Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Prehistoric Monsters did the Strangest Things

While it would probably be more honest to replace 'did' with 'were' in the title of Prehistoric Monsters did the Strangest Things, it certainly makes the book an intriguing prospect. Exactly what were these antedeluvian beasties up to when not ineffectively disguising themselves with pondweed? Well, read on! Published in 1974 in the States, I'm borrowing this book from reader Patrick Bate. Hats (formed of aquatic vegetation) off to him.



As exemplified on the cover, the art style is somewhat cartoonish and stylised, with lovely bold washes and expressive animal faces. While maintaining an at least semi-serious approach to restoring extinct beasties, there is a certain irreverence in Michael Frith's style that is matched in the Hornblows' text. It's the sort of kid-friendly approach that doesn't shy away from describing creatures, very bluntly, as being dumber than a big heap of Fox News.


Scientifically, the book is certainly of a retro bent, as demonstrated no better than by its submersible sauropods. Frith's 'brontosaur' is a rather sad-looking, lumpen thing - like a sack of potatoes with a sullen turtle face poking out. Poor Bronto also suffers the indignity of being described as, yes, "terribly dumb". Still, I do like the inclusion of a lead on to the next page, featuring...


...Brachiosaurus, living in the awfully convenient Just So Lake (cue music). Of course, everything's better down where it's wetter; for here, the mush-brained titan could dine on water plants far away from the slavering jaws of tottering, tripodal theropods. Frith's illustration has definite shades of Burian, although Burian's water was notably less pink.


While slightly-less-than-contemporary science unfortunately reduces sauropods to uninteresting dullards, Frith has more fun with creatures that are permitted to be a little more active. His Stegosaurus looks fantastically cross, and seems poised to lash out at the nearby theropod, itself posed as if it is hitching up the edges of its skirts. The big girl's blouse. I love the declaration that Stegosaurus "liked cactus best of all" - there might not be an awful lot of evidence behind it, but such remarks add colour to a kids' book like this. Or at least, they make me smile. That's good enough, right? You'll permit me just this one, won't you? Wah!


Arranged in chronological order, the book moves on from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous, and so to hilariously goofy-looking retro-hadrosaurs. When I posted the above image on Facebook, a number of commenters remarked that it looked like a socket puppet - as indeed it does. It also has the mournful bovine eyes and frowny face to match its rather sorry state. In keeping with the submarine sauropods, hadrosaurs are here depicted as weird, saggy-skinned, web-fingered cowards with improbably shaped aqualungs attached to their (sock puppet) heads. They did the strangest things...like diving underwater when menaced by frog-headed tyrannosaurs (as below).


The pachycephalosaur isn't mentioned in the text, so it's not explicitly referred to as a hadrosaur, although this is somewhat implied. It's notable for looking rather nonplussed as the peanut-headed ones go for a splash.


Other retro dino book staples include Styracosaurus as a slightly less predictable stand-in for Triceratops. Referred to as the 'Frilly Monster', our pudgy hero 'clumps along' looking suitably grumpy as the local theropods timidly wave hello. I always enjoy the doughy, dragging tails these animals are given in books like these - '70s ceratopsians were often a world away from the glamorous, lame-joke-cracking movie stars of today.


As Triceratops' low-rent substitute, it's down to poor Styracosaurus to take on Rexy Frogmouth. It seems unfair that, of all the anachronistic animals it could fight, Styracosaurus was so often pitched against an animal that could defeat it by sitting on it. I think One Million Years BC was onto something in picking Ceratosaurus instead. But I digress. Rexy's a bit of a mess anatomically, with a weirdly pear-shaped body and puny legs, although his shark-black eyes (with red...pupils? Highlights?) are marvellous. More dark-eyed tyrannosaurs, please (see also: this model).


Of course, it's not all dinosaurs in this book - they just happen to be the illustrations that we're most interested in. The book runs the gamut from the origins of life to the modern day in its wonderfully playful style, featuring along the way a highly sinister Dimetrodon (above). To stare into its eyes is to seek only a profound emptiness that will penetrate your psyche and lead you to question the ultimate morality and purpose of your every act. Especially if you're a little pink-and-purple salamander-thingy.


Moving much further down the synapsid line, and Smilodon is also given a strikingly distressing treatment, no matter how Hanna-Barbera it might look. I'm especially fond of its evil grin. The text describes how Smilodon "stabbed and stabbed" its prey, before opening its mouth incredibly wide to wolf down great hunks of meat. It concludes:
"All the Smiladons [sic] died out thousands of years ago. That's a good thing. A Smiladon was cruel even when he was a kitten."
 Great stuff.


And finally...the book pays a well-deserved tribute to Mary Anning, culminating in this illustration of an ichthyosaur mount apparently modelled on a bounding dog. Still, the text here is quite lovely; a welcome reminder that modern palaeontology has been built through the dogged hard work of hundreds of individuals, and it's worth taking a moment to pay our respects. Here's to you, Mary Anning! And here's to Frith and the Hornblows for such a charming book. They don't write 'em like this anymore, etc...

15 comments:

  1. '...there might not be an awful lot of evidence behind it, but such remarks add colour to a kids' book like this. Or at least, they make me smile. That's good enough, right? You'll permit me just this one, won't you?'

    Yes, and not just to please you, but because I fully agree with the sentiment.

    As for the sock-headed hadrosaurs; sad Olorotitan is sad.

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  2. Wow! This was a really wonderful surprise for me. My dad had three books in this series (They all had the tile pattern 'X [Fish, Animals, Birds, etc] Do The Strangest Things') when he was a kid in the 60s, and I remember reading them as a toddler, even though they were literally coming apart at the seams. We've still got them, actually...

    Anyway, the art in this one is very reminiscent of the others -- the largely solid-coloured backgrounds, often in a pleasing but not realistic colour (the Brachiosaurus swimming in pink lemonade up there); the little, swishy tree in the Stegosaurus scene; the oddly-coloured, simplified shrubs like that bright blue thing in the Styracosaurus scene...

    The text is no real difference either. They all had a sort of kid-friendly, personable tone with rather wonderful, zany descriptions.

    Great article; I love a good trip down memory lane.

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  3. I'm so very relieved that the text says Smilodon and not "saber-toothed tiger". It gets very annoying when people say that. Or is it just me...

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  4. Oh cool! This is the same Michael K. Frith who designed all the characters on Fraggle Rock, as well as several for Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

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    1. Suddenly it all make perfect sense!

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  5. Glad you enjoyed the book! It served as my introduction to dinosaurs - these illustrations have stuck with me for as long as I can recall. They may be out-of-date now, but they have a lot of personality and charm.

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  6. What I love about so many dinosaur books for kids is those pronounciation guides, especially when almost all of them are pronounced exactly the way you'd expect from how they are written. What's the point when you pronounce all those greek words as if they were english ones, anyway?

    btw, it's antediluvian (before the flood), not antidiluvian (against the flood), though admittedly the dinosaurs probably wouldn't have liked the flood at all, what with all the extinction going on.

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    1. Oh bugger it, there's always something. Fixed.

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  7. "It also has the mournful bovine eyes and frowny face to match its rather sorry state."

    It looks like it's thinking, "It's a Living" ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLMyVdfrHY4 ).

    "Referred to as the 'Frilly Monster', our pudgy hero 'clumps along' looking suitably grumpy as the local theropods timidly wave hello."

    I'm surprised you didn't mention that the theropod is leaning on a very Dr. Seuss-like tree.

    "I'm especially fond of its evil grin."

    I like its crazy eyes best. He's like a Disney villain.

    "And finally...the book pays a well-deserved tribute to Mary Anning, culminating in this illustration of an ichthyosaur mount apparently modelled on a bounding dog."

    That reminds me of "Reptiles do the Strangest Things" (in which Hornblow discusses animal cruelty & conservation in reference to crocodilians).

    -Hadiaz

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  8. I really did love this book when I was little. For some reason, the only section I remember in particular is "THE BEAST OF BALUCHISTAN"

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    1. It will always be The Beast of Baluchistan to me.

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  9. Regarding Smilodon, I can't help wonder if the authors thought it was an exceptionally cruel cat, and if so why, and if not what they thought about the fact lions and tigers aren't extinct yet.

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    1. They certainly seem to, and I imagine it's because it had a pair of oversized teeth. Of course. You can't deny the logic.

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  10. Those dinos look truly bizarre... but i dig the Smilodon

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  11. I just think it's a shame that you had to insert politics into a dinosaur blog. *sniff*

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