Pen and Ink Dinosaurs: Paleo

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The dinosaurs of the 1990s were a strange breed. Even though visions of the dinosaurs as highly active, dynamic animals had become the norm, some still dragged their tails and behaved like dim-witted monsters. Old interpretations hung on even as new discoveries changed our perspective, and one way to track this tension is through comics.

This week I will be looking back at four dinosaur comic series from this time of transition: Paleo, Age of Reptiles, Tyrant and Dinosaurs: A Celebration. Each series differs in its particulars, but all tell the stories of the dinosaurs in their own world (there are no humans to be found). First up is Paleo, a black-and-white series by Jim Lawson that actually debuted in 2001 but fits here because it carries on the tradition of the earlier comics.

Tyrannosaurs are the stars of Paleo. Many other species—dinosaur and non-dinosaur alike—run, fly and swim through Lawson's stories, but the tyrants appear in all but one of the six tales in the collected Paleo volume. They don't always come out on top. In book one, a hungry Daspletosaurus is crushed in the jaws of the giant alligatoroid Deinosuchus, and a pair of "Aublysodon" scavenging along the shoreline in book four face some competition from the mosasaur Plotosaurus.

Frustratingly, though, any one of Lawson's tyrannosaurs looks just like any of the others. Book five tells the story of an old, wounded Albertosaurus being stalked by a young Tyrannosaurus, and the two dinosaurs are almost identical to each other. The narrative captions are the only way to keep track of who's who, which is a pity since these dinosaurs were distinct in their anatomy. (Albertosaurus was a sort of sleeker, sports-car version of the more massive Tyrannosaurus.)

Dinosaur die-hards will also be able to pick out a few mistakes. The "dromeosaurs" of book two—modeled off of Deinonychus—sometimes have an extra toe, and the Plotosaurus that stars in book four is an overly tubby, fringed sea monster. Yet these little errors and misinterpretations do not affect the quality of the stories themselves. It is easy to get hung up on issues of anatomical accuracy, but Paleo is not meant to act as a textbook. The limited series is a collection of stories about animals long gone. They are vignettes from Deep Time.

Though the dinosaurs of Lawson's world are scaly and have a very reptilian look, their behavior carries the imprint of the new vision of dinosaurs that coalesced during the late 20th century. The tyrannosaurs often hunt in pairs, the "dromeosaurs" scrap with one another for dominance of their pack, and the Stegoceras herd at the center of book three cares for its young during a long migration. In its own way, Paleo reinforces the fact that dinosaurs were not just overgrown lizards or crocodiles—they were unique animals that thrived in an unfamiliar world.

But the real stand-out in the comic's limited run is a story that includes dinosaurs only as co-stars. The last issue tells the tale of a hungry dragonfly—a voracious predator that pursued smaller prey during the Late Cretaceous. Lawson uses the life cycle of the flying insect to riff on the concept of "nature red in tooth and claw," though ultimately the dragonfly ends up in a sticky situation that also ensures its preservation. While the five dinosaur-centered issues are highly enjoyable, the dragonfly's alternate angle on Mesozoic life was a fitting way to end the book.

Paleo was not the first dinosaur series of its kind, but it is one of the most enjoyable. The stories are no longer or shorter than they need to be, and it was refreshing to see narratives that centered on prey species and overlooked animals that shared the world with dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurs and raptors are superstars, but when you are restoring an entire extinct ecosystem, there are many more stories to tell.

And there is one other feature of Paleo that makes the comics a must-read for any dinosaur fan. In 2003 the first six issues were collected into a single book, and artist Stephen Bissette—creator of Tyrant—contributed a brief history of dinosaur comics as an introduction to the volume. (A serialized version of the essay can also be seen at Palaeoblog.) Dinosaurs and comics go back a long way, although stories just about the lives of individual animals is a relatively new thing.

I should also note that two additional issues of Paleo followed the six collected in the book reviewed here, and it has been rumored that a ninth story is on its way to publication.

Next up: Ricardo Delgado's Age of Reptiles.

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