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Sunday, 24 June 2018

Ricardo Delgado's Age of Reptiles at 25: a palaeontological retrospective

With the 25th anniversary of Jurassic Park cascading through dinosaur social media you could be forgiven for overlooking another influential dinosaur franchise celebrating the same vintage this year. Unveiled in 1993, this long-running series stood out for showing dinosaurs as fast, agile and intelligent animals, and immersed us in an then-unparalleled expanded prehistoric narrative, rich in detail and huge in scale. I'm talking, of course, about Ricardo Delgado's Dark Horse comic series Age of Reptiles.

The award-winning Age of Reptiles series comprises multiple, unconnected stories published throughout the last 25 years, with a bit of a hiatus between its earliest and latest incarnations. The series comprises four serials (Tribal Warfare, 1993; The Hunt, 1994; The Journey, 2009; and Ancient Egyptians, 2015) and two shorter pieces (The Body, 2011; Baby Turtles, 2014 - regrettably, I haven't seen these in entirety). It has a number of fans among those of us who research and illustrate fossil reptiles, and judging from the calibre of movie makers who've contributed endorsements to the comics, it is well regarded in the movie industry, especially for its entirely 'silent', visual means of storytelling. Despite some relatively complex narratives, large casts and use of multiple locations, not a word of dialogue or descriptive text is used to explain plots or character motivations. The 2011 documentary Dinosaur Revolution and its 2012 spin-off Dinotasia were inspired by Age of Reptiles, with Delgado having director credits on two episodes of the former. It's fairly well known that, until late in production, Dinosaur Revolution was effectively meant to be Age of Reptiles: the TV show, but studio cold feet revised the programme into a more conventional documentary.

Cover art for various editions of the Ricardo Delgado's Age of Reptiles comic series, borrowed from Dark Horse Comics. Their website which has a full back catalogue of the series for your browsing and purchasing needs. Sorry for the low res images - I'm deliberately using officially released artwork in this post to avoid unintentional piracy of Age of Reptiles content. Entire sequences of the Age of Reptiles comics have been uploaded without authorisation to the web, and that's not cool, folks: it's stealing.
Age of Reptiles was an important influence on my childhood drawing and, with the series hitting the big two-five this year, I thought I'd share some of what I think makes the series special. It helps, I think, to set the stage in which I first met Age of Reptiles as an eight or nine-year old* dinosaur obsessive in the early 1990s. Though not so long ago, this was a different age for palaeontological media because rendering life-like prehistoric animals for TV or film was much harder than it is today. Making a realistic film or documentary chronicling the lives of prehistoric animals would not only have been very difficult, but also very expensive. Jurassic Park may have broken new ground for dinosaur animation in 1993, but it needed sophisticated animatronics, then-radical computer generated imagery and a Hollywood-grade budget to achieve its visuals. It took several years for this technology to become more widely affordable, with the the bridge between Jurassic Park and our living room viewing - Walking with Dinosaurs - not appearing until 1999. Thus, if I wanted to see 'living' dinosaurs, rather than just disconnected pictures in dinosaur books, I had to made do with the short vignettes with wobbly puppets on the A&E Dinosaur! series, or else hope to find a showing of a Harryhausen dinosaur film on TV.

*My birthday would have been around the time I first saw the comic, and I can't remember if I'd graduated to nine years old when I first saw it.

It was into this landscape that Age of Reptiles placed a weighty clawed foot. I first encountered the first story, Tribal Warfare, through the UK's take on the Jurassic Park comics. Coinciding with the movie release, the international branch of Dark Horse comics published a weekly Jurassic Park magazine that contained a comic story of the movie as well as two other series: Xenozoic Tales (a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story with minimal dinosaurs - I never really got on with it) and something called Age of Reptiles. Juxtaposed against the talky, high-tech worlds of Jurassic Park and Xenozoic Tales, Tribal Warfare immediately stood apart with its silent, patient and entirely immersive opening. Without a word of introduction, we see a sleepy Pteranodon wake up, spread its wings, and then launch over a huge, double-page vista of unspoilt trees and bluffs. The pterosaur sails past a foraging sauropod, which we soon learn is being stalked by a group of dromaeosaurs. We watch the sauropod flee and ultimately fall to its attackers, before a huge tyrannosaurid arrives to claim the carcass from the smaller predators. The animals were colourful, dynamic, imposing and vicious, and played out their drama without interruption from a narrator, talking head or visiting caveman. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen.

Sorry, Walter Cronkite: your A&E dinosaur puppets had nothing on this. Page from the opening comic of Age of Reptiles: Tribal Warfare, where a pack of Deinonychus bring down a titanosaur, while Pteranodon soars past. Anachronistic fauna be damned: for an early 1990s dinosaur fan, this was ambrosia from the loftiest peaks of Olympus. Borrowed from Dark Horse Comics.
Reading the comic in entirety, it was apparent that this was not a story about prehistoric animals living with humans, or anthropomorphic cuddly dinosaurs learning lessons about friendship. Age of Reptiles was the extended, unadulterated prehistoric drama every '80s kid wanted but film or TV had yet to produce. OK, it was in comic format rather than animated on screen, but Delgado's experience with storyboarding and film illustration gave our brains little work to do as we filled in the action between panels.

Age of Reptiles continued to resonate for years after I first encountered it. Much of the dinosaur art I drew for the next 5, 10... 25 years was influenced to a greater or lesser extent by Delgado's creation, to the extent that I rank him as one of my top artistic influences. It may not be as obvious in my modern work as it was 20 years ago, when I was a teenager liberally borrowing from his style (below), but it's still there. Every now and then a Delgadoesque waterfall or critter still sneaks into one of my paintings and I still have a lesson in composition and visual storytelling whenever I re-read his work. Those of you with eagle eyes may have noticed praise for Age of Reptiles in my 2017 book, Recreating an Age of Reptiles, the title of which was chosen as much for its relevance to the comic as it's palaeontological and paleoartistic connotations. Though I don't think Age of Reptiles can qualify as pure palaeoart on grounds of taking a few too many artistic liberties with palaeontological data, it contains many lessons about effective depiction of fossil animals and, 25 years on, I still regard it as some of the best 'palaeontologically-inspired art' (as opposed to entirely science-led palaeoart) out there.

Revisiting some of my 20 year old drawings (I would have been about 13 when I drew these) shows many Delgadoisms. These would all have been influenced by Tribal Warfare, I didn't have The Hunt. The tree outlines, cliffs, waterfalls with sharply defined mist, the hatched scalation, eye shapes and so on were my best attempts to execute an Age of Reptiles style.

Telling palaeostories

As noted above, some of the heaviest praise for Age of Reptiles stems from its ability to tell complex stories without any text. They are not conventional narratives about dinosaurs either, the Age of Reptiles stories recalling cinematic westerns, Mafia dramas and Mad Max-style journeys through post-apocalyptic wastelands. Essays penned by Delgado for some of the comics discuss these influences, often citing classic films as inspiration. It's quite a feat to make western where cowboy hats are traded for scales and, yes, the characters are somewhat anthropomorphised to achieve this, but it rarely feels overdone. Anthropomorphism also lessens as the series continues, just one of many aspects that seems to change - we might say 'mature' - as the series has continued. The animalistic behaviours of Age of Reptiles' characters are aided by Delgado not being afraid of making them real scumbags, as well as a dark sense of humour and regard for his their wellbeing that even Game of Thrones might consider a bit harsh. These attributes make Age of Reptiles a closer approximation of the natural world than other franchises where we see dinosaurs engaging in day-to-day behaviour, and brings a moral ambiguity to his characters. This makes it difficult to root for any one character entirely, but I think that's the point: these aren't comics with moral lessons about human values, but stories about animals that have to be strong and sometimes violent to survive. Executives wondering what to do with dinosaur narratives for documentaries or films could learn a lot from Delgado's work: dinosaurs can do more than just search for those far-flung lush valleys, folks.

Dark Horse's 2015 motion comic is slightly different from the original opening of Tribal Warfare, but it captures some of the arresting cinematic style and dinosaur behaviour of the very first Age of Reptiles comic. From Dark Horse Comics' official YouTube account.

The Age of Reptiles series has paid increasing attention to science since its 1993 debut. Tribal Warfare has anachronistic casting with a mix of dinosaurs and other reptiles from across time and space: Tyrannosaurus rubs shoulders with Deinonychus, Deinosuchus, shastosaurid ichthyosaurs, Saltosaurus, Pternanodon, Parasaurolophus, Carnotaurus and others - it's a grab bag of fan-favourite Mesozoic animals. Their behaviour is also among the most simplistic and anthropomorphised of the series too, with the tyrannosaurids and dromaeosaurids acting like rival gangs from some gritty, gory 70s exploitation film. But in later serials more attention has been paid to real species compositions and animal behaviour is more nuanced. This has been implemented most successfully in Ancient Egyptians, where efforts have been made to feature the correct fauna and palaeoenvironment of mid-Cretaceous Africa, and the depicted behaviours are relatively animalistic. The characterisation of some species also runs against stereotyped portrayals of dinosaurs in popular media, subverting tropes of 'harmless herbivores' and so on. The giant titanosaur Paralititan, for example, is the primary antagonist in the story, being an aggressive, violent species bristling with antagonism in every frame. Annoy these sauropods and you're in trouble, even at risk of being crushed to death under the massive tonnage of their forelimbs. This is a very different role for a sauropod dinosaur in popular media, even contrasting with prior Age of Reptiles stories where they are little more than background animals or prey species. The idea of large herbivores being badass mothertruckers isn't silly either, this being the case for many living herbivores like hippos, certain bovids, and some elephants.

Ancient EgyptiansParalititan in full angry mode. Note the blocky neck profile, distinctive facial tissue, correctly positioned nostrils and distinctive scarring - great stuff. From Dark Horse Comics.
Elsewhere, a male Spinosaurus - the anit-hero for the story - kills the offspring from another male before siring his own (in stark contrast to the nurturing parent-juvenile relationships of earlier Age of Reptiles) and sometimes communicates using rumbling vocalisations emitted from its throat rather than always using open mouth roaring. This is progressive stuff, and - particularly as someone who's experienced pushback against new ideas when working on dinosaur media projects - very refreshing to see in a popular dinosaur product. We can't pretend that Age of Reptiles is a documentary - if it were entirely true to life, 95% of the series would be dinosaurs chewing leaves and pooping - but Delgado deserves full kudos for pushing his creation towards more credible faunal compositions and not holding back when depicting new ideas about dinosaur behaviour. Hollywood, take note: thus far, we've seen no evidence that having half an eye on science has impacted his ability to tell great stories.

Evolving anatomy and Age of Reptiles

Delgado's animal designs have also crept towards realism and scientific credibility since 1993. His reptilian cast is 100% post-Dinosaur Renaissance, and thus has always been appropriately posed, agile, and dynamic, but his creative approach seems to have changed between 1990s and 21st century entries into the Age of Reptiles canon. The taxonomic identities of his animals have always been apparent and his animals look 'realistic', in the sense that they don't look anatomically implausible, but the creatures of Tribal Warfare and The Hunt have a certain 'augmented' quality that is not apparent in later serials. The theropods, for example, are always long-legged beasts with boxy, robust skulls and large, prominent teeth, as well as heavy scalation and exaggerated ornaments. They're recognisable as their real-life counterparts, but look like superpowered versions of the real species. Though not all the animals in the first Age of Reptiles serials received this treatment (most of the herbivorous species are pretty darned good approximations for our 1990s views of these animals, with minimal embellishment) the overwhelming impression is still one of prehistory on steroids. I'm reminded somewhat of William Stout's 1990s palaeoart: Stout's work is probably on the more credible side of the scientific fence, but shares an emphasis on gnarly, enhanced features with Delgado's creations. I wonder if Stout's work was referenced in those early comics.

The Journey and subsequent stories feature more scientifically credible restorations which seem more carefully modelled on their real-life counterparts. The tyrannosaurs in The Journey, for instance, have longer bodies and skulls, and stouter legs, than the 1993 versions and thus look much more like the real deal. The abelisaurs in Ancient Egyptians show the peculiar short arms and blunt heads particular to this group, unlike the fairly 'generic' Carnotaurus we met in 1993. I especially like the titanosaurs of both The Journey and Ancient Egyptians, their designs having robust, wide necks, rotund bodies and stout limbs, as they should. Smaller details are well captured too, with eyes, ears and nostrils being in the right places - not something to be sniffed at in any public-facing dinosaur art.

Cover of the first issue of Age of Reptiles: The Journey. Note the improved tyrannosaurid anatomy compared to that of Tribal Warfare, which you can see in the video above. Also, so many footprints! - another hallmark of later Age of Reptiles art. From Dark Horse Comics.
Additional positive trends include less shrink-wrapping on many species (the pterosaurs, in particular, have a lot more meat on their bones in later stories), closer attention to the anatomy of non-dinosaurian species, and more natural-looking colour schemes. I am curious to know if this reflects influence from broader palaeoart trends, or if Delgado has independently moved away from some of the retrospectively questionable reconstruction choices of early 90s palaeoart. Whatever the influence, though some liberties are taken to create recognisable individual characters or convey thoughts and actions, the tighter, more believable take on these animals is welcome. Within the constraints of creating a comic about prehistoric animals, I think Delgado is doing an increasingly good job of balancing the demands of narrative with science.

If I have one complaint about the accuracy of the animals, it's that several species have remained scaly even when their fossils now unequivocally show feathers or filaments. I hope this changes in future. To the series credit, feathers have crept in here and there (indeed, they've been in the series since 1993) but voluminous, bird-like feather shells have yet (to my knowledge) to feature in animals we know had them, such as maniraptorans and ornithomimosaurs. Still, I admit that I find this less irritating than I do the lack of feathers in that other major dinosaur franchise launched in 1993, mainly because Age of Reptiles doesn't employ consultants to give the prestige of scientific credibility, nor does it make lame excuses about why it's animals look like they do. It is what it is, and never made any claim for being 100% scientifically credible. Moreover, Age of Reptiles has spent the last 25 years trending in the right anatomical direction, whereas the modern Billy and the Cloneosaurus movies are stuck in the past, sometimes taking deliberate steps away from palaeontological science.

Page from Age of Reptiles: The Journey, featuring the unluckiest sauropod hatchling ever committed to print. Age of Reptiles often has a dark sense of humour and the plight of this little guy is both funny and tragic - you'll have to buy the comic to find out what happens. From Dark Horse Comics.

Worlds of space and detail

Moving away from science and into the art itself, there are also lots of subtle details in Delgado's illustrations which enhance the believability of his prehistoric landscapes and bring character to his actors. It's here where Age of Reptiles can teach conventional palaeoartists a few tricks, as reasoned speculation and imaginative concepts are used to bring Delgado's Mesozoic to life. I could list many examples, but one of my favourites is the association of a small preening pterosaur with a specific female tyrannosaurid in Tribal Warfare - a charming addition to a sometimes violent character. Elsewhere, small creatures - bugs, fish, birds, pterosaurs and so on - frequent most frames, sometimes playing out their own minor dramas against the backdrop of the main narrative. Variation in colour, injuries and integument between his animals give each different personalities, as well as unique visual identities. From The Journey onward we see sauropods sleeping in rings with their necks draped over one another, and in one of Age of Reptiles' rare visits to the marine realm, Delgado's giant mosasaurs are covered with parasitic fish. Plus - because why the heck not - the Araripesuchus in Ancient Egyptians are almost always relieving themselves. These small, sometimes inconsequential details really sell the richness of the Age of Reptiles universe and the individuality of each character.

Another page from Ancient Egyptians. The low angle and shading gives the Paralititan a terrific presence in this panel, leaving us in no doubt that a) it's absolutely huge, and b), that Spinosaurus is in trouble. Note the improved pterosaur anatomy vs those in Tribal Warfare (see images, above). Borrowed from Dark Horse Comics.
The composition and framing of Age of Reptiles is also excellent, creating a sense of atmosphere, scale and motion that rivals the greatest palaeoartworks. Delgado's experience in the world of movies and television brings a truly cinematic quality to some parts of Age of Reptiles, and I strongly recommend these comics just to see how varying viewpoints, animal poses and colouration influence the portrayal of ancient species. If Age of Reptiles was a movie, we could imagine it as one with particularly liberated camera motions that swoop, cut and jump between viewpoints and distance. Delgado is not afraid of placing subjects in the middle or even far distance, often at the expense of fine detail but working terrifically for conveying size, motion and character. My favourite images of the series are those with the viewpoint pulled right back to show enormous landscapes, his animals reduced to fractions of the frame (think Douglas Henderson palaeoart, in comic form). His liberal application of footprints - and their role in communicating information about the nature of a scene - becomes apparent in such views. Close-ups are variably used in more intimate, tense of energetic moments, and we see a lot of variation in light and setting to alter atmosphere and and tone. In all, Age of Reptiles is an excellent demonstration of how a strong eye for composition can enhance artwork of prehistoric animals, and how we can tell entire stories in single images.

Age of Reptiles is not, and is not meant to be, a scientifically rigorous take on Mesozoic life, but it skirts the edge of palaeoartistry and palaeontological science close enough that those interested in these topics should check it out. It's among the most creative and consistently interesting palaeontological products I'm aware of and, if you like dinosaur science, or dinosaur art, you're going to find something to like here. An omnibus of the first three serials is available, as is the collected issues of Ancient Egyptians - all are still in print and very affordable. Fans might also want to check out Ricardo Delgado's blog, which has a lot of 'behind the scenes' content from the series. CGI might have made it easier to create dinosaurs for film and TV since 1993, but the still-picture storytelling of Age of Reptiles competes with, and often outdoes, the best prehistoric drama that Hollywood can throw at us.

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EDIT (15/08/18): For some reason this blog post is attracting a deluge of spam comments, so I'm turning comments off. Apologies for the inconvenience!

6 comments:

  1. Such a wonderful series--I'm always excited to hear about a new chapter on the horizon. Apart from Greg Paul and Bob Baker, Delgado's art was a primary influence on my own...well, back when I regularly produced paleoart. I'm happy that Age of Reptiles has evolved toward a more naturalistic view of the Mesozoic, but I do miss the character-driven stories of Tribal Warfare and, to a lesser extent, The Hunt (the latter of which I didn't particularly care for).

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  2. I have always been quite interested in the science of Paleontology even when I was little. These look like great books to check out some time. Thanks for the review and share. Have a nice rest of your week.
    World of Animals

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  3. A neat detail I remember seeing when I looked at this comic in my high school library--the mosasaurs have forked tongues. It's such a small detail, yet it's one that shows the artist has done his homework on these critters (mosasaurs are related to varanid lizards and snakes, so they should reasonably have forked tongues, and yet they're so rarely depicted with 'em).

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  4. Following your recommendation, I checked out my local comic book store and they actually had a copy of "Ancient Egyptians". Indeed, great stuff. You really have to read it several times to appreciate all that's there in the story and art.

    But I stumbled over one thing. The main character, a male Spinosaurus meets a female of the species. And while the male is a rather plain dark green color, the female has bright multi-color patterns. Delgado may have done this to make her look attractive to human eyes, think Geisha or Saloon girl, to stay with the Samurai or Western analogy. But, even if Spinosaur colors are just guesswork, this looks wrong to me. In just about any type of bird or other animal species, where the sexes differ in color and other decorations, it's the males that look flashier and more colourful, while the females have a more subdued scheme.

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  5. Unusual amount of spam comments on this one.

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  6. This comic had a huge impact on me as well (both storytelling- and artwise). Of course the books go head-first in the action and have numerous anachronisms and scientific bloopers (some of which I recognized even as kid), but the overall idea of having such comics in my reach (this being pre-Internet Finland) was just incomprehensible. Not to mention the JP-frenzy at the same time.

    The two short stories you mentioned, can be found in readcomiconline.to
    The issues you'll be looking for are; "Dark Horse Presents 2011" issue 4 (The Body) and "Dark Horse Presents 2014" issue 3 (Baby Turtles).

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