Today Jeff Liston gets to talk about his recent paper on a series of comics covering dinosaurs that appeared in the UK in the late seventies. One nice thing about science is that you can sometimes explore the history and cultural side of your research subjects as well as the scientific. Here Jeff dives into 2000 A.D. which, for those who don’t know, is a fairly well known comic label in the U.K. most famous for bringing the world Judge Dredd. Take it away Jeff:
The media as a whole relate information which we passively and uncritically accept on the basis of ‘well I guess its true because I don’t see an alternative being presented to me’. Walking With Dinosaurs is one of the more recent examples of the media attempting to some degree to communicate science to a general audience. As a faux documentary, it attracted extensive criticism – some of which was even justified (I speak as one of the Legion of jaded ‘consultants’ used). But sometimes kernels of science make their first entrance into the mass public consciousness through the most unlikely of media.
In the spring of 2008, Dick Moody, Darren Naish, Eric Buffetaut and Dave Martill organised a conference on 150 years of dinosaurs (and some hangers-on) at Burlington House, London. Having done some work on the largely unknown or ignored dinosaur finds of the marine reptile collector Alfred Nicholson Leeds, I had written a presentation on this, and invited my colleague Lez Noé (who had done some specific archival work on Alfred’s discovery of Cetiosauriscus) to co-present with me. The call for papers for the conference had explicitly encouraged presentations on the development of dinosaurs within aspects of popular culture – films, cinema, sculpture, you name it. And so I started to toy with the idea of also presenting something that explored the role of dinosaurs in one particular comic-strip – the story ‘Flesh’, one of the launch stories for 2000A.D. in February 1977.
Just a self-indulgent excuse to go through an old comics collection while sauntering down memory lane? Well, possibly….but something had recently started to bother me about ‘Flesh’. Most of us have seen how the cinema release of ‘Jurassic Park’ caused a degree of faunal turnover in the ecosystem that is popular dinosaurs that kids know, and how fast that manifested itself from summer 1993 into the Xmas of the ubiquitous Velociraptor and ‘T. Rex [sic. – don’t get me started…]’. Previously marginal or peripherally known (in popular terms) dinosaurs were suddenly catapulted into the fame of the plastic injection mould. It took some months, but was quite quick, as one would expect for the impact of a cinema blockbuster detonating in the collective mind one summer. The problem with ‘Flesh’, was that it was again a popular product, but it seemed to be dealing with animals only fairly recently published on for the first time. Deinonychus features (referred to as ‘terrible claws’) within two years of Bakker’s ‘Dinosaur Renaissance’ paper coming out in Scientific American, and it is easily the first popular medium to promote what was a new vision of dinosaur biology. Today, we are used to National Geographic Magazine trumpeting new finds within a few months, but the seventies was a time before that publication had adopted that more recent role – John Ostrom himself wrote a piece for NG on new ways of looking at the dinosaurs, including his Cloverly Formation finds of Deinonychus, but it was a year after ‘Flesh’ had launched in 2000A.D. 2000A.D. was out promoting this ahead of the game.
So I got in touch with the strip’s writer, the legend in comics that is Pat Mills. Very gracious with his time, he took me through the process that he had gone through over thirty years before in trying to put together the idea for the strip. He recalled Bakker’s piece in Scientific American being shown to him while he was coming up with story ideas, and in expanding and following up his research, he latched on to Bev Halstead’s ‘The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs’ book with artist Giovanni Caselli. It just happened that Bakker’s publication came out at the time that Mills was looking for an animal-based strip for the new comic. Add some good fortune to this little bit of synchronicity, and hey presto.
Mills mined many components from both Bakker’s paper and Halstead’s book, to use taxa not normally seen – Deinocheirus, spinosaurs, alamosaurs, Deinonychus, Ouranosaurus – alongside the more run-of-the-mill ‘standard’ dinosaur taxa used at the time. Unusually, there was largely a chronological consistency, in that they were all by and large Late Cretaceous (save for the Early Cretaceous Deinonychus and Ouranosaurus) animals, rather than the mix of ‘all time periods together’ that most artistic depictions traditionally went for. He also took them out of the swamps and placed them on the plains, and gave them behavioural characteristics – tyrannosaurs locking muzzles, Deinonychus leaping agilely, herbivores stampeding – at odds with ‘old school’ representations. In spite of this manifestation of the ‘renaissance’ ideas, Mills avoided sentiment or anthropomorphy: the tyrannosaur does not have great intelligence, and it is emphatically stated that a tyrannosaur’s brain is the size of a kitten’s.
Perhaps most interestingly, twenty years before any large (2 metres long) theropods were being reported from Liaoning with hair-like plumage, Mills and Sola speculated with the eponymous line ‘From the north came the furry tyrannosaurs…’ and quite splendid they are too.
Mills’ ‘Flesh’, though placed in a fantastical science fiction setting, did much to promulgate the new ideas about dinosaurs amongst its predominantly young readership, priming them for later life, dispelling forever from their minds the image of them as lumbering cold-blooded creatures messing about in swamps, and thus preparing them for Jurassic Park some sixteen years later.
Liston, J.J. 2010. 2000 A.D. and the new ‘Flesh’: first to report the dinosaur renaissance in ‘moving’ pictures. Published in: Moody RTJ, Buffetaut E, Naish D and Martill DM (eds) ‘Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective’. Special Publication 343: 335-360, Geological Society, London.