Dinosaurs sure have changed over the years. Today’s adults who were swept up by dino-mania in the ’80s will remember artistic depictions at the time putting giant sauropods like Brontosaurus (a misnomer that’s now kind of back again) in shallow pools to help support their bulk. We were told dinosaurs were strictly cold-blooded, moved slowly and even that Stegosaurus had a second brain in its hips!
In the year 2016, children know that dinosaurs had their share of warm-blooded qualities, protected their offspring and led more active lives in more varied environments than originally thought. These alterations might seem like a failure of the original science, but as MK Reed points out in the newly released Dinosaurs graphic novel, published by First Second Books as part of their Science Comics series, that’s exactly the kind of self-correcting that continually brings us closer to the truth.
Although that truth isn’t always easy to accept. The mischaracterization of dinosaurs as big, dumb lizards has finally been transcended, but it’s still hard to find any with feathers. The first possible feather structures were discovered 20 years ago on a dinosaur called Sinosauropteryx, and subsequently on so many more (older) species, that many paleontologists now think they weren’t such a rarity. Most dinosaurs might have had feathers.
That’s a tough pill to swallow when scales have dominated our imagination for so long, so it’s great that the subtitle of Dinosaurs is Fossils and Feathers. Reed and artist Joe Flood don’t shy away from the truth as we now understand it, and how we got to this point. Much of the book recapitulates all those great discovery stories we remember, including the early idea that dinosaur bones were actually evidence of cyclopes and dragons, and Mary Anning’s famous find of the first ichthyosaur in a cliffside.
The inclusion of ichthyosaurs and other reptiles, without making a clear distinction that that these are not dinosaurs, is a bit curious, but not as much as the random comparison of the likely fictional Loch Ness Monster to a plesiosaur. There are some coloring inconsistencies in Dinosaurs, but the palette Flood uses can’t be impugned, as research does indeed show that dinosaurs were more flamboyantly-hued than originally thought.
AiPT! spoke to Reed through email to find out her own personal history with dinosaurs and what she thinks about changing public perceptions.
AiPT!: So why dinosaurs? Kids will always love to read about dinosaurs, but do you have a personal connection with them? Do you have a science background?
Reed: I wasn’t really good at science in school, but I’m interested in science and knowing how things work. Growing up in New Jersey, one of the most amazing things as a kid was getting to go into New York City and seeing the Natural History Museum. Writing the book was a really great excuse to go and spend a lot of time at all the exhibits up on the top floor there as an adult.
AiPT!: Did you pitch the idea for this book, or did First Second approach you with a concept?
Reed: My editor emailed me, “Do you want to write a comic about dinosaurs?” and I just immediately wrote back yes. And then they gave me a the guidelines and I had to figure out how to fit them into a linear narrative that also wouldn’t be outdated by the time it took to draw and print the book. So I went with the history of dinosaur discoveries.
AiPT!: What was the research like for this book? Did you get to speak to any professional paleontologists?
Reed: No, I mostly read books. I really liked Deborah Cadbury’s book The Dinosaur Hunters, and finding Adrienne Mayor’s work about dinosaurs and mythology was exciting, because I had never heard of it before, and it tied into the rest of the history so beautifully. And Anthony Martin’s Dinosaurs Without Bones was worth the price of admission just for its diagram of a vomiting sauropod, which didn’t make it in unfortunately.
AiPT!: While more visually appealing, Science Comics: Dinosaurs seems like an updated and expanded version of the “how we learned about dinosaurs” books many children of the ’80s will remember. Is that a deliberate decision?
Reed: No, because if I read those when I was a kid, I don’t remember them anymore, and I didn’t look up anything from before about 2000 because it’s all been revised so much since then. Everything I learned as a kid was wrong.
AiPT!: I love that the subtitle of the book is “Fossils and Feathers.” There still seems to be a great hesitancy to bring the feathers part up to the public. Why do you think that is?
Reed: Yeah, it bothered me that Jurassic Park didn’t update theirs last year! I suppose they’ve built their brand around lizard-skinned designs. Part of it is that they’ve been depicted without feathers for so long, it’s hard to picture them another way. There’s some more recent cable nature shows that have started to put feathers on some species, so it’ll probably change, but it takes time for ideas to shift, and it’s only been the past generation of paleontologists that have found feathered dinos.
AiPT!: Tell us about your artistic collaboration with Joe Flood.
Reed: Joe is great! We’ve known each other for over a decade and had worked on another book together, The Cute Girl Network, which ended at the zoo. And he’d decided the zoo part needed more panels with animals and extended the scene to draw a bunch of vignettes of different cute date moments, all in different zoo exhibits. So I knew he could handle a lot of different animal anatomy and physiology, since there’s no way a dinosaur book isn’t going to feature skeletons and cross sections. And he’d just done a few color pages of a scene of Life of Pi, so I was pretty sure he was going to turn in gorgeous art.
AiPT!: What’s the reaction to Dinosaurs been like so far?
Reed: So far it’s been pretty positive. It’s being translated into Hebrew and Norwegian. And my mom was really excited to use it in her classroom.