Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards

Written by Jim Ottaviani
Art by Big Time Attic (Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon)

I remember that this historical graphic novel was promoted in a Free Comic Book Day giveaway back when it was first published, and it caught my attention as entertaining and original, but I never got around to buying a copy until not that long ago.

Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh, and the Gilded Age of Paleontology is a book that looks at the (un)professional rivalry between two giants of the field of Paleontology at the end of the nineteenth century.  Edward Drinker Cope is an obsessive collector of dinosaur fragments, constantly looking to expound on his theories (even to German-speaking fellow coach passengers) and promote his ideas, well beyond his meagre financial capabilities after losing most of his money in some bad mining investments.  Othniel Charles Marsh is a fatuous gasbag whose inheritance and social position has provided him great privilege in bending the ears of influential people in Washington DC.

To say that these two men hate each other is to minimize the extent of their feelings for one another.  Marsh plants fake fossils in the badlands in hopes of discrediting Cope, and has him removed from his lucrative position in the US Geological Survey.  Cope never misses a chance to put down Marsh, and carries around documents that disprove his rival's theories that he has sewn into the front of his pants for safe keeping.  Along the way, we meet some of their other colleagues or acquaintances, including Charles R. Knight, the artist whose dinosaur paintings were responsible for constructing the public attitude towards dinosaurs to today.

Ottaviani does a great job of exploring these two eccentrics, and carefully documents the places in his story where fact is stranger than fiction.  I'm always attracted to well-sourced historical fiction, and so found the notes in the back almost as enjoyable as the story itself.

What really struck me was the casual, dismissive attitudes of both scientists towards their lives' work.  They were more interested in mashing pieces together to form their preconceived idea of the larger puzzle, and were usually much more interested in showing up the other than conducting proper scholarship.  This is a book about ego more than anything else.

The Cannon brothers do fine work in this black and white comic.  I started to get a real feel for these characters based upon their appearances and facial expressions.

In all, this is a very enjoyable book.  It might be a little hard to track down, but it's worth it, especially for anyone with an interest in the intersections of history, science, and paleontology.

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