The year is 1964 and, although he doesn’t know it yet, Yale palaeontologist John H. Ostrom is about to make history. In the summer of that year, he will embark on an expedition to Montana where he will make some remarkable discoveries. Five years later, he will be publishing one of the most game-changing papers in the history of dinosaur palaeontology: the scientific description of Deinonychus antirrhopus. It will mark the beginning of a complete revolution in how we see dinosaurs: not as sluggish swamp monsters, doomed failures of evolution, primitive lumbering lizards that lost the struggle for life to the superior mammals, but as lively, fascinating and succesful animals that led exciting lives and are the ancestors of birds.
But in 1964, all that is no more than a glimmer in Ostrom’s eye, and for the time being, primitive lumbering lizards are scientific orthodoxy. This is the year The Strange World Of Dinosaurs comes out, a big, comprehensive look at the Old Way, a last hurrah for the swamp monsters of yore, written by the very man who is about to change it all.
The artwork, by Austrian-born American Joseph Sibal, consists of these half-tone pencil illustrations that are obviously heavily, um, inspired, by Zdeněk Burian and especially Neave Parker. Although Sibal’s work lacks both the vividity of Burian’s full-colour paintings and the immediate strikingness of Parker’s powerful greyscale, what really makes his work for this book stand out is just how much of it there is. Usually, in a dinosaur book from the 1960s (especially one for children), you’ll get three theropods, two sauropods and maybe half a dozen ornithischians, and that’s your lot. This book by contrast has over a hundred illustrations and covers plenty of ground. There are illustrations of animals here that I’ve never seen in any pre-renaissance book.
This also means Sibal can’t always rely on the examples of Burian, Knight and Parker, even though he still does that often enough. Sibal doesn’t exactly bring much originality to the table, but his work, in all its volume and variety, is very interesting nonetheless as a time capsule to a very specific moment in the history of dinosaur pop culture.
Let’s start with this pretty nasty depiction of Coelophysis. The one in the centre brutally kills its own young – as you do – while the one on the right looks on with an approving evil snarl. Sibal typically depicts two or more animals at once. He is skilled at playing with light and shade, he draws a nice, rough, foresty background and he shows the muscles, bumps and folds of the animals quite well, even if he’s not really inventing the wheel in that last regard. He makes his dinosaurs mostly smooth and shiny, but it’s interesing how both the feet and hands look like bird feet. We were decades away from even considering the possibility of feathered dinosaurs, but I’m already getting a “plucked chicken” vibe.
This is what I mean when I talk about this book as a time capsule. Apparently, this is what we imagined Oviraptor looked like back in the sixties. Sibal’s version has a long noodle neck, long legs and a very tiny head. It’s barely recognizable as Oviraptor but for the mischief it’s getting into; it almost looks like a small ornithomimid (suddenly the casting of ornithomimids as egg thieves in The Land Before Time makes more sense to me). Although one of them has apparently broken into the eggshel with its snout and is going to town on the insides, I want to imagine these guys swallowing a huge egg whole, like an egg-eating snake. And then there’s Protoceratops, comically peeping around the corner, giving the scene a sense of narrative. Interesting how, in the decades following this, Oviraptor‘s appearance would change drastically many times over, while Protoceratops‘ would change very little.
One does not simply depict Ornitholestes without some Archaeopteryx-like bird for it to sink its claws into. Sibal offers a fresh new take on this tropiest of palaeoart tropes by depicting the scene post-kill, with the bird grabbing a done deal and Ornitholestes enjoying its meal… only for a second Ornitholestes in the back ground to be grabbing another bird. Actually, it just sort of stands there, arms outstretched, waiting for the bird to fly into its embrace. Grabbing birds was al the blessed things did all day. Sibal’s Ornitholestes is remarkably lizard-like in shape, but it is completely smooth and shiny. It lacks the bumps, lumps, frills and spiky bits that so often make real lizards so charismatic. Other than the ususal suspects, Sibal’s work reminds me a bit of Maidi Wiebe, another Germanophone in America, who was around this time working for the Field Museum at another side of the country.
Knowing what we know today, it’s funny how often and how consistently Ostrom describes these smaller theropods als “birdlike”, even though he concedes just as often that the dinosaurs are true reptiles. The truth is already staring him in the face. His insight that birds are descendants of dinosaurs was probably not a singular Eureka moment but more of a gradual realization. Looking for signs of a Dinosaur Rennaissance on the horizon is one of the joys of reading this book.
Here’s two very unusual, gangly and awkward looking Ornithomimus. It’s kind of strange how they don’t seem very interested in their newly-hatched clutch, having more eye for the tiny prey animal. I wonder what that’s meant to represent? An itsy-bitsy dromaeosaur, perhaps? I find the heads particularly intiguing, with those triangle-shaped muzzles. Without giving them beaks, Sibal has managed to give them that expressionless large bird energy. Come to think of it, did any of the great pre-rennaissance artists ever reconstruct Ornithomimus? I found a different Ornithomimus from the same year in a book by Paul Geraghty here (a book that similarly took lots of inspiration from the late Neave Parker) and they don’t look much alike. Note how the text constantly synonymizes animals, just like Coelurus and Ornitholestes above, which are now understood to be separate genera.
Of course, nobody uses the name Antrodemus anymore. I’m glad Allosaurus is the name that stuck, because it’s a much better name. Here, Sibal surprises by not having Allosaurus hunched over a carcass in Knight and Zallinger fashion. It looks ever so strange, with that Burianesque burliness and a very tiny head, a real bruiser. That hunched posture looks familiar. I wonder if Burian’s Gorgosaurus was an influence here – read on. It does have a baby, which is adorable. The Ceratosaurus looks even stranger, with a shallow jaw and eye-sockets very far to the front of its face. There’s a nice background here, with a lake, a forest, ferns and even a stegosaur in the background. Sibal is skilled enough an artist to sell the size and heft of the animals quite well, and he has a good eye for plants, too.
Here’s something interesting. If there was ever a reconstruction of Acrocanthosaurus before, I certainly haven’t seen it, and it remains a rare (but welcome) dinosaur to see to this day. It’s somewhat unclear exactly how Sibal has interpreted the elongated spines. Is that a very short sail or a fatty ridge? The head is pretty strange, too. It looks a little bit mammalian, almost dog-like. Again, even if this isn’t a direct copy of Neave Parker it looks like it could have fit in well among his creatures.
Oof. When Sibal does copy other artists, he isn’t terribly subtle about it. Gorgosaurus here is copied pretty much exactly from Burian, and Sibal’s version reached people’s homes in a mass-produced book nearly a decade before the original did (via 1972’s Life Before Man). As an aside, out of all of Burian’s dinosaur paintings, his Gorgosaurus is the one that looks the most like it could have been made by Neave Parker. Sibal is at least clever enough to switch up George’s prey, which was Scolosaurus in the original.
I wonder if I have more to say beyond “it’s all copied from Parker”. Here’s the instantly recognizable horizontal-necked stalking Megalosaurus, also copied by Caselli and plenty of others. I like the dramatic rock formations. I also like how Sibal often paints two of every animal. That’s what Benjamin Hawkins used to do. But what’s the added value if you’re just putting both in almost the same pose?
Let’s talk Tyrannosaurus. If you compare the text in this book to, say, Bev Halstead’s The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs, which came out over a decade later (featuring the illustrations of the aforementioned Giovanni Caselli), Ostrom is already more forward-thinking and prescient than Halstead. His version of Tyrannosaurus is a brawler, a feared apex predator that actively hunts and kills, unlike the slow-moving, blunt-toothed, carrion-devouring loser Halstead turns it into. Even before Deinonychus, Ostrom is at the vanguard.
The same cannot be said about the illustration. I’m not saying the reconstruction is retrograde; it’s fine for its time, Rexy looks intimidating and muscular. It would: this one is based entirely on a lesser-known Parker piece featuring tyrannosaurs and styracosaurs, as well as a Saurolophus. The animals look exactly the same. All Sibal did was change the animals’ places around a little bit. That was all you needed to do to avoid copyright claims in the sixties, and apparently it was good enough for leading palaeontologists, as well. Neave Parker was already dead by this point – who’s going to complain? The answer is: me, now, on Parker’s behalf. Plagiarism is not cool. At least the jungle backdrop is a change of pace from the stark, barren wastelands Parker placed his dinosaurs in. The fact that T. rex is pitted against Styracosaurus doesn’t bother me so much.
I’m sorry if this review ended up a bit more sour than I intended. For all its faults, the book is generously illustrated. I’ll stil get one or two more post out of this, for sure. I promise I’ll have actual things to say beyond “this is copied from that”. The Strange World of Dinosaurs will return!