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Invasive Pest Invades a National Comic Strip

Posted by Abbey Powell, APHIS Public Affairs Specialist in Animals Plants
Feb 21, 2017
EAB Comic strip
Photo credit: Mark Trail via @ComicsKingdom

Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) Awareness week is May 17-23 and my tenure in a nationally syndicated comic strip is coming to an end, so it’s a good time to tell you how a new USDA employee wound up cartoon-ized.

The Mark Trail strip—known for its environmental themes—just finished a six-week long storyline about the invasive EAB.  The EAB, a small metallic green wood-boring beetle, destroys ash trees and is now found in 25 U.S. States.  The Mark Trail strip features “Agent Abbey Powell from the USDA” and shares information about the EAB. To view the comic—beginning with my debut—visit Mark Trail.

How did this happen? James Allen, the strip’s current author, called the APHIS Public Affairs Office with his interest in developing the storyline. I took Allen’s call and answered his questions—not suspecting at the time that I would end up in the comic!  He was curious about the EAB, which likely arrived in the US in the late 1990’s or early 2000s, in solid wood packing material.  In response, APHIS now requires that imported wood packing material be treated to kill any invasive pests that may be hitchhiking inside. 

I provided an outline of how the USDA would respond if Mark Trail contacted us about the EAB, and developed a scenario to fit into his planned storyline. I told Allen about the sticky purple traps APHIS uses to survey for EAB and the stingless wasps we release as a biological control.

“Abbey got right on the task and sent over a treasure trove of info and pictures. Details of everything... step by step procedures of their approach to identifying the insect, quarantine of the area and biocontrol practices. Abbey was so helpful, I asked her permission to put her in the strip as an agent of the USDA,” said Allen.

“She kindly obliged and sent a picture of herself. I referenced from her photo and made her a "Mark Trail-ized" character,” he added.

While I provided key messages, it was Allen who crafted the story and art for each installment. He took some scientific and other liberties—ranging from my job title (“Agent Powell” instead of public affairs specialist) to technical points concerning the biology and behavior of EAB, and the story’s ending.

Allen and I have both been flattered by the response. He said, “As I continued writing the story, her part began to grow. It seems the public's interest grew as well. Readers at the Comics Kingdom website were posting things like ‘I searched Abbey Powell... there is one that actually works at the USDA!’ ... and ‘I found her LinkedIn profile and she looks like the character in the strip!’”

I’m humbled and honored to be part of this comic strip with national reach to help raise public awareness about EAB and other invasive pests and diseases and what APHIS does to combat these threats.

See you in the funny papers!

For more information about EAB and other invasive pests, visit

Category/Topic: Animals Plants

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Fritz G
May 22, 2015

Thanks for being a good sport and also for serving the citizens of the U.S. As a retired USPS letter carrier, I am all too familiar with the way the work of our dedicated public employees is too often taken for granted. I hope you have a great career with USDA and success in all your endeavors!

May 22, 2015

I enjoyed the story even more after learning you were a real person! Nice to see the good side of a government agency.

Dave Latchaw
May 22, 2015

So Abbey steps into the comics to help Mark with an EAB problem and Mark kind of steps out of the comics to spread awareness of the EAB. I'm not sure my poor brain can handle this, but I know it must be a good thing!

Do this some more and maybe I'll be able to figure this out.

Linda MacDonald
May 22, 2015

Awesome storyline! Congrats, and thanks for everything you do.

Jim Etherton
May 22, 2015

Thanks for the update, Agent Abby. I am happy that you enjoyed working with James Allen on Mark Trail. It is good to get the word out on invasive pest species.
I for one am extremely happy that someone in the government took the time to think up the name "APHIS", which is the most aptly named acronym of any agency at the Federal level. Keep up the good work!

May 28, 2015

What great fun to find out that a MT character was based on a real person! Hope you find your glasses.

Jodi Lewis Lipsitz
May 28, 2015

Thanks for your help! I've been reading Mark Trail since I was a kid, so it is especially awesome to have support like this from such a prestigious agency!

Oct 22, 2016

Was just reading today's strip where you and Mark fall out of the dead tree the boar knocked over. Hope you're okay ;-)