Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Be a Dinosaur Detective

There's been so much Dougal Dixon on this blog in the last few years, I've actually petitioned David to rename the it to 'Love in the Time of Dougal'. He refused, but nevertheless, the rather prolific author surely featured significantly in the childhoods of many readers. Certainly he featured in Adam Smith's, the present-day plesiosaur and dinosaur biscuit expert, for the Dougal-authored Be a Dinosaur Detective is another book lent to me by him.

Of course, while it's important to take a moment to honour Dixie Doug (as his little known country-and-western alter ego* is named), we're really here for the artwork; it's Vintage Dinosaur Art, after all, not The Fantabulous 1980s World of Dougal Dixon (although that sounds like it has potential, you know). Steve Lings was on illustration duty for BaDD, although the cover looks like it might have been painted by a different artist. Bernard Robinson aficionados will note that the sauropod's body is copied from his painting of Apatosaurus (described by Darren Naish as "very rotund"), but the artist has improved upon it with a helter skelter neck and slightly amused facial expression. The children depicted in the bubble serve to represent the reader(s) for size comparison purposes inside the book, which is fortunate in that we never have to look that closely at their freakish faces again.


Dating from 1987, many of the dinosaurs in this book are quite 'modern' in appearance; this T. rex, for example, has huge (if slightly odd-looking) muscles and birdlike feet complete with tarsal scutes. The tail might be on the ground, but the posture's definitely leaning more towards the horizontal.

Other theropods fare similarly; Deinonychus, Dromiceiomimus (or is it Ornithomimus?) and Compsognathus, while conspicuously scaly (or is that warty?) by modern standards, are nevertheless depicted running at full pelt. Being tiny, the Compsognathus is being threatened with an enormous magnifying glass, presumably to reduce it to a charred husk that can be ground up and sold in buckets with a side order of fries and a Diet Coke, please. Lings' Baryonyx is low slung, but not quite a quadruped, as it was frequently depicted in the late '80s. He also manages to avoid falling into the trap of giving it a freakish hand, with one giant hook surrounded by a cluster of tiny vestigial digits, as others did back in the day.

By way of contrast with the theropods, the sauropod spread is decidedly retro, with a miserable bunch of bland-looking, tail-dragging schlubs. At least Opistho...Opisthocoeli...this one livens things up by rearing and adopting a face that's all, "Look ma! No hands!"

BaDD invents non-technical names for each key dinosaur group, the better that kids can remember them. This way, ankylosaurs become the 'welded dinosaurs' ('cos they're fused, see?), while ornithopods become the, er, 'two-footed plant-eaters'. The Iguanodon appears to take after a John Sibbick piece, but we all know what you're looking at, you dirty scoundrel. As if having a tacky gag stuck to its head wasn't enough, Tsintaosaurus just had to go and look so damn sad about it. It's like it's anticipating your reaction. Poor Tsintaosaurus; the resonating chambers are hypothetical, and there's no reason that they always have to be inflated in that way, and yet people keep on making it a literal dick head (see also: this toy).

Since I've been told off about this before, I feel obliged to point out that BaDD features a decent overview of dinosaurs' skeletal features and possible lifestyles, and - since the book is all about sleuthing - posits questions on why animals may have evolved certain features. Note the question on 'duck-bill' hands - the answer is quite revealing of how dinosaur books in the time had one foot in the pre-Dino Renaissance past:
"A duck-bill's paddle-like hands would have helped it to swim."
 Wouldn't it have helped to not have the hand be so narrow? Oh, whatever.

Lings is a good artist, but his approach to ceratopsians is a little odd, and may be informed by the work of John McLoughlin, who believed (as recently discussed) that the animals' frills would have been anchored to their backs by ludicrous amounts of muscle, rendering them spiny-shouldered neckless wonders. Hence the flat-headed Styracosaurus we see here, and a similar Triceratops elsewhere.

Of course, it's not all dinosaurs in BaDD - those pesky 'other' Mesozoic animals make their contractually-obliged appearances, too. The plesiosaurs are pretty good, all things considered, boasting retracted nostrils, eyes in the right sort of place (ish) and even vertical tail fins. This might also be the cheeriest Kronosaurus ever committed to paper. Why, he's even encouraging kids to have a go at making their own plesiosaur out of plasticine and string. However, the book doesn't mention that you will also require a palaeontologist on hand to give you a slap on the wrist whenever you start snaking the neck around. There's no arguing with biomechanics.

Pterosaurs pop up too, with the obligatory Burianesque Pteranodon joined by an alarmingly purple Quetzalcoatlus. We're out of Pin Headed Nightmare Monster territory by this time, but the azdharchid still looks a little strange, what with its stick-thin arms and capsule-shaped body.

There's also the fact that the Pteranodon are apparently clinging to a sheer rock face upside-down, but that's cool. Careful analysis of highly compressed JPEG photographs of Pteranodon fossils has revealed that they possessed gecko-like pads on their hands and feet. It's not mentioned in Mark Witton's book 'cos he doesn't know nothing about pterosaurs, that guy.

As is par for the course in a 1980s book, Archaeopteryx is featured alongside the pterosaurs as a 'Mesozoic flying animal', although it is nevertheless noted that birds are thought to have evolved from dinosaurs. This is a classic 'wings...but with hands!' rendition of the animal, although you've got to love that colour scheme. Wild.

It's quiz time! Yes, there is a little irony in including an '80s-tastic Spinosaurus in a lineup like this, given that a great deal of its anatomy has, indeed, been completely made up (albeit by scientists making educated guesses, rather than Ray Harryhausen - see below). The ineffectual four-fingered hands and grinning 'carnosaur' fizzog are just fantastic. It seems to be waving hello. I wouldn't be taken in.

And finally...the two imposters in the quiz. On the left we have a gliding ankylosaur with theropod hands, a concept so gloriously silly that Hasbro even made a 'genetic mutation' toy out of it (oh yes they did). On the right we have the titular creature from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which is a beautiful thing to crowbar into a 1980s children's dinosaur book. His characteristically cheerful expression makes me wonder if someone's made a toy out of him - preferably, a plush toy. If not, someone needs to work on it, post haste. Go on, Internet, don't let me down.

*This is a complete lie.


  1. Ah, another of my childhood favourites. I especially enjoyed this one for the figures of bones and skeletal reconstructions.

  2. "This might also be the cheeriest Kronosaurus ever committed to paper."

    Is it just me, or does that Kronosaurus have a very icthyosaur-ish face? Specifically, I'm referring to the long, beak-like jaws & small, uniform teeth.


    1. Now you mention it...I think you're right.

  3. Those kids really are freaky. And ginger, but I repeat myself. The glasses disguise it a bit but that girl's(?) right eye looks like it's migrating toward her temple, presumably to take the place of her ear which is well on its way to the back of her head. I'm betting that's a quizzing glass not a magnifying glass that the boy is looking through, and that his eye is actually on the side of his head and that big.

    The leading Pteranodon's arms look like noodles and are positioned differently within the wing than the others, seemingly missing the propatagium. Also, they all look like they're inside some sort of membrane with just their head and digits sticking out.

    And lastly, can you pls stop with this "Dixie Doug" thing? Everybody knows that he goes by 'Dougie Dixster', or just 'The Dixster' to his friends.

    1. Few artists until recently seem to have realized that if pterosaurs were flyers, they needed SOME muscles to power those huge wings.

  4. I had this book, and I remember making one of those plasticene plesiosaurs (from the Plasticene epoch!) and being really disappointed that I couldn't control the head more precisely. Should have used a rod instead of a string.

  5. "Dromiceiomimus (or is it Ornithomimus?)"

    It's stated to be from Canada, where Dromiceiomimus is known but Ornithomimus is not.

    So the fictional ankylosaur is named Aeolosaurus, which is a sauropod named that same year. Seems too coincidental, though a childrens author having access to Revista Museo Argentino Ciencias Naturales or learning about it so quickly before the internet age also seems odd.

  6. Some quick comments on a book that (shock horror) I haven't seen.. the rearing Opisthocoelicaudia is transparently copied from an illustration in David Lambert's Collins Guide to Dinosaurs, the pterosaur scene is also copied from another book (even the geology is identical) -- can't remember the details but will provide unless anyone beats me to it -- and the curiously hued Archaeopteryx is a total ripoff of one of Giovanni Caselli's from Halstead's Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs. I sometimes get the impression that Mesozoic dinosaurs were only ever illustrated about 7 times, it's just that everybody copied everyone else all the time, for ever.

  7. Wow. My mother gave me this book when I was nine years old and it made me addicted to dinosaurs. Later The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park came and there were no other path for me than to became a paleontologist. But the original spot is this book!

  8. Reviewing that little genital-headed Tsintaosaurus toy back in 2010 has gotten me more exposure writing blogs than anything else I feel sometimes. Glad to see it's still getting linked!

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