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'Mark Trail' continues a longtime local link
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For more than six decades, "Mark Trail" has been a fixture in newspaper funnies. It was birthed by a Gainesville man, continued by another Gainesvillian, and a third Gainesville artist has dipped his pen in it recently.

The late Ed Dodd was the Gainesville father of the comic strip, which has an outdoors and conservation theme. Dodd drew it from 1946 till he retired in 1979. He turned it over to Jack Elrod, an avid outdoorsman and a former Boy Scout in a troop Dodd had led in Gainesville.

Elrod had helped with "Mark Trail" since 1950 and continues to draw both the daily and a Sunday strip that appears in 175 papers and reaches 23 million readers worldwide, according to King Features Syndicate.

The comic has been a mainstay in The Times since its beginning. It is one of the longest running strips that have a continuing story.

Elrod and "Mark Trail" have received numerous conservation awards, including one from President Ronald Reagan. The 16,400-acre Mark Trail Wilderness in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Towns and Union counties is the only such area named after a cartoon character.

James Allen became fascinated with cartoons on television as a child. He would watch the Saturday morning shows and stay up late at night watching shock theater and old monster characters, complete with popcorn and soft drinks.

Those images inspired him to begin drawing them. His mother checked out a library book for him with pictures of classic movie monsters and drew at least a thousand times an image of King Kong from the 1933 movie.

\"What I draw has to look just right," he said. He struggled to get the expression on the gorilla's face precise. When he finally felt he was close, he was so excited he carried it to his mother in the kitchen, where she was washing dishes. She gushed over it, and that set Allen on his path to becoming a professional artist.

Only 7 or 8 years old at the time, Allen said if his mother hadn't paid so much attention to his King Kong drawing, he might never have pursued his career.

From then on he drew every chance he got, creating his own comics and taking every art course offered when he attended Gainesville High School. He succeeded in state art competitions. But, he admits, art took a back seat in his late teens when other interests, including girls, distracted him.

Still he was good enough to receive a small scholarship to Savannah College of Art and Design. One semester was enough, though, because at the time the school didn't offer sequential or comic art.

Allen returned home, picked up odd jobs and resumed drawing for himself. One of the jobs was with United Parcel Service. He loaded trucks until he rose into a lower management position. He even got a few art assignments for the company publications, but was disappointed he missed out on an opportunity for a graphic arts position.

After he left UPS, he ran into Rosemary Dodd, widow of the Mark Trail creator, who suggested he contact Elrod for some work. Elrod did give him some assignments, including pen-and-ink sketches of his daughter and grandchildren as Christmas gifts.

That led to more work on the comic strip itself. "That was the most fun I'd had working," Allen says. "It was the most proud of what I had done, and it was a compliment to me that he (Elrod) was trusting me with it."

One of his big moments was when Elrod used a lion fish Allen had drawn as the centerpiece for one of the Sunday wildlife strips.

Meanwhile, Allen has been drawing his own comic strip, "Edge of Adventure," which appears in weekly papers.

Good vision is critical to artists who, as in the case of Allen, have to strain for hours over their drawing boards. That's why it stunned him when a problem developed in his eyes a few months ago. Working without insurance, he hurt physically and in the pocketbook with the surgery required to correct it.

But it ensures he can continue his career in art. To raise money for his medical bills, Allen has started drawing pen-and-ink or pencil portraits of people for $100. He hopes to get enough orders to retire his debt.

He can be reached at 770-532-7896.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays. and on