Monday, August 17, 2015

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs! The 1987 Childcraft Annual - Part 1

Back in July, JT Covenant used a comment on my review of Ladybird's The Lost World to point me to a book that they thought I'd enjoy. I can happily say that they were right on the money. In fact, finally receiving this hefty old thing through the post (it came from the US) sent me quite giddy with glee. Not only is it illustrated by a panoply of artists, all with wildly varying styles, all of whom are credited (including Greg Paul!), but it's virtually a comprehensive encyclopedia of '80s palaeoart memes. Some are tiresomely familiar, but there are also some very weird ideas in here that have long since been rendered obsolete. To cap it all, it's from the very year I was born. It's Dinosaurs! The 1987 Childcraft Annual.

I wasn't familiar with Childcraft, but it is apparently a "multi-volume illustrated anthology for children" that has been around since the 1930s (or so says Wikipedia). Dinosaurs! is impressively comprehensive for a kids' book, covering a tad under 300 pages (excluding the glossary, index etc.), and is richly illustrated throughout. One doesn't have to go any further than the cover to find Bakker and Sibbick references, including what appears to be a weirdly hornless version of Sibbick's Normanpedia Ceratosaurus. This is explained inside as follows:

"Most scientists think that only the male certaosauruses [sic] had a horn, and that they used this horn...when fighting each other at mating time."

Damn those Most Scientists and their constant baseless speculation! No wonder no one listens to a word they say.

It's always fun when artists replicate others' interpretations of certain animals, but then alter their poses and place them in different situations. The very specifically quirky creatures become characters of their own, and it's enjoyable to keep up with their continuing adventures through the pages of various unrelated kids' dinosaur books. Here, artist John Dawson has his very Sibbickian ceratosaurus happily devouring a camptosaur carcass - until Old Man Allosaurus turns up to drone on about the good old days when there were only tetanuran theropods around here, the freakishly large tree ferns were greener, and speculatively fluffy juveniles did as they were told.

While Dawson's ceratosaurs are at least adopting notably different postures to Sibbick's, his Allosaurus is altogether more cheekily familiar to anyone who knows the Normanpedia well. Yes, it's eating while lying down (which is actually a nice idea in itself), but the torso section instantly gives it away. The head, with its forward vision-blocking face nubbin, is a dead ringer, and the position of the right arm is identical. Even the colouration is remarkably similar. Still, Dawson was far from unique in slavishly reproducing Sibbick's slightly odd, arm-flexing take on Big Al - why, its plastic mould-friendly chunkiness even meant that it was immortalised in toy form.

In addition to the typical post-Normanpedia Sibbick clones, Dinosaurs! manages to include the obligatory Bakkerian Deinonychus, always running at full pelt, always sporting a fetching dewlap. Admittedly, this is a particularly well executed (by Jean Helmer) example of  the meme, with lovely detailing and a very dapper red-headed colour scheme. I like the composition, with the impression given that the animals are tumbling down the side of the page in pursuit of their quarry (Tenontosaurus, of course, illustrated on the opposite page).

Besides, at least copying Bakker ensures that your dromaeosaur won't end up looking like...this thing. There's something quite enjoyably dainty and delicate-looking about this Velociraptor, what with its tiny hands and rather diminutive sickle claw. It's just a product of unfortunate '80s thinking, which saw artists suppressing the very birdlike traits of these animals (when they weren't just copying one another. The artists, that is). Here, artist Robert Hynes pairs Wile E Raptor with his eternal foe, the angry squatting Protoceratops. Spoiler: things don't end well.

Elsewhere, the most '80s Oviraptor possible (it has a mane of cool blue feathers, but otherwise steers well clear of being birdlike) noshes messily on someone's abandoned eggs. This one's by Colin Newman. I do love the technique used for the sky, but the animal combines a Sibbickian concentric ring skin pattern with a finely polished finish reminiscent of a 4x4 vehicle purchased by a money-crazed, wantonly aggressive businessperson. The nose horn was widespread in reconstructions at the time, and was the result of a misinterpretation of an incomplete skull (the crest was broken off). Where the mane started out, I'm not sure; it must have seemed quite radical at the time. These days, of course, we know that oviraptorosaurs were feathered like birds (although no one told Papo).

Ornithomimosaurs always looked thoroughly indecent in art, so it was a relief for palaeoart fans everywhere when firm evidence was discovered that they were fully floofed-up after all. While artists had, by this time, moved away from the terrifying '70s visions of spindle-limbed monstrosities with tiny human fingers on the far-away extremities of seemingly endless long, thin arms (the better to reach through the tiny crack between your wardrobe doors), '80s ornithomimosaurs could still look a bit creepy. I do admire Jim Pearson's technique here - it's rather reminiscent of John McLoughlin's work. But Christ...the eyes. The eyes alone. Even discounting the worryingly humanoid anatomy of the arms, with their clawless, frog-like fingers, those huge, wet eyes are just plain disconcerting. Brrr.

So that we may forget that last illustration as quickly as possible, here's one (by John Francis) of some Coelophysis attempting to set the land speed record for basal Triassic theropods. Shades of Bakker's "Syntarsus" here, although thankfully without the little backward-projecting wedge of feathers on the head.

For whatever reason, perhaps the most 'old school' theropod illustration (in execution if nothing else) stars none other than Sexy Rexy, here shown being overly affectionate towards a hadrosaur, who has unfortunately been accidentally asphyxiated as a result. It's got it all - green-grey warty dino skins, a number of identical smoking conical volcanoes, and even a swamp. It's a wonderfully painted piece, though (by Kinuko Craft), and for all that it's quite retro in appearance, it's still aged much better than...

...This. There isn't a lot I can add. And no, Spinosaurus being all stumpy-limbed isn't a vindication of vintage illustrations that depicted it with a head so generic as to be shapeless. (I can see you commenters coming a mile off.) With apologies to Jim Pearson, because hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing, and I do like your style.

Speaking of outdated interpretations...would you believe that one Gregory S Paul™ produced illustrations for this book? Paul's illustrations stick out like an especially well-researched and anatomically correct thumb among all the Sibbick-u-like dinosaurs - in particular, his accurately fat-necked apatosaur is a remarkable sight in a book like this. But I'll feature that another time. For now, here's a remarkably prescient feathered non-avian theropod; or at least, it would have been, were it not for the true identity of the animal it's intended to represent. For this remarkably dromaeosaur-noggined creation is, in fact, supposed to be Avimimus. As in, the oviraptorosaur. Yeah, we can laugh about how literally wrong-headed this is, but the animal was very poorly understood at the time. Typically, artists just copied John Sibbick's even more inaccurate version (at least the body in Paul's is nearer reality) as seen in the Normanpedia, and you'll note that Paul has the animal's remiges attached along its second digit. So very many artists still can't get that right.

And finally...Troodon has been subject to a few peculiar hypotheses over the years. Everyone's familiar with Dale Russell's 'Dinosauroid', the comical green lizard man that made quite a name for himself in '80s and '90s dinosaur books, before being pecked to death by a swarm of feathered maniraptorans. However, few recall the one about Troodon being the only known carnivorous ornithischian.

No, really.

It's not so surprising in the light of troodontid teeth being misinterpreted as belonging to a pachycephalosaur, and possible omnivory in Troodon has been discussed again more recently (notably by Holtz et al.). However, Dinosaurs! is the only children's book I've come across to give the 'Troodon as ornithischian' idea a proper airing (and a life reconstruction by Roberta Polfus). The text describes the animal as 'looking like Hypsilophodon', so that's what we get in the illustration. Well, sort of. Over on Facebook, Patrick Bate remarked on how the dinosaurs were lacking in texture and simplistic-looking when compared with the mammal up front, which is "drawn down to the tiniest hair". This is very pertinent, and one gets the strong impression that the artist wasn't entirely sure what they were supposed to be drawing...which isn't too surprising. Imagine the brief...

Coming up next: more '80s! More! This book cannot be contained in a mere single post.


  1. Well, now I expect to be kept awake for fear of Pearson's horrifying ornithomimids lurking in my wardrobe, thanks. Thanks also (and rather more sincerely) for the mention toward the end there!

  2. I thought seeing the Avimimus on Facebook prepared me. I was so wrong. Weird Dimetrodons, though. Spinosaurus? Yeah, right. I'd buy that this is Platyhystrix before I am willing to go anywhere near calling this any sort of theropod.
    I remember seeing Oviraptor with feathery necks occassionally in books from the 80's. None as stylish as the one here, but I do recall one that had a lion-like mane. Oviraptor was pretty popular to illustrate the outlandish idea of feathered dinosaurs (gasp!) before Avimimus became more popular (and even after, because of the Normanpedia's scale winged monstrosity)

  3. I would rather look at Pearson's ornithomimosaurs as an exercise in speculative evolution, exploring the idea of lissamphibians convergent with theropods. It's all there: smooth moist skin, bulging eyes and clawless digits, coupled with a bipedal bauplan. The weird flaps of skin at the base of the head even resemble vestigial gills, something like the ones possessed by the Monster of the Black Lagoon...

  4. Where is the big ornithomimid's left leg? Are the eyes distracting me so much I can't find it?

    1. I think it's meant to be straddling the smaller ornithomimosaur but there's obviously an error of perspective with its left forelimb being in front of the other's neck. I think that the shadows behind the big one's right calf and ankle are meant to be parts of its left hindlimb.

  5. Fantastic! First of all, I'm glad that you're enjoying it so much; I remember repurchasing it as an adult having absolutely adored this book as a child and rediscovering it with the genuine glee. Seeing it through your analytical eyes is really interesting too, it's another exploration of the book and a new way to enjoy it! Looking fowards to Part 2 (and wondering which other illustrations you're going to pick out, knowing what's in there!)

  6. This was THE book that got me into dinosaurs. Looking back, though, it's a baffling mix of strange or outdated hypothesis as well as very early interpretations of some surprisingly up-to-date stuff (it references Protoavis and Chindesaurus before either was formally named, IIRC). The Avimimus would be a pretty good illustration if it didn't have the head of a Sinornithosaurus!

  7. I dig the pack of red-headed Deinonychus. They look like agama lizards.

  8. I love the flattened look of the Coelophysis flock, especially against a flat background. Awesome! It's a pity T-rex is so uninteresting.

  9. That Greg Paul "Avimimus" is quite a find. I think it's been modified into a troodontid now.

  10. My previous post appears to've disappeared into the aether, apologize if much the same appears twice ...

    One of my dad's dino books, which I devoured as a kid, had a carnivorous ornithischian that I presume was Troodon (tho I can't claim to remember the name). The text said it was as unlikely-seeming as a carnivorous cow.

    1. That's exactly what this book says! Maybe it *was* this one...

    2. Quite sure it wasn't - that book had few illustrations except for black silhouettes (which it OTOH had lots of, many depicting species the text described as fragmentary, incl Rapator). But very possibly one was copying the other.

    3. Do you mean this book, Andreas?

      I found a copy of that Field Guide in kindergarten and it hooked me on dinosaurs forever. Along with the Sibbickopedia, my dinosaur bible of the early '80s. Would love to see it pop up here, though while I remember the art being seriously based on the science of the time, it also seemed like none of it was original, just black-and-white photocopied scrapbooking of stuff by who-knows-how-many artists?

    4. Yes, my dad's book must've been the Swedish translation of that one.

  11. *Puts on illustrator hat -- oh, wait, it's never off anyway*

    Wow, I'd never have supposed that Kinuko Craft had illustrated that T. rex piece. She's well renowned in some circles these days as an illustrator of fairy tales and 'fantasy' themes! Not that there's anything especially unusual about such a combination (cough); only that I couldn't recognise this as her work stylistically.

    The sky in the Oviraptor illustration comes from making full use of cobalt blue watercolour's granulating properties. The pigment is one of a few that does this naturally.

    And in fairness to the disparity of texture treatment between the Troodon and the mammal, I wonder if it's not simply a practical decision based on the the mammal's being in the foreground and the Troodon further back. Certainly, in my own case, I wouldn't be tempted to render the scales visibly either.

  12. Nice write-up. The 'Troodon as ornithischian' thing is also featured (with a fetching reconstruction) in David Lambert's 1983 Collins Guide to Dinosaurs. In fact, the picture there is suspiciously similar to Polfus's one above - the hands and feet are especially telling. So I guess that's where it was copied from. Further evidence that Lambert's book was used comes from the oviraptorosaur with the mane - Lambert features one of them too, and it's similar enough to Newman's illustration to suggest that one was based on the other. The Hynes Velociraptor shown above is also suspiciously similar to the one in Lambert 1983.

    1. I thought there was something familiar about that Velociraptor. It would appear that I've somehow failed to review Lambert 1983 - I'll have to track it down.

  13. Wow, where do I start? This is a great find, a real standout for many reasons and I'm glad that you felt that it deserved a second post.

    "Most scientists" eh? I suppose that they surveyed the people at CERN, NASA, Bell Labs, DARPA, a couple of big pharma research labs,... I think that you would have to question a sweeping statement such as that even if it claimed that most palaeontologists were of the same opinion about something.

    That silly Oviraptor, doesn't it know that it's eating its own eggs? I'd seen the nose horn before but don't recall seeing a mane. Certainly not a funky blue one.

    Those ornithomimosaurs are just disturbing.

    When I first saw the Spinosaurus I thought that they were meant to be Dimetrodon. Either way, they're weird.

    Looking fwd to Part 2.

  14. Oh, I love these sime creativity was shown here.

    That said, is there any reason at all for spinosaurus to have a he somewhere between a human and a toad sitting upon its neck?

  15. Sorry for the late comment, but I kept getting busy & forgetting. Anyway, this may be the fastest I've ever gone from 1st finding out about a book to actually buying the book myself. I was on the 2nd paragraph when I went to Amazon & ordered a copy. All thanks to you!

    BTW, I too was born in 1987.

    "Here, artist John Dawson has his very Sibbickian ceratosaurus happily devouring a camptosaur carcass"

    As in John D. Dawson? I really like his work, especially in "Ranger Rick's Dinosaur Book" (which I'm gonna review in 2016). His "lying down" allosaur is (next to the T.rex) my favorite of all the pics you've posted from this book.

    "until Old Man Allosaurus turns up to drone on about the good old days when there were only tetanuran theropods around here,"

    I don't think there was such a time, or is that part if the joke?

    "For this remarkably dromaeosaur-noggined creation is, in fact, supposed to be Avimimus."

    What's weird is that his 1988 book features an oviraptorosaurian Avimimus.

    1. It was part of the joke - implying that he's a mildly 'racist' old git (Allosaurus being a tetanuran theropod, and Ceratosaurus not).

      As for John Dawson - I'm not too familiar with him I'm afraid - probably is the same guy!

    2. You can see some of his RRDB work in this link (I especially like the 1 w/Euparkeria):

  16. I used to LOVE this book. Shame I can't find it anymore.


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