Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the debut of Mark Trail this week. So, uh, Dad, I hope you do something special and maybe wave to the alligators. (Dad lives in South Carolina.)
I don’t remember the comic making a particular impression on me, as a kid. It was buried in the impenetrable dark column of story strips, on the left side of the first page of the Star-Ledger’s pages. I bet I looked at it because animal pictures were always interesting, but I didn’t know how to read a story strip to understand the goings-on. I didn’t really start paying attention until joining rec.arts.comics.strips. Having a group to read the comics with does a lot to encourage reading more comics. And Mark Trail offered a lot of chances to read. One could enjoy reading an action-adventure story and snarking on an action-adventure story. Sometimes for odd writing choices, especially in how to emphasize words. (Story strips, like older comic books, keep a convention of using bold for key words rather than to suggest line readings.)
The strip’s become a more important part of my life. Partly because I’ve shifted my snark from being the goal to being the side effect. Partly because I’m writing these plot recaps and have finally learned how to read story comics. (Reading three months’ worth in one day makes the plot much clearer.) Partly because people want to know why I’m not mad at the comic strip for changing. I have been mad at comic strips before, not all of them by Tom Batiuk. Even once at the Jack Elrod-era Mark Trail. I just don’t have it in me to be at a comic strip for not being the comic strip I used to read. And I’m glad to have the comic still in production. It would have been easy to lose the comic altogether.
I have no idea. In the current story Mark Trail’s stolen a speedboat and damaged a lot of rich people’s stuff. And knocked a man unconscious into the water. Some of this I can imagine getting cleared up. I don’t know how he’s not awaiting arraignment, though. Sorry.
The new Mark Trail had just got his first assignment in months. It’s investigating Happy Trail Farms for Teen Girl Sparkle magazine. He was freaking out about this assignment, down to not telling anyone what upset him. And by chance Kelly Welly stopped in town to mention how popular they are on the Internet, unlike Mark Trail.
Instagram Envy sends Mark Trail on a frenzy of doing little web features for Teen Girl Sparkle. Editor Amy Lee likes it. And his natural enthusiastic squareness works for readers too, a thing I can see. But that’s a side line to getting to Florida and meeting Jolly Roger.
Or re-meeting Jolly Roger, who’s been a python hunter ever since losing his farm. Mark gets bitten by a python, while trying to find a Burmese python, and asks immediately whether the snake’s all right. It’s part of what convinces Roger’s partner that this Mark Trail they can trust.
Meanwhile Cherry Trail, with Rusty, are also driving to Florida. He has a homework project of making a family tree. It’s not at all suspicious how convenient this is. Cherry was driving to see her family. And she reveals that the woman she’s told Rusty was her aunt is in fact her mother. They drive to an RV park. We meet Cherry’s younger stepsisters, Olive and Peach Pitt. Cherry says she’s not there to dredge up the past, but to talk. Olive wants to know things like was she ever going to mention she had a son? The reunion turns into a brawl immediately.
Back on Mark Trail. We get Jolly Roger’s story. Mark’s father, Happy Trail, had a deal for his neighbor and friend Roger. Sign over his farm to the Happy Trail Farms trail-mix company for a share of the revenue. All right. In practice, Happy Trails used Roger’s farm for fertilizer runoff. Algae filled the nearby ponds. Roger brought his case to the media. It stirred up controversy. Roger is a Black man going up against a wealthier white man with a corporation. So that hasn’t been happy for him.
All Mark Trail can do is apologize. For not doing anything to stop his father. Also for running away, which confirms the meaning of a flashback we’d seen in October. Mark says how he was “old enough to fight for my country, but I didn’t fight for my friend”. It’s an interesting mention. When the comic strip started in 1946, Mark Trail was, as you’d expect for his age and physical condition, a veteran. Whatever else might be getting retconned or revised, that was kept.
Back on Cherry Trail. Her mother breaks up Cherry’s fight with Olive, using a bucket of water. Peach Pitt reveals she’d asked Cherry to come for “business advice”. Peach had been following Cherry on social media. I don’t know if that was reciprocated. Peach confirms their mother’s bipolar disorder isn’t getting better. And Cherry explains to Rusty that this is why she and her father left, years ago, and have kept so much distance. The business advice is that their mother needs more professional care. Peach has found what she calls a great inpatient treatment center. It’s $20,000.
Back to Mark Trail. He’s got his Roger interview. Now he needs to interview his father. I’ll be calling him Happy Trail; it can be confusing when father and son have identical names. Happy’s glad to see him at the Miami Speedboat Mania here. He’s also huggy. But he’ll talk about the farm if that’s what he can’t avoid doing. Happy’s argument is he bought the farm fair and square. It’s not his or Roger’s fault that the land’s more valuable now. He didn’t create the toxic algae. He did buy a speedboat, though, he’ll own up to that.
And this really sets off Mark. We flash back to a childhood memory, Mark Trail’s father explaining how speedboats hurt hundreds of manatees every year. How they have to fight to keep speedboats off Florida waterways. So this is a potent mix of betrayed ideals and hypocrisy. All Mark Trail can do is something dramatic and stupid.
He steals his father’s speedboat and races off. It’s a messy, confusing chase with a lot of incidental damage. His father mentions, Mark Trail has a bad track record with boats, a motif of the James Allen run. One of his father’s employees manages to stop the boat for a moment. This gives Mark his first chance to punch someone this story. A whole fight, too, one going on a week reader time. But the cops pull up ordering him to shut off his engines.
But Mark’s inspired by the advice that an ibis and a shark offer. Or that he thinks he’s offered. The strip has not quite committed to the idea this isn’t all in Mark Trail’s head. He takes their recommendation and guns the boat. The cops pull out the sound cannon and blast like he was advocating for police accountability. Mark Trail steers his father’s speedboat into a fireworks yacht, setting off a pretty awesome scene that does a lot of damage.
Caught in the sad emotional lee of having caused Drama, Mark calls for help. The only help is Kelly Welly, who was going to Florida on a different assignment after all. (Their setup seemed ambiguous to me.) They refuse to take over the assignment, asserting it’s Mark’s first un-safe story, and one he has to tell. And that’s where things stand.
So, do I hate the strip? Do I think you should?
No; I don’t hate any of the story strips, or any of the strips I read regularly. Although Funky Winkerbean tests me. Should you hate it? No. I understand not liking it. But even if can’t stand Jules Rivera’s art or story style, then, you’re better off than if the strip had been cancelled. If the strip stays alive, then whatever artist succeeds Rivera might do work more to your liking. A few cancelled strips have been revived, but name two that lasted five years. I’ll give you Annie as the first.
Do I love the strip? I’m feeling warmer toward it. The mysteries set up in Rivera’s first month got some reasonable development. We’ve got some action. We’ve been getting more animals. And some attention on agribusiness, which is all about nature and how we use it.
I admit an unease with the revelations about Mark Trail’s family. And, to a lesser extent, Cherry Trail’s. So far as I know their families had gone unmentioned in the strip. At least they’ve gone unmentioned in long enough a time any reasonable reader would have forgotten. So here Rivera fills in families they would with reason avoid talking about.
Depicting Mark Trail’s father as the Classic Mark Trail carries symbolic heft. Depicting him, more, as someone who’s let money override his love of the environment? That feels like a betrayal. It should. It addresses the hardest lesson about idealism. Our ideals are not goals; they are ongoing works. We have to keep a reasonable level of self-inquiry and self-skepticism and stay mindful of how much we settle for convenient over right. Even our heroes will sometimes fail. And using the Classic Mark Trail as the person who’s failed gives the story a greater substance.
And again, if this doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for you, and there’s no arguing that. But if you don’t like it but keep finding something you need to read about it? This might be some of what it’s addressing and why it’s sticking.
Sunday Animals Watch!
I’m still tracking the animals and other nature-related items in the Sunday pages. I’d hope even people who can’t get into Rivera’s style enjoy the playfulness she’s brought to title panels. These have rendered the strip’s title in more fanciful ways. Like, having the letters spelled out by the legs of ibises, or in tree leaves, or cried out by a peacock. That’s fun and I bet satisfying for Rivera to do.
Blacktip Sharks, 24 January 2021. Like was giving Mark Trail advice.
Cicadas, 31 January 2021. They’re loud, although not so loud as peacocks.
I’m still holding off on recapping Gasoline Alley for some mysterious reason that hasn’t anything to do with the story about buying a new clothes dryer still going on. While I wait, though, I’ll look in on Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth. I’d like to say that’s always fun but the current storyline does involve a character recovering from an abusive relationship. If you don’t need that in your fun recreational reading, you are right, and may want to approach the strip and the recap with caution.
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. ]
But this essay is, in the main, about Jonathan Lemon and Joey Alison Sayers’s Alley Oop. This should catch you up to mid-October. If you’re reading this after about January 2021, if there is a January 2021, you’ll likely find a more up-to-date plot recap at this link. Also any news about Alley Oop, if there is news.
Everyone was hanging around in Moo, last we left off. Ooola was rehearsing a play. She impressed Gromp, the director. Gromp pitches another job for her: using the play as cover to enter neighboring land Lem and steal King Tunk’s giant opal. She hates the plan. Gromp sends his dinosaur, Steve, to make her see reason. She beats Steve in a fair fight, though, and hauls Gromp off to be in a desert island cartoon.
That, the 1st of August, wraps up that little story. From the 3rd we get a string of events leading into the current story. It starts with a joyride: Alley Oop wants to go to an amusement park. So they return to the present, and Doc Wonmug looks for the greatest amusement park, past, present, or future. But who can tell him what that is? rec.roller-coaster just fights about Kennywood versus Knoebels versus Efteling versus Holiday World. (Did you consider Waldameer? Especially if you have a family? Very under-rated park, especially if you aren’t all about high-intensity everything.) So he goes to The Clawed Oracle.
The Clawed Oracle, off in a never-before-mentioned room of Wonmug’s Time Laboratory, is a cat. She pronounces that the greatest amusement park ever is in Saint Louis in the year 3277. They zip off to Future Saint Louis. The place stinks, apart from the giant pine tree air freshener hanging from the Arch. What looks like an abandoned warehouse is labelled Amusement Park #41. Inside is an array of virtual-reality goo-filled tubes. Despite the ominous everything, they go in.
It’s a good time, though, until the fortune teller learns they’re from the 21st century. On that she leads them to a secret reality within the virtual reality. And to Phil, leader of the Underground Stronghold Alliance. He tells of the Great Culture Famine, a mysterious event that destroyed culture. All that’s left since 2081 are these virtual-reality amusement parks. But what can three time travellers do? They leave the park and journey to Phil’s coordinates in 2081. And there they meet … The Clawed Oracle.
It turns out The Clawed Oracle is an eternal ethereal being who manifests on earth as a cat, so that’s a nice gig. She reveals who’s responsible for the Great Culture Famine. It’s Dr Wonmug, yeah. Indirectly. It’s really the clone of Albert Einstein that Wonmug made and then abandoned on a farm. She sends them off to deal with Einstein Two. (Why not Zweistein?)
Einstein Two’s gripe: his parents insisted he put all his scientific energies into the farm, and the zany cow bra business. So he invented a Grand Culture Eraser, to destroy all forms of art, past, present, and future. He has justification for this: he’s grown up to be a STEM jerkface so doesn’t see why gadgetry is not a life. Einstein Two proclaims this a gift to every child whose love of science was crushed by small-mindedness. Then Alley Oop punches his machine to rubble. Ooola smashes his backup, too. Dr Wonmug tears up the machine’s plans. Alley Oop digs up and rips up the backup plans. So that’s some success.
And that takes us to the start of the week. Also into a new timeline. Saint Louis of 3277 “now” has a giant chandelier hanging from the Arch. And Amusement Park #41 is the aquatic stadium any amusement park used for dolphin shows back in the 1970s when we were making that mistake. This looks like the resolution of a storyline. But it could also be the transition to a new story. Too soon to tell.
Finally, some good news for 2020. Per D D Degg at The Daily Cartoonist, King Features has a new artist and writer for Mark Trail. Jules Rivera, creator of the slice-of-life web comic Love, Joolz, is to take over the strip from the 12th of October. (I haven’t read the web comic, but I am a surprisingly poor reader of web comics.)
The sample strip that The New York Times has suggests a more visually dynamic strip. Also one that suggests the Trails have specific jobs in-between hearing giant squirrels talking. Maybe even something the hew-mons call sexual attraction. The Times article says that Rivera’s strip should have a “modern sensibility” and more prominent roles for Cherry and Rusty Trail. But Rivera has an electrical engineering background, so I am hopeful that some of Mark Trail’s natural squareness will stick around.
At a motel the truck driver opens the van and finds that weird noise was a dog in the back. Andy leaps out and runs into the woods. Mark Trail reassures Rusty and Cherry that sure, Andy’s been gone a long while, but “he always comes home”. And Mark Trail tells of how pets can find their way home over great distances. Like, how dogs can focus on scent. Rusty puts Andy’s bed out on the porch in case that extra bit of familiar scent might help. There is some neat storytelling to how it’s done. We see Andy bounding through the forest, passing turtles and raccoons and waterfalls and everything else. We hear Mark Trail explaining the clues that a dog might use to find home from a great distance away. And, sure enough, Andy finds his way home.
And, yeah, as Mark Trail predicts, Andy finds his way home safe and sound. Which is all good for the Trails. “Don’t worry, dogs usually come home” is awful advice for anyone whose dog or cat has gone missing. The only useful thing was Rusty planning to put up Lost Dog posters. There’s not even a mention of getting your pets’ ears microchipped, so Animal Control will have a chance at contacting you. Or that you could watch your dog when’s playing at the construction site so he doesn’t get locked in a truck trailer or something.
But Andy is safe back home. And on the 22nd of June what proved to be James Allen’s last story started. It’s incomplete. If a new team is hired, I assume they will have the choice to complete this story or let it drop. They will also have the choice whether to see “Dirty” Dyer’s revenge against Mark Trail carried out.
The last story’s premise: Hollywood liked Mark Trail’s story about white-nose syndrome in bats. Not just for bats. Along the way Mark Trail discovered human traffickers. (This was the story from just before I started doing plot recaps. Mark Trail eventually caught the traffickers while he was in Mexico with Dr Carter, though.) And found an astounding cave system of wondrous beauty, most of which survived Mark Trail’s visit. So producer Marnie Spencer wants to make a film adaptation of this award-winning Mark Trail article. And she wants her boyfriend, bad-boy action hero Jeremy Cartwright, to play the lead. And the lead is Mark Trail. Also, yeah, they’re interested in the bats. Not the Yeti search. Could be they’re waiting to see how the civil suit from Harvey Camel’s family plays out.
And then we get the return of a traditional Mark Trail guest star: poachers! Someone named Digby and someone who isn’t are hunting bighorn sheep. It looked like Jeremy Cartwright was being set up for the full Mark Trail experience.
Spencer is delighted to meet everyone and see everyone in the Lost Forest. Cartwright is smug and vaguely condescending toward the small town. We don’t see exactly what happens but Mark Trail describes him as not being “a very gracious guest”. He complained about the food, which Cherry shrugs off. And he’s not big on the outdoors. Of course, during James Allen’s tenure, the outdoors has done a whole lot of trying to kill Mark Trail. While fishing with Rusty Cartwright complains how he needs a drink, and wonders if they’re heading back to the hotel soon.
And that, the 25th of the July, is the end. James Allen leaves Mark Trail (dailies) and we go into Jack Elrod-era reruns. James Allen-produced Sunday strips continued for a few more weeks, because Sunday strips have a longer lead time than dailies. And this week we got back to Jack Elrod-written Sundays with a bit about squirrels.
With the 27th of July we enter Jack Elrod reruns. I don’t know when this story first appeared. It is, in odd symmetry with the last complete James Allen story, an Andy story, and a lost-pet story. In this case, it’s a cat “not wanted by its owners” that’s deliberately abandoned. Far enough away that the owner is sure it won’t find her way back. The cat, unfamiliar with wild life, approaches some animals, who all run away. Except for Andy. So the lost cat makes a friend.
The Trails are happy to take in the cat, dubbed Tabby. Tabby is happy to explore the farm. Also I guess Mark Trail has a farm? Maybe that’s the buildings so close to the log cabin? I do not know. Tabby’s chased off by a rooster, prompting Andy to rush in and protect her. Cherry Trail scolds Andy for harassing the rooster. So for all of you whose favorite Animaniacs segment was Buttons and Mindy, good news: you do not exist. Nobody’s favorite Animaniacs segment was Buttons and Mindy. Buttons and Mindy just made us all feel tense and bad.
Wild dogs raid a neighbor’s farm, and Mark Trail mentions how they need to keep a close watch. Not close enough to keep Andy and Tabby from wandering unsupervised, though. Andy tries to rescue Tabby from a skunk, realizing too late that this is not a rush-in-and-rescue situation. Even washed off he still stinks, though, so Andy goes off deeper into the woods to avoid bothering anyone. Tabby insists on following. The wild dogs, meanwhile, move into the area and surround Tabby. Looks serious.
Sunday Animals Watch!
Thorn Bugs, 31 May 2020. They know some things about not being eaten by predators. Do you?
Fossa, 7 June 2020. They’re nice and weird creatures and if I’m not wrong their name’s better pronounced “foosh”, which is pleasant to say. They’re doomed in the wild.
Blue Whales, 14 June 2020. There’s evidence they’re making a comeback. Nothing like how prairies dogs are making a comeback, of course, but still, a comeback.
Rhinoceros and Oxpecker, 21 June 2020. Great team. Some of our earliest sound films are recordings of this pair’s vaudeville act.
Lava Crickets, 28 June 2020. They’re doing all right in the volcano eruptions, if you wondered.
Maned Wolfves, 5 July 2020. Legs.
The Fly Geyser, Washoe County, Nevada. 12 July 2020. So as industrial accidents go this one is pretty cool. I hope it’s not screwing up the water table too badly.
Banksia, 26 July 2020. It’s a plant that relies on bush fires to grow and reproduce so at least it’s having a good year.
Iterative Evolution, 2 August 2020. So the Aldabra white-throated rail went extinct when their atoll sank. When the atoll emerged from the sea again, the animal re-evolved from its parent species, and isn’t this amazing?
Invasive Species, 9 August 2020. Kudzu, of course, and Tegu lizards, a “squamate scourge” intruding into Georgia.
Blanket Octopus, 16 August 2020. Last James Allen Sunday strip. So the male of this species “detaches a specialized arm and gives it to the female during mating”, which is a heck of a thing for Mark Trail to go out on.
Since the world is a strange one, of course the last new Mark Trail for the foreseeable future is about octopus sex.
There’s no word yet on a new creator (solo or team). If I get any, first, it’ll probably be through The Daily Cartoonist. And second, I’ll pass word along in an essay at this link. I am still planning to do plot recaps, at least unless I get word that the strip has been retired into permanent reruns.
Degg’s article, linked at the top of this piece, shares the first-and-last pages for the comic strip’s various artists and writers. Also the first appearance of Cherry Davis, eventually Mark’s wife. And some promotional art. And some fan art. Also the revelation-to-me that James Allen had a writing partner, Brice Vorderbrug. Maybe this was generally known to the community, but I didn’t, and that’s why I didn’t credit him in my various plot recaps. (Vorderbrug has been credited all along on Edge of Adventure.)
So today’s Mark Trail is a reprint from Jack Elrod’s long tenure on the comic strip. I don’t know when its original publication was. The initial strip doesn’t bring back any memories for me, and I haven’t seen any comments from anyone who can pin it down.
James Allen has said he does not know when someone else will be hired to write or draw the strip. Nor whether the story — about an actor who’ll be playing Mark Trail in a movie based on his adventures watching Lisa Moore die of plot complications — will be continued.
I have heard nothing about who the new writer or artist (or both) will be. Nor about just when the transition will happen. In comments on that Facebook post Allen says he will not finish the story that’s just begun, and doesn’t know if the new person will.
Yes, it still looks weird, although it’s looking less weird. I still have no explanation.
I apologize if this isn’t as merry a plot recap for James Allen’s Mark Trail as usual. I’m tired of how much misery my country will go to rather than punish killer cops for killing an innocent man we saw them kill. I don’t have a lot left over after that.
Also the art style was weird. The unsourced rumor I keep hearing is that James Allen had to move in with a relative to provide support and care. And, away from his studio, he’d had to adapt to new drawing techniques, which probably means digital art. That takes time to learn. When this story had started, Comics Kingdom commenter George K Atkins hypothesized that the strip was presenting a comic strip drawn by Rusty Trail, rather than “real” events. It’s a great hypothesis, but, it’s not so. It’s a shame; that would have given Allen plenty of time to learn how to draw in strained circumstances.
At the campsite some of the kids start mocking Kevin, a homeless kid. Rusty invites Kevin along, though. Kevin’s inexperienced in things like fishing. Geoff Aldridge is kind and supportive, but other kids see weakness. Eric Crowley particularly takes the chance to attack. Meanwhile Geoff Aldridge mentions to Mark Trail that the Crowleys are thinking of adopting someone. It’s a nice though, although it added a slight reality-show “Who Wants To Be Adopted” cast to the proceedings.
At night Eric reveals motivation: jealousy. He suspects Kevin is trying to steal his family. But he promises Kevin, nobody likes him. Kevin resolves to run away. Rusty overhears him leaving the campsite and offers to join him. And, in a moment of cleverness, sets his alarm clock to wake Mark Trail and bring adults after them. In a moment of less cleverness, he sets it to go off in an hour, rather than like, ten minutes. Still, for a kid, it’s good quick thinking.
The alarm clock gambit works, though, waking Mark Trail, who rouses the other adults. And Rusty’s left clues to their trail. Also he’s left a thunderstorm brewing. That’s great news: a good storm will do something about the drought. Specifically, the lightning will set the brush on fire. So that’s our big Attack of Nature for the story, which kept to the one. But Rusty and Kevin are walking toward the wildfire.
Mark Trail, unaware of the fire, organizes a search. Eric admits what he did and why. While the adults plus Eric set out in search parties, Rusty and Kevin encounter the fire. They turn around for the campsite, and along the way find Eric and Mrs Crowley. A burning tree threatens to fall on Eric and Mrs Crowley, but Kevin saves them by shouting a warning. Eric and Mrs Crowley are happy, of course. And Mark Trail hears the shouting too, so everybody’s able to gather together in the forest fire.
They move together, getting first to the campsite and then to their vehicles. This is in time to meet the fire fighters. Everyone gets out safe. And the forest fire can be put out before it does too much damage.
Eric apologizes to Kevin, and says he hopes they can be friends. Kevin shakes his hand. And, Mr Crowley announces his intention to adopt Kevin. It’s a happy resolution, although it also feels a little like a bonus prize round rather than a moment of true affection.
The story wrapped up the 23rd of May, with Aldridge inviting Mark Trail to future camping trips. Mark Trail thanks him, but says he wants to go home to spend time with his family “and my big dog Andy”. It seems like a curious declaration, until you know that the current story is an Andy special. It has Andy, playing loose in the yard, wandering over to a home under construction. He jumps into a truck trailer ahead of some rain, because you know how dogs hate getting wet and muddy. The truck driver, not noticing Andy in the trailer, closes it up and drives off. Andy’s missing, then, and that’s the start of the story.
Sunday Animals Watch!
What nature does Mark Trail want us to watch out for? The last couple months it’s been this:
Police dogs, 8 March 2020. Dogs are great. Don’t force them to become cops.
Pikas, 15 March 2020. The other lapine, besides rabbits and hares. They’re great. Human-caused climate change is killing them.
Animal tracks, 29 March 2020. They’re all amazing. People creeped out by raccoon paws? You all are wrong.
Jellyfish, 5 April 2020. They’re not like in that Popeye cartoon but they’re still weird and wondrous.
Müllerian Mimicry, 12 April 2020. That’s the thing where one dangerous creature camouflages itself as a different dangerous creature, so that anything preying on it turns to camera and goes, “Seriously? … Not. Fair.”
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.
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.
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.
I don’t want to say Mark Trail left Harvey Camel for dead in a Nepalese avalanche. But he didn’t spend a lot of time looking, either. He had fair reasons not to look, in what we saw on-panel: it has to have been too dangerous to try right after the avalanche. But we don’t see this explained, and we don’t see, like, the day or two after the avalanche either. It’s some unsettling stuff.
And he keeps insisting stuff is evidence of Yetis. Whistling? Yeti. Destroyed hiking station? Yeti. Four rocks by the side of the hiking path? Yeti. Early-morning rain showers? Yeti. Goldbach’s Conjecture? Yeti. “You can’t just keep pointing at things and calling them Yetis,” cries Mark Trail. Camel posts this to TikTok, declaring, “You’re the meme now, dog.” So with this history in mind, you can understand why Mark Trail might leave him for dead.
Also a Himalayan red bear attacks. It’s the fourth Attack of Nature this story. Pemba, one of the Sherpas they’re hiring, has bear repellent, so it’s okay. And Camel opens up about his motivations. He doesn’t want the Yeti captured or brought to zoos or exploited by humans. He wants to show the world that such an astounding things exists. And, yeah, the fame and fortune would be a pleasant reward.
In a hiking station for the night, Mark Trail presses Camel. Why is he so sure there’s one to find? Camel has a heck of an answer: when he was a child, a Yeti ripped his leg off. He’d been hiking with his father, and a Yeti broke into their cabin, tossed his father around, and grabbed him by the leg. And now Camel reveals his prosthetic leg. This pays off the “why does he walk funny” question Mark Trail asked Genie back in November.
Later, Mark Trail asks Genie, like, seriously? Camel’s assistant says she believes in his trauma. But whether it was a Yeti? How is she to know? Unless she’s been his friend for decades and taking care of him and helping him with his trauma? Anyway, they turn in, and Mark Trail sees something inexplicable: Genie going in to Harvey Camel’s room. At night. It makes us wonder whether sex exists in the Mark Trail universe. Before you say that’s obvious since Mark has a son? Remember that Rusty Trail was adopted. Still, yeah, of course people in the Mark Trail universe have heard of sex, and may even enjoy it. It’s not like they’re in Luann.
They get back to hiking, Mark Trail still prodding Camel, “Yeah no but really?” At night they set up camp. And Camel hears something. A whistling. Genie insists it’s the wind. Camel says it’s the Yeti. He runs out of the tent, into the snowstorm.
And the avalanche.
Mark Trail, Genie, and the Sherpas are all right. Mark Trail suggests maybe Camel made it out the other side of the valley? Genie hopes so. But … they don’t look.
In the circumstance, at that hour? That’s defensible. Yes, Camel is lost and likely wounded. But it’s also the middle of the night, immediately after an avalanche, and there’s only four people who could start searching. Waiting for daytime, contacting authorities, getting an organized rescue together is sensible. But this reasoning is never made on-screen. Mark Trail, or better the Sherpas, could explain that searching for Camel right now is likely to fail and get more people injured or killed.
Instead what we see is Genie explaining Camel’s life story. Camel lost a leg to juvenile diabetes. They became friends shortly after he lost his leg. She caretook him. And Camel got onto social media, becoming an adventurer with a worldwide fanbase and niche fame. And, needing to make ever-bigger adventures for his audience, going finally to the search for the Yeti. Mark Trail nods, thinking of this as a lesson in the search for online fame. And we see how this quest ends. Unless, of course, Camel did make it out alive.
And … the heck? Because this is good enough exposition. It fills out character and explains motivations and actions. But it leaves new questions. Like: so was Harvey Camel a legitimate anthropologist who turned into a celebrity? Or was he always a showman, with enough science in him to get respectable magazines like Woods and Wildlife to finance him? And: so … did Harvey Camel, as a child, travel with his father to Nepal and have some encounter that he could remember as a Yeti attack? It’s all right if the characters don’t know answers. But a reader can, fairly, ask whether James Allen has answers in mind. A storyteller always has the right to change their mind about characters’ histories. If the revision makes for a better story, it’s a brilliant twist. If it confuses the audience, it’s a mess.
So this time spent in revelations threw a lot of people off the story. We go from that night, and Genie revealing what she knew about Camel’s history, right to Mark Trail readying to leave Nepal. Mark Trail talks about how they need to inform the authorities. And I suppose we can take as implicit that there was a search. But what counts to the audience is what the characters spend time on. Especially in comic strips, which get read and thought about for seconds per day.
(There are more interesting patterns, though. That earlier story also involved the search for something Mark Trail didn’t think existed, in this case a Vanishing Gold Mine. And had Mark Trail be as suspicious of JJ Looper as he would be of Harvey Camel. Looper would justify Mark Trail’s suspicion, but Mark Trail didn’t have anything but a hunch to go on there.)
Mark Trail heads home. He admits not knowing whether Harvey Camel died in the avalanche. But what are the chances of Camel surviving certain death, and then teaming up with “Dirty” Dyer to seek revenge on Mark Trail? Anyway, Mark Trail explains that his article for Woods and Wildlife won’t mention the Yeti. The crocodiles and bears and all are enough. Which … is … a decision I’d want to bounce off the editor. I would think a failed search for a Yeti alongside a preposterous minor celebrity would be a great story. Of course, I’ve written like two thousand words making fun of this story so far this essay, and I have two other essays about this story.
Anyway then Mark Trail warns Cherry and Doc about how the Internet can bring out bad stuff in people. Cherry agrees, talking about Rusty Trail reading the comments of online comics-reading communities. All right. With that, the story ends. The avalanche brought the Attack of Nature count up to five.
The new story started the 29th of February. Cherry Trail got a call from Geoff Aldridge, head of the Forest Explorers. They do nature outings for kids, particularly ones considered “troubled children”. Mark Trail figures he’ll do an article on the Forest Explorers. He and Rusty can join them a trip. So we’re still meeting everybody right now. There hasn’t been a plot to start yet. We’ll see where things go over the next few months.
Sunday Animals Watch!
So you know your headcanon where the Sunday panels explaining animals are articles that Mark Trail writes? Turns out everybody thinks the same way. I don’t know that it’s what James Allen or his predecessors thought they were doing with it. But everyone agrees that’s what it should mean. Anyway here’s what Mark Trail’s been writing about while lost in the Himalayas:
Babirusas, 15 December 2019. They’re neat; give them a look.
Myrrh, 22 December 2019. It’s one of many resins that you might like to know about.
Bear attacks, 29 December 2019. Mark Trail recommends you not be attacked by a bear. But if you are attacked with a bear, try to have bear repellent.
Tasmanian tigers, 5 January 2020. Extinct for 85 years now. But there’ve been sightings, and now and then someone who thinks genetics is easy says they’re going to clone the animal back into existence.
Saffron crocuses, 12 January 2020. The amount of work it takes to make saffron causes me to feel like I’m putting a lot of people to bother if I get anything that uses any.
Leatherback turtles, 19 January 2020. With a mention of other marine turtles.
Silver-backed chevrotains, 26 January 2020. A species not spotted for thirty years. This as part of the Global Wildlife Conservation’s “Search for Lost Species” campaign. This tries finding evidence for animals not spotted in a long while.
Dumbo Octopus, 2 February 2020. Which are amazing, and which live so deep in the ocean with so few predators around that they don’t even have ink sacs.
Did Estelle take Wilbur back? Why? Did Iris screw up her relationship with Zak? Why? Is Dawn screwing up her relationship with real French guy from France, Hugo Franceypants? Why? Did the auto care place at the end of the block finally update its sign with a new inspirational-yet-somehow-despairing thought? Yes! Will I belatedly work out the “Mark Trail joined Mastodon but left because he couldn’t find any” joke I’ve been trying to make fit into this all week? Could be! Join me for Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth in one week’s time, if things go like I plan. Thanks for reading. Like and subscribe me on Orkut, Ping, Yo, Ello, and Apple eWorld, please.
Mark Trail is getting around to it. At least now, in mid-December 2019. If you’re trying to catch up on James Allen’s Mark Trail after about March 2020 I probably have a more up-to-date plot recap here. Also any news about the strip important enough to break my cycles here.
Camel tries to push Mark Trail into social media. It’s worked out great for him. Like, a hundred thousand people watched him catch what proved to be a three-inch fish. Camel points out, most people are boring losers who never do anything cool, like have their jeep run off the road by a charging Indian rhinoceros. You know, like is happening to them. So that’s our first Attack of Nature for the story.
They walk to a nearby outpost, where they hook up with a couple elephants to carry them and their gear on. Mark Trail mentions being generally opposed to this kind of animal exploitation. Camel rolls his eyes halfway to Bangladesh at how Trail’s being some kind of unrealistic starry-eyed tree-hugging politically correct weepy momma’s soy boy who’s so out of touch with the hard decisions of real life in Nepal. Anyway, here’s some vampire bats he can tweet.
In Num village, to trade the elephants out for Sherpas, Trail asks Genie, like, is Camel always so … like that? Not that Mark Trail’s being judgemental but he is awfully like that. Anyway, Genie says yeah, gads but he’s like that.
With two Sherpas, Mingma and Pemba, they set out. All on foot, to get to the mountain from the reported Yeti sighting. And Mingma shares from his grandfather’s stories. These are of a hairy man who’d come looking for food during winter months, making a “haunting whistling” and “low growls”. And that his grandfather saw the creature kill a dzo once. A dzo is a hybrid, between a male water buffalo and a female domesticated yak. And as Mingma shares this — in a strip that ran Halloween week — they hear a strange low growl. It’s a wandering dzo.
More walking. At a river stop, Mark Trail asks Genie about Dr Camel’s strange walk. Genie asks why he doesn’t just ask Dr Camel why he’s establishing a story moment where he’ll be mistaken for a Yeti later on. And then a crocodile comes near eating her. There’s our second Attack of Nature for the story. Mark Trail whacks it with a stick, until it leaves. And Camel livestreams the whole thing, to an audience of ten thousand people. Genie’s annoyed. She didn’t expect that Camel would be so much like that. Also, I’m going to imagine, Bill Ellis wonders if this is something they were supposed to have first-publication rights on. Well, I’m sure the people who keep Mark Trail in business are hep to the ways of publishing in a world filled with social media.
More climbing, on the mountain where the Yeti was maybe spotted in April. And rain’s coming in. Mark Trail’s a little concerned, but after all, a flash flood hasn’t screwed up anything since his last adventure. He’s finally talked people into setting up a lean-to when the landslide comes in. So that’s the third Attack of Nature for the story.
Everyone gets through all right, and the party doesn’t even scatter or anything. Camel admits he’d have loved to livestream that. After a stop in the town of Seduwa, for permits and nature trivia, the party … continues hiking. They set up camp and admire the night sky. Camel talks of how he’s sure they’re close to the Yeti. While lying awake, Mark hears … something. Something whistling. And … some figure, in shadow, on the ridge. Does he see? … no, it’s a bunch of rocks. And this gets Mark Trail kind of mopey.
I understand the folks calling this attitude snide. Mark Trail is, after all, having a trip most people would consider what they’d do with their lottery winnings. Mark Trail’s in the Himalayas, asked to communicate the experience of wildlife we’ll never understand well enough. Mark Trail’s pouting that he’s seen rocks before. But it’s also normal to be homesick, especially going to a very unfamiliar place. Mark Trail’s had a rhinoceros try to kill him. Mark Trail’s had a landslide nearly kill him. Mark Trail’s had to listen to four straight days of Dr Camel saying get on the Twitter, that won’t make you more sad and tired. So especially after fooling himself into thinking he maybe saw a Yeti? In the middle of the night, when all our fears and doubts are at their highest? Yeah, that’s a normal human emotion out of Mark Trail.
And that’s where the story is. Will Mark Trail witness an actual for-real yeti? How many more times is Nature going to almost kill our protagonists? And is “Dirty” Dyer ever going to get around to killing Mark Trail with fire? We might have progress on these questions by the time I check in again, in I figure about twelve weeks.
Sunday Animals Watch
And what animals or plants or natural wonders would Mark Trail like us to be aware of before humans destroy them? The past three months, it’s been these:
Hornet-Mimic Hoverflies, 22 September 2019. They’re doing okay except for when the hornets get really fed up with how they repeat everything the hornets say but in this nasal sing-song voice.
Pinzon Island (Galapagos) Tortoises, 29 September 2019. Well, it was only a century since the previous baby Pinzon Island tortoise was spotted, but we’ve seen some now and that’s something at least.
Regal Moths, 6 October 2019. As larvae they’re “hickory horned devils” and they’re utterly harmless, they tell us.
Scale Worms, 13 October 2019. Even Mark Trail calls them “ghastly in appearance” but since they’re hanging out in deep sea trenches we’re probably going to knock them out without even half trying.
Angiosperms, 20 October 2019. So here, particularly, a “flowering yam” named the black bat flower which, yeah, is endangered.
Spiders and Bats, 27 October 2019. Mark Trail spotlights a video of a bat caught in a spider web, in case you’re skipping reading the Amazing Spider-Man reruns.
Palm trees, 3 November 2019. Oh, they’re dying thanks to ‘lethal bronzing’, yet another invasive disease.
Tigers, 10 November 2019. There are more furries who suit as tigers at conventions than there are tigers in the real world and I do not want to know whether this claim is actually true, thank you.
Quokkas, 17 November 2019. They’re pleasant and not afraid of humans, so it’s probably for the best that Australia’s setting up laws against messing with them.
Kodiak and Polar Bears, 24 November 2019. Oh dear, yeah.
White Ligers, 1 December 2019. There’s four known to exist. (Young ones, just recently born.)
Zebras, 8 December 2019. There’s this pseudomelanistic zebra with these neat spots instead of stripes.
Babirusas, 15 December 2019. They’re listed as “threatened”, so it’s probably worse than that.
Nature finally got around to trying to kill Mark Trail last time I checked in. He, Doc, Leola, and J J Looper were following a map to a gold mine seen decades ago by Doc and his friend. (His friend, Leola’s husband, had recently died, the incident putting the map into the story.) Looper, owner of a supply store, was their guide. At least until Nature sent a flash flood in that swept everyone away and left Looper nowhere to be found. This is an inconvenience, what with Looper maybe being dead and having the only copy of the map.
But. Doc finds the terrain familiar. He recalls a pile of rocks covering the mine entrance and that’s exactly what Leola sees. It’s a great discovery. And oh, here’s J J Looper! And he’s sharing a gun with them! He has reasons. Envy of Mark Trail’s easy lifestyle of globetrotting while animals are nearby, sure. But also thoughts of his hard life. He can barely make a living teaching tourists to pan for gold. Actual gold, now, that would solve some of his problems.
Mark, Leola, and Doc uncover the mine entrance. It’s definitely where the mysterious stranger led his friends, decades ago, and took great piles of gold out. And now, having finally rediscovered the mine, there’s … nothing. No gold. No mining equipment. Just … a great big shiny thing! It’s Mark’s chance to punch Looper out, and get the gun away from him. Now they can see what the shiny thing in back is.
It’s a treasure chest. Its contents: a framed newspaper. Its headline, surprisingly large for the era, is of a gold dealer robbed at a gem show. Two of the robbers were later killed; the third, and the gold nuggets, were never found. The third was the bearded stranger who, five years later, brought him to the mine.
The rationalization: the three buried the gold, figuring to come back when the heat was off. With his partners killed the bearded stranger needed help getting the gold back. So he set up this mystery of a lost gold mine and all. Why couldn’t Doc and his friends couldn’t find the place again? Well, it’s hard to find stuff in the mountains. Especially under different light or from different angles or all. Especially because they were thinking of a mine instead of this, a cave just deep enough for someone to vanish in.
So Doc feels foolish for having believed a cave with gold inside was some kind of gold mine. Looper meanwhile feels like an astounding idiot, what with threatening to shoot people and all that. Looper begs forgiveness. Mark Trail points out, he was pointing a loaded gun at them. But in the awkward days of getting back to town, Mark Trail’s heart softens. After all, they were on a gold-digging expedition in the southwest. If someone desperately afraid of poverty doesn’t pull a gun on the rest of the party, has everyone really had the Gold Prospecting Experience? Of course not. And so Looper gets community service and probation.
We get, from the 12th through 17th of August, a little bit of nature in tooth and claw. It’s a mother cougar fighting a bear until she realizes it’s easier if she moves her cub out of the way instead.
After this interlude we see Mark Trail and Doc having an epilogue back at home. Telling what happens to Looper, and how Cherry Trail would rather Mark didn’t go get himself almost killed. The mention that Rusty Trail is reading the Jungle Jim comic on Comics Kingdom. And that people are mean in comments sections. It’s hard to not think James Allen is working out his frustration with comics snarkers here. Well, whatever gets the bad energies out.
And with the 2nd of September, the current story starts. Woods and Wildlife editor Bill Ellis has an assignment for Mark Trail. University Professor Harvey Camel, anthropologist and explorer, is searching for proof of the Yeti. Ellis is funding the trip, in exchange for first publication rights. Mark Trail is skeptical of any cryptozoology adventures. But this past April, the Indian army tweeted the discovery of a possible Yeti footprint. Mark is finally won over by the journalistic value of such an expedition, and how if legends are right, the Yeti has a lot of facial hair.
Cherry worries for his safety. She mentions how when Mark went to Africa, he had that encounter with “Dirty” Dyer, who’s still lurking around subplots ready to kill Mark with fire. Mark promises that he’s going to be fine, a promise that he can not in fact make. But she accepts his confidence, anyway.
(By the way, to let you know what a deep strain of Copy Editor Nerd there is in me: I would appreciate thoughts about whether to prefer writing “yeti” or “Yeti”. I know enough that the creature has some presence in legends around the Himalayan mountains. I’d rather refer to it in not-obnoxious ways when I do the next plot recap.)
Sunday Animals Watch
Each Sunday Mark Trail features some wonder of animals, plants, or nature itself, that we’re doing our best to eliminate by 2030. Here’s what’s leaving soon, and when it got featured.
Formosan Clouded Leopard, 30 June 2019. After six years being thought extinct some were found again.
Epomis ground beetles, 7 July 2019. They prey on frogs, which the frogs report is “totally bogus”.
Isopods, 14 July 2019. Deep-sea scavengers. They’re weirder than we realized.
Razorbacks/Peccaries, 21 July 2019. And this was before that “30-50 feral hogs” meme, so don’t go accusing James Allen of hopping on bandwagons here.
Giant Water Bugs, 28 July 2019. Oh, I think I know those guys. Yeah, they’re creepy but leave them alone and they’ll go about whatever their business is exactly.
Sumatran Rhinoceroses, 4 August 2019. It’s the only Asian rhino species to have two horns. But their outlook is grim.
Ravens, 11 August 2019. Particularly, white ravens. Do not cross them.
Golden tortoise beetles, 18 August 2019. So if you were wondering what was feeding on your morning glory, bindweed, or sweet potatoes see if these guys are the problem.
Raccoon dogs, 25 August 2019. The only canine species known to hibernate, by the way, so you’re welcome when this comes up during your Jeopardy! audition.
Amazon Parrots, 1 September 2019. Yeah, they’re great, but they have longer lifespans than do Fortune 500 Companies, so what to do with them after you die is a discussion you have to have a lot.
Grasshopper Mice, 8 September 2019. Not to be all animal hipster with you, but I knew about these guys in the 90s and I’m glad the Internet is discovering these weirdoes. Like, they’ll howl like tiny wolves, and stalk prey species, and they’re even immune to some animals’ venom. I know, right?
Sea slugs, 15 September 2019. OK, they’ve got an awful name but these critters do some amazing things with body design and color.
Hornet-Mimic Hoverflies, 22 September 2019. They look like hornets, but don’t sting, so if you have one hanging around you, relax!
Oh, how is Dawn Weston’s summer romance going? Is her beau, the For-Real French Foreign Exchange Student Jean-Luke Baguette really so heartless as to leave her, even for his home village of Mal-de-Mere, in the Bibliothèque province of France? Is there hope for true love winning out over all? In Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth? Will there be muffins? I’m delighted to have the answers to these and more silly questions, next Sunday.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
I have no idea why Comics Kingdom decided to screw up its web site. But they went and redesigned it, so now it works worse by every measure. It’s that thing where a web site decides to see what it can do to annoy its regular customers. For me, that’s by two approaches: I can’t load all my comics in one go anymore. You know, the way you’d think a comics page on a comics-page site would do. I have to keep hitting ‘load six more comics’, and hoping that the site doesn’t hang, so that I have to reload the entire thing from scratch. Since the site redesign I have gotten through the day’s comics without a glitch exactly zero times. Also for me, that’s the trashing of archives. Comics Kingdom used to let me look at seven comics on a single page, which is invaluable for following a story comic. They’ve forgotten to include that in the redesign. So I’ll be sending them notes about this lost functionality until they stop reading complaints about things they broke. That would be when I first sent any complaint at all.
Anyway. If you’re reading this after about June 2019 I probably have a more up-to-date recap of James Allen’s Mark Trail. Or I’ve given up on comics altogether as a bad job. If I haven’t, though, my newer plot recaps should be at this link. Thanks for sticking with me through this mess.
13 January – 7 April 2019.
Mark Trail’s long journey in Mexico seemed ready to end, last time I checked in. Mark and responsible-ish authority-like figures found Rusty Trail and Mara. They, in turn, had found Boss and Jefe, who were smuggling archeological finds out of Professor Carter’s dig site. And Mark Trail knew them: in early 2016 they were smuggling people into the United States. Along the way Boss and Jefe left Mark and company for dead, in an enormous and amazing cavern system. Now, finally, Mark Trail has someone to punch.
Mark and Jose are able to punch, and catch, Boss, Jefe, and their underling Juanito. They don’t find Rusty and Mara right away, though. The last they saw, the kids were heading towards the old library Boss and Jefe had been using. Rusty and Mara are there, playing Go Fish with Raul. You remember Raul: he’s the slightly bearded motorcycle … agent … who was part of the ring trying to catch the smugglers. So everyone’s reunited, the bad guys are foiled, and it’s been a productive day that’s run since, like, July of last year.
The rest of the Mexico visit is quiet. The Trails spend time on the beach watching nature. Rusty and Mara agree to swap e-mail addresses, in case either of them ever sends an e-mail. And there’s a lot of pictures of toucans, a running joke this storyline that I don’t understand. While flying home, Mark Trail takes time to explain how he loves the great adventure comics of the past. He cites particularly Jungle Jim, which ran from 1934 to 1954. This seems a little old for Mark Trail, if he’s not supposed to be a timeless, unageing spirit. Maybe he encountered it in reprints. Jungle Jim, written by Don Moore and illustrated by Alex Raymond, is a Vintage reprint on Comics Kingdom. Good luck reading it.
The close to the Mexico storyline came the 9th of March. Rusty Trail got a package. After a couple days spent talking about how good it is to read the comics, Rusty opened it: it’s the Zuni fetish doll. The one that turned up without explanation at the archeologists’ camp. The one that revealed Mark Trail knew of the word “fetish”. Even though it’s not that kind of fetish. Anyway, with that note, something that surely refers to something I don’t know, we could leave Mexico in the past.
But before that was another “Dirty” Dyer interlude. We hadn’t seen him since April 2018. He’s still figuring to kill Mark Trail. We meet him testing out a flamethrower in the Bahamas. He’s trying out that and a rocket launcher supplied by a Mister Smith. Smith is surprisingly curious about why Dyer wants to buy stuff that can kill someone so much. Dyer is surprisingly upfront about it: he wants to kill someone so much.
And Smith is surprised who Dyer wants to kill. He knows of Mark Trail, and loves his articles. He’s glad to help kill Mark Trail. He’d like to get an autograph first, but it’s not like he’s going to run out of Mark Trail archives. Also surprisingly interested in joining the fun: Semo, the cabana boy. He’s good at forging passports and other legal documents. And he knows Microsoft Office, so that’s useful. Also he’s tired of being a cabana boy and getting, like, crazy demands from guests such as David Hasselhoff. (Yes, the text in that strip is written in an odd, evasive style. But on the 4th of March Dyer names “The Hoff”.)
The new story got started the 11th of March. Doc had sad news: his old buddy Amos died. And he tells a story of when he and Amos were working a dude ranch. One day a bearded stranger came to them with the map of a vanished gold mine. He’d said the Native Americans who worked the strange mine with an entrance that moved around had left a rich cache of gold. They’d gone with him, and followed the map. The stranger dug underneath a pile of rocks, going into the opening alone, and emerged hours later with bags of gold. The stranger left town, saying he had all the gold he needed. Doc and Amos and other boys from town searched the area the next day, but the land seemed to have changed.
So that’s the story. Amos had the stranger’s map. His widow is giving it to Doc. He wonders what became of the mine that he swears he saw. So, let’s put on a mining expedition! Besides, Mark can probably photograph some Sonoran desert creatures and make a story about it and maybe blow up a jeep or something. They fly to Phoenix, a city where I know surprisingly many people considering I’ve never been in Arizona. And set out to get gold-prospecting equipment while trading facts about the Sonoran Desert. This has offered a lot of chances to show animals in the foreground and large vehicles driving in the mid-background. They meet up with J J Looper, who owns a supply store, and acts friendly even though he’s got a stubbly beard. But Looper offers his expertise in gold-prospecting and in gold-prospecting lore. The folklore might be handy this adventure.
What wonders of the natural world — animals, plants, phenomena — have been highlighted in recent Sunday strips? And how much have we specifically doomed them? Here’s your roundup.
The Lowland Bongo, 13 January 2019. Not threatened. Yet.
Tanzanite, 20 January 2019. It was discovered only in 1967, and there’s one spot where it’s known to occur, but don’t worry: the American Gem Trade Association has named it a birthstone so we’ll be doing something terrible to people to get it now.
Spotted Lanternflies, 27 January 2019. They’re doing very well, now that they’re an invasive species in the United States Northeast.
Redback Spider, 3 February 2019. It’s in Australia so I assume any one of them is able to poison over one-quarter of the world’s human population.
The United States Forest Service, 10 February 2019. Incredibly endangered.
Albatrosses, 17 February 2019. Threatened or endangered, plus, you start talking about them and some nerd does Monty Python at you.
Tortugas National Park, Florida, 24 February 2019. Unbelievably doomed.
The Horned Marsupial Frog, 3 March 2019. We’d thought it was extinct the last decade, but it’s turned up in Ecuador, so that’s something.
King Vultures, 10 March 2019. Not particularly threatened, although they do live in Brazil, so, mm. That won’t end well.
The Deep-Sea Cucumber, Enyphiastes Eximia, 17 March 2019. It’s a deep sea creature. Who even knows?
Scorpions, 24 March 2019. They seem safe. The panel gives “Special Thanks to Jude Nelson”. So we may infer that scorpion in your room is Jude’s doing.
Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle, 31 March 2019. It’s a turtle you never heard of, so, you see where this is going.
The Vaquita Porpoise, 7 April 2019. There might be as many as fifteen of them left alive.
If you’re trying to understand the current storyline in James Allen’s Mark Trail, this is a good piece to read. Unless it’s later than about April 2019. If it is, I’ll probably have a more up-to-date plot recap here. Good luck finding what you need.
My last check-in on Mark Trail had almost no Mark in it. Instead, Rusty Trail and Mara, a girl he met on the plane down to Mexico, took the lead. Rusty and Mara noticed assistant archeologist Becky was passing artefacts to someone who didn’t look like he was a museum. They follow the man, Juanito, to the nearby town of Santa Poco. There he explains to them he’s a courier, but they’re welcome to come with him since this isn’t a great part of town.
Pursuing Juanito, Rusty, and Mara, is a motorcycle-riding, long-haired guy named Raul. Raul has some connection to Joe/José. José’s been truck-driving for the archeologists. And also watching all this artefact-passing. And making suspicious-sounding CB radio calls to Raul. So when we left off we were looking at a motorcycle-fueled chase in the bad parts of Santa Poco. Rusty and Mara were in the company of a man of unknown-to-us objectives. And they were pursued by men of unknown-to-us objectives. A bit confusing, yes, but the last several months of strip have given some clarity to who’s trying to do what and why.
Rusty and Mara run down an alley. Raul calls out, claiming to be a friend of Mark Trail’s. They don’t buy it, and find a lucky hole in the wall to dig through. Raul calls José, asking him to call Mark back into the story. He’ll chase the kids. And warns he’s going to leave his bike “in this nasty alley with rats … big rats!” It’s a declaration so intense I feel like it’s got to refer to something, but I don’t know what. José does call Mark, promising to explain everything when he gets there.
Mark asks senior archeologist Howard Carter (get it?) if there’s something funny about José. This allows us to enter into the plot that José seems “more complicated” than they expect from their truck driver. But they allow that he seems more educated than the average person around town. Mark figures, what the heck, let’s see what’s going on.
Raul, on the rooftops, takes time from yelling at toucans to notice them. He misses one leap from rooftop to rooftop, and falls through a skylight. He lands on the supper table of a couple who take a man falling through their roof in distractingly good spirits. They listen to his story of chasing someone around town all day. They offer him some landed-on empanadas. And they let him throw a lamp through the window to get out because the door was in the wrong direction? He leaves them money for the damages, at least.
It’s a bizarre interaction. What it read like was a comic beat in a genially dopey mid-80s movie that’s trying to be Romancing The Stone. You know, about forty minutes in, and the protagonist finally realized he has to do something about the people who stole the necklace that woman stuffed in his carry-on, and he pratfalled out of his chase, and now the director’s mother who’s thrilled to be in a movie is cleaning him up. It may be James Allen was going for that effect.
Rusty and Mara figure they’ve escaped Raul. They figure to find Juanito by using the tracking app on the phone they dropped in his backpack. Juanito’s not looking for them. He’s delivering Becky’s artefacts to some silhouetted figures. They chuckle about how the collectors buying smuggled artefacts will give them a nice Christmas bonus. The chuckling happens right before Christmas, reader time. It makes an odd bit of time-binding for the story, though. Story strips are vulnerable to some weird time dilations. Like, this story, which has run since April, has been only a couple of days for the characters.
Anyway, the boss, Boss, and his underling Jefe, are barely done giggling about this when the phone rings. It’s Rusty’s Mom calling. Boss, Jefe, and Juanito realize they’re in a lot of trouble when Cherry Trail addresses them by full name including their middle names. Raul curses Rusty and Mara for following the tracking app right into Juanito’s boss’s lair. He figures it’s time to call José.
José meanwhile is talking with Mark Trail, and Professor Carter. He’s finally collapsing the quantum waveform of sides and motivations of this story. José’s an undercover cop, which according to the rules of Mark Trail puts him on the side of Good. He’s been undercover, investigating Becky for smuggling archeology. Rusty and Mara saw one of their agents at the temple. They pulled that agent back, and sent in Raul to intercept the kids. So yes, Raul may have spent months in the story grumbling about Rusty and Mara, and thinking of them as “those brats”. But he’s not a bad guy, he just doesn’t feel as though he has to like two kids he doesn’t know and who’ve been making his life harder. It’s a step toward more real characters in Mark Trail. It means someone can be on the Good side without liking the lead characters.
Now they know where the kids are, but also that Boss, Jefe, and Juanito are there too. So they figure, better to bring along Mark Trail, in case somebody needs punching.
And boy do they ever need punching. Mark recognizes Boss and Jefe. They were in a story in early 2016, from just before I started recapping plots regularly. Back then Boss and Jefe were smuggling humans into the southwestern United States. It partly showed off the ecological consequences of this. And partly got Mark Trail and company caught in an endless yet fascinating series of caves. That storyline left the human-traffickers’ fates unresolved. That alone was a major change from the linear, self-contained stories of Jack Elrod.
And I know, you’re wondering: wait, they’re trafficking humans and they’re smuggling pre-Mayan artefacts? Aren’t those separate lines of work? All I can say is that the gig economy is becoming more respectable, and there’s now ways for everyone in the underworld to pick up a side hustle. Boss and Jefe signed up early for Smuglr. It’s the crime-sharing app that’s disrupting the traditional black markets by cutting out the hench-middle-men. And it’s one I’m happy to welcome as the newest advertiser on my podcast.
And finally, after several stories of nothing more exciting than islands blowing up, Mark Trail is punching baddies. This probably indicates that the story is coming near an end. It’s been a big one; it started back in April. All the major narrative questions are answered, or looking nearly answered. There have been a couple stray bits. But I’m going ahead and supposing any weirdly specific detail never mentioned again is a reference to something I haven’t seen. I’m thinking of the Zuni fetish doll delivered anonymously in a box and that gets moved during the day. I’m sure that means something.
I just know I’m going to have to re-use the follow-up question for this plot summary. But, what the heck. It’s the question that people reading this essay would want answered.
Sunday Animals Watch
What amazing yet endangered animals, plants, or natural phenomenon have been highlighted in recent Sunday strips? These.
Parsnips, 21 October 2018. Apparently they can doom you!
Tegu Lizards, 28 October 2018. We’ve gotten them to be invasive to Florida, so, good work everyone.
Giant Silk Moth, 4 November 2018. They seem to be doing all right for themselves.
Japanese macaques, 11 November 2018. Not actually threatened, which seems to break the rules for non-human primates.
Naked Mole Rats, 18 November 2018. You just know they’re going to make Rufus some other species for the live-action movie.
Hammerhead sharks, 25 November 2018.
Green Crabs, 2 December 2018. They’re going invasive, but they’ve inspired one area of Italy to try making them dinner, so that’s something I suppose.
Wondiwoi Tree Kangaroos, 9 December 2018. So for 85 years westerners only knew of it from one sample, but last year British naturalist Michael Smith took some photos of one, so, they’re probably not doing well but they’re not actually extinct yet?
The Jacuzzi of Despair, 16 December 2018. It’s a 100-foot wide zone, three thousand feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico, that’s too briney for anything to live, which is neat and weird and unsettling.
Frankincense, 23 December 2018. It’s not just for making Christmastime jokes about Frankincense’s Monster anymore!
Manatees, 30 December 2018. Incredibly endangered despite being crazy popular.
White Lions, 6 January 2019. Unbelievably endangered. This one mentions particularly a sterile white lion in danger of being auctioned off, possibly to canned-hunters.
The Lowland Bongo, 13 January 2019. Not threatened yet, but the year is young.
Last time I checked in, Mark Trail and company were in the pop-culture district of Mexico. Mark’s archeology buddy Professor Howard Carter was finding weird stuff in a 2500-year-old temple. His assistant Becky had this weird habit of cataloguing and making 3-D scans of everything before taking it to a secure facility. And hey, she’s off-stage now for unknown reasons. Rusty found a “Zuni Fetish Doll” that arrived in an anonymous box. And this wasn’t the first time one of these has turned up. That and some references to Indiana Jones and Three Amigos filled out the setting. I don’t know if the doll is a reference to something.
Mark Trail realizes the story is stalling out. It’s been going since April and what we know is this ancient temple is weird and Becky’s off-stage. He suggests Rusty and his girlfriend-based partner organism Mara go to the other temple. See if they can’t get kidnapped or something while he takes a nap and disappears from the story. Joe the van driver mentions how the dolls started showing up and the site has a curse or something. Also that he’d heard Becky was at the dig site in the morning but guesses he was wrong. Anyway, he drops them off in care of the tour guide at Non-Creepy Mayan Temple.
Rusty and Mara notice that Becky’s in with the tour group. They call to her, but she doesn’t react. Mara thinks it’s odd that Becky didn’t hear them. But Rusty has people “not hearing” him and fleeing his approach all the time. Still, they press on. They find Becky! She’s talking with someone else, someone wearing a backpack who was not from the tour group. And holding what looks like one of the masks dug up earlier. Mara thinks Becky is trying to sell it. They work up the hypothesis that Becky is making 3-D prints of the artifacts, selling the real ones, and putting the fakes into museums. Rusty thinks it’s a shame someone as nice-seeming as Becky would do something so underhanded. Mara calls him out on this: “you meet a girl one time, and just because she’s pretty, you think she’s nice”. A good point. Rusty doesn’t seem to consider he hasn’t met Mara all that much, and she seems nice, and she’s feeding the idea Becky is arranging an artifact sale. Just saying.
They notice someone’s watching them. And they follow the guy who took the mask. Backpack Guy is taking the tour bus back to Santa Poco. The guy who watched them gets on the radio with Joe the driver, though. Joe and Watching Guy share an ominous radio conversation about having to use the kids before getting them out of the way. And that they know this is dangerous, given Mark Trail’s reputation for how every story ends in major explosions lately. Rusty and Mara get back to Joe, and ask him to take them into Santa Poco and hey, why not stop wherever the tour bus does? He can’t figure an excuse not to comply. Mara wonders if Joe might have been the watcher, and she thinks that’s a shame, as “he seems like such a nice guy”. Credit to James Allen for underplaying the character moments there. Anyway, they drive past a week’s worth of panels of Central American wildlife eating other pieces of Central American wildlife.
Mara’s talked Rusty into putting some kind of tracking app on his phone and I’m sorry, Rusty Trail has a smart phone. I have to go lie down a while. Also he has a smart phone that works in Mexico. Y’know, my love and I spent a week in Mexico City earlier this year. Working out whether we could get a phone to work on the Mexican network was something we stressed about without ever solving the problem. (We made it through the week without a phone. Not looking for a medal here, just some acknowledgement of our courage.) Anyway, Mara’s plan is to turn on the tracking app, drop the phone in Backpack Guy’s backpack and then even if they lose sight of him, it’s all right. They can follow. Mara mentions getting the idea from Nancy Drew, a reference Rusty doesn’t get, and wait Nancy Drew has smart phones now? I have to go lie down again.
Back to Joe, who mercifully gives us some names for characters. Watching Guy turns out to be Pablo. They and Raul — who’s talking to Joe while posing with his cool motorcycle — know the kids are on to something. And that Pablo saw the “courier”, while Raul saw Becky. They note that they didn’t see the courier and Becky together. This point is so inconsequential that taking panel time to establish it must mean it’s consequential. Joe think that Rusty and Mara were following the “second courier”. But since they’re not following Backpack Guy now he doesn’t know what to think. This may be how this scenario would happen. But it made for a week of baffling reading as people say they don’t know what’s going on. Raul promises to “take care” of Rusty and Mara. He also says he’s “let Pablo take care of” Becky. Yes, I’m aware the phrasing looks ominous without actually committing to anything. I mean, there’s enough space here for Joe and Pablo and Raul to be part of the smuggling operation. There’s also enough for them to be undercover agents busting the crime syndicate.
All right. So. Rusty and Mara try to act casual as Backpack Guy encounters them. He recognizes his “clumsy friends” who knocked him over at the bus stop. That scene wasn’t actually shown on-panel by the way. But it was how they dropped Rusty’s phone into his backpack. He proposes that they walk with him, since this is not a great part of town for unattended kids. And introduces himself as Juanito, so now I have all the player-characters’ names. Juanito says he’s a courier, and he’s got a package to deliver nearby, so why not walk with him? Rusty and Mara go along with this. Juanito stops at the next street because he’s seen the motorcyclist, whom we know to be Raul. Juanito’s not sure that Raul is following them, but does think he “looks like trouble”. Juanito proposes they run into a crowd. I’m assuming a fruit stand is going to get knocked over. Could even get exploded.
I do appreciate that James Allen has put in play at least three groups here. Each knows a little about the other groups. None knows enough that anyone can be confident in who to trust or how far. It’s a bit foggy reading this day-to-day. Comics Kingdom lets subscribers read a week’s worth of strips at once. That helps the plot threads focus for me. And, I hope, I help that for you.
Sunday Animals Watch
What fascinating animals, plants, or forces of nature were highlighted in the Sunday panels recently? And have we killed them yet? Here’s the recap.
Ants, 29 July 2018. So there’s ants that explode and they’re not even from Australia and what the flipping heck?
Honeysuckle, 5 August 2018. Not any more endangered than all life on Earth is right now.
Dobsonflies, 12 August 2018. Early indicators of when the local environment is dying.
Hognose Snakes, 19 August 2018. Not endangered, but they do play dead so they’re a little drama-prone.
Giant Hogweed, 26 August 2018. Also called Giant Cow Parsley or Hogsbane, claims Mark Trail. It’s invasive and its sap can send you to the hospital with third-degree burns.
Gila Monsters, 2 September 2018. Fun episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Humbolt Martens, 9 September 2018. Endangered, and Mark Trail tries to cast some blame on the marihuana.
Rhinoceroses, 16 September 2018. Ugh. You know. But it does mention that thing where earlier this year it looks like lions killed a poacher of rhinoceroses.
Mount Lico’s “Lost Continent”, 23 September 2018. Cool, technology-assisted discovery of a previously undisturbed forest with a bunch of unknown species that’ll probably blow up, if that episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is any guide.
Jaguars, 30 September 2018. Endangered. Features one of the three known in recent years to be in the United States and that got killed by a poacher.
The Larger Pacific Striped Octopus, 7 October 2018. Probably endangered, but apparently it’s too rarely seen to be sure.
Parsnips, 21 October 2018. They can cause second-degree chemical burns, which is no Giant Hogweed but is still a valuable reminder to never eat anything natural enough that its name isn’t required legally to be misspelled.
Will I make it seven days without turning into a white-hot ball of incoherent, jibbering rage? There’s only one way to know and that’s to see if I last until next Sunday reading Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth. If I survive, I’ll tell you why you should probably be a white-hot ball of incoherent, jibbering rage too!
Mark Trail‘s current storyline began in April. Either the 16th of the 26th, depending on whether a couple strips about “Dirty” Dyer planning to kill Mark Trail come into play in the current story. Dyer’s been seen in interludes for quite a while now, a promise of a story to come. I’m still unsettled to see Mark Trail using any narrative technique besides “and then Mark punched the poaching smugglers right in the beard”.
So Mark, Cherry, and Rusty Trail were to visit the Azyoulik Resort, near the Mexican village of Santa Poco. They’re there to see wildlife and check in with an archeologist friend of Mark’s. James Allen has a bit of a taste for pulp adventure stories. His side project (with Brice Vorderbrug) is a weekly strip, Edge of Adventure, that’s entirely pulpy adventure action. Mark’s archeologist friend is Professor Howard Carter. So at this point anyone a little genre-aware knows the ending. At best someone is going to have to jump into a vortex of death rays to prevent some ancient unstoppable evil from eating the world. Fantasy/Science Fiction reviewer James Nicoll has asked how responsible societies allow archeology. The question has no answer.
There’s some commotion at the beach. Turns out a whale got stuck on the sand. Mark is on the scene, happy to explain it’s a Minke Whale. He would have explained all sorts of amazing things about how humans are killing them, except a square-headed man asks how Mark could know that. But the conversation gets distracted by the plan to push the whale back in the water. The reader gets distracted by Mark standing there shirtless on the beach while grinning a little weird. Anyway, this goes well for the whale. The square-headed man apologizes for doubting Mark. And it works well for Rusty too, as this whale-saving impresses Mara, the girl he cute-met on the airplane. They go off looking at toucans after dinner.
To the main plot, though. Professor Carter’s discovered a 2500-year-old lost temple (GET IT?). It’s a weird one. How weird? Weird. There’s a good week or two of driving to the temple that establishes some of the practical points of how the expedition is going. And it shows off Central American wildlife. The generic strip this whole story has been a single panel of a couple characters talking, usually inside a building, sometimes in a vehicle, while off on the right edge of the panel a cacomistle or a tayra or something goes about its business. Yes, we all want to see capybaras, but they don’t live that far north naturally.
Mark, Rusty, and Mara arrive at the temple and agree that it’s creepy. It’s a neat illustration. Architecture overgrown with plants is very hard to draw. But is it creepy? Mark and Rusty Trail agree that it’s weird, but can’t pin down how. I don’t know enough about Yucatan architecture of the fifth and sixth centuries BCE to know how either. They meet up with Howard Carter, whom Mark joshingly referes to as “you old tomb raider”. The National Authors Advisory Council on Unconscious Racism issues a Problematic Tropes Watch.
What’s so strange about the ruins doesn’t get exactly explained. Lidar, the use of pulsed laser light to map terrains, gets explained. But what’s archeologically mysterious about the four temples? Not so much. But there are some things established.
Carter notes the carvings are not-quite-right for Mayan ruins. Perhaps, he says, the site simply predates the classical Mayan look’s development. This seems quite reasonable to me. I waited for some reason why I shouldn’t accept that explanation. Carter goes on to explain how some of the locals they hired as diggers had more sinister and pulpy ideas. “They believe this place was built by a more primitive, savage tribe — a tribe that routinely engaged in dark rituals!” And the National Authors Advisory Council on Unconscious Racism raises their advisory to a Warning. They also recommend casting a Mexican or Mayan person in a player-character role with all deliberate speed.
(To clarify my boring politics here. I don’t accuse James Allen of trying to write a racist story. I know nothing of him or his motivations beyond his comments on the Comics Curmudgeon blog. And what one can learn from reading the stories he writes. That is, what kinds of subjects and plotlines he finds interesting, or plausible, or salable. That’s not an exclusive or. That lets me say that he enjoys lost valleys and ancient peoples and forgotten civilizations like you got in late-19th and early-20th-century adventure tales. Remember one of his first weeks writing Mark Trail was Rusty Trail dreaming of being in the Lost World. And that’s fine. But those tales had a lot of late-19th and early-20th-century racism baked into them. Drawing on the elements that made those stories can summon that racism even against all the best intentions to write an exciting archeological mystery story. To put the words “primitive, savage tribe” in the mouth of the archeologist — even at the remove of “I’m just saying, I hear people saying this” — is unsettling. “Savage” is a value judgement, and a pretty ripe one coming in the pop culture of a country whose leader gloats at stealing children to lock them in dog cages. “Primitive”, too — a people’s understanding or practice of something can be primitive. Their calendar might poorly track the astronomical features it’s meant to. Their art might have few traits of specialized, focused development. Their clothing might be made more laboriously and be less useful than some available innovations would allow. Their mythology might be boring. But the people are as smart, as curious, as involved with each other, and as interested in their world as we are. If you call someone else primitive, then, remember that so are we.)
Carter can’t take Rusty and Mara inside any of the temples. But he can show them, and show Mark, some of the artefacts excavated. He mentions how much each piece is worth to any museum. And how they make a 3-D scan of every artefact before moving it to a secure facility. Also hey, it’s a bit odd that his assistant Becky, who’d had dinner with the Trails the night before, wasn’t in today. Oh and hey, did you know they’d be worth even more on the black market? Anyway, if other archeologists think you’re a bit artefact-classification mad you might be a touch out of control.
Mark joshingly asks if Carter’s found any gold fertility statues lately. You know, like hold on while I process Mark Trail being aware of the existence of human fertility. Sorry. You know, like their nutty old archeology professor Doctor Jones claimed to have found in some Chachapoyan death-trap temple. (GET IT? Yes! Like when you start multiball on the Indiana Jones pinball game. I’m guessing it’s in the movies too. Haven’t seen them.) And then Rusty runs across a weird little toothy, black-skinned doll. Mark identifies it as a “Zuni Fetish Doll” and yes I know that he doesn’t mean that kind of fetish but who even taught Mark Trail such a word as “fetish” exists? What were you trying to do to the world? Are you proud of yourself?
Anyway. Carter says he got the doll “the same way other people supposedly have gotten it”, delivered anonymously in a box. And, you know, he playfully leaves drinks and a cigar for it every morning. In the evening, the drinks are gone, the cigar’s smoked, and the doll’s face-down ten feet away. I never did trust that Elf on a Shelf guy. Carter figures it’s Bill and Ted having an excellent adventure by playing pranks. Anyway, that’s where the action stands near the end of July, 2018.
Sunday Animals Watch
How much nature has been in the last three months’ worth of Mark Trail Sunday informational panels? This much!
Harris’s Hawks, 6 May 2018. Not yet endangered, somehow.
Elephants, 13 May 2018. Humans love elephants so much that we’re going to kill every last one of them, apparently.
Lionesses with manes, 20 May 2018. Endangered, sure, but also so very tired of people on Twitter who want to show off they’ve heard of XX and XY chromosomes but don’t actually study genetics.
Rhinoceroses, 27 May 2018. Endangered for their horns and the way they unnerve spell-checkers.
The Au Sable River, Michigan, 3 June 2018. Hey, I’ve heard of that river! Anyway, Nestle’s probably going to steal it, but claim it wasn’t really theft because they paid the state $7.25 for the water.
Howler Monkeys, 10 June 2018. Remarkably not endangered except when it’s like 5:30 in the morning and they just keep, you know.
That Yellow Cardinal, 17 June 2018. Cardinals are probably okay; yellow, though? Huh.
Peppers, 24 June 2018. Not endangered, although hey, it turns out they could endanger you so that’s something to look forward to.
Paper Nautilus, 1 July 2018. It’s a shelled octopus. Not endangered, but wait until we figure how to pass their meat off as “dorsal cod” or something.
Iguanas, 8 July 2018. They’ve turned invasive in Florida, as though Florida didn’t have enough to deal with.
Eastern Cougar, 15 July 2018. Extinct. Good job, everyone.
Royal Flycatchers, 22 July 2018. Some species of royal flycatcher are ecologically vulnerable.
Ants, 29 July 2018. Um, OK, apparently there’s a newly-discovered southeast Asian species of ant that can explode and it seems like we should maybe have a plan in place in case it turns out most insects can just spontaneously blow up on us?
Wilbur Weston had been pulled back from the precipice of despair and the Pacific Ocean. But what comes after that step toward emotional healing? We’ll have a report on how everything is coming up mayonnaise next week, with Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth. Also other plots.
Last time in Mark Trail there were a bunch of animals in weird places. I mean weird by Mark Trail’s standards. A giraffe eating Rusty’s apples. An ostrich with an organ-grinding monkey teasing Doc. A rhino chasing down a couple of Mark Trail cartoonist James Allen’s friends. Mark could be baffled by these goings-on while we readers weren’t. And not because Mark or anyone was being dumb. We had information that they didn’t: “Dirty” Dyer read about how the Tingling Brothers Circus was making its last tour. How or why their animals were loose might be a mystery, but why there should be a giraffe at the Lost Forest at this time of year was not. Oh, also, Dyer is figuring to kill Mark Trail. But he’s taking his time and working up to it.
After hearing of Rusty and Doc’s weird-animal reports, Mark steps out on the porch and sees a tiger. He swings into action and steps back inside, to toss a ham outside. A big old ham, too, like you see in 1950s humor comic books. The tiger eats the ham, proving to Mark that this isn’t some hallucination, somehow? After that odd moment, though, Mark calls the authorities, who it turns out were coming to visit anyway. The Sheriff explains. The Circus train derailed and most of the animals got loose.
Then he launches into what’s almost a shaggy dog story. It’s built on the premise that the clown car took it hardest: “You should have seen it, Mark — greasepaint and rubber chickens on the tracks for miles!”. The story then goes into the clowns, who were all safely in the bar car, in full makeup and dress. The dazed group, led by the eldest and most respected clown, the Great Wilhelm — “the clown that never spoke, he just screamed a lot” — wandered away. They stumbled through a graveyard and toward a bonfire where some kids were having a camping night and telling monster stories and stuff. So you can imagine how well a pack of dazed, disheveled clowns stumbling out of the graveyard were received. The clowns, frightened by the kids’ screams, turned and fled. Old Man Basil, overseeing the bonfire, fired a load of rock salt and hit The Great Wilhelm in the back. “They said you could hear Wilhelm scream from the other end of the valley!”
Okay. So. First. I’m not afraid of clowns. Not in the slightest. I don’t get what is supposed to be frightening about clowns. I think the pop culture default assumption that of course clowns are evil terrifying monsters who have to be stamped out of society is a sickness. I’ll grant there are people afraid of clowns, but, I mean, there are people afraid of any living matter that has lots of holes in it, like some kinds of fungus have. We don’t grant that phobia a privileged place in society and tell each other that of course the phobia is correct. “But wait,” people trying to talk me into fearing clowns say. “What about the clown from It? Aren’t you scared of that clown?”
I’ve never read It, nor seen the movie. But as I understand it, the clown from It is an unstoppable supernatural monster dragging people to a horrible death. The scary thing there is “unstoppable supernatural monster dragging people to a horrible death”. That he manifests as a clown doesn’t enter into it. I would not feel less menaced if the unstoppable supernatural monster dragging people to a horrible death were a freelance insurance-claims investigator.
Second. Wilhelm Scream? As in the scream that I guess is in every movie nerds like. James Allen put into Mark Trail a nerd-culture riff like that? And I didn’t notice? Even though he quite fairly set it up and underlined it several times, talking about The Great Wilhelm who “just screamed a lot”. And I didn’t notice. Well, fair enough. I’ve never noticed the Wilhelm Scream sound effect even though it’s apparently in every movie I’ve watched more than three times, including the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Mister Bug Goes To Town. (Don’t @ me. I’ve listened to the scream in isolation, and I’ve listened to scenes with it in. I’ve learned that it turns out I just don’t care.) I’m not sure how I feel about Mark Trail making nerd culture jokes. But he put in a good one, and did it well, laying out the setup where anyone could see and trusting people wouldn’t notice.
Anyway. Back to the story. Mark and Dusty go looking for animals. There’s the ground rumbling. Mark says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” and I see what he did there. It’s an elephant. Mark gets to the tranquilizer gun and knocks out the elephant before anybody can come to particular harm.
Then a new, bearded, bald guy comes in. In Mark Trail tradition this signals that we’ve finally met the villain. But no: he’s Marlin Creed from the Eden Gardens Zoo. There is no villain in this piece. He and his assistant Jim are here to help trap the animals and to ask if you get the reference there. Well? Do you? BETTER SAY YES! (2 points to the first person who gets what my reference there is. That person will be Roymark Kassinger.). (5 points to the first person who figures out what I’m referencing with this points-to-the-first-person-who stuff.)
With the arrival of Marlin and Jim, and the news that the circus people are getting organized again, the story looks like it’s finally ended. Mark mentions he’s going to have a vacation in Mexico soon. And then it turns out there’s a ruckus off-screen. There’s a tiger fighting a rhinoceros, because hey, how often do you get to justify having a tiger fight a rhinoceros? I mean outside March Mammal Madness? (I have not forgotten #Unsettlegate. Don’t ask what this is all about. You’re better off not knowing.)
The tiger runs off in one direction, the rhino in another. Mark, Marlin, and Jim chase the rhino in a cool zebra-striped jeep. Meanwhile Joel Robinson in the corner of the screen whispers out, “Daktari”. After the Wilhelm Scream thing I’m not getting nerd-snookered again. Marlin sends Jim out to annoy the rhino with a stick. Mark asks “is that safe?” Marlin says “No.” Like in the jokes about Wild America made back when we made jokes about Marlin and Jim and Wild America. The rhino is successfully annoyed and smashes the jeep. But Mark’s able to shoot him with a tranquilizer dart.
With the 14th of April this story is officially closed. We’re told the circus has recovered all their missing animals. This includes “Twinkles, the flaming-log-juggling hippo”. I assume this is a reference to something and I’m waiting to see what it is in Dick Tracy.
The 16th of April starts what might be the current story. It’s in the Bahamas where Dirty Dyer has been lounging on the beach and scaring resort guests with his knife-throwing practice. Also shooting off guns. Also reading Weapons For Dummies, Calvin and Hobbes, and To Serve Man. Dyer glad-handles the guy sent to report on how he’s alarming the guests into becoming his assistant.
I say this might be the current story. We’ve seen one or two-week interludes with Dirty Dyer before. James Allen is letting this story simmer. I don’t know whether Mark Trail is going to encounter Dirty Dyer yet.
So the 26th of April starts what is unambiguously the current story. The Trails are flying to Mexico. Rusty has an honestly endearing moment where he’s amazed at the size of the airport. “We’re only going to Mexico — I didn’t think we’d need an airport this big!” I sincerely like the kid-logic that how far you’re going should affect the size of the airport you go to. It’s even got enough bits of truth to it to make sense. Rusty Trail comes in for a lot of jokes about being a terrifying homunculus. I’m glad to see him being a normal-ish child.
Yeah, me neither. Mark explains, “Interestingly enough, Santa Poco was saved from bandits in the silent movie era by three American cowboy actors!” So I do thank James Allen for explaining he was making a Three Amigos reference. Rusty’s already wandered off to meet someone named Mara, whose family is also going to Tulum. And that’s where we are as of Saturday.
So all in all, I don’t know why Mark Trail is making so many nerd movie jokes lately. I think Allen’s just having fun with the strip’s hip-because-square reputation.
Sunday Animals Watch
What bits of nature have been showcased on Sundays recently? These have been:
Sea Turtles, 11 February 2018. Really, really endangered.
Bougainvillea, 18 February 2018. Not endangered except by spelling bee contestants who’ve just been knocked out.
Prairies Dogs and Black-Footed Ferrets, 25 February 2018. Finally. The Black-Footed Ferrets are incredibly endangered. Prairie Dogs are making a comeback.
Spiders and Great Heights, 4 March 2018. While public-speaking on an airplane naked in front of the House Centipede convention.
Blue Tarantulas, 11 March 2018. Freshly-discovered and so very popular so we’re going to destroy it any day now.
Rhesus Macaque Monkeys on this island near Puerto Rico, 18 March 2018. They survived Hurricane Maria and the future disgraced former president hasn’t ordered their gizzards drilled for coal yet!
Black-Footed [wild] Cat of southwest Africa, 25 March 2018. Really, really endangered.
Feral Pigs, 1 April 2018. Endangering you. Seriously. That bit at the start of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy falls in the pig pen and the Cowardly Lion’s farmhand’sona rescues her? That’s showing off his bravery. The movie thought that part out.
Tiger Sharks, 8 April 2018. ThunderCats, but for sea life, why wouldn’t this be a hit? Because it didn’t make sense even by the standards of the SilverHawks universe is why. I mean, when your show would have been less baffling if you didn’t include the pilot episode laying out how everybody came to be Tiger Sharks and what their powers and all were you have world-building problems.
Chameleons, 15 April 2018. All my attempts to learn about how their faces fluoresce were obliterated by noticing Mark Trail calling them “squamates” and I have to sit and stare at that word for a long while even though (a) I know full well it’s a legitimate way to refer to them and (b) I knew the root word “squamous” before Mark Trail got onto it so there.
Marbled Crayfish, 22 April 2018. You know, those crayfish that are doing way better since they stopped dealing with the males of the species.
Orange Crocodiles, 29 April 2018. Probably Just About Dead.
Harris’s Hawks, 6 May 2018. Not endangered yet, but just you wait.
Greetings, nature fans. I thank you for coming here in search of a quick explanation of the current plot in James Allen’s Mark Trail. If it’s later than about April 2018 when you read this, the essay might be hopelessly out of date. But if all goes well I’ll have a follow-up essay, maybe several. You should be able to find them at or near the top of this page. And if you’re interested just in what was going on in Mark Trail in the winter of 2017-18, please read on.
Also I apologize for the short notice, but I only discovered it myself earlier today. TCM, United States feed, is showing Skippy, the 1931 movie about Percy Crosby’s classic and influential comic strip, at 2:30 am Sunday night/Monday morning (Eastern Time) the 11th/12th. I’d mentioned this last time they ran it, early last year. But I haven’t seen the movie yet as our TV died shortly after recording and we had to get a new DVR and, look, somehow it got all complicated, okay? They’re also showing Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle on Tuesday the 13th, at 10 pm Eastern Time. Jacques Tati films will not be to everyone’s taste. But if you can sit and watch it, without distraction, you may just discover one of the most wonderful things the 20th century has to offer.
21 November 2017 – 10 February 2018
The Bank Robber was disarmed. His Accomplice surrendered to Johnny Lone Elk. Light-aircraft pilot Alan Parker was in custody. Things were looking good for Mark Trail last time we checked in. They had one problem left. It’s side effects of that time Mark Trail declared at the top of Mount Olympus how he was so much more awesome than the whole Greek pantheon.
The Sheriff advises getting into the bank. It’s only technically speaking on fire. But it’s also got tunnels that he and Johnny Lone Elk had used to get back into the plot. Everyone has to get in, not quite far enough to encounter Samson the grizzly bear. Zeus curses his lack of foresight. He’s still feuding with Hades and can’t get to them from underground, and asking Artemis to send out the bears is right out this year. With the Sheriff mentioning he’s out of the candy bars that pacify Samson the Grizzly the story ends. I call it for the 28th of November, pretty near ten months after the story began (about the 24th of February).
With the 29th, more or less, starts the new story. There’s an epilogue on the Bank Robber story two weeks later. It establishes that Mark wants to go home and not count the prairie dogs of Rapid City, South Dakota. Indeed, he never even sees a prairie dog, a pity because I hear prairie dogs are making a comeback. The Bank Robber and his Accomplice never get named that I saw.
The new story starts by following Chris “Dirty” Dyer. He was shown coming back from Africa early in 2017, immediately before the Bank Robber story started. (He’d been part of at least one story before, in 2014. If there’s a Mark Trail wikia with full summaries of earlier stories and character histories and such I don’t know it. But the Comics Curmudgeon reports on this are likely good enough.) Dirty reads about the circus closing on his way to a meeting with Batman ’66 villain King Tut. Dirty’s figuring to fence some African diamonds. King Tut will only offer five thousand and a recommendation to go on vacation. He takes the advice, and his Crocodile Dundee knife, and the chance to stab (off-panel) King Tut. Chris Dirty then passes out of our storyline, apart from some talk about how he’s got to get in shape to take on Mark Trail.
Mark and Cherry also don’t believe in the giraffe, and bring up that time Rusty daydreamed about dinosaurs. Still, strange things are happening. Doc, sitting on the porch, sees a monkey dressed for organ-grinding duty and riding an ostrich. Nearby, Shannon and Kathy, who as far as I know are original bit players to this story, are camping. At least until a rhinoceros rampages at them, grabs their tent, and runs into the lake. ([Edited to add because I didn’t notice this in today’s strip at first] The Sunday panel for the 11th of February, about sea turtles, sends “special thanks to Shannon and Kathy Davidson” for unspecified services. Going to go out on a limb here and suppose that part of the thanking is having them get chased down by a rhino. I had the plot summary written up before that strip was published.) There the rhino terrifies a guy out fishing until he decides that actually some days fishing are not better than all days working. (And I’m sorry to murder the joke this way. It’s done over the course of three days and pretty funny done so.) And that’s the current action.
This also highlights how James Allen has gotten the storytelling in the strip to be more sophisticated. And without shifting its tone much. We, the readers, understand what’s going on well ahead of Mark Trail. And it’s not because Mark’s shown to be dense. He lacks information that he couldn’t be expected to have: Artemis has forgiven Zeus just enough that they can launch the Revenge of Nature plot. By this time next month maybe Doc will have been eaten by rampaging quolls. Let’s watch!
Sunday Animals Watch!
Animals or natural phenomena featured on Sundays recently have included:
The Purple Frogs of Bhupathy India, 19 November 2017. They’re probably dying.
Pigs! 26 November 2017. There’s some in the Bahamas that have learned to swim out to tourists.
Sperm whales, 3 December 2017. They nap in collective groups that don’t look at all like the creepy moment right before a Revenge of Nature movie gets to the good stuff.
Vangunu Island vikas, 10 December 2017. White folk finally noticed them and they’re probably all but dead now.
Worms, 17 December 2017. We’d be dead without them and there’s this invasive one that’s got a powerful neurotoxin so good luck.
Mistletoe, 24 December 2017. It’s in good shape, but is a parasite to trees and shrubs so enjoy?
Penguins, 31 December 2017. Adelie penguins are in trouble thanks to global warming so, great.
Moths, 7 January 2018. This crazypants Australian one went viral, apparently (I missed it) just on the strength of looking like a crazypants Australian moth.
Tapanuli Orangutans, 14 January 2018. We just found them and they’re incredibly endangered.
Mosquitoes, 21 January 2018. Not endangered but we’re figuring to try releasing some bacterium-infected males in an attempt to create a new Revenge of Nature movie.
Cryptobranchus Alleganiensis, 28 January 2018. Might get named the Official State Amphibian of Pennsylvania!
Virginia Opossums, 4 February 2018. Not endangered.
Sea turtles, 11 February 2018. Crazy endangered.
I had expectations about where Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth was going, last time I checked in on them. How close were my expectations to reality? You should find out next week when it’s the chance for a certain food-making advice-giver to be recapped here. And I don’t want to get your hopes up too high. But if there’s one word that’s been on every Mary-watcher’s lips the past week it has been: muffins.
Greetings, fellow creature who fears nature. If you’re interested in the current storyline in James Allen’s Mark Trail, great! I describe it here. At least I do if it’s not too much later than mid-November 2017 for you. If you’re reading this after, like, February 2018 things have possibly moved on and this won’t help you any. If I’ve written a follow-up explanation of the stories I should have them at or near the top of this page. Please check there to see if that’s more useful. If it’s not, well, try this and we’ll see what it can do for you.
Twelve weeks ago I last reviewed James Allen’s Mark Trail. I predicted then the story was near its end. I had good reason. The story had already been running since something like the 25th of February. (There were a couple weeks of apparently extraneous character setup that looks like teasing for a later story. But it could yet intervene in this story.) And the major story elements seemed to be all set out. Mark Trail, held hostage by an unnamed Rapid City, South Dakota, bank robber, had got to the point where he punches people. He’d also worked out the big plot twist. The woman held hostage with him was not just a snarky comics reviewer but also, secretly, Bank Robber’s accomplice. Trail had arranged his friend Johnny Lone Elk to fake being lost to a ravine accident, the better to come back and punch people. The FBI in cooperation with the local sheriff were closing in on the ghost town to which Trail lead Bank Robber. And severe weather was closing in, ready to fill the story’s quota of “Nature: Too Deadly For Humans” narrative. Also, there may or may not be a bear.
We’re still in this story. I’m as startled as you are. Maybe eight percent more startled. What all has Mark Trail been doing with his time? Let’s recap.
Johnny Lone Elk teamed up with the Sheriff into the bear-bearing caves that lead to the ghost town. While they do have to pass the notoriously cranky Samson, the grizzly is content to let them on their way in exchange for a couple of odd-brand candy bars. So all you people teasing me for stockpiling Zero bars and Squirrel Nut Zippers? Go get eaten by a bear. Johnny and Sheriff get to the tunnels underneath the ghost town. Sheriff fills in some backstory about why the empty town has enough tunnel space to build the Second Avenue Subway.
Mark Trail leads Bank Robber and Accomplice into the ghost town, ahead of the tornado. They’re just in time for the windmill to come flying off the tower and chase them down. But Mark outwits the loose windmill vanes. The horses bolt, but Bank Robber’s able to grab the sack of money off one of them. They take shelter in the town saloon. Across the street, in the bank, Johnny Lone Elk and Sheriff emerge from their subplot, just in time for the rain to clear.
Bank Robber whips out his iPhone, in what looks like an Otter protective case. Have to say, I’ve had good experiences with the Otter cases, so, good decision and all. He’s calling for his pickup. Still, Trail warns there’s no reason there can’t still be a tornado, and maybe a hurricane, and maybe a swarm of killer bees piloting tiny F-18s for good measure. Accomplice warns Trail could be right. Bank Robber’s having none of it, and forces Accomplice and Trail to the nearby abandoned airstrip. Sheriff orders them to freeze, and they do, except instead of holding still Bank Robber shoots back. Accomplice does take the chance to run out of the conflict and into Johnny Lone Elk’s custody.
Bank Robber keeps Trail hostage, though, walking to the airstrip where his escape pilot — a young-looking Judge Alan Parker sporting a ponytail — ponders how surely there could have been a less complicated getaway plan. But before a vehicle can be safely used for its intended purpose, nature intervenes, and the plane is smacked down by a tornado. Trail tries to use the chaos to grab Bank Robber’s gun, but Bank Robber answers with fists. But a punching match with Mark Trail is almost dumber than force-feeding Popeye a can of spinach. So Bank Robber grabs his pistol. Sheriff throws an axe at Bank Robber, smacking him hard and breaking his hand. (By the time Sheriff could get a clear shot on Bank Robber, his rifle jammed, is why he’s diddling about with an axe.)
And aircraft pilot Alan Parker? He bailed out just before the plane was destroyed by the tornado. And his parachute was working all right until the tornado turned and hit that, sending him plummeting into a barn. Parker says he’s surprisingly okay, though: “I’m lucky there was still some hay in this old stable!” So he is. Come this Monday the tornado’s going to drop four cows and a cruise liner on him.
So. Like you see, that’s a lot of stuff happening. It seems like it’s got to be near done now. Accomplice gave herself up to the guest star. Bank Robber’s had all his guns cudgeled out of his hands. Alan Parker’s a shoe-in for a forthcoming Ripley’s Believe It Or Not panel. What really makes sense is for someone to eat pancakes and to do something about counting up the prairie dogs near Rapid City. I still haven’t forgot that was the reason Mark Trail came out here. I’m not leaving this story until I hear about the comeback the prairie dogs are making.
Sunday Animals Watch!
Animals or natural phenomena featured on Sundays recently have included:
Coqui Frogs of Puerto Rico, 3 September 2017. They’re invasive in Hawaii and soon California.
The 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, 10 September 2017. Oil-eating microbes seem to be making things less awful than expected.
Hurricane Season, 17 September 2017. This was a couple weeks after Harvey, right after Hurricane Irma, and just as Hurricane Maria got started.
Nile Crocodile, 24 September 2017. They’re dying
Dracula Orchids, 1 October 2017. They’re terrifying.
Black rat snakes, 8 October 2017. They’re eight feet long and emit musk when threatened.
Bobbit Worms, 15 October 2017. They’re horrifying.
Hydnellum Peckii fungus, 22 October 2017. They’re a “ghoulish” fungus.
Trapdoor Spiders, 29 October 2017. Gads, yes, but we need them.
Mysterious cross-species altruism, 5 November 2017. It’s not just for social media anymore.
Quolls, 12 November 2017. They’re dying.
The Purple Frogs of Bhupathy India, 19 November 2017. Too soon to tell but I bet you they’re dying.
Have you been wondering what the current storyline is in James Allen’s Mark Trail? You’re not alone. The past several months have been this story about Mark Trail and a bank robber and a much-delayed census of prairie dogs in North Dakota. It’s possible that this story, which was going on in August of 2017, has ended by the time you read this. I admit, right now, it’s hard to imagine that. But if “prairie dog bank robber rental car” seem like words completely irrelevant to what you’re reading in the comic strip, maybe this essay is just out of date. At or near the top of this page should be my most recent Mark Trail update essay. I hope that helps you out.
If you’re interested in other comic strips, my other blog reviews the comics that touched on mathematical topics. You might find that interesting. I don’t see why you wouldn’t. You know that thing where you write out a long number, grouped in bunches of three? Like, 10,000,000 instead of, say, 10,00,00,00 or 1000,0000? You know how long people have been doing that? I tell you over there.
11 June – 26 August 2017.
It’s been eleven weeks since I last reviewed the action in Mark Trail. Back then I thought we might be drawing near the end of a story that began in mid-March, about Mark Trail held hostage by a bank robber instead of doing a prairie dog census. I misjudged the story length. But now I really, truly, think we’re coming near the end of the story. We’re at the point that every James Allen Mark Trail reaches: the point where Nature tries to kill everybody. The story had promised “bad weather” last time around, but now we’ve got it.
Where we had been: Mark Trail, trying to rent a car in Rapid City, South Dakota, is approached by an armed gunman with a hostage. He’s robbed a bank and wants Trail to drive him to safety. Trail superficially complies but somehow alerts the car rental agency that he’s in distress. Trail drives the bank robber and hostage to the cabin of Johnny Lone Elk, where Trail picks up his friend and they all shift to horseback. Lone Elk knows something’s wrong and he and Trail talk trick riding, while Lone Elk’s wife suspects something’s up.
Trail and Lone Elk tell the Bank Robber (still unnamed, by the way) and Hostage that there’s a major storm coming. The least incredibly unsafe course is to go down the Vulture Creek ridge. The Bank Robber and Hostage go along with this plan, but they’re not near the ghost town they hope to reach before the rain gets heavy. Lightning explodes a tree next to Lone Elk, and his horse panics, leaping over the edge of the ravine.
Meanwhile — just a second here. I do mean “meanwhile”. Something James Allen’s brought to Mark Trail has been a relenting of the stories’ linearity. We can get information on separate threads. It’s not as unsettling as Allen’s choice to have Mark Trail sometimes think a thing instead of saying it aloud at the top of his lungs with random words emphasized. But it’s still a surprise for the long-time reader. That’s just the world we live in anymore.
Meanwhile, FBI Agent John Paul is on the case, because of the bank robbery. The car rental agent recognized Mark Trail and figured something weird was going on, I think because Trail rented a minivan and not a giant squirrel. He asks Cherry Trail about who Mark Trail expected to meet and where they were. And then why Mark Trail skipped out on his own reservation, instead using one for “Lesley Joyce” at “WaterWorld”. Cherry Trail finds this hilarious, but can explain: Mark surely figured this would be a way to alert people without raising Bank Robber’s suspicions. John Paul is surprised by Cherry Trail’s calm, but she points out she’s been in this strip since like the 40s. Mark’s been through way more serious hostage situations than this.
Lesley Joyce enters the narrative to explain while showing off every pose from How To Draw Realistic Fashion Design Figures ever. Trail and Lone Elk had been hired by Joyce and WaterWorld Theme Park to film a walrus giving birth. The walrus got loose, but Trail and Lone Elk found her. They loaded her into Joyce’s new Escalade, and on the drive back the walrus gave birth to twins. The car technically survived. So if you remember being confused when Cadillac kept running those “pregnant walrus” ads for the Escalade, now you know why they were doing it. And this all ties in to the current story because the car rental contract Trail had with WaterWorld from back then was somehow still open, and he could use that to get Joyce’s attention at least?
I admit this all seems like a lot of story time spent on a tiny point. It isn’t as if the FBI wasn’t looking for the Bank Robber or as they didn’t find the Mark Trail connection on their own. But it’s realistic that Mark Trail couldn’t know that, and would send out whatever distress signals he could. And that car rental counters don’t offer a lot of chances.
The FBI works out something about the bank robbery security footage and the car rental counter footage. The female hostage in the second is one of the Bank Robber’s accomplices in the first. Remember what I said about James Allen making the Mark Trail stories less relentlessly linear? The twist took me by surprise, yes. On rereading the story, I have to grant: Bank Robber and Hostage/Accomplice’s interactions make much more sense now. It wasn’t planted by anything overt; it was just interactions.
The FBI follows Trail’s … trail, into the storm, and they borrow horses from the local town sheriff to get to the ghost town. The storm’s getting worse, with tornadoes in the area.
Meanwhile, Johnny Lone Elk turns out not to have died by falling down the ravine. The plan was to go down a not-as-steep-as-it-looks part of the ravine to fake his death. Then Lone Elk would get help while Mark Trail manages a distraction, by which we mean, while Mark Trail punches somebody.
Besides punching the Bank Robber, Trail reveals he saw through the Hostage/Accomplice long ago. Trail explains he knows terror-stricken people when he sees them and she wasn’t it. … Which, is fair enough. But as fun as punching and yelling at people is, the storm’s getting worse and they need to get to the ghost town.
Lone Elk finds the sheriff, and they agree to head over to the caves where a big old grizzly bear named Samson lives. They figure this is the best way to get to the ghost town through the rain and maybe get the Bank Robber eaten by a bear. And that’s where the story stands right now. We’ll see how that all turns out, and see whether we do eventually find out how many prairie dogs live near Rapid City, South Dakota.
Sunday Animals Watch.
Animals or other natural phenomena featured on Sundays recently have included:
Tornadoes, 11 June 2017
Bees and Wasps, 18 June 2017
Giant African Snails, 25 June 2017
Egyptian Fruit Bats, 2 July 2017 (we understand their arguments! Weird, huh?)
Komodo dragons, 9 July 2017
Hoopoe (birds), 16 July 2017
Pygmy Dormouse, 23 July 2017
Slipper Lobsters, 30 July 2017
Roseate Spoonbills, 6 August 2017
Cook Pines, 13 August 2017 (wait, they grow at an angle proportionate to the latitude? The heck?)
Hi, reader. This is my best attempt at explaining what’s been going on in James Allen’s Mark Trail for the last couple months. If for you the last couple months do not include, like, May of 2017 then I might be writing here about a story that’s not going on anymore, if the current story ever ends. Right now it’s not looking promising. But in case the story has ended by the time you read this, try reading this instead, as a more current essay might be among its first links. I hope this helps you find what you’re looking for.
Meanwhile in Rapid City, South Dakota, a local tough has robbed a bank, taken a woman hostage, and spotted in the fresh-arrived Mark Trail just the unwitting getaway driver he wanted. Mark Trail, thinking fast, has enough of an internal monologue to ponder the need to alert some official without betraying what he’s doing to the bank robber. And, to a wonder, he does it without letting the reader in on his plan.
My best guess: he’s figuring to pull a Ransom of Red Chief only instead of being a holy terror, he’s going to drive the bank robber past every possible scene of animals interacting in some way. Am I being unfairly snarky? From the 19th of April through the 28th the strip showed the car driving past a clutch of groundhogs, wolf pups, some falcon-class bird learning that it can’t just pick up a jackrabbit, a herd of sheep, another falcon trying to prey upon the dialogue balloons, a couple rams head-butting one another, and some moose or something. After that the bank robber has enough of this, figures out Mark Trail’s got a tracking device put on the car, and rips that out.
After driving past some buffalo, antelope I guess, and groundhogs looking disapproving at a wolf the bank robber tells Mark Trail what they’re going to do. They’re going to go to Johnny Lone Elk’s, tell him that the bank robber and the kidnapped woman are his new camera crew, and put the stolen money in Mark Trail’s camera bags. Then they’ll all go off together to see these prairie dogs and an abandoned airstrip that Mark Trail exposited about earlier.
Meanwhile the local FBI, looking for the bank robbers, is following the clue that there’s something weird about how Mark Trail rented the car. I admit I have never tried to rent a car while being held at gunpoint by a bank robber, but for the life of me I can’t figure how I’d do something weird with my car rental. I mean weird enough that car rental people would notice. Maybe tell them yes, I’d love the car insurance that’s an extra $75 a day and doesn’t do anything my home insurance doesn’t do anyway.
Mark Trail does his best not to act weird around Johnny and his wife and their handyman Nick Charles. But a stray $100 makes Johnny’s wife suspect there’s some connection to the Rapid City bank robbery, suggesting that she’s not really into this story and hopes to get it to the end as soon as possible. On the trail, Johnny knows something’s wrong and arranges for some dramatic talk about trick riding. Meanwhile a prairie dog tries to evade another swooping hawk, possibly the same one that was getting kicked by a rabbit a couple weeks back.
I know this sounds like a lot. But I gotta say, reading it one day at a time, it feels like the whole story has been waiting for stuff to happen. I expect James Allen is going for suspense in the question of how Mark Trail could possibly have arranged for help in all this, but the lack of specifics, or even hints of specifics, undermines that. I’m hoping that we’re about to see some action that brings this to a clear resolution. I’m also curious how the strip is going to turn into some major natural disaster that teaches us to never go anywhere more wild and untamed than an Apple Store. Well, there was threatened bad weather. That could mean anything.
Sunday Animals Watch
Animals or other natural phenomena featured on Sundays recently have included:
Bees, 19 March 2017
Moose, 26 March 2017
Platerodrilus Beetles, 2 April 2017
Feather Stars, “Crinoids”, 9 April 2017
Dracaena Cinnabari, the “Dragon’s Blood Tree”, 16 April 2017
Traders were feeling optimistic and full of pep today as they got like four half-filled loyalty cards at the mediterranean fast-food place merged down into … well, all right, three loyalty cards, but two of them were filled so that’s good for one free lunch today and one free lunch next time if nobody loses the filled card.
When I last talked about Mark Trail he was off on a remote Hawai’ian atoll, there to document an invasive species of ant that was bothering the local birds. While human-induced carelessness will create ecological problems nature has its ways of restoring the balance. In this case, nature chose to go with “titanic volcano explosion that destroys the island, the invasive ants, and everything else on it”. Nature has a real problem figuring out the appropriate scale for its responses. This by the way isn’t the first time in James Allen’s tenure as Mark Trail author-and-artist that an invasive species has been solved by fire. Some kind of beetle boring into woods was solved by a particularly well-placed bit of semi-controlled wildfire.
Anyway, the volcano exploded a lot, and then exploded some more, and then went on exploding to the point that some readers got a bit cranky wondering if there was even any island left to explode. It reads better if you look at a week’s worth of strips at once, which Comics Kingdom’s web site makes easy to do, at least if you have a paid subscription. Once again, I recommend subscriptions to both Comics Kingdom and to GoComics if you like newspaper-grade syndicated comic strips. Both web sites do their jobs very well.
With the island escaped, Mark Trail observed the ritual of cleansing between storylines: eating pancakes while sharing stilted dialogue and promising his son Rusty that they’ll go fishing someday.
Meanwhile, Lee Hunter, whom I don’t know anything about either, arrives in West Africa for a licensed safari hunt. In the West African village of Village, where all the lionesses and cubs have been shipped off to zoos, there’s an elderly male that’s turned human-eater. Possibly from loneliness; he’d hardly be the first person to go a little crazy at work because of an unsatisfying home life.
As she arrives she bumps into Chris, nicknamed Dirty, a guy who’d been in some Mark Trail story a couple years ago when the strip was all about poacher smuggling. He’s on his way to the United States, and we haven’t seen Lee Hunter again since that encounter. I don’t have any guess whether Village is going to have anything to do with the current storyline, or whether James Allen is setting up a future storyline, or whether the strip just wanted to put in a good word for licensed exotic-animal hunting. (It feels out of character for Mark Trail, but it is a difficult question of ethics, and a character is under no obligation to make choices that even the author thinks correct. A character is only obliged to make choices that the author thinks credible for the story.)
That’s also just about all we’ve seen from Chris Dirty, too. Since that airport encounter Mark Trail’s been talking about how his old buddy Johnny Lone Elk spotted a pair of gray wolves and some cougar tracks at the Cheyenne River Reservation. Also evidence of a bear, which is quite exciting stuff when Mark was just thinking about getting in on some black-footed-ferret and prairie dog census work. Cherry Trail mentioned that it isn’t tornado season, so we can look forward to a tornado catching on fire and blowing up in the near future.
Cherry’s also mentioned some water park incident that I don’t know anything about. Trusting that it’s something that really happened back when Jack Elrod was writing and drawing the strip I’m going to suppose that someone was smuggling otters down the lazy river. I have no further information about this incident.
Animals or other natural phenomena featured on Sundays recently have included:
The Pink Frogmouth, 12 March 2017
Toucans, 5 March 2017
The Western Pacific Biotwang (whale noise), 26 February 2017
Flying Lemurs, 19 February 2017
Amethyst, 12 February 2017
This Leaf-Shaped Spider In Yunnan, China, 5 February 2017
Hooded Nudibranches, 29 January 2017
New Zealand Keas, 22 January 2017
Spiders and Giraffe Assassin Bugs, 15 January 2017
Good news for bats affected with white-nose syndrome, 8 January 2017
Pyrosomes (which are these giant glowing sea-dwelling worms so don’t say I didn’t warn you), 1 January 2017
Blue Nawab caterpillars, 18 December 2016
Frog rescue and this amphibian-threatening fungus, 11 December 2016
The Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize, 4 December 2016
Dodder Vine, 27 November 2016
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index fell five points when someone saw a tweet talking about a Victorian epidemic of “poisonous socks” and thought we ought to be spending more time hiding under furniture about this.
Let me preface this by pointing out my mathematics blog, where yesterday I did another of those comic strip reviews. Last week saw more jokes about anthropomorphized numerals than usual, although in fairness, the usual is probably “one, at most”. So it doesn’t take all that many to be more than usual. Two is all you need. I hope you aren’t disappointed by this. It’s just how the numerals worked out.
Anyway. The recent Mark Trail story has finally ended. Mark escaped Explosion Island with his friends intact. All the invasive-species ants that made it to Explosion Island were burned alive by lava, except for the three pregnant queens Mark that snuck into Mark’s pants cuff and that have now set up in the Lost Forest. So it’s a good ending for everybody except for Explosion Island’s now-extinct varieties of hog, brightly-colored birds, and Polynesian Tortoise Or Whatever. Mark’s editor couldn’t believe that he managed to blow up Explosion Island, but that’s all right, because exploding islands make for interesting stories too. And then Saturday we got this:
I don’t want to understate the danger here, gang. Mark Trail is being all self-aware. The world is in serious danger of ending right here and now, in an explosion of lava and invasive ants. Please take whatever actions are appropriate to this sort of thing, whatever those are.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
Trading in the Another Blog, Meanwhile index reached as high as 108 before this whole Mark Trail Self-Awareness thing came to everyone’s attention. The index dropped briefly below 100 before traders started to rationalize how there’ve been moments in the past when the comic strip seemed self-aware or at least to be a little gently self-mocking. They rallied after that, so the day closed up two points, but everybody still feels a bit uneasy about it all. I don’t blame them.
That volcano that started exploding back in November? It’s finally destroyed the island and Our Heroes have escaped so I suppose that’s all a happy ending. Apart from like how they’re somewhere in the Pacific ocean right next to an active volcano that just destroyed their island. But there is this good news!
Unless, anyway, some of the invasive ants that were destroying the wildlife on this doomed island got aboard their boat and are going to get going wherever these three are rescued, anyway. Good times.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The Another Blog, Meanwhile index dropped nine points, which is getting more like everybody figured what with it being grey and rainy outside and the analysts getting into a fight over whether it should be ‘gray’ instead. And it wasn’t even a good fight. It was the kind of fight where two guys manage to hurt their backs by swinging too hard in the wrong direction and they have to go lie in bed the rest of the week, arguing over whether it should be ‘lay’. On their cell phones because getting up for a live in-person argument would hurt too much.
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.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose one point in trading today. Investors had no particular plans after the successful merging of the mainstream and alternate, or as the alternates put it, the alternate and the mainstream indices. They just wanted to get through a day without anything weird happening and they did. And they’re not falling for the bit about that being the strangest thing of all.
Before chatting about Apartment 3-G, may I remind you that I regularly talk about comic strips over on my mathematics blog? In this series I explain mathematically-themed comic strips, which lets me talk about monkeys a lot more than you might have guessed. I’ve also been doing a sequence of essays about the kinds of sets mathematicians see a lot. It’ll completely revolutionize your sense of small talk.
On to Aparment 3-G. Let me first get this out of the way. From Sunday’s recap strip:
I mean, honestly. Let’s look at that first panel again:
So. I trust you’re all here because you heard the rumor. According to Joe McQuaid’s Publisher’s Notes column at the Manchester (New Hampshire) Union-Leader — a newspaper that dropped the strip earlier this year, citing its catastrophic decline — Apartment 3-G is to be cancelled later this year.
It’s a plausible enough rumor. No story strip is in good shape, reader-wise, and few of them are in creatively good shape. Mike Staton and Joe Curtis’s Dick Tracy is producing good, energetic stories, but they’re all built on fandom-pandering and nostalgia. (The current storyline appears to be some kind of Mirror Universe/Earth-3 plot. This lets them pull out every character that got killed off in the 40s back on-screen, to be killed again.) James Allen’s produced several exciting and well-paced stories at Mark Trail, although they’re all based on nature trying to kill us. This makes for some rollicking adventures but seems off-message.
I can’t find confirmation, though. All the reporting on this seems to be based on McQuaid’s comment. And in the same column McQuaid talks about having lunch with “my friend, The Donald” and how they totally should have played nine holes of golf like he said even though The Donald mistakenly thought the weather would be too bad. So McQuaid deserves to be wrong, and punched.
But there is the blood in the water. I can’t think of any comic-strip cancellation rumor from the past five years that turned out to be wrong, with the possible exception of Dick Tracy. (I forget just what rumors were running at the end of Dick Locher’s tenure on it.) Still, apparently James Allen is pitching himself as a new artist, possibly new writer, for Apartment 3-G to King Features. (I say apparently because he posted this on Facebook, in an account not available to folks like me that happen not to be on Facebook. I’m inferring its content from what other people say about his posting.) I do not know how his revitalization of Mark Trail has gone financially. If good work were rewarded, the strip would be holding its own or growing in subscribers again, and we would live in a world different to this one.
And many have noted that the occasional “flash forward” week done that Francesco Marciuliano writes for Sally Forth. These depict Hilary Forth and her friends Faye and Nona ten years in the future, as a trio of women sharing an apartment while struggling as young women in The City. The resemblance is uncanny. Coincidence? Perhaps, although Staton and Curtis did write and draw a Dick Tracy adventure with the serial numbers filed off to show what the comic strip could be like, with fresh writing and solid art. Why not Marciuliano and Allen? (I have no information to suggest Marciuliano is interested. The original flash-forward read as a simple lark, and the premise is enough to sustain revisiting it now and then.)
I would like to think so. If Bolle and Shulock aren’t interested in, or aren’t able to, carry on the strip then I would like it to be in enthusiastic hands. Soap opera syndicated comic strips should be good, and the people who like reading them should have them available. And I would sincerely like to see more soap opera strips be good enough that they don’t support snarky, ironic readership. It’s not a law of nature that the story strips have to be bad. I hope that if Shulock or Bolle are leaving the strip then King Features Syndicate will find interested talent who can give us interesting, well-drawn stories.