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Boulet

Wednesday is New Comics Day

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Boulet

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. Le Long Voyage

By Boulet

This past week was exciting for fans of webcomics that push the form in new and innovative ways. We saw two major postings that had the internet abuzz with praise. The first came from Gilles Roussel, the artist known as Boulet, one of France's first and most prominent web cartoonists who has been publishing comics at www.bouletcorp.com for nearly 10 years.

Last week, Boulet posted a new comic in which the hero of the story (himself, presumably) crawls down the toilet and descends, seemingly forever, towards the center of the earth. The comic is done with 8-bit pixel art, reminiscent of classic video games. This is a departure from Boulet's usual hand drawn style of cartooning but is wholly appropriate for telling this particular story. It's a fantastic voyage, similar to Alice's trip down the rabbit hole, but these days we associate such quests more with video games than anything else.

What's great about this comic is—as the name suggests—it is long. Tall, actually. It is made up of multiple images, stacked seamlessly on top of each other so that it can be read in one very long, continuous scroll. Scott McCloud, author of the seminal book on comics theory Understanding Comics, coined the phrase "Infinite Canvas" (actually he did it in his 2000 follow up Reinventing Comics) to denote the untapped ability of webcomics to push past the constraints of the typical comic book page. This is a good example of what he was talking about. In many ways, the entire web is now adapting to the infinite canvas idea, especially by embracing the vertical scroll. With wider bandwidth and faster devices to browse with, websites are free to fill their pages with infinite amounts of content and now webcomics are following suit. 

It's been often debated that webcomics should be more horizontally oriented and keep their content sitting above the indiscriminate and mostly imaginary "fold" of the web page. It was believed that scrolling interrupted the reading process and took the reader out of the story. Recently, we've seen a lot of webcomic sites like What Things Do and Study Group Comics display the pages of each comic stacked together on one screen. Especially when read on a tablet or smartphone, vertically scrolling through a comic feels natural and more akin to flipping through a book than clicking though web pages.

Boulet's Le Long Voyage is worth experiencing again and again on different screen sizes to appreciate how well it reads in different formats. If you don't speak French read it again in its translated version and get all the verbal jokes you missed when you were just watching the pictures scroll by.

2. Time

By Randall Munroe
xkcd.com

This week's second notable webcomic actually began its story back on March 25, when Randall Munroe posted the first panel in a new comic called Time on his popular and long running webcomic, xkcd.com. Thirty minutes after that, the panel refreshed into a slightly different panel. Thirty minutes later it changed again, and so on and so on until last week, four months later, the story came to its conclusion at 3,099 panels, taking the concept of serialized storytelling to a brand new level.

As new panels appeared, xkcd loyalists followed closely, creating Wikis and forums devoted to hypothesizing on the true nature of the story. Some sharp eyed readers even examined one scene with a night time sky full of stars to determine that, based on the positioning of the stars and the absence of one particular star, this story was taking place 11,000 years in the future. Some have even devised methods of watching the panels strung together in both click through and self-playing formats.

Time starts out unassumingly sweet and simple as we watch two tiny stick figures build sand castles, making them taller and more elaborate as they go. This goes on for a good 400 panels or so until a slight feeling of dread seeps into the scene and one of the characters remarks, "I don't understand what the sea is doing." The two figures eventually embark on a quest to learn what is out there beyond the sea, which is the only thing that they have ever known. What they find is strange, beautiful and apocalyptic—and just beyond their ability to fully understand.

Xkcd comics are deceptively simple looking, consisting mostly of stick figures and silhouetted landscapes, but conceptually and in terms of character gestures, movement and even world-building, they are some of the most complex and thought out comics out there. Time is one of the finest examples of this.

Wired and Slate recently published articles discussing what Time is really all about. There are a number of ways to view the whole thing, but I enjoyed this piece from GeekWagon. Click through each panel or watch a YouTube video of it.

3. Trillium #1

By Jeff Lemire; with colors by Jose Villarrubia
DC Vertigo

Jeff Lemire is a prolific writer and artist. While currently one of the star creative forces behind a number of DC Comic's superhero titles like Green Arrow and Animal Man, he also finds time for his own personal projects, like last year's Underwater Welder. Lemire works in a fast and loose style that probably allows him to get his ideas down on paper fairly quickly. It also makes his books instantly recognizable as his own.

This week, Lemire returns to DC's Vertigo line (where he previously published his recently completed series Sweet Tooth) with a new 8-issue mini-series called Trillium. It is a tragic sci-fi love story about an English explorer searching for the Lost Temple of the Incas in 1921 and falls in love with a botanist researching a newfound species on the edge of space in the year 3797. Their unlikely love is doomed to bring about the end of the universe.

Lemire paints the entire story himself in watercolor on paper but he is joined by colorist Jose Villarrubia who colors the 1920s section to give that part a slightly different look from the 3797 section. With the story taking place in two different time periods, the first issue is set up as two separate but interlocking stories and formatted as a "flip book" with two covers. One story reads one way; flip the book around and read the other story the other way. Not sure how this might work on digital devices.

You can read an 8 page preview of Trillium here.

4. Moth City

By Tim Gibson
Flying Whities/Comixology Submit

For the past couple of weeks, it seems like I've talked a lot about these new "Guided View" digital comics that are popping up all over the Comixology Comics app. It's a new format that a number of comics companies are experimenting with and it allows for a little more of an active experience on the comics page with panels and word balloons building on the screen as the story progresses. Another example of this is a creator-owned book available through Comixology's Submit program called Moth City. But, enough about the format, let's focus instead on the fact that is is a quality book with  a strong premise and an unusual setting that doesn't need the technological gimmick to make it interesting. 

Set on an island off the coast of China, Moth City is a thriller involving a mysterious WMD developed by an American tycoon (who dresses like a cowboy) and the murder of a scientist that sets off a series of events that may bring this island into a war between Chinese Nationalists and the Communist army. Writer and artist Tim Gibson has set up an intriguing adventure here with an exotic locale, exciting chases, some family drama and a few surprising plot twists. In fact the most recent issue ended with a very unexpected twist that turned the story a little on its head. Gibson comes from the film industry, having done concept illustration work for big Hollywood blockbusters like Tin Tin and Avatar, and he has a great sense of pacing as well as design (as you can see by the cover). 

Moth City #4 is available on Comixology this week and the previous three issues are available there too. Read more about it here on MothCity.com where you can also read the book as a free webcomic as well.

5. Robocop: Last Stand #1

Based on a screenplay by Frank Miller; written by Steven Grant; art by Korkut Öztekin; cover by Declan Shalvey
Boom! Studios

This week's entry in the seemingly ever-growing world of licensed Hollywood and toy properties adapted as comics is the first Robocop comic, published by new license-holder Boom! Studios. This 8 issue mini-series takes an unused screenplay for Robocop 3 that was written by comics legend Frank Miller and gives it to Steven Grant, a veteran comics writer who recently wrote the comic turned Hollywood action flick 2 Guns. Grant is a good choice to work with Miller material. Having written many a Punisher comic, he's no stranger to tough-as-nails heroes dishing out blood-splattered justice.

In the real world, cyborg police officer Alex Murphy is probably not the answer to the recently bankrupt city of Detroit's numerous problems, but in this near future vision of Detroit from the Robocop universe, he is their last hope. The police department has been disbanded and the the Omni-Consumer Products (OCP) mega-corporation is set to transform what's left of old Detroit into its utopian vision of the future, Delta City, forcing many of its under-privileged citizens out of their homes. 

Grant is joined by Korkut Öztekin, a Turkish artist who I believe is turning in his first major comics work here. His style seems to balance the right level of disturbing violence and broad, satirical humor that the material needs. Also, check out that striking cover by Declan Shalvey who has been designing some of the most dramatic covers for a variety of comics over this past year.

Read a preview here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Why limit myself to just listing five comics each week? There's so much else out there.

Sidekicks #1
J. Michael Straczynski returns to his patented brutally realistic take on the superhero genre with this new 12 issue mini-series about a goofy kid sidekick whose life hits the skids when his partner and mentor is murdered. Tom Mandrake, who has drawn many a superhero comic in his career, adds some Bronze Age levity to the misery. Here's a preview.

The Bunker #1
Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari just launched this new Digital First series on Comixology about a group of friends who find an abandoned bunker in the woods. Available now on Comixology.

A Bag of Marbles
A graphic novel adaptation Joseph Joffo's autobiography about his experience fleeing from the Nazis as a young boy. Contains beautiful painted artwork by French cartoonist Vincent Bailley. More info here.

Thor by Walt Simonson Vol 1
This is an affordable softcover edition containing part of the recent omnibus collection of Simonson's classic run on Marvel's Thor during the 1980's. It has been recolored to appeal to modern eyeballs.

Satellite Sam #2
I missed talking about issue 1 when it came out last month, but Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin's crime drama set behind the scenes in a 1950's live sci-fi TV show is off to a great start. You can see a preview here

Questionable Content turned 10
Some of the great long-running webcomics are hitting the decade mark now. Jeph Jacques' popular Questionable Content strip just did it last week. Here's Jacques' understated acknowledgement of the milestone.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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