Dig deep in this newspaper and you will find a window into another world.

It’s a nature preserve where you can be on a snow-covered mountain one minute and in a desert or by the ocean the next. It’s a place where bears and wolves vie for territory with human predators who want to smuggle drugs or assassinate the president.

And most amazingly, it’s a world where a freelance reporter can make a comfortable living writing for a monthly nature magazine.

Ah, fantasy …

This, of course, is the world of Mark Trail, the hero of Lost Forest and the star of the long-running comic strip of the same name that appears here and in 174 other newspapers around the world.

It’s not always been easy for Mark. Earlier this year, he was stuck in a cave on the Mexican border with a pudgy chiropterologist (bat expert) named Gabe, and the lovely and alluring Carina, an aspiring speleologist (cave expert).


As their confinement dragged on, we started getting a string of letters to the editor, and the writers were not rooting for Mark and the others to find their way out.

A typical sentiment was expressed by Joan E. Herzog of South Portland, who wrote, “Please, please, please let Mark Trail die.”

Mark did not die, he has not even aged in his 70 years of existence. The strip has been around so long that readers might consider it a naturally occurring phenomenon that grows like a fungus when you mix ink and paper in the D section. But you may be surprised to learn that Mark is the work of a real person who has feelings, too.

After publishing some of the letters, I heard from James Allen, the current creator of the strip, one of only three people to have held that title since 1946. He told me a story that may not have been as violent as a Mark Trail plot, but it’s almost as unlikely.

In 2004, Allen was working as a manager for UPS in the Atlanta area, drawing independent comic books as a hobby. A friend introduced him to Jack Elrod, the 79-year-old artist and writer who had been involved with Mark Trail for 40 years, starting as an assistant to its creator, Ed Dodd, and then taking over when Dodd retired in 1978. Allen said the meeting changed his life.

“Here’s what I’m supposed to do,” he suddenly realized.


Allen, now 49, had grown up in Gainesville, Georgia, the hometown of both Dodd and Elrod. He said there were streets named after “Mark Trail” characters, and some of Dodd’s tools and artwork were set up in a small museum in his honor. As a child Allen could always draw better than the other kids, and knowing that there were two professional artists from his hometown gave him the idea that it could be a career.

As he got older, he gravitated toward horror and science fiction, but “Mark Trail” had always been on the back of his mind.

After the fateful meeting, Allen started assisting Elrod, gradually taking over a bigger share of the work. In 2014, Elrod retired officially and Allen took over. Elrod died this year at the age of 91.

Some things have changed on Allen’s watch. There are a lot more characters wearing bikinis now, and Mark is using a cellphone. Unruly facial hair is no longer prima facie evidence that the character is a villain (“I have friends with goatees,” Allen said).

But some things will never change, like the elasticity of time.

The strip is aways in the present day, but no one ever gets any older. Mark and his shiny black hair have been 33 since 1946. His adopted son Rusty is permanently 12. Andy, the St. Bernard, has stayed in robust good health for decades.


I got half a year older when Mark was stuck in that cave, but Allen said it took only two days in Lost Forest time.

Allen has to deal with one thing that his predecessors never had to face: daily attacks from online commenters, who savage the strip the way they attack everything else in the newspaper.

“The internet and the false sense of anonymity that comes with it seems to bring out the worst in people,” Allen said. “I’d be the first one to admit that maybe the cave story could have ended a few weeks sooner, but there’s an actual human being behind those daily strips.”

And he’s an actual human being who is living out his childhood dream. Some fantasies are true.

Listen to Press Herald podcasts, including one for this column, at www.pressherald.com/podcast.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @gregkesich

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: