America’s Favorite Nature Couple Continues Their Walkabout

Okay, more cute wordplay and flirting. Well, this helps answer a question some Trailheads had with whether Cherry’s story ever had a proper ending. I think it did, within the conventions of how Mark Trail adventures often end. But here we see, fully grown, a recreation of what must have been Cherry’s original design. And is “Roundabout Royale” the location’s actual name or just Mark’s self-coined appellation? So, it looks nice enough for a roundabout that doesn’t seem to be part of any road system. We also get to see another side of the roundabout, with two houses in the distance. I’m guessing that Planet Pancake must be behind Mark and Cherry? I may just be a slow kid from Virginia, but I also wonder how Mark found out about the hogs? Did Dirk call Mark? That seems odd, given Dirk’s anti-social habits. And why blab to Mark, anyway?  Did Dirk want to ensure Mark knew that Cherry could not succeed on her own?

Geography aside, I reckon we’ll have a few days more of Mark & Cherry cavorting around before a new story begins. Perhaps ol’ Doc will make a brief appearance, pretty much as he used to. As for Rusty, since he clearly is no longer a clueless dweeb, perhaps we will find him looking to hook up with the daughter of a local land baron who wants to create an exclusive hunt club providing exotic animals for wealthy members. And thus, we would segue into a real Mark Trail crusade. But I reckon we’ll have to wait for the inevitable Zoom chat later this week. I’m still hoping it will be somebody other than Amy Lee. She’s sent Mark on two assignments; now it’s another editor’s turn.

You know, I’m surprised that Jules Rivera did not turn Bill Ellis into a lowly Messenger Boy (i.e. toady) for this mega-magazine empire, where Bill must personally contact Mark to hand over material for his next assignment. The actual editor-in-charge would still contact Mark to provide additional insights. Say, doesn’t this sound like the usual first act of almost every episode of “Charlie’s Angels”?

Get a cabin!? They already live in a cabin!

Let’s not take a cynic’s view but simply take some time to enjoy two people in love with each other, enjoying an early walk among the trees, surrounded by a “Hallmark Card” heart-shaped opening, flanked by two Monarch butterflies (they do not have the tell-tale horizontal line crossing the rear wing of Viceroys. We should assume Rivera knows that). Okay, that’s enough time! Is that a double-entendre in the middle panel or just a corny pun? But why does Cherry need convincing to take a morning walk? Is she sacrificing her morning fix at Planet Pancake? Something is bound to happen pretty soon…!

But looky-there! We have yet another case of the ambiguous text balloon, this time in panel 3, where Mark is apparently sighing over himself. Clearly this was supposed to be Cherry’s response. I think I just talked about these misdirected balloons yesterday, didn’t I? Is this really a flub that got by Rivera and the syndicate editors, or is Rivera still indulging in satirizing the older strips of her predecessors? A little bit goes a long way, Jules!

I do hope that Rivera does not continue the old Mark Trail tradition of ending story lines without filling in useful details. For example: Did Cherry (who was fretting over her company’s bankruptcy) pay for the new roundabout installation? And what went into it? Did the Sunny Soleil Society officially get off her back and allow her to replant the native palmettos they hauled away?

But it’s nice to see Rivera’s return to a higher standard in her art. She is quite good. I took a look back and was amazed at how her style has already evolved since she took over last October (I believe it was then). Here is one of her early strips from late October:

It shows a definitely lighter touch in the drawing, shading, and color (assuming Rivera has control over the coloring of the dailies, that is).  The overlapping tree lines create a simple but effective sense of space in the small-sized panels Rivera has to work with. The middle panel here is a subtle example of Rivera’s early interest in more unusual points of view and compositions, something that has not always been a strong feature in her more recent work. Again, I’m guessing time constraints and deadlines are forcing shortcuts, which is too bad. But that’s how it’s always been for cartoonists, even back in the early decades. But I’d sure like to see more.

The Weekly Recap and Sunday Nature Talk

Well, that was the week that was; or was it?! A six-strip installment of Mark and the Herp Hacienda Crowd slapping each other on the back with congratulations at getting away with their arguably illegal and unethical escapade. Mark was invited into the building, as Amy Lee reminded Cricket Bro, ignoring the clearly dishonest actions of his accomplices. Well, Cricket Bro seemed stymied by this technicality, but should we? I’ve already argued my position more than once on this topic, a dodgy and slippery slope that Mark has been willing to slide down more than once. Not that Cherry’s actions have been without questionable tactics, either. Given the deliberately quirky characters and setting, we could see this story line more as a “fantasy/comedy” than a traditional drama. But there is little evidence that Rivera had this in mind, as far as I can see. Parody? Yeah, sure. Satire, almost certainly.

It may be that we are also seeing (overall) a less-filtered, more “realistic” view of Mark Trail, compared with the “Aw shucks” romanticized version we’ve been spoon-fed these many decades. It’s like the difference between William Boyd’s white-bread, polite “Hopalong Cassidy” character of the movies and early TV, compared to the original Hopalong Cassidy character in the books written by Clarence Mulford. That “Hoppy” was often an impulsive, cigarette-smoking, devil-may-care cowhand, quick to judge, quick to shoot, but loyal to his friends, and honest; and free with his cussing. Yet, that Hoppy was also one of the “good guys”, not a trigger-happy sociopath. So the latter character is infinitely more interesting than the sanitized “shoot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand” version William Boyd created. So, Rivera clearly has done the same thing in reverse: Her Mark Trail is not the invulnerable, self-confident, fists-of-justice nature warrior of yore. Mark now displays a more complex, textured personality (to adapt a term of literary criticism), beset by doubt, demons, and reckless behavior; but also backed up with a strong personal code of honor and justice. Sort of. Mark is the kind of “hero-not-a-hero” common in contemporary literature and movies.

Moving on to today’s nature topic, the title panel is a subtle one where Mark’s last name is camouflaged. Do you see it? Rivera’s Sunday panels (as here) are usually well-drawn, in part, because of the larger size Rivera gets to work with, and friendly in their delivery. And Rivera’s title panels are almost always inventive. Now, what’s with that crazy vest Mark is wearing!? He looks like a model for LL Bean! I like the humor of using a mirror in the prior panel as a visual pun for Mark’s age comment. But the reflection doesn’t look anything like Mark; more like Daddy Warbucks, in fact!

As any faithful reader will know, Rivera selects her Sunday subjects based on the main location where Mark happens to be working; in this case, California. And last week was butterflies, which links to Cherry’s storyline. I think that is a clever approach. Unfortunately, I do not have a backlog of Sunday strips from previous years to draw on, so I do not recall if this was something that Elrod, Dodd, or Allen also did. Does anybody know?

Anyway, there is one thing I wish Rivera would expand: Subject matter. For the most part, it seems that the Sunday strip always focuses on animals. All well and good, but Mark’s universe is supposedly all of nature, so how about devoting some ink and color to the flora and geology? Maybe even branch out to themes, such as what can happen when people build/encroach on beach fronts, hills, or dense forests. That could even make the basis for some interesting story lines for Mark. How about it, Jules?

Amy Lee is such a joker!

Okay, we must allow Jules to have her joke. Where is it? It is the 4th panel, where everybody is having some kind of vocal group hug and the speech balloon points to Mark, though the text seems to be something the other four would be telling Mark! Trailheads sometimes speak of older strips where dialog balloons on occasion seem to point to the wrong person, or thing. I admit that I was too lazy and tired to look through the backlog of strips, so feel free to add some footnotes in a response. In any event, it seems odd that Mark would be welcoming himself to Herp Hacienda, unless this is meant to be some kind of campy commercial where Mark and crew are actually welcoming us readers to come back. Well, thanks anyway.

Like so many other stories, this one ends with a trunkful of dead-ends and unexplained subplots. We all know what they are, so I won’t waste my time or yours going over them, yet again. Just scroll back through these blogs, if you have the desire and patience.  As for patience, I can’t say I won’t be glad to be shut of those four Herp Hacienda Hippies. But it would have been nice to at least find out what and who the two creepiest characters were. And why the hell they keep lining up, as if they are suspects in a police lineup?

I think many of us will agree that this is not the strongest ending to a Mark Trail story, though it is not much worse, either. Aside from the dodgy animal air check app, this story seemed to be a series of unresolved, random vignettes. I’ve never been a professional comic strip artist, but I’ve played one in my head, and I know that there can be tremendous pressure to put out a 7-day comic strip. In fact, have we not seen other cartoonists these days going on hiatus every so often, content to rerun older strips in order to get away from the pressure? Or, perhaps to catch up? And perhaps Rivera deliberately constructed this story in a way that would mimic or rip some Mark Trail story memes sure to raise the blood pressure of Trailheads. Or, maybe Rivera is just ripping the old-fashioned notion that a Mark Trail story should follow conventional norms.

MOVING FORWARD:

Well, my biggest request here is that Mark gets a chance to do a story for one of the other 7 or so magazines that make up part of the holding company that Woods & Wildlife get rolled into. Let’s see how Mark gets along with a different magazine editor for a bit. And let’s get some more conversations with snakes! Too bad he didn’t try to talk with any snakes at the Hacienda. A missed opportunity, if ever there was one.

Mark tries to bluff, but is called by Amy

Readers who are coming to Mark Trail without a lot of knowledge of the strip’s history could do worse than read the Mark Trail Confidential page of Mark Carlson-Ghost. It is an in-depth review of the strip, its characters, artists, and a lot more. You’ll learn, for example, that Woods & Wildlife magazine had been bought out at least twice before; that recycling old stories and subbing difference characters was a common practice; that under James Allen’s tenure, Mark starting showing a more sculpted physique, Cherry became sexier looking. Mark started getting clumsy and not always winning fights, in spite of his ripped abs. And he was destroying boats as if they were enemy invaders! Carlson-Ghost also has created a yearly summary of major stories and characters, which is linked on the Confidential page. I might have written on this before, but I think it bears repeating.

There appears to be a total lack of reprinting Mark Trail strips. For some twenty years or so we have been seeing (and buying) sometimes lavish reprints of entire runs of vintage comic strips (Peanuts, Popeye, Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, Gasoline Alley, etc.). But where are the reprints of Mark Trail? I reckon that King Features does not believe there is enough public interest; or maybe much of the older art is no longer available or in good shape. Instead, they have recently started just posting old strips online.

Okay, looks like Amy Lee knows a lot of what went on, but still backs up Mark after getting tired of Cricket Bro’s immature and arrogant manner.  I reckon spoiled billionaires are getting to be pretty common these days. Today’s panels were apparently designed to showcase the many faces and emotions of Amy Lee. Now, where is Amy getting these photos from? Mark certainly wasn’t on assignment with his camera. But I wonder if Amy is now going to want a story based on Mark’s adventures in Loony Tunes Land? That would be quite the assignment for Mark, trying to figure out a way to describe the events without criminally implicating himself or his “new friends”.

And this is Friday, folks! There is one more day to see if Mark suddenly transports back to Lost Forest to signal the end of this story, or we buckle down to view another week of Mark sorting things out in California. According to the Mark Trail Confidential page, Mark has been fired more than once in his career. I wonder if he once again gets a pink slip, getting Cherry upset and worried about their finances, since her business also looks like it is in bad shape. Just like old times!

Time to face the music?

I certainly don’t want to turn this podcast into a one-dimensional snarkfest, which is not only unfair, but unoriginal and boring. Besides there are other sites that handle that well enough! Nevertheless, this storyline is really pushing my buttons.

Panel 1: Mark’s face looks like he’s a daydreaming teen fantasizing and drooling over some Internet babe.

Panel 2: Mark’s head morphed into some kind of pushed-in face, with the wings of Mercury above his ears. Of course, those are his standard “older man” hair lines, but appearing as if they have their own independent identity. And making me wonder if Rivera has been watching reruns of the original “Twilight Zone”, the four Herp Hacienda Oddballs are once again pointlessly lined up against the fence, as if to ensure we haven’t forgotten them from yesterday’s strip. And to date, no explanation for the two goofiest characters on the extreme left and right. I’d certainly keep my kids away from them. Also troubling is that Mark has, for some reason, bonded with these nerds! After all of his discomfort, ineptness, and questionable activities, you’d think he would be satisfied to never come back.

Panels 3 and 4: Amy Lee brings up Cricket Bro, who has been spilling the beans to her about Mark and his new friends. Well, I suppose he might have discovered the connection with Amy Lee, based on Mark’s prior story she published about his family’s business. Nevertheless, she is definitely not looking like the hip, coffee mug-holding, exuberantly mouth-wide-open editor we’re used to seeing. No, indeed! She is clearly upset with what she’s heard. And it appears Mark is trying to downplay his guilt and embarrassment at being caught out once again. I’m betting he wished his gray hair lines really were the wings of Mercury at this point.

Well, Mark. What did you expect!? You got involved in something you had no knowledge of, something completely outside of your wheelhouse. You let personal fears of inadequacy lead you astray and got you to help complete strangers commit likely illegal acts. You never came across any of your traditional crime-busting situations, such as poachers, drug runners, abductions, animal or insect cruelty, or missing pets. You never really came across any criminal activity at all, except for what you participated in. You did not even get a chance to fully bring out your vaunted Fists O’ Justice™. And now, you actually want to come back to hang out with your new friends?! Worst of all, you didn’t get photographs of anything! Amy won’t like that!

Well, if the mission of Jules Rivera is to totally make a mockery of Mark the Pro-Nature Hero and his paternalistic value system, I think she’s done a bang-up job so far. But Mark seems too wrapped up in his sense of self to be too bothered by this. Always the optimist?

One of the pundits on the Comics Kingdom site proposed that the result of Cricket Bro’s phone call was that he buys up Amy’s magazine and gets his revenge by firing Mark. Plausible. I wish I had thought of that.  I think none of this nonsense would have happened had Mark taken the time to talk with his snake friend back at Lost Forest, before he flew out here. But as Gregory Peck told David Niven in “The Guns of Navarone”, “You’re in it now, up to your neck!

Let’s go with Option E: It’s Amy Lee on the line!

So, Mark’s last night on assignment? Looks like Amy Lee once again called “right on time”, at the wrap of Mark’s adventure (so we must assume). Apparently, Mark has gotten into Cosplay fun at the Herp Hacienda and is wearing a “Walking Dead” mask in panel 1. Or maybe it’s feral hog.

Hard not to notice that Amy Lee’s depiction in panel 3 is quite decently drawn in comparison with Mark’s two images. It’s not as if Rivera could not have drawn a half-length image of Mark in panel 1 instead of that sketchy and flat scene with the too-small figures. Perhaps this is one reason (other than laziness) that former Trail cartoonists liked to use head shots of Mark to fill panels as much as possible.

So, this is Day 3 of the Epilogue, tying up several loose ends. Critics less charitable than I might call this a week of padding the ending to accommodate the entire week, as if Rivera is getting paid by the word, like some 19th century writer. But do we deserve perfect closure? Do we always find out what happened to that person at the Motor Vehicles Office who rejected your vanity plate slogan? Do we know the fate of that lover we abandoned because she needs to read Tarot cards to decide what to wear for the day? What will those weirdos do after Mark leaves? Do we even care?

Life is full of dead-ends, unexplained absences, and detours. People come and go, many not even speaking of Michelangelo. Life is messy, but stories are expected to make sense and have a clear Beginning-Active Middle-Meaningful End. Yes, stories need to have Endings. You can’t just pull the plug on a story and cut to a scene of Mark leaning against a porch rail as Cherry extols his manliness and professes her undying love and devotion. Rivera seems to be bucking the standard Trail Story ending technique and I’m down with that.

But the biggest black holes are still the so-called antagonists. Where are they? What are they doing? Why did they bother with this entire farce? The entire story still seems like a con. What was the point? How is it that Mark’s childhood nemesis just happened to be the Sugar Daddy for Reptile Man and the Herp Hacienda crowd?

Somebody get these people a change of clothes!

Well, dear readers, looks like Rivera is content to continue this adventure by wrapping up some loose ends. While we might grimace at the less than stellar art that has lately been showing up in this strip, we can revel in the Herp Posse’s self-congratulatory post-game analysis as they awkwardly stand around. The “supporting cast” of Herp Hacienda Oddballs, having fulfilled their pointless and thankless task of being present at the celebration, have once again been relegated to that “Mark Trail Phantom Zone” of isolation previously inhabited by Mark’s family and other characters who might have had something more to offer, but were mysteriously sidelined (e.g. Dirty Dyer).

Reptile Man seems content with things, overlooking the fact that Cricket Bro has been bankrolling him. For that matter, I believe Cricket Bro has also been funding Herp Hacienda. Nobody seems to care about the consequences. Mark’s phone ringer underscores his obvious old-school sensitivity, while he tries to sound like a modern, sensitive hipster. As George Harrison once sang “It’s all too much…

Well now, to get to the main point:  Who is calling Mark? All kinds of interesting plot possibilities come to mind:

  1. Cricket Bro, who still wants to settle scores but may be content to simply offer more lame insults
  2. Professor Bee Sharp, who may want a rematch or at least force this crowd to detail his car
  3. Diana Dagger, who would like to introduce her foot to Mark’s gonads
  4. Cherry, who is brimming with sisterly love, having made up with Violet and forgotten that her company may now be bankrupt
  5. Amy Lee of “Teen Girl Sparkle”, who confesses that, yeah, she knew beforehand about Cricket Bro’s involvement and his past relationship with Mark, just like Mark was set up in his prior assignment!
  6. Bill Ellis of “Woods and Wildlife”, calling to see if Mark can get him out of the Phantom Zone and back into the strip
  7. The insurance company, calling to cancel Mark’s coverage, based on viewing the security video footage posted by Cricket Bro
  8. The Florida State Patrol, requesting he voluntarily return to the state for questioning

So many possibilities, indeed! Now, which one do you think it could be? Or do you have a different idea?

I know “The Great Escape” and this is no Great Escape!

Thanks again to Dennis for stepping back onto the Mark Trail Soapbox to wrap up the presumed ending of Cherry Trail’s latest storyline. I was away for the weekend attending (not participating in) a wedding. It was so hot and humid that the responsible people decided to hold the ceremony inside.  Unfortunately, my wife and I got accidentally stuck sitting at a table in front of the giant air conditioning units. No criticism of the families; it’s just how things worked out. But, it was a pretty nice wedding, all the same. Glad we could make it, too.

Speaking of working things out, what do we have here? Ladies and Gentlemen—and those claiming no allegiance to those categories—are we looking at the further emasculation of Mark Trail?  Once again, we have a typical Mark Trail Segque, jumping from hiding out in an all-night farmers’ market to standing in a lineup, er, cluster of weirdos at the Herp Hacienda (BTW, we never did learn why these people are dressed as if they just got back from some costume party or Cosplay convention). Aparna notes this is a couple days after the theft, meaning we have no idea what took place in the interim, or why they are only having their celebration now. Furthermore, where are the ersatz villains? They know where the Herp Hacienda is, after all.

Aparna continues her tunneled focus on how popular her uploaded app is. Mark looks sheepish over his narrow escape from the possibilities of: a) having to fight Diana Daggers; b) getting arrested for theft and fraud; and c) having to face Cricket Bro and admit that he has no #(@)! idea why he took part in this ridiculous invasion, much less fly to California to appear in some still unknown and possibly bogus video shoot. And to really build up his fan base, Mark confesses that the online forums of “Woods and Wildlife” magazine make him have to sit down and fan himself to avoid getting the vapors. “Steady on, Mark! You were the perfect patsy. Now you have even more people who hate you!” And what is he going to tell Rusty when he returns with no autograph of Professor Bee? Should make for an interesting homecoming.

Hey, at least Jules Rivera is catching on to the standard trick for ending Mark Trail stories:  Ignore details and just cut to the reunion (or home) shot. After this, we’ll likely see Mark back home, with a soon-to-be-disappointed Rusty.

On another topic, I, too, have noticed a simplification in the daily strips over time. The extreme flatness and lack of volume in figures and surroundings stands out to me. So do the somewhat clumsy compositions in a few panels, above, especially compared with many of Rivera’s earlier panels. Not that all is lost: The second panel is actually nicely composed. Still, the overall figures look cramped; and that right arm of Mark in panel 1 is painful to look at! I know some critics on other sites have mused whether Rivera is using a ghost-artist now and then to help explain these artistic variations. It seems early in the game for Rivera to do that, and I don’t believe she has any history of using such people.

Still, this can’t be the end of the story, can it!? It’s just Monday! Perhaps this just a red herring Jules is throwing at us. We have five more days of the week to fill. Maybe Rivera will just teleport Mark back to Lost Forest for the rest of the week, where everybody can trade anecdotes of their adventures. Except for Rusty, who still doesn’t have much of a comic strip life. He needs his own version of the Mexican vacation!

Return of the Butterfly…

I swear, Mark would be lost without Rusty! And of course there’s an App for that…

Monarch v. Viceroy… hmmmm. Didn’t know about that one. Note the cross-hatch in the veins on the Viceroy!

Last year I planted some Milkweed (at least that’s what my neighbor is telling me, since I didn’t save the tag…) It didn’t do much last year, but this year grew tall and flowered profusely, much to the delight of Monarchs and other pollinators. It’s amazing how they find their favorite plants, despite being located so randomly…

With all the drought and fires this summer, I am sure that insects will enjoy any port in this “storm.”