“Age of Reptiles: Ancient Egyptians is about a samurai, a cowboy, a loner…who happens to be a forty-foot-long predatory dinosaur.” –Ricardo Delgado, author of Age of Reptiles
Long ago, before the extinction of DSL, dawn of the evolutionary NeoGeo CD, all the while Jurassic Park stomped into cinemas like a meteorite obliterating any and all box offices, Age of Reptiles debuted onto the comic fossil records in an age almost as prehistoric: the nineties. Always following the footsteps of dinosaurs, and always devoid of any text whatsoever, Delgado’s series maintained its commitment to storytelling purely pictorially. Age of Reptiles devolves the medium to its most primordial narrative form: the image. And, if this first of the planned four-issue run has anything to tell, the laconic lizards in Ancient Egyptians have a lot to say-err…roar.
Africa, circa 145 million years ago, give or take a few millennia, the Cretaceous period. Marching across an arid graveyard of pre-petrified timber, the signature spiked-spined dorsal of a Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, the “hero” of our story, (who will, from now onward, be affectionately named Spino), thunders across the frame. The term “hero” really doesn’t belong here. These are Dinosaurs after all. They aren’t your typical plucky comic book heroes or villains, but rather long dead, larger than life animals vividly brought back to life on the page. Unlike that one Jurassic Park sequel that did anything but obliterate box offices, Delgado’s skill as an artist and storyteller imparts our Spino with character beyond being a blood thirsty beast.
A snaggle-toothed snout painted with a canvas of battle scars, Spino commands not only each panel on the page of Ancient Egyptians, but so too reigns supreme on the food chain. Undaunted from any would be smaller predators, or even shrugging off some creatures twice its size, it's evident that Spino is not only the biggest kid on the primeval block, the apex predator, but a veteran. Colorist Ryan Hill lends his talents to fulfill each of Delgado’s unique interpretation of dino color concepts and provides a palette that is colorful, imaginative even, but never derivative nor compensating with flamboyant scales. Here Delgado succeeds in creating a prehistoric protagonist that is a believable rendering of a long extinct animal living out its daily routine. Hunting, defecating, eating, defecating, traversing water and land while defecating- the images stomping across each page of Ancient Egyptians characterize its cast of reptiles in a way that gifts them a personality, especially our big sail-back.
In the first few pages, Spino pays only a casual glance at a pack of what other species might recognize as threatening carnivores (my psuedo-aspirations-of-being paleontologist/Googled guess would identify as Deltadromeus), only moving so much as a few yards closer in distance, giving a second longer glance from its sallow yellow eyes before the two scavengers are sent running off into the forest with the petty meat they had savagely squabbled over. Later on, with a swift snap of its long jaws as it leisurely dips into a teeming ancient African swamp, Spino plucks prey of all shapes and sizes without effort. It goes without saying that if T. Rex was the king of the Jurassic kingdom, then Spinosaurus is the Cretaceous khan.
It's this diligence to subtle characterization that makes Delgado's vision of a wordless dinosaurian world come to life with actual characters, not creatures. Age of Reptiles is undeniably unique amongst other depictions of dinosaurs, which generally consist of mindless reptiles perennially on the prowl. Though much of this is too is included in the book, Spino, a forty foot predatory reptile he may be, lives out its life with a noble quality. I couldn't help but observe Spino as world weary, bored even, unchallenged by other predators and prey confronted on land or in waters, peerless in every scuffle so far. So much so that it’s hard for me to not perceive an almost noble quality to the creature. There's a certain degree of aloofness, aplomb to Spino's behavior, feeding only on transient fish rather than wasting time and injury that years of survival and experience has steered away. Spino is more confident, elegant amongst the squabbling smaller predators, unsurprised by the cruelty and uncertainty of the Cretaceous world, a grizzled loner who's mastered the art of survival to the point of routine.
Very much akin to the samurai in Akira Kurosawa flicks and later Sergio Leone’s cowboy adaptations, with Age of Reptiles Delgado successfully emulates their “subtitle-less” stories, following in their steps of visual storytelling that he notes impressed and informed his youth and growth as an artist. Whether it be Spino shifting his weight with its rudder of a tail while swimming, the buckling of its fin slicing thru rippling marsh waters, or a host of other animated movements and nuances of character illustrates that Spino is blatantly a master of its backyard. There’s a real heft to its movements, to a creature human eyes have never been able to scope themselves, yet, with a studied eye in art and living animals of today, as if Delgado had observed them in his very own backyard.
It all reads like a lavishly detailed story board which, if you excavate the fossils, dig a little to find the elaborately arranged skeletons of the author’s past you'll quickly unearth a litany of his credits holding positions as storyboard artist, character designer, and other art ranks on projects like The Matrix (Revolutions and Reloaded), X-men Origins: Wolverine, and both the least and most surprising, Disney’s under-appreciated turn of the century CG- Dinosaur (He worked on Species too apparently but we won’t/don't' talk about that… yet...). Whether it’s the mist encircling the knees of lichen lapped tree roots as they snake into the African waters and form Cretaceous riverbeds, or schools of fish eating smaller fish, only to be swooped into the serrated maw of flying reptiles (Dimorphodon), each frame is exhaustively detailed, each panel lush enough to enjoy patient probing, and multiple looks for what some may be mislead in believing is a quick read.
Though superbly well executed in creature design, illustration, visual pacing/planning, some panels become inconsistently low in details, sometimes distorting colors and muddying the image, though it’s understandable, to depict size, distance, even busy details within certain frame. Frequently I found myself scanning over the page multiple times over just to follow the implied movement of Spino and other Dino's when action got frenetic even with the added motion marks. Speaking of action as this is the first issue there’s expectedly not much action some fans might be mislead to believe by the comic’s combative cover. What the first issue lacks in action, however, it more than recoups by building one of the most realized dinosaurian worlds, one I can’t wait to return too again and again.