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Top Shelf

Wednesday is New Comics Day!

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Top Shelf

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. Creepy presents Steve Ditko

Collected works written by Archie Goodwin with art by Steve Ditko
Dark Horse

After co-creating Spider-man and Dr. Strange, the enigmatic Steve Ditko left Marvel Comics in 1966 (after drawing the 25th issue of Amazing Spider-Man), mostly due to creative differences with writer and editor-in-chief Stan Lee. He went on to Warren Publishing, where he collaborated with writer Archie Goodwin on 16 short stories for Creepy and Eerie magazines that ran from 1966-1967. All 16 of these stories are collected here together for the first time in this hardcover volume from Dark Horse as part of their ongoing reprint series of the classic Warren horror comics.

The infamous congressional hearings in the 1950s that resulted in the creation of the Comics Code Authority—a self-regulatory alternative to government regulation meant to keep "harmful" content out of comic books—caused horror and crime comics to disappear from the comic racks where they were soon replaced by more kid-friendly fare like superheroes. Warren Publishing in the late 1960s found a way to skirt the Comics Code by putting out their horror comics Creepy and Eerie as magazines rather than standard sized, less expensive comic books. Without the need to consider them "comic books" and obey the restrictions of that format, Archie Goodwin and the various artists he worked with were free to create more adult material about taboo subjects like the occult and black magic. 

Ditko is a highly influential artist, but has always been an idiosyncratic one. His superhero comics never looked like anyone else's and often veered into psychedelic and surreal territory. He had pushed against the boundaries of the then still-forming Marvel House Style as much as he could, and at Warren he was free to take it even further. With the higher quality printing of the magazine format, he switched to an ink wash style that really allowed him to play up the dark atmospherics of these weird stories.

From here, Ditko would move on to Charlton comics, where he created characters such as The Question and Blue Beetle, but many feel these Creepy and Eerie stories were classic Ditko at his best.

2. Monster on the Hill 

By Rob Harrell
Top Shelf

Here's a great all-ages choice for the week. Rob Harrell is a cartoonist who has done two syndicated comic strips: Big Top, which ran from 2002 to 2007, and, more recently, the ongoing Adam@Home. Harrell's first book is out this week from Top Shelf and it looks like it's a lot of fun.

Monster on the Hill is set in 1860s England where every town is terrorized by its own monster and the townspeople actually love it, turning the threat into a tourist attraction and something to take pride in. One town, however, is stuck with a depressed little monster named Rayburn who can't seem to pull himself together enough to be frightening. 

With the help of a local doctor and a young street urchin, Rayburn goes on a quest to meet other, scarier monsters to help him find his inner beast.

You can read a 7 page preview on Top Shelf's website and see for yourself that the book is entertaining in a way that reminds me very much of Jeff Smith's Bone

3. The Motorcycle Samurai #0

By Chris Sheridan
Top Shelf

Indie comics publisher Top Shelf has been embracing digital comics these days— notably with the Double Barrel series, in which Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon serialized two separate graphic novels in some high page count 99¢ digital comics. Now they're debuting a book from a brand new creator named Chris Sheridan and are utilizing the next-generation digital comics technique that Marvel calls "Infinite Comics," DC calls "DC2" and Comixology has given the rather unsexy moniker "Guided View Native." To be fair, the name simply calls attention to the fact that the format is based primarily on Comixology's revolutionary "Guided View" technology that allows readers on mobile devices to easily move from panel to panel within a comic. As I discussed in two other comics here the past two weeks, this way of reading digital comics is more advanced that the original Guided View method and is more integrated into the actual storytelling. Panels build in sequence as you read them, word balloons don't necessarily appear all at once initially, and the "camera" may pan back and forth across a large panoramic scene to reveal individual story beats. 

The Motorcycle Samurai #0 is a preview issue that introduces us to a desolate, ghost-town setting, the kind of cinematic landscape that is tailor-made for an ambush. And that's exactly what happens to the titular motorcycle samurai as she transports a mysterious, masked companion on the back of her bike and stops to get a drink of water. What proceeds is something very reminiscent of a fight scene from Kill Bill and it uses the pans and panel builds of Guided View to its advantage in making this a fun and dynamic read. 

Sheridan's art style is fast and loose in the way he renders characters which some may find rough but others may find energetic. His background is in animation and design and it shows in his sense of tension and pacing. He also seems to have a good sense of how to use this Guided View format to his storytelling advantage.

You can buy the preview issue for only 99¢ on Comixology.

4. Last of the Mohicans

By Shigeru Sugiura

The Last of the Mohicans was a novel written by James Fenimore Cooper in 1826 about the French and Indian War in the America of the 1700s. Modern audiences are more likely familiar with Michael Mann's film adaption from 1992 starring Daniel Day Lewis. Back in 1953, though, Shigeru Sugiura created a children's manga adaptation of the novel that was a big hit in Japan. Shigeru was a popular manga artist who wrote and illustrated many books that were done in a light, humorous style that appealed to kids. 

Through the 1960s, Shigeru's popularity began to wane, so he started to push his style into more surreal, psychedelic territories, aiming his stories more towards older audiences. Then, in 1974, he re-adapted Last of the Mohicans in this new avant-garde approach and created one of the great manga masterpieces of the late 20th century.

American publisher PictureBox, with the help of historian Ryan Holmberg, has translated this book and is releasing it as the first volume in its new "Ten Cent Manga" series (hold your horses, the actual price is $22.95). This series of books will explore the ways Japanese and American cultures influence each other—in this case, how Shigeru adapted this quintessential American story in a way that draws parallels to American westerns and "ten cent" comics of his era while filtering them through the lens of his own culture. 

This will be the first Shigeru book to be released in its entirety in English. You can read more about the book and order it from PictureBox's website and also read more about the Ten Cent Manga series and future installments.

5. A bunch of new comics from MonkeyBrain

Despite the name of this column, comics don't always come out on Wednesdays anymore. Especially not digital comics which seem to come out of nowhere and land on any day of the week they want to. Not needing to be listed in catalogs months beforehand for retailers to pre-order means that more often the comics are being distributed into readers "hands" quicker but without weeks or months of press to call attention to them. This past week, Monkeybrain Comics celebrated completing their first year in business and winning an Eisner Award for Best Online Comic for Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover's excellent Bandette by launching five new titles all at once at last week's San Diego Comic Con. Here are a few of those books that look the most interesting:


Written by Anina Bennett, art by Paul Guinan

Originally published in Dark Horse Presents in the 1990s, this sci-fi series about clones and robots deals with societal issues like food crises and clone rights issues. These stories were widely praised in their time and are being reintroduced to a new audience now.

Avery Fatbottom #1

By Jen Vaughn

Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective is a comic with a very charming title, written and drawn by Jen Vaughn, that aims to have fun with a novel premise—a comedy/mystery about a Ren Fair organizer. This will obviously appeal to anyone who has partaken in the medieval cosplay rituals of the Ren Fair addict but at its heart it's a character-driven comedy with romance, mystery and some bawdy limericks.

Detectobot #0

Written by Peter Timony, art by Bobby Timony

Detectobot #0 is a free preview issue of a fun-looking new series from the Timony Brothers who previously gained recognition for their series Night Owls, which was published on Zuda, DC's early experimentation with webcomics. This one is about a scientist who builds a robot whose sole purpose will be to solve the mad doctor's eventual murder. 


- The San Diego Comic Con was this past weekend. We've all heard the news that was announced about a Batman/Superman team-up film in the works and the next Avengers movie being titled Avengers: Age of Ultron, but there was not a lot of breaking news about actual comic books. That seems to be the case more and more each year at that show. Small press publishers are usually told not to try to break news during SDCC or else you'll be drowned out by the news from the big companies. Maybe now even the big publishers are saving their news for a weekend when they don't have to be overshadowed by news about their own movies.

- Still, the Eisners had their big awards ceremony and there were some real deserving winners showing what a great year in comics it has been.

- Marvel did announce that there would be a new Wolverine Origins book written by Kieron Gillen and Adam Kubert that will pick up where the first book left off in exploring Logan's missing early years. Plus, continuing the trend of mixing and matching their book title adjectives, Marvel also announced a new X-men book called Amazing X-Men.

Darwyn Cooke announced the next book in his series of adaptations of the Parker crime novels.

Chuck Palahniuk announced that he will be doing a sequel to his novel Fight Club and it will be a graphic novel. No word on what artist he is working with or who will publish it but this will be a major release when it eventually comes out.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.