“This place is trouble. Volunteers who don’t get paid, tiger cubs that get held, and people that touch each other. What next, dancing!?” Mark is starting to sound like a hardline Baptist preacher. What he doesn’t look like is a producer filming a show. Methinks Tess has Mark’s number.
Optional: Some thoughts on the writing in Mark Trail. Read at your own risk, or skip it, entirely!
A good adventure story almost always features a hero who suffers through obstacles (such as traps, villains, and lust) along the way to a hard-won victory. The original Mark Trail was a traditional adventure strip based on Mark going up against poachers, cheaters, mistaken identity, forest fires, bank robbers, and Nature, itself. The current iteration of Mark Trail is more or less in the same tradition, though it follows a quirkier path that many find unsatisfying, both in its story and art. So, I’m focusing on story today.
Jules Rivera’s approach to storytelling falls more in line with modern satirists, such as Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, and A. Lee Martinez, who pair crazy characters with crazy plots. Good satire is hard to pull off, which is why I don’t think you see it too often. Until Gary Trudeau got tired of it all, Doonesbury was a successful satirical comic strip with continuous storylines. And it took time for Trudeau to find his groove. Pogo was another great satirical strip, though too sophisticated for many readers. Yet, neither could be called “adventure strips” in the same way as Prince Valiant, Rip Kirby, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, or the original Mark Trail, to name a few. And none of them could be labeled satirical, either. I believe Rivera is attempting a significant goal, combining adventure with satire (think Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, or Indiana Jones).
On the other hand, Rivera has made positive enhancements to the strip, such as creating more complex plots, focusing on larger issues than hillbillies stealing dogs, and hosting concurrent storylines that flesh out Cherry, Rusty, and even Doc Davis, as actual characters. That is, these family members are no longer merely space-fillers or running jokes as they were in the original strip. I think playing down (or poking fun) at Mark’s macho heroics is fine and probably compatible with younger generations. But I do bristle when Rivera goes extreme and makes Mark look like a shrinking violet or a clueless rube. In fact, this modernizing Mark Trail is what really sets off lots of readers who were happy to see the strip remain entrenched in its old-fashioned, white bread, 1950’s world as it has been, until two years ago.
Frankly, I think Rivera’s earliest efforts (such as her first story, introducing “Dad”) were more successful than recent stories. The hook of having Mark work for a collection of different magazine editors is also an inspired idea, though Rivera has not really taken advantage of its potential so far. I just don’t think Rivera has found her groove yet. Perhaps King Features could pair Rivera with a professional writer to mentor her. It would be worth their investment.