Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Vintage Dinosaur Art: About Dinosaurs

It might have one of the most generic titles going, but About Dinosaurs (1972) distinguishes itself with Michael Spink's highly distinctive illustrations. Ditching the normal quasi-realistic style that illustrators attempt in educational books like this, Spink instead opts for monochrome, crosshatched beasties against simple backgrounds with bold washes. It's a delightfully unusual approach.



The book is presented as the story of a time-travelling...male in a safari outfit named, for no especially good reason, 'Quizkid'. (Yes, there's a quiz in the back, but...that's a tiny component of the book. And there's no mention of this being part of a wider series. If any older readers are able to shed some light on this, it would be much appreciated, ta.) Quizkid is described as a "daring traveller, brave hunter [and] single-minded scientist," who hails from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. He carries a pair of binoculars, an outsized time-machine-watch, and what is either a gun, a flask, or both - perhaps firing scalding hot Earl Grey at the soft parts of threatening saurians. He's also very creepy-looking (see below).


Naturally enough, Quizkid's epic voyage through the Mesozoic begins in the Triassic period. However, while he does also encounter some phytosaurs, synapsids and other non-dinosaurs, all of the dinosaurs he runs into look very much alike - long necks, long tails, small heads, and dense crosshatching. Therefore, I have decided to skip this blog post ahead to the Jurassic. You can thank me in the comments.


Quizkid initially surveys the Jurassic swampscape from the back of an "unwitting" brontosaur, albeit one that nevertheless looks rather cross. Although author Margery Morris' text is generally very accurate, one can nevertheless count on at least one anachronism on each spread (in this case, the presence of Cetiosaurus in Late Jurassic North America). In this scene, the animals also appear to have been mislabelled - the 'Diplodocus' is clearly modelled on Neave Parker's Cetiosaurus, while the 'Camarasaurus' is suspiciously long, thin, and low-slung. I do enjoy the expressiveness of the animal's faces, particularly that of the brachiosaur, who seems to be posing for the artist.


My favourite illustrations are those with colour backgrounds - the animals seem to 'pop' from them, like they're animation cells, or the creatures are characters in one of those old, cheapy, handheld LCD games. There's some rather odd stuff going on here, otherwise - while Quizkid attempts to politely warn Bronto of the impending toothy danger, Allosaurus has developed an horrific ankle deformity and Archaeopteryx sports coathanger hooks for hands.


Abandoning Bronto to her fate, Quizkid moves on to inspect some of the other denizens of Late Jurassic North America...alongside a few anachronistic additions. Megalosaurus, determined to appear throughout time and space, here shares a genial discussion with Stegosaurus; again, the expressiveness of Spink's creations proves quite delightful. Meanwhile, a rather alarming Ornitholestes chases the much earlier cynodont Oligokyphus, which is depicted elsewhere in a more 'realistic', but still rather freaky and slightly shrink-wrapped, form.



Brrr.


Moving on to the Cretaceous, and we have another of Spink's lovely backgrounds. Romance is definitely in the air, as a pair of Iguanodon embrace (one can only hope that they'll refrain from any Halstead-style goings on) and a Pachycephalosaurus gives Quizkid the ol' eye and an affectionate smile over a suitably romantic rosebush. No prizes for spotting the obvious Neave Parker nod in the 'perching' Hypsilophodon, who is apparently wolfing down a walnut. Sadly for Hypsilophodon, chocolate and vanilla fondant were not invented until the Maastrichtian (as confirmed by layers of blue confectionery wrappers found at the K/Pg boundary).

I do enjoy how Quizkid appears to have been surprised by Pachycephalosaurus while stopping to inspect a flower. The looming noggin rather reminds me of a certain scene in Jurassic Park, during which Bob Peck is heard to utter, "clever girl". Since Pachycephalosaurus probably wouldn't want to chow down on human flesh, perhaps Quizkid will just end up showered in painful, spiky kisses.


The Cretaceous also brings hadrosaurs and, as usual, different species have the convenient habit of convening in the same place. Happily, Morris is ready to admit that we just don't bleedin' know what all that ridiculous headgear was for, rather than speculate about silly things like snorkels and species recognition.* Spink's illustration, drawing on Knight and others, is utterly charming - I'm particularly fond of Kritosaurus' vain posturing and the enigmatic smile on the face of Parasaurolophus. The simplified, splodgy palms remind me of classic kids' TV from the '60s and '70s, which - as a child in the '90s - I must admit I often found very creepy. Fortunately, Quizkid is the only creepy one here.


Just as it's important to have assorted hadrosaurs clustered together to show off hadrosaur diversity, so too must varied ceratopsians hang around with each other, even if it means a little time-bending. In this scene, the stand-out character is surely the sad, shuffling, pitiable Gorgosaurus. The poor guy - couldn't Triceratops spare just a mouthful? The horned git's just too committed to the "eternal drama", I guess. Meanwhile, Quizkid uses (tiny? Juvenile?) Ankylosaurus as a prop, safe in the knowledge that "he is a herbivore and harmless". 'Cos that's exactly how it works.

But...what's that coming over the hill?


It's Sexy Rexy, of course! Rexy looks positively cheesed off that this piffling pipsqueak would dare confront him. For whatever reason, he also sports a birdlike reversed first toe. Never mind him - check out the lovely naive quality to the landscape, all uniform pyramidal volcanoes and simplified, rounded vegetation.


And finally...after wearing himself out bellowing at no one, Rexy takes a kip, while Quizkid, having safely teleported away to another geological time period for the day, poses like a Victorian hunter next to an elephant's bloated carcass. It's enough to make grumpy Triceratops crack a smile, at least. It's also a fitting way to say 'good night' to the dinosaurs, as the text mentions. Earth may change, but the moon and stars are constant. (Wait, what!?) Love that picture-book sky.

Next time: we travel 20 years into the future, and not a magic watch in sight.

*Sometimes I'm just trolling.

13 comments:

  1. It is indeed a series. (I'm a middle school librarian. I can find these things out) It was called Puffin Explorer. There are 18 books in the series. I do not know if any of the rest of them have Quizkid in them.

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  2. Err, there is a hot link in the above message. Click on "there are 18 books..." and it will take you to a page og puffing 1st editions.

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    1. Excellent, thanks for the information! "How Man Became"...

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    2. I remember these from when I was a kid. "How Man Became" also features Quizkid: http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Became-Explorer-Margery-Morris/dp/0140610057

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  3. That Ornitholestes looks like something from The Moomins. Maybe its just me.

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  4. Now now, I quite appreciate Synapsids and other Non-dinosaurs!

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  5. It appears that the hadrosaurs all appear together in the same time and place thanks to a black hole in the top corner time-warping everyone.

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  6. "Quizkid is ... from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous."

    Hey, that's the planet and star grouping where Doctor Who is from! Is there any further evidence of a connection to the TV series, or is this perhaps just the author's sly shout-out to one of his favorite shows?

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    1. It's a joke on my part, I'm afraid (he's a time traveller, see).

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    2. Oh ... so it's YOUR sly shout-out, then.

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  7. "Meanwhile, a rather alarming Ornitholestes chases the much earlier cynodont Oligokyphus, which is depicted elsewhere in a more 'realistic', but still rather freaky and slightly shrink-wrapped, form."

    The Oligokyphus looks like a Dr. Seuss creation (especially its face: http://img3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20121110004248/seuss/images/7/7e/One-fish-two-fish-dr-seuss-877122_636_800.gif ).

    "Ankylosaurus as a prop, safe in the knowledge that "he is a herbivore and harmless". 'Cos that's exactly how it works."

    Accidental foreshadowing of a near-future review by me! ;)

    "And finally...after wearing himself out bellowing at no one, Rexy takes a kip, while Quizkid, having safely teleported away to another geological time period for the day, poses like a Victorian hunter next to an elephant's bloated carcass."

    I think I'm confused. What exactly happened when Quizkid met the T.rex?

    -Hadiaz

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    1. Apparently Quizkid can instantly teleport back to the present, and does so a few times in the book to get out of trouble. In this case, he comes back in the evening when T. rex (being cold blooded 'cos it's a '70s book) has worn himself out. So I actually wasn't kidding for a change.

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  8. Gotta love those monochrome dinos. That kid is very deep in the uncanny valley though

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