Fighting for Nature: The Stilted Sincerity of Mark Trail
Newspaper comics are a funny thing. Like television, the medium requires a constant output of new material. But due to any given comic strip’s short length, it’s hard to achieve the same depth of serialized storytelling as television, even if the periodical medium welcomes it. A variety of comics, from the satirical Doonesbury to the dramedy For Better or Worse, have successfully achieved not only serialization but also character development over the decades they’ve been in print; however, just as many have shown little to no growth. FromMarmaduke to Garfield, Blondie to Ziggy, an overwhelming number of newspaper comics have fiercely refused to change with the times, their references and rhetoric more at home in the 1940s than the present day. Recent years have produced great parodies of these staid comics, from removing Garfield from his own strip to over-explaining the antics of mediocre Dane, Marmaduke. Yet little attention has been paid to the masterpiece that is Mark Trail.
Created by Ed Dodd in 1946, Mark Trail follows the exploits of the eponymous Mark Trail, a writer/photographer for Woods and Wildlife Magazine who fights any and all threats to our natural resources. This turns into a literal fight far more often than one would expect for a writer/photographer from Woods and Wildlife Magazine.
The Georgia-born Dodd based Mark Trail’s physical features on neighbor John Wayt, which might explain Trail’s more than passing resemblance to Sterling Archer, another single-minded cartoon character modeled off an Atlantan resident.
Mark Trail might attempt serialized storytelling, but it fails to create any tension because of the comic’s fatal flaw: it’s incredibly boring. The material isn’t interesting enough for long form storytelling, which becomes all the more apparent when said story is broken into daily chunks.
The majority of Mark Trail strips feature a panel dedicated to an animal close-up as the main characters speak in the background. It’s almost as if Dodd didn’t think audiences would be that invested in Mark Trail’s adventures.
Mark Trail inhabits an awkward middle ground among the prime comedic targets of the funny pages. It has the dated awkwardness that makes strips like Marmaduke and Family Circus both a hoot and a holler while maintaining the sense of serialization that persists among the “serious” comics like Judge Parker and Apartment 3-G (which are arguably just as dated, just in a heavily muted — thus “seriousness” — fashion). But what really separates Mark Trail from its ink-laden kin is its extremely obvious agenda of promoting environmental protection. At its core, the comic is nothing but a three-panel message dressed up with weak characters, stumbling adventures, and animal drawings.
While Mark Trail might not have any message-oriented peers in the newspaper pages, a strikingly similar piece can be found in cinema:Reefer Madness, a 1936 film warning audiences about the dangers of marijuana. Originally titled Tell Your Children, the film is as pure a message piece as Mark Trail. These quaint morality pieces also make little effort to entertain, despite ostensibly being “entertainment.”
They work as snapshots of their times, providing extremely dated styles and sensibilities for mockery. (This is far less forgivable for Mark Trail given that the comic has continually produced new material for over sixty years.) Last week’s Mark Trail strips even dealt with the reefer scourge, employing the same old-fashioned attitude as Reefer Madness, only with slightly less fear mongering. Don’t worry fans: there were still random close-ups of animals.
Mark Trail has yet to receive its loving send-up, its Garfield Minus Garfield, but the treatment Reefer Madness has received shows the immense possibilities for this outdoor journalist. In 2001, an Off-Broadway musical, also named Reefer Madness, debuted and was later adapted by Showtime into a feature film. What Far From Heaven did for Douglas Sirk melodramas, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musicaldoes for 1930s drug propaganda films — with songs!
Greg Edelman, an actor from the original New York production of Reefer Madness, recalls:
The director [Andy Fickman] keeps telling us, “Remember this is not a pro- or con- marijuana show. It’s not about that.” It takes this 65-70-year-old film, a very “serious” government-type film… It’s so heavy handed, there’s no way you could take it seriously. So it’s ripe for the picking.
All of that holds true for Mark Trail. Its message of environmental concern — which most people these days can support — might not be funny, but the comic’s stubbornly quaint adherence to the value system of a bygone era proves hilarious. Heavy is the hand the writesMark Trail, so its Off-Broadway-musical-turned-Showtime-original-movie should be nothing short of brilliant. He’ll save woodland creatures and sing about the dangers threatening local wildlife, learning a cheery lesson of self-actualization along the way. Until then, there are new comics every weekday to keep me laughing.
That and a Mad Magazine parody.
Noticed some Unexpected Comedy that you think warrants exploring? Send any pitches for the column along right here.
Justin Geldzahler would help the environment if it didn’t cut into his time spent starting forest fires and clubbing baby seals.