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.]
May 26, 2011
According to Robert Mash, author of How to Keep Dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex is the antithesis of everything a good pet should be. “Literally awful and almost certainly needing a special insurance policy” to keep, the king of the tyrant dinosaurs would be nothing more than a bloody catastrophe waiting to happen. That hasn’t stopped dinosaur fans from imagining what it might be like to keep a pet tyrannosaur, though, and that childhood fantasy was played out in Doug TenNapel’s 2005 graphic novel Tommysaurus Rex.
TenNapel’s story starts out with a sadly familiar tragedy—a young boy named Ely loses his best friend when his dog is struck and killed by a car. In an attempt to take the boy’s mind off the accident, his parents send him to stay on his grandfather’s farm for the summer. Insult is added to emotional injury when a gang of bullies assaults Ely, but he quickly finds a new friend and protector. Locked away in the recesses of a cave is a Tyrannosaurus rex—a friendly dinosaur that just happens to have the same mannerisms as Ely’s lost dog.
Naturally, the Tyrannosaurus immediately shows off why big, carnivorous dinosaurs would not make good pets. The predator gobbles up a cow, plows through fences, gives a few houses some impromptu remodeling, and leaves king-sized piles of dino scat all over the local park. Fortunately for Ely, though, the mayor and other townsfolk allow the dinosaur to stay, as long as the boy provides some better training for the prehistoric beast. Almost everyone seems mollified, save for one spiky-haired bully who has it out for Ely and his dinosaur.
But the story is not really about what it would be like to keep a Tyrannosaurus as a pet. The dinosaur is one big MacGuffin—an object that keeps the story moving along as the main characters develop. The dinosaur is there to teach Ely about loss, responsibility and, ultimately, sacrifice as his relationship with the town bully changes. There are a few cute moments specific to the dinosaur—legendary stop-motion film artist Ray Harryhausen makes a cameo to sketch the tyrannosaur—but the story is about Ely beginning to gain some emotional maturity more than a fantastical tale of a life with a dinosaur.
Drawn in black-and-white, TenNapel’s art is closer to that of Calvin and Hobbes than dinosaur-focused comics like Paleo or The Age of Reptiles. That doesn’t mean that TenNapel traded accuracy for a more distinctive personal style, though. The story’s Tyrannosaurus isn’t a plodding, Godzilla-like monster, but a lithe and agile creature that fits modern restorations of the famous dinosaur. Of course, a few embellishments were needed to make the carnivorous dinosaur a sympathetic character; for instance, the eyes and brow ridges of the dinosaur move to give the gargantuan pet emotional depth.
Tommysaurus Rex is not a detailed exploration of what it would be like to keep a pet Tyrannosaurus. It is not meant to be, and that’s a good thing. If Ely’s tyrannosaur had acted like the genuine article—one of the largest predators ever to walk the earth—the boy’s relationship with the dinosaur would have probably ended very abruptly. A flash of teeth, a crunch, and the book would have been finished. I am glad TenNapel took a different route!
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.
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