What’s Going On In Mark Trail? August – November 2017


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.

And on my other blog, there’s mathematically-themed comic strips. Please consider that too, if you’ve got the time for another blog in your life.

Mark Trail.

28 August – 19 November 2017.

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.

The spinning blades rip off a windmill. Accomplice shouts 'Look out!' The spinning blades fly toward Mark Trail. Maybe. The perspective seems weird.
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 8th of September, 2017. Of the action sequences the last couple months of Mark Trail I think the windmill collapse was the least effective. It’s cinematic, sure. But if the reader has a vague idea how big an Old West Ghost Town windmill is (like I do) then it’s really hard to judge how threatening the thing is. And in still pictures it’s hard to judge how fast it’s moving, or how futile dodging might be. I’ll accept easily that one of them falling loose and flinging at a person would be catastrophic, but it also seems unlikely. Fair enough to have bad luck throw your characters into peril, but it did mean I started out not quite believing what was going on, and then the art didn’t sell me on it.

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.

Sheriff shooting at the crooks and Mark Trail. Trail: 'You two should just give up now!' Bank Robber: 'SHUT UP, TRAIL! EVERYBODY STAY DOWN!' Accomplice: 'I'm not cut out for this!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 19th of October, 2017. You know the midlist has gotten bad when Sir Arthur C Clarke has to take up bank-robbing and hostage-taking.

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.

Small aircraft pilot in storm clouds and rain: 'Boy, that wind is getting fierce ... I sure hope he knows what he's doing! ... Seems like we could've planned a less complicated way to pull off this job and get away with it!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 30th of October, 2017. Really not sure how there could possibly be a simpler bank-robbery getaway plan than ‘take a hostage at the airport rental counter and have him drive to a remote town that has an abandoned airstrip where you can fly in and recover him’. I mean, what else could they do, go to some bus-and-train terminal and buy two dozen tickets to random other cities while driving out under cover of being in a 2014 Chevy Malibu too boring to even appear in security camera footage?

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.)

Mark Trail yells 'LOOK OUT!!' as he and Bank Robber are thrown forward by the exploding small-aircraft.
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 3rd of November, 2017. If I were to claim that BOOOM was a short-lived early-60s Mad Magazine imitator noteworthy mostly for once featuring a script by Alan Arkin and a couple spot cartoons by Crockett Johnson of Barnaby and Harold and his Purple Crayon fame, would you believe me? I thought so.

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 soem 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.

Next Week!

Is there life after cruise ships? No, not really. But Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth has been doing its best to carry on as though there were. All goes well, next week, I’ll see what dubiously-sourced quotations from famous people they have to talk about a cruise-less story. Only connect to us, won’t you?

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What’s Going On In Mark Trail? June – August 2017


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.

Mark Trail.

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.

FBI Agent John Paul: 'Mrs Trail, you seem remarkably calm for someone whose husband has been kidnapped by bank robber!' Cherry Trail: 'Agent JP, have you ever met my husband?'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 27th of June, 2017. “The only thing I would worry about is if my husband were kidnapped by bank robbers while being out in a major storm out in the open, trying to get to a ghost town occupied by a provoked grizzly bear! But what are the odds of that?”

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?

Lesley Joyce: 'Thanks to Mark Trail, the pregnant walrus proceeded to deliver twin baby walruses all over the back of my brand-new vehicle!' The strip includes an image of the scene, with the car shattered by its interior walrus.
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 10th of July, 2017. Words cannot express just how many different poses and how many facial expressions Lesley Joyce took on during this anecdote, which ran in the daily strips from the 29th of June through the 15th of July. The anecdote was all Lesley Joyce striking a pose and FBI Agent John Paul saying this is hilarious, please go on. It almost read like that Futurama episode mocking silent movies. If you find someone who can use this as the storyboard for a live-action scene that reads naturally, hire them: they can film anything.

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.

FBI Agent John Paul(?): 'The woman who helped rob the bank and the female hostage in the airport video ... they are one and the same!' Other FBI Agent: 'WHAT!?' FBI Agent: 'Yep! - She's a willing accomplice ... and she's armed!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 19th of July, 2017. Agent John Paul delivers what is a real, legitimate plot twist in this storyline. Also, I don’t know the name of the guy in the second panel so I don’t know whether to call him Agent George Ringo or Agent Benedict Francis. But I’m going to be ripping that off for Telegram stickers.

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.

Mark Trail, punching Bank Robber: 'I have had ENOUGH of you I'm DONE with your attitude!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 9th of August, 2017. Yeah, so me acting like that is why I’m not allowed at my local Congressman’s town hall meetings anymore, but I feel that history and the Free American provisional government will forgive me.

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?)
  • Bay Cats, 20 August 2017
  • Whales as ecological influencers, 27 August 2017

Next Week!

I don’t want everyone out there quivering too hard with anticipation, because it doesn’t have as many cruise ships! as it could have. But still: Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth is back!

What’s Going On In Mark Trail? March 2017 – June 2017


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.

Mark Trail

19 March – 10 June 2017

My last Mark Trail report coincided strangely well with the start of a new adventure. 17-year-periodic guest star Johnny Lone Elk had invited Mark Trail to South Dakota, there to watch the prairie dog census and to find out if there’s some way to get the black-footed ferret to explode a boat. I’m interested in this because as a kid I was deeply impressed by that Peanuts sequence where Snoopy pretended to be a prairie dog. To this day I think of the punch line “prairie dogs are making a comeback” as the sort of appropriately odd not-a-joke thing to be dropped into a conversation and so make it that much needlessly weirder, so once again I’m reminded why everybody treated me like that in middle school. Anyway, this would be the start of a lot of talk about prairie dogs by Mark Trail.

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.

Bank Robber: 'Being a writer must be a pretty lame job these days! I mean, does anybody even read anything anymore?' Mark Trail: 'It has proven to be a good career for me to provide for my family!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 11th of April, 2017. Granting that this is impossible, is there any way that all cinematic portrayals of Mark Trail could be done by Michael Rennie? Because I feel like he’s just perfect for deploying dialogue like “It has proven to be a good career for me to provide for my family!” in the wake of being kidnapped at the rental car counter.

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.

Kidnapped Woman: 'Mark Trail, wow! You know, I read your work! In fact, I just read your latest article online!' Mark Trail: 'Oh yeah? What did you think?' Kidnapped Woman: 'I hate to sound like some of the snarky comments made by people online, but you're no entomologist!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 27th of April, 2017. I would like to think this isn’t back-snarking at me for getting tired of the endless volcano explosion on Invasive Ant Island but who knows? Anyway that’s burying the lede, which is: Mark Trail is aware of the existence of snark. This changes everything!

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.

Johnny Lone Elk's wife: 'I've got a bad feeling about this - that bald guy looks shady!' Johnny: 'That's because you suffer from peladophobia!' Other Guy: 'Ha ha ha!' Mrs Lone Elk: 'That's not entirely true ... I think guys with man buns are creepy too!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 19th of May, 2017. Life goal: hire an acting class to figure some way of staging this conversation that doesn’t come across as some theater of the absurd stuff. And I will record every single run-through and trial and release it as an experimental film that will sweep, I tell you, positively sweep the Capital City Film Festival’s coveted “The Heck Am I Even Watching?” awards.

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.

Mrs Lone Elk: '[ The bank robbery ] might explain Mark's odd behavior - Not coming in the house and leaving with potentially bad weather headed this way!' Other Guy: 'Plus it would explain why Mark left his new camera equipment in his vehicle!' Mrs Lone Elk: 'That's the same thing Sheriff Stober said when i told him!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 30th of May, 2017. I love the dirty look being given the cougar by what is either an abnormally skinny raccoon or else a ringtailed cat that doesn’t realize this story is taking place in South Dakota, like five hundred miles from anywhere it has any business being. Maybe he’s taking a vacation or getting in on that prairie dog census.

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
  • Giraffes, 23 April 2017
  • Male lions, 30 April 2017
  • Parrotfish, 7 March 2017
  • Saiga Antelope, 14 May 2017
  • Alligators, 21 May 2017
  • Black Rhinoceroses, 28 May 2017
  • Sanguinaria Canadensis, “Bloodroot”, 4 June 2017
  • Tornadoes, 11 June 2017

Next Week!

Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth. Not to say too much about what’s been happening, but: cruise ships!.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

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.

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What’s Going On In Mark Trail? December 2016 – March 2017


[ Edited the 10th of June, 2017 to add ] Hi, persons trying to catch up what’s going on in James Allen’s comic strip Mark Trail. This article’s true enough for when it was posted, but it’s out of date by now. Less out of date? The plot summaries at or near the top of this link. Thanks for reading and I hope something here helps you out.


Mark Trail was the second story strip I reviewed as having had a sea change considerably improving it. And I’ve talked in passing about the major event of November and December. But let me recap the whole of the last few months as best I understand it.

Mark Trail.

4 December 2016 through 18 March 2017

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.

At the smoking ruins of the island: 'I've been a charter pilot through the islands for many years and I've seen coral atolls rise and sink from time to time, but I've never seen one totally erupt, crumble, and sink into the sea before!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 24th of December, 2016. And yes, this may look bad, what with Mark Trail having declined the insurance on Firecracker Island. But look on the bright side: now that the island has erupted, crumbled, and sunk into the waters there’s probably someone looking to build a Monty Python reference on the spot already.

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.

Cherry: 'I made your favorite!' Mark: 'Pancakes! - Indeed you did!' Rusty: 'I enjoy pancakes too! Thanks, Mom!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 30th of January, 2017. So yes, that friend of yours who’s way too much into Mystery Science Theater 3000 would like to know whether any of these people would say “I like coffee”. (It’s a reference to the episode Red Zone Cuba, but I’m going to say it’s from The Skydivers in order to trick MST3K fans into commenting to tell me I’m wrong. I’ve always been an awful old-school Internet troll that way.) The rest of us are busy pondering the exact differences between the curls in Cherry Trail’s hair and the wisps of we-hope-that’s-steam coming off the mound of pancakes. Are they a life form trying to communicate? Surely not or Mark Trail would have known what to make of them.

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.

Doc: 'Johnny found evidence of a bear? Does he have any idea what kind?' Mark: 'It's probably just a black bear. Not likely to be a grizzly!' Cherry: 'Wasn't someone out there doing a black-footed ferret and prairie dog survey? A bear isn't going to help that at all!' Doc: 'How's Johnny doing? We haven't seen him in years!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 2nd of March, 2017. You might ask if Cherry Trail is too quick to judge the bear’s unwillingness to help with the black-footed-ferret and prairie dog survey. Perhaps. Me, I wonder if in the third panel that’s Lampy, finally finding work after the end of Apartment 3-G.

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.

127

Possibly The Biggest Problem We Do Have Right Now


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:

'Bill said the online remarks about my work were snide, sarcastic comments!' 'Mark, honey, don't take it personally!' 'I suppose you're right, Cherry ... As long as folks read my work, I guess that's what counts!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 21st of January, 2017. Do you want to attract a community of highly self-referential snarky commenters? Because this is how you attract a community of highly self-referential snarky commenters. If any of these things start being said by a giant squirrel then we’ll know Allen has given over entirely to the ironic readership.
Bonus nature tip: saying “don’t take the snide sarcastic online comments personally” has never ever gotten a writer to feel better.

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.

104

Update On What’s Going On in Mark Trail


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!

The survivors in a boat: 'Sorry we didn't get an ant specimen, Abbey!' 'That's okay, Mark --- you and I both saw that ant mound!' 'At least the ants on that island can't spread any further!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 27th of December 2016. Part of me admires their task focus. If I had just escaped an exploding island I would not be worrying about whether they had proof of the ants that were invading the island and upsetting its natural ecological balance unless I were trying to justify my decision to destroy the island. I would be worrying about whether I was far enough from the many, many, many lava explosions. Since they are trying to justify destroying the island it implies we must ask which of them is the lava-god with the power to destroy Hawaiian islands and authority to make that decision?

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.

82

What Is Going On With Mark Trail?


[ Edited the 10th of June, 2017 to add ] Thanks for coming to me to try figuring out what’s going on in James Allen’s animal-based adventure comic strip Mark Trail. This article’s out of date. Near the top of this link you should find my most recent articles about plot developments in the comic strip.


It was a strange interlude between two stories on Jack Elrod’s long-running, epically stodgy, nature-adventure strip Mark Trail. Mark’s son, Rusty, paused from being a homunculus to nap in the yard, and he dreamed of the tens of millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed what would become the Lost Forest. It lasted only a week, not even an eyeblink in story strip times. But this August 2013 sequence signalled important stuff about how the comic strip would change.

'Rusty dreams he is being chased by a carnivorous dinosaur.' And he trips and faceplants.
Jack Elrod’s Mark Trail for the 24th of August, 2013. Drawn and written by James Allen. Now why would you dream about tripping like that? Could it be that Rusty Trail secretly wanted to meet Todd The Dinosaur?

Mark Trail.

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.

'OKAY MR RABBIT, OR WHATEVER YOUR NAME IS, YOUR FUN IS OVER!' Rabbit is baffled. 'That's a PET raccoon, and I came to take it home!' 'You've got to be kidding!'
Jack Elrod’s Mark Trail for the 13th of November, 2008. While every word that Mark Trail utters here is completely true and correct it’s still an odd thing to say. I recommend it as a challenge for new actors to make this come out sounding natural.

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.

'I'm sorry something bit you, Darling!' says Honey, and then they go kissing on the beach. Meanwhile in the way foreground an ant climbs off their firewood onto a remote Pacific island.
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 2nd of July, 2016. A flashback set “two years ago” as Darling and Honey bring to a beautiful Pacific island the untold doom of something like normal human affection! Or it would be the doom except …

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.

Abbey and Mark Trail call each other's names while the island they're on blows up, catches on fire, sinks into the ocean, and everything else happens.
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 26th of November, 2016. Now there’s really no blaming the ants, or Honey and Darling, for the island tearing itself up. This is the sort of problem you need the starship Enterprise to drop a science thingy into a volcano for.

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.

101

Nothing Is Happening In Apartment 3-G: Has Apartment 3-G Been Cancelled?


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:

'It's time we took a walk outside', says Martin, outside.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 18th of October, 2015. Honestly. Look at that first panel.

I mean, honestly. Let’s look at that first panel again:

'Time we took a walk outside', says Martin, 'At the E.R.' that has a bush and a clear blue sky in it.
Seriously, this is the first panel of a Sunday Apartment 3-G. At some point it crosses the dividing line between sloppiness and sabotage.

RrrrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRrrrrrgh.

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.

Frank Bolle’s web site is obviously derelict. Its latest news announces Bolle’s upcoming appearance at San Diego Comic-Con for July 2004. Margaret Shulock’s blog was last updated in June of 2012, with a post that she was back, she thinks. Comics Kingdom’s News Around The Kingdom blog today has nothing to say about the strip one way or another, even though the strip’s fate is the biggest news about a King Features Syndicate comic strip property this week. Syndicated comic strip fans live in a weird space.

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.)

Future Hilary Forth listens to Nona's advice not to give up on her writing career, and takes it. Jetpacks are mentioned.
Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe’s Sally Forth for the 16th of October, 2015. This is part of a flash forward sequence depicting Hilary and her friends in the future, a trio of young women making it in The City.

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.