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First Second

5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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First Second

Every Wednesday, I preview the 5 most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, Comixology, Kickstarter and the web. If there's a release you're excited about, let's talk about it in the comments.

1. Battling Boy

By Paul Pope
First Second

One of the most anticipated books of the year (years even, since this is arriving later than many had expected) is the first volume of Paul Pope's sci-fi epic Battling Boy. Set on an alternate earth, monsters are overrunning the sprawling city of Arcopolis, stealing children and eating automobiles. The only hope Arcopolis has is their Batman-like vigilante science hero, Haggard West. Except that Haggard West is now dead and that hope now rests in a 12-year old boy.

Paul Pope is one of the comic industry's rare rock stars. He is adored by indie and mainstream fans alike—at least since his award-winning 2006 graphic novel Batman Year: 100 put him on many people's radar. One of the reasons' Battling Boy has been so delayed is that Pope has gotten himself involved in the movie business, including writing a potential film adaptation for Brad Pitt's production company of this very book even though he hadn't yet finished writing the book itself.

Most people will find it was worth the wait, though, as it pulls together many of the elements we love about Pope's work while being a little more all-ages-friendly than most of his previous books. Pope is one of the great sci-fi cartoonists working today. He has a loose, sexy and inimitable way of drawing comics that looks like what would happen if Hugo Pratt or, heck, Egon Schiele had created DC's Fourth World. He mixes a European sense of sci-fi scale and landscape with early 20th century gadgetry and clothing styles and a Japanese feel for action and storytelling to create a very American story of superheroes and overcoming insurmountable odds. 

The titular Battling Boy is going through a rite of passage and is sent by his demigod father to complete the Herculean challenge of saving this world. He comes with a suitcase of goodies to help him along, including a set of printed T-shirts that embody him with the power of whatever animal is depicted on its front (i.e., a Tyrannosaurus Rex). Despite this, Battling Boy is in over his head when it comes to fighting these monsters, and that's a secret he wants to keep from the people of Arcopolis who want him to be their new Haggard West. Battling Boy looks like a typical Pope protagonist with his tousled hair and skinny jeans, but he's also a straight-out-of manga, monster-fighting boy hero. However, the more compelling character of the book may be Haggard West's teenage daughter, Aurora, left behind by her father's death to make sense of his secret lair and all its weapons. I imagine she'll become even more central to the story in the book's sequel. 

Battling Boy is out today and you can read a preview here.

2. The Nib

Edited by Matt Bors
Medium

Medium is the newest social media/blogging project from Evan Williams, the man who brought us Blogger and Twitter. It is basically a blogging platform with many of Twitter's successful aspects built into it: a central feed of incoming content, easy sharing of that content, and a growing user base of smart, thoughtful people creating the content. If you haven't heard of it or read anything on it yet, you probably will soon. It has begun to get a lot of attention across social media due to both the high quality of some of the articles and some controversy surrounding a few of the lower quality ones. It is considered to be revitalizing the nature of blogging, but it also is considered a potential avenue to follow for the online publishing industry. While Medium has been invite-only during its roll out, it has also been paying for a certain percentage of its content, in some cases without making that completely clear to the readers.

That brings us to The Nib, a new section of Medium that launched a few weeks back that falls into the paid content category and is openly promoted as such. Cartoonist Matt Bors (who I've previously written about here) was hired by Medium as a full-time cartoonist to create editorial cartoons but to also hire other cartoonists to contribute their own work to the section. Bors so far has curated a collection of primarily Progressive editorial pieces that include: political cartoons about subjects such as Syria and drone warfare; a tongue-in-cheek info graphic about MillennialsBill Roundy's cartoon about being gay and dating transgender men, and Molly Crabapple's illustrated account of visiting the prison in Gitmo. Many of the contributors are familiar names in political and editorial cartooning like Ted Rall, Susie Cagle and Brian McFadden. 

As many alt-weeklies are folding across the country and editorial cartoonists are finding it harder and harder to make a living in this field, Bors and Medium have suddenly come along with a new and promising outlet for this type of political-minded comics.

Browse through the list of offerings on The Nib and, while you're at it, admire that nice logo graphic designed by comic artist Jim Rugg.


3. Superman/Wonder Woman #1

Written by Charles Soule; art by Tony Daniel
DC Comics

It's easy for me to lose sight of whether or not civilians (people, unlike me, who don't keep up with the ins and outs of comics) are aware of the fact that since DC Comics rebooted their publishing universe as "The New 52" a couple of years ago, Superman and Wonder Woman have been a couple. It got a lot of mainstream press at the time and has been controversial among fans (particularly Wonder Woman fans who are understandably wary of a feminist icon being relegated to girlfriend status). Having not kept up recently on either character's books, I briefly forgot about this romantic hook up, myself, even though it may be the biggest change they've introduced to these characters in a long time

In the new ongoing Superman/Wonder Woman, Charles Soule, a new addition to the DC stable of writers, along with veteran artist Tony Daniel, explores the romance between these two iconic heroes. In this new rebooted universe, only a few years have passed since the Justice League came into being, so not only is this romance a new thing but these versions of Superman and Wonder Woman actually don't have much of a shared history together. This book will take the opportunity to show them getting to know each other as well as each's supporting cast and family. Somewhat disappointingly, to me at least, the romance and relationship will often be treated as a subplot to the superhero business that has to go on in this type of book. In the first issue, we see the first introduction of the "New 52" Doomsday, the villain that once killed Superman back in the classic 1990's event "Death of Superman." So think of it as a team-up book with the fighting occasionally broken up by a discussion of feelings.

DC seems to be trademarking the "/" as a way of denoting team up books, particularly in regards to Superman. This book comes on the heels of Batman/Superman which looks to explore the often adversarial relationship between those two characters. The use of the "/", especially in the previous book, makes some people chuckle at the probably unintentional reference to "slash fiction." With this book at least, any romantic overtones are indeed intentional.

4. Pulp

Written by Jeremy Holt; art by Chris Peterson
Self-published

Jeremy Holt and Chris Peterson recently released a 24 page comic, called Pulp, that they're selling in PDF form through the Gumroad shopping cart service that many self-publishers have taken to in order to easily and painlessly sell DRM-free digital comics. They're even going with the "pay what you want" model popularized by everyone from Louis CK to Brian K. Vaughan. For digital comics, selling through a service like Gumroad is becoming a nice alternative to Comixology that definitely has a number of pros and cons compared to that service.

However, the reason I mention Pulp is because it is a very good comic that will be well worth whatever you choose to pay for it. As the name indicates, it has a noir slant to it and a deliciously bleak twist ending that harkens back to the pre-Comics Code short stories from EC Comics. It is also a commentary on writing and the pains of trying to get published that makes Holt and Peterson's route for self-publishing all the more important to the theme of the story.

Since I don't want to give too much away about the plot and its twist, I'll just say that it is about a writer, holed up in a house in the snowy woods, working on his latest novel. The scenes of him writing are interspersed with scenes of him meeting at the offices of his publisher. The writer is visited multiple times by a mysterious woman who appears to be his publisher's secretary from the scenes in the office. By the time we get to the end and see what's really going on, you'll probably want to go back and re-read it.

Holt and Peterson have both been self-publishing comics and working for smaller publishers. Peterson, especially, stands out here with some expressive brush work and great use of two colors—blue and yellow—to differentiate time and place as scenes intercut back and forth.

Go here, read a quick preview and then pay what you want for Pulp.

5. Rocket Girl #1

Written by Brandon Montclaire; art by Amy Reeder
Image Comics

Rocket Girl began its life as a successful Kickstarter earlier this year with funds going towards printing and production costs for the initial 5-issue story arc for a planned ongoing series. Image Comics, the popular publisher for creator-owned genre works, stepped in to distribute the series and now the first issue is hitting stores this week.

The hero of the story, Rocket Girl, is a teenage police officer from an alternate 2013 that is sent back to 1986 to investigate "crimes against time" committed by a megacorporation called Quintum Mechanics. Her investigation soon leads her to realize that her 2013 should not even exist.

Amy Reeder draws the book and co-created it with writer Brandon Montclaire, with whom she previously collaborated on another creation called Halloween Eve. She has done a variety of work for DC Comics, most notably on Madame Xanadu for which she was nominated for an Eisner, and an ill-fated run on Batwoman that ended abruptly due to stated "creative differences". With surprisingly few female artists working in the superhero and sci-fi genre for the bigger publishers, Reeder is developing a successful career with her own projects like this one. Her work is dynamic and stylish and with this book she gets to show off not only her ability to draw future tech but her ability to capture the essence of the '80s.

Read a preview of Rocket Girl here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Shaolin Cowboy Vol. 2 #1
Geof Darrow's ultra-violent, insanely detailed art fest, which began way back in the mid-2000s when the Wachowskis briefly had their own comic book company, returns this time from Dark Horse. Read a preview and marvel at the line work.

Three #1
Another new book from Image plays off the story of 300, as Kireon Gillen and Ryan Kelly tell the story of three slaves trying to escape the Spartan army. Preview here.

God Hates Astronauts Vol. 1
Another Kickstarter success story brought to Image Comics. Ryan Browne's absurdist satire of superheroes, NASA and other things is a cult favorite. Info here.

Mind Mgmt Vol. 2
Matt Kindt's excellent series about a shadowy agency and the mind-manipulating people that once worked for them is collected in a second volume here.  Here's a preview.

SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

The second volume of my own graphic novel, Nathan Sorry, comes out on Comixology today. You can read all about it and buy volumes 1 and 2 here.

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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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iStock
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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