Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Last Dinosaur

Vintage Dinosaur Art

The Last Dinosaur is a strange little book I remember reading as a dinosaur-obsessed kid. I thought it was quite neat at the time. Re-reading it now, however, I’ve gained a new appreciation for just how unusual this book is.

The Last Dinosaur (no relation to the 1977 tokusatsu film) was written by Jim Murphy and illustrated by Mark Alan Weatherby, both of whom have more works of dinosaur and animal centered fiction to their names. And that’s what we’re dealing with here: a work of fiction, from the perspective of a dinosaur living its life. This “nature documentary fiction” is much rarer in book form than you’d expect, especially given how popular Walking With Dinosaurs and its many imitators were on TV. Bakker’s Raptor Red is probably the best-known example of the form, and Joschua Knüppe recently released Europasaurus, his own wonderful contibution to the genre, but other than those I can’t think of too many examples.

Hailing from 1988, The Last Dinosaur precedes all of the above works. There was never a shortage of children’s fiction featuring dinosaurs, but this is the only one I know of that features neither humans nor anthropomorphic dinosaurs. It’s about dinosaurs as animals in their own world, going about their business. It also happens to be set at the very end of the Cretaceous, with the extinction event in progress, also making this an example of apocalyptic fiction for children.

The book follows a female Triceratops as she tries to survive in a world that is dying. She forms a little makeshift herd with two males. The illustrations are moody and atmospheric, and the emptiness of the world otherwise gives them what the kids today call an elegiac aura. This image in particular reminds me of Phil Tippett’s Prehistoric Beast, another 80s classic. Something resembling a plot – though “plot” is probably the wrong word if it’s just about dinosaurs hanging around – gets started as they have to flee from a nearby forest fire. Some of the illustrations are calm, like this one, of the female simply eating a fern. Others are more action-packed. Weatherby does lovely work all around with light, water, mist, dust, foliage and rockscapes.

The Triceratops design used throughout this book looks very familiar to me. The colours are different, but the mouth, the nostrills, the frill, the horns; it all adds up. It’s a dead ringer for the Dinamation animatronic Triceratops, which I saw as a child in Rotterdam and Brussels and knew from pictures. Mark Alan Weatherby is said to have researched the dinosaurs at the Pacific Science Centre in Seattle. And what do you know? A round on Google reveals that this institution indeed has a set of Dinamation dinosaurs on display!

These animatronics must have been brand-new, with Dinamation only having been founded in 1986 (I’m sure Marc will be pleased that the book isn’t about Allosaurus). Of course, artists copy other artists all the time… but this is the first time I’ve seen a 2D artist use 3D animatronics as their source of inspiration!

The central conceit of the story doesn’t quite work, especially knowing what we know now about dinosaur extinction. The idea is that these Triceratops were truly among the very last few dinosaurs hanging in there, trekking through a world that is mostly empty, devoid of other dinosaurs. The text mentions the hadrosaurs, ankylosaurs and pachycephalosaurs that were once abundant here, but have all disappeared. I understand that the casue of the K-Pg event (which the author mistakenly calls “the great dying”) was still somewhat mysterious, but… in this book’s world, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for the dinosaurs to be going extinct at all. For one thing, there seem to be more than enough plants to go around. There is no sign of a meteor impact, nor of a disease outbreak, nor of the dinosaurs being outcompeted, all possible causes that the author mentions. They’ve just vanished. I suppose that makes it all the more tragic and eerie.

This image feels particularly grand and sweeping, with the massive canyon. You can alo see how the forest fire in the distance is making the animals nervous. There is also a giant dragonfly, because authors still can’t tell their Cretaceous from their Carboniferous, bless them.

The book’s apocalyptic nature also means it can focus only on a handful of remaining species, meaning we’ve mostly got only a trio of Triceratops to look at, in all kinds of different circumstances. This in contrast to the epic, sprawling Europasaurus, which featured a cornucopia of extinct animals in all shapes and sizes. That focused nature means that what happens in the illustrations is allowed to run the gamut from quiet, pastoral scenes to high drama and action. The story is allowed to breathe. It is precisely the storybook nature, the fact that these dinosaurs are characters which you are invested in, which makes the palaeoart here so much more dynamic and alive than what you’d see in other dinosaur books from this time. At the same time, the narration is undramatic, naturalistic, matter-of-factly. It does not anthropomorphise or attempt to depict these Triceratops as anything else than just animals driven by instinct.

The Dinamation-inspired Triceratops design has a couple of idiosyncrasies. I like the scaly nostrils – no wrinkly rhino snouts here – and the surprisingly big mouths and gnarly, wrinkly mouth cheeks of the creatures. I also like that the horns aren’t necessarily symmetrical, something that would undoubtedly be the case in real life. I’m not sure if the ears are in their proper place (this carried over from Dinamation, too).

In 1988, the Dino Renaissance was in full swing, before film and TV made it so that the public perception of dinosaurs became stuck in place again. Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies had just come out a few years prior, and I bet Murphy and Weatherby had been paying attention. This book wholeheartedly embraces dinosaurs as active and dynamic animals with scenes like this, in which the female shoos away one of the males as he gets too close to her nest. She leaps after him like a panther, or maybe a particularly spry mother bear. He hastily wades away through the swamp. You wouldn’t see a dinosaur from the Burian generation leap like that.

Did I say “devoid of other dinosaurs”? You didn’t think you were getting away without Sexy Rexy putting in an appearance, did you?

I rather like this illustration. Again, Weatherby has gone full-on Bakker when it comes to dynamicism; there’s almost not a foot touching the ground here. All the animals are leaping, rearing, moving, throwing their weight around. Dust is getting kicked up everywhere and the animals look powerful and absolutely massive.

It’s interesting how many of these early Dino Renaissance books for kids didn’t pull their punches when it came to showing the blood and horror of dinosaur violence. This is far from the goriest example I’ve seen. That Triceratops in the foreground is getting its skin rather unpleasantly ripped open by Rexy’s foot, while the one in the back has taken a nasty bite to the neck. Today, the publisher would probably ask the illustrator to tone it down, to the detriment of us all. Kids love blood and gore. It doesn’t actually make them bad people when they grow up. Trust me.

Again, the design of Tyrannosaurus is based on the Dinamation robot. The Dinamation T. rex is an interesting creation, with its especially fleshy, gummy looking mouth and exposed jaw muscles. I’m sure we’d reconstruct its oral soft tissue differently these days, but the folks at Dinamation – and by extention Weatherby – were quite ahead of their time by making those muscles and gums so elaborate. The placement of the hands (on the robot, the hands are nearly facing outwards) and the shape of the foot have aged less gracefully. It has slit-pupil snake eyes, another dinosaur trope I’m growing a bit weary of (plenty of snakes have round pupils).

After the T. rex, improbably, kills both males (the text concedes that a Tyrannosaurus would not attack a full grown Triceratops unless it was really desperate), the female triumphantly skewers him and that’s justice served. I’ll never get enough of seeing T. rex get it.

With the tyrant slain but her nest destroyed and her male companions dead, the female must now go it alone, in search of another herd that may or may not still be out there… the title of the book does not inspire optimism in that regard. That is the bitter, open-ended note the book ends on.

And that’s The Last Dinosaur. I wonder why there aren’t many more books like this. In the middle of a vast sea of dinosaur non-fiction for kids and dinosaur fiction starring kids, an illustrated storybook about real dinosaurs always felt like a breath of fresh air to me. It is somewhat ironic that this book is set at a time when there were not many dinosaurs around anymore; a book showing a wide variety of animals would be more up my alley. Nevertheless, here is a unique and surprisingly dark book for kids with niche interests that holds up reasonably well to this day. The authors of this book collaborated again a few years later for a spiritual successor, called Dinosaur for a Day, starring Hypsilophodon. I’ll be looking for that one, too.

And if you want a book like this, but thorougly modern and lavishly illustrated, check out the Europasaurus graphic novel! This blog is not sponsored.

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  • Reply
    Lars Dietz
    May 19, 2021 at 2:33 pm

    “this is the only one I know of that features neither humans nor anthropomorphic dinosaurs”

    There’s a whole series of such illustrated children’s books from the 80s by Beverly and Jenny Halstead. As fatr as I remember, each of them told the story of one individual Mesozoic reptile. I remember the local public library had the German translations when I was a kid. whem The ones I could find on the Internet are:
    A Brontosaur: The Life Story Unearthed
    Terrible Claw: The Story of a Carnivorous Dinosaur
    A Pterodactyl: Th Story of a Flying Reptile
    Also one where I couldn’t find the original title, the German is “Paddelechse: ein schwimmender Saurier”, according to the cover it’s about Nothosaurus.The animals where named after their species names, the Apatosaurus was named Ajax, the Deinonychus was Rhopa (from antirrhopus) etc.

    • Reply
      Niels Hazeborg
      May 19, 2021 at 3:14 pm

      Ah, our old friend Halstead again. Does that mean the dinosaurs have sex?

      • Reply
        Lars Dietz
        May 19, 2021 at 7:54 pm

        No idea, it’s been more than least 20 years since I last saw these books. I do remember Ajax the Apatosaur had a mate though.

    • Reply
      Marc Vincent
      May 29, 2021 at 10:40 am

      I’m sure we’ve looked at the Halstead stuff before, a while back. I remember someone getting angry that I criticised the inconsistent proportions of the Deinonychus.

  • Reply
    May 19, 2021 at 9:22 pm

    Agreed that this genre of paleo-fiction is oddly underpopulated. My childhood self certainly would have enjoyed reading more of them. One example that comes to mind is the Moment in Time series illustrated by Jan Sovak, which might be interesting for this blog to cover if copies can be found.

    Some of James A. Michener’s historical novels include chapters on prehistoric life; Centennial notably has stories about Diplodocus as well as Pleistocene horses. (Having been written in the 1970s, the sauropods are naturally depicted as mostly aquatic.) No illustrations that I recall though.

  • Reply
    Thomas D Scott
    May 21, 2021 at 9:01 pm

    I owned a copy of the successor, Dinosaur for a Day, as a child. I remember loving that book for just the reasons mentioned here. The idea a nonfiction, fictional book was amazing to me as a child and the illustrations were too notch as I recall.

  • Reply
    Marc Vincent
    May 29, 2021 at 10:39 am

    It seems like such an oddly lush and verdant world for the dino-pocalypse. Perhaps they did have the pan-dinosaurian pandemic idea in mind.

  • Reply
    Edward O
    June 21, 2021 at 11:46 am

    Dinosaur for a Day was an absolute delight. I can remember a very young version of myself completely enraptured by the environments depicted. The streams, moss, and ferns were beautifully rendered.

  • Reply
    Štěpán Jindra
    June 25, 2021 at 7:27 am

    Actually Josef Augusta, the famous Czech paleontologist, released in 1965 – 1975 at least two books full of great stories of extinkt animals (not only dinosaurs, also from paleosoic and tercier). Way better than this could be and ilustrated by master Burian himself. Unfortunatelly Im not aware of any english translation. Augusta was a visionary in popularizing paleontology.

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