Original image

Wednesday is New Comics Day

Original image

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. Hawkeye Vol. 2 Little Hits/ FF Vol. 1 Fantastic Faux

Written by Matt Fraction; Hawkeye art by David Aja and others, FF art by Mike Allred

Matt Fraction is on a roll lately. Having now written a number of comics for Marvel that have found varying degrees of commercial success (Iron Man, Thor, Fear Itself, Defenders), he seems to be finding his voice now and making his unique mark on the Marvel Universe. It all seemed to come into place with Hawkeye. 

With the second volume hitting stores this week, an under-the-radar book ostensibly about what Hawkeye does on his "days off" from being an Avenger has become Marvel's most talked about (and now Eisner-nominated) series, with the hype culminating in issue #11 (included in this volume) which people are already calling the best single issue of 2013. With its witty humor, natural dialogue and appealing chemistry between the book's lead characters (Clint Barton and teenage Young Avenger Kate Bishop), Hawkeye achieves a contemporary freshness that most superhero comics can't seem to attain. This is due in no small part to the art of David Aja. From his stylish covers to his smartly designed page layouts, Aja makes this book come alive in its down to earth Brooklyn setting and shows that—having worked together before on the Immortal Iron Fist series—he and Fraction are a writer/artist combination that we'll be hoping to see together for years to come.

Meanwhile, another little comic that Fraction has taken and turned into something unlike any other Marvel book out there is the Fantastic Four spin-off FF. Working with pop-art comics stylist Mike Allred, this book is almost the opposite of Hawkeye in terms of the balance between reality and comic book reality. It's a seemingly tongue-in-cheek take of super heroics and celebrity but set in the "reality" of the Marvel Universe. The premise is that the real Fantastic Four has taken a time-traveling vacation from which they were supposed to return in four minutes. Just in case something went wrong they each chose a replacement to form a new team to stay behind in the Baxter Building and take care of the odd assortment of children that make up the Future Foundation (the true meaning of the title's acronym). Something of course has gone wrong and this oddball group of heroes which includes a Katy Perry like pop star who has taken to wearing a Thing suit finds themselves saddled with an enormous responsibility.

Both of these hardcover volumes are on sale today, including the latest single issue of Hawkeye—making this a big Matt Fraction week.

2. The Death of Haggard West

By Paul Pope
First Second

Paul Pope fans have been impatiently awaiting the October release of his long-awaited, two volume sci-fi epic Battling Boy, set in an alternate universe where the city of Acropolis is becoming overrun by other-dimensional creatures and the only hope to stop them, the superhero Haggard West, is dead. That last hope comes to rest upon a twelve year old demigod, the titular Battling Boy.

While we're waiting for the first volume of that story to begin, this month we get a 32-page teaser in the guise of the 101st and final issue of the fictional comic book series The Invincible Haggard West. It's actually a standalone oneshot acting as a prequel to Battling Boy and showing the death of Batman-like vigilante hero Haggard West, which sets the stage for the events of the main story.

Paul Pope is one of the most exciting creative minds working in comics. His sense of science fiction grandiosity takes elements of Jack Kirby, Moebius, Frank Herbert, Alex Toth, and Hugo Pratt and mixes into in his own kinetic style that is unparalleled in today's comics. His past work, from 1995's THB through 2007's Batman: Year 100, are up there among the most highly regarded comics of the 20th century. With Battling Boy he plans to explore the superhero from a 21st century perspective and The Death of Haggard West may be just a taste of what's to come this October.

3. Quantum & Woody #1

Written by James Asmus; art by Tom Fowler, colors by Jordie Bellaire
Valiant Entertainment

Fans of the '90s have been generally elated about the recent return of Valiant Comics, a tightly woven universe of comics originally started by former Marvel Comics editor in chief Jim Shooter and soon rebooted when bought by gaming company Acclaim Entertainment in 1994. One of the most loved and fondly remembered books from the Valiant/Acclaim years was a short-lived comic about "The World's Worst Superhero Team"—Quantum and Woody. Since Valiant Entertainment returned to publishing comics in 2011, fans have awaited (with some admitted trepidation) for this book's return.

This rebooted version of the book features adopted—but now estranged—brothers Eric and Woody Henderson, who come together after their father is murdered and a strange accident leaves them with super powers.They decide to use those powers to investigate their father's murder. Like the original, this book is a comedy, playing off the inept nature of the duo as actual superheroes (Quantum embraces being a superhero, Woody thinks costumes are stupid) and their opposite natures (Quantum is serious and stoic, Woody is a goofball). Unlike the original series though, this book will not have the book's creators Christopher Priest and Mark Bright involved, despite the fact that these characters are very much associated with them in the minds of its fans. Both Priest and Bright have left the comics industry and some questions about their rights to the characters remain but in the meantime, new creative team James Asmus and Tom Fowler look to give their own take on the book.

Read a preview here.

4. Lost Cat

By Jason

Anytime Norwegian cartoonist and singularly named Jason comes out with a new book, it is most definitely worth a look. After having recently released a handful of shorter works, he now returns with a 160-page graphic novel called Lost Cat about a private detective who searches for a lost cat and winds up finding his soulmate—the cat's owner—only to then inexplicably lose her. 

Jason's books are subtle and intriguing master works of cartooning. He often plays with genres—in this case, the Humphrey Bogart archetype of a private eye—and delivers thought provoking dramas about human nature despite his characters always being drawn as funny animals. The fact that this story involves an anthropomorphic dog looking for a regular old cat is not even anachronistic in Jason's world. His cartoon animals are more human than most cartoon humans you'll see anywhere else.

Read a preview here.

5. Wolverine: Japan's Most Wanted #1

Plot by Jason Aaron, script by Jason Latour; art by Paco Diaz and Yves Bigerel

Infinite Comics are Marvel's label for a series of digital comics that they consider the next generation of comic book storytelling. It is similar in spirit and technique to the work Mark Waid and team have been doing with Thrillbent comics and that DC has begun to jump into with last week's Batman '66. The idea is to move away from the non-existent page turn and to utilize scene transitions, layering and scrolling effects. It sounds like a precarious step away from Motion Comics—the much derided "animated" comics that have appeared over the years using pan and scan effects on still comics and set to voice overs and sound tracks—but it is actually a very logical and relatively unobtrusive use of the digital platform. 

Marvel's latest offering in this still experimental form is one they first announced at SXSW this year and it just hit the Comixology digital storefront yesterday. It's a 13-part Wolverine story that will be released weekly (priced at $2.99 which is steep for a weekly comic and two dollars more than DC's similar Batman '66 comic, but at least a dollar cheaper than most Marvel digital comics). Set in Japan, it coincides nicely with the soon to be released Wolverine (also set in Japan) film. 

If you haven't read a digital comic in this format yet, you may be taken aback by how immersive it actually is. A number of scenes use the reveals and transitions to great effect and you can't help but feel that this wouldn't quite feel as dramatic reading it as a standard print or even standard digital comic.

In addition to an interesting format, this comic boasts an interesting and high caliber creative team. Jason Aaron (Scalped, Thor, Wolverine & The X-men) and Jason Latour (Loose Ends, Sledgehammer, Winter Soldier) have been very prolific on their own recently and were just announced as the writer and artist team on a new creator-owned series for Image Comics. They're splitting up the writing between plot and script here and working with Spanish artist Paco Diaz who has worked on a number of Wolverine-related comics in the past.

You can buy the comic here on Comixology. Unfortunately there is no preview provided that can convey the actual reading experience, though.


- Amazon is now a comics publisher, announcing the launch of Jet City Comics which will publish a mix of print and digital works, with offerings based on properties created by the likes of George R.R. Martin and Neal Stephenson. Any move Amazon makes has resounding effects in the publishing world so this could be big.

- San Diego Comic Con is coming. A sneak peek at their programming schedule can be found here.

- Digital Manga, Inc. is planning to release the entire Osamu Tezuka catalog digitally worldwide.

- Among the many exciting announcements at Image Comics' Image Expo last week is that they are now selling DRM-free digital editions of all their new comics through their website. Digital has proven to be a significant part of their overall sales and they are embracing it by being the first publisher to sell their books in a format that allows readers to actually download and save a digital file to their computers. This could be the beginning of the end of publisher's debilitating fear of digital piracy.

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

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]