In this post on TWLBs ‘post apocalypse’ thread, we look at the role children have played in the genre. This will be by no means exhaustive – rather, I see it as a starting point for discussion (so please feel free, as ever, to add your comments). I am purely writing about the fiction that I feel has significantly impressed / involved / moved me.
Though children in post apocalyptic fiction are more prevalent in print (both comic and literature), there are also some significant movie appearances. For me, the definitive child character in the genre still has to be the Feral Kid (played superbly by Emil Minty) in the classic Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior);
Minty produced an amazing performance, alternating between animal aggression to touching loyalty while being able to convey a realistic portrayal of a child left to fend for himself. A truly feral performance, and a truly memorable one as well. It is surprising to learn he turned his back on acting, though judging by his wiki entry, he certainly seems to be doing well, which is heartening to hear. The Feral Kid was an important character in Mad Max 2, reconnecting Max Rockatansky to his paternal instincts, bringing humanity back to a man whose experiences had left him empty and barely registering emotion.
In the subsequent ‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome‘, Max encounters a group of more resourceful and organised children, who initially save him from death in the hostile conditions of this ravaged world. Although their appearance in ‘Beyond Thunderdome’ is significant, their impact is not a great as that of the Feral Kid in the previous movie. Reminiscent of a group of Peter Pan’s ‘lost boys‘, they lack the intense presence that Minty brought to the screen in his portrayal of a truly ‘lost boy’, abandoned to the fates, on the outskirts of a commune, stuck in a hole in the ground in no mans land, prey to the savagery of Lord Humongous and his army of brigands and killers.
Exterminators of the Year 3000, a typical Italian exploitation flick from 1983 had a child as one of the main cast of characters, but rather than make him a product of the wastelands, this youngster (‘Tommy’) is a product of the FUTURE (as the title suggests, this is (improbably) the year 3000) because he has a robotic / bionic arm, but more than that, his importance to the plot is that he has a map to the devastated planets most precious commodity – clean water.
He knows the location of a water purification plant. The film, if you like this sort of thing, is typical Italian exploitation fare from the early ’80’s. It has a certain charm, but people’s mileage really varies on this sort of stuff. In terms of definitive appearances of children in post apocalyptic fiction, this is way down the line.
The bastard offspring of William Goldings ‘Lord of the Flies‘, ‘Kids Rule O.K’ was a seminal, snarling product of the 70’s, incubated in the filth and fury of the anarchic ‘Action’ comic, the subversive punk sibling of the standard UK Boys comic tradition of the time.
The story was set in a dystopian future England (nominally 1986, though its chaotic environment was most definitely a product of the turbulence in British life in the mid seventies with rising inflation, widespread industrial action and the 3 day week being major stress factors). The opening of the story set out the scenario – due to mans exploitation of the earths natural resources, a change in human metabolism caused the body to dry out and disintegrate rapidly following a massive heart attack;
The majority of adults (apart from certain indigenous people and a scattering of other survivors) died rapidly. Within days the majority of humans were under the age of 20. In this story, the previous structures and mechanisms of power and authority vanished with the adults, and, as the ‘kids’ began to realise their domination, anarchy thrived. Any adults that were found would be dispatched brutally….
Although there was a government, its grip was tenuous, but in an attempt to try and prevent a total breakdown of society, all firearms were held in secure, secret compounds. Regardless of these measures, and as the shocking panel above bluntly suggests, violence and death were rife.
‘Kids Rule O.K.’ gained a notoriety that symbolised the ‘trouble’ with ‘Action’ comic. As the Sevenpenny Nightmare explains;
“The readers loved it, but unfortunately, Kids was instrumental in the decision to withdraw Action. It drew fierce criticism from all quarters. Even those working on the comic balked at its excesses. With the alarm bells ringing, Action was already calming its more lively stories, and Kids was suffering edits to tone down the violence long before the ban came into effect. Pages were being cut, scenes of violence were being removed. The comic was trying to clean up its act. Jack Adrian was already struggling to find a motive or direction for the tale and so he decided to draw a swift end to it. In addition, there was probably influence from above to conclude to the story. These decisions were made in a time before anyone knew that Action was definitely being withdrawn. Adrian’s solution to his (and the comics) problem was to have law and order restored, satisfying the outraged parents and media groups in a gesture of peace. It was awful, truly the worst thing never to be printed in Action.
This ending highlighted the real problem with Kids Rule O.K., and it wasn’t just the graphic violence. The story was full of action, but never went anywhere. Fight followed fight but no obvious resolution ever presented itself. Realistically the story should have continued until all the participants had wiped each other out or grown old enough to die of the disease. The move to clean up Action and spare it from the axe effectively removed Kids’ reasons for existing. It had nowhere to go and nothing to do. That the story never came back when the ban was lifted shows that its core content was indeed perceived to be the violence. Luckily, the ban removed all need for that awful ending, but how would Kids have developed without the heavy editorial hand? We can only imagine.”
You can read ‘Kids Rule OK’ in its entirety at the wonderful Sevenpenny Nightmare site. Check it out for yourself here. I have name checked that site a few times, but trust me when I say that it is the definitive online resource for Action comic, and if you have any interest in British comics, censorship or man eating Sharks, then I strongly urge you to explore its many treasures and insights.
A successor, of sorts, to ‘Kids’ was the thrilling ‘Survival’, which appeared in the 80s iteration of The Eagle comic in the UK. First appearing in 1987, Survival was written by D. Horton, (a pseudonym for Barrie Tomlinson), and illustrated by Jose Oritz (who also contributed the brilliant House of Daemon and The Tower King to the Eagle).
Survival focused on Mark Davies, a child survivor of a mystery virus that had decimated most of the Earths human population. The similarity with ‘Kids’ is that while the virus killed off the majority of all adults, the children (albeit with a rare blood group) did survive. Whereas ‘Kids Rule OK’ detailed a world where the ‘Kids’ roamed in gangs, fought each other, and their numbers were no match for any surviving adults, in ‘Survival’ there was much less noise and fury. There were however, ‘monsters’, adults transformed by the virus into dangerous, feral creatures, and there was also wild animals to contend with – like escapee zoo animals;
I also felt that there was a note of sadness to the whole affair, something that ‘Kids’ lacked, a deeply moral core to the proceedings, tackling ‘big’ issues like loss, death and responsibility, coupled with an engaging storyline. ‘Survival’ like all strips that featured in British compendium comics, came in weekly instalments of 3 to 4 pages. Here are the opening 4 pages from its debut in The Eagle;
Thanks to the following sites for their invaluable ‘Survival’ help and resources;
and here you have the first 11 episodes (not in English Language though) of ‘Survival’ – so you get good stuff like this;
find the rest of it here;
Charlie Higsons ‘The Enemy‘ (currently available in a hardcover edition where the edges of the pages are sprayed a delicious & macabre black) is continuing in the fine tradition of the likes of ‘Kids Rule O.K.’ & ‘Survivor’, with a contemporary twist – in this dystopian future, all children under 14 are alive, but everyone over 14 who is not dead is a zombie. The tag-line spells it out with relish;
“They’ll chase you.
They’ll rip you open.
They’ll feed on you.”
The synopsis continues;
“When the sickness came, every parent, policeman, politician – every adult – fell ill. The lucky ones died. The others are crazed, confused and hungry. Only children under fourteen remain, and they’re fighting to survive. Now there are rumours of a safe place to hide. And so a gang of children begin their quest across London, where all through the city – down alleyways, in deserted houses, underground – the grown-ups lie in wait.
But can they make it there – alive?”
These zombies are not your shambling Romero revenants, rather they are more like the rebooted Dawn Of The Dead model – all furious sprint running and a fierce determination to satisfy their one need – their need to feast on the living. Higson, already an accomplished child’s storyteller with his ‘Young Bond’ series, effortlessly brings the burgeoning Zombie genre to ‘young adult’ fiction. There is a very real powerful sense of the danger these youngsters find themselves in, physically inferior to those who once protected and nurtured them.
Finally, three of the most moving portrayals of children in a post apocalyptic environment, one being a powerful anime set amidst the destruction of Japan at the end of World War II, and the other being a heartbreaking piece of literature by a modern-day master. The final one is a new comic book on the excellent DC Vertigo imprint.
Grave of the Fireflies is a 1988 anime (the animation produced by Studio Ghibli)from the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, a survivor of the devastation wreaked upon Japan in the final days of the war.
The wikipedia entry premise for the anime is described thus;
“Taking place toward the end of World War II in Japan, Grave of the Fireflies is the tale of the relationship between two orphaned children, pre-teen Seita (清太) and his young sister Setsuko (節子). The children lose their mother in the firebombing of Kobe, and their father in service to the Imperial Japanese Navy, and as a result are forced to try to survive amidst widespread famine and the callous indifference of their countrymen, some of whom are their own extended family members.”
This story is bitterly sad, more so than any other work described here, and leaves an indelible impression on you. The first 10 minutes or so of the film is here, from an upload on youtube;
The Road is a 2006 novel written by the American novelist Cormac McCarthy (also known for his ‘No Country For Old Men’ and his brutal ‘Wild West’ odyssey ‘Blood Meridian’. This story has a simple, affecting tale to tell, concerning itself with The Father and The Son, striving to survive in a world choked by the effects of some unspecified cataclysm. In this terrible world, roving gangs of cannibals hunt, and the last remnants of the life before the ‘event’ are giving themselves up – a final can of cola, a last decent meal – as the two of them head towards the coast, where the Father believes they will find an unspecified salvation from the harsh existence they experienced in their previous location. To add to the drama, the Father realises he is dying (as he coughs blood every morning, its quantity increasing as time passes) – and The Son, probably around 10 years of age, would not survive without his protection and guardianship.
Throughout the book you sense the fear of the Father for his Son, the unconditional love for each other, the tenderness that manages to break through the horror and mundanity of their rotten existence. Their is a nagging fear of loss throughout, as well as the realisation of what has been lost (the world as it was before that can never return). As a Father myself, there is so much rings true in McCarthys words about the love for your child.
“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”
— taken from page 5 of the book ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy (ISBN: 0330447548)
It is in lines like that that McCarthy can just cut you up. He distills the essence of humanity, of the power of love, in a way that is not trite or mere platitude. He makes the words sing like a hosanna.
It is the power of McCarthys words of love and devotion, and in the description of a Human race that has rendered itself extinct and the planet virtually redundant, and the struggle of a Father to protect his Son, that makes this harrowing journey a compelling and vital read.
One last recommendation. I have written a lot about ‘Sweet Tooth’ on TWLB, so I will direct you to the links presently. More like a fairy tale than a standard post apocalyptic tale, Jeff Lemire tells a story of an animal / human hybrid called Gus (the only noticeable animal characteristics Gus has are a pair of Antlers) who leaves the safety of ‘The Forrest’ after the death of his father, and is only saved from Hunters by a mysterious stranger called Jepperd.
It is touching, occasionally funny, gripping and absolutley absorbing. It may be the best new comic out in 2009. I recommend it to you unreservedly. You can read more about Jeff Lemires ‘Sweet Tooth’ here with a review of issue 2 here and a review of issue 3 here