Today I’m excited to bring to you the excellent Dinosaur Empire!, a fun graphic novel written and illustrated by Abby Howard. Now, most prehistoric themed comics that don’t involve a superhero getting zapped back in time owe much to Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles series (see this post by Mark Witton, who did a far better write up than I could ever hope to). Ted Rechlin, author/illustrator of Jurassic, specifically noted Delgado as an inspiration. These sorts of books generally follow a “day in the life” pattern, following dinosaurs through the struggles of their daily routines. Dinosaur Empire!, by contrast, meets us in our own time, and takes us on a whirlwind safari to see how dinosaurs relate to each other and the animals & environments around them throughout space and time.
Our story begins with Ronnie, a young girl on her way home from school. She happens to voice her frustration at having failed a class quiz about dinosaurs just as she passes the house of the eccentric Ms. Lernin, a former paleontologist. Overhearing young Ronnie, Ms. Lernin pops out from her Tardis-like recycling bin to invite her along on a rather immersive learning experience.
The pair stops off first at The Learning Center, located in a pleasant green field that reminds me of nothing so much as C.S. Lewis’s “Wood Between the Worlds” in The Magician’s Nephew. Ronnie and Ms. Lernin often return here throughout the book when they need a break from their adventures, and to explain some of the more complicated concepts necessary to put the things they see in their proper context. Howard manages to pace these interstitials just right so that they never feels like excessive info-dumps, and since they occur at natural breaks in the story, they don’t feel like they interrupt the action too much either.
Jumping off from this home base, Ms. Lernin and Ronnie visit every period of the Mesozoic era, starting with the Triassic Period. Ronnie is very keen on skipping straight to Tyrannosaurus rex, feeling they hardly need to waste time on anything less interesting. But thanks to Ms. Lernin’s boundless enthusiasm, Ronnie soon comes to appreciate everything they see as equally amazing in their own right. It’s not long before our dynamic duo begin geeking out together over the many cute crocodilians in particular that they encounter over the eons.
From land, to air, to sea, nothing gets overlooked in the course of their adventure. Far from merely showing off a token mosasaur and calling it a day, for example, we meet a whole host of marine reptiles in each time period, and get to examine their ecological relationships in every bit as much detail as the dinosaurs themselves.
Ronnie even comes to appreciate the various insects and other bugs they encounter as they travel forward through time, though Ms. Lernin does have to strongly persuade her not to nip wasps in the evolutionary bud and squash their ancestors before they have a chance to bother us in the present!
Of course Ronnie does finally get to see her T. rex in the end (convenient then, that Tyrannosaurus happens to be among the last dinosaurs that ever lived, and naturally shows up at the end of their adventure anyway)! Howard doesn’t disappoint here; we get a nice long moment with this lovely Tyrannosaurus, and after an entire book’s worth of appreciating prehistoric creatures as real animals in real environments, the Tyrannosaurus emphatically presents itself in the same manner, and not as some snarling movie monster. It’s actually a rather endearing, serene moment, and a nice denouement to the narrative.
After Ronnie gets a chance to make up her school quiz, the book ends with a several pages of interesting animals that Howard really wanted to include, but just couldn’t quite pack into this already wonderfully jam-packed prehistoric narrative. I also particularly liked the double-page family tree at the very back, with a nice, clear representation of all the major branches in the phylogeny of reptiles.
I really had a great time reading this. Like Hannah Bonner’s “When” series, Abby Howard manages to strike the perfect balance between endearingly stylized yet accurate animal illustrations. The art style has a deceptively simple feel that draws the reader’s eye, but the details Howard manages to pack in ensures said reader stays glued to the page throughout. Howard does a fantastic job explaining various concepts, even including outdated and/or alternate hypotheses about some of the creatures and ideas presented. Many of these concepts have a strong potential to bog down more casual readers in a lot of technical jargon, but as noted before, Howard deftly avoids ever giving the reader the sensation of being the victim of an excessive info-dump, managing to break the big ideas down into an easy-to-understand but never pandering format. It helps that the book maintains a very light-hearted and humorous tone throughout its run. It somehow accomplishes the feat of making a serious effort to do right by its subject material, while at the same time not taking the whole setup too seriously as a narrative.
(Incidentally, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention the review Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs wrote for this book. That was how I first found out about this series, after all! You can read it here at their older version of the blog to get a second opinion and some additional insights into the book.)
Dinosaur Empire! is just the first volume in a series of three (so far!) books in Howard’s “Earth Before Us series, with the recently released Ocean Renegades! representing book two (even though it deals with the time before the dinosaurs), and book three, Mammal Takeover!, due out later this year. I can’t wait to feature these books at Dino Dad Reviews as well, as my experience with this first entry has me itching for more. With a humorous narrative, wonderful illustrations, and fantastic science communication, Abby Howard’s Dinosaur Empire! definitely knocks it out of the park, and earns a very solid Dino Dad Stomp of Approval! Go purchase it for yourself today! You can follow Abby Howard on both Twitter and Instagram, and don’t forget to follow the official Dino Dad Reviews Twitter and Instagram accounts as well!