Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Devil Dinosaurs

Here’s a 1978 Marvel comic called “Devil Dinosaur.”

“If dinosaur evolution were an Austin Powers movie, T. rex would be Dr. Evil.”
So says the official National Geographic website.

A recent Discovery Channel program about dinosaurs was called “Monsters Resurrected.

Why do we demonize meat-eating dinosaurs? If you read the old accounts of explorers in Africa, they used to refer to lions, tigers, gorillas and even elephants as beasts and monsters. But no one does that with living animals anymore because we understand them more fully as complex and vulnerable creatures.

Tyrannosaurs are shown in most movies——and most documentaries——as rampaging killing machines. But real meat-eaters don’t have it so easy. Predators get kicked by prey, they get chased off a kill by other predators, and they starve.

Perhaps people associate meat-eating with the moral evil of murder. Perhaps we make monsters out of dinosaurs because they’re unknown enough to allow us to place them on a mythic plane. That’s OK for comic books and stories—after all, Dinotopia romanticizes dinosaurs both as allies and adversaries—but I don’t think marketing departments of science publications should use that angle, because it stands in the way of a more interesting scientific understanding.
Thanks, Andy, for the comic! Comic copyright Marvel.


My Pen Name said...

i wonder where the medievel and ancient accounts of 'dragons' come from? I know fossils were known before scientific archealogy (They were used in china as medical cures and jewlerly, I think) but like snakes there's something 'deep' in the human pysche about 'dragons', reptiles, dinosaurs, what have you..
unless you make them cute, purple and pc, like Barney they are pretty frightening looking.

craigstephens said...

James, the gist of your post is very thought provoking as usual. The inclusion of issue one of Devil Dinosaur to illustrate the idea that carnivorous dinosaurs are often vilified isn't the best example however. Devil Dinosaur and his constant companion Moon Boy are the heroes of the series. It was created in 1978 by the great Jack Kirby and although it came along well after Kirby's prime as a comics creator it is still a fascinating and pretty surrealistic read, on par with "Kamandi, last boy on earth" and "OMAC, one man army corps". More info on Devil Dinosaur here:

My Pen Name said...

"Why do we demonize meat-eating dinosaurs? "
well, i think its healthy to have a fear of things that can have us for lunch. :)

Super Villain said...

i think its more of a cool idea that man once had a beast much bigger and stonger then him on the food chain, maybe we are just bored with being so dominate for so long. the idea of being at the lower end of the spectrum exicites us!

also, just a quick observation and question, if dinosaurs evolved into birds, wouldnt there be dragons in there somewhere? diosaurs with wings? that would be an awsome find, some huge dragon bones with wings...

mordicai said...

Devil Dinosaur is a good guy!

Michael Prescott said...

David E. Jones writes in An Instinct for Dragons that the wisespread appearance of dragon-like beasts is an amalgamation of three natural predators of prehistoric humans - snakes, raptors, and big cats. So perhaps it's not so strange to consider large, unfamiliar animals as monstrous!

Markus Bühler said...

I just read an old book about animal training with a lot of highly interesting stories from circusses and the work with animals. The earliest reports written in the book are from the late 19th cenutury, the more recent ones from the early second half of the 20th century. The view of animals at that time was very obvious. The polar bears for example are again and again named "white beasts". It is really interesting to read how things were different in earlier times, sometimes only some decades ago. In a time when you had at best a black and white movie in the cinema which showed you wild animals in their native habitat or zoo animals in tiny cages, a good circus with dangerous animals was of course great entertainment. There were once sceneries we can´t hardly imagine today. For example a show with 30 polar bears. And there were of course big cats and normal bears too at other parts of the show. What I found really somewhat gruesome, was that the trainers well knew that each of their polar bears was caught by shooting its mother.
I think the terms "monster" and similar words are really even today used much too often for some animals. Especially crocodiles and sharks have still to suffer a lot from bad publicity, possibly most of all. Of course some crocodile species and shark species are dangerous to men, but in general there is just a stereotypic description as maneaters for all similar kinds, no matter if they are really dangerous or not.
On the other hand, perhaps to a distinct degree, such description can be justified (but of course I reject it in nearly all cases that such words are used to villainise predators, especially when this leads to increasing killings and antipathy for this species). What can we call a monster at all? What is a monster? If I look at a giant squid or a colossal squid for example from the zoological view, I see huge cephalopods which are highly fascinating and sadly still not well-studied. On the other hand, when I look at this tentacles, talons (Mesonchoteuthis has big chinitous claws), the giant eyes and the beaks, can´t I say they are true monsters? Even if they are not dangerous to humans, but only very large members of a kind of animal which mankind eats every day in millions?

M said...

Why demonize the carnivorous dinosaurs?
In an attempt to understand them better I think.
Moral values do not apply for animals, there is no right and wrong. There is surviving the day.. Unlike humans, the carnivores are satisfied with what they get. There is no reason to kill a whole pack of prey if one individual is enough to fill the belly.
We cannot understand that way of thinking, if we can kill one, why not kill one more?
I dare go so far to say that we portray carnivorous dinosaurs that way so we don't have to face our own nature.
"We are not ruthless killers, they are"
If anything, nature programs have shown me a very loving nature of many "killer" animals. Dinosaurs deserve more than to be devils

Markus Bühler said...

I think it is also dependent on the perspective in which the animals are portrayed. If the show is about a baby zebra, the lions are of course the bad boys. If the story is about the life of the baby lion, the former evil carnivores suddenly become cute, and the hyenas for example are now the villains. And if the story is about hyenas...well, it´s really somewhat hard to make people feeling sympathy for hyenas. At least I like hyeanas, they are highly interesting animals, and among the living carnivorous mammals probably still those which are most often depicted as villains. Last year when I was at the NHM Copenhagen, I had the opporunity to see a cast of the huge hyena Dinocrocuta gigantea. This skull was the size of a grizzly bear´s. It was really cool, because they had several dozen skull casts from many different living and extinct animals, and it was even allowed to touch them. You get a completely different feeling when you see such skulls in life, and not only photos of pictures of them. Dinocrocuta was really gigantic. But even this giant fearsome hypercarnivore was once a cute little baby, and I find it also very interesting that even the large spotted hyenas can become quite friendly when they grow up with humans, nearly like dogs.

Trish said...

Interesting topic. There's a lot of discussion about this subject over at (of all places) the TV Tropes Wiki. Relevant tropes are Carnivore Confusion and Dinosaurs Are Dragons. The first is a reminder that vilifying large predators is nothing new and the second has some insight into the idea that dinosaurs are more likely to be thought of as some kind of fantastic monster then, err, just another group of animals.

On that note...

“If dinosaur evolution were an Austin Powers movie, T. rex would be Dr. Evil.”

That right there encapsulates everything I hate about popular science articles about animals. (Goes to bang her head against the wall.)

Gordon Napier said...

I had to do a photo-manipulation of what the Dr Evil of dinosaurs would look like, after reading this post... http://dashinvaine.blogspot.com/2010/01/dr-evil-of-dinosaurs.html

Ian Harrison said...


Many years ago I studied ecology as university. Contrary to what most people think the subject is really about populations of plants and animals,their dynamics and how they relate to each other and the environment.

We learnt that generally large predators are not very efficient at killing healthy prey. If they were, they would eventually hunt their prey and themselves to extinction. The exception is when their prey is very old, very young or sick. Obviously they do well when their prey numbers increase and the prey are approaching overpopulation (and therefore lack of resources such as food, water, shelter etc).

Far from being super efficient killing machines large predator survival is actually dependant on the success of their prey.

This is a different world view than the one usually promoted. It is fair to assume that the same dynamics applied to most dinosaurs.

Thanks for another thought provoking post.


Unknown said...

Good point, Mordecai -- the title character is only a devil to the evil creatures that want to hurt his friend Moon Boy!

"Devil Dinosaur" is one of Kirby's more bizarre creations, and not one of his best, IMO, long after imagining a huge chunk of the Marvel Universe and creating his DC Fourth World magnum opus.

--but I can enjoy the wackiness. Don't look too closely at the"science" behind this work.

JohnB said...

I loved your line "Perhaps people associate meat-eating with the moral evil of murder."
Most people seem to equate the killing of prey for food with viciousness, when the reality is a lion or a hawk or a snake regards its prey with the same benign interest that I do toward a pizza. The act of killing requires strength and skill and special tools endowed by nature, yes, but predators have other sides to them as well. An eagle can crush the life out of a jackrabbit in a paralyzing instant, but her care of her chick is every bit as solicitous as a mother hen for her brood. I can full well imagine a mother t-rex behaving the same way toward its offspring.

P.T. Waugh said...

For the best portrayal of a T-Rex watch the movie Land of the Lost

Anonymous said...

I think that we ought to be very careful with every thing that culture, and especially mass-culture and vulgarization, offers us. It is not being paranoïd, and it doesn't mean we have to narrow the field of creativity, but it is right to ask the question of ideology wich stands behind every creative project, and the condamnations we daily make without noticing it. And underlining it should be as important as being able to replace a fact in its history context.
So James, I think you are very right about this Tyranosaurus (Tyran?) question.

Anonymous said...

In regard to the fear we have of sharks, there is a great movie called Sharkwaters where that fear is debunked (there's even footage of sharks laying in a diver's lap and getting petted!)
It's not for the faint of heart, however because the last half shows footage of sharks getting finned.

Anonymous said...

In regard to the fear we have of sharks, there is a great movie called Sharkwaters where that fear is debunked (there's even footage of sharks laying in a diver's lap and getting petted!)
It's not for the faint of heart, however because the last half shows footage of sharks getting finned.

Erik Bongers said...

I have a problem with the statement:
"That’s OK for comic books and stories".

I don't believe it's "OK" for comic books and stories to stereotype characters. It feeds the reader a too simplistic view of reality. (The Good and the Bad, you know.)
And actually, Dinotopia does NOT stereotype at all. Despite the fact that Dinotopia portrays a utopian changri-la, there's a tension between the pacifist community and the predators. One that is a little confusing, even awkward. Dinotopia treats T-Rexes and the likes with a certain respect. And that's unlike many movies and comic books.

James Gurney said...

Craig, Andy, and Mordecai--Yes, the Marvel Devil Dinosaur is awesome, and I love it--maybe shouldn't have used it as an example because I'm only really talking about books or documentaries that are supposed to be scientific.

Many of you have given great examples of real-life predators whose actual life stories are much more interesting than the stock cliche.

And thanks for pointing out, Erik, that comics and illustrated books definitely don't have to use stock characters.

Trish, thanks for the mention of the TV tropes. That's a very interesting collection of cultural insights.

Miguel said...

I believe it is important to think about what implications this has on our media in general. While romanticizing and demonizing dinosaurs may be relatively harmless in that it doesn't hurt or offend any dinosaur, it is harmful for people to get into the habit of accepting these depictions as the "Truth." What happens when these same advertising tactics are used not in publications about dinosaurs, but other cultures, ethnic groups, lifestyles, or even our own history? I'm so pleased to see this post because this kind of critical thinking is our defense from becoming the victims of propaganda.

Stephen James. said...

It's a good point. Meat eating animals aren't really doing anything malicious they're just following their instincts and preserving the ecological balance.

Mark Vander Vinne said...

It's marketing. While it is a documentary, it is also on prime time, aired by a major corporation and aimed at young boys. What started all of us to be interested in dinosaurs and dragons when we were younger? There is a primal fear to them and an awe (and respect?) of primal power. Probably psychological and based in the reptilian brain, or Jungian and a metaphor for how he see adults and the outside world. Or both.

The question frm an advertising and marketing standpoint is: Did it get you to watch the show? I did. So it worked (at least with me). Could they portray the dinosaurs in a different light? Yes, but I wonder how many more people would watch knowing the dinosaurs were going to be portrayed as somewhat docile, caring creatures. We like to be scared and excited. I know it's why I like comics and action movies and fantasy and sci-fi. Also, documentaries often have a viewpoint that is filtered through the director and producer (and sometimes the station). Just because it's on a "science" channel doesn't make it good science. Look at Ghost Lab.

Vainamoinen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vainamoinen said...

You probably caught this dinosaur tidbit:


It seems like scientists are on the best path to unveil dinosaur's colors. Who would have thought "Imaginative Realism" could outdate this fast? ;)

James Gurney said...

Vainamoinen--well, hopefully I.R. is not too outdated, I did say "not yet" about hard evidence for color, because I knew this announcement was coming. Remember, though, it's only one small group of theropods. 99% of the other dinosaurs have no evidence for color.

Anonymous said...

Certainly- although I waited until all of those one-buckshot "Marvel Monsters" comics were confident into a singular number (maybe I should do up a discuss of THAT book at some notion). I kinda hoped that Astonished at would revisit that article again for another series of specials, but they look as if to be fixated on re-imagining all of their characters as zombies nowadays...I find best cialis prices.

David Glenn said...

I think we often depict predators as killing machines because for generations humans have told stories of monsters out there that if you're not careful will get you. I think we still do that to try and play on our inner fears that something might be out to get us. However I don't think that's the way to do something. True predators can't eat plants. That doesn't mean they're evil. They just have to work a little harder to get food. Oftentimes they try to find something that's easy to get without risking their lives. Maybe we need to show that if you give predators respect and try to avoid them they'll generally leave you alone. Also make sure they're not hungry when you're around.