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What Is Best in Life 2008 : Umbrella Academy, The Somnambulist, Wall*E
© Rick Klaw
January 09, 2009

Despite the economic woes weighing down the various world artistic and cultural institutions, several extraordinary books, movies, and even electronic devices found their way into the geek compound. Here's the Geek Curmudgeon's guide to the best of the best 2008 had to offer.

Three prose books -- one set in 2001 Kansas from a Kansan living in Texas, another in contemporary Durham by a Texas ex-pat residing in North Carolina, and a strange Victorian era tale written by a 21st century Brit -- begin my list.

Completed in mid-2001, Bradley Denton's sublime Laughin' Boy related the horrors and fall out from the largest terrorist action enacted on US soil. The events of September 11, 2001 made the material an anathema to major publishers. The title languished in unpublished-book limbo until 2005, when Subterranean Press selected for an extremely limited print run of 750 signed copies and 26 signed leatherbound editions. Earlier this summer, Wheatland Press finally released Denton's powerful, postmodern tale in a general trade edition.

With Laughin' Boy Denton achieves a truly rare literary feat: a near perfect satire that relies not on humor but rather a Marshall McLuhan view of reality. Like most of Denton's works, the excellent novel derives its strength from the absurd, presented in an intelligent and extremely well crafted manner.

Recounting the ravings of a madman, Jonathan Barnes's brilliant debut novel, The Somnambulist, chronicles the late Victorian-era adventures of the legendary magician-cum-detective Edward Moon and his mute hulking hairless sidekick, known only as The Somnambulist. The duo investigates bizarre murders, meets a cadre of eccentrics, and involves themselves in strange incidents that culminate in a plot to destroy and remake London.

After veering dangerously close to the absurd, the story concludes with a lyrically obtuse ending that creates confusion rather than clarity. Even with that flaw, the engaging ride of The Somnambulist offers enough thrills to distract from the ending. Or perhaps as Jonathan Barnes's narrator lies in the narrative, this reviewer misdirects as well? Read The Somnambulist and decide for yourself.

In his triumphant return to novel-length fiction, Lewis Shiner emerges from his decade-long literary cocoon to craft Black & White, a powerful exploration of institutional racism and family identity. Centering his tale around the disturbingly real history of the doomed Durham, NC African-American community Hayti, Shiner ushers his protagonist, comic book artist Michael Cooper, into a maelstrom of his father's past, full of terrible secrets, voodoo, and even murder.

The always-talented Shiner has produced some of his finest work to date here. Beyond a brief, discursive foray, he has created a near-perfect novel -- steeped in important political and societal issues, neatly wrapped in the trimmings of a mystery story. With Black & White, Lewis Shiner ascends to a literary realm previously reserved for the likes of Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem.

After several recent lackluster efforts, two movies revitalized the superhero movie genre. Throw in a thought-provoking, animated robot and you'll have my favorite geek movies of 2008.

Iron Man opens, literally, with a bang. While America is in the midst of a seemingly endless war with terrorism, Stark, magnificently envisioned by Robert Downey Jr., Stark creates a suit of armor that helps him to escape and stay alive. Combining an intelligent, well-conceived story matched with a nearly ideal cast and excellent special effects, director Jon Favreau and his team of four scriptwriters managed to elevate Iron Man into the rarefied strata of the other top-notch Marvel adaptations: Spider-Man and X-Men.

Set some 700 years in the future on an Earth cluttered with the refuse of a consumerist culture gone wild, Wall*E relates the story of the eponymous title's last surviving garbage robot, as he dutifully cleans the planet, awaiting the return of the long-fled human race. During his centuries-long Sisyphean task, he develops emotions and a personality, befriending a seemingly indestructible cockroach.

Wall*E collects artifacts of our dead culture, even becoming enamored with musical romantic comedies, the Rubik's Cube, and other oddities. But with self awareness comes loneliness and a desire to be with his own kind. His reality changes when a mysterious ship leaves a female robot to investigate the planet.

Borrowing concepts from eco-Armageddon cinematic tales of the 1970s -- complete with desolate landscapes, bleak situations, and hot topic politics, veteran Pixar director and writer Stanton (Finding Nemo, A Bug's Life, both Toy Storys, and Monsters, Inc.) crafts a very smart script that never condescends. Despite the lack of dialog during the first third of the film, Stanton creatively employs sounds and body movements to express Wall*E's emotions and intents. Successfully incorporating the backgrounds and settings into the narrative, Stanton makes them characters unto themselves.

Similar to last summer's excellent Ratatouille, Wall*E pushes the boundaries of what is often considered a child's medium. The most mature, philosophical Pixar production yet, the film ponders the nature of existence while questioning our own values, all wrapped within the most entertaining, breathtakingly beautiful movie of the summer. With Wall*E, Pixar has created yet another masterpiece.

Following the resurrection of the moribund Batman movie franchise with 2005's very successful Batman Begins, the creative team of director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale elevated the Caped Crusader to new cinematic heights. The uber-blockbuster Dark Knight wisely focused on the tragic story of Bruce Wayne's friend, Gotham City DA Harvey Dent, and his dissent into the dual madness of the villainous Two-Face. Intertwined within that fascinating main tale, Nolan introduces a memorable and disturbing incarnation of the nefarious Joker, a brilliantly demented Heath Ledger. Various intriguing subplots -- The Wayne-Rachel Dawes-Dent triangle, political machinations of Gotham City, the city's mob elements, the Batman-Gordon interactions -- further enhance and deepen an already intricate and extraordinary movie. Beautifully directed and masterfully acted Dark Knight re-invented the superhero movie genre.

Not since the advent of the DVD has something so quickly changed my TV viewing habits. As discussed in a recent blog post, a vast majority of my Netflix viewing comes through this little device.

A glimpse of TV's future, Roku's Netflix Player allows Netflix subscribers to view any of the services 12,000 instant watch selections via almost any television either directly or through an RF modulator. The small, innocuous-looking (roughly paperback book-size) device, takes less then ten minutes to set up. Clear and concise instructions assume little or no technical expertise. The videos can be accessed by a direct ethernet or wi-fi connection.

Depending on your internet access speed, the video will play at VHS (tested at 384/kbps) or DVD (8.0 Mbps) quality. The simple TV interface relies on computer access to Netflix for viewing choices. Why watch on your small computer screen when you can relax in the comfort of your living room while viewing it all on your TV?

The April advent of my new SF Site column Nexus Graphica (co-written with Mark London Williams) greatly increased my graphic novel reading throughout 2008. Recently, Mark and I chose our top ten of the year. My top three finish off my 2008 selections.

For The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, Gerard Way, the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, and Gabriel Ba created a surreal world of super powers, musical villains, and intelligent chimpanzees. Forty-seven children were spontaneously born to women who were never pregnant with them. Sir Reginald Hargreeve (a.k.a. The Monocle), a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and inventor, adopts seven of the children "to save the world." The children, collectively the Umbrella Academy, encounter bizarre villainy in the guise of the zombie-robot Gustave Eiffel, the chronal-irregularity repairing entities known as The Terminauts, and the musically-empowered White Violin.

Not since Grant Morrison's kinetic Doom Patrol of the 90s has a series successfully mixed a quality of insanity and social commentary with a group of uniquely odd characters. Each gorgeously crafted page contains artistic and intellectual delights galore.

In the 1920s and 1930s, artists such as Frans Masereel (The Idea) and Lynd Ward (Gods' Man used woodcuts to produce popular wordless novels which would go on to influence generations of illustrators. The Swiss artist Thomas Ott employs a similar style in The Number 73304-23-4153-6-96-8, his first novel-length work. Ott relates a powerful, Twilight Zone-styled tale of a series of numbers that grants desires to those who decipher the pattern. Following an execution, a prison guard finds a piece of paper with a sequence of numbers (the title's 73304-23-4153-6-96-8) left behind by the dead prisoner. The guard begins to see the numbers cropping up in his life (a clock, a phone number, cards, and even a dog's markings).

As he follows the seemingly random numbers, the guard's luck begins to change. Previously a poor, lonely man, he soon comes into money, romance, and happiness. Alas, all this fortune does not last, as the story veers off into surprisingly fantastical and creepy territory. From artistic, design, and narrative standpoints, Ott creates a masterpiece of contemporary graphic storytelling that knows no geographical or linguistic boundaries.

Celebrity philanthropic efforts often center around a few photo opportunities showcased to further a career. These helpful and usually well-meaning events usually shine a spotlight on the truly needy such as the numerous Africa plights, occupied Tibet, or the disaster relief du jour. Rather than host a dinner or celebrate her fame, actress Mia Kirshner (L Word) visited four ravaged areas, conducting interviews with the women and children most affected. I Live Here relates her encounters in Ingushetia, Burma, Ciudad Juarez, and Malawi within a graphically-intense series of four oversized, thin paperbacks, wrapped inside a hardcover case. Each book also contains a graphic novella, and two of the volumes feature related short stories.

The magnificent design by Adbusters-alumni Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons weaves all the disparate elements into one of the finest looking publications ever produced. The package in support of project forms an amazing work of art.

Mia Kirshner shines an unwavering, informative light on important and troubling non-U.S.centric issues in a truthful and often disturbing manner. She elevates celebrity philanthropic efforts to an extraordinary new level of sophistication in both content and style. An exceptional book of rare quality, I Live Here exceeds all expectations.

Don't drown in a lake of blood! Witness the rest of RevolutionSF's What Is Best In Life for 2008.

Rick Klaw reveals the frequent arrivals at the Geek Compound in The Geek Curmudgeon.

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