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Jim Ottaviani – Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards

September 19, 2011

113. Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh and the Gilded Age of Paleontology by Jim Ottaviani & Big Time Attic (2005)

Length: 168 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Graphic Novel

Started / Finished: 04 September 2011

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I was browsing through the graphic novel section and the title caught my eye.

The main figures of
early dinosaur science
were total jerkwads.

Summary: In the late 1800s, America’s “Wild West” was being settled, dinosaurs were all the rage, and two of the country’s leading paleontologists spent most of their lives feuding over the bones that were being discovered in the West, and over the names and interpretations of the animals that left them behind. Edward Drinker Cope had the passion for fieldwork, collecting, and science to fuel his monomania, but Othniel Charles Marsh had the political and professional connections – and the money – needed to rise to preeminence in the field. This is a story of their years of trickery, theft, professional sniping, and personal backbiting, peopled with some of the major figures of the age, including P. T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Review: I typically really enjoy the history of science, and while I’d heard Marsh and Cope’s names before, theirs wasn’t a story I knew. It turns out that it’s a fascinating one, though; larger-than-life in a way that only stories from the Gilded Age can be. Between the two of them, they discovered almost 140 species of dinosaurs, including most of the best-known ones today; they were responsible for the original confusion regarding Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus; and their endless bickering via the scientific literature was the origin of page charges for publication, something that to this day haunts scientists who are trying to conserve grant money. This book isn’t a work of straight non-fiction: Ottaviani plays a little bit loose with the facts when the narrative demands it, but the bare bones (hah!) of the story are intact, and there’s an extensive “Fact or Fiction” section at the end where he explains the changes he’s made.

Unfortunately, I still found the narrative a little jumpy and disjointed for my tastes. The graphic novel format is an interesting way to tell this story, and in a lot of ways it works: it gives an immediate sense of time and place that would be missing from straight prose. However, there are a lot of details that are crucial to understanding the story – particularly who the multitudes of supporting characters are, and why they’re important – that just can’t be covered in speech-balloon snippets of dialogue. I also had a hard time telling the minor characters apart; the main characters (Marsh and Cope and the painter Charles R. Knight) all have distinctive facial hair or glasses, but a lot of the other men in this story looked much the same, showed up without explanation for a few pages, and then disappeared just as suddenly. Otherwise, I really liked the artwork; it’s visually appealing despite being in black and white, and the panels had a lot of detail without looking cluttered.

Overall, it was an easy and interesting introduction to a period of scientific history that I didn’t know much about, but it wasn’t smooth or complete enough to be entirely satisfying. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It was an interesting American counterpoint to the British dinosaur-finding of Remarkable Creatures. Recommended for those with an interest in Gilded Age history, paleontology, or non-fiction graphic novels, as long as they don’t go in expecting too much depth.

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Other Reviews: Lindy Reads and Reviews
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