Monday, November 4, 2013

It's a great big beautiful Golden Book of Dinosaurs

While we are quite obviously rather partial to a little dinosaur-themed nostalgia here at LITC, we're nevertheless very keen to embrace the new - the latest discoveries, inventive ways of portraying our favourite beasts, and so on. How perfect, then, that Robert Bakker and Luis Rey should bring us an updated take on The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs. The original (in its various guises; see alternative title in the photo) is one of the most fondly-remembered of all popular dinosaur books, children's or no, and paying appropriate homage to Zallinger's memorable art was certainly quite a task. Could the ever-divisive Rey meet the palaeoartistic challenge?


Spoilers: of course he could. But I'm getting to that. Firstly, may I make it clear just how much I adore the concept of this book; there's no better way of lavishly illustrating just how far the science of palaeontology has advanced (while at the same time, making a rather awesome top-tier children's book). Although the cover is the only piece to straightforwardly update an image from the original, other spreads harken back to it in more subtle ways; for example, pink flowering plants feature prominently in one scene, a reminder of 'The Flowering Land' chapter in the original, with its similar depictions of dinosaurs among the magnolias.


Of course, Rey's art is otherwise a huge departure from Zallinger's unassuming, soft-edged naturalism, and no doubt you'll already have an opinion on whether or not that's a good thing. I know a number of people who can't stand Rey's distinctive style - they consider it to be lurid, unreal, and far too in-your-face. I happen to be a fan, which is not to say I like everything he does - some of his signature dinosaur designs are quite hideous (the cover brachiosaur, which appears again inside, looks like it's had some of the skin peeled away from its face), while his computer compositing work occasionally fails to convince. Nevertheless, a significant amount of Rey's appeal to me lies in the very fact that he upsets people, while still being as anatomically rigorous as they come. His palaeoart often feels like two fingers being stuck up in the face of those who would prefer dinosaurs to be camouflage colours and ever-so-polite. It's bold as brass, and most of the time, I love it.


While there may now be a kickback against dinosaurs being too awesomebro and perpetually battling each other while screaming bloody murder etc. etc., it's nevertheless heartening to note that one of the most obvious differences between this book and its 1960s forebear is just how much interesting stuff the dinosaurs are allowed to do. It's not just a case of there being bloody predation - there was plenty of that in the original - but in the new Golden Book, herbivores fight just as ferociously over mates as with the unfriendly neighbourhood theropods. Just check out the Amphicoelias pair necking it out, giraffe-style, in the above image, and compare them with the lethargic, amphibious leviathans of the original. Untested hypothesis or no, this is one of my favourite images in the book, as it makes effective use of Rey's artistic strengths, as well as going against the typical 'gentle giant' portrayal of sauropods. It could've done without the Dry-o-clone-o-saurs, but this is still a lovely piece of work. (I'm also glad that Rey is starting to move away from the 'great big pink bog rolls' look for sauropod nostrils.)


The new Golden Book is also, in appropriately Bakkerian/Rey..er...Reyian? Reyerian? style, not remotely shy about parading gorgeous feathered dinosaurs around in a way that's thoroughly indecent. I'm not always such a fan of Rey's feathered beasts, what with their frequent scaly faces, 'protobeaks' and obvious individual plumes - although I do have to remind myself that large, flightless feathered dinosaurs often are unkempt - but it feels curmudgeonly to argue against such a glorious parade of palaeontology's greatest hits. I'm rather fond of his Yutyrannus (still an animal yet to be properly established as a mainstay of children's books - and it should be one!) and Gigantoraptor. While Deinonychus being a manipulated photo of a customised Jurassic Park model kit will irk some people, I like to see it as a cheeky hit back against the prevalence of hideous JP 'raptors' in pop culture representations of dinosaurs.


Such is my enthusiasm for Rey's work, I haven't even mentioned the text yet. Of course, that will be of secondary importance to adult dinosaur enthusiasts anyway, but Bakker is a reliably likeable and lively writer. The odd mention of some of his pet hypotheses will grate on some people (super subsonic killer boom hadrosaurs pop up, and I can now say that "I've read this one book by a guy named Bakker, and he says that dinosaurs died from disease" - er, alongside a meteorite impact). Dave Hone has noted his annoyance at the use of folksy terms like 'dactyl' for pterosaur, and that is indeed an annoyance. In spite of all this, I will confess to having a lot of fun reading Bakker's narration, and his extensive use of onomatopoeic terms will be very appealing to children. "Fwump. Crrrunch. Yum." Also, and as I mentioned in a previous review, Bakker is not remotely hesitant in declaring birds to be dinosaurs. I mean, they are, but it's so seldom seen in children's books.


Overall, I really like it (see above). But then, I'm a Luis Rey fan. If you like a bit of Luis then, like me, you'll garner a great deal of enjoyment from The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs. If you're of the opinion that his work is more like a nasty acid trip through the Mesozoic, then don't bother, although frankly, you're no fun. I mean, there's even a great big Platyhystrix illustration. How can you resist?

14 comments:

  1. 'Nevertheless, a significant amount of Rey's appeal to me lies in the very fact that he upsets people...'

    Hmm, I had never considered it from that perspective before. Only from that of personal aesthetics.

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  2. I actually adore Rey's designs, and have long been a fan of his painted work, but good God almighty, I cannot stand his photoshopped work at all. Which is a shame, because his non-computerized work is some of my favorite paleoart. It's lively, it's cheeky, and it has a pop energy that a lot of paleoart lacks.

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    1. Yeah, the digitally manipulated stuff leaves me dead cold, as does photo compositing 90% of the time. Like I've said about Csotonyi's big murals, you have to be a mighty good photographer, a mighty good illustrator, and a mighty good photoshopper to make it work, and that's a bit much to ask of most of us. If you can tell it's been 'shopped or composited on a photo background, it's falling short of the mark.

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  3. One of my favorite things about the Gee & Rey Field Guide to Dinosaurs is all the pencil artwork, showing what an excellent artist Luis is even without his trademark saturated colors.

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    1. Indeed. Personally I'd be happy if Luis was confined to pencil-work for the rest of his days. But then, I feel that way about most of the artists that I like. Something in the not-quite-finished look of most pencil sketches seems to evoke the past without nailing it down too firmly. And yes, I am a hopeless romantic.

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  4. I'm a big fan of Rey's gaudy dinosaurs, even if his computer work is generally just not as satisfying as his traditional art. Also, I don't really have a problem with Bakker's penchant for using 'common names' for extinct animals; in fact, I think it would be nice if prehistoric animals did get common names, though that's just something of a pet project for me...

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    1. I agree. Everybody says "bear", not "Ursus", no harm done. I'm especially fond of "raptors" becoming a common name for dromaeosaurs.
      On that note: Dear lord, that Microraptor is hideous. Hideous and outdated (feather configuration and colour), though that might be due to the age of the book. Also, the Gigantoraptors arms. And in the dino parade, what IS that thing between Edmontosaurus and Pentaceratops? Is that some kind of very wrong experiment involving a T. rex, a porcupine, and some love potion? I generally do like Reys' style, but his theropods are downright ugly.

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  5. Is it telling that a hefty portion of your liking for Luis Rey's palaeoart seems to be because it's crazy and over the top rather than, well, any good? "Well this bit isn't so hot and there's problems over here and this bit makes me scratch my head... but people are annoyed that he sucks, so yay!"

    Guess which side of the Rey divide I come down on? Although, teasing aside, I don't think Rey's work is altogether *bad*; in fact I think some of the examples here show a lot of improvement in places, and a few colourful dinosaurs don't ruin the whole genre. lt's just that I find some of his artistic decisions - especially since he discovered photoshop and the lasso tool - to be pretty jarring to the eye. Not so much in a "I eat dry shredded wheat for every meal" way as "I'm not sure he knows what he's doing sometimes." To my eye it's definitely stronger - especially here - when he renders things himself, rather than cutting and pasting subtly mismatched textures, foliage, and patches of extant animals.

    And those dryosaurs - come *on!*

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    1. Well, I may have written this with the aim of provoking some comments, if it wasn't clear enough already. ;) Nevertheless, I'll defend Rey - he gets his anatomy right (most of the time), which is more than many illustrators of popular books can manage - while agreeing with what everyone so far has said, namely that he could do with rendering everything in a scene, rather than cutting and pasting stuff in.

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  6. Loved the Zallinger homage. Now that is respect to your forebears! So good too to see an artist treating Amphicoelias as a real dinosaur worthy of depiction (so what if the remains have been lost?). But what's with the Triceratops covered with back spikes/hair? Where does that come from?

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    1. I'm pretty sure that the animal depicted is A. altus rather than the 'lost legend' A. fragilimus, although the specific name isn't mentioned. The Triceratops spines are speculative based on Psittacosaurus and unpublished Triceratops skin impressions that show what might be the bases of quills. The animal's very often restored with quills now, actually - there are even toys by a company named Collecta that have them.

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