Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Vintage Dinosaur Art: How Tough was a Tyrannosaurus?

The Q&A format is a very popular one for children's dinosaur books, and indeed I've covered a few during my invaluably spent time writing for LITC. However, this one's a little special, and that's because it was sent to me by long-time reader Herman Diaz via airmail, all the way from the US. Cheers, Herman! Dating from 1989, it's very typical of the era, and features quite a number of entertaining tropes...not least a probably-quite-explicable fixation on the titular Tyrant Reptile.

How Tough was a Tyrannosaurus? was illustrated by Richard Courtney, a prolific author and illustrator of children's books, whose work has featured here before. The illustrations, while stylised and ever-so-slightly cartoonish, are nevertheless par for the course for the late '80s, throwing in a few anatomical anomalies (what is going on inside Rexy's mouth?) and often clearly inspired by other artists, especially Sibbick. The bright colours are quite wonderful and still look great - far superior to the dull green-and-brown murkosaurs that would have featured in books 10 years prior - and no doubt added significantly to the book's kiddie appeal. As for the text? Well, it's by Paul Sereno. He knows what he's talking about.

Happily, the book features a notable number of full colour, double-page spreads of animals in their environment, although they are often highly anachronistic for no very good reason. It'd be understandable if animals were being grouped in clades, or compared across time, and indeed such illustrations do appear; however, much of the time the scenes just seem to be anachronistic for the sake of it, as above. So, Protoceratops (clearly quite Sibbick-inspired) and Warioviraptor share space with the later Corythosaurus, the even later Tyrannosaurus and Ankylosaurus, and the much earlier ASS-tro-don (tee hee hee). Of particular interest here is the none-more-'80s Oviraptor, which apart from being not especially birdlike (which had been done at the time), also features a conspicuous nose horn. This was the result of a quite understandable misinterpretation of a broken crest, and the popularity of Sibbick's very reptilian restoration in the Normanpedia. Rexy, meanwhile, appears to be having a polite discussion with the corythosaurs, although I hear that Rexy tends to be rather blunt in conversation, like a Rotterdammer.

So, we know that Protoceratops, Tyrannosaurus and Astrodon all lived alongside one another, maybe. But - did other animals live alongside the dinosaurs? They sure did! Althoughs Pteraspis certainly bloody didn't, as it was around in the Devonian period. Although chopped off by my scanner in the above image, the two Pteraspis are being chased by an Ichthyosaurus, which is every bit as absurd as depicting non-avian theropods fighting sexy sexy caveladies in fur bikinis. Neobatrachus, meanwhile, is a genus that I must confess I hadn't heard of before now, but is apparently a genus of frogs native to Australia. As in, extant frogs. I'm sure there's a good reason that I'm ignorant of for it to appear here, in which case please let me know in the comments. The skin textures on the edmontosaurs appear to owe something to the Sibbick's Normanpedia version, although they aren't anywhere near as wrinkled and pachyderm-like.

I know Protoceratops is everyone's favourite dinosaur, so here's another illustration of the perpetually breeding, pointy-faced, squat little fellow. I always enjoy how the adult Protoceratops always looks quite outraged in illustrations like this - maybe it's shocked at how suspiciously clean those hatchlings are.

Before Baron et al. had to come along and throw a spanner in the works, we neatly divided dinosaurs into two camps - the red team (Saurischia) and the blue team (Ornithischia). Eggs were eggs, a spade was a spade, we doffed our caps to our social betters, and everyone knew their place. The Edmontosaurus here, posed as it is, is definitely reminiscent of the Normanpedia version; the others (including an unremarkable Rexy, excised by my scanner) aren't so much, although the strangely round frill of the Triceratops is notable.

Given the anachronistic nature of the animal gatherings in this book, it's clear that no one can be considered safe from Rexy's clutches. Here, he bursts from the trees towards Parasaurolophus, which at least lived in the Late Cretaceous. Again, I love the vibrant colours here, perfect for a children's book without being over-the-top, and greatly increasing the liveliness of a scene that's already filled with movement. Also, Rexy's colours remind me of the original Jurassic Park toy T. rex. I love Rexy's active pose, right foot swinging into action, the arms ready to clutch the prey. The squared-off jaw is a bit weird, though; it reminds me of a novelty Easter egg box (specifically, the Lion bar one).

Given Rexy's time-travelling carnivorous rampages, it's important for the discerning dinosaur to carry suitable protection. Here we see a remarkably late instance of the 'angry pineapple' Ankylosaurus, with a uniform covering of armour plates and a coffee bean tail club (albeit with longer legs than earlier versions). By this time, depictions based on Euoplocephalus/Scolosaurus were becoming more commonplace, and I remember them being prevalent in the 1990s. Courtney also provides yet another illustration of Triceratops where its horns are erupting from directly behind its eyes, for some reason.

Of course, it wasn't just Rexy that threatened the Peaceful Plant-Eaters (TM) of 1980s and '90s dinosaur books; one also had to beware roving gangs of dromaeosaur land-piranhas. The Saurolophus, being depicted at a larger size than most animals in this book, gains a pleasing level of fleshy detail - careful shading and detailing gives it a real sense of muscular bulk. Which isn't helping one bit in the face of an onslaught from a mob of reptilian Deinonychus (which lived millions of years earlier on a different continent - oh well, ho hum). [EDIT: D'oh - of course the type species S. osborni was from Canada, but still lived many millions of years later than Deinonychus. Thanks to James Appleby in the comments.] I do like the foamy spittle emerging from the herbivore's mouth, suggesting that this may be a sick individual, although it does draw attention to some teeth that probably shouldn't be there.

All this drama, and we still haven't answered the most important question of all - just how tough was a Tyrannosaurus, anyway? Well, here's your answer:

"Many flesh-eating dinosaurs were fast and agile, bringing down prey several times their own weight. However, the huge, powerful jaws, the strong hind limbs, and - most important - the great size of Tyrannosaurus made the "tyrant" dinosaur the most terrifying flesh-eater that ever lived."
Too right - Rexy was one terrifying murderous crocobird. Fittingly, in a book filled with strange anachronisms, this proclamation of Rexy's awesomeness is accompanied by an illustration of Our Hero preparing to sink his teeth into...Oviraptor. Better than a Devonian fish, I suppose.

And finally...David Norman, is that you?


  1. At least Tenontosaurus is getting a rest from the deinonychids - for a change! And 'YAY!' cheers Astrodon. 'At last I get an illustration in a kid's book!'

  2. And just after ASS-tro-don, we see ter-ASS-pus. Where do these weird pronounciation guides come from, anyway? I mean it's not like they get even close to resembling the original Greek or Latin pronounciation, anyway. They're usully telling us to prnounce the words precisely the way one would with an English word spelled that way, the odd silent P aside.

    Another note, what's up with those ceratopian frills? That second Protoceratops is closer to an Alien queen and the Triceratops don't fare much better. Where are all those fenestrae coming from? Especially on a species with a famously solid frill like Triky.

    1. As an English person, I'm endlessly amused by pronounciation guides in American books that direct one to say certain words with an American drawl ("pay-lee-on-TAHL-uh-jists"). I've been told though that Americans are equally as amused by the guides in British books.

  3. Re 'Neobatrachus', which, as you say, is a native of my own land and still very much living - it is a genus of burrowing ground frogs, and certainly not at home in the sea, Mesozoic or otherwise. But there is a clade of frog, called the Neobatrachia, which originate in the Early Cretaceous, according to the geek's friend, Wikipedia. And the burrowing ground frog is indeed a member of that clade. The genus itself however is from recent times.

    I don't know why the illustrator felt compelled to put a marine frog in that scene at all, but there is a Notobatrachus from the Middle Jurassic.

    So I've just spent about 20 minutes of my life investigating Mesozoic frogs!

  4. Objection your honour - Saurolophus osborni lived in North America (granted a lot later than Deinonychus)!

    1. Oops! Thanks for the correction, I've added something to the text. Not sure why I thought it was purely Asian given that earlier this year I, er, went to the AMNH, where they have the holotype.

  5. Many thanks for the shout out! My only nit-pick is that the Pisanosaurus/Stokesosaurus pic isn't included (although I understand that you can't include all the pics). It's 1 of my favorites for its atmosphere. My other favorite is the Deinonychus/Saurolophus pic for its awesomebro-ness. Also, I've always thought the Saurolophus's head looks like a jumbo shell: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/AecdrKVM_Dh7c1Rq_SNv3-Wi7BfLtcJUFA9X65bg16606VyCG0VdCcE/


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