November 30, 2012
The dinosaurs I grew up with were both intensely exciting and incredibly dull. They were creatures unlike anything I had ever seen, but their drab, scaly flesh was always fit snugly to their bones with little embellishment. For decades, this has been the paradox of prehistoric restorations. Reconstructed skeletons are gloriously magnificent and introduce us to strange creatures that we never could imagined if we did not already know they existed. Yet the art of reviving these organisms has often been incredibly conservative. Dinosaurs, in particular, have often been “shrink-wrapped”–their skin tightly pulled around a minimalist layer of muscle distributed over the skeleton. This may be part of why dinosaur restorations look so weird. As John Conway, C.M. Kosemen, Darren Naish and Scott Harman argue in their new book All Yesterdays, no living lizard, fish, bird or mammal adheres to such a limited “skin on the bones” fashion. Dinosaurs were not only skeletally distinctive, but they undoubtedly looked stranger and behaved more bizarrely than we have ever imagined. The recently-published Dinosaur Art started to realize these possibilities, but All Yesterdays goes even further in melding science and speculation about dinosaur biology.
On a superficial level, All Yesterdays is a gorgeous collection of speculative artwork. Divided into two sections–the first featuring Mesozoic life in new or little-seen vignettes, and the second imagining how we would restore modern animals if we only had partial skeletons to work from–the book features some of the most wonderful paleoart I’ve ever seen. Scott Hartman’s crisp skeletal reconstructions form the framework from which Conway and Kosemen play with muscle, fat and flesh, and, following Naish’s introductory comments, Kosemen provides scientific commentary about how each illustration is not quite so outlandish as it seems. A curious Camptosaurus approaching an Allosaurus at rest is a reminder that, much like modern animals, prey and predators were not constantly grappling with each other, just as a snoozing rendition of the Tyrannosaurus “Stan” shows that even the scariest dinosaurs had to snooze. The gallery’s feathered dinosaurs are especially effective at demonstrating the fluffy weirdness of the Mesozoic. Conway’s peaceful scene of feather draped Therizinosaurus browsing in a tree grove is the best rendition of the giant herbivore I’ve ever seen, and his fluffy, snowbound Leaellynasaura are unabashedly adorable.
The second half of the book continues the same theme, but in reverse. How would artists draw a cat, an elephant or a baboon if we only had skeletons or bone fragments? And what would those scraps suggest about the biology of long-lost animals? If there are paleontologists in the future, and they have no other source of information about our world, how will they restore the animals alive today? They might have no knowledge of the fur, fat, feathers and other structures that flesh out modern species, creating demonic visions of reptilian cats, eel-like whales and vampire hummingbirds.
Working in concert, the two sections will give casual readers and paleoartists a jolt. While some might gripe about Todd Marshall adding too many spikes and dewlaps to his dinosaurs, or Luis Rey envisioning deinonychosaurs at play, the fact of the matter is that dinosaurs probably had an array of soft tissue structures that made them look far stranger than the toned-down restorations we’re used to. As All Yesterdays presents in various scenes, maybe sauropods liked to play in the mud, perhaps hadrosaurs were chubbier than we ever imagined and, as depicted in one nightmare-inducing panel, Stegosaurus could have had monstrous genitals. None of these scenarios are supported by direct evidence, but they are all within the realm of possibility.
More than a gallery of speculative art, All Yesterdays is an essential, inspirational guide to any aspiring paleoartist. Those who restore prehistoric life are limited by the evidence at hand, this is true, but “more conservative” does not mean “more accurate.” Using comparisons with modern animals, artists have far more leeway than they have ever exercised in imagining what prehistoric life was like. We’ve seen enough Deinonychus packs tearing apart Tenontosaurus, and far too many malnourished dinosaurs. We need more fat, feathers, accessory adornments and scenes from quieter moments in dinosaur lives that do not involve blood and spilled viscera. Professional paleoartists are beginning to embrace these ideas–Jason Brougham’s recent restoration of Microraptor is an appropriately fluffy, bird-like animal rather than the flying monster Naish and collaborators decry–but All Yesterdays is a concentrated dose of prehistoric possibilities that are being artistically explored.
Some of the book’s restorations may turn out to look quite silly. As lovely as Conway’s rendition is, I still don’t buy the “bison-back” idea for high-spined dinosaurs such as Ouranosaurus. Then again, depending on what we discover in the future, some of the illustrations might seem quite prescient. The important thing is that All Yesterdays demonstrates how to push the boundaries of what we imagine while still drawing on scientific evidence. The book is a rare treat in that each section explicitly lays the inspiration for each speculative vision, providing references for those who want to dig deeper.
If anything, All Yesterdays shows that we should not be afraid of imagination in science. Even though we know far more about dinosaur biology and anatomy than ever before, there are still substantial gaps in our understanding. In these places, where bones might not have much to tell us, science meets speculation. The result is not anything-goes garishness, but an exploration of possibilities. Somewhere within that murky range of alternatives, we may start to approach what dinosaurs were truly like.
You can purchase All Yesterdays in any of its various formats here.
August 27, 2012
When I wanted to review Jim Lawson’s influential dinosaur comic series Paleo last year, I had to track down the paperback anthology of the first six installments and the miscellaneous issues. The books were hard to find and only available as rare, used copies. But, fortunately for pen and ink dinosaur fans, Lawson has now revived his Cretaceous series for free on the web.
For those unfamiliar with the comic, Paleo is an anthology of stories about dinosaurs that once roamed Cretaceous North America. Huge tyrannosaurs and sickle-clawed dromaeosaurs are the unquestionable stars of the series, but Lawson has picked various protagonists through the issues–from the dome-headed Stegoceras to a Mesozoic dragonfly. And while (thankfully) the dinosaurs don’t talk, Lawson gives each Cretaceous creature a personality and set of particular motivation. Paleo is like Walking With Dinosaurs if we could get inside the dinosaurs’ heads.
According to the site’s intro post, Paleo: The Webcomic will cover the entire run of the original series and the “Loner” storyline and include previously unpublished art. Lawson intends to add a page to the site twice a week, and all of them can be viewed on the iPhone, to boot. There’s already a good deal of material to check out–Issue 1 is already posted with Issue 2 well on its way. It’s great to revisit the Mesozoic through Lawson’s work again, and I look forward to seeing some of his untold tales from the latest Cretaceous.
August 8, 2012
Museums are where dinosaurs rest, but art is where dinosaurs live again. No press release about a newly-discovered dinosaur, or some new fact about an already-known dinosaur’s lifestyle, is complete with a beautifully-rendered artist’s restoration. And dinosaur art keeps improving. Since the time of the Dinosaur Renaissance in the late 20th century, artists have taken ever more care in rendering the prehistoric creatures and the habitats they called home. Truly, dinosaurs have never looked better, and the new coffee table book Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart showcases some of the best fossil restorations by today’s foremost paleoartists.
When I first received Dinosaur Art in the mail, I wondered how it was going to set itself apart from similar books. The glossy Dinosaur Imagery showcased some of the most exquisite dinosaur art created since the 1970s, Allen Debus’ Paleoimagery tracked the changing images of dinosaurs during the past century and Jane Davidson’s A History of Paleontology Illustration documented the scientific and popular aspects of accurately portraying dinosaurs. Where Dinosaur Art differs, I found, is that the book puts the emphasis on the artists themselves–from their favorite prehistoric creatures to the techniques they use. And while veteran paleoillustrators such as the incomparable Doug Henderson and the highly-influential John Sibbick are included in the book, the focus is on relative newcomers who have only recently started to shape our image of dinosaurs.
Dinosaur Art speaks to two audiences. If you can’t get enough restorations of prehistoric life–the book focuses on dinosaurs, but also includes ancient mammals and other non-dinosaurs–then Dinosaur Art is an absolute must-have. Even though I had seen much of the artwork before, I didn’t fully appreciate Raúl Martín‘s gorgeous Mesozoic landscapes or Todd Marshall‘s spiky, intricately-detailed dinosaurs until I saw them laid out in high-definition right in front of me. There are even a few fold-out panels, showing the stunning murals by artists such as Julius Csotonyi. Dinosaur Art is an absolute pleasure to pore over, and almost every page is a window into a vanished world.
The book is more than a gallery, though. For many aspiring dinosaur artists, the artist interviews make this book an essential resource. Each artist describes their process, preferred materials, whether digital or more traditional, and how they fill out creatures that we often only know from bones. Many of the questions asked to the artists are consistent from one interview to the next, which easily contrasts the styles and personalities of each. While Gregory S. Paul‘s answers are short and curt, the interviews with Douglas Henderson and Luis Rey feel warmer and more conversational. Together, the lavish art and interviews will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of great paleoartists.
But there’s another reason why Dinosaur Art is an essential book for any dinosaur fan. The collection is a printed milestone of what we currently understand about dinosaur lives, and will act as a baseline as our knowledge of prehistoric life changes. Artists have been altering their work and racing to keep up with the latest discoveries for well over a century; that trend will almost certainly continue. As we discover new dinosaurs and investigate the biology of those we already know, dinosaur art will continue to evolve.
Dinosaur Art is set to debut on September 4, 2012.
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.
April 20, 2012
Dinosaurs will fight just about anyone. That’s what movies and comics have taught me, anyway. No surprise, then, that we will soon see a science fiction mash-up that has been due for some time now: Dinosaurs vs. Aliens.
The graphic novel’s premise is exactly what it sounds like. Aliens visit the Mesozoic, and the dinosaurs don’t take too kindly to the invasion. To level the playing field, comic creator Grant Morrison made the dinosaurs extra intelligent. A smattering a preview art even shows dinosaurs that apparently decorated themselves with bone weapons and feather headdresses. Mercifully, though, Morrison’s dinosaurs don’t talk. Instead, much like the creatures in Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles series, the dinosaurs communicate through body language. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Morrison said, “In fact, imagine The Artist, but with bloody, razor-sharp fangs!”
And that’s not all. Even though the graphic novel hasn’t even hit shelves yet, the story is being transmuted into a screenplay for a feature film. Multiple reports and interviews mention that Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld is working with Morrison on a big-screen adaptation, although there is no certainty that we’ll ever see a Tyrannosaurus chomp into a flying saucer in the theater. The “versus” hook is already pretty worn, and last year’s Cowboys & Aliens—also adapted from comics—was not the awesome blockbuster that Hollywood executives were hoping for. I think dinosaurs have a bit more cultural pull than cowboys, but silent dinosaurs versus alien hordes might be too silly and contrived to make it to the big screen. Might this be the next great dinosaur film? I’m skeptical.