I understand your objections to the gazelle speech.
- Plainly we don’t agree what we mean by “Earth’s sun” in this context.
- Yeah, so, me and some of the gang and everybody else in the world were talking and we decided we like the name brontosaurus a lot better, so, you can go on using apatosaurus as a synonym if that makes you happy, but if you’re going to keep on telling us we’re wrong for calling them brontosauruses every time we mention them and you aren’t going to talk about brontosauruses instead of commanding us not to say “brontosaurus” then all that’s really going to do is make us stop talking about brontosauruses with you and if that’s what you really want, all right, but is that what you really want? Just asking.
- People saying “gamification” make my teeth hurt.
Please feel free to use these or any other comments wherever on the Internet you happen to be.
The Universe: Where is it, how old is it, what has it been up to, and let’s just fill in who is it to round out the opening sentence here? These are undeniably fine questions, what with their existing and seeming to be the sorts of things there should be answers for, or to.
The first is the easiest. The Universe can be found all around you, explaining that sensation of something peeking over your shoulder while you try to go about existing. Don’t go looking back too suddenly as the Universe can be rather skittish — remember the old folk saying, the universe is more afraid of caterpillars than you are of varnish, which is why Enlightenment thinkers got the idea that everybody before them was an idiot — but if you check casually you should see signs of something. If you find only incontrovertible evidence that you’re actually a disembodied brain in a jar being fed electrical stimulations, don’t worry; you’re just having the same nightmare every butterfly is having.