Monday, April 1, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs

Very, very occasionally, when the planets in the Solar System arrange themselves in an apparently haphazard, but in fact entirely co-ordinated and precise pattern, a truly superb and genuinely vintage dinosaur book appears, like a distant, glittering jewel, over the eBay horizon. (The rest of the time, I buy any old rubbish from the '80s and you get lousy filler posts.) The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs is just such a book. It's also no less than the first dinosaur book owned by a certain Thomas Holtz, apparently. So there you go!


The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs (Or THWWBD for, er, short) is just one among a huge number of How and Why Wonder books; other titles in the series included Seashore, Castles, Chemistry, Fish, Primitive Man, Winning of The West, The Old Testament, and The Tower of London. Back in the 1970s, if there wasn't a How and Why Wonder Book on a certain topic, it probably wasn't worth knowing about (or so it would seem). THWWBD was first published in 1965, with my edition arriving in 1974. Happily, it is completely of its time; there isn't the merest hint of a horizontal theropod, an animal with even one foot off the ground (except when clawing another dinosaur's hide), or a sauropod that isn't a charmingly tubby kebab for allosaurs who've been out on the lash. The cover says it all - this is a primeval world in which 'brontosaurs' hang around in swamps, keeping a wary eye on skulking, Nosferatu-esque theropods while volcanoes continually erupt and cheeky pterosaurs zoom nimbly by. It's absolutely marvellous.


It's easy to see why so many people have fond memories of this book. Quite apart from the fact that it's a quintessentially 'pre-Renaissance' work, the text is lively and entertaining. The author - Darlene Geis - received scientific supervision and knew what she was talking about, for although this repeats many of the now-discarded silly tropes of the era (aquatic sauropods etc. etc.), you will not find any errors as outrageous as featuring Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus in the same scene. In fact, it complies completely with the orthodoxy of the time. The illustrations, by Kenyon Shannon, follow in the fine pre-Renaissance tradition of glancing briefly at the real animal's skeleton, shrugging one's shoulders and drawing whatever the hell one likes, with the 'cheap monster movie costume' Allosaurus above being a prime example. You've got to love his dancer's legs.


This beloved Bronto has featured over at SV-POW!, where Mike Taylor notes that "this is the Brontosaurus I grew up with", adding that while it's very easy to point out its multitude of anatomical flaws, "the part that’s most shocking...is just how darned fat it is" - a 'lardy bloater', no less. Indeed, while Apatosaurus was a notoriously robust animal, old-school illustrators tended to exaggerate this to the point at which they started resembling the sort of gelatinous blob that would be at home threatening Steve McQueen. Of course, none of this is to deny the artist's skill in shading this illustration - like all of the others in the book it has, for all its inaccuracies, a pleasing organic fluidity about it.


Although obvious references to the work of other palaeoartists are quite rare, it's easy to detect shades of Burian in this illustration of an underwater Brachiosaurus pair - the most obvious difference being that the foreground sauropod has its back turned to the viewer. While the text describes a "dome with nostrils in it" on the top of the sauropod's head, this seems to have collapsed on the animals in the illustration (maybe it was the water pressure). That said, it's noteworthy that - unlike the Bronto - the brachiosaurs are not grotesquely fat, which may well be a result of the Burian influence. Nevertheless, we're told that "[Brachiosaurus] couldn't move around much on land. He couldn't swim in the water. It must have been a dull way to live - even for a dinosaur." Poor old Brachiosaurus...


When it comes to Stegosaurus, Shannon takes the route of exaggerating its key attributes, resulting in a truly bizarre-looking beast indeed; it also appears to be lacking any shoulders to speak of (a fate that also befell many a Burian-style Bronto over the years). Of course, the excessively low position of the head was inherited from the work of Charles Knight and, ultimately, Marsh's skeletal reconstruction - however, the huge plates on Shannon's hump-backed creature look like petals radiating out from a flower. In spite of this, it's still possible to appreciate (again) the artist's flair for shading, creating beautifully blended fleshy contours. The strong, monochromatic style works perfectly to compensate for the book's rather low print quality.


One of the best examples of the effectiveness of this unfussy style in this context is the Iguanodon. The restoration of the animal is typical for its time, with a highly upright posture reliant on an impossibly bent tail. However, it has a wonderful statuesque quality achieved with very precise and careful shading, and the page is effectively laid out to maximise the impression of this creature's awesome size. Also noteworthy are the apparently massive muscles in the animal's legs and arms - especially the latter, as Iguanodon was commonly depicted with curiously weedy forelimbs prior to resuming quadrupedalism in the '80s.


Towards the back of the book, the quality of the illustrations takes something of a nosedive (maybe the deadline was looming), resulting in some rather demented, cartoonish beasties. My favourite is undoubtedly the crested creature here identified as Mosasaurus (although it's likely that the labels for Mosasaurus and Tylosaurus were swapped), which looks like it would probably squeak like a dog's chew toy if you squeezed it. The pupil with the centre missing, reminiscent of Wario, adds a wonderful touch of the deranged. On the other hand, this might be the only kids' dinosaur book to ever feature not only the little-heard-of pliosaur Brachauchenius, shown here as the pointy-faced bright green fellow being laughed at by Plesiosaurus, but also the fish Hoplopteryx. Why, Hoplopteryx is so obscure, its Wikipedia entry consists of a single sentence declaring it to be a fish from the Cretaceous. Definitely the generic name to drop at cool parties; just remember, you heard about it before it became famous.


Inevitably, everyone's favourite Maastrichtian macropredator and movie star features in not one, but three separate illustrations, and even receives a double-page spread all to itself. This is definitely your father's T. rex, which means that although it's diagonal-spined and tail dragging, it's happily still an up-for-anything cold-blooded killer (rather than the slowly ambulating carcass disposal unit it became in popular books for a while in the '70s and '80s). The illustration is, obviously, Very Wrong but nevertheless is wonderfully evocative; here is the ultimate giant killer of the Cretaceous, its talons poised and with a wicked glint in its beady eye.


Tyrannosaurus also receives the honour of being the only carnivorous dinosaur to be depicted battling with its prey, as described in a rollicking narrative style typical of the kids' dino books of the time (but better than average). Artists have long struggled to depict tyrannosaurs and ankylosaurs engaged in a convincing fight, especially back when the former were depicted as upright 'tripods'. Shannon's attempt is fairly typical, with T. rex struggling to stoop down while receiving a stern reprimand from its grumpy, turtle-like prey. The T. rex v Triceratops illustration is just fantastic, with Rexy feebly scraping its opponent's frill while Triceratops, standing firm, prepares to administer a very pointy horn to the privates. Meanwhile, Geis seems to take great pleasure in the thought of these two mighty animals having at it:
"[Triceratops] charges like a rhinoceros at the much bigger Tyrannosaurus rex. The earth shakes as these two monsters come together. Every other sound is hushed as the two giants fight it out. Tyrannosaurus rex swings his great jaws open and drops down to slash at his foe's back...

...But Tyrannosaurus rex has been stabbed, and his breath comes in gasps. He cannot turn and run for his life. He must obey his hunger which tells him to get meat in his jaws...again Triceratops charges with his sharp horns..."
This narrative adds immensely to the appeal of the book, and must have been very captivating for child readers back in the day. In spite of the prevailing scientific attitude of the time (i.e. that they were dull, listless evolutionary failures), here dinosaurs are brought to life in an immediate, exciting way - we are encouraged to imagine them going about their lives, rather than as a series of staid facts and figures. Silly as it all seems to modern eyes, it's easy to appreciate why this book is so fondly remembered, and I'm very happy to have it in my collection.

26 comments:

  1. Fond memories of this book,I got it as a present back in the mid-60s :)

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  2. I remember this book vividly, thanks for enshrining it here! I have another old-school dino book written by Geis, illustrated by R.F. Peterson: Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals (1959)

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  3. The dinosaur book that got me started as a paleontologist!

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  4. (but you mentioned that already...)

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  5. Nice to see this one again. A copy of it appeared in a stack of stuff in my office as we were packing to move to a new building a few weeks ago. Took me back to younger days!

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  6. This book is definitely where it all started for me- now If I could only find my copy to pass on to my son..

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  7. You skipped the wonderfully weird-handed Trachodon! BTW, is this series still around? I noticed that I know there is an updated 1980 edition, but my third edition from 1993 is actually an original German production (featuring, besides being wonderfully 90's in all respects, a fully feathered Troodon) with the former two being translations from English.

    Also, apply mandatory "that was my first dinosaur book" line here.

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  8. my first dino book! - pliestocene mamal one good - whole series good

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  9. I just stumbled across the German translation, "Was ist was? Dinosaurier" at my parents house - it might have been my first dinosaur book, too. I found my older brother's dino-sketches in it so it must have drawn (pun intended) him to making his own "paloeart". But actually it is really weak in its illustration and I am also not convinced about the prose writing. Maybe the translation didn't do it any good. Anyhow, it is a 1980 re-edition, which adds to the "wrongness" by being seriously outdated.

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  10. Oh, forgot to mention: The illustrations in my german book are different from the ones in your original post. They really are weak. Although the cover isn't _too_ bad: http://www.booklooker.de/images/cover/user/0358/8723/Ym4wNDQy.jpg

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  11. I had this too! Correction: I still have this! And yes, I believe it was my first dinosaur book too, received around 1965-1966.

    The large format of the book, plus several large illustrations in which the dinosaurs seemed to barely fit withing the page borders, made them seem especially huge and monstrous. It was awesome, for its time.

    I also had the How and Why Wonder Book of Prehistoric Mammals, which was pretty cool also. I still have that one too (although it's a little wavy from the day I left it out in the rain -- stupid kid! -- but miraculously suffered to other damage).

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  12. The Brachauchenius looks surprisingly nimble and modern - a green "double penguin!"

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  13. I didn't mention it in the SV-POW!, but I think was probably my first dinosaur book, too. It's amazing how many people this seems to be true of, and (indirectly) how many careers this terrible, terrible book launched. I love it!

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  14. Brachauchenius and Hoplopteryx appear because that illustration is a rip on Zallinger's classic Kansas seaway scene (from "The Pageant of Life" in LIFE magazine), which features those animals. That illustration "inspired", to be charitable, a great number of marine reptile pics in kids' books in the 60s and 70s.

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    1. I had a feeling that something like that might have happened. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  15. LOVED this book as a kid. One of my first along with "The Little Big Dinosaur" and "The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs." This book, however, was always a bit spooky - something about the illustrations. Very cool! I have 3 copies of it! Who am I kidding? - STILL love this book.

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  16. I had this one. The long legged Allosaurus freaked me out. He kind of looks like an alien.

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  17. Thankyou thankyou, Marc, for reviewing this! Count me as yet another for whom this was the first dino book owned (1974 ed.), along with Prehistoric Mammals.

    That green Allosaurus certainly is a freak. I can only assume that it is toppling over toward the water and that it is the perspective that makes its legs appear so much more robust than its skinny chest.

    However, the Iguanodon prob needed those massive legs to be able to drag around that huge fat tail. It's so thick that the base is hidden behind the ankle, making it look about the same size around as the torso.

    And let's just pretend we haven't noticed that T. rex has sprouted an extra toe in the last pic.

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    1. Haha, very true about the Iguanodon. It might not be as overly lizardy as many restorations of the period, but damn, it has a fat arse.

      Extra toe? I don't know what you mean...tralala...

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  18. For me it was the second dinosaur book, although in Dutch translation (late 1960s ed.).

    Could anyone help me get a title of my first dino book? This was a presumably 1960ish soft-cover comic that mainly treated the history of dinosaur discovery, with lots of attention for Mantell, Cuvier, Owen et al. Also, it featured grey-skinned Neandertals that you could easily see were predestined for extermination by the god-like Cro-Magnons (think Morlocks vs. Eloi in The Time Machine).

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  19. My copy of this book disappeared about 35 years ago. This really takes me back.

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  20. I had a much treasured and well-thumbed copy of this book as a child. In fact, I had several. Being an artistic sort I used colored pencils and crayons to color the black and white illustrations in one of my copies. A while back I found a used copy in rather excellent condition at a Half Price Books near me. Of course, my eyes lit up like a kid's on Christmas and clutched the treasure to my chest greedily until I was out of the store and it was mine (all mine) for good. Curiously, that edition is copyrighted 1960 so it appears to have been around a bit earlier than you thought. Along with The Big Golden Book Of Dinosaurs, RC Andrews' All ABout Dinosaurs, The Album Of Dinosaurs (illustrated by Rod Ruth) and a few others, the HAWWBOD was one of the foundational documents of my childhood dinosaur library.

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  21. The funny thing is that, after 40 years, it took this article to point out just how impossibly wrong these drawings were. I always thought that they were just plain "awesome". So in a sense, they really are like "pre-Rennaissance" art.

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  22. Loved this book. thanks for sharing :D

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  23. THWWBD was also my first dinosaur book, followed by "Dinosaurs of the Earth". One of the copies in my collection has "copyright 1960" and "special material copyright 1960", so I'm wondering if it was published prior to 1965. i was always disappointed that the Pyro kits did not resemble the illustrations and then "Lo and behold!" they appear on the cover of the 1981 reprint.

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  24. OMG, I remember having this book. Got to find one on e-bay NOW!

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