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Image Comics

Wednesday is New Comics Day

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Image Comics

Every Wednesday, I preview the 5 most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, Comixology, Kickstarter and the web that week. These aren't reviews, just brief highlights. If there's a release you're excited about, let's talk about it in the comments.

This week's comics include: 
- A complex story about family
- A spy comic that will feature a different artist each month
- A comic described as Beavis and Butthead meet James Joyce
- China Miéville's coda to Dial H
- And a superhero who gets his powers from alcohol

1. Household

By Sam Alden
samaldencomics.tumblr.com

It's understandable if you're not familiar with Sam Alden's work—he's only in his early 20s and has been publishing his comics in a random assortment of Tumblr posts, unrelated websites, and ontributions to StudyGroup Comics. Each is like a discarded clue scattered across the web to help you piece together what this exciting new artist is all about. Almost every comic looks wildly different from the next and they range in genre from autobiography to fantasy. His body of work to date is really worth seeking out and just this past weekend he won a prestigious Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent.

Just before winning that award this past week, Alden released his newest comic both on his Tumblr and as a mini comic at last weekend's Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD. Household is a short comic about a brother and sister who are reunited in New Orleans after some time apart. Their relationship is shadowed by a troubled childhood that they're each trying in their own way to escape from. Seeing each other again seems to complicate that in a big way.

This is a complex and emotionally harrowing comic that some will find a little too disturbing for them [edit: As noted in the comments below, I should mention that this comic gets very graphic about halfway through and is definitely for mature readers only]. Alden has many strengths as a cartoonist and one of them is knowing how to pull off the emotional gut punch. This story stuck with me for days after reading it. Alden drew it in a quickly pencilled style very similar to his Hawaii 1997 comic. It is unassuming in its rough quality and seems spontaneously drawn, belying the subtle layers of thematic storytelling beneath. You can often see where he he has erased lines of dialogue and his panel borders are wonky and uneven, but, there are so many elements of his cartooning that are more accomplished than you might at first realize. His sense of light and shadow as seen in that title page is beautiful. His realistic gestures (paired with spot-on dialogue) give his characters naturality that is so hard for many people to pull off in comics. And the way he structures his story, with interlocking scenes, sometimes switching back and forth in time from panel to panel, is just masterful.

Sam Alden, as his recent Ignatz Award indicates, is the next big thing. Check him out.

Read "Household" here.

2. Zero

Written by Ales Kot; Art by Michael Walsh, colors by Jordie Bellaire, lettering by Clayton Cowles
Image Comics

A new ongoing series called Zero takes an interesting approach to comics storytelling that may be drawing inspiration from some recent trends in comics publishing. Writer Ales Kot is structuring his first ongoing comic so that each issue tells a standalone story feeding into a larger overall narrative. Each issue will also be drawn by a different artist. 

Set in the near future, Zero is about a spy named Edward Zero who begins to uncover the uncomfortable truth behind the motives of the agency that employs him. Each issue focuses on a different mission and will tell a complete story but will build on the overarching story of Zero and his search for the truth. The first issue is drawn by Michael Walsh, the artist on the new X-Files comic for IDW. He has a gritty, realistic yet simple and clean style that is very reminiscent of Michael Lark (of Image Comics' Lazarus). Future artists will include Mateus Santolouco, Morgan Jeske, Tradd Moore, Will Tempest, and Tonci Zonjic. The consistent glue that will hold them all together is regular colorist Jordie Bellaire and letterer Clayton Cowles.

With the ever increasing popularity of digital comics, which rely more on single issue sales than collected editions, a comic that sells itself as consisting of "done-in-ones" where you can jump in at any point is a smart approach. Meanwhile, a recent comic that has successfully utilized multiple artists to tell different stories within one ongoing story is Brandon Graham's Prophet. The use of fresh talent and their varying art styles is a selling point for that book and fits in with the nature of the story in which the protagonist has multiple clones, each with their own stories to be told. Kot is capitalizing on a similar approach with some new names and rising stars on his roster and a story with changes in settings and time periods that allows for a flexibility in the book's aesthetic. 

You can read an interview with Kot and see some preview pages from Zero here.

3. School Spirits

By Anya Davidson
Picturebox

For those readers that look for comics that push the envelope and experiment a little with form, the best places to look these days are probably out in the wild world of webcomics or within the Picturebox catalog. Started by Dan Nadel, co-editor of The Comics Journal, Picturebox publishes an eclectic mix of art comics and historical comic publications. Their books tend to value things like publication design, artistic experimentation and avant-garde aesthetics that you don't see in even the most independent of indie comics these days. 

This week, Picturebox is releasing a couple of books and the one that most fits (or maybe breaks) the mold of artistic experimentation is Anya Davidson's debut graphic novel School Spirits. Davidson, a Chicago artist and former singer with the underground noise rock band Coughs, has been working on zines and mini comics for a number of years. Her work is very much in that punk frame of reference with loud, clashing color palettes and anything-goes storytelling. At times, her work is very reminiscent of classic, punk-comic provocateurs like Gary Panter but there are shades of many other influences in there including Mayan and Indian artwork, French cartoonist David B. and event a hint of Jack Kirby.

Davidson describes School Spirits as "Beavis and Butthead meets James Joyce's Ulysses," which is about as compelling a "___ meets ___" as I've heard in a while. It consists of four chapters that use different narrative techniques to tell a story involving a high school student named Oola with "an unusual connection to the supernatural."

You can preview some pages of School Spirits here.

4. Justice League 23.3/Dial E #1

Written by China Miéville; art by various
DC Comics

A nice little gem hidden within DC Comics's "Villain Month" (in which all their major superhero books are taken over by villains and temporarily renamed in their honor) is a comic that takes the place of Justice League #23.3 (there are 4 issues per title this month, hence the decimals) and is alternately titled Dial E #1. It is actually a coda to science fiction novelist China Miéville's highly acclaimed but recently cancelled DC comic Dial H.

A reworking of a goofy old DC comic—Dial H for Hero—Miéville's comic took the same concept (a guy finds a phone-like dial and whenever he dials H-E-R-O he turns into a new and different superhero) and added a dark and surreal flavor that calls to mind some of Grant Morrison's early work on Doom Patrol. Here, Mieville gets one last hurrah, but this time out there is an E dial that turns the criminals that find it into super villains.

Similar to the approach we mentioned in #2 with Ales Kot's Zero, Dial E uses an array of different artists within this one issue to differentiate the 20 different, brand new super villains it creates with the E Dial. The list of contributors is an exciting mix of artists that you'd regularly find in a DC Vertigo comic like Jeff Lemire, Brendan McCarthy, Jock and David Lapham as well as lesser known artists that you wouldn't typically see in what is ostensibly a Justice League comic like Tula O'Tay, Emma Rios, Sloane Leong, Annie Wu and many more.

You can see some preview pages here.

5. Buzzkill #1

Written by Donny Cates and Mark Reznicek; Art by Geoff Shaw, colors by Lauren Affe
Dark Horse Comics

We're all familiar with stories that show the devastating effects that alcoholism can have on someone's life. We also have seen how the power and confidence a story's character gets from alcohol is what eventually leads to the devastation. We may even have experienced these things ourselves in real life. However, in Buzzkill, a new 4 issue mini-series from Dark Horse, we meet a superhero whose power is derived from how much alcohol he imbibes. With that power comes blackouts, loss of control and massive amounts of destruction. After many years of this, the hero decides it is time to give it all up, which is exactly what his enemies want.

The creative team behind Buzzkill are all relative newcomers. Donny Cates got his break with Dark Horse with a story called Hunter Quaid that was published in their anthology Dark Horse Presents. Mark Reznicek is new to comics and a member of the band The Toadies who co-wrote the story with his friend Cates. Even artist Geoff Shaw has a short comics resume that's highlight is a 10 page story in a Batman anthology comic. Together they seem to have hit on a unique concept that looks to tell a serious story about addiction but within the larger-than-life trappings of a modern superhero comic. Despite its seemingly solemn take on alcoholism though, a sign that the comic will not take itself too seriously is in the names of some of the other heroes and villains that appear in the book, all with names derived from bands that Reznicek enjoys, i.e. "Panteradactyl."

Read a preview of the first few pages here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Brothers James #1
Zero's Michael Walsh has another comic out this week. This one is available through Comixology's Submit program for self-publishers. It's about two brothers driving across the country on a revenge mission to take out the people that killed their parents when they were kids. Preview and buy it through Comixology here

Kinski #3
I haven't yet had the opportunity to mention the digital comic Kinski published by MonkeyBrain Comics and written and illustrated by the amazing Gabriel Hardman (Hulk, Secret Avengers). It's a weird, Hitchcockian story about a traveling businessman who ends up stealing a dog. The third issue goes on sale today for the very affordable price of 99 cents.

Inkshot
Also from Monkeybrain is this new 260+ page anthology consisting of 3 to 5 page stories all done by Brazilian comic creators, some whom have appeared in American anthologies such as Popgun and Dark Horse Presents and others that are most likely brand new to us American readers. Also on sale at Comixology.

Pompeii
Picturebox's other big release of the week (in addition to the previously mentioned School Spirits) is a graphic novel about an artist's assistant living in Pompeii, Italy before the deadly volcanic eruption that destroys the city. Writer and artist Frank Santoro is someone who loves to deconstruct and teach the art of making comics. He has drawn this book in a style that is reminiscent of Roman frescoes and drawings. Preview it here.

Reggie-12
Brian Ralph's sitcom-like take on Tezuka-like robot manga gets collected in this new hardcover volume from Drawn & Quarterly.
Peruse the comics here.

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

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