Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Onthniel Charles Marsh and the Gilded Age of Paleontology

People today know lots about dinosaurs, to the point where children can become experts in names, eras, habitats, and probable behaviors at early ages. But 150 years ago during the Gilded Age things were very different. Only 9 species of dinosaur were known in North America then, but two men became involved in a conflict that changed that situation. After a brief collaboration, E. D. Cope and O. C. Marsh waged what was later known as the Bone Wars, striving to locate, obtain, and analyze fossils all over the US, particularly out west, and name as many new species as possible. Their falling out precipitated from an error Marsh publicly pointed out about Cope's reconstruction of an Elasmosaurus skeleton, with the head being placed on the tail instead of the neck.

In their haste to discover new species, they turned to dirty tactics, including throwing rocks at each other from their excavation sites, dynamiting sites, destroying fossils, deliberately relocating fossils, filling in excavation sites, and savaging each other through personal attacks in journal articles. The feud spread to the popular press and became quite a sensation. Cope had a head start and some fortune of his own but Marsh had a large inheritance plus the resources of Yale University funding his work. In the end, Marsh named 80 species and Cope 56. Among their findings were some of the most well-known dinosaurs, including Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Diplodocus. Along with their discoveries, there were also a number of misconceptions because of their haste to outdo each other, which took decades to suss out.

This graphic novel covers a lot of ground and also shows this duo's interactions with a number of historical figures, including Charles R. Knight, who went on to create some of the first and most recognizable dinosaur paintings; P. T. Barnum, who gathered and bought curiosities for his traveling shows; President U. S. Grant, and Chief Red Cloud, with whom Marsh deals in order to get access to excavation sites. A copious back matter section helps delineate how much of this book is fact and how much is embellished (or not, it turns out).

The product of Jim Ottaviani and Big Time Attic, Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards is their first collaboration, and they have since worked on the Space Race story T-Minus. Reviewers have largely enjoyed the book. Todd Klein found many of the intricate details in the art and lettering helped convey the story and set a tone, thought the huge cast of characters was sometimes confusing. Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that the politics made a potentially dusty story intriguing and that it was "Ottaviani's most entertaining book yet." Entertainment Weekly's Tom Russo felt the opposite, that the story needed more fictional embellishments. Personally, I felt the real drama made for a very compelling narrative that bears re-reading.

An excerpt, study guide, and a list of reviews is available from Ottaviani's publisher G. T. Labs.

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