History of Mark Trail
The comic strip was borne in 1946 after Dodd had tried an unsuccessful comic strip. I remember seeing the original Mark Trail…and there are a couple of stories of how the character Mark Trail started…..one was shown to me by my dad, Tom Hill, who illustrated Mark Trail and the Sunday natural history comic strip for 32 years. My dad showed me an old Life Magazine cover of some actor and Ed Dodd and crew had inked over the face and made him the first Mark Trail. Realism marked many of the new comic strips that appeared in the decade following World War II…included were Steve Canyon, Rex Morgan, M.D. and Judge Parker and, of course, Mark Trail. My dad went to Georgia State College for a while after World War II and then attended the New York Art Students League. Ed and Dad knew each other from scouting days at Bert Adams Camp near Atlanta. Below is what I think I saw as a youth visiting Ed’s studio…an old Life magazine cover, 1947 Gregory Peck, was inked over to reveal Mark Trail, the only prototype I remember… Another story I heard, and there must have been several, was Ed originally saw a truck advertisement in New York city which inspired the original Mark Trail prototype.
In 1946 right after Dodd created Mark Trail, Dad starting drawing the strip and Ed Dodd eventually stopped drawing it by 1950. Jack Elrod joined the artists in 1948 and drew mechanical objects in the strip…cars, gun, cabins, etc. A Chinese lady, Barbara Chen, was hired to do the lettering and was one of the finest manuscript artists around Atlanta. . After drawing the Sunday nature strip and the daily episodes of Mark Trail for 32 years, Dad died in 1978. Ed Dodd then retired, the property sold (Dodd’s house finally burned to the ground in 1996), and Jack Elrod took over the strip. In 2014 James Allen took over Mark Trail and is a fine artist.
Certain topics were banned by Hall Syndicate in Mark Trail….snakes, evolution, and fire. The first two items were, I suppose, viewed as “evil”, while fire, whether prescribed burning or wildfire, was avoided because the Syndicatefelt that readers might have set forests on fire to help Mark Trail. “The Phantom” comic strip did have snakes appear in some of episodes, so the snake ban was inequitable. At one time, Mark Trail appeared in 50 countries and about 175 newspapers in the United States. Ed Dodd’s Mark Trail collection is on display at the Northeast Georgia HistoryCenter at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia.
The process of printing a full color Mark Trail Sunday page was intensive…first my dad would research the subject matter…I remember going to the Atlanta Zoo to see a Nile Monitor or travel to Black Beard Island off the coast of Georgia to watch Loggerhead Sea Turtle lay eggs. Step one would be penciling in the animal and background such as landscape, trees, etc. ….this was no small feat since you would have to be able to draw an animal from any angle. He told me the most difficult animal to draw was the horse. I suppose getting the skull shape and body proportions was not easy.
After the drawing was penciled in, he would ink in the figures with a sable brush. Next, the drawings would be hand delivered to Lithoplates company in downtown Atlanta, where they would reduce the original ink work to a smaller size lithograph. I remember riding to downtown Atlanta on weekends with Dad as he delivered the comics for final reproduction…hard to forget the sound of the machinery and smell of different inks and dyes that permeated the place. This lithograph was then hand painted with a brush and acrylic dyes to give it a final touch prior to final printing to a high quality, genuine low-tech, comic lithograph. This was done by photo-offset printing, a process used in high volume printing where the original cartoon was mechanically color separated through a series of filters into 4 secondary colors: black, cyan, magenta and yellow. A halftone screen is used to break the image into a series of dots. Lithography, an art form, was used over 100 years, and eventually replaced by fast, high-tech reproduction in the 1970s
Here are some full page Sunday Mark Trails that I cut out and saved as a kid when our family lived close to Lost Forest in Sandy Springs, Georgia…they may smell musty. After the printer’s proof was produced, it was hand painted with acrylic dyes and reproduced for the Sunday Comics. The photo-mechanical process of combining photography and color separation was the primary printing process until the computer revolutionized the entire printing process in the 1980s. The lithographic reduction measured 11 3/8″ by 14 3/8″ on heavy stock
The Mark Trail Sunday page was a full page in the 1950’s through the early 1970’s in many newspapers….it has since dwindled down to about 4 small blocks. This was, perhaps, due to a waning interest in natural history or for a newer breed of comic strips which reflected more mindless entertainment (versus post war realism.)
Elrod perpetuated Mark Trail and received Presidential Conservation Awards and endorsements from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA). In 1991, the Forest Service designated the Mark Trail Wilderness on the Chattahoochee National Forest the same year that Ed Dodd died at the age of 88. The Mark Trail Wilderness has over 60 miles of trout streams, waterfalls and 14 miles of the Appalachian Trail. This is the only wilderness area in the world named after a comic-strip hero!
In addition to the daily Mark Trail strip and Sunday nature strip, there were some magazines published under the Mark Trail name (see below) as well as the Kellogg’s Mark Trail radio series in the 1950’s. Mark Trail magazine was aimed at millions of boys in the 9-17 year age group to guide them in natural history and conservation.