Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure – Part 1

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Merry Christmas to you all! For the festive season, I decided to treat myself, as well as all of you fine, fine readers, to a very nostalgic book for me. I loved this book as a kid. In primary school I did a presentation on it. I never owned it, however, until now. So grab a hot cocoa as we take a trip down memory lane, and review some vintage dinosaur illustrations along the way.

The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure is a 1989 illustrated children’s fiction book, written by Gerald Durrell and illustrated by Graham Percy. Gerald Durrell might be a name that rings a bell: he was well known as a naturalist, television personality and author of such books as “My Family And Other Animals”. He even founded a zoo. He also wrote a handful of children’s novels in his later years, often with an environmentalist bent. The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure is the sequel to a book called The Fantastic Flying Journey, which I haven’t read ‘cause there’s no dinosaurs in it. Durrell was clearly scientifically informed, and he’s put a lot more informative dinosaur facts in there than you might expect from a work of fiction. Nevertheless, the book definitely shows its age. The late eighties were a werid, transitional time in dinosaur art, where the concepts of the Dinosaur Rennaissance were slowly trickling into the public conciousness but pop culture wasn’t quite caught up yet.

Every page in the book is lavishly illustrated by New Zealand artist Graham Percy. His pencil illustrations are dreamlike and magnificent, with lots of grand landscapes and memorable character design, and capture the romanticism and childlike spirit of adventure. Of course, it isn’t technical palaeoart by any means, and we should judge the book accordingly. As we shall see, some of Percy’s very colourful dinosaurs fit perfectly into his grandiose, elaborate dream world, while others are a bit too simplified.

An example of Graham Percy’s style. Rainbows, mountains, volcanoes and a giant hot air balloon. Adventure awaits!

The book follows three kids and their great uncle Lancelot, who is that special storybook kind of omnidisciplinary scinetist/inventor: effectively, a wizard. Not only has he invented a house-sized hot air balloon and a time machine kick it all off, but also a powder that allows you to talk to animals. As a result, all the dinosaurs in the book talk, which will definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea! I promise you things never get to the annoyance level of the Walking With Dinosaurs movie! Inevitably, the herbivores are all friendly, harmless and helpful while the carnivores are all completely evil and hungry for human children. There’s a duo of human villains as well, similarly painted in broad strokes: there’s the vain aristocrat hunter and the dumb musclebound goon. In order to stop the bad guys from stealing baby dinosaurs, the heroes travel respectively to the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, marvelling at the wildlife along the way, and, of course, getting chased by a carnivore or two.

I do love a good time travel plot, especially if characters are saying stuff like “He’s probably catching baby dinosaurs at this very moment!” when referring to someone who’s just used the time machine to go millions of years into the past.

The journey starts off in the Triassic, and this is where the book’s naturalist content is at its peak. There’s quite a bit of misplaced wildlife: there’s Middle and Late Triassic taxa, a giant dragonfly from the Carboniferous, and both Triassic staples Coelophysis and Plateosaurus show up. Durrell jumps at the chance to introduce the readers to some of the Triassic’s more obsucre weirdos.

But first, this. The first dinosaur encounter is this one, with a whole crowd of oddly stretchy and sock-puppety looking Coelophysis surrounding the trapped balloon. They are somewhat hyperbolically portrayed as dangerous pack hunters. Lancelot attempts to talk some sense into them, but they are too hungry to let up. To avoid spoilers, I’m not telling how the heroes get out of this one, but it’s fittingly preposterous.

I never expected a picture of a crying dinosaur to make me this sad.

Plateosaurus appear in what is undoubtedly the book’s darkest scene; the villain has shot one of them, and the animals attempt to help it up in the way elephants do. Percy doesn’t go as far as to depict it, though; he instead shows the children offering their help. Not only are the Plateosaurus prortrayed as quadrupedal (as was typical of the time), but also as improbably gigantic, essentially as sauropods rather than prosauropods basal sauropodomorphs. As a result, there’s little to differentiate these from the actual sauropods of the Jurassic chapter.

Many staple dinosaurs appear in this book, but also some proper obscure animals. These are Eudimorphodon, imagined by both author and illustrator as pelican-like. While that’s not remotely accurate, I’m quite fond of this illustration: the fuzzy pterosaurs look quite alive, dynamic and imposing. It was, at the time, quite rare to see pterosaurs reconstructed as anything other than bat-winged skeletal creeps, let alone with an appropriate amount of fuzz. Great work from Percy and Durrell here.

Often, the kids act as naturalists in this book, and simply observe the action rather than being part of it. In another surprisingly grisly scene, they observe a group of phytosaurs surround and ambush a hapless flock of Procompsognathus, who don’t make it out (though Percy again leaves the actual bloody murder to the imagination). I find this scene noteworthy primarily because of the obscuriy of the animals – who had heard of Procompsognathus pre-The Lost World? Disappointingly, Percy doesn’t do much to suggest the phytosaurs are anything other than skinny crocodiles. Seriously, have you seen what real phytosaurs look like? They’re crazy!

Speaking of crazy: Percy, on the other hand, really amps up the weirdness of Tanystropheus and their skinny, overlong necks. I love the colour scheme on these guys. Like most animals in this book, they are hilariously oversized and have every intention of swallowing our young heroes whole! Don’t worry, kids! In a few years’ time, Nigel Marven will avenge you by taking one of their tails off!

And that’s all for now. The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure will return! Part two is here.

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  • Reply
    Timur Sivgin
    December 25, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    Quick note: Procompsognathus only appears in the Jurassic Park novels. In the second movie they‘re replaced by Compsognathus (although they label them as Compsognathus triassicus in the movie, so there definitely was some confusion)

    • Reply
      Niels Hazeborg
      December 25, 2019 at 3:01 pm

      Do they even identify it in the movie proper? I’ve seen supplementary material call it either.

      • Reply
        Timur Sivgin
        December 25, 2019 at 3:38 pm

        Yes, in the movie there‘s a scene where Dieter Stark asks Robert Burke what species he thinks this is and he calls it Compsognathus triassicus (a species that does not exist) before the former zaps it with a cattle-rod. It‘s right after the Ingen-team rounds up the dinosaurs

  • Reply
    Andreas Johansson
    December 27, 2019 at 10:14 am

    Regarding things that are happening “now” or “simultaneously” in the distant past or far future, TVTropes calls this Meanwhile In The Future:

  • Reply
    November 24, 2020 at 4:09 am

    “The book follows three kids and their great uncle Lancelot, who is that special storybook kind of omnidisciplinary scinetist/inventor: effectively, a wizard.”

    – and whom bares an uncanny resemblance to Durrell.

    • Reply
      Niels Hazeborg
      November 24, 2020 at 4:22 am

      HA! You’re not the first to point that out, either. So who was John Hammond based on?

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