It’s certainly been a rough old year, and over here amid the dismal lorry-strewn wastes of Plague Island, things seem to only go from bad to worse. So, a chance to escape to sunnier, more prehistoric climes is definitely welcome. As luck would have it, here comes Europasaurus: Life on Jurassic Islands (or Urzeitinseln voller Leben), a book that so perfectly visualises the tropical archipelagos of Late Jurassic Germany, so gorgeously immerses the reader in a long-lost world devoid of humankind’s malign influence, you’ll swear you’ve actually been there. I’d take hungry torvosaurs over Boris Johnson any day.
Yes, this is the palaeoart-laden completely naturalistic graphic novel that you’ve been waiting for. Actually, ‘graphic novel’ feels like something of a miscategorisation, even if it’s the genre that best fits. There isn’t a strong narrative here – it’s mostly a string of Stuff that Happens. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. The tone is very much like that of a wildlife documentary, as we follow the lives of a series of Jurassic island denizens, with the journeys of a young Europasaurus providing something of a unifying thread.
There are crocodylomorphs, theropods large and small, pterosaurs, mammals, and a huge cast of incidental characters that flesh out this immaculately realised ecosystem. But, as the factual section that fills out the book’s latter half demonstrates, even the tiniest invertebrates and most boring of fish aren’t purely hypothetical creations – the majority are based on finds from the Langenberg Quarry (where Europasaurus itself was found), and even those that aren’t are based on remains found in similarly aged localities in Germany. Part of the thrill of this book comes in knowing just how much of this world is firmly rooted in scientific research (pretty much all of it).
The artwork itself prompts me to use all sorts of words that I’d never normally touch – words like ‘splendid’ and ‘enchanting’. (I know, I know.) The graphic novel consists of a (long) series of double-page spreads, devoid of borders and almost completely free of any intrusions, interspersed with insert boxes that show us close-up details of the scene or illustrate the action unfolding. There’s a written narrative (in German and English) to help us understand what’s going on, but it’s kept very minimal and succinct – a perfectly judged decision, as it allows the artwork to really stand on its own.
For palaeoart fans, Joschua Knüppe’s work here starts to feel like an over-indulgence. I found myself scanning the back cover for the book’s calorific value. Again, comparisons with wildlife documentaries – the really good ones, of course, those narrated by David Attenborough and shot in super-mega-HD – seem apt. We’re treated to a range of perspectives, placing us above the clouds, below the tree canopy, in a small mammal’s nest, up against a Machimosaurus carcass as a large ceratosaur female, looming overhead, claims it as her prize, and much more besides. Animals are depicted from every conceivable angle, so that we get a very good idea of their forms, similarities and differences.
Various animals’ behaviours are shown, from the breeding rituals of Machimosaurus, to the herding instincts of Europasaurus, the predatory behaviour of island ceratosaurs, the hatching and subsequent massacre of turtles, a rare instance of a diplodocid being a dick to a smaller sauropod for no apparent reason, and much more. (I especially enjoyed that last one. Giant herbivores are just dicks sometimes – this ‘gentle giant’ trope needs to die.) All rooted in scientific evidence and careful observation of modern animals, all perfectly realised by Joschua on the page.
The reconstructions of individual animals are, again, excellent. Joschua’s style is quite painterly and realistic without attempting photo-realism – a factor that greatly helps the book’s immersive feel. The animals’ anatomy is well-researched, and the dinosaurs in particular never look like anatomical diagrams – they are suitably fleshy and muscular, like real animals, in short. (It perhaps helps that there was no need to ‘show the working’ – it’s all there in the back of the book.) The creatures sport superbly vibrant and imaginative, but naturalistic colour schemes, and the subtle touches as regards sexual dimorphism are especially pleasing; the ceratosaur males being smaller than the females, for example, but with proportionately longer horns, and the varying colouration of the male, female, young, and old Europasaurus.
This is a book that could, and deserves to, have very wide appeal. As I mentioned, the text in the graphic novel section is quite minimal, really letting Joschua’s artwork shine. In the scientific section at the back of the book, we are treated to a look at excavations at the Langenberg Quarry, a very thorough overview of the palaeoecology of the site, and profiles of all the creatures (and plants!) complete with photos of specimens. A lot of information is packed in here, but the text (by Oliver Wings and Joschua) is consistently accessible, understandable and highly succinct – no small feat. It’s accessible enough that an older, more literate child could very well enjoy this, even if adults remain the primary audience.
As such, I really hope that it finds its way into the hands of as broad a range of dinosaur enthusiasts as possible. It’s a book that combines thoroughly researched dinosaur science (there’s a suitably long list of acknowledgments in the back) with breathtaking immersive artwork in a format that anyone can pick up and enjoy. And I haven’t even mentioned the excellent print quality, and superb glossy paper that it’s printed on. Mmmm, paper.
If you love palaeoart, buy this book. If you love dinosaurs, buy this book. If you love Germans, buy this book. But please do acquire a copy, as we need more of this sort of thing in the world.
P.S. Joschua Knüppe was interviewed by Niels for our first-ever podcast – also featuring the soothing tones of Natee and my inane jabbering. Give us a listen!