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5 Memorable Moments in Comic Book Censorship

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Here's what happens when comic book characters run afoul of the comic book code (or anger a hostile government).

1. The Comics Code and the C-word

For decades, the comic book industry was ruled by the toughest censorship body in America: the Comics Code Authority. The Code was written in 1954 as an answer to a nationwide anti-comics movement. This was instigated by angry parents during a boom in graphic horror comics, and fueled by psychologist Dr Frederic Wertham's 1953 book Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed comics for "different kinds of maladjustment" in young minds. Soon, comics had such a bad reputation that distributors even refused to open their batches of comics. By the mid-1950s, almost 75% of the U.S. comic book industry had been forced out of business.


The Comics Code was the only way out "“ with its long and stringent set of guidelines, prohibiting everything from "excessive levels of violence" to "self-destructive use of tobacco." The Code thought of everything!

But Wertham hadn't just complained about horror comics. In fact, much of his book raged against the popular true-crime comics of the time, with titles like Crime Does Not Pay, Crime Must Pay the Penalty, Crime and Punishment and Crimes by Women. The word "crime" seemed to bother Wertham, and he possibly would have wanted it removed. Instead, the Code decreed that the word "crime" could stay in the title, but rather than taking pride of place, it could be no bigger than the other words. Hence, you could buy the latest edition of Crime DOES NOT PAY. That's telling 'em!

2. The Sins of a Comic Book Artist

While American comics were winning the wrath of parents, comics on the other side of the Pacific were also being targeted for all kinds of moral depravity. It didn't help that one of Australia's top artists was Len Lawson. Lawson's most famous character was the Lone Avenger, a masked vigilante of the 1870s American West. (Yes, even Aussies did westerns.) While the Lone Avenger was a good guy, his creator was slightly more disturbed. In 1954, Lawson was imprisoned for 14 years for rape. One newspaper, "exposing" this rapist as a comic book artist, described Lawson as "the artist of violent comics, which frequently depicted bosomy heroines." Almost immediately, The Lone Avenger was banned in Queensland, followed by several other comics. Afraid that other states would follow suit, distributors Gordon & Gotch imposed their own censorship.

Soon after his release in 1961, Lawson made headlines for killing two teenage girls, one of them accidentally, in a struggle at a girls' school chapel. Anti-comics crusaders had a field day. Fortunately, most comic book artists have not killed anyone, though American artist Bob Wood was sent to prison for three years after killing a woman in 1958. Wood's most famous comic? Crime Does Not Pay.

3. The Devil Made Them Do It

code.jpgIn the sixties, the Comics Code stamp of approval was essential for any comic book that wanted to get on the newsstands. In 1961, however, an edition of Marvel Comics' Strange Tales nearly broke one of the rules. Artist Steve Ditko's story told of a vengeful socialite who meets a guy dressed as the Devil at a costume party, and falls for him. But at midnight, when it's time to unmask"¦ you can probably guess the rest. "Mask?" says the Devil. "What mask, my love?"

However, the editors were afraid of what the Code might think, so they removed the final panel (which presumably suggested a terrible fate for the socialite) and hurriedly replaced it with two small panels, drawn by another artist, in which she faints, recovers and resolves to change her malicious ways, while the "Devil" (who is obviously somewhere else) pulls of his mask, and is revealed to be one of her would-be victims in disguise. Yes, they included all of that. When you're censoring a story, you can squeeze a lot into two small panels.

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4. The Code Freaks Out

SpiderMan96.jpgIn the comics, Spider-Man has long been a hero who gets in trouble with the authorities, no matter how much he tries to do the right thing. He even faced that problem in the real world, when he ran afoul of the Comics Code. In 1971 the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached his publisher, Marvel Comics, to alert their readers to the dangers of drugs. Marvel was happy to oblige, so in one story, a "freaked out cat" was so stoned that he threw himself off a building, only to be saved by the web-swinging hero. A few issues later, one of Spidey's friends was revealed to be an addict. While both stories were decidedly anti-drug, they weren't approved by the Comics Code. However, they were published anyway, drawing media coverage and public support. Eventually, the Code was modified, allowing drug usage to be shown within reason. Before long, even a superhero (Green Arrow's sidekick, the appropriately-named Speedy) was revealed as a drug addict. The Code let that one through.

5. The Final Censorship

che.gifNo comic book writer can claim to have suffered for their art as much as Hector Oesterheld. Long regarded as Argentina's greatest comic book writer and publisher, he became very political in the sixties, most notably with Vida del Ché (1968), a comic book biography of revolutionary Ché Guevera, drawn by Alberto and Enrique Breccia. After Argentina's military coup of 1976, Oesterheld and his family joined the banned anti-government group, the Montoneros. Oesterheld also started a new story in his popular time-travel epic El Eternauta, showing a future Argentina ruled by a brutal dictator.

At the end of 1976, Oesterheld and his four daughters were arrested by the government and never seen again. Italian journalist Alberto Ongaro, investigating his fate three years later, was allegedly told by a government official: "We did away with him because he wrote the most beautiful story of Ché Guevara ever done." Unable to censor his comic book politics, the regime dealt with the man himself.

Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia. See what else he's written at markjuddery.com.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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