Vintage Dinosaur Art: Giant Dinosaurs

Vintage Dinosaur Art

As a slim paperback from the 1970s aimed at very young, beginner readers, and published by Scholastic, you might well expect Giant Dinosaurs to be yet another book filled with Charles Knight knock-offs. And about half of it is. However, the other half features – quite unexpectedly – amusing cartoons of dinosaurs being a nuisance in the modern world. It’s making learning fun!

Giant Dinosaurs cover

Giant Dinosaurs was first published in 1973, with this edition arriving in 1979. Erna Rowe wrote the (fairly minimal) text, while Merle Smith illustrated. I really like some of the techniques employed for backgrounds here – they vary between sponged-on paint, and a technique that appears (I am reliably told) to indicate another piece of paper being slapped down, and then peeled off again. Very occasionally (see T. rex later on) these backgrounds almost resemble impressionistic  landscapes, but they mostly just look a bit nifty.

The dinosaurs are resolutely retro, and the cover features a lizard-footed Stegosaurus lashing out at a large theropod, presumably Allosaurus. The latter does look very familiar, but I can’t quite place it. The style tends towards realism in the ‘serious’ illustrations, although there are cartoonish touches, such as the movement lines on the theropod’s twitching tail. A Google search for Smith mostly turns up various copies of this book (it had a Spanish edition too, apparently), and I’m still not sure of their gender (but I think he’s a he). Regardless, their illustrations here are often quite charming, especially…

Trachodon by Merle Smith

…the aforementioned funnies. Trachodon gets a ‘serious’ illustration in which it’s an obvious Knight copy, but also appears in a couple of cartoons, demonstrating some of its most notable attributes; in the case of the above piece, its huge size. The woman at the window appears to be quite remarkably blasé about the appearance of a gigantic animal peering straight at her. Given that the hadrosaur could easily crush her rather bijoux dwelling, this doesn’t seem sensible. Of course, that’s just the lovely whimsical world that Smith wishes to portray. Yes.

Trachodon at the dentist by Merle Smith

The large number of teeth that Trachodon had is also deemed worthy of a gag. There’s something about the style of the human characters here that reminds me of 1950s cartoons, although the slightly odd speech bubble is very ’70s. I do like that only the dinosaurs are depicted in full colour, with surrounding humans and scenery cleverly depicted with minimal shading and lines. Nice work, although “I cannot find the one that hurts” seems, again, oddly blasé. I can’t help but feel that, in a modern book, the dentist would be screaming “Are you KIDDING ME!?!”.

Brontosaurus by Merle Smith

Elsewhere, Brontosaurus (portrayed here by a mutant potato) is described as being “as big as two school rooms”. Of course, that does rather depend on the room, although we get the idea. I always enjoyed seeing illustrations of schools being trashed as a child, and I’ve no doubt that that’s been the case for most children since schools came into existence. Therefore, I can only commend the above piece, even if it isn’t clear how Bronto managed to squeeze in there in the first place. At least the teacher appears appropriately concerned about this gigantic, quadrupedal root vegetable that’s threatening to smear her against the wall.

Diplodocus by Merle Smith

Bronto might have been a room-filler, but Diplodocus was lo-o-o-ong, as emphasised in this illustration, which features at least one real car that I recognise (the Beetle). Hooray! Diplodocus was also very thin at one end, fatter in the middle, and then very thin at the other end. Amusing touches abound; here, one motorist has apparently stopped dead to gawp, causing a rear-end shunt behind him. A snooty lady may also be seen peering at the beast through her opera glasses, having had the door of her car opened by her chauffeur, who’s loyal enough to resist looking at the giant dinosaur behind him. It does look a bit as if Dippy is hovering above the ground, but otherwise, it’s a wonderful little cartoon.

Tyrannosaurus by Merle Smith

Returning to the more ‘serious’ illustrations for a moment, and here’s Tyrannosaurus, looking very much like that early Charles Knight depiction, but a little livelier. The crocodilian rectangular scales on the tail are an interesting touch, and one that is repeated in another illustration on the opposite page, meaning that Smith’s T. rex looks quite consistent…except when it doesn’t.

Tyrannosaurus by Merle Smith

There’s a bit of a stylistic departure for the above piece, in which Tyrannosaurus, having grown a massively longer, snaking tail, takes a chunk out of a poor hadrosaur. The latter does look very familiar, although, you know, not so much that I can actually remember where I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen too many of these things, man. Too many.

Anyway, the shading (copied or not) certainly is dramatic. It’s perhaps a little peculiar for the book to suddenly portray violent predation amid the comic scenes, but I’ll take it.

Stegosaurus by Merle Smith

My favourite of Smith’s cartoons might just be the above, in which a Stegosaurus has invaded a living room. Again, it’s not clear how the beast managed to squeeze its plates under the doorway, but then, who cares? At least the man on the left looks appropriately startled, while the woman on the right moves in with a broom, that favourite comedy tool with which to chase errant creatures from one’s home. Even if they’re of elephantine proportions. The gormless expression on the oblivious stegosaur’s face is also fantastic.

Triceratops by Merle Smith

Back on the serious side, Triceratops receives this wonderfully evocative and moody treatment, crouching down as if bracing itself and swinging its huge horns at the viewer. Very retro (overly-long dragged tail, back crenellations, slightly odd horn placement and all), but beautifully painted.

Triceratops by Merle Smith

With such vicious-looking horns, would a meat eater attack Triceratops? Would a truck (with fantastically period-correct useless mirrors) be of any concern to Triceratops? Who can say? I mean, tyrannosaurs almost certainly did go after the odd Triceratops, but we really can’t be sure about the truck thing. The driver is so startled that his hair has invented punk rock style a few years early, and his hat’s been projected into the air. Great stuff.

Brontosaurus skeleton by Merle Smith

And finally…the (non-avian) dinosaurs are all dead now. But you can go and see a mounted Brontosaurus in a museum, and it will make you feel small. For what are you in the grand context of deep time? You may kid yourself that, millions of years from now, someone will find your fossilised remains, or at least a layer of the earth’s crust that bears testament to the pitifully short lifespan of the human species. But without the massive bulk of the brontosaur, your bones are far more likely to be utterly pulverised, and the insignificantly brief timespan of human civilisation written off as a mysterious freak event that resulted in the depositing of a thin layer of radioactive materials and a notable loss in biodiversity. That is, if organisms able to appreciate the significance of what they see in the rocks even exist. It seems quite probable they won’t.

In any case, that’s why you’ll feel small at the museum. Coming up next time: I think one of Raul Martin’s first books might be officially Vintage now!

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    Jeff Lewis
    August 29, 2023 at 12:40 pm

    I had a similar book by Erna Rowe when I was growing up, Strange Creatures from the time of the Dinosaurs. But this one was illustrated by Alan Daniel (who according to his website, trained in the studio of J. Merle Smith). The text of the book is targeted at a slightly older audience, and the ‘straight’ illustrations are a little more realistic, though very much still pre-dinosaur renaissance. It has the same mix of fun illustrations, showing prehistoric creatures interacting with people in modern settings and situations.

    Doing a little googling just now, I found it on the Internet Archive. You can check it out digitally for an hour at a time:

  • Reply
    October 9, 2023 at 3:04 pm

    You wonder where you’ve seen the odd hadrosaur in the page 18 illustration with T-Rex. This is cribbed from one of George Solonevich’s illustrations for T-Rex in that epic work “Dinosaurs and More Dinosaurs” by M. Jean Craig. The Triceratops and Diplodocus appear strongly influenced by, if not outright swiped from Solonevich as well.

    • Reply
      Marc Vincent
      October 9, 2023 at 3:07 pm

      Yes, thank you, that’s it.

  • Reply
    October 9, 2023 at 3:07 pm

    The hadrosaur in the T-Rex illustration on page 18 (as well as the Diplodocus and the Triceratops) appear to be directly lifted from George Solonevich’s work in 1966’s “Dinosaurs and More Dinosaurs” which was reviewed on the old LITCs blog.

    • Reply
      October 9, 2023 at 3:08 pm

      Sorry for the double post, it didn’t appear to have saved. Cheers!

    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.