Or Norman: Into the Normanverse
What book casts a longer shadow than David Norman’s 1985 The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs? Which dinosaur reconstructions are more iconic, more widely seen and more frequently copied than John Sibbick’s? What book has been referenced more frequently on these pages than the one we still affectionately call the Normanpedia? Will this whole review consist of rhetorical questions?
Today, I want to talk about a book by David Norman that came out a mere three years later. It’s called The Prehistoric World of the Dinosaur. The title already sounds a bit redundant: doesn’t the dinosaur already imply prehistory? I do like the monolithic theatricality of using The Dinosaur in singular form, though. Like the Normanpedia, it is a big, weighty overview of all things dinosaur, featuring lots of photographs, skeletals and life reconstructions. While covering a lot of the same ground, this one is updated, bigger and even grander in scope. A sequel, if you will (the book is, once again, huge and my scanner doesn’t like it much). But John Sibbick, so instrumental to the Normanpedia’s success, isn’t on board this time. Who could possibly replace him?
This book is going to be tough to talk about, as I really don’t want to be negative about someone’s artistic work. Philip Hood is, in fact, an excellent artist whose modern work can be found here. He’s also done work for Dougal Dixon’s speculative zoology projects, so that’s a feather in his cap. Support him if you can. As you can see if you’ve clicked that link, his portfolio doesn’t feature any of his dinosaurs. That might not be a coincidence.
Of course, Phil Hood is no John Sibbick. Who is? Even then, it’s remarkable just how much of a step down the life reconstructions in this book are, compared to those in the Normanpedia. Sibbick’s dinosaurs, as we’ve said many times, were not up to the minute accurate, but Hood’s are, not to put too fine a point on it, just dodgy. Not bad, as such. Hood brings a lot of artistic skill to the table. They just don’t live up to the science that Norman so minutely describes. They seem to belong in a different book, not something as ambitious as this. But they manage at least to be dodgy in an interesting way.
Let’s start with this Brachiosaurus, the first live reconstruction in the book. It’s a very strange amalgamation of tropes that were extremely outdated by 1988. The head is instantly recognizable to me as taken straight from the cover of Caselli’s Evolution and Ecology of Dinosaurs. The body appears to be taken from a rhino rather than the usual Sibbickian elephant, so that’s something. The tail is extremely thick and flops on the ground behind it. The feet all have five claws on them, though they fell off my scan. Even the one thing everyone knows about Brachiosaurus, that its front legs are longer than its hind legs, is not represented here. But it’s not in a swamp, so it’s scientificamally acumarate! A few pages later, we get to set our eyes upon a perfectly up-to-date, sleek Brachiosaurus/Giraffatitan skeletal by Greg Paul, for it is he. Too bad nobody showed that to Phil Hood. That’s my ongoing frustration with this book in a nutshell.
I’ve been racking my brain over this Iguanodon. I’m really sure I’ve seen one in this pose before, but where? Dinosaurs mag, maybe? This Iguanodon is clearly a holdover from the Dollo generation, but so, all things considered, was Sibbick’s. The dragging tail and more upright posture still makes it more retro. The hands, legs and skin all look not very reptilian and instead very humanoid. Phil Hood makes his dinosaurs flabby and meaty, giving them a sense of realness and tangibility in spite of their strangeness.
Here, we begin to see that Hood was, um, taking inspiration, from Normanpedia. The Dilo is differently coloured and bulkier than Sibbick’s, but it’s in almost the exact same pose. What baffles me is not that he’s ripping off Normanpedia, which is quite simply what everyone at the time was doing. What’s baffling is that it’s being done in a book by Norman himself. Is it still plagiarism if you plagiarize yourself? Anyway, I kind of like this one for its hilariously grumpy face. Again: this would be a great dinosaur reconstruction for a contemporaneous children’s book.
Background volcano, take a shot. There was also one in the Sibbick version!
Here’s something interesting. These are two fairly obscure Chinese dinosaurs: Tuojiangosaurus and Yangchuanosaurus. Or are they? That theropod is quite obviously the Allosaurus from Normanpedia, but blue. Its overlong arms make it quite freaky. I don’t have much to say about the stegosaur.
More interesting, obscure Chinese dinosaurs that I can’t trace back to any pre-existing artwork this time. Gasosaurus (misspelled as Gazosaurus) has an interesting, unusually blocky heard with a very strong jawline. It’s in one of those generic 80s theropod poses; the legs are not bad. The sauropod is Mamenchisaurus, and this is where things get dodgy again. The body, like the apatosaur’s above, has that strange back ridge that I associate with Bernard Robinson. But what’s going on with that neck? It seems to have at least two weird kinks in it. You might wanna get that looked at, Mamenchisaurus. Both dinosaurs are dragging their tails like chumps.
I think we have to talk about Tenontosaurus. Deinonychus here just looks like Bakker’s, boring, but how did we get to a place where Tenontosaurus came to look like this? What bizarre game of Chinese whispers were palaeoartists playing that started with a smallish, long-tailed iguanodont and ended up with this long-necked, short-limbed awkward quadruped with this baffling head? The head here at least looks somewhat like an iguanodont head (moreso than the actual Iguanodon above) with its beaky snout, but it looks so strange on this decidiedly un-iguanodontian body. Only Tenontosaurus ever looks like this in palaeoart, and only when it’s attacked by raptors (which is always). At least they’ve still got the long tails. Hood was not working from fossils or skeletals, that much is clear, but from previous artworks which were, in turn, based on other previous artworks. That is nothing new, palaeoartists do that all the time. I just wonder why it was good enough for David Norman.
One thing that is notable about this book is that it features one of the first ever, maybe the first ever, depictions of the freshly described Carnotaurus. As you probably know, Carnotaurus is known from a single, extremely well-preserved specimen that has a slew of interesting features, unique, instantly recognizable anatomy and, famously, preserved skin impressions. Almost none of it carries over to this reconstruction. How was Hood briefed on this one? Okay, there’s this new meat eating dinosaur, and it’s got bull horns, long legs and dinky arms. Go!
We’ve seen Hood copying Sibbick, we’ve seen him copy Caselli, and here, he copies both at the same time. The towering Pachycephalosaurus in the background (we were still wildly overestimating its size at the time) is modified from the Normanpedia, while the head-bashing Stegoceras are traced and recoloured from one of the most dynamic pieces in Evolution and Ecology of Dinosaurs. It injects some movement into an otherwise rather static book.
Oh man, look at this. The Tyrannosaurus featured in here is based on Neave Parker, of all people. Except with Sibbick skin, so it’s an unholy hybrid. But Hood has lifted its tail off the ground this time (it didn’t quite all fit on the scan) so it’s perfectly modernized for the 1980s! Even by this book’s standards, this is blatant. I do like the cheerful smile on Triceratops. They seem well chuffed to see their old pal Sexy Rexy.
Slightly more menacing is Tarbosaurus here. I definitely see some traces of Burian’s late-career classic heroic Tarbosaurus, but how gnarly is that head? Hood has taken Burian’s eccentric rough skin textures on the neck, head and snout and turned it all up to eleven. The ankylosaur is obviously traced over from Sibbick. Two giants of palaeoart of two different generations duking it out. Burian vs. Sibbick, round one! Fight! It’s almost like mashup fanfiction. This image is notable for being the only one in the book, apart from the cover, to feature a full colour landscape, though not a particularly elaborate one. Background volcano, take a shot!
The Styracosaurus also seems to be based on Burian. Burian’s Styracosaurus was copied a whole bunch, despite not looking much like the real thing. That is easily explainable: Burian had no access to the actual fossils. Hood does not have that excuse. A high quality photograph of an actual Styracosaurus skull is right there; the reconstruction looks nothing like it.
And that’s the surprisingly dodgy sequel to Normanpedia. Again, no disrespect is meant towards Phil Hood. If anything, it is David Norman who needed to do better. Norman should have given Hood much more precise instructions. It is the scientist who needs to make sure the life reconstructions of dinosaurs reflect the science that’s in the book. This book is full of photographs, cladograms and skeletals, all very high quality; clearly, palaeoart played second fiddle to Norman. But what is the use of pouring so much effort into writing a book about current dinosaur science to a wide audience without also putting an equal amount of effort into getting the art right? More often than not, the Greg Paul skeletal is right there, and the life reconstruction looks nothing like it. Time and time again do scientists underestimate the importance of palaeoart. Dinosaurs do not exist outside of palaeoart. Without art, they are just pictures of bones, just words and tables on the page. But it is not the words on the page or the pictures of the bones that ultimately define how the reader imagines the dinosaur. It is the art. That’s what you remember, that’s what you take away. Science is all well and good, but only art makes dinosaurs into real animals. Support original palaeoart.
Whew. Glad I’ve got that out of my system. I think it’s time for me to leave the 80s and 90s behind for a while and go back to more distant times. Indeed, I think it’s time to pay another visit to the old Soviet Union…