Some Alarming News


I don’t mean to alarm everyone. But there have been an alarming number of alarms here lately. In fact, as I write this, I hear one that’s completely new. It sounds — oh, there, it’s just stopped. Well, it sounded like someone was running a vacuum cleaner that has just inhaled a throw rug. Whatever that means can’t be good. My guess it is it means the dogs nearby aren’t nervous enough.

Anyway that’s just the latest strange and alarming-like noise here. Another one only stands out when I go outside. This is … well, it sounds like a smoke detector complaining about a low battery. This is a more successful alarm than that vacuum cleaner that’s swallowed the throw rug, which is back, by the way. It’s not just more unsettling because the smoke alarm’s been going on a week now. The smoke alarm is unsettling because it implies there’s some house on the block where it’s always 4:30 am. This seems improbable. If it’s always 4:30 am in there how do its residents know when to oversleep for work? But more, how am I hearing the smoke alarm from some other house? It can’t be the neighbors. I know them, kind of, and they’d absolutely have replaced the batteries or smashed the smoke alarm with a sledge hammer by now. But what other house could possibly be near enough to hear? Unless all their windows were open, and they had set up a megaphone right by the smoke alarm and aimed it right at our driveway?

But what other explanation makes sense? Could someone have set a smoke alarm in the park at the end of the block? This would be great, since the local squirrels and raccoons need some warning of brush fires. The skunks do too, but they need something less alarming, for the obvious reason. The local skunks have been very alarmed by many things all summer and fall, I infer. We don’t need to add to that.

Anyway — there’s that vacuum cleaner again — there’s a bunch of alarms in the area. Like, this past Saturday they did the usual monthly tornado siren test. My area of Michigan, despite being in the Midwest, doesn’t actually get that many tornadoes. It gets tornadoes about as often as my old area, New Jersey, does. And New Jersey doesn’t get tornadoes. When I grew up we only ever heard about tornadoes touching down in warehouse districts of Brooklyn. These days, tornadoes have been entirely priced out of Brooklyn. Where are they even going to go, Staten Island? So the point is we don’t really need a tornado siren in Lansing, Michigan. One Halloween they tried using the torando siren to announce the official start and end of trick-or-treating hours. The catch is that year it was so rainy, and windy, and turbulent that everyone figured we were getting a tornado, so everybody stayed home, confused. This foiled our plan to get a good reputation by giving out full-size peanut butter cups.

And then this Tuesday they tested a different alarm. This is one they’ve set up to warn people that the dam has broken. Also that there’s a dam which, if broken, could be a problem. We’re near a river, but not the one that’s got a dam so far as anyone has told us about. But we are near enough that other river that I could hear the siren. It was this kind of quick, rising tone, with silent intervals, sounding like someone was trying to hurry through the tornado siren and made a mistake and had to start over again.

After like thirty seconds of that, the siren gives way to a prerecorded announcement. Here, this booming voice gives people the useful emergency information: I don’t know. We’re far enough from the river that by the time the sound reaches us, it all sounds like Charlie Brown’s French teacher. So, if the dam does break, I’ll have to follow the instruction of “le hrronk, la bwooonk-wa-wa-honk et les nous hawrooronkarronk sur ta plume”.

I think that vacuum cleaner has digested the throw rug, so whatever problem that is has cleared up. I know I feel more secure now.

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 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.

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?