April 6, 2011
Comic books about the day-to-day lives of dinosaurs pop up only every once in a while. More often than not, pen and ink dinosaurs threaten to stomp and chomp unlucky humans who cross their paths, and occasionally a dinosaur will make a cameo appearance in one of the more famous comic franchises. By looking back at comics focused on the natural history of dinosaurs, though, we can get some idea about how perspectives of dinosaurs have changed over the years. Today I’ll be revisiting Steve Bissette’s short-lived series Tyrant.
Running for only four issues published between 1994 and 1996, Tyrant told the story of a mother Tyrannosaurus and her developing offspring in detailed panels of black and white. Yet this description is a bit too simple. The tyrannosaur family was at the center of the series—it is called Tyrant, after all—but Bissette often approached them indirectly, placing them within the rhythms of life and death in Late Cretaceous North America. There was a kind of poetry to the storytelling in which the lives of other animals formed essential parts of the narrative.
The fate of a mother Maiasaura in the second issue provides a good example of Bissette’s technique. Readers are introduced to a scene of broken tree limbs, blood and berries, which Bissette uses as a starting point on a trail leading to the mother Tyrannosaurus dragging a still-living Maiasaura back to the nest. Rather than make the narrative about the tyrannosaur, though, Bissette channeled the thoughts of the doomed hadrosaur—she had gone out to collect food for her young, too, and still carries a mouthful of berries. When the poor Maiasaura finally dies, a mix of blood and berries flow from her mouth in a well-executed three-panel sequence that makes the reader feel the passage of time even though the images on the page are static.
Scenes like the one I just described express Bissette’s strength as a storyteller in Tyrant. The series was about the most celebrated dinosaur of all time, yet the tyrannosaurs did not wholly dominate the storyline. Readers approach the tyrannosaur families from different angles—from the perspective of prey and, in issue four, an unlucky egg-stealer—and this enriched the narrative.
There was one aspect of Tyrant that, to my mind, made it special. At the back of each issue, Bissette included a few supplemental sections featuring correspondence, movie reviews and details about the dinosaurs featured in the series. In this case, at least, the comments of paleontologists about the comic led to a positive collaboration that actually influenced the story.
At the back of issue two, Bissette included comments on the first issue from paleontologists James Farlow and Thomas Carr (the latter of whom is currently one of the foremost tyrannosaur experts in the world). Both called Bissette to task for creating a Tyrannosaurus that, as Farlow put it, “is more reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen than of more recent restorations.” Carr added further critiques, pointing out that all of the story’s dinosaurian co-stars—Styracosaurus, Maiasaura and Chirostenotes—did not actually live alongside the titular tyrant.
Bissette replied by explaining why he made these decisions, but also that he hoped to improve the general level of accuracy in the book without sacrificing the story he had in mind. Maiasaura and Styracosaurus would not appear again, but the small coelurosaur Chirostenotes remained important to the story arc and would stay. Bissette also tweaked the anatomy of the mother Tyrannosaurus in response to the comments he received—she looked a bit better in issue four than she did in issue one.
Curiously, though, a note at the back of the first issue hints that paleontology can benefit from giving artists freedom to speculate. In the “Gizzard” section (because “dinosaurs didn’t have appendixes”, the header joked) Bissette explained that he chose to give the small coelurosaur Chirostenotes a coating of fuzzy feathers. After consulting with paleontologist Mark Ryan on this issue, Bissette found out that feathered dinosaurs were generally frowned upon:
I must also note Ryan’s (and many other paleontologists’) objections to restorations of theropods with feathers. Nothing in the fossil record indicates this is probable or even possible, despite the recent romantic passions for such picturesque adornment.
Just two years after Bissette wrote this, a photo of the first feathered dinosaur found in China made the rounds at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. It was just the first of many such fossils to be found. (Other feathered dinosaurs had been found over a century before, but they were called Archaeopteryx and considered only as the very first birds until the dinosaur-avian connection was confirmed.) Today, paleontologists would criticize any artist who didn’t give a small coelurosaur like Chirostenotes a downy coat. Our understanding of dinosaurs is changing on an almost daily basis, and exquisite fossils often cause us to reconsider what we thought was improbable or impossible.
I was thrilled when I was able to track down issues of Bissette’s out-of-print series, and the notes at the end of each issue make them all the sweeter. It is one thing to see an illustration and wonder about the process by which it was created and quite another to have an artist let you into his head. The way we imagine living dinosaurs is influenced by a confluence of scientific information, artwork and popular mythology, and Tyrant offers a rare look at how all those factors came together to create an image of prehistoric life.
Up Next: I wrap up this blog series with Dinosaurs: A Celebration
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