Science Comics

Science Comics: Dinosaurs: Feathers and Fossils

by MK Reed and Joe Flood (First Second, 2016)

Dinosaurs: Feathers and Fossils was one of the first two books in First Second’s Science Comics series. Author MK Reed is the author of several graphic novels, including Americus, The Cute Girl Network, and Science Comics: Wild Weather, as well as a number of shorter works. Artist Joe Flood’s work has included The Cute Girl Network (with MK Reed), the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and Science Comics: Sharks.

The book contextualizes information about dinosaurs chronologically as a history of paleontology. In this sense, Dinosaurs is as much about the process of scientific discovery and ways of knowing as about dinosaurs themselves. In the prologue, Leonard Finkelman, Assistant Professor in Philosophy of Science at Linfield College writes, “Reading their stories teaches us not only about how dinosaurs lived, but also how we live.” With each new historical time period in the book, the authors provide a brief overview of understandings of dinosaurs of the time:

In the year 1800…

The Earth is 6,006 years old.

Dinosaurs are known as monsters.

They lived a few thousand years ago.

They disappeared because of Noah’s flood.

There are no examples of dinosaurs living at this time.

We are certain about all of this.

The last section of the book begins with the dawn of the 21st Century:

In the year 2000…

The Earth is 4.5 million years old.

Dinosaurs are known as extinct reptilian ancestors of birds.

They lived 25,065 million years ago.

They disappeared because an asteroid impact devastated their ecology.

There are descendants of dinosaurs living today.

We are pretty sure about all of this.

In depicting the development of scientific discovery and paleontological knowledge, debunked theories are explained and illustrated as part of the story, so these misconceptions can be understood within the historical context and understandings of the time. For example, partial skeletons meant early discoveries of Iguanodon led researchers at the time to think the animal’s claw was a horn. The book also illustrates human shortcomings as well, such as the “Fossil Wars” between Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers playfully pokes fun at the modern (but historically-rooted) idea that feathered dinosaurs aren’t “cool” or “scary.” A feathered Tyrannosaurus laments “Aw, I used to look to tough!” To which a Velociraptor replies, “You’re still totally fierce.”

The evolving nature of our collective understanding of dinosaurs is further illustrated by the last page of the book, which addresses the case of Brontosaurus, which was up for debate during the writing of the book. The authors explain that in 1903 Brontosaurus had its status revoked and was renamed Apatosaurus excelsus, which it remained until April 2015. But, “A lengthy reexamination of the different species of Apatosaurus led researchers to conclude that there were enough differences to make Brontosaurus its own genus again, weeks before this book was due at the printer.”

As mentioned, the book depicts humans’ relationships to dinosaurs through the process of scientific discovery, but also in relationship to mythology — dragons, griffin, the cyclops — as well as familiar extant animals. In explaining the diet of herbivores, illustrated as sauropods, the digestion process involving gastroliths (gizzard stones) is compared to the behavior of modern birds, and specifically ostriches. Archaeopteryx, similar in stature and color to a modern raven, is illustrated along side his modern companion. In explaining the nesting behavior of sauropods, the book explains that fossil evidence shows that baby maiasaurs were being fed by their parents, and that their eyes and nostrils were relatively larger than adults, explained as “cuteness” which happens in animals raised by their parents. In the 20th Century section of the book, the text explains that “We assumed that because dinosaurs were reptilian, they left their eggs behind like reptiles. But we kept uncovering more and more similarities with birds. They had similar bones. And feet. They lay eggs in nests, and used gastroliths in their stomach to help break up food. And it was really easy to see a link between a small theropod like Velociraptor and a crane or ostrich” (p. 85). By linking and comparing dinosaurs to extant animals, the creators allow young readers to make meaningful connections. Notably, these connections to modern animals also help in representing dinosaurs themselves as once living animals, rather than as monsters or mythological creatures.