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Mark Trail is a newspaper comic strip created by the American cartoonist Ed Dodd. Introduced April 15, 1946, the strip centers on environmental and ecological themes. In 2006, King Features syndicated the strip to nearly 175 newspapers.
When Mark Trail began, it was syndicated through the New York Post in 1946 to 45 newspapers. Dodd, working as a national parks guide, had long been interested in environmental issues. The character is loosely based on the life and career of Charles N. Elliott (November 29, 1906 - May 1, 2000), at the time a U.S. forest ranger who edited Outdoor Life magazine from 1956 to 1974. Dodd once said that the physical model for Trail was John Wayt, his former neighbor in north Atlanta.
Mark Trail, the main character, is a photojournalist and outdoor magazine writer whose assignments lead him into danger and adventure. His assignments inevitably lead him to discover environmental misdeeds, most often solved with a crushing right cross.
Trail lives in the fictional Lost Forest National Forest with his St. Bernard, Andy; veterinarian Doc Davis; Doc's daughter, and Trail's girlfriend and eventual wife, Cherry, and their adopted son, Rusty. "Mark reflects a reverence for God's creatures, nature, and the conservation of woods, water and wildlife" (Hill, 2003). His assignments in recent years have involved more sleuthing than wildlife photojournalism.
In the mid-1940s, Ed Dodd was employed in advertising. Dodd and Jack Elrod met when they were with the Boy Scouts; Dodd was a Scout leader and Elrod was a Scout. In 1946, after Elrod sold Mark Trail to a syndicate, the strip was launched April 16, 1946 in the New York Post. In 1950, Dodd hired Elrod to work as the strip's background artist and letterer. During the late 1940s, the cartoonist Jack Davis worked one summer inking Mark Trail, which he later parodied in Mad as "Mark Trade." In addition to Davis and Elrod, Dodd also hired Tom Hill, Barbara Chen (who did the lettering) and secretary Rhett Carmichael. The strip's popularity grew through the mid-1960s, with Mark Trail appearing in nearly 500 newspapers through the North America Syndicate.
Artist and naturalist Tom Hill, who joined Dodd on Mark Trail in 1946, drew the Sunday strip, devoted to natural history and wildlife education, until 1978. Hill drew most of the daily strip art too after 1950, freeing Dodd to specialize in the scripting. Tom Hill's son, Jack Hill, recalled life at Dodd's studio in the Lost Forest outside Atlanta:
Dodd retired in 1978 shortly after the death of Hill. Elrod then continued the strip, adding new characters and taking over the Sunday edition. Based on the complaint of a reader in 1983, Elrod had Mark Trail abandon the trademark pipe that had been part of him from the beginning under likewise pipesmoking Dodd; and in 1993, Mark and Cherry finally married.
In 2010, after years of tutoring, Jack Elrod brought on the assistance of noted artist James Allen. James initially began assisting on the weekly Sunday page continuing the themes of wildlife education and natural history also alerting readers to endangered species and notifications of newly discovered species as well.
With King Features Syndicate receiving letters and emails, not only from fans, but researchers whose work has been cited, James' work has been heralded with bringing new themes, up to date research and finely detailed wildlife art back to the Sunday strip.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, "Elrod's comics typically present information promoting public awareness of imperiled species." A notable exception is the strip that ran on March 11, 2007, which depicted the African Elephant not as imperiled, but as a peril itself. Letters appeared in numerous papers taking issue with the strip's contention that, "The two main killers in East Africa are HIV/AIDS and wild animals, particularly elephants." Several papers ran letters to the editor objecting to this assertion.
Jack Hill has criticized the strip for declining in quality since 1978. According to Hill, the earlier versions of the strip featured well-written plot and character development and a detailed art style, whereas later versions were marked by a loss of accuracy and detail and "a free-floating approach to perspective." In addition, time froze: scenes and plots have been recycled from the past. According to King Features, Mark now stays "forever 32". The characters no longer evolve or show much of their earlier personalities. Ironically, these changes, along with predictable villains (who invariably have facial hair with especially pronounced sideburns), uneven art work, quirky dialog, and misplaced speech balloons (often pointed at foregrounded animals), created an amusing charm that attracted a new following among fans called "Trailheads". In recent years, the strip's story arcs have often followed a formulaic ending, with the protagonist dashing in in the nick of time and giving the villains a good beating, before handing them over to the law.
In some cases, daily strips have recycled art and slightly updated plots from 20 or 30-year old strips. Updating includes deleting pipes and ashtrays, and rearranging panels. Close-ups of recycled animal art are added to cover extraneous word balloons or to create a new panel to add new dialogue.
Soon after being brought in to assist on the Sunday strip in 2010, James Allen also started assisting on the daily stories as well. Some readers and fan sites have noticed a realistic change in the characters' anatomy and the sense of perspective in both longshots and landscapes.
On January 30, 1950, Mutual Broadcasting System launched a radio adaptation, Mark Trail, featuring Matt Crowley in the title role. The 30-minute episodes aired three times weekly, and 174 episodes were produced, running until June 8, 1951. A second radio series, starring Staats Cotsworth, was broadcast on ABC beginning September 18, 1950, with 51 half-hour shows that ran thrice weekly until January, 1952. The series then switched to a 15-minute format, producing 125 episodes that aired weekdays through June 27, 1952. Only a handful of the 15-minute episodes are known to have survived.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul, public radio station KFAI hosted Mark Trail Radio Theatre starting in 1991. Produced by Babs Economon, its 17 adventures aired in 228 weekly installments on Friday evenings through September 2002.
In 1997, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began using Mark Trail as its official mascot, making him the voice of the National Weather Service and NOAA Weather and All Hazards Radio.
A television pilot for a "Mark Trail" series was filmed in Australia and Canada in 1969, starring Todd Armstrong as Trail, and Robert Dunlap as Scotty. Produced by Bob Stabler, the pilot also featured Michael Pate, Gordon McDougall, and Susan Lloyd. .
For the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Elrod wrote and illustrated coloring books which have been distributed to students throughout the U.S. They include: Wetlands Coloring Book, Take Pride in America with Mark Trail: A Coloring Book and Mark Trail Tells the Story of a Fish in Trouble.
The 1950s magazine, Mark Trail: The Magazine of Adventure for Boys, merged with The American Boy and The Open Road for Boys. The magazine was aimed at boys in the 9-17 age group to guide them in natural history and conservation.
Mark Trail has won more than 30 conservation awards from private organizations and government agencies, including the American Waterfowl and Wetland Association, the Georgia Wildlife Association, the National Forest Association, the National Wildlife Federation, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. An annual Mark Trail Award is presented to individuals, organizations or corporations that assist in expanding the radio network, or recognizing courageous effort in saving lives during weather or civil emergencies. Mark Trail has also appeared in a number of publications by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in efforts to educate children concerning conservation and environmentalism.
In 1991, Congress allocated 16,400 acres (67 km²) of former logged forest along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia to be designated the Mark Trail Wilderness. As of 2006, Mark Trail remains the only comic strip character to be recognized in such a manner, although an official association between Walt Kelly's Pogo and the Okefenokee Swamp was established in 1987, with an Annual Pogo Fest, followed by Pogo and the U.S. Postal Service's 1989 inauguration of a National Wetlands postcard dedicated to the Okefenokee Swamp.