Thursday, December 6, 2012

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Creatures of Long Ago: Dinosaurs

Firstly, apologies for the lateness of this one - I missed the Monday deadline and then the other guys posted some material, and I thought it better that content be spread out over the week. Hopefully this book will be worth the wait - as nostalgia for some, and for everyone else as an interesting entry in the canon of one of the most well-known and respected palaeoartists. For my part, I had no idea it existed until very recently, and was instantly excited when I found it - pop-up Sibbick!



The illustrations in Creatures of Long Ago: Dinosaurs, which was published in 1988, show a marked improvement over those in the Norman encyclopedia from just three years prior. They demonstrate a stage in the evolution from Sibbick's earlier stodge-o-saurs to the altogether more active, muscular and modern-looking restorations of the '90s. Some quirks remain (including occasional peculiar leathery skin textures), but the improvements are obvious. Oh, and they picked a great cover, didn't they? Beautiful stuff. We're quite fond of chasmosaurs around here.


The book is comprised of six pop-up spreads, each of which features a snapshot of Mesozoic life in a particular time, although not in chronological order. All of the scenes feature North American animals, although whether or not this was intentional is not mentioned. While one or more large dinosaurs always provide the focus, each spread is crammed full of tiny, incidental detail, normally requiring some reader interaction to uncover (e.g. lifting a flap, pulling a tab), which really helps each piece come alive. It creates a sense of a truly three dimensional world populated by a large variety of animals just going about their business, even while monstrous dinosaurs duke it out in the foreground. The fiery orange sky in this opening spread is fantastic, immediately evoking a foreboding, primordial atmosphere.


This Ceratosaurus is a great way to kick things off (so to speak), as it appears to be literally stepping out of the page, which is a very immediate way of involving the reader in the Jurassic world being depicted. The perspective is exciting too, and shows off the vicious-looking claws on the animal's birdlike foot. Speaking of which, it's interesting to note the very birdlike scales on the tops of the toes, which are not present on the theropods in the Norman book, and perhaps hint that the artist was looking at these animals in a different light.




Peeling away some of the foliage reveals a Camptosaurus and, up in the corner, an Archaeopteryx. Quite what Archaeopteryx is doing in North America, I'm not sure - I suppose you just can't have a dinosaur book without it. Still, they are nice inclusions as I said.


Last week, I noted it was a shame that another pop-up book had missed the opportunity of having a brachiosaur's neck crane out from the page. Of course, that's exactly what they've done here - and it looks bloody marvellous. It's not all about having sauropods poking one in the eye, mind you - there are a great many subtle touches when opening the pages, from the Diplodocus lowering its neck on this spread, to the Stegosaurus raising its tail to fend off Ceratosaurus. The sauropods in this scene may look outdated now, but at least they were an improvement on the 1985 beasts - note for example that the Apatosaurus in the background no longer has such a 'brontosaur' (as in, the popular artistic representation) bodyplan.


If there's one animal that stands out as being peculiar even for the time, then it's this Allosaurus. Even in 1985, Sibbick gave the animal a skull that was the right sort of shape, with lacrimal horns - so what happened here? My pet theory is that this is actually a mislabeled Torvosaurus, based both on later Sibbick megalosaurs and the fact that Sibbick apparently knew what an Allosaurus head (basically) looked like. If that's true then it's still wrong, just not quite to the same degree. Er, which is much better. Yes.


These blue-headed Ornitholestes are interesting, and the pull tab feature demonstrates the wonderful attention to detail prevalent in this book - as the individual on the left moves across the page, it follows an undulating path so that it appears to be running. At the same time, a small pterosaur takes a diving arc from left to right. Little things, little things...



One of the more spectacular papercraft constructions in this book is undoubtedly this Tyrannosaurus, shown facing off (as it has a tendency to do) against a Triceratops family group, including a juvenile. Unlike the other scenes in the book, which are intended to be viewed head-on, this little diorama is best viewed by placing the book on a surface - after which the T. rex becomes a towering, imposing figure. It's also a huge improvement on the weirdo Norman-pedia version, with a far more Tyrannosaurus-like skull and a pair of impressive drumstricks; the very awkward tail is unfortunate but, then, these things happen sometimes when one's trying to make a pop-up book work. The Triceratops display an elephantine quality that was common in palaeoart well into the '90s, although the stumpy-horned baby is very cute.





The incidental details are especially easy to miss in this vertical scene, including this crafty Troodon, hiding furtively underneath a fern. Troodon is one of the few animals to appear in more than one scene, and it's always accompanied by a label that reads "Troödon". Troodon: the Motörhead of dinosaur genera.


Back in the late '80s and the '90s, it wasn't uncommon to see gangs of tiny dromaeosaurs taking on game that was bigger than them by ludicrous orders of magnitude. Admittedly, the Parasaurolophus concerned in this picture is described as juvenile, but it would still appear to be 'squishy time' for a lot of its pint-sized would-be predators. All such jesting aside, however, this is a seriously beautiful piece of art, with gorgeous foliage and scenery, and a highly effective use of the pop-up element both to create an illusion of depth and to add dynamism and excitement to the scene. The composition places the viewer at the centre of the action, giving them a Dromaeosaurus'-eye view.


More background detail: pulling a tab results in two Stegoceras engaging each other in combat. Always a firm palaeoart favourite.


This is probably my favourite spread in the book, simply because it gets you right up in a dinosaur's FACE...without being all cheesy and over-dramatic about it. The construction of the nest is quite ingenious too, with hatchlings emerging when tabs are pulled and flaps, er, flapped. While it's easy to be distracted by the huge centrepiece, there are plenty of lovely background details here, too - notice the lake with crocodiles and turtles to the left, and the pterosaurs flying overhead. From an anatomical perspective, these hadrosaurs mark a considerable improvement over their Norman-pedia forebears, particularly when it comes to such details as the forelimbs (note the hands and, particularly, the fingers).


Pulling tabs to the right and left result in the appearance of nest-bothering predators, with the concerned Maiasaura reacting accordingly; one lowers its head to shoo away a monitor lizard, while the other twists around to follow some scarpering Troodon.


The final scene focuses on an ornithomimosaur family, but still manages to cram in Chasmosaurus, Hypacrosaurus, Icthyornis, Hesperornis, the plesiosaur Elasmosaurus, and an unspecified mammal and snake. It's a glorious image of an entire community of animals, and it's an absolute pleasure to explore the page, uncovering new intricate details and moving parts (such as the foot-stamping chasmosaurs engaged in a dominance display). Soaking in every tiny facet of a piece is part of the enjoyment of appreciating Sibbick's work, but here there's extra fun to be had in peering under and around some parts of a pop-up piece to catch glimpses at others. Or maybe I'm just a gibbering man-child, I dunno. (And yes, those plesiosaurs do look very silly...like they're shouting 'Hey! Over here! Don't forget us!')

Yes, I'm a little bit in love with this book - far more so than any man in his 20s should rightly be with a kiddies' dinosaur pop-up book produced in the 1980s. What can I say? It's a gem.

23 comments:

  1. I'm at a loss to express my surprise (and even annoyance ;)) at the suggestion that the appreciation -- nay, love of such a book -- must necessarily be restricted to the very young. That you are suggesting it is cause for even greater indignation from me. *Folds arms*

    This book is a treasure: beautiful illustrations and absolutely ingenious paper engineering. It is a work of art and craft. Anyone who fails to appreciate it can go hang.

    It was all I could do to prevent myself from stealing this. If anyone has a copy with which they're willing to part, please let me know.

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    1. It was really just a bit of self-deprecating humour. I'm not that ashamed of loving it...clearly.

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    2. I second Niroot's high dudgeon, you arrogant, arrogant son of a bitch. Disgusting.

      For commenters with photographic memories, this was the Sibbick book I teased writing about last summer. Marc beat me to it... several months later.

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    3. I completely forgot about that.

      Further to my previous comment, not only was it mostly just a dab of the usual self-deprecation, the book can accurately be described as a 'children's book' - as in, a book aimed at children. It just happens to be a superb children's book that everyone can enjoy (provided they're into dinosaurs, obviously).

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    4. Marc, such self-deprecation is especially misplaced in light of the present company; particularly as it reflects them directly. You should not be apologising for your enthusiasm. You get enough criticism from certain folks for not liking something. ;P

      OK, I'll stop now. :P

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    5. One would hope that, in seeing themselves being reflected, the 'present company' would be prepared to share a bit of a laugh. :P

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    6. I see you missed my joke, too. :P

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    7. I was having a laugh, Marc. In case that was unclear.

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    8. I only hope some valiant soul will step up to defend the honourable Mr. Sibbick against some of Mr. Vincent's slanders here.

      "...a seriously beautiful piece of art, with gorgeous foliage and scenery..."

      You damn Mr. Sibbick with praise this faint. For shame.

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    9. You know what? If playing with giant pop-up books is wrong, then I don't want to be right.

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    10. Man, I had all of them when i was a child, But thats another era in time when prodigy, aol, Immagination Network were the only major internet companies

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  2. Whoa, I remember seeing this book as a child once, I had so LITTLE memory of this event that until now I thought I was just imagining it existed, either as a dream or a fake memory. Thanks for proving me wrong!

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  3. I can forgive "Troödon" in general, because otherwise English speaking kids the world over would be calling in "True-don". Let them learn to dispense with the diaeresis in high school.

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  4. I loved this book! Then the school bully stole it from me and tore it to pieces on the day I brought it for show and tell. I never could find a second copy.

    Fourth Grade was hell.

    But thanks for the fond memories. :-)

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    Replies
    1. Cody, however long ago that was, you have my sincerest sympathies. That was a cardinal sin on every level.

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  5. Makes me wish my copy was in such good condition.

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  6. @Cody & Albertonykus

    There's always Amazon.

    @Marc Vincent

    Have you read "Where Did Dinosaurs Come From?" ( http://www.amazon.com/Where-Dinosaurs-Come-John-Bonnett/dp/1931832994/ref=sr_1_64?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1354899439&sr=1-64 )? I ask b/c something about Sibbick's art style in said book reminds me of "Creatures of Long Ago" more than anything he did in btwn those 2 books.

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    Replies
    1. It's still on Amazon? Hm, that's pretty tempting. But I'm thinking I should save my hard-earned cash for Dinosaur Art and All Yesterdays (whenever it gets released as a hard copy in the US, anyway).

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  7. I haven't read that one, might be worth checking out. Thanks

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  8. I know I'm a few days late to this, but a friend of mine recently gave me a copy of another National Geographic pop-up book in the same series as "Creatures of Long Ago", called "Dinosaur Babies". The illustrations are by Ely Kish rather than John Sibbick, but it's another really cool book! And it has Pinacosaurus on the cover, of which I heartily approve.

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  9. I had this, and several other National Geographic pop-up books, as a child; I haven't thought about it in years, but your post made me vividly remember reading it for the first time on Christmas morning. Thank you!

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  10. That book spells sweet childhood better than any other. I still have (the poor ragged remains of) this beauty.

    By the way, I'm under the impression that my copy (Brazilian, it is) has a wholly different Ceratosaurus head in the first page, leaning a bit more towards Sibbick's trend of stargazing theropods.

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