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Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards GN

Posted by: Dave Howlett on 2005-10-09 (edit)

Jim Ottaviani and his artistic collaborators at G.T. Labs have carved an interesting little niche for themselves in the comics industry, using the graphic novel medium to tell tales of scientific development throughout the last two centuries. Previous works have included the Niels Bohr bio "Suspended in Language", the Robert Oppenheimer examination "Fallout", and "Dignifying Science", which looked at the contribution of women to the advancement of science. Ottaviani and crew's latest offering, "Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards", looks at the "Gilded Age" (1875-1900) of American paleontology, when the discovery and cataloguing of prehistoric fossils was still a relatively new, and much less civilized, science (comics fans caught an early look at this new work in a 2005 Free Comic Book Day preview issue). Even though the history under discussion (and some of the principal characters) may be somewhat obscure and intimidating to the uninitiated, Ottaviani and co. have crafted a charming and informative package which unearths an age of scientific awakening, one that saw disputes over discoveries fought through angry telegrams and newspaper headlines--even as other disagreements were still being settled in the streets with six-guns.

"Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards" focuses primarily on two pioneers in the field of paleontology, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. At the beginning of the graphic novel, the two are colleagues who, representing the United States Geological Survey, comb the West in search of fossil evidence of dinosaurs. However, before long, Marsh has wrested control of the Survey away from Cope, who claims to anyone that will listen that Marsh is stealing all the credit for his hard work in the deserts of what will eventually be Wyoming. The bitter dispute plays out over years as Marsh continues to tout his single-handed advancement of the field (while running up endless food and drink tabs on the Surveyís dime), and Copeís physical and mental state deteriorates as the funds to continue his work dry up. A third principal character emerges in the form of painter Charles R. Knight, hired on by Cope to produce paintings of dinosaurs which will hopefully capture the publicís imagination and draw interest from potential investors. The supporting cast is filled out with appearances by more well-known historical figures of the period, such as P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill Cody, Ulysses S. Grant, and Alexander Graham Bell.

Ottoviani and his collaborators do a good job injecting the protagonists of the novel with all kinds of personality; Marsh is a glad-handing blowhard, quick to dismiss the contributions of others while dropping names and patting himself on the back, and Cope is a genuinely passionate and driven scientist who suffers from rotten luck, dubious financing, and an ongoing erosion of his mental state. A number of artistic touches add character to the storytelling as well, whether it is the carnival-style lettering that accompanies Barnumís hyperbole, or the jaunty manner in which snake expert Gabriel OíReilly fills his spitoon, or the increasing desperation etched on the face of the likeable but disaster-prone Cope. The graphic novel paints an intriguing portrait of an unusual time in American history, where civilized life and scientific progress sprang up around a West where the bodies of gunfighters still sometimes littered the streets. The artwork, by Zander Cannon ("Replacement God", "Smax") and his Big Time Attic collaborators Kevin Cannon and Shad Petosky, is cartoony yet textured in a way that recalls the historical graphic novel work of another illustrator, Rick Geary ("A Treasury of Victorian Murder"), and is rendered in subdued and effective sepia tones. The many discussions of dinosaur anatomy and academic gossip of the time may be of more interest to students of this periodís history, but they can be difficult to process for those who are ignorant of paleontology in the American West (like this reviewer). However, "Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards" is a welcome new piece of historical fiction, and an educational respite from the mainstream for readers looking for something different.

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