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Image Comics

5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Image Comics

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. The Sandman: Overture #1

Written by Neil Gaiman; Art by J.H. Williams III
DC Vertigo

This week brings us one of the biggest comic events of the year, as acclaimed writer and novelist Neil Gaiman returns to his signature comics work. The Sandman: Overture is a six issue prequel to the original series that will answer the question of how Morpheus could have been so easily captured when we first meet him at the start of The Sandman #1. It's a question that Gaiman says he always knew the answer to but never got around to telling until now.

If you're not already familiar with The Sandman, it was once DC Comics' best selling title and a flagship of its mature readers Vertigo imprint. It ran from 1989 until the overarching story was completed with the 75th issue in 1996. Centering around a family of beings known as The Endless who personified the forces that make up the universe as we know it, the story's protagonist was the sibling known as Dream, aka Morpheus or The Sandman. 

Twenty-five years after it began, it's still considered one of the high points of the medium. With the literary nature of its stories, The Sandman appealed to a very different audience than was typically reading comics at that time, particularly high school and college-aged women (a target that comics have not gotten much better at hitting since then). Gaiman was catapulted to stardom by its success and, though he still writes the occasional comic (like the recently announced return to another of his early works, Miracleman), he has moved primarily into a successful career as a novelist and is truly one of the most respected and well known names to come out of this industry. 

Joining Gaiman for this mini-series is artist J.H. Williams III, who most recently was writing and drawing DC's Batwoman series. Williams is a perfect choice of artist for this book. His mind-blowingly intricate and ornate page layouts help give his projects a mythical sense of scope, such as he did in the past with Alan Moore's Promethea or Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers. In addition, original series cover artist Dave McKean will provide alternate covers for the series.

It wouldn't be unreasonable to look at this as another return to the well on DC Comics' part. Last year's Before Watchmen, a prequel to another of their revered classics, Watchmen, sold well despite disapproval from a significant, vocal portion of the fanbase who found the idea to be a desecration of the original book and an insult to its creator. With Gaiman enthusiastically onboard for Sandman, though, this is a pretty controversy-free no-brainer for the publisher and it's safe to say it will be one of the best selling comics of 2013.

2. Revival Vol. 1 Deluxe Hardcover

Written by Tim Seeley; art by Mike Norton; covers by Jenny Frison
Image Comics

With Halloween coming up, there is no shortage of great horror comics out there to choose from, but this week brings a deluxe hardcover edition of one of the surprise hits of the past year, Revival. At first read of the book's description, you may think Revival is yet another zombie comic, lumbering after the unexpected success of fellow Image Comics blockbuster, The Walking Dead. There have been a LOT of zombie comics coming out since The Walking Dead and it doesn't seem like we'd need another one, but writer Tim Seeley has a different take on the dead coming back to life. When the dead come back to life in this one small town in rural Wisconsin, they are not brainless, flesh eating monsters. They are pretty much the same people they were before they died, except they are now dealing with the post-traumatic stress of experiencing their own death. And those around them are now trying to deal with the shocking phenomena of friends and loved ones coming back to life. How is this happening? Is it a religious miracle or an unexplainable nightmare?

Seeley refers to Revival as "rural noir," which perhaps gives you a hint that he's looking to tell a story that's less about horror film plot devices and more about the characters and the complicated choices they make. The cold, Midwestern setting also brings to mind the Coen Brothers' modern crime noir Fargo. Like that film, Revival also focuses on a female police officer as the heart of the story. Officer Dana Cypress has recently been assigned to the Revitalized Citizen Arbitration Division. Her hard-nosed dad is the sheriff and because of a decision that Dana makes, her college-age sister Em dies and becomes a Reviver herself.

Revival is drawn by Mike Norton, who is perhaps best known for his award-winning webcomic Battlepug. He works in a very clean, classic style that may seem too clean for a horror comic but really works in the context of showing the juxtaposition of the supernatural within a mundane setting. Possibly the underappreciated star of this book is Jenny Frison who provides stunning, ethereal covers for every issue. Her work here puts this book into a category usually populated by Vertigo books like the aforementioned Sandman or Fables, where you just know there are people out there buying this comic just for the covers every month.

With 14 issues now released and many of the early issues complete sellouts, Image Comics is giving Revival the deluxe treatment that helped propel The Walking Dead to huge bookstore success in its early years. This special hardcover will collect the first 11 issues, plus a Free Comic Book Day one shot and some behind the scenes bonus material.

3. Uncivilized Books Fall 2013 Subscription

Published by Tom Kaczynski
Uncivilized Books


Cartoonist Tom Kaczynski began Uncivilized Books simply as a "house" name to more easily self-publish his own comics under. Soon he began publishing mini comics made by his friends and in a few short years has turned it into one of the most exciting new publishers in the world of independent literary comics, with books by some great and important cartoonists like Gabrielle Bell and David B.

Uncivilized Books recently announced their new Fall catalog and for a limited time are offering all 5 of these soon-to-be-released books for a discounted price of $65 (US) with free shipping. The highlight of the collection is a new graphic novel from renowned French cartoonist Joann Sfar called Pascin, about the life of the Jewish modernist painter of the same name. In addition there is Sophie Yanow's War of Streets and Houses, a reflection on the military origins of urban planning that she wrote during her participation in the Montreal student strikes in 2012, and That Night, A Fern Monster by Marzena Sowa and Berenika Kołomycka which is an all-ages children's comic about a boy whose mom gets turned into a fern.

The most interesting parts of the Fall catalog however are two books in Uncivilized's new "Critical Cartoons" series that seek to give a platform to new critical voices and let them explore a particular comics subject in thoughtful, provocative, long-form essays. The first is Ed vs. Yummy Fur by Brian Evenson which takes a look at Chester Brown's highly influential one-man anthology comic from the '90s Yummy Fur (which contained the original serialization of his now classic Ed The Happy Clown) and includes a new interview with the cartoonist. The second is Carl Barks' Duck: Your Average American by Peter Schilling Jr, examining Barks' classic 20-year run writing and drawing Donald Duck comics for Disney which, to this day, are considered some of the finest comics ever produced.

When I was a kid, you used to be able to subscribe to a comic like Amazing Spider-man and get every issue that came out mailed to your house (hey, maybe they still do this, who knows). A number of small and boutique publishers like Uncivilized Books have taken a variation of this model and offer "line-wide" subscriptions to pre-order their entire catalog. It's a sure win for the publisher and helps them guarantee a print run, but it's also a great deal for readers that enjoy getting some new and interesting comics in the mail on a periodic basis. In fact, the first 50 subscribers will also get three new mini comics sent to them for free. The offer only lasts until Nov. 15th.

Read more about the books and sign up here.

4. Dogs of War

Written by Sheila Keenan; art by Nathan Fox; colors by Rico Renzi and Guy Major
Scholastic

Scholastic's newest school-friendly graphic novel from their Graphix line is Dogs of War, a collection of three stories showing how canines have been brave and loyal members of the military in battle. While each story is fiction, they are inspired by true events.

The first story is set in the trenches of Belgium during World War I and stars Boots, a medic's dog trained to sniff out survivors in the aftermath of battle. She and the Scottish medic she assists get separated from their unit and taken in by a group of Irish soldiers. The second story takes place during World War II on a US base in Greenland and features a sled dog named Loki who comes in handy with navigating arctic, whiteout conditions when investigating a downed plane. The third story tells about a Vietnam vet who fought with a dog named Sheba that was trained to patrol for booby traps in the jungle.

Sheila Keenan, a writer who has written a number of illustrated non-fiction books for kids, teams with illustrator and comic artist Nathan Fox, most recently known for his cover work for DC's FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics series. Together they have obviously put in a lot of military research for this book. Interestingly, for an all-ages audience, they do not shy away from viscerally depicting the horrors of war and its effects on both people and animals. Particularly in the third chapter about Vietnam, there are some heart-wrenching scenes involving both the war itself and the haunting after-effects it has left the soldier with.

Fox is an amazing artist whose slightly exaggerated figures and ink-heavy brushwork usually lend his work a creepy and psychedelic feeling. It's interesting to see him dial that back a little here with a cleaner, more direct approach, yet the edge that is normally apparent in his previous books like Pigeons from Hell or Fluorescent Black still peeks through, especially when he's drawing battle scenes or simply setting the stage with grungy, muddy and foreboding battlegrounds. 


Dogs of War is available on Amazon now and in many comic shops and bookstores. You can read a pretty extensive preview on Amazon here.

5. Bad Houses

Written by Sara Ryan; art by Carla Speed McNeil
Dark Horse

Bad Houses is a new graphic novel that seems to be getting some really positive early word of mouth around the web. Warren Ellis said it was the best graphic novel he's read all year. Set in a small town in Oregon, it's about two teenagers, Anne and Lewis, who meet at an estate sale. Lewis' mother runs the sales in town, selling off the used junk from homes of deceased owners or that have been foreclosed on, while Anne comes from a family of hoarders. Both are trying not to become just like their parents but over the course of the book they learn a lot about themselves and about the histories of their families and of their town.

Sara Ryan is a novelist of young adult fiction and has won awards for her book Empress of the World and its sequel The Rules for Hearts. She's also very involved in comics, being a member of Portland's Periscope Studios and having written short comics for various anthologies including Hellboy: Weird Tales. This is her first graphic novel and she's paired with artist Carla Speed McNeil, best known for her award-winning series Finder that she has been writing, drawing and self-publishing since the 1990s. McNeil has a really appealing, clean and precise cartooning style. Even when illustrating more sci-fi oriented fare like Finder, her strength is in realistic gestures and expressions, so it makes sense to see her working on a character-driven story like this. For a publisher like Dark Horse that tends to be thought of as producing mostly horror and sci-fi material, it is also nice to see them expanding their line into a more comics-lit territory.

You can read a preview or order it online here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Fox #1
Mark Waid and Dean Haspiel team up for a revival of a pulp-era superhero called The Fox that is published through an imprint of Archie Comics, believe it or not. Preview the material here.

Rage of Poseidon
Anders Nilsen's latest graphic novel is about Poseidon in the 21st Century and is drawn all with silhouettes in a horizontal, accordion-style fold out book. Preview it here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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