Thursday, October 20, 2005

In Praise of Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards

Central to the friction between fundamentalist Christians (those who consider the teaching of evolutionary theory in any form inherently heresy and a threat) and the sciences are the time-tested devices of polarization: duality, demonization, gross distortions of the opposing views, etc. What is relatively new (since the 1970s, in any case) are the attempts to remold religious doctrine into "a science" -- actually, pseudo-science at best, anti-science at worst -- as if cloaking the absolutely central basis of Christian faith somehow renders it invisible or less relevent. But we are all human, and it's a slippery slope away from debate into all-out-ideological-war when one heeds the inner voices that find it easier to ignore the core issues and engage in inflammatory rhetoric, personality clashes, and accusatory threats that have too often characterized this cultural flashpoint.

In a number of curious ways, the ongoing social arena in which the clash between Christian coalitions determined to usurp the teaching of evolution (and by proxy many relevent sciences) and educational institutions, parents, and concerned citizens determined to maintain the separation of Church and State in the schools of our nation reflects one of the central conflicts that forever marked the science of paleontology. The ways in which human nature asserts its basest instincts in the "highest" arenas -- be they churches and halls of justice, or the hallowed halls of relevent educational/scientific and/or government institions -- are forever familiar, however different the individual core issues, case histories, or inevitable tolls involved.

The personal vendetta that so profoundly fueled and disfigured the fateful infancy of paleontology itself throughout the quarter century that closed the 19th Century is always of interest. Over the past 15 years, there are a number of excellent books that have been written about the feud between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, all well worth your time and attention if you have any real interest in the subject. Thankfully, the latest entry in this curious cottage industry is arguably the most accessible of them all.

Writer/publisher Jim Ottaviani and his artistic collaborators, Big Time Attic -- Zander Cannon, Kevin Cannon, and Shad Petosky -- have crafted a marvelous self-contained graphic novel on the subject, and I heartedly recommend you seek out a copy ASAP. Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othneil Charles Marsh and the Gilded Age of Paleontology (Oct. 2005, G.T. Labs) sports a daunting title but stands as one of the most engaging reads of the season. Building upon the scientist biographies central to the G.T. Labs graphic novel lineup (see below for more info), Ottaviani and Cannon, Cannon & Petosky (hmmm, law firm material?) have lovingly charted the Cope/Marsh feud with a sharp eye for character in dialogue, event, and imagery.

Like the opposing sides in the Intelligent Design/Evolution firestorms of today, Cope and Marsh indulged in the most abusive kinds of public ridicule, character assassination, distortions & misrepresentations of the opposing parties views, and shameless appeals to popular assumptions, prejudices, and ignorance. They did so in the most public arenas open to them -- the science journals and newspapers (primarily The New York Herald, the premiere muckraking tabloid of its day -- and this public blood-and-thunder battle shaped their lives and those of all in their orbit in ways this graphic novel is determined to illuminate. That their personalized ideological vendetta was within the parameters of their shared devotion to science (rather than a division of religion vs. science) only intensifies the tragic repercussions: indeed, one wonders what similar turf-wars are implicit in Pinkowski's inference about the in-fighting within Creationist and Intelligent Design factions, and what stories may lay there. Thus, Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards is surprisingly relevent and resonant to our own times on multiple levels, making this an essential read.

The exquisite Mark Schultz cover painting (revamping one of Charles B. Knight's most celebrated dinosaur paintings with Knight in full view) is somewhat at odds with the interior art, in which scientific versimilitude and seductive dinosaur reconstructions typical of the genre are by and large sublimated to maintain a rigorous focus on the human characters: specifically, the scruffy Cope, the affluent Marsh, and the premiere paleontological artist Charles Knight.

In fact, the weakest component of the graphic novel for some readers will be the short shrift given to the dinosaurs -- the saurians in Treasure Chest and especially Pinkowski & Riolo's dinos in A Creationist's View of Dinosaurs are more engaging renditions, if dinosaurs are what you seek in your dinosaur comics -- including some woeful delineations of Knight's paintings that figure in the narrative proper, giving readers unfamiliar with the artist's actual work the false impression that Knight's artistic chops weren't deserving of the stature the artist indeed holds as the first and still among the best of all paleontological artists. This is somewhat ironic, in that countless cartoonists and comicbook artists have blithely swiped from Knight's paintings for a century (Lloyd Ostendorf's cover for the Treasure Chest issue that opened this discussion swipes Knight's Ceratosaurus, the same painting 'borrowed' by the movie poster artists of Unknown Island, Journey to the Beginning of Time, and many others). That the first comic to ever feature Knight as a character so pitifully evokes the impeccable draughtsmanship, atmospheric immediacy, and lasting impact of Knight's work is regrettable, but it may have been a conscious decision. True to the agenda of the entire G.T. Labs' graphic novel line, the characters, the people, are the center of the drama, not per se their work -- though it is their life's work that makes them the focus of Ottiviani's expansive biographical comics.

That said, Cannon, Cannon & Petosky are skillful cartoonists, their toned work blending the strengths of (I kid you not) Jeff Smith and Chester Brown with a clean precision of line, forms, and characterization that works wonders over the stretch. When appropriate to a moment, the eyes and faces of their characters are enormously expressive, flashes of emotional life all the more affecting for the spare stoicism that defines much of the period and its people. Tellingly, when rendering animal life with fidelity and a dramatic flair will illuminate the human characters, Cannon, Cannon & Petosky rise to the occasion every time -- and yes, the artists deftly render a number of prehistoric creatures in the telling of the tale, when appropriate to the narrative's thrust. These are primarily Cope's visual imagings of the primordial world and its denizens: there's a graceful three-page+ sequence delineating what once swam in the vast oceans over what are now the badlands of the West, primary among those aquatic monster Elasmosaurus (pp. 30-33); the punchline, if you will, is the skeptical disbelief on the face of layman Smith that immediately follows ("Sure they is, Perfesser. Sure."). None can 'see' what Cope sees, save for Knight and (most bitter of ironies) Cope's arch-nemesis Marsh, though it's a character point that Marsh's smug demeanor throughout never indulges similar imaginative flights until the penultimate chapter. The Elasmosaurus interlude is echoed later Cope's truncated telling of a Native American myth concerning the slaying of the serpentine monster Uncegila (pp. 79-80; which is completed for the reader in the appendix, pp. 157-158), and again in the only fantasy sequence associated with Marsh, in which he relates the Shawnee story involving giant men who once walked the Earth and hunted the Yakwawi'ak (Mastodons). That Marsh relates the tale without believing it is central to the power of this sequence; that his 'audience' Chief Red Cloud asserts the truth of the story unexpectedly elevates the entire novel to the realm of Sergio Leone's meditations on similar mythic American roots (specifically evoking Charles Bronson's resonant line at the end of Once Upon a Time in the West).

And at the heart of this exceptional graphic novel is the artist, Charles Knight. Though Cope and Marsh are its key protagonists, Ottaviani and his artist collaborators recognized Knight as their -- hence, as readers, our -- familiar. After all, was Knight not the pioneer of precisely what the entire G.T. Labs' enterprise is dedicated to: illuminating science through art? What Ottaviani has created here, with this exceptional graphic novel, and indeed with the entire G.T. Labs' line truly follows in the mighty-hard-to-fill footsteps of artists like Knight, an honorable tradition and pantheon indeed. Ottaviani's collaborative efforts in comics and graphic novels now represent a remarkable achievement in the field, one sadly neglected by the very industry Ottaviani and his associates work within. Their previous efforts are also highly recommended: Two-Fisted Science, Dignifiying Science: Stories about Women Scientists, Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb, and Suspended in Language: Niels Bohr's Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped.

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    In any case, Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards is highly recommended -- an ideal Christmas gift for budding paleontologists and dinosaur lovers of all ages. Now, if only my own Christmas is graced by a copy of G.T. Labs' Charles B. Knight: Autobiography of an Artist, winter will be instantly more bearable.