Pen and Ink Dinosaurs: Age of Reptiles

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Yesterday's post kicked off my look back at dinosaurs that stomped, roared and chomped their way through comics with Jim Lawson's Paleo. Rather than placing dinosaurs in the modern era or sending people back to the Cretaceous, Lawson's stories stood out because he considered dinosaurs in their own world. He wasn't the first to do so. Other artists have interpreted Mesozoic life if their own unique ways, including Ricardo Delgado in Age of Reptiles.

While Paleo was a collection of one-shot stories that changed characters with every issue, the collected Age of Reptiles covers three limited series published over more than 15 years, each featuring different dinosaurian stars. The series kicked off in 1993 with a tale of warring Deinonychus and Tyrannosaurus ("Tribal Warfare"), was followed in 1997 by a story of a young Allosaurus out for revenge against a pack of Ceratosaurus ("The Hunt") and recently re-appeared as a visual narrative about the travels of an immense dinosaur herd ("The Journey").

Delgado's storytelling style is entirely visual. Unlike Paleo, Tyrant and Dinosaurs: A Celebration, there is no text to guide the reader or tell you what a particular animal is thinking or feeling. This gives the stories a more cinematic flow, as if you boiled down a documentary about prehistoric life into a series of frames. But early on, it also caused Delgado to make his dinosaurs slightly anthropomorphic. The Deinonychus pack in "Tribal Warfare" is especially expressive, wearing grimaces of shock and fear that would have been impossible for the real animals. These little flourishes are absent from "The Journey," though, and this latest installment in the series is stronger for it—the dinosaurs in this book look more like real animals.

The artistic style varies from book to book as well. In the first book the colors are flat and bright—featuring horned dinosaurs in clashing greens and yellows, and a Saltasaurus with a rainbow neck—while "The Hunt" has a glossier look in which the colors shade into one another. Compared to the earlier installments, the colors of "The Journey" look relatively muted, but generally more realistic than the bright blues, greens, purples and reds of the earlier books. (As shown by sketches in the back of the Age of Reptiles anthology, the colors of the dinosaurs in "The Journey" were modeled after mammals of the modern-day African savanna.) Strangely, though, the dinosaurs of last book are not drawn in as much detail. The book has an unfinished look to it, at least until the few action frames in which the dinosaurs are drawn to a finer scale.

As for the dinosaurs themselves, Delgado continued in classic dinosaur comic tradition of picking characters that never actually met during prehistory. At the start of the first issue, a pack of Deinonychus (an early Cretaceous predator from North America) attacks a Saltasaurus (an armored sauropod found in the Late Cretaceous of Argentina), and the chief rivals of the pack are a family of Tyrannosaurus (giant theropods from the Late Cretaceous of North America). Even worse is a show-down at the end of the first book which takes place in a Brachiosaurus graveyard inhabited by the predatory dinosaurs Carnotaurus, Baryonyx, Dilophosaurus and Oviraptor, all of which lived at different times and in different places all over the world. The Mesozoic mixing isn't quite so egregious in the following books, but well-read dinosaur fans will be able to spot when creatures from different slices of prehistory are artificially brought together on the page.

The behavior of the dinosaurs was also modified to fit the needs of the storyline. In "Tribal Warfare" and "The Hunt," especially, the carnivorous dinosaurs are mostly concerned with exacting revenge and ripping one another's throats out. They don't act like dinosaurs so much as supercharged monsters trying to protect their respective families. "The Journey" deviates from this pattern in regarding dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures as animals, and while they are mostly motivated by hunger, Delgado included some curious behavioral flourishes.

Following a large and varied herd of herbivorous dinosaurs on a migration to better feeding grounds, "The Journey" opens on a frost-bitten morning. Each species of dinosaur huddles together for warmth. While the Triceratops create a defensive ring around juveniles in the middle, a herd of diplodocids drape their necks and tails over one another to corral their own young. As the dinosaurs wake up, they shake off the ice and blow hot breath from their nostrils into the chilly air—there is no question that these are behaviorally complex, "hot-blooded" dinosaurs.

As would be expected, though, many of the ideas Delgado visually expresses in "The Journey" are speculative, and this is especially apparent in over-the-top sequences featuring predators. Though the massive herd is constantly trailed by a Tyrannosaurus and its two young offspring, the chief threats to the migrating dinosaurs are swarms of Velociraptor, crocodiles and, in the final chapter, marine reptiles such as mosasaurs. In one particularly gory encounter, scores of Velociraptor come streaming out of their cliffside roost and begin eviscerating every animal they can catch, adult sauropods included. Delgado's art puts the reader right in the middle of it—watching wounds open and guts spill—and this is repeated when the herd crosses a crocodile-infested river. (In a particularly ingenious panel, Delgado shows that the well-armored ankylosaurs were not invulnerable from attack.)

The number of predators Delgado throws at his dinosaurs is ridiculous, but, though gruesome, the violence is well thought-out and reinforces the goal of the traveling herbivores to eat without being eaten themselves. "Tribal Warfare" featured Kill Bill-style violence between raptors and tyrants, but "The Journey" is more akin to what you would expect to see when spotted hyenas run down a wildebeest or lions take down a Cape buffalo. Where documentary programs and books about living predators turn away, Delgado sticks with the scenes, following the breakdown of the dinosaurs.

Delgado's dinosaurs are clearly products of the major shift that occurred in dinosaur studies in the late 20th century, but this influence is broad rather than specific. Even though "The Journey" debuted in 2009, for example, its dinosaurs don't always match up with what paleontologists now understand. The raptors and ornithomimid dinosaurs in the book should have been at least partially covered in feathers, for example, and discoveries of juvenile dinosaur "gangs" have been taken to suggest that some dinosaurs did not provide extended care to their young. And, while there is evidence that raptors could be gregarious, there is no evidence for dozens of small predators overrunning sauropods and other large dinosaurs.

That's the constant tension in comic book stories about dinosaurs. The art and stories are inspired and informed by science, but they are also works of fiction in which the author must develop characters and sometimes go out on a limb about behaviors of long-dead animals. All the background research in the world can't help you if you don't have a good story, and in this respect I think Age of Reptiles is one of the better dinosaur series to date. By abandoning captions, Delgado was free to create visions of prehistoric life that make the reader feel as if they are traveling along with the illustrated animals.

In fact, I wonder if some of Delgado's flourishes will make it on-screen. He is one of the consultants for the Discovery Channel's upcoming Reign of the Dinosaurs series, which will also feature dinosaurs in a natural setting. Be on the lookout for sauropod sleeping circles and huge raptor packs.

Next Up: Tyrant.

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