T is for Thunderbird

This illustration is actually based on a famous photograph…Sort of

As a kid, did you ever read books about mythical beasts, freaks of nature, and “the unexplained?” If you did, then you probably remember the “Thunderbird Photograph.” It was an old, sepia-toned thing, taken somewhere in the Southwest, sometime in the late 19th century. In the picture, several cowboy-types pose with a curious kill — a huge, pterosaur-looking bird, the body of which they’ve  nailed up to a barn wall. Lots of people remember seeing this photo, usually during childhood. I know I do. Here’s the thing; we didn’t.

The “Thunderbird Photograph” is, quite possibly, the most famous picture never taken. Go ahead. Try to find it. There are some fakes out there, but they’ve all been debunked. Besides, none of them will ring a bell anyway. People have been looking for years with no results. Even when someone remembers the name of a book he saw the photo in and tracks a copy down, he ends up disappointed. The picture is never there. A lot of times, though, a description of it is. It’s these descriptions, probably, that inspired our mass misremembering.

Some people have speculated, and this sounds right to me, that this description — some men, a bird, a barn — is evocative enough, but simple enough, for us to make a credible, personal memory out of. We read about the photo, we imagine the photo, and eventually we “remember” the photo.*

Pretty weird, huh? You never saw the photo. If you’re anything like me, though, you’ll want to Google around a little bit, just to be sure. Here are a few good links just to start you out:

Cryptomundo
, Forgetomori, and good old Wikipedia.

On these pages you can find “Fool’s Thunderbird Photos,” stories about other false memories, and a lot of testimonials.

The Thunderbird, by the way, is a creature of Native American Myth. Groups from the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest all had legends about Thunderbirds. For some groups, there was only one Thunderbird. For others, it was a species. For almost everybody, the creatures were large, vicious, and associated with (or responsible for) thunder and lightning. Specifically, the name derives from the idea that thunder, or a noise like thunder, was made when these massive  birds flapped their mighty wings. For the last two hundred years “Thunderbird” has been a catchall term for giant birds sighted in the Western United States.

As far as this drawing goes, I’m pretty proud of it. I like the color scheme, the character design, and the narrative possibilities (Did the kid with the slingshot bring the bird down? Is that why the other guys seem so stone-faced? Do they resent him? Feel emasculated? Or is stoicism just a part of 19th century photo-portrait etiquette?) I also really enjoyed doing the patterns on these guys clothing (as always) and I think the hay has a fun texture to it. Still, there are parts of this picture that annoy me.

The guy on the left has crazy proportions, even for my taste. I’d like to scale up his nose, scale down his head, and generally rework him a little bit. Also, I’m not that into my pterosaur’s wings. I didn’t really know what to do with them and they could be a lot simpler/slicker. Also, I had to leave out a great dog I drew for lack of space, but I’ll find a good home for him somewhere. Speaking of space, wish I had left more for the text. That really, really kills me. The stopgap thing I did with the support beams works OK, but I really should have planned ahead better.

Finally, this is not the Thunderbird photograph as I remember it. Lots of artistic license has been taken.

*Not convinced? One commenter on Cryptomundo proposes that a time traveler, with God only knows what motivation, went back in time to prevent the photo from being taken, therefore erasing it from all our books. So there are at least two schools of thought.

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