October 05, 2017
(++++) AS THE APOCALYPSE TURNS
The Last Kids on Earth No. 2: The Last Kids on Earth and the Zombie Parade. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.
The Last Kids on Earth No. 3: The Last Kids on Earth and the Nightmare King. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.
“Photo time! Everyone say monster apocalypse!” And there, in one short burst of words, you have an encapsulation of the attitude of the last kids on Earth in Max Brallier’s The Last Kids on Earth series. Brallier’s sequence is all fun and not to be studied too closely, or for that matter studied at all. It is one of those end-of-the-world stories, one among many zombie-and-monster novel sequences. But unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, this series refuses to take itself too seriously, and that is all to the good. The underlying concept here is that the central character, 13-year-old Jack Sullivan, has survived the never-fully-explained Monster Apocalypse intact and has kept himself going by thinking of the end times in which he is now living as a video game. The apocalypse happened 42 days before the start of the first book and is now vanishing into the past as the second and third heavily illustrated novels progress, with Jack continuing to cope by setting himself goals, attaining them, and giving himself points. Jack is not alone – all preteen-heroics novels have a group of protagonists, not just one, and the group must be well-balanced ethnically and in gender to accommodate political correctness and the expectations of publishers. So here we have Jack’s best friend, Quint, an African-American genius and science nerd who comes up with all sorts of neat anti-monster potions and plans; the former middle-school bully, Dirk, who is dull-witted and super-strong and looks like a bulked-up adult, but who has had a change of heart about Jack and Quint after the whole apocalypse thing; an attractive Latina, June Del Toro, who is decidedly not the damsel-in-distress type; and, as a team mascot, a monstrous dog (for a time considered the only non-dangerous monster) that Jack names (what else?) Rover. Thanks to a plethora of Douglas Holgate illustrations, which amplify what cleverness there is in Brallier’s writing and introduce a lot more enjoyment to the text, the series percolates along entertainingly and even merrily in its second and third entries.
The team having been assembled and the end-of-world (or at least end-of-life-as-we-know-it) premise having been established in the scene-setting first book, the second, The Last Kids on Earth and the Zombie Parade, presents a mystery in the form of “The Shrieking," described by Jack as “a penetrating noise, filling my head like hornets, buzzing around in my brain.” The noise may be unpleasant, but it appears to be luring brain-eating zombies away from the area where the kids are. And this would be a good thing except for the fact that this is, you know, after the apocalypse, so pretty much anything going on is likely to be bad even if it initially seems good. And that turns out to be the case. Early in this book, the heroic young people pick up some apparent allies in the form of monstrous-looking but on-their-side beings named Thrull and Bardle, who especially admire Jack because Jack, in the first book, destroyed a monster called Blarg, known to these newcomers as the Œŕŗūæŀ, a “crazy creepy and crazy evil” creature apparently wholly oblivious to pronunciation and invulnerable to diacritical remarks but not to a sharp stick, which is what Jack used to dispatch it. But things are seldom what they seem in this world, and it soon turns out that a particular book – a kind of monstrous enchanted bestiary – is actually a key that will allow the ultra-evil Ŗeżżőcħ the Ancient (also the ultimate typeface-challenging monster) to destroy whatever remains of the world. Eventually one of the friends, Quint, gets carried off to who-knows-where, while the other three are locked in a cage awaiting the coming of Ŗeżżőcħ, and Jack narrates, “I’ve failed. …I failed. I failed.” That is as much introspection as the book includes, except for this a bit later: “My understanding of whom to trust and whom not to trust these days has gone way off course. I’ve learned that I am, apparently, a terrible judge of character in monsters.” Of course, Jack and his friends conquer, or seem to conquer, the incipient ultra-bad guy, but then there is a twist requiring yet more conquering, and this time Jack has to agree to step back from his favored I-can-do-anything pose and let Quint, of all people, act heroic: “Friends are important. Family is important. Maybe the most important thing. But even a post-apocalyptic action hero can’t keep them safe all the time.” Eventually one final heroic act by Jack, coupled with suitable heroics from his friends, leads to a roaring climax at, um, Joe’s Pizza – this is the sort of juxtaposition of explosiveness (lots of it) with silliness (lots of that, too) that makes The Last Kids on Earth fun.
The fun continues in much the same vein in the third book, except that in The Last Kids on Earth and the Nightmare King Jack faces something even more monstrous than monsters: his own worry that if there were other kids still alive on Earth (and it seems there may be), then his friends will abandon him and he’ll be stuck on his own again. It was established in the first book that Jack is an orphan who has lived in a series of foster homes, and that explains why, from the beginning, he has been clinging tightly to his living space in a treehouse he built and equipped (rather miraculously) with all sorts of offensive and defensive weaponry. Thus, once Jack has accepted some friends and been accepted by them, the possibility of losing them – however far-fetched it will seem to readers – is supposed to motivate a lot of his behavior in the third series entry. This is actually a pretty weak premise, but it is coupled with enough straightforward video-game-style action so it does not have to be particularly strong. For example, the Winged Wretch monsters that made their appearance in the first book turn out to have a kind of uber-monster here, and Jack’s somewhat mysterious initial encounter with it happens early in the book and creates a plot point that counterbalances the apparent radio transmission of other human beings – a transmission just clear enough to be heard without providing any certainty or identifying information. The problem is that Jack goes off the deep end entirely too easily about the whole radio thing, deciding, “I need to show my friends that life here is so exceptionally, undeniably, crowd-pleasingly perfect that they’ll never want to leave! If I can show my friends endless fun, maybe they’ll just totally forget about the radio.” That notion takes this often-ridiculous series to a new height of silliness. And Jack’s worries and fears continue to mount until he almost smashes the radio that he thinks is spoiling everything – except, of course, that he doesn’t – and then he manages to come face to face (or face to the King Wretch’s belly, which functions at the time as a sort of video receiver) with Ŗeżżőcħ the Ancient from the second book. And this monstrous and unbelievably evil and ancient destroyer of multiple worlds decides to, umm, sweet-talk Jack to try to get him on Ŗeżżőcħ’s side. Okay, this doesn’t make a lick of sense, but then sense and sensibility are not the strong points of The Last Kids on Earth. Of course heroic Jack refuses this devil’s bargain, and of course Ŗeżżőcħ promptly decides to destroy the town and everyone in it, saving Jack for last, and of course that produces this sort of dialogue: “C’mon, gang. We’ve got friends to save, evil to defeat, and butt-whoopin’ to do.” And Jack and his friends do just that – and then, the saving and defeating and butt-whoopin’ finished, all that is left is the setup for the next book, which comes at the very end when the formerly crackly and static-y radio provides a perfectly clear and understandable piece of actionable information regarding the survival of a whole bunch of other humans. Piling obviousness on obviousness, this tells readers exactly where Jack and his friends, now knowing they are not the last kids on Earth, will be heading in the next book. Readers who take absolutely none of this the slightest bit seriously will have the same sort of roller-coaster ride that Jack and his friends have during The Last Kids on Earth and the Nightmare King, except for the absence in the real world of the Scrapken, ruler of the gigantic junkyard-cum-amusement-park where the book’s climax takes place. Stay tuned.