Monday, January 23, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Brontosaurus by Rourke

Well, look who's stomping through our house again, dragging with it heavy baggage of paleontological history, taxonomic confusion, and philosophical hoo-ha. It's ol' Brontosaurus, who in 1981 received the Rourke Publishing treatment in a storybook written by Angela Sheehan and illustrated by Colin Newman. Mr. Newman unfortunately joins the majority of Vintage Dinosaur Art subjects in being fairly obscure; searches are complicated by a contemporary artist of the same name. A Goodreads listing of Newman's publishing credits shows him to have been busy in his day, favoring wildlife titles.

Brontosaurus

Colin Newman's illustrations are far removed from those of Bernard Long, whose Rourke Iguanodon work was featured here a couple weeks ago. Newman's work is less dynamic, moodier in color, and he seems to prefer wide views that place the titular sauropod within Jurassic panoramas. It would translate nicely to a pop-up book.

Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus

As is generally the case for Rourke titles, the flora and fauna are admirably accurate for their time period, in this case the famed Late Jurassic Morrison of North America. You may have heard dim rumors of the controversy surrounding Brontosaurus; this book was published several years before the name's taxonomic obsolecence was popularized by the US Postal Service's use of it on a stamp (a contemporaneous essay on the flap is the cornerstone of Stephen Jay Gould's collection Bully for Brontosaurus). Yes, the head of Camarasaurus had been placed on the original, headless specimen of "Brontosaurus" excelsus, but the real sticker was that eighty years before the publication of today's title, Elmer Riggs of the Field Museum had sunk the animal into the genus Apatosaurus. The public was simply slow to be informed and ultimately unwilling or unable to let go of Brontosaurus. The mistaken head issue seems to have caught on as a preferred explanation for the nomenclatural issue; I believed it up until recently. I imagine this has to do with the public's love of scientific schadenfreude. "Bumbling scientists can't even get the right head on the animal, and that means I have to stop using Brontosaurus? Bah!"

Brontosaurus

As for the dinosaurs themselves, the artwork is inspired much more by Zallinger, Knight, and Burian than the work of the early Dinosaur Renaissance. Take the title off of the cover, and it would be difficult to correctly ID the sauropod. Compare it to what may be the most accessible and quick primer on Apatosaurus, Matt Wedel's recent review of the Sideshow maquette at SV-POW. It would be nice to see something more accurate, but it's an awful lot to ask of a children's book that came out just as the dinosaur dark ages were mercifully being put to death.

Brontosaurus

As for the story, well, there are only so many ways a plot for a wildlife book can go that avoid egregious anthropomorphism. Like other Rourke books, the story of Brontosaurus is pretty simple, working paleontological knowledge into a basic story structure. In this case, there's a drought, the dinosaurs have a tough time, blood is shed, the rains come, and the future welfare of the Brontosaurus is insured by the appearance of a glorious rainbow. We all love a happy ending. I wonder how many Brontosaurus die-hards still hope for a happy ending of their story, either by an over turning of Riggs' work or some completely left-field pronouncement of the nomenclatural powers that be? Gould argued for a "common sense" approach to nomenclature in Bully, one that avoids both anarchy and overly strict interpretations of the rules, but Brontosaurus has been so long dead that to bring it back would create a thunder lizard sized mess in the literature. Best to let it lie, a linguistic fossil in its own right.

Brontosaurus

Previous Rourke books featured here:
Iguanodon (Bernard Long)
Triceratops (John Francis)
Pteranodon (Doreen Edwards)
Allosaurus (Doreen Edwards)

7 comments:

  1. love this book. i have the stegosaurus one at home too!

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  2. Paul Heaston said this on the Iguanodon book:

    "This is from that late '70s early '80s limbo where artists new the game had changed but the only visual references available were still the old-fashioned Burian/Zallinger/Knight tropes-- tails are dutifully (and emphatically) lifted off the ground, but the overall pudginess remains."

    I think that applies to this book too. The use of the name 'Brontosaurus' is a part of that.

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  3. 'but Brontosaurus has been so long dead that to bring it back would create a thunder lizard sized mess in the literature. Best to let it lie, a linguistic fossil in its own right.'

    I love this.

    I think that if we did take the title away from the cover, most of us would still be tempted to default the illustration as that of a 'Brontosaurus'. It's a 'generic-o-pod', as Marc calls it.

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  4. Ha, "scientific schadenfreude" - sad but probably true.

    The dinosaurs do look really awkward, but I very much enjoy the landscapes/environments they're placed in and even the color palettes.

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  5. Wow, that Allosaurus in the 5th pic is HUGE! Perhaps it's really a Saurophaganax (altho' still too big)?

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  6. "This is from that late '70s early '80s limbo where artists new the game had changed but the only visual references available were still the old-fashioned Burian/Zallinger/Knight tropes-- tails are dutifully (and emphatically) lifted off the ground, but the overall pudginess remains."

    That would explain the weird-@ss art in "The Humongous Book of Dinosaurs".

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  7. I actually got this book as a child, and it's one of my favorites from the collection. (I have a ton of them.) I actually read it again a couple of months ago while I was drunk... I fell asleep halfway through it. Sad, isn't it?

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