Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaur For A Day

Vintage Dinosaur Art

A couple of years ago, we looked at the book The Last Dinosaur by Jim Murphy and illustrated by Mark Alan Weatherby. It was a piece of naturalist fiction from the late 80s that followed the adventures of a female Triceratops as the world around her was dying. It was a beautiful and odd little book, one that I remembered reading when I was young. Less famously, in 1992, Murphy and Weatherby reunited for another dinosaur adventure, this one not set during the extinction of the dinosaurs. It’s centered around Hypsilophodon and follows one dinosaur for a day in its life, inviting you to imagine yourself in its place. Paraphrasing Thomas Nagel, what is it like to be a dinosaur? Here’s Dinosaur for a Day!

Hypsilophodon is an unorthodox, but inspired choice as a protagonist for dinosaur centered fiction. It is the ultimate underdog dinosaur, not a big horned or spiky juggernaut like Triceratops that can hold its own in a fight, but the quintessential smallish herbivore that needs to rely on speed, stealth and cunning to survive. It’s the mythological Kanchil of the dinosaur world. Its bipedality even gives it a certain anthropomorphic flair, being able to interact with its environment through its hands.

On the backside of the cover, we are greeted by a very modern looking toucan. I’ve commented many times on how modern looking birds keep showing up in dinosaur art. This book takes that to a new extreme. Every page on this book is full of essentially modern animals, rendered in high detail, while the dinosaurs themselves tend to be underplayed. The effect is curious indeed. Let’s dive in.

So here’s our protagonist, the mother Hypsilophodon, seen here looming though the trees from the perspective of her baby. The Triceratops of The Last Dinosaur was clearly based on the Dinamation animatronic. I don’t know what this particular Hypsilophodon design was based on. There’s definitely elements of Sibbick’s Hypsilophodon from the Normanpedia, but the skin and colours are different. I like the dark spots on green, almost like an anaconda. Being the main dinosaur, we get to see it from any number of different angles; this low angle with the parent looming looks very Henderson-esque to me, especially with all the lush foliage.

The very modern-looking chameleon, insects and birds make the composition very full and busy. Whereas The Last Dinosaur was an adventure in a world of emptiness, this is a world full of life.

Another busy composition as the family is disturbed by a cranky hadrosaur, munching on raspberries. I like how the big herbivores in this universe are anything but friendly towards the small underdog dinosaurs. The Maiasaura looks like it could have been based on the work of John Gurche. We only ever see its head here, not its body. The Hypsilophodon share a brook with modern-day flamingos and cranes. So much is happening in these illustrations, and not all of it has to do with the non-avian dinosaurs. Like in the previous book, Weatherby goes all-out on the lush landscapes, and the guy loves nothing more than a mossy rock and a good waterfall.

Another big herbivore shows up here, but you have to look for it. It’s Sauropelta, again represented only by a head, way up there in the distance. Consistently, Weatherby gives us the Hysilophodon‘s eye view of the world, in which a Sauropelta isn’t another cool armoured dinosaur to feast your eyes on, but rather an unknowable natural phenomenon like an earthquake or a thunderstorm. That makes this book fundamentally different from other dinosaur books of its time. There’s many animals we don’t get a good look at. A dragonfly and blue morpho butterfly are the featured modern animals here, not that the menagerie of dinosaurs is any less of an anachronism stew.

There’s Early Cretaceous Hypsilophodon from Europe, slightly later Early Cretaceous Sauropelta from North America and Late Cretaceous Maiasaura; it’s all over the place. The text seems to suggest that we’re actually looking at generic “hypsilophodonts” here, and that this “family” of dinosaurs existed for a hundred million years. It is true that ornithischian dinosaurs of this general body plan existed up until the very end of the Cretaceous, though the family “Hypsilophodontidae” has become very contested over the years since.

The text, interestingly, paints Sauropelta as an insect eater, passively waiting for bugs to come near its mouth. It is, of course, nominally a herbivore, but sneakily munching on insects is the kind of thing nominal herbivores get up to all the time. Behaviour like this was a big theme during the first All Yesterdays wave, so Murphy is ahead of the curve here. The grapes are an interesting detail.

As far as dinosaur designs went, The Last Dinosaur had only Triceratops and T. rex to show off. Set vaguely in the middle of the Cretaceous, this book has the chance to feature a lot more different kinds of dinosaur. And it does, but not to a huge extent. Apart from Hypsilophodon, there’s a Maiasaura head, the Sauropelta in the background, a couple of nonspecific pterosaurs and the predators we’ll be looking at shortly. Troodon gets mentioned, but doesn’t appear. It seems like showing off a variety of different dinosaurs really isn’t what Weatherby is interested in. The real wealth of biodiversity is expressed through all the birds and insects he draws so meticulously.

The pterosaur looks pretty alright for the time. It has odd wings, with very gangly arms and those big claws on, but that’s nothing new. I like how it’s got a fuzzy body, at least, and that sharp beak doesn’t half look vicious.

Here come the theropods! Like the other dinosaurs the Hypsilophodon family meets, they never seem to appear quite in focus. They are just threatening, unfriendly silhouettes in motion, as one would imagine a small herbivore would perceive them. Even the beetles are hiding away.

In terms of the design of the Deinonychus, they haven’t aged terribly well even by 90s standards. I see once again the influence of the Dinamation animatronic in the build of the animals’ bodies, but not so much in their heads. The Dinamation Deinonychus’ snout was more elongated than these.

A chaotic scene unfolds as the Deinonychus attack. Weatherby places us in the undergrowth with the insects, looking up at unclear, silhouetted monsters that we only seem to get vague glimpses of. If we are meant to identify with the Hypsilophodon, Weatherby does a good job of showing the confusion and disorientation that would ensue in an explosive predator attack. He hides the eyes of most of the attackers. What glimpses of the Deinonychus’ heads he does offer us look quite allosaur-like, with long, deep maws and tapering heads. The teeth continue all the way to the back of the mouth, under the eye socket, a very old-fashioned dinosaur trope that tells me palaeontological accuracy wasn’t at the top of Weatherby’s priority list.

You can see here that the modern insects, the yellowjackets and stag beetles, are rendered in much more detail than the dinosaurs. The effect is that they seem to occupy a different world, that they are more real than the dinosaurs. I’m not sure if this is what Weatherby intended. He’s bringing a sharp naturalist realism to the insects while the dinosaurs remain somewhat blurry and the landscapes remain dreamlike.

Unlike The Last Dinosaur, this book is bloodless. From 80s violence to 90s happy endings. What difference four years make. No babies perish in the Deinonychus attack, but mother gets separated from them for a while. This illustration affords us a good look at Hypsilophodon in profile. Compared to the modern animals and the very detailed backgrounds, again, the dinosaurs seem slightly simplified. The shape of the limbs in particular is angular and not very detailed. The trilobite imprint in the background of the text block is an interesting detail – by the Cretaceous, trilobites would have been ancient fossils. The text mentions a small digging mammal, but there’s no small mammal to be seen apart from the bat. Bats in the Cretaceous were definitely not a thing.

Let’s have an extreme close up of Hypsilophodon‘s face. The skin texture is very strange, and hard to compare to anything else. It’s not quite lizard scales, not quite amphibian skin and not quite crocodile bumps. It’s very detailed, but at the same time it looks softer and fuzzier than, for instance, the very realistic texture on the leaves. At the same time, the eye is very sharp and real. Weatherby seems like the kind of illustrator who strives for ultimate realism, but he can’t quite seem to get his dinosaurs there. It remains a dreamlike apparition in a hyperreal world. But the result is interesting and unique. The scenes of the mother alone recall the elegiac melancholy of The Last Dinosaur, but we have a happier ending this time.

As evening falls and it starts raining, the family is reunited and they must brave the elements to return to their nesting grounds. If there’s anything Weatherby does well, it’s creating mood and atmosphere. Now, the family must jump from stone to stone to escape falling in the water, a favourite adventurous activity for children. The whole book is softer and friendlier than its spiritual predecessor, but there’s just as many perilous moments like this.

And thus our plucky heroine disappears into the safety of her nest. Or is it safe? For now, it is.

And that’s Dinosaur for a Day. It’s certainly a lot to process. Even though it tells, ultimately, a small story, there’s an energy to this book that comes from making the small things big and the big things gigantic beyond comprehension. The illustrator makes a lot of strange choices, and not all of it holds up, but it looks gorgeous and feels absolutely massive. Although the book never anthopomorphizes its characters, this Hypsilophodon becomes almost a creature from a fable, the folkloric underdog survivor. Unlike the other dinosaur book by this duo, this is one I missed in my younger years, but I can definitely see why many of you remember this one so fondly. I still wish there were more books like this.

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  • Reply
    Jared Moloshok
    February 22, 2024 at 12:54 pm

    Funnily enough, I actually found this book while cleaning out the education office at the zoo where I work. I was planning on sending it to you guys, but never got around to it.

    I didn’t take much notice of the Maiasaura or the Sauropelta, but the Deinonychus appearing in a book about Hypsilophodon did give me pause. I also seem to recall there was a blurb at the end of the book discussing the reasoning behind the mother “abandoning” her young during the predator attack, which I thought was a nice touch.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2024 at 11:04 pm

    On the subject of Hypsilophodon as an unexpected protagonist in a work of fiction, there’s also the children’s novel The Dinosaur’s Diary by Julia Donaldson.

  • Reply
    February 24, 2024 at 3:44 pm

    Ankylosaurs habitually eating insects is an old idea because it was thought that their jaws were too weak for most Cretaceous plants.

  • Reply
    February 29, 2024 at 7:10 am

    Let’s just pretend the toucan is a relative of the marvellous *Falkatakely*. But really, why on earth would you just include modern species in a Mesozoic setting? It’s so uninspired, unnecessary and transparent. Here it is all the more grating because all the renderings are so gorgeous and impressive. I also don’t really see why the dinosaurs weren’t just given the generic description of ‘dromaeosaur’, ‘ankylosaurian’ and ‘hadrosaur’, which would have been better than identifying them as (temporally) misplaced faunal elements.
    That being said, this book just looks great, accurate or not, only the pterosaur seems too cartoonish for me.

  • Reply
    Andreas Johansson
    April 9, 2024 at 6:39 am

    The word that came to mind looking at the closeup of the Hypsilophon’s head was “ectoplastic”.

    I had a blue Hypsilophon toy as a kid. I vaguely seem to recall it came with a caveman figure? The Hypsi was light blue with a dark blue back, maybe 10 or 15cm long.

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