Monday, July 3, 2017

Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Crocodiles Still Wait

When attempting to flesh out their Mesozoic palaeoart scenes, artists will often throw in a few crocodilians. After all, many of them (although very far from all) closely resembled those we have with us today, which makes referencing a great deal easier. Quite apart from that, having a familiar animal in a scene helps accentuate the strange, exotic nature of beasties of more extinct archosarian clades. In this delightful book, however, one of those 'set dressing' creatures finally gets its time in the spotlight. Many thanks again to Charles Leon for sending me this one.



And what a wonderful title, too - The Crocodiles Still Wait. For the crocodiles have always waited. As aeons pass, catastrophes overtake the Earth, empires rise and fall and the great civilisations crumble to dust, so the crocodiles wait. The crocodiles wait...for you.

The Crocodiles Still Wait is more recent than it might appear at first; it was published in 1980, when the Dinosaur Renaissance was in full swing. In spite of this, the dinosaurs in this book are resolutely retro, as exemplified by man-in-suit Rexy on the cover. Which isn't to say that the art style isn't a delight, for it certainly is. Like many dinosaur books from earlier decades (the '50s and '60s especially), the art - by Donald Carrick - mixes varying shades of a single colour into otherwise black and white illustrations. The effect is suitably moody, with a murky, swampy, primordial feel. Personally, I prefer the orange-sepia-yellow shades here to the greens that other books went with.


The book takes the form of a short story detailing the exploits of Our Hero, the crocodile. Naturally, this being The World Before Man, the crocodile is a whopper, clearly modelled on the likes of Deinosuchus (which was more like an alligator, kids). The illustrations of the crocodile in this book are quite exquisite, possibly even better than Quentin Blake's. The dinosaurs inevitably look a little cartoonish in comparison, and the inclusion of numerous Pteranodon (as the stock pterosaur) can be distracting. Still, look at that croc's adorable face. Appearances can be deceptive, of course. For this crocodile is waiting to pounce...


Inevitably, it's a poor old edmontosaur that buys it. This is perhaps my favourite illustration in the book; the juxtaposition of the lurking crocodile's beady eyes, and it dragging its quarry to a watery grave, is just beautiful. Graduated browns lend a suitably swampy feel, like we're struggling to see through the murk as the giant predator drags the hadrosaur under. The rush of air from the hadrosaur's mouth is a great touch.


Now we segue to a flashback, as two male crocodiles fight for their mating rights. There's that Pteranodon again, lacking in pycnofibres, but sporting a parched, leathery look that I rather like. Note that the book educates the reader on modern crocodilian behaviour, as well as Mesozoic animals.


Having mated with the biggest, burliest, bubbliest male, Our Hero lays her eggs by the water's edge, where shafts of light illuminate the swampy lowlands in a delightfully picturesque fashion. Seriously, what a gorgeous illustration. It's almost a shame that Carrick's knowledge of ornithomimosaurs was, shall we say, a little behind the times; a properly proportioned theropod sneaking up to the nest would really have been the cherry on top. As it is, the blobby-bodied, tiny-handed fellow that we do get is at least quite amusing. They're hands worthy of pretending to punch CNN in the face.


Our Croc is having none of this, of course, and lunges for the lumpen, squidgy egg thief. Alas, though, for in spite of appearances, Ornithomimus is too quick for Big Mama, and one of the eggs is lost. It's here that I'd like to draw your attention to the foliage in the background; it almost resembles a stencil painting on a wall, which I really like. It helps draw attention to the characters in the foreground, see. Note also the gnarled, tangled tree branches to the left - Carrick certainly does enjoy creating a tangibly textured, rough-hewn world.


Of course, it being the Late Cretaceous, it's only a matter before some dirty great coelurosaur with stabby teeth shows up. Instilling a suitable sense of foreboding, and maintaining the crocodile's perspective, we are first shown hadrosaurs fleeing Rexy against a tumultuous, swirling sky. Oh my, what a sky - it's lovely. The hadrosaurs here, while retro (hell, the whole premise is retro), are notably less cartoonish than they were previously, although the twinkle-toed individual in the middle is quite amusing.

This being a book all about Our Croc Hero, when Rexy looms into view, we see him in the distance from a low, crocodilian perspective, with Our Hero's body filling much of the spread. He's making more of an heroic cameo here, you see, a role he would reprise in Jurassic World. You might expect me to find Rexy's appearance here amusing, given that it's a highly retro, upright, tail-dragging creature with six fingers. However, there's something about its blank, black eyes, lumpen, Godzilla-like skin, and the swirling clouds and fog that makes this whole scene rather nightmarish. He looks almost...undead.

"You! Yes, you! Stand still, laddie!"
Fortunately, he looks altogether less terrifying in the next scene. The water, here, is particularly skilfully painted, and I like the use of perspective (although it does mean that Rexy looks notably more athletic than he did in the previous spread). Note Rexy's reversed first toe, one of my favourite retro palaeoart tropes. The description of the prey's struggling, by author Carol Garrick, is a wonderful touch of realism. Too often in these old books, Rexy would lunge at a hadrosaur, snap his jaws down, and that would be that; only ceratopsians and ankylosaurs had a chance of fighting back. As I mentioned in my look at the AMNH's Ornithischian gallery, it's easy to forget just how big and powerful Edmontosaurus must have been, even without any spiky bits.


And finally...poor old Rexy has to give up his kill, and all because he forgot his armbands (or 'water wings' if you prefer). Sad. At least we get a final look at that lovely, almost impressionistic swamp as Our Croc Hero draws in. The text describes how, as Rexy exits stage left, Our Hero bares her teeth and flashes her eyes at him. She's not putting up with some overgrown scaly murderbird in her swamp, and good on her. Now she can carry on waiting...

4 comments:

  1. Yes, the comparison between the well-proportioned and accurately drawn croc and the nightmarish dinosaurs really works I think. If the artist could draw a modern beast so well he could have surely have drawn a Knightian or Zallingerian dinosaur equally as well. Clearly the story is from the living croc's point of view, and so the extinct dinosaurs really have to look like the stuff of dreams.

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  2. Would Carol and Donald Carrick be a wife and husband team or similar?

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    1. I don't know, although I did wonder. Seems quite likely.

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  3. I have fond memories of reading the same pair's book Patrick's Dinosaurs as a child...

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