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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
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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