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Wednesday is New Comics Day

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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. New School

By Dash Shaw

Dash Shaw is one of the new generation of exciting comic creators who exist in a nexus between comics and the New York contemporary art scene, much like Paul Pope and Molly Crabapple. Shaw's 2008 debut graphic novel, Bottomless Belly Button, made a huge impression on the comic and book publishing world with its deceptively simple drawings and whopping 700-plus page count. It had profound things to say about the way modern families interact and was just as good as any literary prose family drama you'd see in the New York Times Book Review. Since that book, he has experimented with webcomics (Bodyworld), short comic stories (collected in The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D.), animation, and even music. 

New School, his first major graphic novel release since the 2010's Bodyworld, tells the story of Danny, a young boy trying to bring his older brother, Luke, home from a remote island with an amusement park called Clockworld, that recreates historical events. Set in the '90s, Danny is a fan of both the X-men and Jurassic Park, and the story, told through the distortion of his point of view, seems to fuse elements of those bits of pop culture together.

Shaw is an experimental artist and storyteller. He uses a combination of ink drawing, hand painted animation cels, Photoshop and other media to create this book. A glance at the pages here shows a bold, unusual use of color that seems part Power Mastrs, part Asterios Polyp.

2. Lazarus #1

Written by Greg Rucka, art by Michael Lark, colors by Santi Arcas
Image Comics

In Greg Rucka's dystopian vision of the future, our current economic woes have extrapolated out to the point that all the world's wealth has been divided among just a handful of powerful families. One of those families, The Carlyles, have genetically modified a women they named "Forever" into their own unkillable assassin and protector. Forever has been led to believe that she is a true daughter of the Carlyle family but she is treated more like an animal or a machine and human nature—if indeed she is truly human—causes her to question who and what she really is.

Rucka is known for writing strong female characters—Renee Montoya from Gotham Central, Carrie Stetko from Whiteout, Tara Chace from Queen & Country, and the list goes on and on—though less for writing science fiction, so this is both familiar and unfamiliar territory for him. He has re-teamed with Gotham Central artist Michael Lark, whose realistic drawing style, inked with expressive brushing, is reminiscent of some of the great realist cartoonists like Alex Raymond, Alex Toth, or David Mazzuchelli. Both Lark and Rucka typically work in a very street-level method of storytelling which will most likely make the sci-fi aspects of this story pretty palatable for those that normally shy away from that kind of stuff.  

You can read a preview of the comic at Greg Rucka's website.

3. Demeter

By Becky Cloonan

Becky Cloonan (Demo, Conan, The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys) recently released the third and final installment in a series of mini-comic short stories she has been self-publishing the last couple of years. Following Wolves and The Mire, Demeter is another beautifully illustrated tale of medieval horror that delivers a satisfying and nearly poetic story in just about 30 some odd pages. You can tell by reading this or any of the two previous mini-comics that Cloonan's heart is in telling these types of stories.

Demeter shows us two lovers who were torn apart by the sea and brought back together by a terrible bargain. The story reads almost like a dark poem and Cloonan's black and white artwork—richly inked and matched with digital gray tones—is sexy and very creepy. I highly recommend buying the print version of the mini which you can order for $5 through her online store because the design and printing is just luscious in person. However, the real reason I've mentioned it this week is that Cloonan has just released it digitally through Comixology's Submit program for creator-owned comics where you can read it for just 99 cents.

4. Batman/Superman #1

Written by Greg Pak; art by Jae Lee
DC Comics

I imagine that the "/" in Batman/Superman is intended to give a modern, edgy and internet-y feel to an old idea: the Batman & Superman team-up comic. Historically, there has almost always been a comic with DC's two top-selling characters featured together, but usually it has been called World's Finest. That name is already being used for a comic starring their two female counterparts, Huntress and Power Girl, but it's name recognition value is limited to longtime, in-the-know comic fans. This book looks like it's aiming for a newer audience, particularly due to its use of artist Jae Lee. 

Despite his popularity and his years doing them, Lee can often seem like a daring choice for a superhero book. His style is dark and foreboding; his smoky, ethereal backgrounds can give you the sense that his stories are taking place somewhere in hell. But, he is coming off doing the best work of his career on The Dark Tower books for Marvel and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias for DC. His recent switch to developing finished art from his pencils rather than inks has given his work a new, more detailed and dimensional appearance.

Lee and writer Greg Pak have set this comic during what we longtime comic book fans like to call "Year One" where they examine the first ever meeting between the two title characters. Since DC relaunched all their comics and, to a certain extent, the continuity within them, this is uncharted territory that many fans have been anxious to see.

It was recently announced that the "/" will be a thing as a new series called Superman/Wonder Woman will begin in October.

Here's a preview of some unlettered art from Batman/Superman #1.

5. Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist

By Asumiko Nakamura

Asumiko Nakamura has become one of the most acclaimed mangaka in Japan, but her work is little known here in the U.S. She began her career over ten years ago, creating erotic and romance manga and has become particularly known for her yaoi (also known as "Boys' Love"—homoerotic manga that is primarily aimed at younger, female readers). Utsubora is considered her masterpiece and is the first of her books to be chosen by U.S. manga publisher Vertical to be translated and released here in order to gauge the appeal of her work for potential future releases.

Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist is a noir mystery about two novelists, actually. Aki Fujino is a young author who is about to release her debut, titled Utsubora, when she is found dead from an apparent suicide. Shun Mizorogi is a once acclaimed novelist who is in a creative dry spell when he meets and becomes infatuated with Aki Fujino as well as another woman who looks just like her and seems to share her same memories.

Information and preview images of this book is sparse, but this glowing review contains a number of sample pages and they look absolutely stunning. Nakamura's thin, caricatured line work is gorgeous to look at. Her sense of page composition and willingness to let her scenes breathe quietly on their own seem to create a contemplative, mysterious atmosphere. 

This new book is a large, complete volume of the entire story that was serialized in Japan. It weighs in at 464 pages and is written for mature readers with some scenes and overall themes that may not be appropriate for younger audiences.


- Kim Thompson, co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, passed away on June 19th after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 56. Thompson was one of the most influential figures in comics, being integral in bringing to the public the finest work from the most reputable cartoonists in the industry such as Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. Over at The Comics Journal, an array of cartoonists that have been affected by Thompson's life share their touching and funny stories about him.

- Archaia, the struggling publisher of such acclaimed books as A Tale of Sand and Mouse Guard, was acquired by Boom! Studios, another piece of growing evidence that Boom! is quietly building itself into a major player in the comics industry.

- Despite the success of Man of Steel at the box office, some major shakeups are occurring amidst Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment. Jeff Robinov has been forced out as Warner Bros. president and a new leadership team is moving up in his place. Robinov had been directly overseeing the DC Entertainment division which includes the comics publishing portion. And Legendary Pictures, the studio that partnered with Warner Bros. to develop all three Christopher Nolan Batman movies and the latest Superman film, has ended the partnership over a contract negotiation dispute. This has been a successful creative partnership but does it mean that Warner Bros. and DC are looking to be more like Marvel in how they control the movies made from their properties?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]