January 6, 2012
There has never been a more influential paleoartist than Charles R. Knight. He wasn’t the first to illustrate prehistoric life, and he certainly was not the last to do so with great skill, but, for a time, he envisioned dinosaurs and other ancient creatures with such loving detail that he seemed to be sending back snapshots from lost eras only he could visit.
Science writer Richard Milner recounted Knight’s story in his visual and textual mix-tape of the artist’s work, Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. The book is not a straight biography. Even though Milner composed a detailed summary of Knight’s life for the book’s introductory section, the bulk of the glossy volume is a showroom of Knight’s art and quotes from his books and articles. A set of closing chapters covers Knight’s legacy, from efforts to restore cracking murals to the artist’s dream of a scientifically accurate dinosaur theme park, but the greater portion of the volume is a portfolio of Knight’s range and skill.
I did not know much about Knight before reading Milner’s biographical section. I imagined that Knight was simply a passionate observer of nature who committed his imagination to canvas and paper. As Milner ably demonstrates, Knight’s cherished body of work is the fruit of multiple struggles, both physical and vocational, from the time of his birth in 1874. Born with severe nearsightedness, a playtime accident when Knight was a young boy virtually robbed him of sight in his right eye. His vision continued to deteriorate during his entire life. Knight was legally blind by the end of his career, and he had to hold his face only inches from the canvas to see what he was painting.
Knight was also a finicky and often cantankerous artist who had a difficult relationship with his primary sponsor, the American Museum of Natural History. Although Knight’s initial love was illustrating living animals—he designed a bison for a 30 cent stamp and created sculptured visages of animals for the Bronx Zoo that can still be seen on some of the old buildings—in 1894 he was asked to restore the fossil mammal Entelodon for AMNH scientist Jacob Wortman. Wortman and his colleagues were thrilled with the result. It was a triumph for Knight, who had learned a great deal of anatomy from taxidermists at the museum, and paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn desperately wanted Knight to be the museum’s chief restorer of prehistoric creatures.
Neither Knight nor Osborn were easy men to work with. Knight refused to have collaborators and rejected almost all criticism. He wanted to hear only scientific corrections from Osborn, and he frequently argued with Osborn about critiques others made of his paintings. And, despite Osborn’s wishes, Knight repeatedly refused to become a museum employee. He wanted to stay a freelance artist, and this created new problems. Osborn had to raise additional funding for Knight’s work, and to do this he often wanted sketches or samples to convince patrons. Knight, however, would not budge on the work until funding was secured and his terms regarding criticism were agreed upon. Knight needed Osborn because the artist was almost perpetually broke or in debt due to poor money handling, and Osborn needed Knight because there was no finer animal artist anywhere. This was a tense alliance that almost completely broke down when Knight created a series of prehistoric murals for the better-funded Field Museum—a project similar to one Osborn had been planning to execute with Knight for the AMNH dinosaur halls. Still, the two eventually overcome their pride and remained friends, albeit ones frequently frustrated by each other.
Knight also showed off his cantankerous nature in numerous editorials. He hated news and magazine articles that made animals seem overly cute or especially vicious, although Knight probably reserved most of his hatred for modern art. Knight loathed the popularity of artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Knight thought their works were “monstrous and inexplicable creations masquerading in the name of art.” Matisse, according to Knight, couldn’t even accurately draw a bird. Knight believed that the modern art movement was primarily the product of savvy art dealers and advertisers. There was a bit of sour grapes about this. As modern art gained in popularity, Knight had an increasingly difficult time selling his own work. People were just not interested in realistic paintings of animals.
Knight’s successes were hard-won, but, as Milner’s biography illustrates, the artist could not have done anything else. Knight’s undeniable passion was painting prehistory into life. A few snippets in the book provide some insights into Knight’s process. For dinosaurs, at least, Knight would often study the mounted skeletons of the animals and then, on the basis of this framework, create a sculpture. He could then study this three-dimensional representation for the play of shadow across the body under different conditions, and from this model Knight would then begin painting. In the case of his murals, though, Knight designed the art but did not paint the actual, full-size pieces himself as Rudolph Zallinger did with the Age of Reptiles. Instead, Knight created a smaller version of the mural which was then expanded according to a grid system by painters. Knight added only touch-up details to the murals.
Those murals and various other paintings continued to inspire artists and scientists after Knight’s death in 1953. After seeing images of absolutely atrocious, cut-rate dinosaur sculptures at a park in South Dakota, Knight wanted to create his own, scientifically accurate garden of dinosaurs and appropriate, Mesozoic-type flora somewhere in Florida. Knight never attracted the investors necessary to create the park, but the idea was carried on by his friend Louis Paul Jones in the form of Sinclair Dinoland at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Likewise, Knight’s cutting comments about prehistoric mammal sculptures at the La Brea asphalt seeps in Los Angeles led the institution to eventually commission new, better sculptures after Knight’s style. Even ripoffs of Knight’s work influenced culture. When Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World initially ran in serial form, illustrations based heavily on Knight’s paintings accompanied the text, and the film version of the story featured a now-defunct horned dinosaur genus, Agathaumas, that was clearly based on a painting Knight created with some tips from an ailing Edward Drinker Cope.
Knight was a brilliant and taciturn artist. He constantly battled his boss, artistic society and his own eyesight to create intricate scenes inspired by old bones. In doing so, he elevated realistic, scientific representations of life through the ages into a lovely artistic hybrid. Even as new discoveries about dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, and other creatures make some of Knight’s illustrations seem dated, his paintings still carry the reflection of someone who joyfully reveled in the story of life.
December 8, 2011
Who wrote the first dinosaur novel? For a long time, I thought the answer was Arthur Conan Doyle. His 1912 adventure yarn The Lost World set the standard for dinosaur-inhabited literature—at least until Jurassic Park came along—and Doyle’s story has lived on in at least six film adaptations that run the gamut from landmark film to cinema trash. But contrary to what I had previously believed, Doyle wasn’t the first author to prominently feature dinosaurs in a novel.
Tracking the pathways of dinosaurs through fiction is a difficult task. Contrary to their media dominance today, dinosaurs did not have a monopoly on prehistoric fiction during the time when authors began to incorporate fossil discoveries into their stories in the mid-19th century. Giant ground sloths, mammoths, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and other prehistoric animals were more popular choices for emerging science fiction and horror tales, perhaps because these animals were much better known. (The first dinosaurs to be described, in the 1820s—Megalosaurus and Iguanodon—were identified from fragments and were often reconstructed as nothing more than gargantuan lizards until the anatomist Richard Owen coined the name “dinosaur” and gave the creatures a makeover in 1842.)
Consider Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. As described by dinosaur aficionado Allen Debus in his review Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction, Verne’s novel was effectively a walking tour through prehistoric time modeled closely on Louis Figuier’s recently published prehistoric survey The Earth Before the Deluge. Yet there were no dinosaurs. Marine reptiles, prehistoric elephants, pterosaurs and even primordial algae all make appearances, but there’s not an Iguanodon or Cetiosaurus to be seen. In short-form fiction, too, authors often turned to other fossil muses. Writer C.J. Cutliffe Hyne resurrected a carnivorous crocodile in a cave for his 1898 story “The Lizard,” and in 1910 Arthur Conan Doyle characterized “The Terror of Blue John Gap” as a monstrous descendant of prehistoric cave bears that had somehow been loosed on the modern countryside.
Dinosaurs, if they appeared in fiction at all, typically made fleeting appearances. In the opening of his 1852 novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens used a Megalosaurus metaphor—the unpleasant weather had turned the streets in mud wallows better suited to prehistoric life than travelers of Victorian-era England. (When Dickens wrote this, the theropod dinosaur was still considered to be an “elephantine lizard” and had not been given its more modern form by Owen’s scientific rival Thomas Henry Huxley.) Sadly, Dickens did not keep the dinosaur on as a character. Bleak House would surely be a very different novel if he had.
Authors may not have fully realized the science-fiction potential of dinosaurs until 1901. In that year author Frank Mackenzie Savile published his adventure tale Beyond the Great South Wall about explorers searching for signs of the lost Mayan civilization. That’s not all the adventurers find. The crew is menaced by Cay, a huge, reptilian carnivore revered as a god by the Mayans. Savile describes the monster at the outset of chapter 12:
High up the slope of the mountain-side, lurching slowly across the bare, bleak slabs of granite, was a Beast, and he was like unto nothing known outside the frenzy of delirium. Swartly green was his huge lizard-like body, and covered with filthy excrescences of a livid hue. His neck was the lithe neck of a boa-constrictor, but glossy as with a sweat of oil. A coarse, heavy, serrated tail dragged and lolluped along the rocks behind him, leaving in its wake a glutinous, snail-like smear. Four great feet or flippers paddled and slushed beside—rather than under—this mass of living horror, urging it lingeringly and remorselessly toward us. The great neck swayed and hovered before it, poising the little malignant head. The horny eyelids winked languidly over the deepset wicked eyes. The lean, red tongue, slavering over the thin, hide-like lips, wagged out at us as if in mockery. The teeth, and the nails in the webbed, puddy feet, were yellow and tusklike, and a skinny dewlap rustled as it crawled across the stones.
Though certainly embellished, Savile did not invent a new monster for his story. In a footnote, Savile assures readers that this was the last dinosaur of its kind—a living Brontosaurus excelsus that had apparently acquired a taste for seals and humans. Since the dinosaur did not simply pop in for a cameo, but was a real and persistent threat to Savile’s protagonists, the invention of the ravenous “Cay” may mark Beyond the Great South Wall as the major literary debut of dinosaurs.
And Savile wasn’t the only writer to beat Doyle to the dinosaurian punch. In 1910, the French horror and science-fiction writer Jules Lermina published L’Effrayante Aventure, recently translated and republished as Panic in Paris. While this strange novel involves the mysterious death of a boxer, flying machines and the invention of a new element, prehistoric creatures also show up as a prominent threat to the “city of light.” Lermina’s heroes discover numerous “preanthropic animals” frozen in a cavern beneath the Parisian streets. There are pterosaurs, mammoths, crocodiles and, of course, dinosaurs. Included in the cold menagerie is “a brontosaurus, the giant of the dinosaurs, with a length of more than fifteen meters and a weight of more than fifteen tons, which was lying full length, its long neck raising its minuscule head into the air.” The cavern seems to be the most authentic museum imaginable—the actual creatures, locked in place—at least until the Triceratops, Iguanodon and other prehistoric creatures thaw out and take a stroll through the city streets.
Regardless of who featured dinosaurs first, the works of Savile, Lermina and Doyle reflect a growing fascination with prehistory and the possibility that ancient life might survive in isolated, little-explored habitats. After all, paleontology was still a young science that had only just begun to catalog prehistoric life and understand the grand pattern of evolution. New discoveries raised as many questions as they answered, and the bones of giant dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus and Triceratops gave writers made-to-order monsters more fantastic than anything imaginable. Even though dinosaurs had come to be objects of scientific study and attention by the time Savile, Lermina and Doyle set about writing their novels, these authors and others continued a tradition that various human cultures have been carrying on for centuries. The peculiar bones in the earth raised questions about the nature of life and time—and Deep Time is an inspirational well for storytelling that never runs dry.
Update: Sometimes I like to be wrong. In the comments below, reader Robert Lebling notes that dinosaurs played a significant role in a novel even earlier than Savile’s Beyond the Great South Wall. The book is A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, written in serial form by James De Mille and published as a novel in 1888. This was a “lost world” tale that came more than a decade before Savile’s tale and more than two decades before Arthur Conan Doyle’s book. Rather than being a unique invention of a single author, the idea of there being a lost land filled with prehistoric creatures and ancient civilizations was a common literary device that plenty of writers took advantage of.
August 29, 2011
The superheroes of the Marvel comic universe are pretty cool—Iron Man, the Hulk, Wolverine and many others are enduring favorites—but do you know what would make them even more awesome? If they were dinosaurs.
Artist David Resto has mashed up some of the most beloved Marvel comic characters with classic dinosaurs, and the results look like what my dinosaur-loving, comic-collecting 10-year-old self dreamed of. The roguish Gambit as the crested predator Dilophosaurus, Captain America as the shield-headed Triceratops, Daredevil as the horned carnivore Carnotaurus—the amalgamations of pop culture and prehistory Resto has created look worthy of their own one-shot special issue, at least.
I recently asked Resto a few questions about the creation of his dinosaurian superheroes.
Brian Switek: What inspired the creation of superhero dinosaurs?
David Resto: Childhood fascinations, really. Dinosaurs, Superheros… it just made sense for me to get the two together. I was even contemplating doing turtles as superheroes, but somebody got to those way before I did. Ha.
BS: How did you choose which superhero should be represented by which dinosaur? Do the dinosaur choices reflect something about each superhero?
DR: For the first round of dinosaurs, The Avengersaurs, I tried to incorporate the superheros element into these terrible lizards. Iron Brontosaurus was the first and most random. When I doodled him out from the reference, he already looked like he was taking flight from rockets at his feet. This spawned the rest. The bone shield of a Triceratops for the Captain. The primal anger of a Tyrannosaurus rex and his miniature Compsognathus, Bruce Banner, at his feet. Lastly, the almighty Mjolnir at the base of Ankylothaurus‘ tail in the adaptation to Thor. After the first set, I just wanted to incorporate my favorite characters to my equally as favorite superhero. I think Stegolossus could be my absolute favorite one that I’ve drawn up.
BS: I write about this topic so often, I have to ask. I noticed that some of the dinosaurs that should have feathers—like Wolveraptor and Nightcrawlimimus—don’t have any. Are they just hidden under the costumes?
DR: Ah, yes. I’ve caught a lot of slack for the Velociraptor and the use of Brontosaurus. The way I went about it is exactly as I did with my childhood. I grew up with these dinosaurs as I represented them. The Spielberg faux pas of Velociraptor is what’s engrained in popularity nowadays. But then again, just like Wolverine and other comic book character adaptations, there is a lot left to interpretation and sheer fun. I suppose if there’s some sort of dinosaur/political correctness organization, they can persuade me to revise these illustrations to best fit their models.
BS: What references did you use to create the dinosaur images?
DR: All of my dino references were discovered online. Google searches and what not. I have linked to the references on each dinosaur through my Flickr and there are also a couple of screencasts that show my process, from laying out the references of both dinos and superheros, to a minimalist trace and layering of the superhero attire. As for the backgrounds, those are fairly abstract. Watching over the screencasts, one can witness first hand the spontaneity of them.
BS: Finally, are there any more superhero dinosaurs on the way? Or even supervillain dinosaurs?
DR: Well, I didn’t expect the dinosaurs to be as popular as they are. The first month I illustrated the majority of them and burned myself out a bit. Since then, I’ve graduated from college and started working full-time and keeping up on other hobbies that I haven’t been able to get the art flow back. I’d like to go the villain route as every superhero needs its counterpart. For now though, I’m trying to get the business end of these guys together before I take another step. I want these to be in good quality and taste for people around the world to enjoy. I’m in the process of perfecting posters and maybe even T-shirts very soon. So, stay tuned.
More Superhero Dinosaurs can be found at the official website, where posters of each are also available.
August 16, 2011
A few months ago I took at look back at Jim Lawson’s dinosaur-centered series Paleo. This wasn’t like Disney’s Dinosaur, but a bloodier collection of tales about survival in the Late Cretaceous of North America. The comic’s run ended a few years back, that is, until Lawson started posting pages from his previously unpublished story “Loner” on the web.
As you might guess from the title, “Loner” is the tale of a solitary tyrannosaur. He is one hate-filled beast. In the first few pages alone our star contemplates devouring the young of a nearby female tyrannosaur for no other reason than to quell his inner turmoil. Not exactly a sympathetic hero.
I won’t say more about the story here—you can check it out for yourself as the the tale continues. In regard to the artwork, though, “Loner” gets off to a rough start. The artwork is not as detailed as that in the original run of the series, and there are a lot of odd, sharp angles on the dinosaurs. The tyrannosaurs look pointy in places they shouldn’t. It’s also difficult to tell the individual animals apart—the book is filled with tyrannosaurs, each looks almost the same as any other. Thank goodness there are text panels to explain who’s who. Given the general lack of new dinosaur comics lately, though, I’m still glad to see Paleo back for another round.
[Hat-tip to Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs for tipping me off to Lawson's blog.]
June 24, 2011
The rocky, shrub-covered landscape of the American West looks like it should be home to living dinosaurs. Even though Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus and many, many other dinosaurs inhabited a variety of environments quite different from the landscape as it is today, the places where dinosaur bones are found feel as if prehistoric creatures should still be making their homes there. The very geological formations which contain the dinosaurs create beautiful and strange landscapes of crumpled and shifted rock dotted with twisted junipers and fragrant sagebrush—these wild places have an air of the ancient to them, and it is difficult to resist imagining an Allosaurus lurking around the massive rock fins of a place like Arches National Monument or a Diplodocus set against the backdrop of Dinosaur National Monument. Sharon Farber drew out this idea in her short story “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi,” in which the feuding 19th century paleontologists E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh compete for a modern-day dinosaur. New author J.P. Carlson has followed suit with his novel Rex Riders.
Much like the graphic novel Tommysaurus Rex, Carlson’s book is not so much a dinosaur tale as it is a coming-of-age story. Zeke Calhoun, a 14-year-old boy living on his uncle Jesse’s ranch, is out of place in late 19th century Texas. Talkative and whiny, he often gets on his uncle’s nerves, and he stirs up a mess of trouble when he tries to return a rich rancher’s prize stallion and ends up looking like a horse thief in the process. Zeke’s mistake plays right into a long-running rivalry between his uncle and the wealthy rancher Dante D’Allesandro, but just when it looks like the teen has ruined his uncle’s business, a serious of fortuitous events gives him the chance to save the ranch and prove himself.
Zeke’s adventure, played out in three acts, is what you might get if you threw The Valley of Gwangi, The Lost World and One Million Years B.C. in a blender with just a dash of Cowboys & Aliens. Cowboys, dinosaurs, aliens and prehistoric people all have their own roles to play, starting with a Triceratops that rampages through the middle of town. Things get even stranger when Zeke stumbles across a small Tyrannosaurus outfitted with riding gear and the wounded, tough-skinned humanoid who controls the dinosaur, and this discovery draws Zeke, his family and his friends into a dangerous conflict between the inhabitants of a prehistoric world and the nefarious D’Allesandro.
Rex Riders contains plenty of complicated plot elements, but Carlson admirably balances them as the plot unfolds. The focus on Zeke’s personal development is the anchor for the story (though the reader does lose sight of the main protagonist for a while during the second act). Dinosaurs and numerous action scenes liven things up, but most play a role in getting Zeke to realize something about himself rather than just being there for their own sake. A few black and white illustrations by Jim Calafiore are a welcome addition to the book as well, particularly since they mix modern restorations of dinosaurs with a classic, Ray Harryhausen feel. There was only one aspect of the book I felt disappointed by: a group of native warriors called the Cragnon receive almost no description, making it difficult to imagine what they look like.
Naturally Rex Riders leaves the door wide open for a sequel, but the books also stands well on its own. Young sci-fi and dinosaur fans will almost certainly love it, and the book reminded me of many of the classic stop-motion dinosaur movies I spent countless afternoons watching when I was a kid. If you like Westerns but wonder what it would be like to replace cattle with Triceratops and horses with Tyrannosaurus, definitely give Rex Riders a look.