The Week in Review and the Sunday Nature Chat

If you want to skip over my diatribe, ignore the purple prose and jump down to the black text. You’ve been warned!

Jules Rivera’s aesthetic, coming out of non-mainstream art styles popular with online comics and graphic novels, has been a lightning rod for controversy, scorn, and even positive support. Her stories have also received their share of snark and appreciation. Not that that is new, of course. The legacy Mark Trail has long been a popular target for its cornball and illogical stories, its sometimes-uneven old-fashioned artwork, a reliance on cut-and-pasted poses, stilted dialog, and simplistic morals. Oddly, they have also been the strength of the original strip for many who cherished its sameness. It’s one reason why reruns of old TV shows are still very popular. Just ask my dad!

I think we should try to understand Rivera’s Mark Trail through her non-mainstream roots, but it is certainly a difficult task for many of us. I imagine it is similar to what the art world and general public of late 19th century France faced when they first came into contact with Impressionist painting and its many followers. It was “the shock of the new“, as art critic Robert Hughes wrote about the birth of modern art.

I am both apologist and critic of the Mark Trail reboot. I admire Rivera’s gutsy efforts to bring the strip into a contemporary setting, as off-kilter, reactive, and nutty as you would find in any Florida-based piece of fiction. I liked her original artistic vision of the strip during its early months, before the art became more simplified and sometimes erratic.  In part, I see that due to unforeseen pressures of deadlines, but I could be completely wrong!

I am very glad to see Rivera giving Cherry greater visibility and her own adventures. In that way, she is more like the way Cherry was originally depicted when the strip first began, before she transformed into a conventional wife and mere supporting cast member. On the other hand, I am not a keen admirer of soap opera/sitcom elements that sometimes show up, especially during interludes between adventures.

That brings us to this past week, where Mark has fretted like a boy having to recite poetry in English class. Mark is plainly afraid of the offered assignment to investigate a roadside zoo in Texas. While Amy Lee tried to play up Mark’s love of adventure, it was Cherry who laid down the law and sent Mark whimpering like a hurt puppy back to take the assignment. Yet, Cherry acted like a preteen gushing over her teen idol when she learned Mark would be working with a Hollywood celebrity animal wrangler.

Is Rivera making fun of Mark and Cherry, casting them as a henpecked husband and a shallow wife? Or is Jules trying to use old TV tropes to connect with long-time readers? It is a dangerous approach, as many long-time readers clearly don’t cotton to Mark being made to look and act like an overly sensitive metrosexual who would prefer to stay home and listen to light jazz.  Anyway, while Rivera gets this party going, let’s spend a bit of time looking at today’s nature talk!

I’m fine with this approach. Far too much decorative concrete pavement appears in large cities.

Hang down your head, Mark Trail, hang down your head and sigh . . . .

Story-wise, I don’t get it. So Cherry has the hots for Rex Scorpius. Why should Cherry want Mark to take the assignment in order to work with this dude? It’s not as if she is going along or that Rex is going to make a house call. Mark should have talked with Ralph the rat snake first.

As for the art, I also don’t get it. In early June, as the rash story was starting up, Cherry was depicted as quite the comely gal, as she is normally shown. But today, she looks like a member of the SNL Widette family. Is this deliberate (as in making a statement)? The result of rushed work? Somebody else helping out? Frankly, even her head looks odd (panels 1 and 4).

I am also embarrassed that Mark had to be shown looking like some whipped, whiny pansy (panel 4). I think we all get Rivera’s anti-macho position, and I’m okay with that.  She’s been doing this since she started. Rivera already established that this Mark is no longer the 1950’s stoic, highly moral, invincible man of action (as Allen was also starting to explore).

But I don’t think she needs to swing that cultural pendulum so far to the other side. Rivera has been showing Mark sometimes indecisive, out of his depth, lost, and even knocked down. That’s fine.  Yet, to literally show Mark limp-wristed and hang-dogged is over the line. Add to that, having Cherry react like a bimbo-brained, swooning girl and this all seems reminiscent of stereotyped roles in family TV sitcoms (e.g. Married with Children, I Love Lucy. Go ahead and fill in your own examples).

Mister Pinch-Face

You have to be careful writing this article, Mark.” to which Mark should respond, “Okay, what is the objective of the article? Why do I have to have an assistant? I used to work alone, you know.” But what’s with this cult business, Mark? Quite a leap of logic when all Amy Lee has told you is that the staff live on-site.

I reckon that it is not common for staff to live where they work, unless it is a summer camp or a secret laboratory devoted to creating super-soldiers for a rogue element of the military. Still, the Touch Center might be somewhere in western Texas that makes commuting very difficult. The Center might even have rooms for their patients. Doesn’t make it a cult, Mark, so don’t look like you just got wind of Cherry passing gas!

And we still haven’t heard from Ralph the rat snake, one of the few voices of sanity and sagacity.

Return of the Crazies!

Hey, Jules: Let’s dump the panel-one recap of the prior day. Your readers are not that slow. Moving on, this dialog sounds like something you’d hear on any number of forgettable “reality” shows”, though I’d hate to know which one. It seems (more an extrapolation on my part) that Mark is supposed to be doing this project (as implied in panel 2) as an undercover operative. Just how that would happen while “famous” Rex Scorpius tags along is something I’m anxious to see.

Perhaps Rex is eye candy to distract Tess Tigress long enough for Mark to do whatever it is he is supposed to do. So why is Tess wearing a tacky crown with horns that look like crescent moons? Gosh, it would be nice if Amy Lee actually laid out the purpose and goals of this assignment, don’t you think?

But why is Mark acting so worried in panel 4? He’s supposed to be a nature/animal journalist, correct? He’s been around the animal block a time or two. Is Rivera once again dumping on Mark’s traditional masculine persona? If so, she already made that train leave the station about two years ago. Time for you to move on as well, Jules!

A hunk-a, hunk-a burnin’ hottie?

Is Mark trying to not slobber in panel 1? Anyway, this will teach me to not overlook the source of any comment! Rex Scorpius looks like another arrogant so-and-so, another Professor Bee Sharp. I hope they aren’t cousins!  And he is an animal wrangler, says Amy. It seems they are the people involved in training and handling animals of all kinds used in films, commercials, videos, etc.  

If this guy is the real deal, it could mean that Mark’s job might be limited to just reporting on what Rex does to resolve the roadside zoo problem. That should improve Mark’s self-respect. If this was a drop-dead serious dramatic strip, we might expect Scorpius to provide training and support to the roadside zoo staff in order to improve the lives of the animals. But we already know that this is not the old Mark Trail. Craziness awaits. But craziness with a serious message.

Ellis and Lee set the tone right away

Yes, this must be how real journalism works these days . . . if you think of real journalism as a Reality TV show. And that’s probably not too far off the mark, the way “news” is often presented. I mean, nothing says real journalism like having a third-rate Hollywood wannabe tag along (with her videographer) to record all of the staged dramatic moments and personal tensions that she will broadcast online or on TV. Clearly, panel 4 shows that Mark has only the highest levels of journalistic standards on his mind.

Anyway, Mark will probably need some really heavy-duty eye candy along to give this train wreck of an assignment some needed visibility and integrity . . . oh, wait. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be insulting. I meant needed visibility and phony sincerity. Somehow, I’m sure Mark is going to start out getting disappointed right from the get-go. This is already shaping up to be a whale of a story!

Zoo Alors!

I reckon that roadside zoos are not completely extinct (based on some additional online searching), though many people and groups would like that to happen, because of the generally poor treatment the animals receive. Rules for private ownership seem to be pretty lax, in fact. If there is danger, it is likely the animals who are in danger (of malnutrition, bad treatment, naïve visitors, and weak state and federal oversight).

Did you notice the difference between the way Mark and Bill Ellis are depicted? Two different styles! Ellis is clearly “more cartoony” than Mark. Is this because Bill is shown as seen on Mark’s smartphone? I think it is an interesting visual experiment that could get better over time. Still, I continue to be disappointed by Rivera’s retreat from her more original and complex compositions in favor of the more common front-on, flat layouts.

On a happier note, it looks like we might get another conversation with Mark’s favorite ectothermic, amniote vertebrate, Ralph the rat snake. I’ve always thought this homage to Dr. Doolittle is one of Rivera’s better innovations. I hope Ralph sets Mark straight on this “danger” issue. Say, wouldn’t it be just the thing if the zoo Mark visits is the location from which the rogue elephant escaped? If so, Bill Ellis is getting mighty devious with his assignments!

The Weekly Recap and Sunday Nature Talk

Another fascinating week! As the Family Trail worries over the mysterious rash on their young dog (and the other pets in the area), Mark gets the usual inopportune call from Bill Ellis, this time with a choice of assignments that will require him to abandon his rash research:  Cover a rogue elephant that escaped from a rich dude’s private zoo and is rampaging across several states (!); or investigate a supposedly new-age recovery center for animals. The latter is presented as a “puff piece” of reporting. Neither assignment seems, on the surface, to have a lot of depth to it.  

Wanting something safe and easy while recovering from his vacation, Mark fell for Ellis’s trap and took the supposedly safe assignment, only to learn from Amy Lee, his recurring assignment editor, that this new-age treatment center is actually a dangerous road-side zoo. Yes, I thought that sounded whacko, only to learn from fan DownPuppy that road-side animal attractions were once popular along the old highways of America, before the Interstate system turned those highways and attractions into “Remember when” articles in nostalgia magazines. But before you forget, check out the Sunday nature chat:

I’m not sure that turtle eggs floating in the ocean is one of the better title panels that Rivera has come up with. But it may be the best that can be done with the subject matter. This PSA might go better if Rivera explained how/why such things as light pollution and carbon footprints affect sea turtles. Maybe by focusing on just one practical step we can take, rather than just present an ill-defined list, this kind of presentation could better create a measurable response in readers.

Ellis moves in for the sucker punch

As Mark gestures hypnotically in panel 1, . . . wait, that’s Mandrake’s hook. I suppose that Mark’s gesture is just a “howdy!”  Too bad, too, since it seems Ellis gaslighted Mark with his fake powderpuff description. What the hell is a road-side zoo, anyway? Do they even have those in the States, or is Mark off to some foreign country where there is no American Embassy? Still not sure what the actual assignment is, but I hope we at least get to see some new faces this time out.

But, why Teen Girl Sparkle magazine again? When Bill Ellis introduced Mark to his new business arrangement back in October 2020, there was an extensive array of special-interest magazines he could be working for. Instead, Rivera seems to have fallen back on the worn-out cliché that “same” is better than “new”.

Go ahead, you two. Drag it out until Saturday.

While we await the final decision by Cherry that decides what new story category to file this adventure under, I am taken by the interior of this part of the Trail house I do not think we’ve seen. Just how big is this house!? It seems to go on and on. Here we are in some kind of hallway filled with what is either a collection of badly hung pictures or possibly a bunch of gun ports to help defend the home against invading polluters.

Panel 4: Wow, not much gets by Cherry, does it? I mean, how many people explicitly know that elephant-caused injuries are not covered by their insurance? Without a special rider, that is. Just one more question, though: Is Mark wearing capris in panel 3 or some kind of fancy riding pants?