Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Book review: Maja Säfström’s "Animals of a Bygone Era: An Illustrated Compendium"

“Dinosaurs have intentionally been left out of this book to give some attention to less popular – but still fascinating – creatures that once lived on this planet.”

Thus begins Maja Säfström’s Animals of a Bygone Era: An Illustrated Compendium, a new book that I suspect will be of great interest to this blog’s readers, dinosaurs or no. Besides, Maja’s not technically correct – there are some wonderful avian dinosaurs that made the cut. And there are plenty of Mesozoic relations of the dinosaurs proper.

The cover for Maja Säfström’s Animals of a Bygone Era: An Illustrated Compendium © 2017 Ten Speed Press

The aesthetic is simple, but indirect. Säfström approaches her subjects with more of an eye for their alien charm than for strict fidelity to their anatomy. Rendered in stark black and white, with great attention paid to textural, patterned line work, her animals will appeal to those of you who appreciate a fanciful take on paleoillustration. There’s a cock-eyed, occasionally Seussian quality to the work that I find eminently appealing.

Säfström’s writing is plain-spoken, jargon-light, and witty, with some of the jokey dialogue given to her creatures reminding me of Rosemary Mosco’s Bird and Moon comics. “Wings are overrated – look at my beak instead. It’s huge! Best Regards, Terror Bird,” says a terror bird. The educational content varies from simple facts like the size of the eyes of Opthalmosaurus or the diet of Gigantopithecus to brief references to changing paleontological viewpoints on oddballs like Helicoprion.

No book is without small sins, of course (take it from me, the knucklehead who messed up the extinction date of the mammoths). The biggest one I saw here was the repetition of the old canard that the giant azhdarchids’ flight capabilities were questionable, but this just gives Säfström the opportunity to discover the glory that is Wittonalia.

The Helicoprion spread from Maja Säfström’s Animals of a Bygone Era: An Illustrated Compendium © 2017 Ten Speed Press

Small quibbles like that do not take away from the value of this book, which is populated by a wide array of often-overlooked prehistoric animals. Säfström lovingly introduces readers to such animals as Synthetoceras, Nuralagus rex, Coryphodon, Sharovipteryx, Pteraspis, and Macrauchenia. At the risk of alienating myself from present company, there were even animals here I’d never heard of, such as the “horned gopher” Ceratogaulus.

I’ve seen an upswing of interest in highly stylized paleoillustration online lately, much of this thanks to Johan Egerkrans’ stunning pieces recently shared with the Paleoartists group on Facebook. While more surreal than Egerkrans' work, I imagine there could be a healthy crossover between the two artists’ fan base. As someone who primarily works in this vein, it’s heartening to see support for such work, and I hope that Animals of a Bygone Era finds its audience.

Buy it here and read Säfström's post about it at her site.

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