Review: Dinosaurs Attack! by Gary Gerani, Herb Trimpe, Earl Norem and Flynt Henry (2014)

Dinosaurs Attack

Dinosaurs Attack!
IDW, 2014 (collecting material from 1991, 2013)
Writer: Gary Gerani
Artists: Herb Trimpe, Earl Norem, Flynt Henry, J.K. Woodward, George Freeman and Tom Ziuko

Review by N Emmett.

In 1988, twenty-six years after scandalising parents with the Mars Attacks! trading card series, Topps attempted to repeat the trick with Dinosaurs Attack!, a sister series that tapped into a related strain of b-movie. This set of bubblegum cards gave the candy-store kiddies what they really wanted: several dozen depictions of soldiers squashed, children chomped and monuments maltreated as dinosaurs went on the rampage across the world.

The concept did not catch on quite as well as Topps hoped, however. Eclipse Comics began a Dinosaurs Attack! series in 1991, but this never lasted beyond the first issue; meanwhile, various attempts to make films and television series based on the cards (including one from Tim Burton, who would later succeed in returning Mars Attacks! into the public consciousness) failed to leave the drawing board.

Finally, in 2013 IDW stepped in and picked up where Eclipse left off, reprinting the original issue of Dinosaurs Attack! alongside four more that contain previously unpublished material. Now, the series has been collected in its entirety. And boy, what a time capsule it is.

The comic includes work by some of the talent behind the trading cards: Gary Gerani, who penned the token storyline that ran across the backs of the cards, serves as scriptwriter; while Herb Trimpe and Earl Norem, two of the original illustrators, are amongst the artists on the book. Read today, Dinosaurs Attack! possesses a kind of double nostalgia, with monster movie iconography of the fifties filtered through a more ironic late-eighties ethos – dinoa1as Gerani mentions in his afterword, the black comedy of the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards was more in vogue than the relatively straight-faced destruction of the original Mars Attacks! series.

Visually, the comic takes an unusual approach by working with two distinct art styles. The dialogue-based scenes are rendered using typical comic book line-art, but whenever the dinosaurs go on the rampage Earl Norem’s paintings take over and the comic exactly matches the style of the illustrated cards.

In fact, a number of these panels are based directly around the original cards – sometimes with a few additions for good measure. One card shows a triceratops storming a wedding, the bride impaled on its left horn and the groom on its right; in the comic’s version of this scene, the beast has also managed to skewer the wedding cake on its remaining tusk.

The obvious comparison point is with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla and other rampaging monster epics, but in fact Dinosaurs Attack! has less in common with the films themselves and more with a related form of media: the films’ posters. Old-school monster movies often had lurid promotional materials that promised all manner of destructive spectacles which the films themselves simply could not deliver, leaving generations of children disappointed as such restrictive concepts as plot and characterisation got in the way of all the city-trampling. The Dinosaurs Attack! trading cards must have gone some way towards rectifying this situation.

Of course, the comic does have a story underpinning the mayhem – and it is a deliberately absurd one, lampooning the very idea of assigning a coherent narrative to such a dinoa2nonsensical premise. In the far-flung year of 1989, a brilliant scientist named Elias Thorne has developed the process of “timescanning”: that is, bombarding Earth with rays that will allow the planet’s history to be viewed on a screen housed in an orbital space station. Thorne hopes to find out what made the dinosaurs extinct, but his ex-wife and rival scientist Helen Chambers fears that timescanning could be used to spy on private citizens and spill government secrets.

The results of the process turn out to be even worse than Helen imagined, as a malicious intelligence – represented by a pair of glowering yellow eyes that appear on the screen – interferes with the timescan machine and causes hordes of dinosaurs to be transported to the present day. Thorne later has a vision revealing the true identity of the being responsible for the mayhem: while humans have souls and are therefore creatures of God, dinosaurs are mindless brutes and so are aligned with the Devil. A hardened atheist following the childhood death of his brother, Thorne must now face the fact that he is battling not only against prehistoric reptiles, but also the psychic presence of a satanic dino-deity.

Phew. From a Godzilla pastiche to a Zecharia Sitchin-like reinvention of the Eden story in just a few issues.

Although Gerani’s script shows a knack for sustaining the interest through the occasional subplot here and there, the real storytelling ingenuity to be found in Dinosaurs Attack! lies in just how wide a variety of deaths are on show. You may think that dinosaurs may be a tad limited in this area – once the jaws, claws and spines have been used, what’s left? – but Gerani and Norem have dinoa3great fun in coming up with new ways for their time-travelling reptiles to dispatch the local civilians.

The first causality is an unfortunate motorist who drives too close to a dinosaur as it materialises, the temporal distortions resulting in an Indiana Jones-like high-speed aging until the youthful driver is left as a rotted skeleton. A bearded hunter has it even worse, ending up fused with a tyrannosaur that appeared right where he was standing; one of his buddies is forced to put him out of his misery with a rifle. Another man is unlucky enough to run headlong into a prehistoric tree that suddenly pops up as he flees from danger.

Even the more traditional scenes of dinosaur carnage have their inventive touches. Norem has a particular fondness for packing the panels with gruesome background details: when the vice president’s bodyguard is thrown against the side of the Washington Monument, causing his head to burst into what looks suspiciously like raspberry ripple ice-cream, his still-blazing machine gun falls to the ground and takes out an innocent bystander. And when an allosaur invades a classroom to bite a few kids in half, he takes the time to skewer another boy against the wall with one of his fingers.

Some may feel that this last scene is over the line, the deaths dinoa4of children being something of a taboo in more humorous horror fiction. But this would be an adult’s reaction. Dinosaurs Attack! was conceived for kids buying bubblegum,  and the comic’s prurient obsession with impaled corpses and spilled intestines has a curious feeling of childlike innocence. Norem’s paintings have a rubbery texture that lends them a toy-like quality, while the regular portrayals of bones and organs flying out of ruptured bodies are less like the horrors of real-life violence and more like a game of Operation being overturned. If a six-year-old boy were made comic editor for a day, then this is the sort of result that could be expected.

It is perhaps just as well that a film version of Dinosaurs Attack! was never made, as it would inevitably miss the point. The whole appeal of the bubblegum cards was that they distilled the most gleefully chaotic elements of giant monster movies into concentrated chunks – and this comic is as faithful a narrative adaptation as could be hoped for. The perfect thing for your inner Calvin.