James Allen said he felt like the heavens opened up before his eyes when he first met cartoonist Jack Elrod a decade ago.
In that moment, Allen, 46, of Gainesville, said all he could think was “this is it.”
Elrod, a Gainesville native, has been writing the syndicated comic “Mark Trail” since 1978. The strip was created in 1946 by the late Ed Dodd of Gainesville and follows outdoorsman Mark Trail on adventures and educates readers about conservation and the environment.
According to King Features, the strip’s syndicators, “Mark Trail” appears in 175 newspapers and reaches nearly 23 million readers worldwide.
Allen will take over the strip on March 31, two days after Elrod’s 90th birthday and retirement.
Elrod chuckled and said he thinks it’s unusual for a comic strip to pass to a third Gainesvillian.
“James and I have been friends for many years,” Elrod said. “He started doing odd jobs on the strip a few years ago. He was helping me with lines or looking up stuff on animals. But now he’s ready to take over and I’m ready to get out.”
While working on a Sunday strip featuring a white rhino in his home studio, Allen said he feels fortunate to finally have his dream job.
He said being hired to write and draw the comic is “proof positive” of the power of perseverance.
“If you believe in yourself and you pursue it and you don’t give up, even when it seems hopeless and everything is going against you. Keep trudging away,” Allen said, smiling.
Over the years Allen has held a number of “regular” jobs, including one as a manager at UPS. But Allen said he always knew he wanted to draw.
His fascination with art began early in life.
As a “heavy-set introverted kid” in the 1970s, Allen said he resonated with images of King Kong and drew thousands of pictures of the giant gorilla until he got it right. The walls of his studio are covered in tiki-inspired decor and photographs from the 1933 movie.
As he grew older, Allen became aware of “this big important comic strip known as ‘Mark Trail.’”
The comic’s style appealed to Allen.
“I didn’t want to draw Batman. I didn’t want to draw Spiderman,” Elrod said. “I wanted to draw ‘Mark Trail’ where the art style is a little more founded in reality. It’s not this extreme exaggerated characters or fixtures.”
After learning through a friend that Elrod was looking for an assistant, Allen reached out to Elrod to see if he could help.
Allen said he expected to “wow” Elrod with a portfolio of book illustrations and comic art he brought to their first meeting.
“Of course at this point he was 82 and he’d seen everything,” Allen said, laughing. “He genuinely didn’t seem impressed with anything I took him.”
Nevertheless, Elrod hired Allen to be his assistant and learned the ins and outs of making a daily comic strip with a long history and loyal following.
Though Allen hasn’t yet officially taken over, he’s made a number of appearances on behalf of the comic in the past.
Rosemary Dodd, wife of the comic’s creator, recalled meeting Allen as the Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University planned to open with a permanent exhibit of the artist and adventurer’s artifacts.
Allen demonstrated what a cartoonist does during the opening of the exhibit.
“Having James Allen, a Gainesville fellow, walk the trails of adventure and education with ‘Mark Trail,’ is almost like having Ed Dodd’s grandson following in historic footsteps,” Rosemary Dodd said.
Elrod said he’s looking forward to seeing what Allen does with the strip and hopes he continues working with groups like the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for which Mark Trail is the official spokescharacter.
Claudia Smith, director of public relations of King Features Syndicate, praised Elrod’s ability to entertain and educate his readers.
“We are looking forward to working with Jack’s longtime assistant, James Allen, as he assumes the Mark Trail mantle,” Smith said.
Allen said he intends to continue with the comic’s traditions and is going to try to make the transition as seamless as possible so longtime readers won’t notice the comic has changed hands.
Eventually, however, he said he’d like to try to shift the style of the comic to a more natural look. He intends to make the anatomy of the characters look more lifelike and include more action in the wildlife art.
He also intends to “flesh out” the story line and many of the character’s history.
“I’d like to ratchet up the action and continue the strip’s long history and ongoing efforts to educate people about conservation,” Allen said. “This strip has a long history of good wildlife art. ... Even if the story is taking place in the background, if I can do something else and do something that isn’t just two (people talking). Sometimes the world of wild life isn’t pretty. Animals are constantly out there fighting for survival. I’d like to push the wildlife art through the dailies.”
Allen said he hopes readers of “Mark Trail” will be pleased with his work and will appreciate his attention to detail in the art.
“At the end of my day I say — I really do — I say ‘Is it King Kong? Did I nail it? Is it right? Is it what it’s supposed to be?’” Allen said.