The Weekly Recap and Sunday Nature Talk

For those coming in late, Cherry has a working relationship with the Sunny Soleil Society to help upgrade their gardens. While Cherry seems to be putting in more than the usual effort to do well and stay on good terms with Violet Cheshire, I’m afraid that her efforts seem to be in vain. The bee episode still looms over the situation. This week Violet introduced Cherry to Caroline, another board member, while Cherry was busy on a pond garden exhibit. For some reason, Cherry was embarrassed by the presence of tiny toads scampering out of the pond and around the two Society ladies. But worse was to come.

Turns out that Caroline’s husband has a new pest control business (which seems a bit below the social standards of the Society) and the Board has decided to award the contract to the fledgling company to eradicate the bees. Naturally, Cherry is very upset, for obvious reasons, but Violet takes pleasure in seeing Cherry in a powerless position to do much about it. Now, it does seem odd that a group that has invested time and money in gardens would be so ignorant of the value of bees, but that’s the story. I’m thinking that Violet’s decision to kill the bees is based on her erroneous identification of the bees as the invasive killer bees. If this is true, it needs to be clarified in the strip. But, we may have to wait a few weeks to learn more. Rivera normally only gives Cherry’s storyline one week at a time to Mark’s two. But after all, the comic strip is called Mark Trail, not The Trails.

Today’s strip reads like one of those old government-sponsored nature films they used to show in grade school. Well, I think we used to see such films, though maybe they were films on hygiene. Okay, so it was a long time ago!

Anyway, getting into the content, while I appreciate Rivera’s ongoing aim to help us learn the scale or height of these animals, I find the canine comparison of this particular breed perplexing, since how many people even know what a Shiba inu is, much less be familiar with its height!? I sure didn’t, so I looked it up. They sound like a real pain in the ass to raise, and are expensive to purchase. Probably expensive to maintain, as well. I think a spaniel or a retriever would have made the size comparison more familiar to readers. Or maybe a roadrunner?

So, exactly what can we do to help keep wild animals and ourselves safe from each other’s less-than-noble desires to kill each other? I think focusing more on Mark’s closing comment would have made a better, more informative Sunday strip. So, who is really surprised if a minimum-wage animal control employee shoots somebody’s collie because he thought it was a wolf? We’d rather learn how to protect our pets from those people! It’s not our job to train them, anyway. And what do we do when we are installing a walkway in the backyard and a black bear or fox suddenly shows up? Do we heave pavers at them?

The title panel—though interesting conceptually—fails me in the sense that the coyote and dog are not really posed as the letter A. We realize they are meant to be that, but only within the context of knowing the strip’s name. Then again, the canines don’t seem to fit any of the other letters, either. It must have been a tough problem. Still, Rivera gets good marks, overall, for her concept of thematic Sunday titles.

Who rewrapped the statue?

As I look at today’s strip, I believe that Rivera’s wretched depiction of Caroline and Violet today (compared with yesterday’s more flattering view) is meant to reinforce the inner ugliness and selfish ignorance of the women and the Association they represent. Rude caricatures have a long well-known history though we don’t need to go a-wandering down that path to find justification. It is common practice, especially in comics, to exaggerate for emotional or physical purpose. This is in contrast to the former version of Mark Trail, where the most extreme distortions were usually just images of Mark showing surprise or were incidents when the art was just badly drawn (as back in the Elrod days of 2006).

At the same time, Violet’s face in panel 3 looks bigger than the head it inhabits, which makes me think Rivera may have liked an earlier version of the face she drew and pasted that version over this figure. This is not an unheard of practice, even in comics. Maybe Rivera did this deliberately, for its jarring effect.

Yet, I cannot account for the weird position of Cherry’s head in panel 4 with regard to her neck. It looks really off-kilter. I cannot account for it in any kind of metaphorical way. That is, if it is symbolic of something, I am lost. It’s as if the back of her head is missing.
It’s a weird head-neck arrangement that I recall seeing in some of James Allen’s work, such as the head of Rusty’s futile feminine interest and crime-solving partner, Mara, during their Yucatan adventure. “Creepy” is right, Mara! Cherry’s head reminds me of a marionette for some reason, the one with the separated head so it can be independently moved.

But back to the story, we finish the week with a major setback for Cherry, as Violet stands by her Association’s nepotistic corruption and disregard for nature. Thus, we’ll likely have to wait two weeks to discover the outcome: Will Cherry go on to convince the Association of its erroneous position or will Violet (one letter short of “violent”) once again physically throw Cherry off the property and fire her?

Final note: Anybody who has scanned today’s post more than once might notice some changes over time, as I made some revisions to grammar and content during the day. Sometimes it is hard to resist, especially as I have a big Italian quiz coming up on Tuesday. Not sure why I should be concerned, as I’m just auditing the class; however, I am taking the class to learn Italian, so I take all of the quizzes and tests to see if I’m making progress.

Cherry works her defense, but faces a tricky objection from the Other Side

The story moves on. Cherry abandons her original suggestion to move the bees and finally starts making the proper case for their continued existence here. But the two Association honeys have made the a priori decision for extermination. Can Cherry overcome their wall of social privilege? Caroline attempts to put Cherry in an ethical dilemma by comparing Cherry’s struggling landscape business with her husband’s alleged new business struggles. Of course, Caroline sidesteps the corrupt transaction, itself. For all we know, Caroline and her husband are already part of the economic upper crust, and this business is just a side concern. But we don’t know that, so judgment reserved. Still, as a pest controller, he should know that honey bees are not proper subjects for extermination. So, we might assume that Violet reported these are destructive killer bees, instead. We’ll have to wait to learn more, but it doesn’t put Caroline’s husband in a good light. The more we learn about Caroline, the more it is clear she is cut from the same cloth as Violet. With one day to go (I presume), will Cherry be able to make her case?

Visually, today’s strip is well-designed and nicely illustrated, showing little of the “I-have-a-deadline!” sketchiness we have seen other times. By well-designed, I mean that the composition in each panel nicely highlights and supports each panel’s dialog: Panel 1 focuses on Cherry as she states her position, with nothing extraneous to distract us. Panel 2 brings in the statue and bees, along with the three women, as Cherry’s argument moves from a global view of bees to their importance to their local garden. And panel 3 provides a dramatic “oh, by the way” objection by the Sunny Soleil Society to Cherry’s argument. Thus, the two Association women take prominence, as Cherry (and her position) is “pushed” towards the background. I like panel 3, as Rivera’s drawing of the Sunny So-Ladies, as they give us a visual window into their souls (or attitudes). 

Another Forlorn Hope?

“…until she heard of the bee statue.” I thought Cherry was the co-discoverer of the bee statue! Well, it’s clear my powers of prediction leave much to be desired, because the story has a new wrinkle. And sure looks like Caroline is not going to be Cherry’s BFF. She also turns out to be married to an exterminator, which explains her appearance in the strip. We see more reinforcement that it helps to be connected when trying to land jobs. I’m sure that the SSS did not bother to follow standard practices by putting out the job for bids, and doing a blind analysis of the bids before they just happened to pick the firm that was run by the husband of a board member. “Nothing dramatic to see here, folks. Just normal, everyday corruption. Move along, move along.And close your mouth before flies (or bees) get in your mouth, Cherry!

I can’t be too tough on those two purile paragons of privilege (Hey! How is that for a Spiro Agnew-style insult?!). For one thing, it is clear that Rivera means to mock their status. Furthermore, they may want to destroy the bees, but Cherry’s first reaction was to move them some place else, rather than integrate them into the garden. I mean, I can’t believe that was really a hive of so-called killer bees. Not even Cherry confirmed Violet’s rush to judgment. Now, is Cherry going to hurry up and make the pollinator case for the bees? She has two days left to do it before Sunday and then the return of two weeks of Mark and Diana.

Well, I appreciate the fact that Jules is juggling two concurrent story lines in the strip, something we did not see in the former Mark Trail (as I recall).  We might quibble with specifics (as we like to do), but Rivera is still in her first year of the strip. Unlike when Allen took over, Rivera’s job is not to simply keep driving the same car down the same country road, stopping at the same diners for the same meals. There’s a lot of things to work out in any reboot. I think (or hope) several of the clichés Rivera relies upon, such as the ongoing jabs at the former version of the strip (especially to Mark’s earlier role as the Idealized Man of Action and Nobility) will eventually disappear.

It’s just good bees-ness!

I was just having a chat with my wife about my bad habit of second-guessing myself. Never mind what the specific incident was; but this is another example. I took yesterday’s drawings too literally and discounted the idea that Caroline was another SSS member. She seemed from her pose and expression that she was much younger. Well, with the closer images today, that would have been more obvious. She’s just childlike, I reckon. Boy, that Sunny Soleil Society must be one big collection of self-indulgent pretenders.

Anyway, Violet’s no-nonsense pose in panel 1 suggests to me that she knows how Cherry’s conversation with Caroline is already going to go, and that Cherry will not find an ally. Perhaps Cherry, in her desire to be open and friendly towards Caroline, missed Violet’s body language. Cherry is an optimist, however; maybe she read the signals fine, but still thinks she can bring Caroline over to her side. Based on Caroline’s reaction and expression, Cherry may have do an end-run around Violet’s influence and appeal to Caroline’s better instincts. If they exist.

Of course, Cherry is just the hired help; she can suggest, but she cannot insist, unless she wants to return to unemployed status and lose out on the business. But Cherry has principles, too. If she walks away, the bees still get terminated. Is feeling righteous about your high moral standards an acceptable substitute for saving the bees? Okay, Cherry. The pressure is on you to convince these precious debutantes that bees actually help gardens thrive and should not be killed. Cherry could suggest the SSS hire a beekeeper to maintain the bees and help the garden thrive. The beehives could even become an educational attraction for the garden and the Sunny Soleil Society. A good PR Coup for the SSS and Cherry becomes a hero and respected hired hand.

But let’s see how things really pan out this week.

A Comedy of Manners?

Okay, this story sure took a hard turn to the Land of Weird. Motivations here? Is Cherry really that concerned for her business that she has to act servile? Sure, Cherry is the hired help; it’s her business. The social separation of these people is also inescapable, as seen both by the clothing and the artwork, where we see Tara—er, Caroline—and Violet from a groveling servant’s viewpoint in panel 2.

But, is Cherry patronizing Caroline and Violet by apologizing about the little toads, or is she just genuinely embarrassed by them scampering about and making her look careless? It’s not as if you never see creatures crawling, hopping, and flitting about in gardens, even for two rarified ladies such as these.  Yes, we know that Violet is really a poseur, while Caroline comes across as…charmingly passive-aggressive. She hides her put-down (“wild streak”) within an oh-so-charming sense of familiarity and manners. She also looks and dresses younger than Violet, so maybe she is Violet’s niece. Or maybe she is just naïve.

I think Cherry is also putting on an act, as we can see by the contrast with her “inner self” emoting in panel 3. What is Cherry’s aim here, then? If Jules Rivera is not pulling our leg, I’m intrigued by what’s going to happen next.  At worst, we should hope that Cherry gets all of Caroline’s home landscape business for this performance.

 Float me some pot, Cherry!

I was off on my tracking, as the two week segment with Mark included the prior week when Mark picked up Diana and spent the rest of the week getting consoled by Cherry.

So, catching up, Cherry and Violet Cheshire have an uneasy alliance to restore and upgrade the Sunny Soleil Society’s gardens. That alliance was sorely tested when they were surprised by a swarm of bees hidden under a tarp covering a memorial statue in the garden area. Violet lost her cool. So we’ve caught up.

Yesterday, Jules was nice enough to go over the frog-toad issue, at least enough to ensure that we’ll never be 100% positive one way or the other; so whatever Cherry wants to call these amphibians, is okay by me.  Anyway, I’ll be the first to admit that I was flummoxed by the ceramic pots that seemed to be floating on top of the pond beside Cherry. My gardening wife said that this was just a fashion in upscale gardens:  bricks or stones are placed underneath to give the illusion that the pots are floating. Flummox solved.

Moving on to the plot, Cherry seems unduly sensitive about her reaction to, or the appearance of, these toads/frogs in the presence of the two Sunny Soleil ladies. Well, I suppose the “EEK!” exclamation accounts for some of it? Perhaps Cherry’s anxiety is driven by trying to stay on their good side for business reasons. And once again, Rivera continues to do a good job of linking the Sunday animals to the daily strips in a more active way then used to be the case.

Well, if one pretentious person wasn’t enough, Violet shows up with a companion who is equally decked out in Kentucky Derby finery. Okay, that’s possibly a non-sequitur, as conventional wisdom says they are in Georgia. These ladies must live in some time-warped gated community where people dress like that; or it’s Easter. Or maybe the other woman is also an SSS employee and these are just their uniforms.

As for the dialog, I don’t fully understand Cherry’s concerns over the amphibians (aside from the “Eek”) running around (over what I wrote earlier); they are normally found around ponds and lakes, including garden ponds. Also, this is the humid, semi-tropical South. So, why is Cherry upset over what must be a common sight? Hmmm, I’d be more upset over Violet Cheshire’s lame pun in panel 3.

The art is fine, today, and the varying points of view add interest to an otherwise unremarkable sequence. And I can’t help but think of Gulliver when I see panel 2. Then there are the runway model poses of the two fashionistas in panel 3. I think Jules Rivera gets her stereotype ridiculing in again with these ladies’ poses. Miss Blue’s is portrayed in a “precious-refined lady-overreacts-to-actual-wildlife-outside-of-a-zoo” pose, while Violet’s pose has “I-anchor-myself-importance-with-sarcasm” written all over it.

Based on what I’ve seen and read elsewhere, I believe some people missed the actually clever pun Rivera slipped into panel 2. Cherry says “Not in front of the Sunny So-Ladies!!” The pun is the phrase Sunny So-Ladies, which is an elision of the words Sunny Soleil and Ladies. The So-Ladies phrase sounds similar to the French Soleil.

What’s that you say? You already figured it out earlier, and I’m just trying to show off!? Well, it’s easy for you to say that now, since this is already written and you didn’t tell me ahead of time! 🙂

The Weekly Recap and Sunday Nature Talk

From the story point of view, we saw the actual start of Mark and Diana’s assignment, begun in typical Mark Trail style:  Skip preliminary events (such as meeting up, renting the boat, going over the assignment, etc.) and just jump into “action.” Mark and Diana began their undercover assignment by pretending to be on a fishing outing, while Diana queried Mark about local zebra mussel sightings. They come upon a cargo ship, under power, in a river in the vicinity of Lost Forest, much to the ballyhoo of old-time Mark Trail fans. Diana ascertains that this particular vessel belongs to a company suspected of being involved in the so-called importation and spread of zebra mussels, also revealing she’s likely been on the assignment before Mark came on board. Diana declared that she was going to do underwater research around the moving ship, a statement supported by her progressive disrobing to reveal what looks like a bathing suit. However, Mark, who up until now, had been acting like clueless land lubber, decided it was time to “man up” and insist he would take the dive; never mind that the entire idea of swimming around a moving cargo ship was inherently a stupid idea.

Curiously, this pair came with no underwater gear, save for a snorkel. Mark didn’t even have a pair of swimming fins to at least give him a fighting chance to avoid getting trapped in the cargo ship’s undertow. Meanwhile, there have been no lookouts on the ship to watch for dangers, such as this.

Technical faults aside, the story moved along at a fairly brisk pace, considering they are supposed to be searching for target vessels while acting like a couple out for a day of fishing. Other than a few possibly sincere cautionary remarks from Diana, readers got to read more snide remarks between the two investigators. Some might call this a kind of combative flirting, as if this was a 1930’s rom-com; however, if this was combative flirting it was certainly only coming from Diana.

Speaking of old times, Jules Rivera could do a lot worse than consult adventure comic strips of the 1930s and 1940s (when they were in their prime) and study how they put together dramatic storylines. Terry and the Pirates, Capt. Easy, Little Orphan Annie, and even Dick Tracy still have a lot to offer. But I get Rivera’s conundrum: How to update a male-dominated adventure strip to be more in line with modern concerns about equality, sexism, and stereotypes.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to this week’s dailies to see how Mark’s underwater research goes, and whether he drops Diana’s supposedly expensive camera. Let’s hope so.

It’s Frog Sunday, with one of Rivera’s more inventive title panels. I like how the toad sits up to represent a capital ‘A’, while the frog sits lower, imitating the lower case ‘a’. I think it’s a clever panel. And her drawings of these amphibians is also very good.

Several scribblers on Comics Kingdom have pointed out that Rivera’s terminology (or understanding) is incorrect. At first blush, this appears to be correct. If you looked online at various scientific sites, it appears that frogs and toads are different Families of the same higher-level Order, Anura. Then again, it depends. Note the following description, variants of which can be found on several scientifically-oriented sites:

Let’s dive into their similarities and differences, starting with this fun but confusing fact: All toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads, according to Penn State University. Basically, toad is a classification of frog. And here’s another fun fact: There’s no scientific distinction between a toad and a frog, according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web.

“Frog” and “Toad” are not scientific names or labels, but informal and inexact ways we describe these creatures, based on their looks. It gets complicated, as even the differences in skin are not always a clear distinction. So, Rivera’s Venn diagram is as accurate a statement as any for our inexact labels. As for another non-scientific approach, I recommend the charming Frog and Toad stories of Arthur Lobel.

Rivera’s last point about the frog and toad’s greatest commonality is argumentative. Is their sensitivity to pollution really that important? If so, how is it observed and how can we benefit from that knowledge? I think that would have been more interesting for Rivera to illustrate. Personally, I think their consumption of pesky insects rates pretty high on the human benefits scale.

Calling Mike Nelson!

Okay, my hoped-for solution did not follow. Diana did not have a full SCUBA setup hidden away for Mark to use. Instead, we are to believe Mark is going to snorkel his way around a cargo ship under way, using his own power. As for the implied value of that camera, it’s hard to judge it based on the drawing; but it certainly didn’t look like anything special. If that camera is designed to work underwater, why isn’t there a lanyard attached to it? Or at least a hand strap?

So, as Diana encourages Mark (panel 4) to start his investigatory swim, we are left with…what, exactly? The carping (excuse the fishing pun) continues, unabaited (no excuse for this forced fishing pun!). Other dialog seems clueless:  “Once we’re close enough…”? Mark, if you were any closer, you could paint that ship’s hull without leaving your own boat!

A few visual points: When I first spotted Mark in panel 1, he reminded me of the ancient Greek swift-footed messenger god, Hermes (i.e. Mercury), with his winged helmet and buff physique. “Oh! Mark is wearing a snorkel,” I realized. That was also when I realized there would be no SCUBA gear and propulsion assistance.

And I was a bit disappointed at the stop-action technique in panel 4, showing Mark cascading into the water after getting pushed. The two “before and after” images, alone, are not enough to create the illusion. A person not aware of what Rivera was intending might suppose there is another person already diving.

Anyway, we should also admit that this whole premise seems screwy. If there are mussels attached to the ship’s hull, it’s not as if the DDG company put them there for some nefarious purpose. And it seems ludicrous to suppose that the ships of other companies do not suffer the same infestation. And let’s not overlook the ballast issue, which is really where these two hapless investigative reporters should be looking. But, this is the story, so we’ll follow it to its watery end.

Some like him hot, some like him cold

Well, they stopped, and now they’re moving again. And apparently, so is that cargo vessel, where we can see the full company name on the side, as we would expect (as I discussed two days ago). Like the cargo ship, the plot crawls along as we learn that Diana, indeed, was going to do the diving and shooting, until Mark finally exerted some control over the situation. And we finish with some kind of beefcake pose of Markey Mark disrobing for his swim, while Daggers has a hitherto undisclosed secondary agenda. In an early interview on Comics Kingdom, Jules Rivera said that she deliberately draws Mark as “ridiculously hot, and I do have a talent for drawing hot guys.” That much is obvious.

Okay, some questions, once again:

  1. How is Mark going to keep up, under water, with a vessel under way? They do not appear to have any underwater propulsion devices (but see below).
  2. Even if Mark could keep up, how would he look for mussels along the hull—and take pictures—without getting caught in the ship’s undertow and drowned, or mangled in the propellers?
  3. Is Diana making another non-literal sarcastic remark about following the vessel all the way to “the Great Lakes”, in the same way she made her “Welcome to California” crack after she landed at Mark’s airport near Lost Forest? That is, “I’m not gonna follow it forever!

But if we take her literally (which I think is always a dangerous proposition), then either Daggers has no understanding of geography, or Lost Forest is really far up the Atlantic Coast, since there is no way to get a cargo ship up there from the South. That also means Cherry sure drives a far distance to her Floridian customers. So, no. Diana’s Great Lakes remark is just sarcastic hyperbole.  And there is no reason to assume Rivera also has no grasp of basic geography. Besides, in the interview I cited, Rivera makes the point that Mark is a real “Florida Man”, whatever that entails.

Nevertheless, one must question the overall validity of this scenario. It’s one thing to investigate an anchored cargo ship. I don’t care how ripped Mark is, he cannot realistically swim underwater alongside a moving vessel while simultaneously looking for zebra mussels and photographing them; all, without getting killed by the ship. Even Mike Nelson (i.e. Sea Hunt) would not have attempted that on his own.

Okay, Rivera threw us a small misdirect about who was going to do the underwater research. Is today’s situation another misdirection for readers? As it appears Diana rented the boat (which is why she is the driver, as Mark declared), did she deliberately maneuver Mark into his “it’s a Man’s job to do the dangerous work” decision? So, while filming Mark getting ready for his gutsy and possibly fatal task, she tells Mark just before he dives to stop and not to be such a macho idiot. Then she reveals an underwater propulsion jet and some scuba gear that she happened to have stowed away in the boat. Thus, this particular setup is a way for Diana to get some of her unexplained need for vengeance against Mark by making him look foolish on video, which not only will wind up in her social media, but find its way into the zebra mussel documentary. Brilliant practical joke!

Okay, am I overthinking this?