Few people know that the great snow dragon of Greenland emerges screeching from Arctic tempests to devour its unsuspecting prey.
Or that the diminutive Japanese butterfly lizard dragon secretes a sweet-scented oil from glands beneath its tiny wings.
Or that the African dragon known as Livingstone's demon subsists on a jungle diet of berries, small birds, mammals and the occasional pith-helmeted explorer.
These whimsical beasts are among 12 distinct dragon varieties that author Graeme Base documents in his exquisitely illustrated book "The Discovery of Dragons," published last month by Harry N. Abrams Inc.
Base, a renowned author from Australia whose books have sold more than 4 million copies worldwide, has been fascinated by dragons since childhood. Years ago, as Base worked in his home studio by the sea near Melbourne, the beasties finally gained the upper hand and demanded to be heard.
"They broke into my studio and roamed through the house, gnashing their teeth and sharpening their claws on the table legs," Base says. "Eventually, I was compelled to paint a series of pictures of the 12 most common dragons. . . . They seemed sated for a while and slithered behind the filing cabinets, but they soon became sulky and restless. I knew then that they would one day reappear and demand more of me than this humble offering."
The 38-year-old author's wry humor is reflected in "The Discovery of Dragons," a multifaceted book that appeals to adults as well as children with its double-entendres, silly jokes, elaborate drawings and pseudo-historical tales.
At a recent reading and signing at Storyopolis bookstore on North Robertson Boulevard, Base, in the midst of a North American tour and punchy from jet lag, offered a dramatic interpretation from the book. Afterward, he fielded questions from an admiring audience, such as: How long do dragons live? (Centuries and centuries.) Were they contemporaries of dinosaurs? (No.) What is a dragon's wingspan? (Depends on the dragon, silly.)
The signing line moved slowly because Base inscribed a personally tailored illustration along with his signature in each book.
Seven-year-old twins Bianca and Whitney got koalas and dinosaurs. Their mother, Sandra Johnson, says the family has all five of Base's books.
"The illustrations are breathtaking. The girls love me to read them the books. They sit in the rocking chair and we look at all the details."
The reading also drew adult fans such as Amy Luwis, a 31-year-old graphic designer who drove from Santa Barbara.
"His illustrations blow me away," Luwis says. "I admire him greatly and hope to be as good as him someday."
Base, a tousled, boyish figure who speaks with the broad vowels of Down Under, says it's a misnomer to say he writes and illustrates books for children.
"I've coined the term 'me books' because I do these books for myself," he says. "If I didn't, I'd find myself talking down to kids, which is deadly. It has to be honest. If there are complex things or adult jokes in my books, I make no apologies. Everyone should be able to get something out of it."
Base's book is structured around three fictional explorers who recount their dragon discoveries via letters home: the dim Norse Viking Bjorn of Bromme, who describes his encounters with 9th century European dragons to his bad-tempered cousin Olaf the Grim; Soong Mei Ying, the youngest daughter of a 13th century Chinese silk trader who writes about her jousts with Asiatic dragons to her venerable father, Soon Chen Yi; and Dr. E.F. Liebermann, an obscure 19th century Prussian cartographer and amphibiologist who describes the dragons of Africa to his long-suffering fiancee Prunella Hapsburgernfries.
Opposite each letter is a scientific-style plate illustration of a fiercely beautiful dragon, a la the naturalist style of John James Audubon's birds. An insert of a world map shows the dragon's habitat, and a scale model shows its size.
Base also creates an alter ego, Mr. Rowland W. Greasebeam, a noted serpentologist who "discovers" the letters in the course of his research and spars throughout the book with a rival named Marty Fibblewitz, whose "Intergalactic Theory of Dragon Distribution" postulates that dragons originated on the planet Jupiter.
Base's books are multimedia hypertexts waiting to happen, so it's not surprising that two of them have been optioned by Storyopolis, an art gallery, bookstore and production company whose owners want to develop the Base books "Sign of the Seahorse" as a computer-graphic animation film and "Animalia" for a TV series.
Born in England, Base moved to Australia with his family at 8 and immediately fell to the bottom of the social heap as the new kid who didn't know the slang and spoke with a funny accent.
What earned him the grudging respect of his mates was drawing pictures. At 11, he read "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien, whose fantasy animals and landscapes exerted a profound influence on him.
Base majored in commercial art in college and worked for ad agencies, but he was miserable. Eventually, he was fired because his heart wasn't in the work.
After doing some book jackets for Melbourne publishers, Base decided to have a go at his own book and in 1983 published "My Grandma Lives in Gooligulch." It sold modestly, which encouraged him to spend the next three years drawing an alphabet book called "Animalia." It has sold 2 million copies worldwide, success that Base says is "beyond my wildest dreams."
Base has three children--James, 6, Katherine, 3, and William, 1--but began drawing long before he had progeny to inspire him. In fact, "I've soft-pedaled the [books] to my kids; they probably know them a whole lot less well than some of their friends," he says. "James is just coming to terms with the fact that all his friends have the books he thought I wrote for him."
Base draws his dragons by hand, using pens and watercolor. But he's not computer-phobic.
"I have a pencil, a brush, an airbrush and a mouse," he says impishly. "They're all sitting there waiting to be used the way the forces direct me."