July 12, 2012
A few months back, I mentioned a comic-movie tie-in that sounds like a shameless cash grab – Dinosaurs vs Aliens. Sadly, the titular extraterrestrials are not the parasitic, acid-spitting ALIENS of horror movie fame – imagine what a Triceratops chestburster would have looked like! – but super-intelligent robo-squid who want to wrest control of the earth from the indigenous dinosaurs. Up until yesterday, I had only seen the promotional hype for this monstrous mash-up. Then Part 1 of the comic arrived at my door.
The front matter makes the origin and intent of the story crystal clear. Barry Sonnenfeld, director of the comic-book adaptation Men in Black and its sequels, wanted to organize a graphic novel as a dry run for a feature film. (Rumor has it that there are big plans to turn this story into a cgi-filled blockbuster.) The dinosaur-meets-alien idea came out of the director’s interest in manifest destiny and the atrocities visited on Native Americans by white settlers and explorers who took western North America for themselves. The equation is simple. Sonnenfeld’s aliens are the equivalent of white settlers, and the dinosaurs – daubed with war paint and feathers – are the Native Americans in this alternate history tale.
Scribe Grant Morrison fleshed out Sonnenfeld’s idea, and artist Mukesh Singh brought the tale to life. The result is a glossy detailed book that sets the stage for this prehistoric war of the worlds.
The first chapter is tight and well-executed. Morrison uses a recorded message from one of the alien explorers – discovered in the aftermath of the epic battle the comic describes – to simultaneously explain the alien plan and characterize the primary dinosaur cast. As the alien regretfully describes their plans and hopes for the new world, the dinosaurs act out their own drama according to the narrative. In this first part, the stories of the aliens and dinosaurs dovetail. Since the dinosaurs don’t speak, though, Singh is mostly responsible for telling their story. His scary, osteoderm-covered dinosaurs are further augmented by feathers, paint, and fancy headdresses, and while not totally accurate, each kind of dinosaur that appears is immediately recognizable. Big, sharp-toothed tyrannosaurs, spinosaurs, and allosauroids are the dinosaur leaders, but there are sauropods, ankylosaurs, pachycephalosaurs, and others in the background.
Singh maintains the sharp, beautiful contrast between our Mesozoic heroes and the technologically superior aliens in chapter two, but the narrative starts to slip. Morrison shifts from the taut, straightforward storytelling he established in the first chapter into a purple, flowery style. “When we sounded the arrival horns, it must have seemed as if the sky tore open and rained cathedral bells,” one panel gushes, and another describes how the invading aliens trailed “flags of rainbow vapor, on streamers of cloud.” It’s all a bit too much, especially when Singh beautifully illustrates the scenes on his own.
Even the art eventually falters. Singh’s illustrations in chapter 3 aren’t anywhere as crisp or details as in the first two sections, and here we start to meet awkward, poorly-drawn dinosaurs that look as if they were dashed off in a race to meet publication.
Despite these issues, Dinosaurs vs Aliens is not as corny as I expected. The ‘manifest destiny’ metaphor feels a little heavy-handed at times, but, so far, the parallel with human history keeps the story moving forward at a brisk pace. Since the Part 1 is primarily concerned with filling in background and setting the scene, though, the real test of the graphic novel will be when Sonnenfeld, Morrison and Singh do with the conflict they have created. The premise is in place, and both sides are poised to strike at each other, but the war is yet to come.
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