Prehistoric Pals

updated 12/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

A STRANGE FLAG HANGS FROM THE front porch of artist James Gurney's pleasant wood-frame house in New York's Hudson Valley. It is bright, bold purple and yellow, with the imprint of a human palm beside the footprint of some humongous three-toed beast. Could this be the consulate of some obscure Third World ministate? The headquarters of some bizarre rural cult that might be of interest to Stephen King readers? Well, no. "Oh, that," says Gurney, matter-of-factly, with a nod to the flag. "It represents the humo-dino partnership."

That's dino as in dinosaur—a species with which Gurney, who also has a good sense of humo, has become very, very simpatico. For the past three years he has been working on Dinotopia (Turner Publishing), a lavishly illustrated book about an island where the prehistoric creatures and humans live together in peace. Last month a phenomenal 400,000 copies arrived in bookstores for the holiday season. Set in the 19th century, the novel chronicles the adventures of a shipwrecked biologist and his 12-year-old son, who wash up in Dinotopia and are befriended by a precocious baby protoceratops named Bix. Critics have gushed over Gurney's phantasmagorical creation, likening him to such venerated literary fantasists as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and J.R.R. Tolkien. Meantime, executives at Disney, Columbia and Hanna-Barbera are courting Gurney, a major toymaker wants to license his characters, and he has even been approached to develop a theme park.

"Dinotopia is the warmer, fuzzier side of dinosaurs," says Gurney, 34, sitting in his sunlit studio at home, a two-hour drive from Manhattan. Surrounded by dozens of plastic and rubber dinosaur replicas, he prattles on like a boy who never outgrew his saurian obsession. A former archaeological illustrator for National Geographic, Gurney says it was drawing "all these magical lost worlds that fired my imagination of some city no one had ever discovered." In 1989 he did two oil paintings, Waterfall City and Dinosaur Parade, and subsequent print sales at local galleries brought in enough income for him to work full-time on creating a story. The idea for Dinotopia "began as individual paintings, and then the whole world grew out of those pictures."

As Gurney researched his subject in university libraries and the Smithsonian, he came to believe dinosaurs were due for a kind of historical revisionism. "We all grew up with the view of the sluggish monster of the swamp, the predators tearing each other limb from limb," he says. "But in the last 20 years, we found out dinosaurs were warm-blooded, nimble and active. Some were caring parents who looked after their young." It was but a short leap of the anthropomorphic imagination to turn them into the intelligent and humane creatures of Dinotopia.

Gurney glances out the window to his backyard, where many of the book's scenes were first staged. Dinotopia was a family affair for which he recruited his wife, Jeanette, sons Dan, 5, and Franklin, 3, and assorted friends and neighbors to don period costumes for the photos from which he painted. He held nightly discussions of his work in progress with Jeanette, 39, a former cookbook illustrator whom he met while at art school in Los Angeles and married in 1983. Gurney also liked to tap younger minds, holding roundtable sessions with neighborhood kids and getting ideas from their fervid imaginings. His own travels figured in too; the raging falls of Waterfall City were inspired by Niagara, its waterways by Venice. The great chasms and stone arches of Canyon City were drawn from the Grand Canyon and the rugged red-rock formations in nearby Sedona, Ariz.

The youngest of five children of a mechanical engineer and a housewife, Gurney grew up in suburban Palo Alto, Calif. A solitary child, he loved to read his grandfather's leather-bound issues of National Geographic from the 1920s, with their stories of biplanes flying over uncharted South American jungles. After receiving a bachelor's degree in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley in 1979, he attended art school but dropped out to travel cross-country by freight train with a fellow artist and to produce a book (The Artists' Guide to Sketching). He went on to illustrate book covers and work on the animated sword-and-sorcery film Fire and Ice before landing his dream job: In 1983, National Geographic hired him to illustrate ancient kingdoms and lost cultures.

Gurney, who moved to New York in 1984, has already begun the sequel to Dinotopia—"a classic treasure-hunt story in a jungle guarded by tyrannosaurs." He admits there are times when the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurry. "At the end of a day of painting, I feel my shoes are full of sand or my hair's been blown back by the wind," he says. "Once I was so completely into it that when Jeanette came upstairs to call me for dinner, her voice literally echoed off the canyon wall. I thought, 'Wait a minute—I'd better step out of this!' "

TOM KAHN in New York

From Our Partners