April 7, 2011
Paleo, Age of Reptiles, Tyrant—this week I’ve been looking back at comics that tell the stories of dinosaurs in Mesozoic settings (no humans allowed). How dinosaurs have appeared in comics can tell us something about the way images of these creatures have changed and how science trickles into popular culture, and the Marvel/Epic collaboration on Dinosaurs: A Celebration is a great example of what happens when dinosaurs, comics and technical details about prehistory are all thrown into a blender together.
Dinosaurs: A Celebration was not a typical comic series. Run in four issues, the series covered “Bone-Heads and Duck-Bills,” “Egg Stealers and Earth-Shakers,” “Horns and Heavy Armor” and “Terrible Claws and Tyrants.” Instead of giving each dinosaur group one single storyline, though, representative species were brought to life in short comic stories which were sandwiched between explanatory sections about the state of knowledge about dinosaurs circa 1992. A preface to each issue by series editor Steve White explains that the series was meant to be as specific as possible, acting as a condensed dinosaur encyclopedia in addition to an anthology of illustrated stories.
The series was hit-and-miss. While the encyclopedia-type portions attempted to be educational, the short collections of semi-technical passages were dry and uninspiring, and the quality of the artwork varied from story to story. Late in the “Bone-Heads and Duck-Bills” issue there is a beautifully illustrated tale about an attack on a Pachycephalosaurus herd by a Tyrannosaurus pack drawn by well-known paleo-artist Luis Rey, but a comic about South American sauropods illustrated by Chris Foss in another issue directly lifts poses from other works of paleo-art, and the dinosaurs have a lumpy, muddy look about them.
To the credit of the series, though, the comic sections were not overloaded with dinosaurs. There was an emphasis on pack hunting, family behavior, and other bits of speculation that might make a paleontologist wince, but the animals were almost always shown with other species from the same general time and place. A story about a Stegosaurus correctly casts Allosaurus as the villain, for example, and a tale about Struthiomimus set in Alberta, Canada circa 80 million years ago includes only dinosaurs found within the Dinosaur Park Formation.
Like the other comics covered this week, the animals of Dinosaurs: A Celebration were active, socially complex animals. Some of the illustrated dinosaurs still dragged their tails, and there were a few other bits of creative anatomy, but they were generally cast in the mold of dynamic creatures rather than stupid, swamp-bound monsters.
Our understanding of dinosaurs has changed significantly since 1992, though, and there were a few parts that made me cringe as I revisited them. For one thing, the books state that the two main branches of the dinosaur family tree—the saurischia and ornithischia—did not actually share a common dinosaurian ancestor. They had both evolved independently from a similar ancestral species and just happened to converge on a number of features, the comic suggests—but we know this isn’t correct. Both dinosaur subsets did share a common, early dinosaur ancestor and are linked together by a semi-opposable thumb on the hand, a reduction in fingers four and five and an open hip socket. Much remains unknown about the very first dinosaurs and their evolution, but the ornithischian and saurischian dinosaurs are part of the same evolutionary group.
The organization of carnivorous dinosaurs in the “Terrible Claws and Tyrants” issue is an even better indicator of how much has changed since 1992. The comic groups all the large, meat-eating dinosaurs into the group Carnosauria, with all the smaller theropods distributed through a variety of other families. Allosaurus, Tyrannosaurus and Carnotaurus are all listed under one heading because they were big and carnivorous, but size and diet aren’t everything.
Through ongoing investigations, paleontologists have found that the evolution of theropod dinosaurs was very complex. For example, Tyrannosaurus was a giant coelurosaur, a group once thought to contain only small, fleet-footed theropods. Rather than being the next evolutionary step from the Jurassic Allosaurus, the tyrant dinosaur was only a distant cousin, with Allosaurus being more closely related to other giant predators such as Acrocanthosaurus and Giganotosaurus. And, within these revised relationships, many theropods belonging to the coelurosaur subset have turned out to be omnivores or herbivores, meaning that the word “theropod” is no longer synonymous with “meat-eating dinosaur.”
Flipping through it now, the creatures in Dinosaurs: A Celebration—as well as the other comics I reviewed this week—represent the Mesozoic world as I first encountered it. It was a strange transitional phase for dinosaurs. The “Dinosaur Renaissance” had moved the animals out of the swamp and gave them a wider repertoire of behaviors, but many still dragged their tails and the idea that some of them might have been especially bird-like, feathered animals was still considered to be highly speculative. The dinosaurs of the 1990s were odd creatures that were gradually being remodeling as new finds clashes with traditional images of prehistoric life. Given how much has changed in the past two decades alone, I can only imagine how dinosaurs will look in another twenty years.
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