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Dark Horse Comics

Wednesday is New Comics Day

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Dark Horse 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. The Star Wars #1

Written by J.W. Rinzler; art by Mike Mayhew; color by Rain Beredo & Brad Anderson
Dark Horse

Are you already familiar with the story of The Star Wars? The tale of the epic struggle between the Rebels and the Galactic Empire. The evil Darth Vader and the lords of the Sith. General Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi-Bendu, and his young padawan, Anniken Starkiller. The green, lizard-like star pilot, Han Solo, who speaks a strange language known as Wookiee. 

Wait a minute, what the hell is going on here?

The Star Wars is a new 8 issue mini-series adapted from George Lucas' original rough draft of the screenplay that would eventually become the film we all know (minus the "The"). While it has some obvious similarities, it also has some huge differences that make this barely recognizable to most fans. 

J. W. Rinzler has written numerous books for Lucas' licensing division, including The Making of Star Wars, which first led to him getting his hands on the original draft. In reading it, he was struck not only by how different they were from the final shooting script, but by how this version of the story could actually work on its own. Rinzler, along with Dark Horse Comics, proposed the comic book idea to Lucas and got his approval on an 8-issue mini-series. Dark Horse is in the last years of a long run producing Star Wars comics before new owner Disney/Marvel takes over. It seems in this end run they are throwing out some interesting spins on the property such as the James Bond inspired Agent of Empire, Brian Wood's new post-Episode IV stories in the simply titled Star Wars series and now this odd and unexpected book.

It's probably a testament to the durability of the appeal of Star Wars that the production of what is obviously a rejected version of the original story would cause any sort of stir. There aren't a lot of other franchises out there with fans that would clamor for something like this to get made. Plus, let's face it, there's a good chance this is going to read like a weird "Elseworlds"-style alternate universe story or a lesser Star Wars knockoff. However, for hardcore fans like myself, the existence of this book strikes a chord and brings to mind all the articles in fan magazines I used to read in the late '70s and early '80s about the making of the saga. In particular, it reminds me of the amazing paintings by the film's concept artist Ralph McQuarrie that I used to study when I was a little kid. Those paintings set the tone and look for Star Wars but it was hard not to focus on the little differences—the ideas that changed a little when they hit the big screen or never made it there at all and seemed to hint at a potential other movie in some alternate universe that we would never see.

You can read the first few pages of The Star Wars here and also check out this video trailer for the book

2. Toormina Video

By Pat Grant
PatGrantArt.com

Pat Grant is an Australian cartoonist whose first graphic novel, Blue, was published by Top Shelf last year. In Blue, he mixed sci-fi with autobiography  to tell a story about aliens, immigration, and the search for a dead body that pulled from experiences from his childhood (not the aliens part). Last week he published a short webcomic called Toormina Video to his website that I presume leans almost squarely into the autobiography grid of storytelling techniques. While relaying a very personal memory of his father, Grant delivers a punch to the gut for anyone reading this who has ever dedicated a substantial part of their life to a particular obsession. Cartoonists, beware. The last two panels of this comic made me want to step away from working on my own comic for a while.

Toormina Video recalls the cartoonist's relationship with his deceased father who often left him on his own while drinking at the pub. At one point he sends young Pat on a bit of a fool's errand to compile a list of movies that Pat has always wanted to see so that one day they could rent them and watch them together. The anecdotes about his father are touching—albeit familiar—tales of parental alcoholism. The way Grant wraps his comic up though is really something special and I won't say anything more about it except to say go read it here.  

3. X-men: Battle of the Atom #1

Written by Brian Michael Bendis; art by Frank Cho 
Marvel Comics

If you've been following Brian Michael Bendis' two X-men books, All New X-men and Uncanny X-men, the story that he's been telling is about to come to a head in a new event that will cross over into all the X-men titles. It begins here with the two issue mini-series X-men: Battle of the Atom.

The X-men books have been the best they have been in years thanks to the star writers Marvel has put in charge of the books (Bendis along with Jason Aaron on Wolverine & The X-men and Brian Wood on X-men). In All New X-men, Bendis has disrupted the status quo by bringing the original X-men (including the deceased Jean Grey) forward in time to the present in order to scare off a young Cyclops from turning into the killer of Professor Xavier and leader of an adversarial school of mutants. It's a nice spin on the X-men's usual dystopian future stories in which it is our present that has become the dark future which must be prevented. However, in this storyline, a new wrinkle in the timeline appears in the form of visitors from our future who are not happy about the damage that the time-hopping young X-men have wreaked on their present.

Bendis is joined by artist Frank Cho on the interiors and classic X-men cover artist Art Adams for the series covers. You can read some preview pages here.

4. Basewood

By Alec Longstreth
Kickstarter

It took Alec Longstreth seven years to complete his graphic novel, Basewood, and he has the beard to prove it (he was clean shaven near the beginning and vowed not to shave again until it was finished). It is a fantasy about a young man with amnesia, searching for his past, who encounters magical creatures and new companions as he journeys through a mysterious forest. He has been publishing it in mini-comic installments over the years in his black and white anthology comic Phase 7 as well as on his website in webcomic form. He has garnered a lot of praise and support for it within the indie comics community and won an Ignatz Award for Outstanding Minicomic for Phase 7 back in 2005. 

Like just about every self-publishing cartoonist these days, Longstreth has taken to Kickstarter to fund the printing of his book. The Kickstarter for Basewood easily made its goal within a few days but it's not too late to support him. Many of the comics we see on Kickstarter are projects that couldn't find a publisher or maybe wisely decided they didn't need one. In the case of Basewood, Longstreth apparently had options (in fact, AdHouse Books has agreed to distribute it through Diamond Retailers as long as the book reached its goal) but chose to go it alone to get the book printed exactly the way he wanted it without having to make compromises for cost reasons. As his Kickstarter video shows, Longstreth drew each page very large and put a lot of detail into his crosshatching, details that could be lost if printed too small or at a lesser quality than is needed. Considering this has been a long undertaking for him, it's understandable he'd want to be as proud as possible with the end result.

Tagging onto the issues raised by Pat Grant's comic in #2 on this list, many people don't realize the time investment required to write, draw and produce a 200 page graphic novel. Longstreth admits that this book is the product of his entire twenties. Back when he started working on Basewood there were probably more opportunities to get signed by a publisher and of course something like Kickstarter didn't exist. Much like the character in his book—waking up in a forest, not sure where he is—Longstreth has emerged from the creation of this comic into a new publishing world that didn't exist when he started and it looks like he's going to figure it all out.

Go ahead and check out the Kickstarter page and be sure to watch the video documenting Longstreth's beard growth over time. 

5. Forever Evil #1

Written by Geoff Johns, art by David Finch and Richard Friend
DC Comics

It's hard to believe that DC Comics have not done a line-wide crossover event since the "New 52" relaunch of all their titles back in 2011. Crossovers are like crack to DC and Marvel. Their resistance was admirable but it ends today with this new seven issue miniseries that will tie into most of the main DC Universe titles. Following up from the events of the "Trinity War" storyline that ran through all three Justice League titles and wrapped up last month (we'll call that a mini-crossover event), the world believes that the Justice League is dead and the Crime Syndicate, their evil counterparts from Earth-3, have stepped in to take their place. That leaves the Justice League's greatest villains, led by Lex Luthor, to defend Earth from these invaders.

DC has gone all in with this crossover by changing the titles of this month's books to the names of the corresponding enemy of that book's hero. They're also temporarily renumbering the issues with #1s all around. Since there are so many villains to choose from, each book is getting multiple weekly villain issues in place of its usual one monthly issue. To balance it out, about two-thirds of the DC line which is not part of this villain switch is simply skipping publication this month. So, for instance, in place of Batman #23 we'll get Joker #1, Riddler #1, Penguin #1 and Bane #1 this month. Oh, and each issue will have a 3D, lenticular "Motion" cover option as well as a plain old 2D option. If you think this is all confusing, imagine what retailers had to go through to when ordering the books. It's been complicated to the say the least.

The Forever Evil series is written by DC Chief Creative Officer and regular writer of both Justice League and Justice League of America Geoff Johns and it is illustrated by Justice League of America artist David Finch. You can read a preview of it here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Why limit myself to just listing 5 comics each week? There's so much else out there.

Batman: Black and White #1
DC's artist friendly anthology of black and white Batman short stories returns with a new volume featuring Chip Kidd, Sean Gordon Murphy, Michael Cho, Neal Adams, Chris Samnee and more. Preview it here.

DC Universe Vs. The Master of the Universe #1
Superman and the Justice League vs. He-man and the Masters of the Universe? Believe it or not, this isn't the first time these two franchises have crossed over but it has been more than 30 years since it has happened. Place your bets now on who will win each individual matchup.

God is Dead #1
The prolific writer Jonathan Hickman (currently writing two Avengers books and the Infinity mini-series for Marvel in addition to some creator-owned books for Image) launches yet another comic. This time a 6 issue mini-series for Avatar in which the old gods like Zeus and Horus return to stake their claim on Earth.

2000 AD: Prog 1848
Fan favorite Simon Bisley joins co-creator Pat Mills in returning to one of their early creations, Sláine, in this one-shot 8 page story in the latest 2000 AD magazine.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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