What’s Going On In Mark Trail? Who Is Chasing Rusty Trail And Why? July – October 2018


I know you want to find out about all the comic strips which mentioned mathematics topics last week. They’re discussed on that link, the one that just passed. And you probably also want to know about a fascinating selection of words from mathematics. That’s here. It’s also possible that you want to know about James Allen’s Mark Trail, but it’s so much later than the mid-October date when I publish this that my plot summary doesn’t help. If I’ve got a more recent recap, it should be here. Glad to help. If you’re reading this around lat October, though, this should get you caught up soon enough.

Mark Trail

31 July – 21 October 2018.

[ And tracks down 'Mark Trail' ] Griffy: 'No, she doesn't have an ear tag or a tufted forelock.' Mark Trail: 'Sorry, Chief --- if she's not tagged or tufted, I can't help you!'
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead panel for the 20th of August, 2002. Part of a storyline in which a “realistically drawn woman” interrupts the comic and Griffy (left) goes on a search through the story comics to try to find where she belongs.

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.

Mara: 'Who is that man she's [ Becky's ] talking with --- he wasn't part of the group!' (Becky hands a mask to Backpack Guy.) Rusty: 'Hey! That's the mask from Professor Carter's trailer!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 17th of August, 2018. You can’t see it from this angle, but just out of frame, Rip Haywire is punching an explosion. It’s pretty cool.

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.

Raul, over the phone: 'I didn't see much --- the kids were in the way --- but I know the rop went as planned!' Joe, in his truck: 'That complicates things ... we may have to use the kids for a while before we get them out of the way! This makes me very unhappy --- you know Mark Trail's reputation!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 30th of August, 2018. The next day’s strip makes it clear they’ve read Mark Trail’s writings before, so they just happen to be low-level Mark Trail fans out here. It’s not like he showed up in their scheme and they quickly looked up what this means for their life-stories.

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.

Mara: 'We're going to walk over to Backpack Guy. You kind of push me into him, I'll trip and fall. When he tries to help me up, you slip the phone into his backpack!' Rusty: 'Awesome! Then we can use your phone and the Snap-N-Rap App to track my phone's location and find out where he is in case we lose sight of him!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 21st of September, 2018. So, seriously, the only comic strips that show kids with cell phones in anything approaching realism are Nancy, Phoebe and Her Unicorn, and Mark Trail? The heck, world? You know?

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.

Raul: 'What do you mean?' Joe: 'I thought the kids had just led me to the second courier --- they just tripped over a guy wearing a backpack who was getting off the bus, but now they seem to have lost all interest in him!' Raul: 'I'm sorry, but I'm not following you!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 28th of September, 2018. A sentiment that I did see expressed while the story was going on. The lack of explicitly given names didn’t help following the story as it suddenly got all this intrigue.

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.

Mara: 'Rusty, Backpack Guy is headed this way!' Rusty: 'Quick! Let's act like we're reading!' (They pick up comic books. Rusty reads 'Fist of Justice' and Mara 'Giant Squirrel!'. Comics in the background include 'Spider Guy' and 'Super Dude' and a 'Gore' that I think might be a reference to this early 50s Peanuts strip where Charlie Brown demolishes a poor newsstand owner's comics display.)
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 6th of October, 2018. Wait, those comics. Fists of Justice? Giant Squirrel? Mark Trail is getting all self-aware and I’m not sure I can take it!

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.
  • Parasitoid Wasps, 14 October 2018. Yeah, it’s got a stinger that’s, like, twelve feet long and Mark Trail looks like he’s about five feet into his impalement here.
  • 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.

Next Week!

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!

What’s Going On In Mark Trail? Who Told Mark Trail ‘Fetish’ Was A Word He Could Say? May – July 2018.


If you want my most recent recap of the plot in James Allen’s Mark Trail, please, enjoy it at or near the top of this link. If you read this before about November 2018, that’s likely this essay. If you want to see the mathematical content of comic strips discussed, please look to my other blog, which I also can’t decide whether to get a professional WordPress package and hosting deal for. Thank you.

Mark Trail.

7 May – 28 July 2018.

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.

Man on Beach: 'This whale got stuck here at the end of low tide!' Woman: 'Poor thing! I wonder what kind of whale it is?!' Mark Trail: 'It's a Minke Whale!' Man: 'Now, Mister, REALLY? How in the world do YOU know that?!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 15th of May, 2018. I am always delighted when a story strip character responds to something with way more emotion than the situation will bear. So Minke Whale Skeptic there is fantastic. It’s the sort of panel that will keep me looking forward to a strip for years afterward.

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.

Mark Trail: 'How do I know that is a Minke Whale? ... Let's just say that I know a little something about wildlife!' Cherry: 'Mark, listen, the tide is starting to come in!' Mark Trail: 'Right! Maybe if we work together, we can get this whale back in the sea!' Cherry: 'Well, if the tide is coming in, that should help!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 16th of May, 2018. While I want to appreciate Mark Trail’s quiet confidence in his own authority HOLY COW MARK TRAIL HAS NIPPLES HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN ALLOWED TO GO ON.

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.

[ The truck arrives in front of a fairly tall, multi-tiered, complex Mayan-ish pyramid covered in plants; there's a huge grimacing, fanged face sculpture at the lower right corner of it. ] Truck Driver: 'Well, here we are --- I told you. Kind of creepy!' Rusty: 'WOW! Dad, look! How cool is that?' Mark Trail: 'Settle down, Rusty!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 19th of June, 2018. So just how rambunctiously was Rusty looking at a 2500-year-old temple and calling it cool that Mark Trail had to tell him to settle down? I’m not saying this question is interesting enough to make a fanfiction about, but maybe he was bounding around like a dog you took with you through the car wash or something.

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.

Carter, showing of the artefacts room: 'After cleanup, Becky does a 3D scan of everything! I think that is a little overkill ... but she is adamant about it! She gets totally obsessive about artifacts!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 12th of July, 2018. “Anyway, I’m sorry Becky can’t be here today. She was saying something about having to close on four mansions in Belize, I think? Seems weird, especially after she bought that apartment building in San Salvador two weeks ago and hasn’t even got to ride in her new private jet. Sweet woman, though.”

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?

Next Week!

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.

Belarus Diplomat Delivers Warning From Dream World


I want to thank whoever at Reuters created this headline, because it’s one of the best I’ve seen in ages:

Belarus diplomat worries topless, mayo-throwing women could disrupt U.N.

Specifically, in a discussion about opening up the Conference on Disarmament discussions to the general public the Belarus delegate worried about what this could do to security and allegedly, according to the official summary, said, “What if there were topless ladies screaming from the public gallery throwing bottles of mayonnaise”. Reuters doesn’t say what the answer was, but then, what kind of answer could you give besides “hope the sergeant-at-arms hasn’t run out of catsup”? The correct answer was given by Mexico’s representative: since the public was already allowed to attend plenary sessions, “in theory [they] could already drop mayonnaise onto delegates”. Also there were only two people watching right now, anyway.

Actually, Reuters doesn’t even say who the Belarus delegate was, so I can’t swear that this isn’t entirely a prank put in to see if anybody’s reading the summaries. But if it did happen, then, I have to suppose that Belarus has gotten a warning from the dream world about a future in which Disarmament Conferences are held much closer to a Roy Rogers’ Fixin’s Bar, which is good news for the people trying to bring the Roy Rogers franchise back from being just four stands in service plazas on the New Jersey Turnpike. It just feels like the sort of thing you wouldn’t fear unless you had some specific reason to, though, doesn’t it?

Yet I can’t help feeling a little sad. I can’t convince myself that the guy from Belarus wasn’t making a really sly, snarky joke — I mean, the specificity of topless women with mayonnaise is suggestive — and then Mexico’s guy didn’t realize it and answered flatly. If that’s the case I hope the Belarus guy just went home with that smug feeling that comes from making a joke so deadpan that nobody realizes you’re joking.