Review: ‘Dinosaur Empire’
Writer/artist: Abby Howard
Amulet Books; $15.99
What are two of the most awesome things to ever exist in the entire history of the planet Earth? If you answered dinosaurs and comic books, then you and I are on the same wavelength, dear reader, and I therefore feel quite confident in recommending Dinosaur Empire to you. It is, after all, a comic book about dinosaurs.
Unlike most dinosaur comics, it isn’t merely a comic book in which there are dinosaurs, but dinosaurs are the subject matter. It’s a sort of primer on dinosaurs and the various creatures they shared the earth with throughout the Mesozoic Era, when they were at their peak, couched within a narrative that gives the book the shape and momentum of a story, even though the drama and conflict is minimal to the point that it’s barely even there. For all intents and purposes, the narrative is merely an excuse for all of the information about dinosaurs, although it is an engaging and amusing excuse.
When the book opens, Ronnie is walking home from Citytown Elementary School, clutching her dinosaur quiz, on which she scored a 0%. She crumbles it up and tosses it in a recycling bin, where it is un-crumpled and loudly commented upon by Ms. Lernin, who is sitting in that recycling bin. Why, you may ask, as Ronnie did? (“That’s not important. What is important is your education!”)
That recycling bin is also a time portal that allows Ms. Lernin (get it? Lernin?) to take Ronnie on a tour through the Mesozoic Era, where they are safe from any and all harm, including falls from great distances and drowning, thanks to what Ms. Lernin cheerfully, dismissively refers to with a shrug as “Science Magic.”
That then is the narrative structure that cartoonist Abby Howard has chosen. From there, the pair spends a little time in a field with a white board and school desk where Ms. Lernin can explain concepts like evolution (and Howard can illustrate them), and then they plunge to various eras to visit the world as it existed then. At each stop, Ronnie and Lernin check in with the same types of organisms in the same order: Plants, dinosaurs, crocodilomorphs and their ancestors, flying reptiles, marine reptiles, mammals and their ancestors, and insects.
During the tour, themes and running gags develop, like Ronnie’s impatience to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex, her affection for the tinier, cuter crocodilomorphs, and her revulsion at insects. Howard is able to pack an incredible amount of information into each page, thanks in large part to using a lot of small panels and drawing crowds of animals onto each splash page.
The former guarantees that the book flows at a fast, readable pace; there might be a lot of dialogue on a single page, for example, but because it’s broken up into a bunch of panels, the book still moves like a comic book, rather than getting bogged down. The latter means it only takes two pages to list, illustrate, and discuss, say, a dozen prominent species of the Late Cretaceous ocean environment.
Miss Lerner’s unflappable, sometimes semi-psychotic enthusiasm for her subject matter and Ronnie’s shock and delight to learn just how dang different dinosaurs are (or, er, were) than TV and movies taught her to believe make them both ideal companions for the trip, their own emotional reactions telegraphing how weird and wonderful the dinosaurs and their neighbors really were.
And Howard’s science seems to be as up-to-date as possible, as she includes lots of “newer” species, as well as the newest thinking on dinosaurs, including thinking that is rarely if ever reflected in pop culture depictions of the creatures, like the amount of fuzz many of them likely sported. (“When I get home I’m gonna tell everybody that dinosaurs are actually very soft and adorable,” Abby declares after seeing what a “real” Velociraptor looks like.)
Visually, Howard’s storytelling is perfect, getting an encycopedia’s worth of information into a fictive format that reads entertainingly enough that even a jaded, cynical adult like me, suspicious of any “edu-tainment” product, can easily get lost in it. Her many animals are just detailed enough that they can share panels and pages with the loose, cartoony human characters and still manage to seem to belong to the same universe as them, aesthetically. Those human characters have the big round eyes and expressive, squishy, squiggly faces that will look comfortingly familiar to readers of many popular web comics or post-Lumberjanes BOOM! Studios comics, or to viewers of many popular cartoon shows.
As exciting a read as Dinosaur Empire is, here’s one more exciting aspect. It’s apparently the first part of a series collectively called “Earth Before Us,” which means there’s going to be a volume two sooner or later, and I’d bet pretty good money that’s going to be sub-titled “Journey Through The Cenozoic Era” and feature the strange and fantastic prehistoric mammals from the millennia around the ice ages.
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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