REVIEW: Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards

Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh and the Gilded Age of Paleontology

Writer: Jim Ottaviani
Artist: Big Time Attic
$22.95 / 165 pages / G. T. Labs
Come one, come all! Step right up to the amazing pictographic tale recounting not just how the west was won, but how the west was dug!

I was nervous going into this book. It’s about the so-called “Gilded Age of Paleontology.” Before Indiana Jones (I know he’s an archaeologist but he was modeled after a paleontologist) there were Cope and Marsh. Every budding paleontologist learns about these two and their infamous feud, how their desire to outdo each other lead to comical extremes and created a wealth of fossil collections still being unboxed and catalogued to this day. The accounts of such an engaging period of my science’s history are always disappointingly dry. Such was my nervousness with this comic, because all too often retellings of historical events in comics tend to be little more than well-intentioned narration boxes and some adequately rendered illustrations of exactly what was just said in the aforementioned box. They relay a series of disjointed ideas and snippets, but rarely seem to forward a narrative, especially not in the way comics can and should excel at. In extreme contrast to that fear we have this comic.

In a story as old as time (literally), boy meets fossil, other boy meets similar fossil, lifelong rivalry ensues. In the ultimate example of publish or perish these two really did go at each other’s throats in the post-war Reconstruction American West. Along the way P. T. Barnum, Alexander Graham Bell and Buffalo Bill make more than just appearances, but actual contributions to the plot (which is well-researched historical fiction). It's a rollicking good time only accentuated by real life characters and their always amusing facial hair.

As far as the principle players are concerned, Ottaviani manages to accurately portray two all too human men without creating and out-and-out villain. The historical truth contains enough villainy, but neither man is an angel. The fact that each do things both laudable and less than admirable makes the book feel more authentic, the reader knows people are just people and relegating one to the roll of true villain would have felt forced. I knew bits and pieces about each of these scientists from other non-illustrated works, but never remembered much more than the broad strokes. They have weird names, funny facial hair, and contributed a lot to science while being jerks to each other. This will never be a problem again. 
In an unexpected twist, mostly because I didn’t realize he had any actual involvement in this tale, Charles Knight also rounds out the cast as the third main character, acting as a somewhat outside observer of the dino-wars. If the name doesn’t immediately strike you, Charles Knight is arguably the most famous dinosaur artist ever, and you’ve likely seen some of his work even if you didn’t know it (See below and click to embiggenate). He’s easily the most likeable of the three, and watching him interact with this world as he creates the works I had on my walls as a kid was a trip. It just felt right having an artist play such a pivotal role in the graphic retelling of the feud.
The art was done by Big Time Attic, the studio of Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon. While some would say so in a derogatory way, I gloriously proclaim the style "cartoony." Because when real people act so cartoonish you may as well portray them that way. Drawing this book is a tour-de-force of actual historical figures and locations, not to mention recreating works by an incredible photorealistic painter, which is no small task but accomplished admirably. As mentioned in my intro I’m skeptical of historical fiction in this medium but pouring over these panels I can comfortably say that these are good comics. Art and writing merging to tell a story, and doing a damn fine job of it too.
The book ends with a “Fact or Fiction” section wherein all of the true and less than true parts of the story are revealed. The fabricated parts are all justified in some way and were usually modified from actual history to successfully create a more compelling narrative. The factual parts had me flipping through the book all over again to examine those scenes with a more careful eye. Spoiler Warning: The naked guy in the carriage is fact, not fiction.

I’ve written a lot in these columns about scientists being real people, with real quirks, relatable passions and human foibles. If you’ve rolled your eyes and thought, “No way, scientists are BORING robots of facts and such.” I encourage you to check out this book to see exactly what I’m talking about. 

By the end the story, I was ready to place it on my shelf right next to From Hell as a piece of engrossing and accurate historical fiction. Ottaviani has a nice library of available science-history based comics, everything from the space-race to stories of women in science (a woefully underrepresented topic). This book held the most raw emotional sway for me before reading, but that was as likely to be a detriment as it was a benefit. It having succeeded so admirably means I’ll be eagerly working my way through Ottaviani’s catalogue. 

Yes, I’ve already passed it around the lab. People were more than a little excited.

Story: 5 / Art: 4 / Overall: 4.5

(Out of 5)


Ryan Haupt loved this book but thought the title was a bit long, regardless he’ll probably try and get the author to come on his podcast Science… sort of so Ryan can ask Ottaviani just what the hell he was thinking.


  1. Spoiler Warning: The naked guy in the carriage is fact, not fiction.” – that’s what you should have opened with.

  2. I remember you talking about these guys on Science. . .sort of.  Awesome, I’ll check this out.  Thanks, Ryan.

  3. Avatar photo Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    This has raced up my reading list. Can’t believe I haven’t picked it up yet. Even the name is rad. 

  4. I picked this up at NYCC from Mr.Cannon himself. Its a great book so far. I say so far as I am still reading it. In my “to Read” pile I always have a palate cleanser, something I read at a slow pace and don’t rush.
    While reading this I wondered “Is this real?” and I’m so glad that Ryan did the research for me as I was unsure of where to turn other than Wiki.
    The only negative I can say is that on several pages the art subtly changes. Whether this is Big Time Attic switching pencilers but it is noticeable as it isn’t when the chapters occur. This is such a minor issue and is quickly forgotten. 
    People need to pick this up.