Vintage Dinosaur Art: Seismosaurus: The Longest Dinosaur

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Welcome back! You may have previously seen me cover the Ornithomimids and Troodon volumes in the Carolrohda Special Dinosaurs Series. As Don and Donna month enters its second month, it’s time to take a break from all those charmingly dated unfeathered ’90s coelurosaurs (don’t worry, they’ll be back) and take a look at a specialized volume of palaeontology and palaeoart that is charmingly dated in a completely different way!

Published, again, in 1996, Seismosaurus – The Longest Dinosaur is the only non-theropod focused book in the series. You probably know that, like its macronarian kaiju counterpart Ultrasaurus/os, Seismosaurus is a mythical dinosaur name that has long since fallen into disuse. But that doesn’t mean the supergiant sauropod itself didn’t exist! It is now “merely” considered a supersized species of Diplodocus.

Looking at the cover, Donna Braginetz’ impeccable eye for anatomical detail is once again in full display. The feet are perfect. In motion, they perfectly convey both the massive weight of these animals as well as the surprising elegance of their step. In defiance of its Brontosaurus-inspired name, it’s much more likely that this enormous animal walked silently and deliberately, like an elephant. Another detail betraying Braginetz’ attention to detail is the inclusion of bony bumps along the neck, representing the odd shape of the diplodocid neck vertebrae. These have been the source of much speculation in the last decade (Brontosmash anyone?) but Braginetz represents them simply as they are on the skeleton. Braginetz has this no-nonsense, rigorous, Paulian approach to reconstruction that was cutting-edge in the day but now makes the animal look shrinkwrapped by modern standards, especially the head.

What was I just saying about a giant animal walking silently? Don Lessem is having none of that. In his narration, the creature stamps and stomps about like that dinosaur from that movie, rattling the cutlery in all nearby drawers. I especially love how “the dinosaurs see a creature about four school buses long”, as if the stegosaurs themselves make that association. That’s some good old Don Lessem sensationalism at full force.

A full-spread Braginetz composition is a rare treat in these books. I love the water and the simple but lovely landscape, and especially the masterclass in forshortening and forced perspective with that mighty neck stretching out into the distance. The blur on the distance is a Braginetz trademark, adding to the “photoreal” feel of this piece. It’s a contrast to the clear lines of Dinosaurium.

A particularly sinuous Allosaurus represents the theropod side of things. This is a typical Donnasaur, I believe it also made an appearance on the size chart for the Ornithomimus book. Somehow this one seems especially reptilian to me, even with the very birdlike feet. It’s a pretty close ringer for the Walking With Dinosaurs Allosaurus too, which would stomp unto our screens a couple of years later.

Out of all the gratuitous T. rex cameos in this book series, this one is the most gratuitous, the most inexplicable, and the most silly. Instead of a sleek, elegant, intimidating Braginetz Sexy Rexy, Don Lessem treats us to this dark picture of a delightfully wonky and ropey animatronic. I have lamented before on these pages how the quality of animatronic dinosaurs seems to be in decline, so it’s a relief to know that there was absolute crap around in the nineties, as well. How did it get into this book, I wonder? Especiall when Donna was on hand to do a good reconstruction?

It sticks out especially because Lessem’s work otherwise is pretty good here. He writes with nuance and attention to detail about the different ways in which the question “what was the biggest dinosaur?” may be interpreted, and the work that goes into finding the answer.

The rest of the book consists of Donna Braginetz just illustrating a whole bunch of sauropods, and I’m extremely here for it. This Brachiosaurus is one of the only times a Braginetz piece explicitly recalls good old John Sibbick, whose illustration of Brachiosaurus‘ muscle anatomy was found in many books as well as Dinosaurs!Magazine. It’s still up for licencing to this day. Braginetz seems dedicated to keeping her dinosaurs up to date, so she doesn’t reference Sibbick all that often, but the brachiosaur is actually one of Sibbick’s pieces that aged the best. This illustration is almost, but not quite, the Sibbick version with skin on. This version has a much friendlier face.

Saltasaurus is chunky. It’s interesting how everyone in the 90s just forgot that Cretaceous sauropods were a thing, apart from Saltasaurus. Lessem, to his credit, mentions a few (including Argentinosaurus) but this is the only one that’s been illustrated.

I’m gonna say it. No one drew better dinosaurs in the 90s than Donna Braginetz. Some made compositions that were more stylish or exciting or atmospheric, but in terms of purely how the dinosaurs looked, she is untouchable. This comes to light especially with drier “identity parade” fare like this. See that odd way the tail juts slightly upward, creating a strange bump in its silhouette? Increasingly, we’re finding this to be a common sauropod trait, but good luck finding anyone at the time reconstructing them that way. As I’ve talked about with Marc, Camarasaurus is often considered the “ugly” sauropod, but in the hands of a skilled artist who gets the actual proportions right it becomes quite the elegant animal.

Sauropod heaven. I really have very little to say about all these. Of course, the astutely observed Brontosmash protrusions on the neck vertebrae return for these diplodocids, and are especially pronounced in Apatosaurus. With their necks upright and their tails straight out, these still look faily modern to our eyes (the spines on Diplodocus‘ back would be discovered later), I regret I wasn’t aware with this work at the time; it would probably have blown my mind.

Anyway, let’s check back in with Seismosaurus itself. I wonder how it’s d… oh. It’s dead. Well. So it goes, sometimes. It has succumbed to having eaten a rock that turned out to be too large – such a rock has indeed been found in the specimen’s cavity, which Lessem hypothesizes might have been the cause of its untimely death. Equally untimely was the demise of Seismosaurus as a separate genus of dinosaur. As cool a name as Seismosaurus was, I guess we have to live with it being a species of Diplodocus, after all. Farewell, Seismosaurus. We hardly knew ye.

But I’m not saying farewell yet to Don and Donna month! Join us next time for the final entry into this series, and a spectacular return to the theropods.

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Brett Gabbitas
    November 21, 2022 at 2:02 pm

    I would point out that Sibbick copied an older Seventies Greg Paul piece. It was all over every newspaper from the U.S. to China.

  • Reply
    T.K. Sivgin
    November 21, 2022 at 7:14 pm

    Regarding the Saltasaurus thing, there really was a misconception throughout the 20th century among laypeople that sauropods had gone extinct by the end of the Jurassic. Robert Bakker even had to address that myth in The Dinosaur Heresies.

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