I’m a hog for you, baby!

My reference to The Coasters aside, today’s strip shows Cherry making her nighttime rendezvous with brother Dirk and his hogs, for purposes yet unknown. The way Cherry sways back back in panel 4 seems an overreaction to watching Dirk feed junk food to the hogs. Perhaps she thought the hogs would reach out and sniff her or try for quick Cherry Smash.

Speaking of bad jokes, I’m thinking Rivera engaged here in some Comedy Club humor of her own. Today’s strip breaks with adventure strip pacing and instead follows gag strips in that the first three panels sets up the punch line delivered in the last panel. The text box in panel 4 serves as the Comedy Club drummer delivering the clichéd “Ba-Dum-Tsh!” to ensure we don’t miss the joke. After all, Trailheads who take their adventure strips seriously might misunderstand the point.

In a standard “adventure strip” sequence, we might have moved from Cherry’s arrival in panel 1 right on to the other panels showing Cherry and Dirk going over the plans for the night. That is, we wouldn’t necessarily get three extra panels that effectively do nothing to move the story along. On the other hand, padding the story was a common complaint by Trailheads before, especially in James Allen’s stories. Or need we bring up the cave adventure once again?

I don’t think Rivera is trying to make a subtle reference to any of this pseudo-analytical nonsense. Instead, I think she just had a light bulb moment, saw some humor, and decided to indulge a bit. Yeah, I know. There are a lot of followers (or ex-followers) who believe that all of this stuff we’ve been seeing since Rivera took over is indulgent, but will soon be revealed to be an extended nightmare sequence that the real Mark Trail is having. Mark will wake up in his bedroom, all now drawn in the traditional and approved Mark Trail style, turn to the figure sleeping beside him, and exclaim “Honey, you wouldn’t believe what I’ve been dreaming!”. He’ll then discover that the person in his bed is not Chery, but actually Bill Ellis. The end panel shows Mark letting out a piercing scream, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

Okay, that might be a bridge too far.

G’night, John-Boy! Night, Ma!

The cabin is starting to look a lot more rustic than we have come to expect, even from the prior version of the strip. And when did the front door get a 4-pane window? I looked through a random sampling of prior years (thank you, Dennis!), but most of the time, the front door was always in the shadow of the front porch. Just seems odd. Another thought occurred to me that this home is looking more like a camper cabin you rent in a state park!

Some of the panels in today’s submission are quite good (especially panel 1 with its complimentary angles and contrasting lighting), but panel 3 is an awkward bird, with Cherry framed in the middle of the panel by an entranceway. Eech! It’s the kind of framing mistake photographers and portrait painters try to avoid, for obvious reasons.

However, this certainly cannot be the front door, because we all know there is a large porch on the front of the house, on which family members sometimes hang out! So, we might hazard a guess that Cherry went out a side or back door. Maybe King Features Syndicate forget to give the floor plans to Jules Rivera when she took over drawing the strip!

Now, why does Cherry have to sneak out, and only after Rusty is put to bed? Isn’t Granddad Davis still living there!? I mean, the last we saw of ol’ Doc Davis he was escorting Cherry to the Sunny Soleil Society HQ. Reckon Cherry must have decided he was too useless and stored him in the Mark Trail Unnecessary Characters Box until the current adventures end, whereupon he will be taken out for a brief appearance when everybody is home again. Just a guess! Maybe she hired the squirrel to keep a close watch.

While Cherry’s statement in panel 3 is meant to establish an expected upcoming contradictory event, panel 4 displays a textbox that clearly should have been hung in panel 3. And Cherry, do you think putting the pedal to the metal is really the best way to sneak away? I reckon the squirrel is as nonplused as I am. But I think we can now agree that “the point” Dirk referred to is not Lost Forest.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Okay, not the most creative title, but it’s late and I’m tired. Anyway, I appreciate getting informed about two Pokémon references Rivera placed in recent strips. This shows to me that Rivera is certainly trying to catch the attention of younger readers, as her drawing style also suggests.

It’s nice to get away from Crazy Town for a week and return to a more relaxed, crisis-free scene where Cherry is working on her Home Association problem? Rusty is confessing to being extremely careless with his snacks. At least, Cherry is checking in with Rusty from the comfort of her own command chair, while drinking out of her “cherry” mug. Cute pun. We can probably excuse Dirk adding extraneous characters in his “cyu soon” text, but I suppose he was just making sure to be understood. That could be relevant, since Cherry clearly did not wait to drive back with her brother, Dirk.

I was initially shocked to see Andy in panel 2, looking really, really big, even for a St. Bernard. Or perhaps Rusty is smaller than he previously seemed to be. Maybe it’s just the artistic needs of the composition. Still, Rivera did give us a minni-Sunday nature talk on the Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pig, and it isn’t even Sunday! So why is Cherry surprised by Dirk’s message? She did, after all, invite him to come and help out. Presumably “the point” mentioned is the small bit of land jutting into the lake where her cabin sits.

Well, will we have a week of Cherry and Dirk sitting around and going over options in a similar way Mark did with the Herp Hacienda crowd? Or are we going to quickly move to action? And will it wake up the apparently always-sleeping Doc Davis?

And is Dirk really bringing his hogs to town, or is he actually a crackerjack lawyer, set to bury the Sunny Soleil Society in a mound of legal documents and court hearings?

But how about that squirrel, folks?! It is a squirrel, right? Help me out, because I sucked wind in my college Biology class!

The Week in Review and the Sunday Nature Talk

It’s easy to be snarky with a comic strip that usually takes itself seriously, especially one that kept itself in a world of old-fashioned values, corny dialog, and formulaic stories. The prior version of Mark Trail was a moralistic and moralizing strip with clearly defined good and bad actors. It was like “Father Knows Best”, staged in a fantasy-land, where the rugged father was usually out saving the environment, while leaving his family to fend for themselves. And they were always waiting at the door for his return. With its repetitious poses, Mark’s unflappable hair, his strong sense of self-importance, and a supporting cast of one-dimensional characters, Mark Trail was an easy target for poking fun at, like the fat grandfather at Thanksgiving telling jokes that were last funny when he was a boy.

But Jules Rivera does not give us an easy target. In fact, her iteration of the strip is, itself, sometimes self-parody, sometimes satire, and sometimes self-destructive. So maybe some fans are pissed to see that Rivera is out-snarking the Snarkers? Her drawing style deliberately changes from the old standard to what many feel is either incompetence or disrespect. Yet, the characters are given more realistic personalities and depth. The strip is also no longer only about Mark, which is good! Yet, Mark is especially put through a variety of external and internal crises that cause him to act in ways that the prior Mark would never experience. That includes a reckless streak that has more than once crossed the line of legality. It happened in Florida and it seems to have repeated in California, where we have spent this week watching a theater of the absurd take place in Cricket Bro’s HQ, all to help Aparna purloin a company laptop that apparently contained the only copy of a program she wrote for Cricket Bro’s company. Who is the bad guy here? Who is the trouble-maker? The usual tropes rarely apply, as Mark Trail coexists alongside a real world where good and bad are more often seen as transactional behavior.

Sure, Rob Bettancourt is a jerk and a bully. Professor Bee Sharp and Diana Daggers are certainly dodgy characters. But are they an actual criminal gang? Other than taunt and humiliate Mark, what have they done that’s illegal? Cricket Bro’s project management style may be slimy, but he did pay the programmers before firing them. What they designed belongs to him, no matter how he chooses to use or not use their work. Aparna appears to have no legal right to that software. On the other hand, the plan to recover “Aparna’s” app through less than honest means is almost clearly a criminal action, aided and abetted by Mark.

But I take issue here, as nobody (with the possible exception of Rivera) wants to think that Mark would actually cross the line into illegal or criminal actions. Damaging private property, fleeing police, and assisting in the theft of private property are contrary to what we’ve come to expect from Mark’s character. At least, the original Mark. So I’m not sure what the motivation is:  Perhaps it is a finger in the eye of long-standing readers who complain about the change of style, character, and stories. You can make a character (or family of characters) more rebellious, adventurous, and even reckless, without crossing that line, unless you are also going to make that character accept responsibility for those actions. Shucks, I like Mark better when he is holding conversations with animals.

Perhaps using that roadrunner as a false clue this past Thursday, Rivera jumped over to another speedy animal. Interesting information in the panels today, though the closing statements seem repetitious: How do the young jackrabbits survive? Oh, I think Mark already spilled the beans in the earlier panels. Rivera gets better and better at drawing wildlife. One might quibble over whether that is dust coming from behind the bunny in the last panel or perhaps some internal gas. Likely, the former! As usual, we see that the title panel is composed of that dust kicked up by the escaping jackrabbit, as Rivera continues her habit of linking the appearance of the strip’s title to the main theme.

There goes another video we’ll never see!

I hate to admit it, but this story is really going sideways. Maybe the art, as well. Perhaps Daggers (in panel 3) means she has all of the Herp Hacienda Gang’s transgressions captured on a security video that she can access from her phone and will turn over to the “proper authorities.” Or she put a tracker on the Prius.

Rivera has an aggressive drawing style that I like (though many Trailheads strongly disagree!) ; and it is well done most of the time. But here, it looks like a first-year student in “Cartooning 101” got involved, especially panel 1.

Anatomy is almost completely warped out of proportion, and details, such as Cricket Bro’s hands, are painful to look at. The composition is flat. The “Smack!” effect (including the lettering) is crude and not well-balanced. It kind of reminds me of the low quality work you could see in the old Charlton comic books of the 1960s. Some of you may know what I mean.

Anyway, the drawing gets a little better in panels 2 and 3 (even Diane’s hand looks pretty decent), but the overall effect of the strip is disappointing. Rivera normally does a lot better, though we’ve seen some inconsistencies lately. It makes me wonder whether she is working under deadline pressure or perhaps has an assistant doing some of the work. We know that cartoonists (including Dodd and Elrod) sometimes use assistants for things like lettering, backgrounds, or inking. At an extreme level, the Garfield comic strip is completely drawn and inked by Jim Davis’s assistants (or “ghosts” as they are called in the cartooning industry), though he creates initial sketch ideas and approves the final strips.

So, which is it? I know that Rivera works in an electronic format (as does Dilbert’s Scott Adams), so that could easily allow for cooperative work. But this is just idle guesswork. Most likely, this is all her work and I’m just making shit up.

On a positive note, I applaud Professor Bee Sharp for his ability to so rapidly change back into street clothes, like some actor playing multiple roles in live theater. Granted, all he did was pull off his boxing attire and jump into a workout suit, but that’s still fast work. Now wouldn’t it be nice if Mark ever changed his clothes! I wonder: If you opened Mark Trail’s closet back in Lost Forest, would you see 20 red and black plaid shirts on hangers?

Hilarity ensues

Er…uh, okay. I reckon. Did I see this on “Saved by the bell”? I mean, it’s like watching snarky teenagers as they try to pull off another dumb stunt before getting caught by the Principal as they walk around the corner on their way out.

Yet, we see all three of the transgressors (just where the hell was Reptilionnaire during this hallway scuffle, anyway?) in panel four heading to their car for the getaway. So where are the other Cricket Bro companions? Are they still hanging around the boxing ring waiting for Mark to “come back from the bathroom” or whatever lame excuse he must have used to leave the room without being followed? I wonder if that roadrunner is supposed to be a symbol, such as “We better get outta here before the cops show up!

I wonder how “the world” is going to enjoy Aparna’s app, since it is just the source code. Source code needs to be compiled into an application before it can be run by somebody; so maybe Aparna really means “the world of programmers”. Okay, enough of taking Rivera to task for her fast-and-loose awareness of computers, as if any other show on TV or Movie Land did it better.

Anyway, I’m left wondering:  What the heck was Mark thinking!? How did this episode resolve his conflicts? How did it reveal any possible wrong-doings at Cricket Bro’s company? And doesn’t he want to go back and knock Killer Bee’s block off his shoulders?

Well, maybe there will be another car chase after they peel out in their Prius!

Just wait till I set up my acoustic coupler!

In action films it seems that the villain is always destined to waste time describing his/her/their true motives for taking over the world, the country, or the local pizzeria; meanwhile giving the captured hero time to break loose, destroy the villain, and try to save the movie. So it’s not enough for Aparna to steal (back) the laptop (which she doesn’t own) with the program (that she was paid to write for Cricket Bro). She has to take time to wipe Cricket Bro’s face with her own justification. This waste of time should give Bro’s cohorts plenty of time to figure things out and come to the rescue. Odd isn’t it: Who are the “bad guys” here? In spite of Cricket Bro taking away Aparna’s righteous indignation in panel 2 by revealing that his so-called insult was just his way of firing people, Aparna didn’t take the hint. She just continues with her vengeance panel 3.

Getting a bit nerdy here for a minute: What the hell is Aparna doing using the antiquated, unsecured File Transfer Protocol to upload her program to “the Internet”? For one thing, what server is she trying to send to? The transfer can’t simply go to “the Internet”; that’s not how FTP works. If it was going up to any server, it would normally be the Cricket Bro’s server. I suppose we can assume the entire building is a wired hotspot. So when did she have time to log on? Wouldn’t her account have been disabled when she was fired?!

Regarding FTP, there are several modern alternatives she should be using, but we need not get into those. After all, this is not a computer science blog. Suffice to say, it is a curious trope Rivera uses; and one that most readers will likely not even recognize. As this is a family comic strip for general readers, Rivera could have simply used a more recognizable abbreviation, such as XFER to keep nerds like me quiet. But then again, we know that Rivera likes to send up her readers.

Back to the story:  I suspect that there will be a full-court showdown by Saturday between the two groups, before jumping back to Cherry and her brother’s swine. That should make for an interesting week to come!

Finishing on a visual note, we are back (I believe) to a well-constructed set of panels, very nicely drawn and composed. Notice how Cricket Bro’s face is darkened in panel 3. Is this symbolic of his “dark nature” or simply a means of making a contrast to the background? Instead of using old-fashioned Ben Day dots or even simple hatching, Rivera uses a pattern of mixed line types, which adds more texture, though it makes no attempt to suggest facial contours. In this particular case, it would probably come across as too busy.

Mark Trail Starring in “Riding the Vigilante Trail”

“They thought he was just an Outdoor Nature Cornball. They found out he is a Man with a Certain Set of Skills, which don’t include fixing fences, installing light switches, or imitating bird calls!”

So, is this “Mark Trail: Nature Vigilante” now? We’ve come a long way from Mark’s former boy scout approach to righting wrongs, haven’t we? It’s one thing to twist an arm to get cooperation, but I think Mark is taking that to a new level. And I’m not sure I like the direction it is going.

First of all, Mark seems already sold on an application that seems to be a standard practice in many occupations, including animal welfare. And we never learned the practical, operational qualities of this app, which is to say, what’s special about it and how would it be used in a realistic setting? Furthermore, if it is designed for wildlife, what are you going to do if the air is not prime for the animals? Somebody going to go round up about 3,000 water buffalo and take them into a climate-controlled habitat for a bit? Mark never bothered questioning the practicality of this program. Frankly, I’m siding with Cricket Bro at this point, based on his responses and Mark’s actions.

Did Aparna or Reptilionnaire or Mark even think to simply ask Cricket Bro to buy back the application? I mean, if it isn’t a money-maker, why wouldn’t he let it go for a relatively small charge and the possibility of some royalties if the product ever hits the market down the road and makes a profit? They could have started with something like that, before starting instead with grand theft and battery. If all of this is caught on security cameras, I don’t think even Father Trail will be able to keep Mark out of jail and a bad date in court.

From the artistic side, I’m thinking…another day of quickly-drawn images, not like yesterday’s panels. In short, with last week in mind, perhaps some inconsistency in the work. As far as I know, Rivera does not have an assistant. Of course, as I noted before, it could be a case of employing style to represent the mood or temperament of the situation. But that is sounding like a stretch at this point.

Well, it’s nice to see that the boys shared a moment together.

Thoughts, anyone?

Tuesday: The Brogurt hits the fan?

Time and space compression is at work once again as we see Cricket Bro and Mark magically transport into the alleged “complex” web of hallways where the Laptop Duo is attempting to make a getaway. Never mind that the company’s so-called Security (the person known as “Dare”?) has apparently disappeared. In any event, Mark adds to his expected growing list of possible criminal charges of accessory to theft and fraud by assaulting Cricket Bro, who suddenly speaks like a 1940s film noir character.

So where are Killer Bee, Diana, and Dare in all of this action? Did none of them think to come running when the alarms went off, or are they off to their appointed “battle stations”, ready to intervene if needed?

Today’s strip is a great improvement in artistic quality, with regard to style, staging, and overall effect. The off-kilter point-of-view in panel 1 underscores the urgency and anxiety of the current crisis. Cricket Bro in panel 2 is well-delineated in a three-quarter, foreshortened pose. Though Mark’s corralling of Cricket Bro in panel 3 gives the impression that the Herp Hacienda team now have a free pass to escape, it may be an illusion. Or delusion.

After all, Mark has to also escape. And there are still three formidable forces for Mark to deal with, excluding Cricket Bro. What will they do now?

Oh, about that software:  Why would Cricket Bro leave it on a docked laptop, if it was so important? In any realistic situation, the software would have already been uploaded to a server or other secure storage devices and the laptop drive wiped clean. In fact, it would have been proper that all of the laptops were connected to a server while being used.

Now, should we assume Jules is just not cognizant of such things? Hard to believe in this day and age. So, is there another angle here? Is the software issue merely a blind? A ruse? If so, for whom?