Forget Jurassic Park: Age of Reptiles is the True King of the Dinosaurs

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Eisner-Award winning Age of Reptiles devised by artist Ricardo Delgado is a gritty, yet vibrant imagining of life during the Mesozoic period.

The comic strip medium is a tricky beast when it comes to utilizing the full potential of the craft. It can be said that, like painting or film, a good creator can use the limitations of the format while harnessing its strengths to craft an experience greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps no series in the field of comics exemplifies this ethic better than the Eisner-Award winning Age of Reptiles, the lovingly developed dinosaur epic devised by artist Ricardo Delgado. Published by Dark Horse Comics over a span of 22 years, Age of Reptiles is a gritty, yet vibrant imagining of life during the Mesozoic period done mostly in the style of a nature documentary. Gripping, violent and unceasingly immersive, Delgado’s evolution as a storyteller over the course of the four miniseries is the real treat here - as are the incredibly detailed depictions of dinosaurs, if you like that kind of thing.

Age of Reptiles is comprised of four separate miniseries (as well as a few shorter stories), with a 12-year gap in-between the second two. Each of the series follows separate groups of saurian creatures as they vie for survival in ancient prehistory. Those of you expecting Disney shenanigans will be pleased to know that the series is entirely silent, imbuing an experiential feel to each story not unlike a program on Animal Planet.

While the presupposed realism of the piece may feel refreshing in that manner, the brutality is true to nature as well, and Delgado, formerly an artist for such Disney films such as Atlantis: The Lost EmpireThe Incredibles, and Dinosaur does not relent on this particular regard. One thing we can be pretty certain of is that dinosaurs hunted, fought, killed and ate, and even with pop culture fixtures like Jurassic Park illustrating this for the public, Delgado still manages to surprise with stunning nightmare-esque sequences of rapturous (and raptor-ous), ripping action.

But Delgado does more than that. If one great thing can be said for Age of Reptile’s later series, it is that they bring you into this world of the Cretaceous period in as immersive a way as one can hope. Portraying animals in their natural habitat without the aid of language is not an easy task, but Delgado uses a mixture of scientific realism (even to the point of coloring the ancient lizards similarly to their modern equivalents) and hyper-attention to environment and lighting to build a cohesive world complete with a sense of wonder.

Delgado has stated that the first two series, Tribal Warfare (1993) and The Hunt (1997), were comparatively amateurish compared to his later works. While certainly there is slightly more anthropomorphizing on his part in the earlier series, it’s impossible to deny his sense of drama and mastery of the elements of action that characterize the later series The Journey (2009) and Ancient Egyptians (2015).

One quality in his work Delgado exercises is that he gets in the reader's head through his panel-sequencing and taps into certain primal experiences when arranging his sequences. One great highlight would be the climactic battle of The Journey on an ancient Pacific shoreline between a mother Tyrannosaur and the terrifying sea serpent known as the Mosasaur. As this battle of the titans goes down - handily beating Game of Thrones in the depiction of dragons battling by the way - Delgado relies on the reader’s breathing to simulate the sound of beating waves coming into the beach.

Delgado best demonstrates his devotion to hyper-realism in these instances, and when combined with his detailed pencil-work, complex sequencing and flowing sense of motion, the experience thrusts the reader into the savage, yet fascinating world of his characters, characters whom, despite their huge claws, massive jaws and meat-encrusted teeth still jump off the page in their primitive pathos.

Perhaps the best exhibition of his mastery of these elements hard-won through years of television animation and storyboard work in films would be the most recent series Ancient Egyptians. The series stars a lone Spinosaurus, as it vies for survival and mating rights in a forested lagoon surrounded by hostile clades of roaming thunder lizards. An homage to both the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns starring “The Man With No Name” and the beautiful, breathable film-style of auteur director Akira Kurosawa, Ancient Egyptians is a hyper-violent, yet daring dive into a foreign world of monstrous creatures that feels both strange yet familiar.

Fans and lovers of both nature docs and dinosaurs can enjoy this one. Age of Reptiles can be a little grisly for kids, but can surely serve as a blunt education on how the earth existed when ruled by reptiles.