The Webcomic Overlook #74: Dawn of Time
Paleontologists: valuable members of the scientific community, or cruel enemies of wonder and imagination? I raise this question as a person who, once upon a time, showed up as a paleontologist during Career Day in my elementary school years. (And if that seems kinda bizarre to you, my schoolteacher wife tells me that last time she did Career Day, three kids dressed up as paleontologists… which basically means repurposing the Indiana Jones costume kit. I conclude that “Paleontologist” has risen to the upper echelons of “The Kid’s Career of Choice,” which includes nostalgic favorites like “Doctor,” “Policeman,” and “Fireman.”)
One the one hand, paleontologists have provided us an invaluable basket of discoveries, giving us a window into a world of giant lizards before the dawn of humans. It’s a fantastic reality that’s so enormous we take it for granted: that Earth existed long before the first human breathed his first breath, and the caretakers were gigantic beasts.
On the other hand, many of the discoveries have been as soul-crushing as when their pals, the astronomers, decided that Pluto was no longer worthy of planet status. The Brontosaurus did not actually exist? The Ultrasaurus is basically an overgrown Brachiosaurus, and also probably did not exist? That the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex was probably too heavy to be anything but a scavenger?
These sourpuss paleontologists have been ruining things from the beginning, ever since they decided that cavemen and dinosaurs did not actually live side by side. This is a reality that anyone with a bone of imagination seems to want to work around. Heck, if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thinks that men and dinosaurs need to coexist side by side, who am I to argue?
Oddly enough, this dilemma between fantasy and reality rears its head in the subject of today’s Webcomic Overlook, Michael Stearns’ fun and light-hearted Dawn of Time. The comic references at least one real life controversy that proves that paleontologists can get pretty humorless sometimes.
Full disclosure time: Dawn of Time‘s creator, Michael Stearns, e-mailed me, wondering if I could give an opinion regarding his comic. It turns out that I’d already been reading the comic. What a coincidence, huh? Or arcane voodoo magic. I’m personally hoping for the former; I haven’t had time to update my “protection from evil spirits” seals.
I’d been attracted to the artwork in Dawn of Time, which is simple, cartoony, and old school. It’s fluid and detailed at the same time, especially when Stearns draws dinosaurs in action. I know I throw out his name an awful lot, but the style reminds me a lot of Sergio Aragonés’ work on Groo. Most of the humor is in the body language, and since the comic is, for the most part, dialogue free, I imagine that this is something rather essential.
Another thing that immediately struck me upon reading this webcomic was how cute everything is. Oh, sure, there are flesh eating dinos ready, at any moment, to chomp on our characters. But instead of feeling anything akin to danger, we feel a silly, unfettered joy. Much of that is due to the comics’ sunny protagonist.
Dawn of Time stars a spunky young cavegirl who’s name, we learn later on, is Dawn. (Didn’t see that coming, didja?) She’s depicted as neither Neanderthal nor Australopithecus. I can’t even say she’s much of a Cro-Magnon, since I think that our ancestors had worse hair, more crooked teeth, and more unsightly body hair than, say, your typical survivor of Oceanic 815. My guess is that Dawn is based, at least, partially on Raquel Welch’s cavegirl character from the movie One Million BC.
Dawn is a happy-go-lucky gal with wide, saucer-shaped eyes, a goofy grin, and hair bundled up in what looks like a Cinnabon. She also has a gloriously uncomplicated point of view, so admirable that it makes one want to print up “What Would Dawn Do?” charm bracelets. Here’s my summary of the first few pages, done in authentic caveperson language:
Now she doesn’t actually verbalize this: Stearns depicts her as speaking some sort of uninterpretable language, which is foreign even to her fellow humans of her time. The word balloons are written in hash-marks, as if Woodstock from Peanuts were talking. At least she has no trouble communicating with her loyal steed. With the help of her trusty Triceratops, she manages to do so in the most adorable ways imaginable.
Idyllic life in the Eden-esque world is Prehistoric Times (if it is indeed Prehistoric Times … the comic is not quite so clear in that regard) is interrupted by the arrival of two turn-of-the-century time travelers, Mr. Owen and Mr. Mandell. Judging from their proper apparel and their Jules Verne style machinery, they seem to be visitors from Victorian England. These two gentlemen are not fazed by their new environment, treating everything with an absolutely droll detachment. Upon encountering a dinosaur, they excitedly wonder whether they can kill it to display the remains of the creature in their museum. The presence of a cavegirl is nothing more than an annoyance.
No, their singular mission is to determine where a sharp-looking bone belonged on the skeleton of an Iguanadon. It’s a dilemma based on fact: the discoverer of the Iguanadon, Gideon Mantell, really did have an argument with a rival biologist — the really creepy-looking Sir Richard Owen — over how to properly reconstruct an Iguanadon. In Dawn of Time, they’re arguing over the thumbspike, which Owen insists belongs on the nose. It sounds like a pretty silly argument, true, but let’s not forget that these days paleontologists are arguing over whether dinosaurs have feathers or not. (Which seriously affects some dino street cred. Two of the meanest looking dinos to capture the modern imagination — the Velociraptor and the Deinonychus — now look like giant chickens in modern artistic renditions.)
Somehow, it never crosses either Owen or Mantell’s mind to wonder why humans and dinosaurs are living side by side. Then again, I ain’t no paleontologist.
Miffed that he’s wrong, Owen turns on his colleague. Better to be wrong than to be humiliated by your peers! He takes off in the time machine and Mantell gets stranded in the past. Fortunately, Dawn’s on hand to help the poor boy find his way around her world. Besides, she’s fascinated by the guy’s top hat. On their journey, they stumble upon some things that indicate to the reader that this world may not be what it seems. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone, but I gotta say the way Stearns sets up the reveal at the end of Chapter II is pretty fantastic. It was like when one of those mysteries from Lost come unraveled, only much cuter.
From that point on, Dawn and Mantell part ways, and she continues to go on her adventures. While she’s not the only humanoid native of this world, she just might be its most care-free. Her innate curiosity gets her into quite a bit of trouble, though the consequences are really never that severe.
Dawn of Time is a fine adventure comic. It’s also generally kid friendly, so go ahead and share this comic with the little ones. There are some scenes of dino violence, but that’s to be expected. Besides, kids already know that the carnivorous dinosaurs are blood-thirsty killers. That’s part of their appeal. No kid would ever buy seeing the Spinosaurus digging into a bowl of granola.
Dawn of Time is not at all complex, with storylines as simple as its heroine. if I had any criticism, it may be that the comic can get a bit too saccharine at times. There are scenes that I have no doubt will make people go, “Awwww!” Those same scenes may turn off readers with a more sophisticated (or subversive) sense of humor. Personally, I enjoyed this comic. It’s definitely light fare, but it does put a smile on my face. And while the title character is very simple, I can’t say that she’s not interesting. She does make me wonder about what will happen in future installments.
As we reach the latest page, Dawn and her Triceratops trudge on into the mountains toward the great unknown. What other mysteries will they encounter in this world? Will she ever meet Mantell again? Will she ever wear his truly righteous hat? Will she learn of any word other than her own name? Will Dawn ever grow up? It’s a good sign, I think, when you start to wonder about the future of a totally fictional character.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Posted on March 15, 2009, in 4 Stars, adventure webcomic, all ages webcomic, barbarian webcomic, fantasy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Dawn of Time. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.