Vintage Dinosaur Art: Flying Dragons

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Pterosaurs have suffered a great many indignities over the years; normally relegated to the backgrounds of illustrations hogged by fat old dinosaurs, on the rare occasions when they have been given the spotlight, they’ve tended to be depicted as ultra-fragile, emaciated freaks with tissue paper wings, barely able to fly under their own power (if at all), just filling a space before the birds turn up to displace them. Kids’ books dedicated to the First Airborne Vertebrates™ have historically been thin on the ground, probably because they just seemed so rubbish. I was rather interested, therefore, when Ralph A Attanasia the Third (of Cake Boss fame) offered to send me scans of Flying Dragons, a 1980 kids’ book all about those freaky non-dinosaurian flying reptiles. There’s a lot of Pteranodon in it. Thanks Ralph!

Dating from 1980, Flying Dragons was written by David Eldridge, illustrated by Norman Nodel, and published by Troll Associates in Mahwah (that name again!), New Jersey, United States. The cover depicts everyone’s favourites – Dimorphodon, Rhamphorhynchus and Pteranodon – posed against a suitably dramatic red sky and, of course, clifftop. In case you were wondering, these aren’t actually all the pterosaurs depicted in this book, as one might expect. There’s actually one more! Which we’ll get to shortly. But first…

Behold, the head of a typical pterosaur, very likely modeled on Rhamphorhynchus. The large, white sclera is an odd touch, and gives this creature much more of a comical, cartoonish, pop-eyed appearance than it otherwise might have had. It also looks really bloody furious, as well it might. The scaly skin texture is handled rather nicely here, with judicious use of gleaming highlights on the animal’s otherwise rather pebbly, lumpen hide. It’s just as well, as all the pterosaurs here are uniformly scaly, without even the slightest tuft of pycnofibres to be found. It was known that pterosaurs were fuzzy well before 1980, but the popular perception that they were all cold-blooded and reptilian and nasty had well and truly stuck.

Nodel’s full-body illustrations of Rhamphorhynchus reveal an odd tendency for his pterosaurs to almost look like they have bat-like wing fingers…but not quite. It’s as if they’ve been drawn on at an early stage, only to be hastily erased later. There’s also a chance that the artist was struggling to envisage how these animals’ wings would work without using bats as a model. Whatever the case, Rhamphorhynchus gets its tail vane, but the rest of the body is a little formless and vague, probably the result of Nodel having less-than-brilliant reference material available. That’s a very pretty sky though!

Rhamphorhynchus is also depicted snatching a fish from the water, and it must be said that, as an illustration, it’s actually rather good; there’s a real impression of speed here, and an effective use of composition. The pterosaur looks a little more convincing as a real animal here, although not much, and its legs and feet seem to have withered to weird, pudgy, baby-like stumps.

Remember that mysterious Other Pterosaur I mentioned? Well, here it is, and it’s not Pterodactylus! It may only be mentioned (and illustrated) the once, but it’s pretty remarkable that Ctenochasma (another Late Jurassic pterodactyloid) is featured at all. I can’t quite make up my mind whether this bug-eyed, bony-shouldered, zipper-mouthed weirdo is adorable or plain terrifying. What I do quite like is that it appears to be ploughing through the surface of the water, as opposed to avoiding it at all costs lest its pathetic wings get a bit damp and drag it under. Obscure genera? Avoidance of clichéd behaviour? We can’t have that!

So here’s Pteranodon, doing its best impression of a stealth bomber, with a head that may be on back-to-front (although we can’t quite be sure). This illustration is anomalous when compared with other depictions of Pteranodon in Flying Dragons; not only is the wing configuration different, but six of the animal’s fingers have mysteriously vanished. I’m almost inclined to think that the illustration was produced at a different time to the rest, although the animal’s colouration is the same. Never mind; at least there’s lots of greenery in this scene, which is more than can be said of most depictions of Pteranodon, in which it soars over barren, rocky clifftops…

…like this one. The premise for this illustration is a common one, and a great many illustrations of pterosaurs (and especially, Pteranodon) feeding their cliff-bound young have been produced over the years; Nodel’s appears to particularly owe something to Burian (the adult in the top right looks very familiar). Surprisingly, the evidence points to most pterosaurs not actually bothering with this sort of thing; pterosaur babies (or ‘flaplings’) appear to have been highly precocial and probably had to take care of themselves. I’m sure it was character-forming for them. In this illustration, I am especially fond of Baby Rodan on the left hand side.

It wasn’t all fun, games and regurgitated fish for our pterosaur friends; for you see, they shared the world with a great many threatening, carnivorous, hungry, and often very ugly reptiles, for whom a pterosaur would have made a very tempting lightweight snack, like a rice cracker. I really like the unsettling green background in the above illustration, which helps accentuate its main subjects. But come on, that allosaur looks very, very silly indeed. The lumpen hindquarters are one thing, but what really fascinates me is what’s going on with its neck and shoulders. Like…where are they? It’s like some saurian version of Wario. It doesn’t make any sense. Where do the shoulder blades go? Where’s the neck? Where? Why? I look forward to seeing it in the next Jurassic World movie. (It’s just a movie, after all. A fictitious movie of fiction full of theme park monsters based on Lego genetics. Any silly thing can happen. I understand that, guys.)

Meanwhile, the pterosaur here appears to be trying to launch bipedally. It’s been listening to the wrong scientists.

Pterosaurs didn’t just have hungry fugly theropods to worry about; there were also smaller, feathered, flying theropods, with very fetching blue plumage that could perch improbably on palm fronds. These Archaeopteryx-types look very familiar, but then, the same handful of Archaeopteryx illustrations were copied ad nauseam for decades. The birds were warm blooded; they could truly fly rather than merely fall with style; they could withstand being a bit beaten up. How could the poor old pterosaurs compete? They couldn’t.

And so we reach the sad end of the pterosaurs. Reduced to papery husks that crumbled into dust and blew away in the wind. Poor old dears. Isolated from its context, this is actually one of the best illustrations in the book; the pterosaur looks a bit messed up, but then it would, ‘cos it’s dead. It also looks rather convincing, with decent shading and use of perspective. This piece also features some rather pretty impressionistic foliage and decent-looking birdy things. Truly, Flying Dragons comes good in The End…even if the pterosaurs didn’t.

3 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: Flying Dragons

  1. When I was a kid, I had this vision of an underclass of sad earthbound pterosaurs who couldn’t fly with their former peers because they’d torn their flight membranes.

  2. Pterosaurs as glorious but doomed experiments which couldn’t even evolve a wing membrane tough enough to resist a gust of wind! A curious meme that was also applied to the dinosaurs. They reigned for a ‘mere’ 150 million years or so. Yet highly successful Homo sapiens has existed for some 300,000 years and is on the verge of laying waste the very resources it needs to survive! Which is the more successful?

  3. “It was known that pterosaurs were fuzzy well before 1980, but the popular perception that they were all cold-blooded and reptilian and nasty had well and truly stuck.”

    It’s especially weird given that, as you probably remember, the much older/more influential Watson 1960 describes pterosaurs as being endothermic.

    “Isolated from its context, this is actually one of the best illustrations in the book; the pterosaur looks a bit messed up, but then it would, ‘cos it’s dead.”

    Reminds me of the pterosaur scene in “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth”.

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