Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs (Start-Right Elf Book)

What with the current media hullabaloo over a certain taxonomic reshuffle (which sounds utterly improbable, but there you have it), it seems apt that this week's Vintage Dinosaur Art takes us back to a time during which that generic name was firmly cemented into the minds of children, in spite of it having been deemed obsolete for decades. Dinosaurs (1971, a Start-Right Elf Book from Rand McNally) is a perfect, and very charming, example of the sort of book that has crusty old brontosaur fans gently wiping a tear from their wrinkly grey faces.

I've never fully understood 'brontosaur nostalgia', but then that's undoubtedly because I was born in the late '80s - and any pedantic Dino Renaissance-era brat worth their salt shunned the laughably obsolete images of fat, monochromatic, swamp-dwelling beasties that came to mind when 'Brontosaurus' was mentioned. These days, I can of course appreciate such images for what they are (or I wouldn't be posting reviews like this over and over again for years on end), but I don't think I'll ever be able to shake off my mild disdain towards that name. Brontosaurus. Ugh. Still, the (incredibly long) paper bringing Bronto back (and, hey, coining a new diplodocid genus too!) is a fine thing indeed, and I'd better get used to it. It's also probably about time I actually got to, you know, the book in question.

This is real classic stuff - wonderful, painterly, Zallingerian illustrations (by Theodore Street) of grey, green, brown, green-brown, grey-brown and sort-of-tan swamp things, poking their heads out of lakes, waving their arms about in the air, and just generally looking like big, pea-brained Enormo-Lizards of Antiquity. Right off the bat, we're treated to snorkelling brachiosaurs and a T. rex v Triceratops face-off on the same spread. Rexy here looks a bit like a '70s model kit, while his head seems to borrow elements from Fantasia's stegosaur-bothering tragic villain. The Triceratops doesn't appear to be too concerned - after all, the business end is all the way up there, and that belly looks awfully vulnerable.

Our first Brontosaurus comes next, and it appears to pay homage to Charles Knight's infamous depiction - one that the word 'iconic' could justly be applied to. (In fact, so definitive was Knight's Brontosaurus, it appears in a great many of today's reports on the Tschopp et al. paper.) However, while the pose of the animal is pure Knight, the overall style is more reminiscent of Zallinger's picture book work. Bonus points are awarded for the frustrated upright allosaur stranded on the shore with only a handful of ferns for company.

Not all of the book's predators prove so hydrophobic, however - as seen in the above piece, in which an unlucky Bronto is charged at by an Allosaurus, here drawn as a rather generic theropod ('cos if it's big and it's got three fingers, it's Allosaurus. Duh). There would appear to be a seriously steep drop right where the allosaur's left foot is about to land, given that Bronto's legs are almost entirely underwater - in which case, the fanged lummox is about to topple on top of its rotund prey like a fat guy onto a novelty inflatable. Either that, or Bronto's legs have already all been chewed off by ravenous crocodylomorphs. "It's only a flesh wound!"

Brachiosaurus also pops up again in swamp-dwelling guise, in an illustration that's pretty much a straight-up Zallinger copy. Note the standard line about the animal's supposed snorkel-noggin, apparently an adaptation to a semi-aquatic lifestyle that of course overruled all the evidence positively screaming against the idea of such a lifestyle. And yet we still have cranks today touting the idea like it's the brilliant, revolutionary notion of a maverick genius. Dolts.

Not all of the book's sauropods are bound to the lakes - Diplodocus gets to spend some time hanging around on dry land, albeit looking a little cross. "From the top of his head to the tip of his whiplike tail," author M R Miller intones, "he measured almost 90 feet." But, lest we be too impressed by this inferior primordial reptile, Miller adds that "he had a tiny brain." Poor old Dippy, forever being made to suffer such indignities. Like being brought down by hungry allosaurs, starring in unloved Disney movies, and being named 'Dippy'.

Speaking of indignities...poor old Archaeopteryx doesn't get its due here, appearing only as a potential snack for Ornitholestes. Again. It's another riff on a piece by Knight, also copied by Zallinger and then everyone else up until the 1980s. I love the spindly limbs and trident hands on this one.

I'm also very fond of Street's depiction of 'Trachodon' (for which you should basically just substitute 'Edmontosaurus'). While this book avoids full-on 'gigantor-duck' silliness, there's still something very adorable about such an anthropomorphic, dopey-faced old reptile. It could do with a frilly dress, a bonnet and a parasol, mind you. The plant-munching closeup is a nice touch, and better shows off the animal's particularly wide mouth. There's also mention (and a diagram) of the animal's dental batteries, which is unusual for such an 'old-fashioned' book, even if it's still depicted chowing down on mushy water plants.

Of course, even having two thousand teeth won't save you from Sexy Rexy, here looking even more like a cross between the Fantasia version and that old Aurora model kit (albeit somewhat more anatomically accurate). It's an effective illustration at conveying the menacing nature of the animal. The supplementary illustration - providing a sense of scale by depicting Rexy staring into an upstairs room - could have been improved with the addition of a pair of terrified children in the window. The fact that Tyrannosaurus was 'tall enough to stare into a second-story window' (when standing upright in classic Godzilla-esque guise, of course) became something of a trope, quoted in endless kids' books and even referenced in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in spite of the more modern, horizontal orientation of the Spielberg-o-Rex.

And finally...Triceratops makes a comeback, again appearing delightfully unfazed by any lurking, giant coelurosaurs. After all, "Not even Tyrannosaurus Rex [sic] cared to attack Triceratops!" Ever the noble Cretaceous knight (with head-mounted horns and shield), Triceratops is resplendent even when it's a dirty brown and a bit warty. Meanwhile, Rexy is relegated to the naughty step by the magnolias, forced to sit-stand in the corner and think glumly about what he's done. Lovely stuff.


  1. I don't know. Rexy in the last picture looks as though he's contentedly sitting on his tail whilst enjoying the sun to me. ;)

    1. I expect that he's just ensuring that he gets his requisite dosage of vitamin D. I don't think that they were putting it in the milk and margarine back then.

  2. Totally appreciate where you're coming from about Brontosaurus and the depiction of dinosaurs at the time. But most of these books weren't about science - they were about culture. Readers wanted to see mad, bad and ravenous monsters. And that's what they got. And they generally didn't care about scientific inacurracies. Your 'Vintage' posts are fascinating blogs about popular culture. Heck, we do the same with dinosaurs today. These raptors that look like they were dressed by a mad parrot - they're depicted that way for the punters.Dinosaurs are deliberately illustrated as extremeand pushing boundaries, just as they were in the 60s and 70s. The science has very little if anything to do with it. As always, well done!

    1. Yes, you're too right. And at least reconstructions of the like we see in this book can be appreciated for their artistic quality - too often, today's reconstructions are of the horrendous, eye-searing CGI variety...

    2. I dunno... That new partworks magazine with the big plastic tyrannosaur model parts seems to be bringing back the grey-brown lizard trope with gusto.

      I must've been sat under a rock all day. Brontosaurus is back? How many news outlets managed to make a comparison to 'T-Rex' in the same breath?

      Lastly, nice review as always. You'll do your blood pressure a mischief over the Fordian fringe, though. ;)

      Something about that last pic makes me think the tyrannosaur should be wearing a Hawaiian shirt...


  3. It's a shame how many outdated reconstructions are being used in today's news reports about the name revival.

    The UK Independent's article even got confused about the difference between Genus and Species, and then went on to re-open the Pluto debate in the same article.

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  5. "His nostrils were at the top of his head, so he could breathe while wading on the bottom of shallow lakes."

    I wonder where the author lived that they thought that a lake deep enough to submerge a three storey building is "shallow".

  6. I really enjoyed seeing this blast from the past. I practically learned to read from that dear old book and a few others. I made my mom and dad and grandmother study dinosaurs along with me. Thanks for making me smile (and almost cry!)

  7. I see that main Tyrannosaur spread as just another one influenced by Knight's mural without the weird head that it developed with some imitators.

    Always thought Trachodon looked gay... ("queer-looking creature")

    Author credit?

    1. I might have to get back to you with some of these older ones. I'm having trouble digging the books out...

  8. The T Rex in the triceratops picture actually looks like the Zallinger gorgosaurus in the big (giant) book of dinosaurs, which I believe is opposite a monoclonius.


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