Comic conventions and me: Being a fan and a dad

(Been a bit busy lately, but here’s a freelance piece I did late last year that never quite found a home, tied into the local Armageddon Expo series of pop-culture conventions held around New Zealand. It’s also a kind of ramble about being a fan and being a dad. Give it a read and more “content” soon!)

Having a child means passing on the things you love to them, and hoping they stick. 

Every parent does it, whether it’s the All Blacks, the Beatles or Star Wars

When they’re young and malleable as modelling clay, you imprint them with your likes. 

Then as they start to form their own opinions, their shape changes, and as a parent you just hope they kind of hold on to the geeky love for Spider-Man that their dad once taught them. 

For years, my son and I have had a ritual of heading each Labour Weekend to Armageddon Expo, New Zealand’s biggest pop culture convention. I’m a comic book fan, and no son of mine was going to grow up not knowing his Green Lantern from his Green Arrow.

We’ve been at Armageddon pretty much every year from the time he was 5 until now when he’s pushing 16. 

Armageddon is small potatoes compared to some of the massive US comic book conventions I’ve been to, but it’s just right for New Zealand. It’s an assault on the senses with celebrity visits, hundreds of booths filled with every cult item you can imagine, video games blaring, bodies packed tightly together in the aisles and the occasionally overpowering odour of other fans. 

It’s crowded. It’s hot. It’s full of people in amazing costumes, sometimes with really pointy edges. It’s a Disneyland for three days of fans and fandom, and for years we wouldn’t miss it for the world. 

When I look back on my muddled journey of being a dad, I often think of how the boy and I journeyed deep into the world of Armageddon each year, and I tried to show him how to be a fan. 

There was the year we saw two Doctor Whos (well, OK, two actors who played The Doctor) and the boy became very keen to watch this long-running TV show that started years before his parents were even born. 

Over time, we got to see some of the greatest names in science fiction and fantasy history. Christopher Lloyd from Back To The Future, Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek, Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who, Nathan Fillion from Firefly.

We met New Zealand comics creators and bagged weird toys and big bargains and junk food, and ended each visit weighed down by our loot and overstimulated by sensation. When the boy was younger, I’d sometimes carry him back to the car and he’d fall asleep before he even hit the seat. 

It was a little different when I was his age. I was embarrassed to tell most people I read comic books. I had grand mythic adventures with a few like-minded pals playing Dungeons and Dragons until I worried what everyone else would think of me and grew out of it. 

These days, movies starring the Avengers whose comics I tried to hide reading make billions of dollars and what once seemed a bit nerdy and uncool is mainstream culture. People on the street know who Thanos and the Black Panther are. 

At some point in my life – embarrassingly late, I must admit – I got comfortable with telling other actual grown-ups that I’m a huge comic book fan, that I can rattle off obscure trivia about Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to you until the sun sets. 

Pretty much everyone who’s an avid fan of something feels a bit like an outcast sometimes. Maybe someone bagged on you for liking anime, or digging Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But at a pop culture convention, everyone’s a fan. There’s no shame in your passion. 

It’s OK to like what you like, be what you want to be, embrace whatever fantasy world turns you on. 

That’s the message of a place like Armageddon, where you can dress up like a samurai, a robot or a superhero for a day and be surrounded by your people. And it’s cool. 

That’s not the worst message to teach your son. 

I don’t know how much longer the boy and I will go to Armageddon together, before I become an embarrassment to him or he’d rather hang out with his friends. 

You measure parenthood by rituals, things you do every year which become commonplace until one day you don’t do them at all anymore. 

The boy I once had to crouch down to hug is now nearly as tall as I am, and I still can’t get used to it. He seems to grow a few centimetres a day. 

Now he’s into big epic World War II video games that kind of give me a headache to watch, and the Lego he once spent every waking moment playing with is getting dusty. I still read comic books and keep running out of ways to rearrange my shelf space. 

Once, he would watch Cars over and over. Now, he and I are sitting down to watch Apocalypse Now. He’s not the same little boy I once hopefully tried to tutor in the ways of Star Wars and Marvel Comics. He doesn’t like everything I like. 

But he likes a lot of it. 

He still loves Star Trek and watches reruns with us at least once a week. He’s into his own things, his own passions, and instead of me teaching him about Jedi Knights and Earth-2, he’s the one rattling off factoids to us about the things he’s into. Now he’s the fan, trying to convert us. 

Armageddon is a big, huge, crazy crowded event full of people who are all fans of something, whether it’s Pokemon or Call Of Duty or Deadpool. 

But for me it’ll also always be a place where my son and I bonded over superheroes and spaceships, and I watched him grow from a tiny boy dwarfed by a Dalek to a hulking teenager with his own obsessions, his own thoughts and his own fandom.

May it live long and prosper. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Time once again for a brief round-up of writing I’ve done elsewhere on the internet recently, not that I don’t love the blogging for free but someone’s got to keep the cats in cat food…

Bird of the Year is one of New Zealand’s biggest social media events, with everyone weighing in on their fave avian, whether it’s the humble kiwi, the plucky penguin or the rocking ruru. I wrote a story over at Radio New Zealand about the contest and specifically about how we can help birds year-round by doing things like volunteering for Bird Rescue:

Bird of the Year competition: Keeping the good vibe flying high

Meanwhile, back in my home state of California, everything’s on fire, which sucks, and thousands of people have been forced to have their power shut off, which sucks even more. I wrote a little about that from my perspective way the hell down here in Aotearoa for The New Zealand Herald (story paywalled):

California’s fires and why New Zealand should worry too

Lastly, we just went through a Rugby World Cup, and while NZ lost and we are a traumatised nation, it was a big event for streaming services which hosted the tournament for the first time. Here’s a story over at Stuff about it:

Spark’s first big test: How did it fare?

Jojo Rabbit: So, are we allowed to laugh at Nazis?

Can Nazis be funny? It’s not a question you expect to ask yourself when sitting down to watch a movie by New Zealand’s biggest name in Hollywood, but Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit forces you to ask it. 

Jojo Rabbit seemed a pretty oddball project for Waititi to take on after the hits of Boy, Thor: Ragnarok and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, but it’s part of a long lineage of stories that mock the Nazis to make a point. It took in nearly $1.2 million at the New Zealand box office over Labour Weekend. But is a movie that imagines Hitler as a kind of cuddly imaginary friend for a young German boy during World War II in good taste or bad? 

It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, but critics are more mixed on it – The Chicago Sun-Times called it “irreverent, edgy, provocative envelope-pushing satire,” but the Los Angeles Times thought that “its so-called audacity smacks of calculation and emotional cowardice.” 

So, are we allowed to make Nazis funny or not? Here’s the case for and against: 

1. Hitler was kind of funny. Most dictator/authoritarian types are. Look at Kim Jong-un, with his beady stare and tossed-salad haircut, or that guy in the White House. Waititi – who’s of both Māori and Jewish descent – plays Hitler himself in Jojo Rabbit. To modern eyes, the preening, sweating moustached dictator can seem like a living cartoon character. 

Mocking the Nazis goes all the way back to when Hitler was alive and ranting, with Charlie Chaplin’s send-up in The Great Dictator back in 1940 still one of the best attacks on the führer. Mel Brooks debuted The Producers more than 50 years ago, with its whole plot revolving around a tasteless satire of the Nazis that turns into an unexpected hit. Director Billy Wilder even made a POW camp funny in Stalag-17, which in turn inspired TV’s long-running Hogan’s Heroes

The problem is that if you make Hitler too satirical, you run the risk of downplaying the very real carnage and horror committed in his name. Taika’s Hitler in Jojo Rabbit never feels truly authentic, peppering his talk with modern-day slang and gestures, but there’s a moment or two when he ramps up the ranting rage and you can see what people were afraid of. 

Because he’s an imaginary friend in a broadly romantic fantasy of a movie, Jojo’s Hitler is kind of goofily cuddly, charming and supportive of Jojo’s ambitions – as long as Jojo sticks to the Nazi party line, of course. Jojo Rabbit ultimately portrays its title character’s interest in Nazis as a boy really just wanting to belong. “You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club,” Jojo is told at one point. 

Jerry Lewis in the legendary lost movie “The Day The Clown Cried.”

2. However, the Holocaust really isn’t funny. Jojo Rabbit skirts around the edges of the Holocaust without going too deep. The movie doesn’t stint on showing the human cost of the Nazi regime to Jewish people, but it also doesn’t take us to Auschwitz. 

There have been a few movies that have tried to find the funny in genocide. The late Jerry Lewis directed a movie in 1972 called The Day The Clown Cried about a clown entertaining children in the death camps which was so legendarily misconceived that it was never released, locked away in a vault somewhere and only seen by a few hardy souls. 

That didn’t stop others with similar stories, like Robin Williams at his most mawkish in 2002’s flop Jakob the Liar, or Roberto Benigni inexplicably winning an Oscar for best actor for 1997’s Life Is Beautiful, one of those films which just gets more cloying and baffling with time. Holocaust movies can start off with black humour, but they always have to end with tragedy. 

An entire documentary, The Last Laugh, was made a few years back about whether the Holocaust could ever be funny. In it, director/actor Rob Reiner notes, “The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it. But, survival, and what it takes to survive – there can be humour in that.” 

3. Then again, New Zealanders are pretty funny. There’s something that just works about dropping the deadpan, laconic kiwi sense of humour into unusual situations. Whether it’s Jemaine and Bret struggling in New York City in Flight of the Conchords or Taika himself as a laid-back giant rock dude in Thor: Ragnarok, it’s funny as when that chur, bro accent pops up in an unusual place. 

A lot of kiwi humour is about subtly undermining expectations, and taking a look at the world from unexpected angles. Combining that sensibility with a satire of Nazism is a gamble, and whether or not it works in Jojo Rabbit comes down a lot to personal preference. Archie Yates as Jojo’s bumbling childhood mate Yorki is that vaguely absurdist kiwi voice in Jojo Rabbit, with lines like “It’s definitely not a good time to be a Nazi.”

Can we make fun of the Nazis? Sure, but you’re not guaranteed that everybody will laugh at it. You can make fun of the Nazis, but for many people even doing so undercuts their very real evil. You laugh at Waititi’s intentionally broad Hitler, but you might feel a bit cringe doing so. That might just be the point. 

You don’t have to go far on the internet to find outrage boiling away these days. Satire can defuse outrage, but in a world where the far right is on the rise, it doesn’t always feel like hip internet memes are doing much to dispel their allure for some people. 

Yet the alternative to satire is either rage or silence. Satire can’t always knock down walls. But it can knock a few holes in them. Jojo Rabbit is a movie you’re meant to wrestle over. A quote by the poet Rilke appears at a pivotal moment in Jojo Rabbit, perhaps guiding us on how to navigate humour and evil – “Just keep going. No feeling is final.” 

In which I learn to pick up birds.

New Zealand’s native wood pigeon, the kererū

I like birds, especially New Zealand birds. They’re beautiful and strange and adaptable creatures.

I’m also just a little tiny bit scared of birds. Blame it on the junior high teacher who showed us Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in class. There’s something unpredictable about how birds react and all the beaks and pecking and fluttering that freaked me out a bit. I’ve reached a venerable middle age in life and yet I don’t think I’ve held a bird more than a few times. I’ve always been a little scared to. They’re not like cats or dogs (or even rats, which I had a brief flirtation with having as a pet when I was an angsty teenager). 

But I love birds more than I’m scared of ‘em, so I was pretty happy to start doing some weekly volunteering at the NZ Bird Rescue Centre last week. It’s just down the road from my house, and does amazing work rehabilitating and rehoming injured birds, including many of NZ’s native species. It’s a very cool place and I’m really happy to be doing my part there, feeding them, cleaning cages, et cetera. 

Ruru or morepork, native owl.

Of course, one of the major requirements of working in such a place is being able to pick up a bird. In the course of training there last week I went from being twitchy about the notion of picking up a bird to … well, I wouldn’t call myself anywhere near an expert, but I can do it, now. 

I started with fairly docile doves and adorable baby ducklings, learning the art of handling them. Picking up a bird requires speed, strength and gentleness all at the same time. Too hard, you have a dead bird, too soft, and you’ve got an escaped bird. Holding a baby duckling – all fluff and undulating neck, pubescent winglets fidgeting and flippers gyrating – will teach you the art of gentle firm care. 

Over the course of a few days, I moved up the ranks, to feral pigeons (smelly, noisy and bugeyed), adult ducks (surprisingly strong) and one of my personal favourites, New Zealand’s wood pigeon the kererū, which can be the size of a small cat. These are hefty, solid birds, who make a hypnotic whoosh whoosh sound as they bounce around the trees by our house looking for berries to chow down on.

Picking a kererū up requires all one’s gestational bird handling skills. Control the wings, because otherwise it’s like holding a rapidly exploding kite. Hands firm and not shaking. Control the kererū, and you control something deep within yourself. Feel the fluttering feathers, the gentle tremors of something that can fly up into the treetops, in your hands. It’s zen and the art of avian maintenance. 

There’s other birds I’m nowhere near handling yet – long-legged herons, NZ’s punk-rock chicken the pukeko, who boast massive feet that look like they’ll rip you to shreds, compact kingfishers, gorgeous yet dangerous native owls – but in my first few days at bird rescue, I picked up birds.

It’s never too late to turn over a new feather. 

Note: It’s also time for the biggest contest of the year in New Zealand to take wing, the Bird Of The Year voting. Go vote up until Nov. 10 on the bestest bird in all of NZ.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

I’ve been busy lately writing a few pieces for publication elsewhere in the media biosphere. Here’s a few:

  • This was a difficult one to write, and more personal than I typically get, but it’s an important topic. About 18 months ago I got waylaid by a shock health diagnosis and it sent me on pretty intense personal journey. Both Radio New Zealand and NZ’s biggest news website Stuff have kindly published this one:

Radio New Zealand: How I nearly died and what happened next

Stuff: How a diagnosis changed my life

It’s World Thrombosis Day on Sunday, and I wrote this to tie in to that important awareness day. There’s been some great commentary and feedback about my piece by people on these sites’ Facebook pages sharing their own stories, which really gratifies me and makes the effort of writing this one worthwhile.

  • In less dramatic writing, I also had a very fun feature printed in the New Zealand Herald‘s weekend Canvas magazine the other week about a boom in Auckland cinemas showing revivals of classic films. It’s part of their paywalled content but if you’re a Herald member it’s worth a read!

Cinema Paradiso: The classic films coming to a cinema near you

  • Lastly, this one was actually published a little while back over at Radio New Zealand but I might as well link to it as well here, because the issue of America and guns certainly hasn’t changed much since I wrote it. I wrote about it from the perspective of an American who’s lived abroad for more than a decade. I often get asked about America’s mass shootings. Wish I had an answer, but for now this is what I had to say:

Opinion: Guns create ‘a map of blood’ in US, but nothing will change

Review: Aldous Harding, The Powerstation, August 31, Auckland

IMG_6778It takes a lot to shush up an Auckland Saturday night crowd with a single look. But Aldous Harding was able to do that with a mere glance at the sold-out Powerstation gig celebrating our home-grown songwriter’s success.

Harding is one of the more unique voices sprouting from New Zealand’s fertile music scene these last few years. At just 29, she’s crafting the kind of edgy crossover career that wins lifelong fans while never sounding like anything other than herself. She’s mysterious and strange, sometimes sounding like an alien come down to earth, with a voice that moves from angelic highs to booming lows with ease, and song lyrics that defy easy interpretation. There’s hints of Bowie, Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush in her work, but it’s all dipped in an antipodean magic all its own. Her “Horizon” is one my favourite singles of the last few years, and her latest album “Designer” is one of 2019’s best. 

Dressed something like an extra in a 1990s Beastie Boys video, Harding took the stage alone, with a single guitar, and rather daringly played two of her most hushed, intimate numbers at the very start of the show. The crowd at the bar shushed; you couldn’t even hear glasses jingle, nothing but Harding’s chameleon voice echoing around the Powerstation. It was a masterful entrance by a performer who already clearly knows how to hold attention, and when the slower songs gave way to the full band joining her on the joyously bouncy “Designer,” it was a powerful burst of catharsis and exhaled breaths. 

Harding has developed a reputation for her striking performance style, sometimes gurning and contorting her features in confrontational ways. She was less trippy last night than some of her performances I’ve seen, but she still has a gift for upsetting audience expectations with an unexpected twist of her lips, roll of her eyes, or a kabuki-like set of gestures.  The show moved between quieter numbers and ecstatic jigs by her excellent band – there’s definitely a more pop sensibility in the songs of “Designer,” and a song like “The Barrel” is an anthem that still remains distinctly its own thing, with lyrics like “The wave of love is a transient hunt / Water’s the shell and we are the nut” rattling around your brain. 

IMG_6758I’ve been to shows at the Powerstation before for similarly stark, intimate shows and left annoyed by the singer being overwhelmed by the crash of beer bottles and the yammering of the audience. That wasn’t a problem tonight. On a cold August night, Harding felt like the hottest thing in town, something new and old at the same time blooming with an energy all its own. She closed with a magnificent, aching cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down The Line” and terrific new song, “Old Peel,” that left me with no doubt about her future. 

She wasn’t much for banter, but she gave us a glimpse of her self as she sighed with a tight smile at the encore, “What a life, eh?” Whatever strange roads Aldous Harding takes to in the future, I’ll be there. 

Film festivals are the bestivals

IMG_6510A good film festival is like a church for its acolytes – a place to find solace and enlightenment, to forget your troubles and to imagine exciting new possibilities in life. 

I’ve been going to the New Zealand International Film Festival every late July and August for more than a decade now, and every year, it’s a highlight of our rainy grey winters. I’m a mere amateur compared to some of the festivalgoers who manage 12, 15, 25 or 30 of the nearly 150 movies that unspool over two weeks or so. This year I’m managing eight, and it’s a spectrum of images and ideas, enough to make me close my eyes at night and dream of red curtains parting to see white screens.

On a Thursday I see documentaries about legendary film critic Pauline Kael and about the Satanic Temple, on a Friday I see a kiwi director’s gory delight, on a Saturday I see a documentary about a meth-addicted magician and on a Sunday I see a pulpy delight of a Korean gangster movie.

IMG_9530 KEY-2000-2000-1125-1125-crop-fillOn a Tuesday I attend a splendorous red-carpet premiere for a documentary about a Tongan family in New Zealand, which also featured brass bands, Tongan dancers, members of the Tongan royal family and grand and colourful frocks in a  dazzling, warm-hearted celebration of New Zealand’s rich Pacific culture. On a Thursday I see Aretha Franklin’s last bow and on a Friday I close it all up with a bizarre-sounding French movie about a man who falls in love with his new jacket. 

nosferatuNo wonder I can’t stop thinking about movies. It’s a kaleidoscope of cinema every year – in past years I’ve seen grand revivals of Sergio Leone movies, silent classics like “Nosferatu” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic, enigmatic Russian epics which demand to be seen on a gaping big screen.

And always something new or novel. Always something that just sounds like it might be interesting, whether it’s a documentary on tea in China or about the band Bikini Kill or a sprawling sci-fi epic or a thriller about zombies taking over a small New Zealand town.

Festivals like this remind me of why I’m so ambivalent about streaming. There’s great things about it, but I hate how it’s slowly eclipsing all other forms of cinema with what feels like an endless flood of cookie-cutter corporate “content.” Try finding more than a few token movies made before 1980 on Netflix. It’s much easier to sit and binge your brain on 12 episodes of some forgettable new show than it is to hunt down and figure out how to watch the greatest hits of a Billy Wilder or Robert Altman.

And while I’m down with the superheroes and the blockbusters there’s something special about gathering in the dark with a film festival crowd, whether it’s a bunch of twisted gorehounds cackling at gruesomely hilarious violence in one movie or an audience full of Tongans roaring at the quirks and jokes of their own closeknit culture.

Film festivals are the bestivals, every year a window into dozens of different worlds all flickering to life on the vast white screen.