According to Robert Mash, author of How to Keep Dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex is the antithesis of everything a good pet should be. “Literally awful and almost certainly needing a special insurance policy” to keep, the king of the tyrant dinosaurs would be nothing more than a bloody catastrophe waiting to happen. That hasn’t stopped dinosaur fans from imagining what it might be like to keep a pet tyrannosaur, though, and that childhood fantasy was played out in Doug TenNapel’s 2005 graphic novel Tommysaurus Rex.
TenNapel’s story starts out with a sadly familiar tragedy—a young boy named Ely loses his best friend when his dog is struck and killed by a car. In an attempt to take the boy’s mind off the accident, his parents send him to stay on his grandfather’s farm for the summer. Insult is added to emotional injury when a gang of bullies assaults Ely, but he quickly finds a new friend and protector. Locked away in the recesses of a cave is a Tyrannosaurus rex—a friendly dinosaur that just happens to have the same mannerisms as Ely’s lost dog.
Naturally, the Tyrannosaurus immediately shows off why big, carnivorous dinosaurs would not make good pets. The predator gobbles up a cow, plows through fences, gives a few houses some impromptu remodeling, and leaves king-sized piles of dino scat all over the local park. Fortunately for Ely, though, the mayor and other townsfolk allow the dinosaur to stay, as long as the boy provides some better training for the prehistoric beast. Almost everyone seems mollified, save for one spiky-haired bully who has it out for Ely and his dinosaur.
But the story is not really about what it would be like to keep a Tyrannosaurus as a pet. The dinosaur is one big MacGuffin—an object that keeps the story moving along as the main characters develop. The dinosaur is there to teach Ely about loss, responsibility and, ultimately, sacrifice as his relationship with the town bully changes. There are a few cute moments specific to the dinosaur—legendary stop-motion film artist Ray Harryhausen makes a cameo to sketch the tyrannosaur—but the story is about Ely beginning to gain some emotional maturity more than a fantastical tale of a life with a dinosaur.
Drawn in black-and-white, TenNapel’s art is closer to that of Calvin and Hobbes than dinosaur-focused comics like Paleo or The Age of Reptiles. That doesn’t mean that TenNapel traded accuracy for a more distinctive personal style, though. The story’s Tyrannosaurus isn’t a plodding, Godzilla-like monster, but a lithe and agile creature that fits modern restorations of the famous dinosaur. Of course, a few embellishments were needed to make the carnivorous dinosaur a sympathetic character; for instance, the eyes and brow ridges of the dinosaur move to give the gargantuan pet emotional depth.
Tommysaurus Rex is not a detailed exploration of what it would be like to keep a pet Tyrannosaurus. It is not meant to be, and that’s a good thing. If Ely’s tyrannosaur had acted like the genuine article—one of the largest predators ever to walk the earth—the boy’s relationship with the dinosaur would have probably ended very abruptly. A flash of teeth, a crunch, and the book would have been finished. I am glad TenNapel took a different route!