Local comic strip Mark Trail and its current creator James Allen are up for a prestigious award in the cartooning industry.
Originally crafted by Gainesville native Ed Dodd, the strip is now illustrated and written - or created - by Gainesville resident Allen, who picked up the trade from Jack Elrod. The "legacy" comic strip - meaning it is illustrated by someone other than the person who created it - is a finalist for a National Cartoonist Society Reuben Award.
"In the world of syndicated comics, it's kind of the Oscar," Allen explained. "Much like the Oscars, there's various fields, like the best director, best actor, best actress, best animated short. So there's various fields and categories - best newspaper strip, best panel, best editorial cartoon, and a few other fields."
The strip is syndicated by King Features Syndicate.
Allen said he previously submitted Mark Trail under the category for newspaper strips. The 10 best submissions are chosen, then the top four are selected by members of the organization. Finally, one comic will win the award.
After some discussion among members of the NCS at a business meeting, it was determined a new category was needed for things like legacy comics, the Jumble comics and other newspaper comics that weren't "gag" style comics: variety and entertainment. The new category includes puzzles games, history, trivia or instruction.
"So I submitted to the variety and entertainment category, and for the first time in its 73-year history was at least to the point of being nominated, has been recognized by its peers," Allen said.
While Dodd and his successor Jack Elrod both won awards for the 73-year-old comic strip, they had not won an award from the NCS, Allen said, making the nomination even more of an honor.
For Allen, the nomination is just a part of a "childhood dream come true." Interested in drawing at a young age, he was able to connect with Dodd and his wife Rosemary and later with Elrod. Allen began to study under Elrod in 2004, practicing with some original pages he had been given, and began assisting Elrod in 2013, even filling in when Elrod physically needed more help.
With Elrod's recommendation, the company transitioned Allen from assistant to creator of the comic in 2014. That year, Allen celebrated his birthday with the first Mark Trail comic strip under his name. It featured his favorite animal, the white rhinoceros .
Allen credits Mark Trail's success to the ability to stay relevant in an ever-changing culture, especially as he watched the comic grow as he grew up.
"You couldn't get away from it. You were aware that Mark Trail was from here, there are certain streets named after the characters. Ed's personal studio, even before the Northeast Georgia History Center came into being, I remember hiss studio was was in a little museum up closer to the square, I believe was an old fire station. I'd ride my bike up there to see his drawing board because somebody had made in this world, the comics business," said Allen.
"The fact that a couple of the creators were from here, the strip was practically born here, i think that's probably why it's significant to Gainesville... but the strip itself, how it kept going on for so long while other strips have fallen by the wayside - good strips! Steve Canyon, Buzz Sawyer, Flash Gordon, have all kind of fallen by the wayside because I think Mark Trail still manages to be relevant. I'm not necessarily environmentalist, I am a conservationist, but at a time when everybody's wanting to go green, Mark Trail was kind of on the forefront of that./ He was talking about conserving woods, water and wildlife a long time ago, before it became a popular thing. So that's how it's still relevant in the world, rather than fall by the wayside, or have to turn into a gag strip, which would be awful," Allen said. "That's how it's stayed relevant, the whole concept of conservation. 'Cause who doesn't want mountains and streams to be here for their kids and grandkids and great grandkids?"
Allen will learn in May if the Mark Trail comic won.
"The strip itself has won numerous awards, just never anything from the National Cartoonist Society. So it's truly a tremendous honor just to be nominated," said Allen. "But if I get out to Huntington Beach and win that Oscar, The Reuben... I think it's gonna take awhile for my wife to get me off the seat."