There once existed a publisher named Starfish Books, based in the town of Cobham in Surrey, about 34 miles from where I live (driving via the A23/M23 and M25). They appear to have published children’s books (fiction and non-fiction) back in the 1970s, and then disappeared with very little trace. Whatever became of Starfish Books? Why should I care? Well, I must admit that it’s mostly because this book – The Starfish Book of Dinosaurs and Early Animals – doesn’t contain so much as a copyright date. I’d also like to know more about author/illustrator Roy Machon; Google searches reveal that he wrote Cranmer the Crocodile, also published by Starfish, and very little else. I hate all this mystery! It’s especially frustrating as this is such a charming little book in its own way, even if they did stick Dimetrodon on the cover (underneath the word ‘dinosaurs’ in fat red letters).
As the title suggests, this book in fact attempts to cover all prehistoric life within a scant 128 pages, and actually manages to do so quite well (you know, for the time). The dinosaurs themselves only occupy as many pages as they deserve on such a timescale, but of course they’re the headline act on the cover, because, hey, we all know where the money’s made. Machon’s illustrations are all quite stylised, cartoonish and monochrome, with a very immediate comic book charm. Many of them have a wonderful pop art stippling effect to them, while others look like they might have been drawn on a 1980s computer. (Hey – perhaps they were.) Surprisingly – especially so since some of the illustrations are such obvious rip-offs – the text is actually very good for the (presumed) era. Various old ideas – such as hadrosaurs gulping down mushy water plants, stegosaurs having two brains, and sauropods being aquatic – are soundly rubbished, and the evidence to the contrary presented. I’m impressed.
Still, it’s the illustrations we’re here for and especially, the illustrations of dinosaurs. One of the first to appear is Iguanodon, in a classic tail-leaning, thumbs-up pose. At least it doesn’t have a Neave Parker-style dewlap. This illustration makes use of a similar style applied elsewhere, where varyingly-sized ‘crazy paving’ scales and minimal crease lines are used to give the impression of a scaly hide, with very little in the way of shading. It’s an intriguing approach, and something we don’t really see any more – not even in self-conscious attempts to render dinosaurs in ‘non-standard’ art styles, which seem to end up just being conspicuously odd (I mean, that one guy threw up a Magic Eye hadrosaur you can barely see). I rather like it, overly sharp-clawed feet and all.
A little less successful is this stipple-tastic Diplodocus, which doesn’t really rise above sketch quality. It’s also rather disappointing that its tail disappears into the water, given that it was such a spectacular and notable feature of the animal. Still, it’s…all right, other than that. Those plants are a bit rubbish, though. I much preferred the silhouetted fronds in the Iguanodon piece.
Moving swiftly on, and here we have a Ceratosaurus that looks equally sketchy, with a rather roughly drawn tail and a thumbs-up for a nose horn. (As opposed to Iguanodon, where a thumbs-up was mistaken for a nose horn.) Unsurprisingly, its pose is highly reminiscent of the mount of the holotype located in the National Museum of Natural History in the US. With that in mind, the reversed first toe (hallux) starts to make more sense. As for the blank eyes, well, that’s probably because theropods are all evil and mean. Apart from the next one.
Yes, it’s adorable Spinosaurus! Even if the reconstruction is hilariously outdated now, the quality of the illustration has certainly moved up a notch. This ‘generic carnosaur’ reconstruction of Spinosaurus would persist well into the 1990s, which is unsurprising given the lack of information available about it, although I’m yet to determine why so many artists opted to give it four or even five-fingered hands. My favourite aspect of this depiction, other than its Godzilla-like head, is the weirdly brittle-looking sail on its back, which owes more to Dimetrodon and/or modern-day lizards than spinosaurs. I mean, the spines on Hydrosaurus are less conspicuous than this.
That aside, it’s very much of its time. You know, those arms don’t half remind me of abelisaurs, which were virtually unknown at the time. It’s funny how things work out.
Having mentioned Spinosaurus, we might as well move on to Rexy now – its eternal nemesis since 2001. Here, Rexy is very obviously based on whatever model made it onto the cover of Purnell’s Book of Dinosaurs, which I reviewed OVER SIX YEARS AGO. It’s wrong in almost every way, and has three-toed feet for some reason, but at least the comic book art style is quite nice. Machon has opted to make his Rexy somewhat lumpier than the original model, perhaps just to set it apart. He’s also given him tiny, uniform teeth, which just seems a bit lazy. Next!
Now, here we might have my favourite illustration in the whole book. These pudgy fellows are, of course, representatives of the dubious genus Monoclonius, popular enough in old dinosaur books to be immortalised as a Dino Riders/Smithsonian toy that I owned once. Here, one has a slightly longer and bendier horn than the other one, which will no doubt serve it well. Where the scalloped ‘pie dish’ frills came from, I’m not sure. I’m also perturbed by the fact that those blank eyes are showing up on innocent herbivores, now. Brrrr.
Moving swiftly on (again), here’s Styracosaurus, the favourite ceratopsian of Ralph A Attanasia III, depicted here with the head of a spiny sea invertebrate. This illustration really does intrigue me, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone extend Styracosaurus‘ frill horns like fingers over its forehead. It’s completely wrong but fascinating with it, and I’d love to know where Machon got the idea. I mean, they look like the outspread limbs of an octopus. It’s madness.
Oh, and the thing has a fat, limp tail, as was common at the time, and a theropod-like hallux for some reason. Still, I do, again, really like the style here. This is a pretty decent pop art dinosaur. I can picture it on t-shirts in a big clothing shop chain, labelled ‘TRICERATOPS’ because they never get it right.
And finally…the greatest gangly dork hadrosaur that I’ve ever seen. A “Trachodon” with the tail of a newt, the spurs of a galliform, a gormless beakless smile, and the weedy arms of…me. Still, this illustration makes use of that lovely scalation technique, and Machon does mention that the animal clearly ate tough plants, in spite of being so apparently adapted to a semi-aquatic lifestyle. (Close enough, for the 1970s.) To wit:
“So we know Trachodon must have been a good swimmer, and we might well assume that he lived in water. But oddly enough, though he was a plant eater, he did not have the kind of teeth needed for eating soft water plants. Instead, he had teeth suitable for eating the hard leaves of coniferous trees. The answer to this puzzle is that he probably lived near lakes or rivers, and fed off trees. If danger threatened, he would run down to the water and swim quickly away to safety.”
Hey, it makes a lot more sense than the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.