I don’t know how I haven’t sought out the Age of Reptiles series sooner. Though I’m hardly the most learned guy out there I’m still enough of a junior paleontologist to know a saurischian from a synapsid. Of course, I’m hardly alone in my love of those terrible lizards, half the men and nearly as many women you’ll meet probably had a dinosaur phase, but, for most of us, it fades over time. Why I wonder. Is it just the short attention span of a child or the personal evolution that takes us beyond our worship of the big and the powerful? Perhaps for some, but I imagine that a big part of what makes dinosaurs a distinctly youthful preoccupation is the degree to which we don’t know what to do with them in narrative.
For years the dinosaurs were a parable, an example of lumbering cruelty cut down by a just universe when they couldn’t adapt to a newer world. When the ‘Dinosaur Renaissance” hit they were reframed as perfect designs, representative of all the majesty and mystery of nature. Before long they were humanized in films like The Land Before Time and Disney’s Dinosaur, but every dinosaur film tended to follow a similar script. This wasn’t just true in the final product either, both of the aforementioned films followed a similar trajectory behind the scenes. In each case the films were begun with the idea of differentiating themselves by featuring no dialogue, but caved to the fear of losing their audience. Every now and again I wonder what the journey to the Great Valley would have been like if it had been an alinguistic one, which brings us back to Age of Reptiles.
If you’ve ever wondered those thoughts or watched a nature documentary for fun, Age of Reptiles may be right up your alley. Told completely without text, Ricardo Delgado’s story does a fantastic job of blending the naturalistic with the narrative. It’s hard to distinguish art from writing in a project like this, but, as much as they can be separated, both do an incredible job of characterizing the fantastic beasts that walk these pages, and do so without forgetting that they are just that, animals.
Our protagonist is a scarred old Spinosaur, wandering what one presumes to be the shores of the ancient Nile. In a truly interesting, and likely scientifically valid, move, our Dinosaur With No Name is not portrayed as an unstoppable killing machine. Spinosaurus inherited a lot of baggage when it dethroned T. rex as the largest predatory dinosaur, but Delgado challenges not only Spinosaurus’ inaccurate theft of T. rex’s ecological niche but the our assumptions about the role of an apex predator.
Indeed, there is no grand battle this issue, no challenge from an older male, no stand off with some Triceratops analogue. Our Spinosaur doesn’t hunt so much as he occasionally feeds, more interested in a good night’s rest than the taste of blood. The theme extends to the herbivores of the piece, a herd of Paralititan. Hardly the peaceful Longnecks of our youth, the Paralititan run the riverbank like the mob, complete with a jowled and brutal patriarch. Delgado even has them bite a fleeing theropod before trampling it to death. This obviously isn’t intended, primarily, as an educational comic, but it a wonderful way of expanding our perception of the natural world and it makes for a distinct and memorable take on the Mesozoic.
In addition to twenty-four pages of gorgeous visual storytelling, this issue also includes a short essay on Delgado’s influences. The juxtaposition of entirely wordless comics and a prose piece is interesting in itself, but it’s truly valuable for offering some welcome guidance through the inherently vague world of the Mesozoic, not to mention offering some great viewing/reading suggestions. I strongly recommend reading the comic a couple of times to develop your own version before offering Delgado a chance to limit your understanding, but I must say that it’s nice to have these brief snatches of authorial intent.
I won’t say too much to reveal Delgado’s perspective, but I think it’s safe to say that there’s an fascinatingly Japanese sensibility to the storytelling of this issue. Without dialogue or captions to guide us, we’re encouraged to externalize our own thoughts onto the beauty and stillness of nature. It’s very much contrary to traditional American notions of story and silence, but, still being a capitalist endeavor, I think Ancient Egyptians manages to walk the line well enough that it brings a taste of this perspective without being inaccessible to those looking for something more familiar.
That said, this was a ballsy way to start off this miniseries. One imagines that there will be something of a loose plot that comes together now that we have a sense of the players in this environment, but there is very little plot to be found in this issue; it is entirely about setting the tone and introducing the world. There will be those who can totally get on board with the silent series in theory but can’t abide how impressionistic the story being told is. And that is the word I would use. It has been said that art, especially visual art, is defined not by any quality of the work itself but in its ability to create a connection with the viewer. That connection is essential for Ancient Egyptians and, from the interactions of its individual tableaux, something far greater than the sum of its parts emerges.
Of course, there’s no discussing this series without mentioning how phenomenal the artwork is. The dark lines of Delgado’s style carve minute details into the page, creating a world where the pattern of a dinosaur’s scales is almost more noticeable than their silhouette. Still, I say almost very consciously, for, while the classic shapes of spinosaurids/titanisaurids/etc. are relatively downplayed, the impressions of saurian life that Delgado imbues his creatures with is essential. There’s such a naturalism that you don’t often see in reconstructions of dinosaurs in this book. Predators aren’t constantly snarling or jealously guarding their young, instead the emotion often comes from the particular way that our wandering protagonist holds itself, the way that the weight of the water affects the action, the energy in how the composition flows.
Each panel could almost be an individual piece of artwork and tells its own story and, in fact, it’s only occasionally that Delgado choses to present panels close enough together in time to follow action smoothly from one to the next. You’d think this would diminish the cinematic power of the issue, but, surprisingly, it doesn’t, like at all.
It’s also stunning to see how much detail Delgado puts, not just into his dinosaurs, but the entire world he’s recreating. The fish, the plants, even the river itself are all represented with a brilliant, yet legible cacophony of lines and careful details.
One interesting thing about this comic is its relationship with horizontal space. Partly by the nature of the theropod body structure, partly by the nature of the comics page, and partly by Ricardo Delgado’s own sense of composition and style this book is positively full of wide and sensuous panels. The use of width is not rare these days, this is, after all, very much a ‘widescreen’ comic, but it’s the degree to which the x-axis dominates the storytelling that stands out. There are barely any panels that are taller than they are wide and the motion of the book is very frequently either horizontal or about the raising or lowering of a horizontal shape. It makes the towering Paralititan all the more natural foes.
- My knowledge is not complete enough to say exactly how accurate Delgado’s representation of Cretaceous Gondwana is, however, I can see that most of the major discoveries in the region are represented in their appropriate niche. S. aegyptiacus got a rather drastic reimagining last year thanks to a new paper by Nizar Ibrahim and Paul Sereno that isn’t represented in the book. The new reconstruction has been generally accepted but not without some reasonable skepticism from the scientific community. I wonder if Delgado was already drawing the series when the paper was published or if he merely decided against using the new reconstruction in the book for some reason. As a newcomer to Age of Reptiles, I can’t say what level of scientific accuracy Delgado was aiming for, but it’s an interesting intersection between science and fantasy either way.
Let’s not mince words - Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians is a very different reading experience than your average comic. It flexes muscles that some readers will have rarely used and, more than the format even demands, it is an exceedingly mellow read. Even so, the differences between it and DC or Marvel’s standard fare are what make it such a rewarding read. Ricardo Delgado is challenging a lot of assumptions about dinosaurs and doing so in a way that feels more natural rather than less. The art is stunning, packing incredible detail into each panel and breathing life into some of the most awe-inspiring creatures to ever walk the earth.
Some readers will probably find the issue boring while others will will find it indulgent, but most everyone will admit that it’s gorgeous and, for those who connect with it, the process of reading and engaging with the issue can not only be highly profound but great fun as well. Like a fine foreign film or painting, Ancient Egyptians is nothing less than a work of art, with all the philosophizing and subjectivity that carries with it. This may have been a dangerous issue to start the series with, but it does a great job of demonstrating what wonderfully untrod ground it can take us to if only we’re willing to experience a different state as well as a different time.