Here’s a book that feels like it could’ve come straight out of my childhood, although in reality the first time I ever saw it was just a few weeks ago. Published in 1988 by Western Publishing under the Golden Book banner, it is (at least, in name) a direct successor to a Zallinger-illustrated classic. In much the same way as Zallinger’s work is nostalgic for so many people of an older generation, the illustrations here – by Christopher Santoro – were hugely nostalgic for me in spite of my only recently discovering them. How can that be? I’m sure you can guess.
The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs really couldn’t be much more generic late ’80s-early ’90s. These are most definitely the dinosaurs of my childhood, the types of reconstructions that first endeared me to that one much-misunderstood archosaurian clade. That is to say, they are very, very much influenced by the Normanpedia. This is more transparent in some places than others, but even on the cover (which isn’t a direct copy of any Sibbick as far as I can remember), one instantly notices the chunky limbs, the specific flesh folds, that skin texture.
Compounding the nostalgic feeling is the fact that this book was, in fact, a Christmas present for someone named Max in 1994. This is exactly the type of book that I might have received as a Christmas present that year, if only it had made it to the UK. Max’s dad’s inscription does make me feel a little sad – I wonder where they both are now. At least his thoughtful present has found a good home. Now, about how I mashed this thing into my scanner…
…For I did, indeed, mash this thing into my scanner. It’s a Big Golden Book, all right, which means it simply doesn’t fit. I tried taking photographs, but stitched-together pages still looked better, in spite of the page fold (which I’ve replicated with a black bar in some cases, to avoid a jarring transition).
In any case, I’ve chosen to focus on the theropods for Part 1, as is (my) tradition. In the above spread, good ol’ Coelophysis lurks sinisterly behind the dinosaur-adjacent archosaur Lagosuchus. The latter looks quite suspiciously like a Sibbickian Compsognathus, although it at least has a suitably proto-dinosaurian number of digits on its hands, and the animal’s lithe frame is as indicated by the fossils. Coelophysis is actually rather good – in fact, better than Sibbick’s effort for the Normanpedia. It’s low-slung and agile-looking, but not exaggeratedly so, and the relatively large, shallow head is well-observed.
Down in the Late Jurassic, Allosaurus is busy attacking Camarasaurus. Thankfully, Santoro’s Allosaurus is also rather better than the one in the Normanpedia, with a skull that perhaps represents better access to actual specimens. I’m not entirely convinced by the animal’s posture, but you’ll note that the way the head joins to the neck, and the neck joins to the torso, indicates a solidly Renaissance approach. The tail also flips right up into the air, even where one could well imagine it being held a little lower.
For its part, Camarasaurus is no slouch – in spite of its chunky Sibbickian limbs, its tail is held proudly off the ground, as is one of its front legs – apparently ready to smack Allosaurus right in the chops for its insubordination. I also appreciate the reference in the text to the animal’s likely huge, fleshy nose, even if the external nostril in the reconstruction is shown suitably high on its head. As was the style at the time. Points deducted for the elephant paws.
Having already appeared on the cover, Stegosaurus pops up again inside (and rearing, again!), but this time it’s accompanied by Torvosaurus. The Torvosaurus sports a rather fetching colour scheme, complete with GTI red stripe, but is otherwise a very malformed and awkward creation. I rather suspect that Santoro wasn’t given many clues as to what Torvosaurus actually looked like, and so we ended up with this generic large theropod with no neck and a rather nondescript head.
You may have noticed that the Stegosaurus has just the one row of plates. The text (by Mary Elting) hints that this was indeed inspired by Czerkas – “an artist who made dinosaur models for a museum.” I still treasure the original Jurassic Park toy Stegosaurus for being a rare representation of this idea in toy form.
Naturally, Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus share a Solnhofen spread. Santoro’s Comspognathus is rather Sibbick-like in terms of gross anatomy and scalation, and although its livery doesn’t appear to have been copied directly from a Sibbick, it is again rather Sibbickian in its sharp demarcation between a stripy, vibrant top half and dull, grey underside.
The Archaeopteryx, though, is really weird. Like, proper strange. Some inspiration appears to have been taken from a hoatzin, but the arrangement of its feathers doesn’t make a lot of sense, and its rather static limbs and positioning on the page conspire to make it look like an example of bad taxidermy hanging from a wire. I am dimly aware that I sound a bit like I did 10 years ago, shitting on an artist’s work from an assumed position of authority that I absolutely haven’t earned, but it really is very, very strange looking.
Ah, now here is some straightforward Sibbick-riffing. We are on comfortingly familiar ground. The central Deinonychus is, obviously, hugely inspired by Sibbick’s Normanpedia work, right down to the neck wattles and disturbingly probing middle finger, although the head has been made proportionately larger, and the leg posture has been transferred to an individual in the background. Even the Tenontosaurus has obviously been copied from Sibbick’s. I do like that the Deinonychus‘ head has been made larger; it’s like a bobble-headed version of Sibbick’s, a cute caricature.
Straightforward Sibbick copies aren’t that interesting though – thankfully, Santoro’s Spinosaurus is a little more creative. It certainly shows elements of a wee Sibbick illustration that appeared in the Normanpedia, but notably has a (slightly) more elongated head, alongside a uniquely colourfully patterned snakeskin hide. It also sports five-fingered hands, albeit with the two outer fingers being clawless (digit homology arguments ahoy!). I’m yet to determine the exact origin of the many-fingered Spinosaurus trope, although it probably originates from Stromer’s reconstruction, which itself had rather diminished hands with 4 digits. Of course, it wasn’t unreasonable for Stromer to assume that a large theropod might have small hands (see: most macropredatory theropods), and the smallest digit looks like it could have been embedded in the flesh of the hand, but no doubt the idea stuck around in the popular imagination.
Ouranosaurus is here too, and looks rather more fleet-footed than Spinosaurus. Which is rather true to our present understanding, actually, although I believe the two are very unlikely to have met. It resembles the Normanpedia Ouranosaurus, but mirrored and titled forwards.
And finally…it’s Rexy! Looking very much like a famous Mark Hallett reconstruction (specifically, the foreground and background individuals from said reconstruction mashed together). At least the referencing of Hallett ensures that it’s quite good-looking for the time, with decent proportions and suitably beady-looking (proportionately) tiny eyes. Rexy’s tail continues on the opposite page, but you’re not missing out on much with me just showing this one, honest.
More from The Big Golden Book coming up…