Original image
Fellowship of Reconciliation

5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Original image
Fellowship of Reconciliation

Every Wednesday, I preview the five 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. Martin Luther King And The Montgomery Story

Written by Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnik; artist unknown
Fellowship of Reconciliation/Top Shelf Comics

Back in August, Top Shelf Comics published March: Book One, a new graphic novel autobiography written by Civil Rights hero and US Congressman John Lewis (along with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell). What inspired Lewis to tell his story in this format was a comic book published in 1957 called Martin Luther King And The Montgomery Story, a recounting of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama and an introduction to King and his philosophy of non-violent protest. This comic was integral to the rise of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and now is being released for the first time as an official digital comic.

The original comic was produced by a non-profit, civil justice organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) which to this day still distributes the book in pamphlet form, translated into many languages. FOR's Director of Publications at the time, Alfred Hassler, wrote the comic with help from Benton Resnik, a veteran of the then-struggling comic book industry. They worked on it with input from Dr. King himself and Resnik managed the production of the comic, but no credits were printed in the book. To this day it is not known who the artist of the book was. FOR has now partnered with Top Shelf Comics, the publisher of Lewis' graphic novel, to distribute the book in a digital bundle along with March: Book One via the Comixology digital platform for web, tablet and mobile devices. 

The comic tells the story of how the Montgomery Bus Boycott came to be, from Rosa Parks quietly refusing to move to the back of the bus to the Supreme Court ruling bus segregation in Montgomery illegal. It also tells, in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s own words, how the "Montgomery Method" could be used to gain freedom across the nation and how similar methods were used by Mahatma Gandhi. It is very nicely illustrated, and even though it is dated in its comic book style and fairly antiseptic in its portrayal of the uglier parts of the racial struggles of that time, it is still a very compelling and informative read. 

When Dr. King and the Fellowship of Reconciliation were looking for the best way to get the message of the Montgomery story out to African Americans, the idea of producing it as a comic book appealed to them for a number of reasons. Primarily, the use of pictures and words would allow people of all ages and reading abilities to understand what was being told. At the time, many blacks who were found reading books, newspapers or magazines by white employers would see them confiscated and destroyed. Comic books, having been recently decimated as an industry by a panic that targeted them as a cause of juvenile delinquency, were the perfect "low brow" delivery method to fly under the radar of suspicious white segregationists. 

The comic spread far and wide, delivering King's message to those who needed it. It directly inspired peaceful protests across the nation, such as the Woolworth sit-in by The Greensboro Four, and has even inspired similar movements in South Africa and most recently in Egypt where it was translated into Arabic and Farsi. It might possibly be one of the most important comic books ever made and it is now exploring a new avenue via Comixology.

I highly recommend reading this detailed history of the making of the comic, written by March: Book One co-author Andrew Aydin.

At this time, the comic cannot be purchased individually but you can buy it with March Book One for $9.99 on Comixology here and all the proceeds go to the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

2. A Gas Gas Gas

Written by Nate DiMeo; art by Dan Berry

BoingBoing has become quite the breeding ground for high quality webcomics of late. Branching from the success of Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree (which is hitting stores this month as a graphic novel from Fantagraphics), they started a new webcomic from Lea Hernandez two weeks ago called Bani Garu, and this past week launched the first of a new series called Memory Palace Comics.

Nate DiMeo is a producer and contributor to various NPR shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition and is the host of his own podcast The Memory Palace. Each episode of his show tells a true but perhaps little-known story from a broad range of historical subjects presented in the vein of popular storytelling radio programs such as This American Life. DiMeo decided to begin adapting some of these stories visually by partnering with cartoonist Dan Berry to create this new webcomic.

Berry himself is no stranger to podcasts. He is the host of one of my favorite podcasts, Make It Then Tell Everybody, in which he interviews other comic artists and illustrators about their process. He is a British cartoonist who works primarily in pen and watercolor. His charming style, within the creepy but humorous context of this piece, has a bit of an Edward Gorey or Richard Sala vibe to it.

In "A Gas Gas Gas", DiMeo and Berry tell the true story of a mysterious incident in 1944 in which over 20 people in Mattoon, Illinois suddenly and mysteriously were stricken with gas poisoning. Who or what was causing this widespread epidemic? The story unfolds in the way that listeners of shows like This American Life or RadioLab will find familiar and enjoyable, as the narrator attempts to get to the truth of the matter at hand and put it into a little bit of perspective.

You can read "A Gas Gas Gas" here and DiMeo suggests listening to the original podcast here as you read along for added effect. Hopefully, more installments will be added soon.

3. Amazing X-men #1

Written by Jason Aaron; art by Ed McGuiness
Marvel Comics

Nightcrawler, the X-men's adventure-loving, teleporting, demonic-blue elf, died three years ago in the crossover event Second Coming, sacrificing himself to save the so-called "Mutant Messiah" named Hope. Three years is kind of an eternity for any character to be dead in the world of superhero comics. Then again, there has been a darker, more violent version of Nightcrawler from the "Age of Apocalypse" alternate universe that has been hanging out in comics like Uncanny X-Force for most of that time. Also, in Wolverine & The X-men, there have been ongoing appearances by mischievous creatures referred to as "Bamfs" who seems to share Nightcrawler's teleporting ability and the sound effect ("Bamf!") it makes. I guess there's also a Nightcrawler in Marvel's Ultimate Universe of comics which is still chugging along (barely). So, these three years have not been totally devoid of Nightcrawler but, if you've missed the real deal, good news: He's coming back in a new series called Amazing X-men.

Marvel already publishes more X-men books than most people can reasonably keep up with, but this new one is actually replacing the recently ended Astonishing X-men, resulting in no actual net gain of X-books. It is written by Jason Aaron and will act as a companion book to Aaron's popular Wolverine & The X-men. The cast of that book, which centers around the teachers and students of the Jean Grey School For Higher Learning, has grown quickly since it launched in 2011. Aaron and Marvel have decided to move some of the regular non-student cast into this more classic, X-men team adventure comic so that W&TXM can re-focus on being a book about the school. 

In the first arc of this new series, Wolverine receives a message from the afterlife from his old friend Nightcrawler and decides to form a team to help bring him back. The new team consists of Storm, Northstar, Iceman, Beast and Firestar. Yes, that Firestar. Originally from the old Saturday morning cartoon Spider-man and His Amazing Friends, Firestar has been kicking around the Marvel Universe for years without finding a real permanent place. This is the first time she'll be a member of the X-men.

Nightcrawler's death had a big emotional impact on his teammates and his loss has been felt by all of them, but especially Wolverine. One of the reasons Logan has become the headmaster of the Jean Grey School was to try to be a better man in honor of his old friend. It's one of the great things about the X-men as a team book how its large, sprawling cast relates to each other in different ways. Wolverine, especially, seems to have poignant relationships with many of the longtime members in ways that soften his tough guy exterior. These are the kinds of things that  Chris Claremont, the architect of the modern day X-men from the 70s to the 90s, instilled in the DNA of the book. New writers like Jason Aaron come into these books seeking to capture some of that old magic in their new stories.

There's a short preview of the first issue available here.

4. Maria M.

By Gilbert Hernandez

Some of my favorite Gilbert Hernandez comics are ones that he wrote to be comic adaptations of fictional B-movies starring his popular and endearing creation, Fritz, the buxom, lispy therapist-turned-actress. So far there have been three: Chance in Hell, The Troublemakers and Love From The Shadows. It's a clever device that allows Hernandez to tell sexy, pulpy stories that are outside yet still connected to the continuity of his usual stories about the immigrants and descendants of the fictional Latin American country of Palomar. He always seems to deftly capture the B-movie quality of films like this in his drawings through his staging of scenes, his "camera angles" and his use of stilted dialogue. The fact that these stories are actually movies made within Hernandez' Palomar continuity is mostly incidental to the reading of the books but they add a fun meta-layer to it for  fans of his work.

In his latest, Maria M., he adds a new layer to the concept. In this "movie", Fritz is starring in an adaptation of the life story of her mother Maria, which Gilbert has previously told in his classic graphic novel Poison River (originally serialized in the long-running, groundbreaking anthology comic he has done with his brother Jaime, Love & Rockets). So, for the record, this one is a comic book adaptation of a fake film adaptation of the fictional life of a comic book character. In the book, we meet Maria as she comes to America and is lured into the world of pornography and crime, eventually marrying a drug lord. 

Fantagraphics has a NSFW 13-page preview here.

5. Alex + Ada #1

Written by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn; art by Jonathan Luna
Image Comics

The Luna brothers (Jonathan and Joshua) were Image Comics mainstays in the early 2000s, producing three back-to-back high-concept mini-series that combined a Hollywood style of lite comedy and suspenseful drama packaged with polished digitally colored artwork whose use of blurs and lighting effects gave their comics a glossy sheen that makes them look like stills from an animated film. Beginning with Ultra, their super heroine as Sex in the City romance comic followed by Girls, a zombie-horror story in which the "zombies" are beautiful, naked, flesh-eating women, and finally The Sword, a Kill Bill-stye revenge story involving a supernatural sword, the Luna Brothers made fun genre comics, usually starring strong female characters. And then, in 2010, they took some time off from making comics.

This week, one of the brothers, Jonathan, makes his return to comics (without Joshua but the two plan on a new collaboration soon). Coincidentally, he's been gone from comics the same amount of time as Nightcrawler has been dead, and similarly, it feels longer than it's been. This time out, Jonathan has teamed up with writer Sarah Vaughn who is making her debut in print comics after a nerve injury forced her to abandon the drawing of her webcomic co-creation Sparkshooter

Alex + Ada is a 12-issue mini-series set in the near future, in which a lonely, detached young man named Alex is given the gift of a state-of-the art female android named Ada to be his romantic companion. With Luna's cold, emotionless take on this world, think Weird Science directed by Stanley Kubrick. The future Alex lives in is a mere extension of our own, with humans living a very passive existence, telepathically thinking commands to various artificially intelligent devices around their homes and offices ("Unlock door." "Lights on."). A year before, an incident occurred in which the first AI achieved sentience so the lines between humans and robots are blurring, which sets the stage nicely for the story's unnatural romantic pairing. 

You can read a preview as well as an interview with Luna and Vaughn here.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]