Comics are ubiquitous. Most of us read "the funnies," and many of us grew up reading comic books. Nowadays, we can watch some of those superheroes fight bad guys on the big screen and bask in the glory of a lucrative franchise. Even their animated cousins on television have merch deals. Whether drawn or digital, animated or molded in plastic, comic characters compose a significant part of popular culture. Still, relatively few of us give much thought to actually making them - and may, ahem, marvel when we meet someone who does. "When I say I do comics, people say, 'Really, you do Batman?'" remarks James Allen.
Not quite. But as a kid he was one of the comics-obsessed. Now, pushing 40, he still is - and it's worked out pretty well for him. Allen, whose history-based strip "Edge of Adventure" launches in Seven Days this week (see page 41a), is a resident of Gainesville, Georgia, which was the birthplace of Ed Dodd. That name may ring a bell if you're a longtime fan of "Mark Trail." Dodd created that wholesome daily-paper strip in 1946; current artist Jack Elrod has drawn it since 1978. And Allen is in line to take over when Elrod, now 83, retires. "I'm not an outdoorsman; I don't hunt or fish," notes Allen, "but I like the artwork."
Inheriting the successful syndicated comic is a dream-come-true gig. Allen says he scored it thanks to a serendipitous encounter with Dodd's widow, Rosemary, who still lives in Gainesville. While in training with Elrod, Allen continues to work for a California-based magazine called The Prehistoric Times. "I'm the guy who draws the dinosaurs," he explains.
Meanwhile, Allen's lifelong attraction to exotica has found expression in his well-drawn historical fiction serial, "Edge of Adventure." The multi-panel story, which he creates with his friend Brice Vorderbrug, a writer and researcher, is set in what was once called French Equatorial Africa, more than half a century ago. "We blindly picked the spot on a 1940s Africa map," Allen reveals - "a spot that was about to be rife with history: Albert Schweitzer was at a nearby hospital; Charles de Gaulle was trying to fire up the free French; the seeds of Darfur were being planted. Once we started digging into the story," he adds, "we thought, wouldn't it be fun if we could have our fictional characters meet some historical figures?"
The loping Southern cadence of Allen's voice on the phone contrasts with the promised retro drama of his narrative strip - not just Nazis and plane crashes in swamps, but zombies, elephant stampedes and girls gone bad. "It's a big adventure," Allen says. "I'm trying to wrap up everything I think is wonderful and big and thrilling in this world. And there's humor, too."