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Fantagraphics

Wednesday is New Comics Day

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Fantagraphics

Every Wednesday, I highlight the five most exciting comic releases of the week. The list may include comic books, graphic novels, digital comics and webcomics. I'll even highlight some Kickstarter comics projects on occasion. There's more variety and availability in comics than there has ever been, and I hope to point out just some of the cool stuff that's out there. If there's a release you're excited about, let's talk about it in the comments.

1. Barnaby Volume One


By Crockett Johnson; Edited by Eric Reynolds & Philip Nel
Fantagraphics

One of the great, hard-to-find, classic comic strips from the mid-20th century is finally getting a modern reprinting with the multi-volume hardcover treatment from publisher FantagraphicsBarnaby was a newspaper strip that ran from 1942 to 1952 and featured a 5-year-old boy who wished for a fairy godmother and instead got a cigar-chomping fairy godfather named O'Malley. It mixed fantasy, satire and political commentary and its humor was often very subtle. So subtle that its popularity was limited compared to most strips of the day. Editors Eric Reynolds and Philip Nel have taken great pains to annotate many of the topical references that were made to help new readers appreciate what Barnaby's small but devoted readership enjoyed at the time.

Creator Crockett Johnson is now perhaps best remembered more for his beloved children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon, but his work on Barnaby inspired cartoonists from Charles Schulz to Dan Clowes, who has art-directed this collection. This is the first of five volumes that will collect every single strip that Johnson created. Previous reprints are so rare now that they have become unaffordable to all but the most avid collectors, but Fantagraphics hopes to make Barnaby more accessible to all fans of the comic strip format.

An interesting thing to note about Barnaby is that the typeset—rather than hand drawn—lettering Crockett used made it stand out from other newspaper strips at the time. In this age of digitally lettered webcomics, maybe it will no longer seem so out of place.

2. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas


Written by Jim Ottaviani; art by Maris Wicks
First Second

Jim Ottaviani, a former nuclear engineer and reference librarian, has made a career for himself writing biographical comics about real-life scientists like Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman. In his latest, Primates, he collaborates with cartoonist Maris Wicks to tell the story of three famous researchers—Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas—exploring their lives and the important, breakthrough work they achieved studying primates in the wild.

Maris Wicks is an illustrator with what you might call a "cute" style that makes her work accessible and enjoyable to all ages, but especially to younger readers. An underappreciated strength of comics is the way they can be used to teach while also being entertaining. Ottaviani and Wicks aim to do just that here, teaching young readers about three of the most important women scientists of the 20th century while letting them vicariously enjoy primate-watching through the eyes of those scientists.    

3. Brother Lono #1

Written by Brian Azzarello; Art by Eduardo Risso; cover by Dave Johnson.
DC Vertigo

100 Bullets was a series that ran for, yes, 100 issues in the early 2000s. It was part of a wave of books published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint that helped rejuvenate that brand from being the home of strictly horror titles like Sandman and Hellblazer to being a home for genres of all sorts. 100 Bullets itself was kind of a mix of tough guy crime fiction and complicated conspiracy thriller. The book's style hinged on the individual style of its creators: Brian Azzarello's metaphor-rich, sing-songy dialogue and Eduardo Risso's chiaroscuro-heavy, Frank Miller-influenced cartooning. Not to mention the now iconic covers designed by the great Dave Johnson.

Although a lot of fans of the series felt it ran out of steam toward the end, many of them will no doubt be excited to see Azarello and Risso (and Johnson) return to this world and, in particular, one of the most popular characters from the series whom until now we didn't really know had survived the events of the finale.

Lono was the violent, sadistic and unbelievably tough member of the group of killers known as The Minutemen. After the final events of 100 Bullets, we catch up with Lono—now Brother Lono, apparently—down in Mexico doing the work of God. Until things more than likely go to hell.

4. Crater XV & Heck


By Zander and Kevin Cannon
Top Shelf

Crater XV and Heck are actually two separate books - the first, written and drawn by Zander Cannon; the second by Kevin Cannon (apparently no relation) - that originated from a comic anthology called Double Barrel that they released digitally through Comixology. Double Barrel received a lot of praise for being affordably priced at 99¢ while also being packed with lots of quality content. The Cannons have now separated their contributions into two separate hardcover volumes for bookstore release.

Crater XV is a sequel to Kevin Cannon's Eisner-nominated book Far Arden, a swashbuckling arctic adventure full of equal parts action and humor. It's got pirates, astronauts and even killer walruses.

Meanwhile, Heck is more of a morality tale but also quite a bit of fun as it follows Hector "Heck" Hammarskjöld in his new business venture of traveling into the underworld to settle inheritance disputes. Joined by his pint-size, mummy-like companion, Elliot, things get personal when Heck takes on a case for an old flame.

5. The Guns of Shadow Valley


Written by Dave Wachter and James Andrew Clark; Art by Dave Wachter

The supernatural western webcomic The Guns of Shadow Valley has just launched a Kickstarter to fund the completion and production of a final 200+ hardcover volume. It's already very quickly reached its goal but there's still time to contribute, still rewards to get and of course still stretch goals to achieve.

The comic is set in 1870s Oklahoma Territory and deals with super-powered gunmen facing off against an army of ghost soldiers to protect a mysterious secret. It has elements of horror, science fiction, steampunk and of course gunslinging. It seems to be part of a trend of supernatural westerns that have cropped up over the years like Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt's The Sixth Gun.

The real selling point to this comic is the artwork of Dave Wachter. His style is reminiscent of some of the great realist comic book artists of the '70s like Neal Adams, not to mention some of the great artists of classic comic westerns like John Severin. He has a detailed, painterly style that perfectly fits the mood of this type of genre story.

You'll notice the horizontal format of the book shown here and I should note that actually three of the books mentioned here use this atypical graphic novel format for reasons that span the history of comics: one that uses it because it collects horizontal newspaper strips and two that use it because they collect work that were created for the landscape format of a computer (or tablet) screen.

Pledge to the Kickstarter for The Guns of Shadow Valley here.

MEANWHILE, IN COMICS NEWS THIS PAST WEEK:

- Man of Steel had the biggest June opening ever. Bring on the Justice League movie! Oh, they're going to rush it into production for a 2015 release? Yeah, that sounds like enough time to make a quality, special-effets laden movie not to mention time to figure out how to reboot Christopher Nolan's Batman.

- Speaking of Superman, if you've got an itch to read some good Superman comics now, there's still time left on Comixology's 99¢ sale on many of the best Superman comics ever.

- And the Small Press Expo announced that Congressman and civl rights icon John Lewis will be a featured guest at their show in September. He'll be signing the new first volume of the graphic novel biography of his life, March: Book One. He will certainly be the first sitting member of Congress to attend SPX and don't forget that his book sports another comics first: a cover blurb written by a former president (Bill Clinton).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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