This was my great-grandfather, who I share a name with, and he died 101 years ago at the age of 38. He was one of an estimated 50 million people who died then in the great “Spanish flu” pandemic.
I think about my great-grandfather, gone more than 50 years before I was born, a lot these strange days. He and his family had emigrated from what used to be Austria-Hungary (now somewhere in Slovakia). I’ve got just two pictures of him, one from his wedding day in 1901, another taken in 1911 of him with his young family. My grandfather, yet another Nicholas Dirga, just a baby, is in that image.
You stare at a photo long enough you can project a lot of things. My great-grandfather looks a fair bit like a sterner version of my own father, with the distinctive “Dirga chin” (a cavernous dimple much reduced by my generation) and an impressively cool moustache. I don’t know a lot about him, but we shared a name and a pile of genes. And he died way too young of a disease that swept the world.
So, my whole country entered a month-long lockdown last night, where for four weeks, almost everyone in the country of more than 4 million people has to shelter in place. I’m counting my blessings. I already work from home, my family is safe, and I’m surrounded by books to read.
I have to admit I’ve been thinking a lot about the relative with my name who died in a similar pandemic a century ago. With my recent health troubles, I’m somewhat at a higher risk category than some, so it’s even more important that I do what our Prime Minister has said – “Stay home, be kind.”
A lot of families are going to have stories that end cruelly, sooner than they should, like the Nicholas Dirga who died 101 years ago did. His wife lived to be 96 – she died the year after I was born!
There’s a lot of flailing and some truly appalling behaviour by some governments going on, but there’s also moments of grace and at the moment, I’m very, very happy to be in New Zealand, even if much of my family is still on the other side of this troubled world.
It’s a world Nicholas Dirga wouldn’t recognise, although he might recognise the story of a disease spreading, inexorably, around the world. And I figure by staying shut in for the next four weeks or so, I’m at least giving myself a fighting chance of outlasting this one.
It’s weird times. My country has closed its borders to the world, which sounds like the opening sentence to a hundred dystopian fiction novels and movies. It doesn’t quite feel real.
New Zealand has been luckier, so far, than many other nations during this global pandemic. But we’re all still connected, and all still freaked out a bit. We’ve seen the end of the world coming many times in stories, and maybe that’s why this particular crisis seems so terrifying and uncertain. We’ve imagined how it could go for years.
In the spirit of howling defiantly into the abyss, here’s my top 10 apocalypses of all time – an apocalypse defined as one where most of the population bites the dust. We’re not there in real life, yet, cross fingers, and hopefully we never will be.
10. Atomic Knights, DC Comics
I always dug this old 1960s sci-fi serial comic from the pages of Strange Adventures, which images a post-World War III world (the war of 1986!) where a group of plucky survivors don old medieval suits of armour that turn out to be ray-gun proof and fight evil warlords and also there are giant mutant Dalmatians and … OK, it’s pretty silly, but good fun, and this may be the most cheery, clean-cut apocalypse of all time, in the G-rated way of Silver Age comics. Plausibility factor – Could this actually happen? Medium. While we may get all wiped out in a nuclear war, it probably wouldn’t be quite as tidy as this comic imagines. Trigger warning – Would I want to revisit this if self-isolating during the current unpleasantness? I’m always up for goofy sci-fi comics.
9. The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver
Of everything on this list, this is probably the most “realistic” work, a fine epic novel from 2016 starting with the economic collapse of America in 2029 and following what happens to one family as everything goes to shit. Plausibility factor – High. This is one of those books that may seem eerily prescient. Trigger warning – High. The Mandibles is great, but all too plausible.
8. Dawn Of The Dead (1979 and 2004 versions)
Zombies run amok and the only sanctuary is a shopping mall. While George Romero’s original is a stone-cold classic of the zombie genre, Zack Snyder’s millennial remake is surprisingly good too, amping up the action and yet still keeping the essential unease of the premise. Plausibility factor – Low. We’re still not at zombie stage of this outbreak. Trigger warning – Medium. Both Dawns offer up a lot of scary scenarios for society breaking down.
7. Battlestar Galactica
I grew up not knowing this was regarded as a Star Wars ripoff, but at its core, both the underrated cheese of the original and the stoic doomsday of the reboot are about humanity carrying on after it’s been reduced to mere shreds of itself. Plus, Cylons! Plausibility factor – Low. Remember when we all worried about the robots killing us? Trigger warning – Medium. The reboot gets pretty damn dark sometimes, but the original is swashbucklingly easygoing for the most part.
6. Marvel Zombies
A series of Marvel comics starting in 2005 imagined what might happen if superheroes turned into brainless zombies and ate the world. Often hilarious, very gory and, until the premise started getting wrung out by endless sequels, one of the more creative “what ifs” of the overused superhero dystopia genre. Plausibility factor – Low. First, we’d have to have superheroes, then zombies. Trigger warning – Low. A good bloody tonic for the staying-at-home blues.
5. 1984 by George Orwell
One of my all-time favourite novels, barely fitting into the “apocalypse” scenario, but a lot of the action in Orwell’s imagined “Big Brother” world is predicated upon endless wars with unrevealed death tolls and a world laid low by chaos. Its message of media control and manipulation only seems more urgent every day. Plausibility factor – High! Trigger warning – Medium to high. While pessimistic at its core, to me 1984 is still a story about the power of hope.
4. “The Deathbird” by Harlan Ellison
This 1974 short story from Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories collection has always kind of got me right in the feels. It’s kind of a rewritten take on the Bible, where Satan is actually the good guy, and it’s about finding the strength to end everything. It’s also very emotionally vulnerable, not always a quality associated with the bigger-than-life Ellison, and beautiful in its shattered way. It’s a quiet storm about the very end of all things. Plausibility factor – Low. Of all the things I have to worry about, the Deathbird is low on the list. Trigger warning – Medium to high, depending on how you feel about sad stories about dying pets.
3. The Stand by Stephen King
The plague novel to end all plague novels, and one of King’s finest epics. A disease sweeps across the world, leaving only a handful of people to face a second kind of Armageddon against a very real devil. As the critics say, “impossible to put down,” even if it’s approximately 3000 pages long. Plausibility factor – Medium. We’re not likely to see Randall Flagg wandering Las Vegas, but as always with King, he’s got a lot of tiny details that ground his fanciful fiction. Trigger warning – Medium. The famous scenes of characters trying to make their way out of a body-filled Manhattan might be a bit harrowing now.
2. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
They’ve tried to make this into a movie several times, but nothing touches Matheson’s original novel, about the last human on earth in a world of vampires. Claustrophobic, creepy and stark, it’s a gem in apocalypse literature. Plausibility factor – Medium. Matheson ably captures the siege mentality of self-isolation, but so far vampires aren’t really a threat. Trigger warning – Medium. Matheson eerily captures the feeling of being the last man on earth.
1. Planet of the Apes/Beneath The Planet of the Apes
Damn dirty apes, Charlton Heston in a loincloth, Roddy McDowell and quite possibly the bleakest single ending to a big-budget franchise in history (the nuclear annihilation of Beneath) – what’s not to love? Sure, most people are dead, enslaved or hideous mutants living underground, but still, for all my end-of-the-world needs, I’ll always go ape first. Plausibility factor – Low. Even when the great more recent Apes reboot tried to make it more plausible, we’re still a while from Caesar swinging in the trees. Trigger warning – Low, unless you’ve recently visited the Statue of Liberty.
Hi all, just a quick linkpost today – let me turn your attention to a review/essay sort of thing I wrote over at Radio New Zealand during this crazy week: Finding a community in isolation.
As I wrote last post, Amanda Palmer has been touring New Zealand, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic played havoc with the end of her tour. She wrapped it up in style, though, with a livestream “ninja concert” Monday in Wellington featuring special guest star Neil Gaiman, puppets and more. I wrote about watching it and how we can all maybe find new kinds of communities until this weirdness passes. Amanda herself had a very kind word or two to say about it on her various platforms as she and Neil prepare to bunk down in NZ for a while.
Go read it. And I’ll just note one last thing, it’s pretty darned cool to have one of my literary idols Neil Gaiman retweet a tweet from his wife praising an article that I wrote. If it’s all gonna crash down soon, it’s not a bad way to go out.
(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. ChristopherLloyd 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.
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:
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.
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.”