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DC Comics

Wednesday is New Comics Day

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DC Comics

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. Batman '66 #1

Written by Jeff Parker; art by Jonathan Case
DC Comics

For nearly 50 years, comics (specifically Batman comics) have seemingly been running away from the campy, "Bam! Pow! Zing!" style of the Batman TV show from the '60s, especially now that Christopher Nolan's dark and serious take on Batman in his trilogy of films has finally replaced the image of Adam West's drawn on, arched eyebrows and Burt Ward's tighty greenies in the minds of the mainstream public.

The truth is, however, DC Comics and 20th Century Fox (who produced the original TV show) have been embroiled for years in legal issues surrounding licensing rights to the show that were finally settled last year. The likenesses of these versions of these characters can now be used by DC without fear of legal reprisal. Also, despite years of distancing themselves from it in a desire for legitimacy, most comic book fans really do love that old show and many of today's creators grew up on it.

Jeff Parker and Jonathan Case are two of those creators, and they have seemed to jump at the chance to be the first to bring this version of Batman back to comics. Their approach to this book, as Parker has said in interviews, is to tell stories as if the TV show had an unlimited budget to allow for big, expensive action scenes. Same setting, same dry humor, same villains, but Jonathan Case is free to open up the world beyond the cheap studio settings.

This comic isn't all about looking backwards though. While the first issue hits comic shops this week, it has already been released via Comixology as two separate 99¢ digital comics. They are produced in DC's version of what Marvel has been labeling "Infinite Comics." Basically, panels can appear one beat at a time, and word balloons pop on as you need to read them. In the case of this comic, the effect almost mimics the effects the show used which in turn were meant to mimic the effect of reading a comic. 

This new method is considered the future of digital comics by some, but it still allows the book to be published in print as we see this week. The question will only be, in which format is it a more satisfying read?

2. Super Graphic: A Visual Guide To the Comic Book Universe

By Tim Leong
Chronicle Books

If you think about it, infographics and comic books are related in some way, almost like distant cousins. You only have to look at a Chris Ware comic to see the missing link that binds their lineage. Like comics, infographics have become pretty big on the web over the years, and like comics, they don't often get their due as an artform in and of themselves.

Tim Leong loves both of these art forms and has taken the novel step of combining them into a new book, called Super Graphic, in which he parses the data on such things as the political leanings of various super hero characters, or the kill counts in The Walking Dead and The Punisher, and turns them into colorful and crisply designed charts and graphs. 

This is Leong's first book, but he is no stranger to design or comics. Until recently he was the Director of Digital Design for Wired and previously he had founded the well-regarded comics magazine called Comics Foundry.

The book was officially released on Tuesday and you can order a copy on Amazon here. To get a taste of Super Graphic and other things that make Tim Leong tick, check out his Tumblr and see lots of great historic examples of comics and infographics crossing over.

3. Walrus 

By Brandon Graham
PictureBox

Brandon Graham is currently the writer and creative brains behind the re-imagined sci-fi series Prophet from Image, and is equally known for his own comics, King City and Multiple Warheads. He's one of the most interesting and surprising talents working in comics right now. His style is instantly recognizable: thin lines; unexpected combinations of soft, tinted colors; graffiti-like lettering; rubbery looking people with a sexy, futuristic look; and rolling, intricate, urban landscapes often populated by strange creatures. His work is almost a punk synthesis of Moebius, James Stokoe, Hayao Miyazaki, Paul Pope and Akira Toriyama. It's dense, weird, highly imaginative, and funny (especially if you enjoy puns—Graham sure does).

Picturebox has released a new art book showing Graham's sketchbook process of generating his wild ideas. He has called it Walrus (subtitled Brandon Graham's All Bum Album as well as From Tusk 'Til Drawn, which give you a sense of his playful sense of wordplay), an oddly fitting name for what is sure to be 100-plus pages filled to excess with ideas. If you follow Graham's highly interesting Wordpress blog, he often shares both glimpses of his sketches and examples of the various things that are influencing him at the time. The blog itself is likely a glimpse at what you might expect from the book, but for a more explicit glimpse check out the PictureBox site with preview.

4. Goddamn This War!

By Jacques Tardi with contributions by Jean-Pierre Verney
Fantagraphics

Fifteen years ago, Jacques Tardi wrote and illustrated what is considered his masterpiece, It Was The War Of The Trenches, a dark and wrenching examination of the horrors of World War I. Trenches only appeared in English for the first time just a few years ago, in an exquisitely designed hardcover format through Fantagraphics.

This week, Tardi returns to the trenches with Goddamn This War!, a follow-up to the first book—though not a sequel, so it can be read on its own. Tardi is joined by historian and collector Jean-Pierre Verney who helped with the research needed to get all the visual and situational details correct. Verney also provides a text section and visual samples of dozens of photographs and documents from his personal collection.

Tardi is one of the great European cartoonists working today. His way of depicting the horrors of war is unflinching and tragic. Fantagraphics has been building an impressive library of translated hardcover volumes of his work over the years. You can preview a number of pages from this one over on their website.

5. Mercworks

By Dave Mercier
Kickstarter

Mercworks is a strip comic by cartoonist Dave Mercier that has been running as a webcomic since 2011 and has built up enough of an archive that he has taken to Kickstarter to produce his first print collection. The comic generally consists of funny moments loosely based on Mercier's own life and past relationships but with some obvious fictional embellishments. For instance, this funny gag involving a malfunctioning laptop and The Fonz from Happy Days.

Mercier's Kickstarter has just begun and has not reached its goal just yet, so there are lots of pledging options available. He's offering some nice higher-priced incentives like prints and the opportunity to get a digital or hand-drawn portrait of of yourself.

Check out his Kickstarter here or read through the archives of his webcomic over here.

MEANWHILE, IN COMICS NEWS THIS PAST WEEK: 

- The Harvey Award nominations are up. If the Eisner Awards are comics' Oscars, The Harvey Awards are perhaps their Golden Globes. Often a few odd or unexpected nominees appear on the ballot but for the most part there are some great people and books up for awards here.

- Licensed properties being turned into comics seem to be the way to make some bucks in comics these days, but I can't say I expected NBC to start making digital comics out of shows like Punky Brewster, Saved By The Bell and Miami Vice.

- Marvel and writer Matt Fraction are looking to make The Inhumans a major part of the Marvel Universe with a new series focusing on themes of alienation, warring families and inequality.

- San Diego Comic Con, the biggest event of the year for both comics and blockbuster Hollywood films made to appeal to comics fans, begins tomorrow. Most likely, a lot of news and new books will be announced throughout the weekend.

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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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