Loony Times?

Other fishing boats? Where? Surely, you jest. And are we to believe that a cargo ship just happened to be anchored along a forest shoreline? And is this shoreline that deep?! Hard to believe.Maybe that is the problem:  It lost its anchor(s) and drifted aground. And all of the crew have abandoned the vessel, except for the crusty old sea captain.

But where the hell are they, anyway!? I reckon that the “Lost Forest” location of the comic strip—if it is in Georgia—must be off the Gulf Coast by one of Georgia’s two main gulf rivers:  the Altamaha or the Savannah. But so much here seems just weird. I’ll summarize:

  • In panel 1, the cargo ship is described as “wild.” Why? Wild for showing up in this situation, or maybe because it hosts illicit hip-hop dances on the foredeck at sundown?
  • DDG” is the name on the bow of the ship, which turns out to be the company’s name. This is not standard. Normally, the ship’s name is on the bow and the company’s name is on the side(s).
  • In panel 2, Mark prepares to go fishing and acts as if there is nothing of interest, including the cargo ship directly in front of them. And does Diana need to get a pair of shades that work?
  • It’s either getting warm, or maybe Diana is already planning to put the moves on Mark.
  • In panel 3, nobody on the ship has waved them off yet, even though there are supposed to be crew manning watches to prevent such incidents.
  • There are enough double-entendres here to satisfy a Friends fan.
  • If Diana is a producer and videographer, where is all of the equipment: Video camera, microphone, sound mixer, clapper-board, Director’s beret, etc? You can’t make a documentary or gather evidence with only a small photo camera. If Diana has no equipment to speak of, why is she needed? Rafael sold Diana to Mark as an up-and-coming documentary star. I suppose this will be like props on Gilligan’s Island. When the castaways needed something, POOF! Like a dux ex machina, the needed things would appear (except for working transmitters and boats).

So, now what? Does Diana don scuba gear (not so far seen) and investigate the keel? Does she try to catch the attention of somebody on the deck and ask if they want to star in a new documentary about cargo ships illegally bringing zebra mussels into the country?

Okay, okay. Maybe I’m getting too far into the trees, here. That’s what the Loon seems to be telling me. This is just a comic strip, after all. It isn’t a documentary, nor a graphic history. And it’s not as if the prior versions of the Mark Trail dailies (not Sundays) were noted for their factual accuracy, either. Movies always play fast and loose with reality, so I don’t think it is fair to expect much more from comic strips. I didn’t intend to simply issue snarky comments and catch every questionable item or act. I’ll leave that to you readers in your comments (as you’ve been doing, thank you). I’m going to try and stick to the high road and deal more with the storyline, the art, and…and…a bit of snark, here and there.

They say the size of a man’s fish is the same as his…

Okay, I’m confused. I thought the name of this adventure comic strip was MARK TRAIL, not DIANA DAGGERS. I mean, who is the outdoors expert, the veteran woodsman (to use an old phrase), the avid fishing expert, the nature photographer? Seems to me that Diana Daggers has pretty much taken over that job, based on this adventure. She is the one taking photos (but of what?), which is more than Mark was ever shown doing; she is the one giving out fishing advise; she is not the one complaining about not catching the right kind of fish. Next, she’ll be telling Mark what kind of lure to use.

But then, she asks if Mark has seen any mussels in the area. I’d have thought that that would be the first thing they would discuss, before getting this far. And wouldn’t Mark have been at least a little curious about why they are wasting time here, if there are no mussels to be found?

Okay, Mark holds his up tiny catfish as if he’s some urban rube who paid a lot of money to a real fisherman to take him out to where the big fish are biting. I mean, come on, Jules! You made the point in panel 1 that Mark caught a tiny fish. No reason to rub Mark’s nose in it.

As for the caption boxes, I’ve written at length about them before, and I liked how they were used to summarize current events; advance the story line; or crack the occasional joke. Now, they seem to be focused on providing sitcom-style jibes. Not sure about the boxes in the first panel. Is Rivera making a joke about the reader’s dating life? If it is Mark’s dating life, why wouldn’t she have written “his”? And how does Jules know what my dating life is like, anyway!? But that’s okay. I don’t take it personally. Still, I’ll respond as if it was actually meant for me: “How is Mark’s fishing trip like George’s dating life?” My response: “I’d probably catch more with allure!

If you have not noticed, I’m also ignoring any more boat jokes. And I’m going to nominate today’s strip for “Most Egregious Story Padding in a Daily” in this current adventure.

“Anybody remember to bring the beer?”

Anybody notice that the steering wheel changed from one side of the boat to the other by the time we get to panel 3? Or are Mark and Diana just taking turns driving the boat? Still, they must think something is near, because Diana is holding a camera in panel 4. Well, it might be a camera, though there is no telephoto lens. Looks more like an old-school Instamatic.

And Jules Rivera found an opportunity to make a “Mark and Rusty fishing trip” joke. Mark must have followed Cherry’s advice and made nice with Daggers. He seems to be unusually calm this morning, dressed in his standard red check shirt. Interestingly, Diana shows a note of concern about Rusty coming along. But Mark is just wistfully daydreaming, of course. He doesn’t really want to bring him along on this specific trip. Nevertheless, Mark should show more surprise that Diana would be that thoughtful. Of course, her comment is more likely meant to be understood as “Where are your brains, Trail!? This is a dangerous assignment.

Well, a few more questions should pop up to any Mark Trail reader:

  1. How and when did Lost Forest wind up on a shipping route?
  2. Why begin the search there? And search for what:  A container ship with zebra mussels that just came in from a secret port in China where they cultivate zebra mussels to ruin US waters?
  3. Wouldn’t Mark already know if zebra mussels were a problem in waters around Lost Forest?
  4. Is Mark using a speedboat!? We know they can hurt manatees, but will they hurt lake and river aquatic animals, as well?
  5. And who let Mark handle a boat? Maybe he is one of those people who is only careful around his own equipment.
  6. And is that a wolf spider in panel 3? Hard for me to tell, but it resembles one. Anybody out there a better amateur arachnologist?

Well, this looks like a good start, in any event. I know I’m certainly looking forward to what they find around that bend in the river ahead of them.

Maybe Mark just wants more stroking

First off, where did this “nice” video come from? If they were getting along at some point, we didn’t see it and Mark didn’t say anything to Cherry about it. Funny that she didn’t ask how that video got made. Of course, Diana is a producer and videographer; so it is possible she could have constructed that video without Mark’s participation.

The final panel is quite a production, in itself. If anybody was unsure about Professor Bee Sharp’s status in this strip, panel 4 is a clear answer. He is clear villainy. It reminds me of some early MAD magazine art, back in its EC days; specifically their parody of Batman.

Hey, the black & white newspaper image is not bad, in itself. It’s pure “bad guy” aura. But who—under the age of 40—reads newspapers anymore? The comparison with MAD is a stretch, I reckon. I’m not implying that Rivera was directly inspired by Wally Wood’s drawing (though that would be cool if true). To be honest, the comparison is not even unique. We see that lighting effect especially in film noir and horror movies of the 1950s. So, what’s my point, then? Got no point! I just liked the comparison.

Anyway, I don’t get Mark’s continued anxiety over “The Professor”. While Mark never really got in his “Two Fists of Justice” licks back in California, he certainly could have, except for the constant interruptions. And it’s not like Sharp knocked Trail out or anything! So, does Mark have some kind of bee phobia? Does the color yellow make him feel cowardly? Do power cars fill him with dread? Is it he just can’t deal with whack-jobs?

Oh, Cherry, clearly, they will meet again. Your intuition is not serving you well.

There remains other questions:
1) Is Diana still working for Bee Sharp and setting up Mark for a trap? Bee’s comments in panel 4 suggest not. This could lead to a grudge match of Trail+Daggers v. Sharp. Maybe Sharp will bring a friend (Cricket Bro?)
2) Did Diana innocently post where she and Mark are heading so that Sharp is able to pursue them?
3) Why does Bee Sharp hate Mark so much in the first place: Jealousy? Dirty Dyer’s brother?
4) And what the heck happened to Cricket Bro, anyway? Seems like everybody deserted him, including his two thugs.

Well, with all the handwringing, I feel like I’m losing track of the story, which has still hardly gotten off the ground.  If Rivera follows her standard practice we’ll see a second week of Mark’s story. Perhaps we will also see some movement in the storyline. And let’s be done for now with the self-doubts and feel-good therapy. Jules, the comics page does not need another soap opera strip!

Finally, I enjoy the reader comments! I appreciate your observations, information, and even corrections! They add useful breadth to these posts. And they help keep me on my toes. Mille grazie!

One helluvan understatement?

Sometimes Rivera is pretty good drawing animals, and sometimes they come out looking more like a boy scout carved them out of a block of pine for a merit badge. But really, “a rocky start”, you say, Cherry!? Seems to me that threats and attempts at physical violence leave “rocky start” behind. Still, I suppose that Cherry is just trying to play down Mark’s fears, as he takes Cherry’s point about laying on the charm to Diana. Say, that was my advice a few days ago…Well, maybe not the best advice; it might have gotten him decked by Diana, now that I think about it.

As I was also reminded, Mark’s shirt is just the uniform for Cherry’s lawn and landscape service. I suppose he’ll return to his tried-and-true red check shirt, just like the old Mark Trail and his denim shirt with the dual button-down pockets. Clothes (and costume) create identity and status, as we see throughout history. Why shouldn’t comic strip characters have their own visual status and signifiers?

Rivera has been criticized for injecting too much humor into the strip, as if it were a standard gag-a-day comic. I’m not going to go through all of her strips to date to see if that is quantitatively true, because I believe the criticism is more based on perception. In an otherwise serious adventure strip, humor stands out. I believe the term for movies and tv shows like this is dramedy, something combining drama and comedy, but in more of an organic manner. That would be shows like Ally McBeal, Six Feet Under, and more recently The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Orville, and The Ranch. You could probably name 20 more, as I don’t watch that much TV. Anyway, my point is that I believe this is the approach that Jules Rivera has taken with Mark Trail: A basic adventure strip, with comedic or absurdist elements. Early on in Rivera’s tenure, I made a connection between her and the off-beat crime drama books of Carl Hiaasen. She read that remark I made and agreed.

Thus, I think readers who expect this strip to be the sober, all-business strip of old are going to continue to be put off. “Dramady” is the new Serious, unless you are Jason Bourne. For myself, I like the hybrid approach, though I hope that the serious aspects of the adventures do not get flattened by too many oddballs.

ANNOUNCEMENT: While I’m on the subject of oddballs, I have signed up for a class in Italian at the University of Minnesota (audit, only). It starts the day after Labor Day. Unfortunately for me, the class meets at 9 AM, which is around the time when I usually get up. I tried to get into a later section, but they were full. But that also means I won’t be getting this blog updated most days until at least Noon or later. Until recently, I used to post these strips after midnight, when Comics Kingdom updates their daily feeds. That’s not likely to continue, either. So, if you see bits of Italian starting to appear here and there, you’ll know why.

As for Cherry’s closing double-entendre comment, I have to admit it was well crafted. A Presto!

Rivera gets her “snark” on, again

Wait—what’s this? Mark is wearing a different type of shirt with a different color, to boot? Did the Earth change its rotational direction? At last! I have to admit, they both look like Fantastic Four cosplay characters.  In other news, it is now clear that it was Diana who flew into Mark’s town and checked into that “log cabin” hotel. “Welcome to Hollywood“, indeed!

Luckily, Mark not only has a snake to help work out his feelings of doubt, he has his life-mate, Cherry. And she is not going to let him slide by. While some might call this more classic story padding, it is really plot development: Not in action but in motivation and causation. The earlier version of Mark Trail tended to keep Mark’s concerns and feelings fairly basic and easy to figure out:  Aloof—check. Curious—check. Angry—check. Bemused—check. Now Mark’s feelings are more nuanced, if not sometimes stuck between shifting gears.

But a little bit of anguish goes a long way. As I have written before—and several others have also opined—we don’t want to see Mark become a basket case of emotions, neuroses, and self-doubts. Yes, it’s fine to make him more “realistic” and less of an idealized boy-man hero, but he is still a symbol for doing the right thing; for protecting nature against the predations of greedy humans; and for the notion that an individual can still make a difference. He has to rise above his doubts and fears and get the job done. That clearly did not happen in the California story, where Mark was more or less a passenger in a careening series of escapes and dubious activities. And we now have some of its after-effects (and some characters) infiltrating and affecting the the current assignment. As for that last part, I think it is an interesting and good story device.

As for the exploding boats riff, it’s a good rejoinder to Mark’s “time bomb” fear. If Rivera wants to inject her own jibes at some Mark Trail tropes, that’s fine. In his final year, James Allen clearly enjoyed taking swipes at his critics, the Internet, and social networking. And Stephen Pastis certainly enjoys taking potshots at his own persona.

Something of a rant

Once again, where the heck are they? What building are they entering? It looks like a log cabin with glass doors. Is it some kind of boutique hotel?

The carping and sorting out continues from the previous two days. Some critics are crying “foul!” or maybe “fowl!”, and think this is merely more story padding. A bit, perhaps. But there is definite tension between these two and that cannot be glossed over. That is why Diana was placed in this assignment, right? Conflict sells.

It’s only natural that Mark finds himself overwhelmed by circumstances from time to time. However, Mark should be able to ultimately rise to the occasion and overcome his fears, not drown in them. When looked at in context, Professor Bee was more bully than brawn; more sociopath than psychopath; more Goofus than Gallant. Rivera has had plenty of time and space to assign foibles and doubts to Mark. Now, it’s time for Mark to “man up” and get on the offensive. This is Mark’s assignment and Daggers is merely his production crew.

I might be getting even pickier, but why does Mark have to recite Sharp’s full name and honorific to Diana? It would be more natural for Mark to refer to him as “Sharp”, or “The Professor” (unless he wanted to avoid a comeback remark about MaryAnn). If readers don’t already know who he is, what does his full citation serve? Could it be for the benefit of that ridiculous Canada Goose that keeps popping up? The least it could do is give some advice to Mark, like other animals.

But ending on a positive note, the landscaping in panel 1 is very well executed; and more than expected in a daily comic strip. The coloring may have something to do with it. But I appreciate the effort that went into it.

Opening Shots

I’m pretty sure we’ve seen this setup in movies before, where the hard-bitten cop having to work with the just-released, cynical mouthy criminal. You remember that one, right?

Still, Diana Daggers has a point: Time to man up, Trail. You’ve been the All American Nature Boy Hero for decades. Sure, you’re decided to no longer be that monolithic symbol. That’s good. It’s okay to have doubts; just don’t let them rule you. Hang in there, Mark. Stay alert and don’t let Daggers psych you out. By the way, you should have kissed her, as I advised, and put Diana on the defensive!

Okay, I think this is one of the more interesting starts for Mark’s new adventures. Aside from Dagger’s “Welcome to Hollywood” remark, I’m still not sure where they are. If they are in California, why did Mark pick Diana up at the airport, rather than the other way around? Otherwise, what is the reason for Diana’s closing comment? I don’t think that Barn Owl knows (and remember, Rivera already covered owls on a Sunday in the early days of the California adventure, so I don’t think we’ll see it on Sunday).

Rivera makes several fast cuts in these four panels, changing the angles, space, and proximity, just to keep things moving along. The third panel, as seen from a space behind the two riders, but ‘outside’ of the car, is a nice inventive viewpoint, though I have to take issue with those front seats, which look like they were carved from wood. Mark must have rented one of the “base” models of that car. And though I did not mention it before, that shoulder belt in the last panel of Monday’s strip looks more like a towel or maybe even a large piece of tree bark. But, I’m carping over details again.

Still, I’m eagerly waiting to hear more specific plans about the assignment. I wonder, truly, if they’ll wind up back at Cricket Bro’s office building? That would be a hoot! (Sorry for the pun. Okay, I’m not).

Honk if you like Zebra Mussels!

Okay, did Rivera forget to publish about a month’s worth of strips? At what point did Diana become a cooperating (?) partner with the person she was seething to break in half just a few weeks ago? Are we to believe Mark’s assignment is local, so he just drove over to an airport to pick up Diana? Ah, so many questions and so few answers. This is like Cherry’s sudden turnabout with Violet Cheshire, right? Hey, at least Diana has something of a personality, which is more than could be said for the reptile kids.

I see that our “animal of the week”, known for loud honking, is no competition to Diana’s broadcasting voice. Maybe Mark can turn the tables on Daggers and plant a big passionate kiss on her lips when she gets in the car and say “Glad you could make it, Diana. I’ve missed you!” Now that could be interesting!

Here is a query: What and where is this “Tom Hill Airport”? I’m guessing it is fictional. There are lots of Tom Hills on Google, but I’m going to hazard a guess that this name refers to the 19th century landscape painter who eventually moved to San Francisco and painted majestic scenes of American landscape, such as Yosemite, New Hampshire, and Utah. Hill preferred dramatic landscapes, as did many artists of the time, including Alfred Bierstadt and some of his colleagues in the so-called Hudson River School (Asher B. Durand, Fredrick Church, and Thomas Cole). Just a guess, mind you. Anyway, I don’t get to trot out my rusty art history background very often. So deal with it!

In closing, a note to Jules Rivera:  Traditions are just fine, but can Mark please change his shirt once in a while? Sure, I bet he has a closet full of red check shirts, but we’d still recognize him in a different shirt. For example, Dilbert changed from a shirt and funky tie to a polo shirt and badge. We still recognize him. Or, is Mark colorblind?

The Weekly Recap and Sunday Nature Chat

(Added some edits to correct grammar and clarity)

This past week continued Mark’s video conference (started the prior week) with Bill Ellis and Rafael Suave, Editor of the fishing rag “Hot Catch.” The hot assignment is an investigation of zebra mussels, which, for the laid back and smug Rafael means getting the goods on some big-time, evil companies that are exploiting the mussels’ spread for some nefarious purpose.

As commenters have noted, the only practical reason a company would do this is to help sell their own zebra mussel eradication solution. I suppose it would be a quite the coincidence if one of the companies turned out to be owned by Cricket Bro, given that Diana Daggers has somehow also wormed her way into this assignment as a videographer. That fact has naturally given Mark conniptions, based on his prior association that Rafael may or may not have known about. I’m guessing he did.

As Amy Lee did, Rafael patronizes Mark and goads him into taking the assignment. Mark is left to ponder his fate and consult his moral avatar, Ralph the Snake. Since Ralph is a stand-in for Mark’s conscience (filling in for both the “good” and “bad” avatars that pop up on characters’ shoulders in various cartoons and movies), it is no surprise to Mark when Ralph points out that Mark is no less a potential danger to himself than is Diana. DOH!

The former Mark Trail would never need to get in touch with a “Ralph” because the former Mark Trail did not have moral/ethical dilemmas; at least, none that were expressed. The former Mark was always steadfast, focused, morally grounded, emotionally conservative, and liked shirts with two pockets. And that is okay for a leading character. That is, after all, the genetic makeup of virtually all heroic types in American films, books, and comics for most of the 20th century. That may be one reason why so many readers prefer the former Mark Trail, in the face of the current trend of heroic figures that expose warts, self-doubt, questionable ethics, and excessive vigilantism.

And with that, we move to Sunday’s nature talk.

As is expected, Rivera continues to create the title panel based on the Sunday topic. It is not a surprising solution, though showing the bees moving out of a hive to form the title might have added a bit of humor. Rivera’s exposition on “killer bees” plays down their lethal effect on humans, which is fine, though they can still be very harmful and painful. In fact, their real danger lies in the fact that they can attack in large swarms. I read that repellents, such as DEET, have no effect on them. So, take Mark’s advice to heart.

I noticed that Rivera avoids using the commonly preferred name, “Africanized honey bee”, unless she is suggesting (by its absence) that the term “Africanized” is pejorative. That could be why she uses the terms “European” and “Hybridized” as descriptive labels. Interestingly, the hybridization of the African honey bee with European honey bees took place in Brazil back in the 1950s, and their distribution seems to be confined to the Americas. Since this particular species was created in Brazil, maybe we should just call it the “Brazilian killer bee” and go with that, though “Americanized killer bee” is fine, too. “Hybridized honey bee” is really not descriptive, but does sound like something a corporation would come up with, to distract from their harmful effects on other bees and people.