January 3, 2012
Of all the dinosaur paintings ever composed, Rudolph Zallinger’s Age of Reptiles is one of the most influential. I can think of no other work of paleo-art that so intricately restores dinosaurs as they were known to us during the mid-20th century, simultaneously representing them within the ongoing march of time. In fact, this 110-foot-long, 16-foot-high illustration was so powerful that it inspired the scientists who would eventually create a more vibrant image of prehistoric life. Robert Bakker, one of the prime forces behind the “Dinosaur Renaissance” which replaced earlier images of drab, plodding dinosaurs, has often cited his encounter with a scaled-down version of Zallinger’s painting in Life magazine as the spark for his interest in dinosaurs. Later, as a graduate student at Yale University, Bakker saw the original in the school’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, but what he and other researchers were finding was startlingly different from Zallinger’s imagery. Based upon the changes that Bakker helped foment, it is no wonder that Bakker would later recall walking through the museum hall and thinking, “there’s something very wrong with our dinosaurs.”
But we shouldn’t deride Zallinger’s work as an outdated vestige of crusty scholarship that saw dinosaurs as bloated reptiles. The Age of Reptiles mural is an artistic masterpiece and was, for its time, perhaps the most scientifically accurate representation of the Mesozoic world ever created. This combination of art and science took years to execute.
The mural’s story started with seaweed. That was what young Zallinger, a senior at Yale’s School of Fine Arts in 1942, spent a fair amount of his time illustrating for the director of the school’s natural history museum, Albert Parr. But that wasn’t the only project Parr had to offer art students. He wanted to fill his museum’s gray, empty wall spaces with representations of dinosaurs in the flesh, and when he asked arts professor Lewis York if he know of anyone skilled enough to create the restorations, York immediately tapped Zallinger on the basis of his student’s prior work for Parr. On March 1, 1942, Zallinger was made an official museum staff member so he could undertake the project full-time.
Zallinger himself explained what happened next in his painting’s official interpretive pamphlet, The Age of Reptiles: The Art and Science of Rudolph Zallinger’s Great Dinosaur Mural at Yale. Parr had originally wanted a series of individual paintings depicting different dinosaurs in the hall. As he pondered how to divide the wall space, however, Zallinger came up with a different idea—to use the whole wall to make a “panorama of time.” This way the different creatures could be placed into a continuity and would not represent isolated snippets of prehistory.
With the format established, Zallinger was rapidly schooled in vertebrate paleontology, paleobotany and anatomy by the museum’s experts. The animals had to be scientifically accurate, their environments appropriately stocked with plants from the right era, and the whole fossil cast had to fit together in an aesthetically pleasing style. Accuracy was of extreme important, but so was making the painting visually appealing to visitors. In 1943, Zallinger created an early sketch on paper of what he had in mind. Virtually all the prehistoric creatures that would appear in the final version were already present, albeit in different poses and positions.
The artist also faced the technical decision of how to execute the mural. Zallinger decided on a fresco secco, a classic method in which pigments are combined with egg and water and are painted on dried plaster that is moistened at the time of application. As Zallinger composed each successive rendition of the mural, the space he was going to paint on was prepared and covered in plaster. What is remarkable is how early Zallinger arrived at what became the final layout for his Mesozoic panorama. While the fine details of the plants and animals changed with each ever-more-detailed version, their general shapes and poses were established by the time Zallinger created a 1943 “cartoon” version of the mural on rag paper.
Strangely, one of the early paintings arguably became more famous than the actual mural itself. In the same year, prior to the start of the work on the wall, Zallinger created a small-scale version of the mural. This miniature version is the one that was later printed in books, on posters and as a part of other dinosaur memorabilia. If you have seen the Age of Reptiles before, chances are you saw it in this lower-resolution format.
Actual work on the wall mural began in October of 1943. It took three and a half years to complete. The finished detail is amazing. Working on a mural of such immense scale, Zallinger was able to beautifully render aspects as fine as individual dinosaur scales and the veins in a dragonfly’s wings. Visitors watched this process as it happened—the hall was open while Zallinger worked.
The Age of Reptiles is a true work of art. It is not, as W.J.T. Mitchell once suggested of paleo-art as a whole in The Last Dinosaur Book, kitsch or kid’s stuff. Zallinger’s mural was scientifically accurate for its day, but each individual piece fit into a flowing, unbroken landscape ultimately closed off by the grim reaper of extinction (represented by a churning volcano). The literal and abstract were combined into one accurate image. And this isn’t just me defending my beloved dinosaurs from what I feel is a muddled attack on scientific illustration from the humanities. In Zallinger’s account, art history expert Daniel Varney Thompson called the mural “the most important one since the 15th century.” Zallinger himself felt this might be an overstatement, but Thompson was not the only artistic critic with compliments.
The mural’s official pamphlet contains a coda by Yale’s own Vincent Scully, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art in Architecture, about the artistic weight of Zallinger’s accomplishment. While someone like me looks at the painting and sees prehistory, Scully saw traditional artistic techniques and concepts (in particular those of 15th century painter Cennino Cennini). As Scully writes:
It is fair to suppose that Cennino d’Adrea Cennini of Colle di Val d’Elsa would have been surprised at the uses to which Zallinger put the techniques of painting he so lovingly described. No Adam and Eve but Eryops and Diplovertebron occupy the Carboniferous Garden in Zallinger’s mural, and long before the pharaoh, Tyrannosaurus is king.
While Scully does not dwell on this point, I think there is something significant here. Artists of past eras were often celebrated for creating images that were considered to come from history, whether religious or secular. Why is a carefully rendered image of the Garden of Eden art, while an exquisitely detailed depiction of Jurassic life is derided by some as juvenile junk? Are the arts so conceited that they cannot possibly allow natural science in for fear that the dinosaurs will overrun the place?
Not all renderings of dinosaurs are fine art, but there are some that we should not feel ashamed of calling fine art due to the skill required in the composition. In fact, restorations of prehistory may be even more difficult than what we traditionally consider fine art—the piece not only has to be executed within artistic conventions, but it must also speak to a natural reality. The Age of Reptiles is one such piece—a celebration of time that melds historic artistic concepts with the story of a lost world.
April 5, 2011
Yesterday’s post kicked off my look back at dinosaurs that stomped, roared and chomped their way through comics with Jim Lawson’s Paleo. Rather than placing dinosaurs in the modern era or sending people back to the Cretaceous, Lawson’s stories stood out because he considered dinosaurs in their own world. He wasn’t the first to do so. Other artists have interpreted Mesozoic life if their own unique ways, including Ricardo Delgado in Age of Reptiles.
While Paleo was a collection of one-shot stories that changed characters with every issue, the collected Age of Reptiles covers three limited series published over more than 15 years, each featuring different dinosaurian stars. The series kicked off in 1993 with a tale of warring Deinonychus and Tyrannosaurus (“Tribal Warfare”), was followed in 1997 by a story of a young Allosaurus out for revenge against a pack of Ceratosaurus (“The Hunt”) and recently re-appeared as a visual narrative about the travels of an immense dinosaur herd (“The Journey”).
Delgado’s storytelling style is entirely visual. Unlike Paleo, Tyrant and Dinosaurs: A Celebration, there is no text to guide the reader or tell you what a particular animal is thinking or feeling. This gives the stories a more cinematic flow, as if you boiled down a documentary about prehistoric life into a series of frames. But early on, it also caused Delgado to make his dinosaurs slightly anthropomorphic. The Deinonychus pack in “Tribal Warfare” is especially expressive, wearing grimaces of shock and fear that would have been impossible for the real animals. These little flourishes are absent from “The Journey,” though, and this latest installment in the series is stronger for it—the dinosaurs in this book look more like real animals.
The artistic style varies from book to book as well. In the first book the colors are flat and bright—featuring horned dinosaurs in clashing greens and yellows, and a Saltasaurus with a rainbow neck—while “The Hunt” has a glossier look in which the colors shade into one another. Compared to the earlier installments, the colors of “The Journey” look relatively muted, but generally more realistic than the bright blues, greens, purples and reds of the earlier books. (As shown by sketches in the back of the Age of Reptiles anthology, the colors of the dinosaurs in “The Journey” were modeled after mammals of the modern-day African savanna.) Strangely, though, the dinosaurs of last book are not drawn in as much detail. The book has an unfinished look to it, at least until the few action frames in which the dinosaurs are drawn to a finer scale.
As for the dinosaurs themselves, Delgado continued in classic dinosaur comic tradition of picking characters that never actually met during prehistory. At the start of the first issue, a pack of Deinonychus (an early Cretaceous predator from North America) attacks a Saltasaurus (an armored sauropod found in the Late Cretaceous of Argentina), and the chief rivals of the pack are a family of Tyrannosaurus (giant theropods from the Late Cretaceous of North America). Even worse is a show-down at the end of the first book which takes place in a Brachiosaurus graveyard inhabited by the predatory dinosaurs Carnotaurus, Baryonyx, Dilophosaurus and Oviraptor, all of which lived at different times and in different places all over the world. The Mesozoic mixing isn’t quite so egregious in the following books, but well-read dinosaur fans will be able to spot when creatures from different slices of prehistory are artificially brought together on the page.
The behavior of the dinosaurs was also modified to fit the needs of the storyline. In “Tribal Warfare” and “The Hunt,” especially, the carnivorous dinosaurs are mostly concerned with exacting revenge and ripping one another’s throats out. They don’t act like dinosaurs so much as supercharged monsters trying to protect their respective families. “The Journey” deviates from this pattern in regarding dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures as animals, and while they are mostly motivated by hunger, Delgado included some curious behavioral flourishes.
Following a large and varied herd of herbivorous dinosaurs on a migration to better feeding grounds, “The Journey” opens on a frost-bitten morning. Each species of dinosaur huddles together for warmth. While the Triceratops create a defensive ring around juveniles in the middle, a herd of diplodocids drape their necks and tails over one another to corral their own young. As the dinosaurs wake up, they shake off the ice and blow hot breath from their nostrils into the chilly air—there is no question that these are behaviorally complex, “hot-blooded” dinosaurs.
As would be expected, though, many of the ideas Delgado visually expresses in “The Journey” are speculative, and this is especially apparent in over-the-top sequences featuring predators. Though the massive herd is constantly trailed by a Tyrannosaurus and its two young offspring, the chief threats to the migrating dinosaurs are swarms of Velociraptor, crocodiles and, in the final chapter, marine reptiles such as mosasaurs. In one particularly gory encounter, scores of Velociraptor come streaming out of their cliffside roost and begin eviscerating every animal they can catch, adult sauropods included. Delgado’s art puts the reader right in the middle of it—watching wounds open and guts spill—and this is repeated when the herd crosses a crocodile-infested river. (In a particularly ingenious panel, Delgado shows that the well-armored ankylosaurs were not invulnerable from attack.)
The number of predators Delgado throws at his dinosaurs is ridiculous, but, though gruesome, the violence is well thought-out and reinforces the goal of the traveling herbivores to eat without being eaten themselves. “Tribal Warfare” featured Kill Bill-style violence between raptors and tyrants, but “The Journey” is more akin to what you would expect to see when spotted hyenas run down a wildebeest or lions take down a Cape buffalo. Where documentary programs and books about living predators turn away, Delgado sticks with the scenes, following the breakdown of the dinosaurs.
Delgado’s dinosaurs are clearly products of the major shift that occurred in dinosaur studies in the late 20th century, but this influence is broad rather than specific. Even though “The Journey” debuted in 2009, for example, its dinosaurs don’t always match up with what paleontologists now understand. The raptors and ornithomimid dinosaurs in the book should have been at least partially covered in feathers, for example, and discoveries of juvenile dinosaur “gangs” have been taken to suggest that some dinosaurs did not provide extended care to their young. And, while there is evidence that raptors could be gregarious, there is no evidence for dozens of small predators overrunning sauropods and other large dinosaurs.
That’s the constant tension in comic book stories about dinosaurs. The art and stories are inspired and informed by science, but they are also works of fiction in which the author must develop characters and sometimes go out on a limb about behaviors of long-dead animals. All the background research in the world can’t help you if you don’t have a good story, and in this respect I think Age of Reptiles is one of the better dinosaur series to date. By abandoning captions, Delgado was free to create visions of prehistoric life that make the reader feel as if they are traveling along with the illustrated animals.
In fact, I wonder if some of Delgado’s flourishes will make it on-screen. He is one of the consultants for the Discovery Channel’s upcoming Reign of the Dinosaurs series, which will also feature dinosaurs in a natural setting. Be on the lookout for sauropod sleeping circles and huge raptor packs.
Next Up: Tyrant.
November 17, 2010
Regular readers know that I was underwhelmed by IDW’s efforts to take on the Jurassic Park franchise—I’ll have a wrap-up review coming soon—but fortunately for dinosaur comic fans, several forthcoming releases should provide a higher-quality dino fix.
Next February, Image Comics will release a one-shot story called simply Tyrannosaurus rex. Naturally, the story pits the formidable predator against our own species, and it draws its inspiration from the old “cavemen vs. dinosaurs” flicks of the 1970s. Young earth creationists might consider the tale to be based on a true story, but for the rest of us it looks like a fun throwback to b-movies like When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.
After a long hiatus, Dark Horse comics has revamped the Turok: Son of Stone series. The new story is a mish-mash of Native Americans, Aztecs, dinosaurs, “Panther People”, and weird prehistoric beasts, but, given the various incarnations of the comic hero, who would expect anything less? The first story arc started last month and runs through February.
Another classic dinosaur title is also being polished up for re-release. Dark Horse will soon release the entire run of Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles (which includes the latest story arc, “The Journey”), one of the few dinosaur series with nary a human in sight. If you liked the visuals of the Disney film Dinosaur, but couldn’t stand the chattering herbivores, then Age of Reptiles is for you.
The news I am most excited about, though, is that Flesk Publications has just released the collected run of Mark Schultz’s excellent Xenozoic Tales in the single volume Xenozoic. Set in a future in which dinosaurs have returned in the wake of human-caused ecological catastrophe, Schultz’s series remains the acme of dinosaur comics, with each story standing on its own as well as fitting into a larger—and still incomplete—story.
So there you have it. Despite some recent so-so titles, the next few months should be chock full of dino comic goodness.