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.

Check! And Mate in two?

Welcome, Readers! I will be out of town this coming Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Until I return, the Scarecrow—by virtue of his highly superior…er, that is, Dennis—by virtue of his starting this blog, shall post in my stead. Be sure to take notes, Readers, as there may be a quiz after I return. But until then, on with the show!

Oopsie! Cherry thought she was being clever with her sneaky plan to get her plantings redone, but put her cloven hoof in her mouth, instead. Surely, Cherry will be quick to come up with a believable response to her gaff, such as “A friend of mine saw the hogs attacking the roundabout when she was driving home from the movies. She slowed down but was too afraid to stop.” Or something like that.

Still, it sure looks like Violet Cheshire came out of her funk pretty quickly, don’t you think? Could she have been setting a trap for Cherry, all along? It is certainly hard to imagine that she would not consider Cherry as Prime Suspect Number 1. It is beginning to look like another mental chess game where Violet is playing the black pieces and has lulled Cherry into advancing too far, too quickly.

Still, what if Violet had not been sitting for days at Planet Pancake? What was Cherry’s Plan A? Clearly, this situation was a spur-of-the-moment opportunity (at least from Cherry’s point of view). But if this entire sequence was a trap, Cherry may soon be wishing she was somewhere else. At the very least, it would help make sense of what is going on.

“WTF?!”

Did I miss a week of strips some place? Cherry really wants to cheer up her arch-nemesis?! And here is Violet, unloading on Cherry like the two of them are BFFs from the time when “BFF” was a new expression. So, Violet peremptorily destroyed Cherry’s original installation, then put in her own. Then Cherry secretly destroyed it. Now, Violet is bawling to Cherry as if she has forgotten all of this history between them.

I sure as hell do not understand what is going on here, folks. Call me unenlightened, a nincompoop, a total blockhead. Just don’t call me early. Well, the least Cherry could do here is give Violet a big slap upside the head and tell her to get a grip. Maybe two slaps, just to make sure.

Violet is suddenly stuck on how to repair the roundabout garden when all she has to do is prep the ground and replant the same stuff she did the last time. I expect that we are supposed to see this as a premise for the upcoming kowtowing of Violet Cheshire, in which she pleads with Cherry to fix the roundabout and save her job. I hope Cherry remembers to first get an approved contract for payment!

But getting back to the bigger question:  While we stare in shock and disgust at the Picasso-inspired, pancake-stuffed face of Violet in the fourth panel, we might ask: “What would Mark do!?” But that is clearly the wrong question. This is Cherry’s story, not Mark’s. And given his own current inability to deal with crises, we’re better off waiting to see how Cherry saves the day and her business. Mark may want to take notes.

This is your brain on flapjacks

Okay, so we know now that this is not “the next day”, but a few days after. What’s been going until now is yet unknown. For example, Cherry does not seem bothered by her still unresolved problems with the Sunny Soleil Society. It’s as if Dirk’s hogs consumed all of her anger. But it isn’t bringing back her plantings or saving her company.

As for Violet, her face looks stuffed with pancakes (or attacked by a swarm of angry wasps) and she certainly looks like someone who has been on a bender for a long time. She definitely does not match up with her original arrogant presence. I think she might be in a better mood if she had some bacon to go along with those pancakes; and maybe some syrup or fruit, as well. I know that I would certainly be pretty glum eating pancakes with no topping. In fact, I’d skip them in that case.

Now, is Violet wearing that hat or not!? Yesterday, it looked like it was draped over the booth; panel 1 today shows it on, panel 2 is ambiguous, and panel 4 shows it on again. I must be standing in the wrong position, I reckon.

So why is Cherry concerned about the state of her current nemesis? You’d think she would be happy to see Violet in such a disreputable state. And what, exactly, is Violet’s problem? That is, why is she taking this personally? According to her original profile, she should be angry and scheming, preparing her response to the only obvious suspect. Instead, she seems to be turning into a weepy, pathetic pancake junky. I suppose, as another critic suggested, this may turn out to be a device to draw Cherry in and make her feel sorry for Violet. Is this, indeed, a clever trap set by Violet or has she really gone over the edge? Will Cherry catch the scam in time or will she bond with Violet and work out a mutually agreeable solution? It certainly does appear that Violet has the “evil eye” fixed on Cherry’s back in panel 4.

Well, we have 5 more days for Jules to answer these questions before we suffer another two weeks of Mark Losing It in LA-LA-Land.

Roses were red, but Violets are blue!

Here we are, back in the not-quite-so-weird world of Cherry and the Butterfly Bushes. And to ensure we remember, we have a Monarch to set the stage and mark the scale from where we stand, watching Cherry pull up to the diner once again for her morning fix.

But wait! What do we see here? Not the smiling, Jeanette wearing her “My Favorite Martian” antennae; but a downtrodden Violet Cheshire, glumly working on a plate of pancakes. Well, maybe glum. It’s hard to tell if she is glum, desperate, or just pissed. But it isn’t hard to figure out that she has seen the results of Dirk’s feral hogs. That might be the interpretation of the textbox in panel 3. Volet looks like she slept in that shirt and just woke up. Where is her sophisticated pose?

It could be that Violet is reacting to Cherry’s voice as it fills the diner. With her Kentucky Derby hat draped over the back of the booth, it’s hard to visualize this is the same arrogant and manicured danger that she was the last time we saw Violet. In fact, I would not recognize her at all, except for Cherry’s amazing powers of observation! Anyway, I’d like to have one of those coffee mugs with the outer space logo. They look pretty cool.

Have to say that I like this devil-may-care version of Cherry much more than the more limited, shallower version we’ve been used to. I do believe that Cherry’s descent into “background character” grew over time, because her earliest appearances showed a more active, independent person. In recent years, she seems to have drifted (ie get pushed) into a kind of lifeless, supporting cast role. So it’s a real plus to see that she is getting stories of her own now.

Well, I reckon Tuesday we’ll start to find out what is going on with Violet. Who knows, maybe something will come out in her explanation to Cherry that will draw them closer to each other. You think? Or will she turn around and start throwing silverware and plates at Cherry?

The Weekly Recap and the Sunday Nature Talk

Prof Bee Sharp and Diana Daggers continue their incompetent chase-down in their Mustang, somehow always allowing Mark and “his friends” in their Prius a means for escaping. It might be different if their near-catches were actually deliberate and designed to mislead Mark into making a big enough mistake to ensure they were trapped and properly captured on video for an eventual police arrest.

However, it is hard to believe that Bee and Daggers are really “law and order” types, only doing their civic duty to bring the alleged criminals to justice. Diana’s irrational hatred for Mark and Bee’s juvenile fixation on bettering Mark seem more aligned to personal satisfaction than community safety. And what about the supposed master mind, Cricket Bro? I have already pondered his role in this and whether he is the king or the pawn in this off-the-board chess game. Common consensus seems to be that this story makes little sense, that it does little to highlight Mark’s morality, his job, or his self-appointed purpose.  The story is disjointed and does not seem to follow any logical development. The obvious response to this is “That’s how Life is!” Unlike a TV drama or adventure story, our lives do not run in convenient time intervals that have a visible structure. Most of us are reactive to what goes on around us. Life may be habitual, but we have unexpected delays, diversions, short-cuts, and dead-ends throughout our lives.

But that is not what makes a good adventure story or adventure comic strip. As most of us know, so-called “Reality TV” is anything but real, with its manufactured crises, contrived events, and shockingly over-the-top participants. Yet, these shows are popular, though maybe not as popular as they have been. Still, people watch. Perhaps that is what we have here: Mark naively getting involved in a kind of “reality show” filled with odd characters, outrageous scenarios, and melodramatic acting. Perhaps a take on “The Truman Show”, the movie where Jim Carrey’s character ultimately learns that his life is really just part of some big hoax, a world-wide reality show in which he is an unwitting and unwilling participant.

Or not. It could just be Rivera is trying out a storyline with Mark to see how the character can work in an environment for which he is totally unprepared. And the answer would be “Not very well!” So, on with Sunday!

What a surprise: The Roadrunner. I’m a bit surprised that there are no “coyote” jokes here. But Rivera still manages a bit of humor and inventiveness in the title panel, with “Mark Trail” composed of snakes that the roadrunners are preparing to eat. I also noticed that the “sun” shape with the concentric circles in panel 3 are repeated behind Mark in the penultimate panel. Is this just some compositional inventiveness going on? I don’t think there is any symbolism of Mark being some kind of target.

It’s too bad Rivera could not find room to discuss some of the spiritual significance of roadrunners for indigenous tribes in the Southwest and Mexico, or even to mention how their “X” shaped footprints confuse predators (such as the faster coyote) and also provide a sacred symbol to ward off evil spirits. But, there is only so much space here.

So, while Rivera can be accused of stretching Mark’s daily strips into new geometric shapes, she can and does respect the traditional format and purpose of the Sunday panels.

“Wait – What’s my ECO Savings Record today?”

It’s interesting to see these vintage Mark Trail strips being published on Comics Kingdom. A kid Mark gets to know thinks his sister’s boyfriend is involved in poaching and asks Mark for help and advice. Apparently, Mark’s concern with animals must have been at an all-time low, as he only offers non-committal, “don’t-bother-me-kid” words. Mark does not seem willing to get involved and will not even tell the kid if turning the poaching boyfriend in is the right thing to do. I reckon Mark feels this is one of those life lessons the kid must work through on his own. How different that Mark is from our current Mark Trail, ready to jump into somebody (anybody) else’s problems at the drop of a hat, even if it has nothing really to do with animals or Mark. Let’s get to it!

Okay, lots to “unpack here”, as one of the trendy phrases states it. So, the incompetent driving of Diana Daggers allows Mark and “his friends” to once again slip through their net and escape. She finally makes her way to the Farmer’s Market, so she could not have been that far behind; just far enough to not notice which car drove in and parked. I reckon everybody either ducked or bailed out of the Prius in time?

Now, Diana is pissed because the Prius she tried to block with her car somehow scraped her front end? Heavens to Betsy, those cads!! Well, what the hell did she expect, anyway? This reminds me of some writing from the late Jimmie Breslin, writing about New York Mafiosi chasing down a target who gets away, because the Mafiosi kept dodging rain puddles to avoid messing up their imported hand-made Italian shoes.

So here they are, at last in the Market, full of green Priuses (see yesterday’s post for a discussion on the plural form of “Prius”!)! And this is just too much information for Bee and Diana, while Professor Bee shows that he is just as juvenile as Cricket Bro. In fact, they all are. This is like one of those summer high school movies with the wimpy good guys trying to avoid the rich bully and his pals in his expensive car. And how many other dreadful movies or episodes of the 1960s “Batman” TV show did Professor Bee have to watch in order to come up with that really “menacing” threat in panel 4? Perhaps he was in “drama class” in his college days.

Well, now what, Diana? By your own standards (such as they are), if you cannot record the Herp Hacienda Gang in the Prius, or coming out of it, then you have zilch. At this point, those three could simply saunter around, even stand in plain sight in the parking lot; but you would have nothing, Daggers. No direct chain of evidence. Time to cut bait and call it a night.

As a villain, Professor Bee Sharp should stick to his academic pursuits. He’s no Professor Moriarty. And neither is Cricket Bro, for that matter. Mark needs a real flesh-and-blood villain to bring to justice; not a bunch of arrogant California weirdos.

I trust, this time, that we are heading back to Lost Forest to learn more about Cherry Trail and her fight for botanical justice! At least Cherry has a legitimate motivation for her actions!

For God’s sake, Mark. Get it together!

I mean, could a person look any more desperate and ready to cave!? I think Mark needs another slap upside the head from Killer Bee. Or a Valium. Another thing I noticed is that the interior of that Prius is looking a lot roomier. Wish my Prius could do that. The three “friends” look especially tiny in that Prius in panel 3. Or is this actually a Prius V, Toyota’s SUV version? Still looks too big.

Anyway, against all odds, the “little hybrid that could” once again loses the Mustang and glides into a Farmer’s Market that actually keeps evening hours. That’s another new one on me. Apparently, “cool cats in hybrids” prefer to shop for organic eggplants and homemade tofu at night, after the hoi polloi have left for the day in their American gas guzzlers. Come Midnight, the Prius owners will have left and soon be replaced by members of the Confirmed Cyclists Club who will bike 30 miles to get there and fill their pannier bags.

Apparently that roadrunner is excited enough to take to the air and try to fly, something it is not well-designed to do. Is it trying to avoid an approaching Mustang or just hoping to flee from this story? That is a bit of snark, of course, but I’m sticking with it. Personally, I think they should have driven on until they found one of those Toyota dealerships I mentioned several days ago.

I was going to write a sentence or two about all of the conveniently green cars here, but ran into a question about the plural form of Prius. When we talk, we would simply say “Priuses”, right? But that’s just talk. According to a 2011 article from cars.com (https://www.cars.com/articles/plural-of-prius-prii-not-according-to-latin-experts-1420663174060/), Toyota settled on the faux Latin word Prii. A Latin instructor thought the plural should be either Priora or Priores, based on the fact that Latin nouns have “genders” and different written forms based on grammatical case. Most of you over 40 might remember some of these terms from your English grammar classes, along with possibly the most damaging pedagogical device ever inflicted upon students in order to destroy any appreciation for writing and reading: Diagraming sentences. Anyway, as Latin is no longer the official language of the Western World, we can stick with the plural “English” form Priuses. Sorry, Toyota. Sorry, Caesar!

Okay, Roadrunner, which car is the Coyote?

Do people barely scraping by to pay for food and housing feel like they have freedom? I wonder….So, why should Mark “and his friends” feel any different, since they have not yet been able to shake the Mustang off their tail, in spite of their escape attempts.

I’m sure many of you (to use that phrase somewhat loosely) have watched movies like The French Connection, Jason Bourne, John Wick, and even Fast & Furious XIX, with the white-knuckle car chases that create more mayhem and destruction than driving on the first snow day. Outlandish maneuvers, exploding vehicles, and improbably escapes are ramped up through close-ups, quick editing cuts, and lots of real or artificial speed. Well, folks, this ain’t one of those!

Instead, we have a lot of desultory driving and nudging. No driving onto sidewalks sending pedestrians into the street; no crashing through large windows and conveniently landing in the middle of a shopping mall where customers just don’t happen to be strolling. And still being able to drive on. Then again, this appears to be late night, and everybody with any sense is home watching the chase scenes in Mission Impossible.

I’m wondering if this is meant to be some kind of parody of “Hollywood” car chases. The whole idea of a muscle car (Mustang) pursuing a pokey Prius across highways and through alleys seems preposterous in the sense that it wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes before the Prius was run off the road or pushed into a lamp post. Yet, the Mustang simply cannot close the deal. The Prius keeps slipping through, as if it was actually nimble and had sufficient pickup in its 4-cylinder motor. Maybe Daggers is afraid to cross a solid yellow line. Mark, whose face seems to keep getting worse each time we see him, looks to  his right (though the Mustang is to his left) to warn Reptilionnaire. Somehow and somewhere Reptilionnaire must have graduated from the Advanced Defensive Driving School run by the FBI (or something like that). How does he do it!?

This storyline began back in late March, so we’re just about at the four month milepost. Now, I’m not at all against long stories, as long as they remain interesting. By my quick mental estimate (that is, being too lazy to review all of the dailies), I’m thinking that this adventure has taken up only about 5 or 6 days in the Trailverse. Where do we go from here? Again, I think Mark and “his friends” have to return to the lab and have a showdown with Cricket Bro to bring closure. But I’m also still trying to figure out where the crime or even the dangerous practices are. The programmers got paid for their work. We’ve seen no evidence of “slave labor” or illicit drugs. No phone or Internet scams. No extortion, blackmail, kidnappings, or animal cruelty. Nobody making fur coats. Just Aparna stealing software she doesn’t own.

In any event, this car chase has run its course.  Parody only works for so long before it gets weary. I’m for switching back to Cherry’s storyline now. Either that, or let’s get on with it. Please? And I’ll leave it to you, dear readers, to ponder the significance of that calligraphic swish drawn over top of the bushes in panel 1.

But first, some Mark Trail Reprint News

As usual, I’m late to the party. As regular viewers on Comics Kingdom know, and as recently highlighted by Joseph Nebus on his blog (https://nebushumor.wordpress.com/2021/07/13/comics-kingdom-has-vintage-mark-trail-now-and-prince-valiant-for-the-past-18-months-already/), King Features has started republishing old Mark Trail comic strips on a daily basis, starting with the July 13, 1971, where we find ourselves in the middle of a story involving sheep poaching. Mark is working with (or advising) a teenager named Scat (https://www.comicskingdom.com/Mark-Trail-Vintage/2021-07-09). The strip is from the classic team of Dodd (mostly writing); Hill (most of the drawing), and Elrod (backgrounds and lettering). Although old Prince Valiant strips are also being reprinted, I’m thinking King Features may be posting these Trail strips at this time as a kind of damage control to help placate Trailheads who are pretty worked up about the new direction the strip has taken. The reprints are in black & white, as they were originally published, so you will see that the artwork exhibits standard b&w drawing techniques (hatching, cross-hatching, and solid blacks) to define volume and shading.

A good example is the 7/16 strip, with Mark and Scat working in a Darkroom. Now, don’t be confused by the republication dates at the top of each strip.  As far as I’m concerned, while we might view these as “more realistic” or even naturalistic, to me, the characters look stiff, like marionettes…especially Mark. On the plus side, this panel in particular has a nice “woodcut” feel to it.

And frankly, looking at some of the later strips drawn by Jack Elrod, I wonder if Trailheads think this is better art, or prefer it because it is more familiar to them. Some of this stuff looks like bad manga.

Next: When did Mark Trail start getting clumsy and losing fights?

Critics of the current Mark Trail may cry foul (or something worse), but Rivera did not start the trend of Mark getting clobbered and tripping over himself. I believe it was James Allen, at least as far back as 2014. Thanks to this blog (started by Dennis Williams), we can view strips starting from January 2013. So, with our WayBack Machine running, check out December 31, 2014; the epic “Mark stumbles over a cliff to avoid a bear” adventure in April 2014; and the infamous cave adventure of 2016. No, the real question is how far will Jules Rivera try to push Mark’s machismo before he turns into Inspector Clouseau?

But now, on to TODAY’S INSTALLMENT!

Urban jungle!? Well, they must have managed to find a city of some size, it seems. Downtown Palm Springs, perhaps? We finally get a bird’s-eye view of the chase, where the Prius is presumably making lots of quick turns to increase their chances. But the caption is wrong:  Diana Daggers is driving the chase car. That’s been a problem all along. In spite of their inability to catch Mark, suddenly Dianna figures out how to shift and is able race in front of the Prius to cut them off. Swell. Now, how is getting them out of the car going to incriminate them?

Okay, I’ll contradict myself. I have come closer to agreeing with several commentators regarding the haphazardly drawing. Compared with her earlier work, even as recently as March, these more recent drawing are flatter, less tonal, and more exaggerated and roughly drawn; except for the cars. Rivera is likely using reference images from an online resource. That, itself, is nothing new. Cartoonists have been using picture references for many decades.

Diana Daggers looks particularly on edge and getting older by the panel. In panel 3 she looks like Dian’s mom! So, is Rivera under deadline stress to get these strips done? Is she just freewheeling the drawing for some reason? Even her sound effect in panel 4 looks anemic: “STOP!!” in barely visible text. Really? I mean, if this is a power stop, as it seems, it should be a much more dramatic font: Super-Extra Bold. And wouldn’t the sound be more like SCREEEEEECHHH!!

Frankly, this scene looks pretty much like the alley ambush from Monday, seen from a different perspective. So how is this cut-off going to work any better? Or will Reptilionnaire get confused with all of the extra getaway space around him and freeze? From a storyline point of view, I really don’t see where this extended chase offers anything new, but let’s see what Thursday’s installment will show. River has three more days after today to get this story to a meaningful break before we return to Cherry.

Okay, I’ve worn down your patience enough for one day, or maybe two. If you made it all the down here, thanks. if you didn’t, thanks for trying!