They say you can tell a lot about a person from looking at their bookshelf, and recently I found out that my friend Bas was the kind of person who had a dinosaur book from the nineties that I hadn’t seen yet. Those are the best kind of people. Bas has good memories of his childhood dinosaur phase and of this book in particular. Of course, I just had to borrow it, and since an opportunity to return it is fast approaching the time for a review is now!
Normally I use the original titles when reviewing a translated book. In this case, however, the original title was simply “Dinosaurs“, so I kept the gather more grandiose-sounding Dutch title (it means “Giants from the Past”). The book is originally of Australian manufacture and of 1995 vintage, that golden age of the Great Dinosaur Pop Culture Boom. The text is written by Carson Creagh with help from the esteemed dr. Angela Milner of NHM and Baryonyx fame. The art is done by a big variety of artists, all of whom are graciously credited, as is right and proper (and in no way a given).
Annoyingly, like so many dinosaur books, the blessed thing is far too big for my scanner, so we’re going to make do. The book has that typical nineties Eyewitness-style layout, with images great and small (in wildly diverging styles, as we shall see), main text and separate textboxes all mashed together on the page in a way that is either stylish or chaotic depending on your mood. It fits that style of wondrous, curiosity-sparking scientific literature for older children, those who have outgrouwn Dinosaurs At Your Fingertips but aren’t quite ready for Currie or Dodson yet. This is either the very last dinosaur book you’ll read, or you’re hooked forever… get out while you can, kids!
As a work of education for children, Reuzen Uit De Oertijd is perfectly servicable for its time. It isn’t here to challenge your conceptions, but it isn’t afraid to explain some complex scientific concepts to children either. What it is is very eclectic in its art styles. You get plenty of your usual 90s sub-Sibbick stuff, some pretty good anatomical illustrations, and then you’ve got stuff like this March Of Progress piece, with Ornithosuchus in a featured (and outdated) role as our designated Ancestor of Dinosaurs. It’s an illustration by Colin Newman, and his work stands out very much in this book for being, well, a bit goofy. Given that it’s a pretty serious book, the sly, cartoony grin on this critter sticks out a mile. Also: volcano in the background; take a shot!
Most of the artists who worked on this are jobbing wildlife illustrators who didn’t specialize in dinosaurs. John Francis is one such artist. His work can be found throughout the book and takes itself a little more seriously than Newman’s. It’s pleasingly naturalistic and realistic, with well-observed anatomical details such as a vestigial, clawless fourth finger on Coelophysis‘ hand. I also commend him for not drawing Coelophysis in a cannibalistic situation (though the text does bring it up). Even the reptile it’s chasing is named as Planocephalosaurus, which shows nice attention to detail (though that animal was not found alongside Coelophyisis).
When I say “your usual 90s sub-Sibbick stuff”, this is the sort of thing I mean. All the animals here come straight from the pages of the Normanpedia, although the dynamics of the action are closer to Sibbick’s later work. It’s a competent take by John Francis on the famous Fighting Dinosaurs of Mongolia, with Protoceratops and Velociraptor locked in mortal combat. Francis places them in a remarkably lush environment. They were famously buried under a sand dune in the desert, but here, they are in a pine forest with magnolias growing. Also, there is a Prenocephale in the background. It looks like a weird goblin with a grumpy face. It cracks me up. And, speaking of famous fight scenes involving naked dromaeosaurs…
Oh boy! This one is by Christer Eriksson, and of all the artists working on this book he’s definitely the most EXTREME!!! The Deinonychus ganging up on Tenontosaurus meme is one of the ultimate dinosaur clichés. We’ve seen dozens of takes on it. Most have looked considerably more pretty and scientifically believable than this… but I can think of few that go in so hard on the Awesomeness Factor, and that’s definitely worth something! Look at everything that’s going on! Two raptors latched onto the ornithopod by the neck while one is getting stomped. Tenontosaurus still has ferns falling from its mouth, implying that it was peacefully eating a second ago. I don’t even know what its tail is doing. It’s pure madness. My inner eight-year-old loves this.
Christer Eriksson’s work intrigues me. It is both photorealistic and heavily sensationalized and stylized. Even his Archaeopteryx is slightly over the top. Luis Rey comes to mind as a comparison, especially since Eriksson is fond of extreme close-ups and unusual perspectives. Unfortunately, Eriksson’s works in this book don’t have the dedication to anatomical and biological rigor that Luis Rey’s work from around this time did, so it falls well short of the major leauge of palaeoart.
Given Angela Milner’s involvement, it should be no surprise that Baryonyx gets a great deal of attention. It was the hottest new dinosaur in town at the time. It’s featured on this fold-out spread that guides the reader through the dinosaur reconstruction process from digging up the bone to mouting the skeleton. It’s well done and the anatomical Baryonyx illustration, by David Kirshner, is quite handsome.
Here’s another odd one. Illustrated by Frank Knight, it’s apparently a small portrait of a Tyrannosaurus, but you’d be forgiven for not seeing that straight away. The shape of the jaw, the hornlets over the orbits and the long arms say Allosaurus to me more than anything. Only the two fingers and the big teeth indicate there was an intention of drawing a T. rex. Knight (no relation to that other Knight, probably) is a perfectly capable illustator, and I am most charmed by the colour scheme, but the image remains an odd chimaera. And if you think this T. rex is strange, wait ’till you see Christer Eriksson’s:
You have to hand it to Eriksson. His dinosaurs leave a lot to be desired in the accuracy and attractiveness department, but damn if the guy doesn’t have a “go hard or go home” attitude. If you’re gonna make hot nineties kitsch, might as well make the hottest, ninetiesest kitsch around! We talk a lot about “monsterization” in the palaeoart sphere these days, and folks, we’ve got your monsterization right here. How dare you bring Tyrannosaurus down to the point where it’s just another mere animal, foolish mortal? This Tyrannosaurus is a snarling, drooling, mindless, corpulent abomination from your worst nightmares that seems to have been made out of rock and sand, spewn forth from the primordial depths of the very Earth itself! It is commendably committed to its own preposterousness. I like it.
James McKinnon’s work on this book is much less sensationalized, and has held up a lot better to modern standards as a result. McKinnon, unlike most artists in this book, is a true-blue dinosaur specialist, and it shows. He seems to be a disciple of Greg Paul and Ely Kish, with sleeker and more anatomically correct animal designs. The Allosaurus in the foreground is especially good. It’s muscular, its head is shaped right (a little shrinkwrapped by today’s standards but what can you do) and, probably by coincidence, even its hands are positioned correctly – not even Paul got that right. I also love this big herd of diplodocid sauropods. Look how many of them there are! In another coincidentally prescient move, McKinnon has drawn them with their necks upright, making them look like a bizarre flock of gigantic flamingos. A very nice take on the Morrison, and one of my favourite artworks in the book. Oddly, the Allosaurus in the background isn’t nearly as good as the other one.
I’m well pleased with this find. Next week, I will return this book to its rightful owner, but not before we’ve taken a look at some of the herbivore-centric artworks. Reuzen Uit De Oertijd will return!