Vintage Dinosaur Art: books from the DK Action Pack

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Following a perusal of the ACTION PACK as a whole in my previous post, let’s now have a closer look at the two books included within. The first of these, like the pack itself (and the somewhat related Eyewitness book), is simply entitled Dinosaur, and serves as a basic primer as to what dinosaurs are all about. It also features a lot of classic model photography, which makes me Very Happy Indeed.

Dinosaur Action Pack book cover

Many of the models featured in Dinosaur (the book and the pack as a whole) debuted in The Ultimate Dinosaur Book, an earlier encyclopedic (and very glossy) DK book authored by David Lambert. It’s a book I really need to revisit, as while I did cover it on (the old version of) the blog years ago, I gave it far too brief and superficial a review. (I shan’t even link to it, such is my SHAME.) The cover of this book is dominated by a model Barosaurus, which is rather handsome and beautifully made, even if its thumb claws have made their way up to its wrists. Other models include a beautiful Euoplocephalus and a stunning Edmontonia, the latter of which can actually be found in the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. Another museum model (albeit smaller scale) is the Triceratops, which looks so odd because it’s based on the equally peculiar model skeleton on display in the Natural History Museum in London.

The usual smattering of palaeontology-related imagery helps complete the typically DK slightly cluttered, but still neatly spaced, look. I must say, that AMNH Deinonychus mount looks considerably less silly from this angle than from certain others.

Dinosaur Families

As the book is introducing the reader to dinosaurs, we start with the absolute basics – you know, stuff about bird and lizard hips, and scary photos of Richard Owen, Evil Genius. Most importantly, we’re treated to photographs of plenty more lovely models, including our friend the Brachiosaurus, Herrerasaurus, Styracosaurus and Pachcephalosaurus, all of which featured in The Ultimate Dinosaur Book. Like a number of the ’90s DK models, the Styracosaurus‘ colour scheme has definitely ‘inspired’ a few toy manufacturers in the intervening years. I believe the little green-and-yellow fellow is Hypsilophodon, which with those colour choices is clearly feeling a bit bolder than usual. No ‘meek gazelle of the Cretaceous’ nonsense for this guy.

Body Matters

A handful of the DK models (including the aforementioned Brachiosaurus) had ‘cutaway’ sides that exposed their skeleton and various squishy bits. Here, Gallimimus is modelling that sexy anatomical diagram look, complete with swarms of tiny labels. I don’t really feel qualified to comment too much on the anatomy (much of which is surely conjecture anyway), although it does beg the question: whither the gastralia? Whatever, it’s still very cool. While the external appearance of extinct animals can be fudged or obscured to an extent (I blame Connaishosemen), there’s no escaping scrutiny when you sculpt intricate innards, and I admire any effort to do so – especially when it’s as beautifully executed as this. Nice work, sculptor person.

Feeding and Fighting

The centre spread features, naturally enough, two Tyrannosaurus being all menacing with their mouths wide open and teeth bared and graarrgh. As you might imagine, this T. rex model featured an awful lot in DK merchandise back in the ’90s – the Big Cash Grab Sticker Book of Dinosaurs simply wouldn’t have been complete without itIt is, again, beautifully made, but there were certain aspects of it that always felt a bit off to me. I think it’s mostly the unduly scrawny neck, although for my money the eyes are also slightly oversized, and the legs always seem to look a little awkward. They often look a little too straight (check out the right leg on the T. rex on the right), and lack musculature below the knee. Still, nitpicking like. I do rather like the subtly stripy ‘desert camo’ look of these creations, and there’s no denying that they have a certain personality about them in a way that only hand-crafted creations can truly manage.

I suppose I should acknowledge that there’s more going on here than just T. rex. If you insist. Edmontonia‘s back, and look, Chirostenotes gets a mention! Now that is unusual in a kids’ dinosaur book in the ’90s. It’s a bit too old to be stealing meat from T. rex, though.

Dinosaur Fossils book cover

Front cover left, back cover right.

Let’s move on to the second book now, a peculiarly thin, tall affair that details the fossilisation process, tracking a T. rex corpse from the moment that the animal breathed its last and keeled over in one of the many Mesozoic sex lakes, through the intervening eons, and right through to its discovery by entirely non-controversial fossil hunters in the modern day. The cover features a very Graham Rosewarne-ish illustration of the Tyrant King; as Rosewarne is credited as having worked on the ACTION PACK, it may even be by the man himself. It resembles his very distinctive illustration of Albertosaurus that appeared in Dinosaurs! in the 1990s and has since been ripped off a million times. The skull is less conspicuously odd-looking here than on the Albertosaurus, although Rexy does suddenly sprout a reasonably large horn on the life restoration that isn’t visible on the skeleton (shown on the back cover). It looks a bit like…well, Albertosaurus.

But I’m nitpicking again. I love a bit of Rosewarne – his work was among the very best to feature in Dinosaurs! – and he (presuming it is he) has turned in a lovely piece of work here. I especially like the inventiveness and flair evident in the animal’s stripy and speckled hide, and the admirable depiction of a tricky perspective. Note that the animal’s hips are narrow and its foot is placed towards the midline as it takes a step – so many people continue to get that wrong.

70 MYA

The book starts 70 million years ago, which might be pushing it a bit for Rexy, but…meh. Only a paltry couple of million years if so. Those pterosaurs look a bit suspect, but we’ll just accept that they merely look very much like Pteranodon and move on. Far more distressing is the fact that we now know that the toppled tyrannosaur from WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH died from its injuries. Brutal. Still, such is nature, and at least our fallen theropod hero will enjoy a distinguished afterlife…eventually.

5 years later

Five years pass. The river has returned to normal. Herds of Triceratops roam the floodplain above, and the T. rex skeleton sinks beneath layers of sediment. Some of the Triceratops look a little familiar; the one closest to the viewer appears to be based on a DK model, while the others are a little Sibbickian. I’m not sure about the orange guy. He looks shifty to me.

50 MYA

Skip forward to 50 million years ago, and here I’ve stitched both the top and bottom page together, just to give you a better idea of what the book’s like. This is also my favourite spread, as the floodplain has given way to a “vast inland sea”, complete with retro-styled lipless Basilosaurus. (Just why was it so often restored that way? It’s a mammal!) A rather neat feature of this book is that the T. rex skeleton always remains in the same position, with the ground raising and lowering above it as sediments are added and then eroded. It’s an excellent way of conveying how ancient rocks – and indeed fossils – that a child might intuitively think would be buried forever, can in fact be exposed again as natural geological processes take their course.

Last year

I’m skipping a few steps here because we haven’t go all day (in short, the rock layers extend to the top of the uppermost page, only to be eroded away again by earth movements and glacial activity). The above spread depicts “last year” in a beautifully painted mountainous landscape. The T. rex skeleton – now fully mineralised and stained black (nice touch) – is just barely exposed at the surface. Cue those pesky fossil hunters. Still, they’re going to need some help uncovering such a big beast…


…And so a whole team of people is brought in, bringing heavy machinery with them. Again, I like that this shows excavating fossils as being a collaborative effort, and one that involves a huge amount of time and demanding work. It’s not just a single bearded man dusting off a handily exposed near-complete skeleton with a tiny brush. For a book that I’ve rather glibly dismissed in the recent past, Dinosaur Fossils actually has quite a lot going for it on closer inspection. And it’s realisations like that that keep me writing these blog posts. That, and the sadistic glee I get in ruining people’s childhoods, or something.

Coming next time: something else entirely!

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  • Reply
    Mike Taylor
    August 27, 2019 at 6:44 pm

    Wow. There certainly were a lot of books with photos of those DK models in!

    (And a lot of books saying tyrannosaur teeth were “razor sharp”.)

  • Reply
    August 29, 2019 at 12:51 pm

    I had Dinosaur! Gosh, that really takes me back. I loved it to bits.

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