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Fantagraphics

5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Fantagraphics
Fantagraphics

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. Hip Hop Family Tree

By Ed Piskor
Fantagraphics

Growing up an uncool white kid listening to classic rock and transitioning into an uncool adult listening to grunge and shoe gazer indie rock, I don't know all that much about hip hop's early days and its various pioneers. What I've always loved, though, are books that tackle the history of a subject that I'm not that well versed in and one that maybe hasn't been tackled in this way before. If you're not familiar with the early days of hip hop and its rise as a musical art form from the streets and clubs of Queens and the Bronx, you'll be fascinated to read about it in Ed Piskor's new graphic novel Hip Hop Family Tree. If you are already familiar… wow, are you going to love this book.

Ed Piskor's "thing" as a comics creator may be telling the definitive history of subjects that have their roots in underground culture. His last book was the equally fascinating Wizzywig, a fictionalized history of hacking and social engineering. With Hip Hop Family Tree, he's abandoned the device of using a fictional protagonist and instead uses "old school" comic book narration boxes to tell the myriad, interlocking stories of the real people at the forefront of this music revolution – people like Kurtis Blow, DJ Kool Herc, Russell Simmons, Sylvia Robinson and Grandmaster Flash. Piskor aims to draw a parallel between hip hop and comics – two underground, often derided American art forms – by telling this story as if it was a comic book from the same era of the late '70s.

He does this by using the aforementioned caption boxes and halftone dots, and the book itself is printed on paper that's been made to look like browned-out, old comic newsprint. There are some clever uses of printing effects like off-register coloring (a common accident in the old days of printing where the color plates weren't lined up, resulting in a slightly off-center, ghosted double image) to portray the intense vibrations of the bass in the dance club scenes. His art in this book likens itself to the great Marvel Comics artists of the '70s but Piskor's style I think is naturally derived from alternative comics artists like Robert Crumb or Chester Brown which also makes for an interesting underground parallel. In an amusing short comic included at the end of the book, he further enunciates the similarities between rappers and superheroes with their colorful clothes, outlandish names and their epic "battles."


Piskor has a big story to tell and at times it can be a lot to keep up with. He is constantly introducing as well as revisiting various players in the story as he moves from the mid-70s into the early '80s. He shows the rise of early stars like Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang and hints at stars to come with frequent appearances by the kids who would one day become Run-D.M.C. He also explores some interesting behind-the-scenes aspects of hip hop's evolution: the record store owners who suddenly found an influx of customers looking for obscure records to pull "breaks" from; the rockers like Debbie Harry who found themselves intrigued and inspired by this new sound; and graffiti artists like Fab Five Freddy who were helping to create the look that went along with the sound, while bridging hip hop with the elite New York art and music scenes.

Hip Hop Family Tree began as a popular, serialized webcomic on BoingBoing and is collected in this first print edition from Fantagraphics. Piskor plans more volumes and is just about finished with the second.

Read more about it here and read a preview.

2. Showa: A History of Japan 1926-1939

By Shigeru Mizuki; translation by Zack Davisson
Drawn & Quarterly

Meanwhile, another definitive history of an even larger and broader subject is Shigeru Mizuki's Showa: A History of Japan, which sees its first American release from Drawn & Quarterly this week. This is the beginning of a multi-volume series that will detail the Showa period that went from 1926 to 1989, corresponding with the reign of Emperor Hirohito.

Mizuki is a manga cartoonist best known for his yōkai horror manga and subsequent anime GeGeGe no Kitarō, but has also written and illustrated WWII-era biographies and memoirs. Similarly to Piskor's approach to telling the history of hip hop, Mizuki embraces the medium of comics and manga in the way he tells Japan's history. Half of the book is illustrated with a detailed, photo-realistic approach while the rest is illustrated in a more whimsical, cartooning style. Mizuki was a child during the years this volume is set in so he uses his own life experiences in autobiographical vignettes set against the historical backdrops. He also uses one of his own fictional characters, Nezumi Otoko from GeGeGe no Kitarō, to narrate the book. Zack Davisson, who translated the work for Drawn & Quarterly, likens this on his blog to "What if Carl Barks had written Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States but done it as a comic book using Donald Duck as the narrator?"



In its original publication in Japan, Showa ran for eight volumes, and this first English volume collects the equivalent of two of them.
This blog has some nice preview pages showing the way Mizuki uses two different drawing styles in this book. Drawn & Quarterly also has a brief preview here.

3. The Tower of Power Part One

By Box Brown
Self-published

Digital comics are becoming more and more of a viable opportunity for independent cartoonists to get their work out to the public and, unlike with webcomics, actually be able to sell them to the readers. When digital comics giant Comixology launched their Submit program for independent creators, it seemed like a boon to this area of the industry, but it has become so popular that creators now have to wait six months for their submitted books to appear in the storefront. There hasn't been a great mechanism for selling downloadable digital files until the web payment startup Gumroad launched last year. This easy-to-use service was created to allow creative people to sell their digital products directly to their audience without a complicated setup or checkout process. A number of cartoonists have begun to flock to this service (as well as professional musicians like Girl Talk and Eminem) to sell PDF copies of their comics. All that seems to be missing now is a mechanism that more easily allows creators and potential readers to find each other.

Box Brown has just released his newest comic, The Tower of Power Part One, as a "pay what you want" PDF comic, sold via Gumroad. Brown has been working on a graphic novel biography of the late professional wrestler Andre The Giant that will be released through First Second next year. As a departure from that research-heavy non-fiction work, he decided to go the opposite direction with an out there, sci-fi comic. The Tower of Power is set in an alternate future where Jones Anthony, the "greatest mind of our generation", commits suicide by driving into the sun, leaving behind a DNA sample and a request not to be cloned. Eventually, a rogue scientist goes against those wishes and the cloned child that is created is adopted by an unsuspecting family.

The story is a fun, crazy read with floating people, wizard senators, sullen, disaffected teenagers and plenty of satirical references to government ineffectiveness, social media and celebrity.  Brown actually created the book during the recent government shutdown and it's partly a reaction to the ridiculousness of those proceedings. His plan is for this to be an ongoing comic that he will add new installments to in between other projects, and release them periodically over the next couple of years.

I always think of Brown's work in terms of black and white, cleanly inked drawings, but with this project and his recent webcomic "Softcore" on the Studygroup website, he's been taking advantage of the digital medium to experiment with some eye-popping color palettes, not having to worry about how they might print.

Check out Box Brown's first installment of The Tower of Power which you can download as a PDF for any price you'd like here.

4. Bandette Vol. 1: Presto!


Written by Paul Tobin; art by Colleen Coover & others
Dark Horse

One of the big success stories in digital comics over the past year has been the new "digital first" publisher Monkeybrain Comics and the crown jewel of their collection, the award-winning Bandette by husband and wife team Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover. Monkeybrain publishers (another husband and wife team) Chris Roberson and Allison Baker have put together a varied catalog of fine comics that they publish directly through Comixology. Being a creator-friendly publisher, they allow the creators to take their comics to other publishers for print editions and even facilitate that relationship. In this case, Bandette is getting a new hardcover treatment through Dark Horse Comics.

Bandette is an utterly charming all-ages book about a cute teenage girl who wears a domino mask and a cape and causes mischief for the police and criminals alike in the streets of Paris. She's aided by a group of teenage street urchins and finds herself both helping and being pursued by the police inspector. It's a fun book with an appealing heroine that young, female readers, especially, would get a kick out of. Coover's wonderful drawing style - with hints of Darwyn Cooke's simple designs and energetic action scenes - is the big sell here. However, this print volume contains some new extra material including a prose piece by Tobin and some short stories with guest art from equally enjoyable artists such as Erika Moen, Steve Lieber, Jonathan Case and Jennifer Meyer.

Dark Horse has a preview and more info on their website.

5. Delusional


By Farel Dalrymple
Adhouse Books

Farel Dalrymple is a cartoonist and illustrator who probably doesn't produce enough comics work to please his fans. He's best known for his work with novelist Jonathan Lethem on Marvel's Omega the Unknown or even for his recent contribution to Brandon Graham's Prophet. In between these larger works, he's contributed to a number of anthologies and magazines as well as posted webcomics online. In this new collection called Delusional, Adhouse Books pulls together a number of these shorter pieces, supplemented by drawings and sketches.

Dalrymple is an award-winning illustrator with an earthy, sketchy drawing style that gives a sense of realness to his work even when he's drawing fantastic imagery like a boy with wings flying in Pop Gun War or a massive spaceship shaped like a man in Prophet. He is the latest artist to get this sort of art showcase treatment from design-focused publisher Adhouse (previously they've published similar books for Paul Pope, Stuart Immonen and others).

Adhouse has an extensive preview of the book online although, knowing Adhouse, I'm sure the production value of the printing will mean you should try to check it out in person.

In fact these photos on Dalrymple's Tumblr may be even more representative.


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science
5 Ways You Do Complex Math in Your Head Without Realizing It
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iStock

The one thing that people who love math and people who hate math tend to agree on is this: You're only really doing math if you sit down and write formal equations. This idea is so widely embraced that to suggest otherwise is "to start a fight," says Maria Droujkova, math educator and founder of Natural Math, a site for kids and parents who want to incorporate math into their daily lives. Mathematicians cherish their formal proofs, considering them the best expression of their profession, while the anti-math don't believe that much of the math they studied in school applies to "real life."

But in reality, "we do an awful lot of things in our daily lives that are profoundly mathematical, but that may not look that way on the surface," Christopher Danielson, a Minnesota-based math educator and author of a number of books, including Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies, tells Mental Floss. Our mathematical thinking includes not just algebra or geometry, but trigonometry, calculus, probability, statistics, and any of the at least 60 types [PDF] of math out there. Here are five examples.

1. COOKING // ALGEBRA

Of all the maths, algebra seems to draw the most ire, with some people even writing entire books on why college students shouldn't have to endure it because, they claim, it holds the students back from graduating. But if you cook, you're likely doing algebra. When preparing a meal, you often have to think proportionally, and "reasoning with proportions is one of the cornerstones of algebraic thinking," Droujkova tells Mental Floss.

You're also thinking algebraically whenever you're adjusting a recipe, whether for a larger crowd or because you have to substitute or reduce ingredients. Say, for example, you want to make pancakes, but you only have two eggs left and the recipe calls for three. How much flour should you use when the original recipe calls for one cup? Since one cup is 8 ounces, you can figure this out using the following algebra equation: n/8 : 2/3.

algebraic equation illustrates adjustment of a recipe
Lucy Quintanilla

However, when thinking proportionally, you can just reason that since you have one-third less eggs, you should just use one-third less flour.

You're also doing that proportional thinking when you consider the cooking times of the various courses of your meal and plan accordingly so all the elements of your dinner are ready at the same time. For example, it will usually take three times as long to cook rice as it will a flattened chicken breast, so starting the rice first makes sense.

"People do mathematics in their own way," Droujkova says, "even if they cannot do it in a very formalized way."

2. LISTENING TO MUSIC // PATTERN THEORY AND SYMMETRY

woman enjoys listening to music in headphones
iStock

The making of music involves many different types of math, from algebra and geometry to group theory and pattern theory and beyond, and a number of mathematicians (including Pythagoras and Galileo) and musicians have connected the two disciplines (Stravinsky claimed that music is "something like mathematical thinking").

But simply listening to music can make you think mathematically too. When you recognize a piece of music, you are identifying a pattern of sound. Patterns are a fundamental part of math; the branch known as pattern theory is applied to everything from statistics to machine learning.

Danielson, who teaches kids about patterns in his math classes, says figuring out the structure of a pattern is vital for understanding math at higher levels, so music is a great gateway: "If you're thinking about how two songs have similar beats, or time signatures, or you're creating harmonies, you're working on the structure of a pattern and doing some really important mathematical thinking along the way."

So maybe you weren't doing math on paper if you were debating with your friends about whether Tom Petty was right to sue Sam Smith in 2015 over "Stay With Me" sounding a lot like "I Won't Back Down," but you were still thinking mathematically when you compared the songs. And that earworm you can't get out of your head? It follows a pattern: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, end.

When you recognize these kinds of patterns, you're also recognizing symmetry (which in a pop song tends to involve the chorus and the hook, because both repeat). Symmetry [PDF] is the focus of group theory, but it's also key to geometry, algebra, and many other maths.

3. KNITTING AND CROCHETING // GEOMETRIC THINKING

six steps of crocheting a hyperbolic plane
Cheryl, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Droujkova, an avid crocheter, she says she is often intrigued by the very mathematical discussions fellow crafters have online about the best patterns for their projects, even if they will often insist they are awful at math or uninterested in it. And yet, such crafts cannot be done without geometric thinking: When you knit or crochet a hat, you're creating a half sphere, which follows a geometric formula.

Droujkova isn't the only math lover who has made the connection between geometry and crocheting. Cornell mathematician Daina Taimina found crocheting to be the perfect way to illustrate the geometry of a hyperbolic plane, or a surface that has a constant negative curvature, like a lettuce leaf. Hyperbolic geometry is also used in navigation apps, and explains why flat maps distort the size of landforms, making Greenland, for example, look far larger on most maps than it actually is.

4. PLAYING POOL // TRIGONOMETRY

people playing pool
iStock

If you play billiards, pool, or snooker, it's very likely that you are using trigonometric reasoning. Sinking a ball into a pocket by using another ball involves understanding not just how to measure angles by sight but triangulation, which is the cornerstone of trigonometry. (Triangulation is a surprisingly accurate way to measure distance. Long before powered flight was possible, surveyors used triangulation to measure the heights of mountains from their bases and were off by only a matter of feet.)

In a 2010 paper [PDF], Louisiana mathematician Rick Mabry studied the trigonometry (and basic calculus) of pool, focusing on the straight-in shot. In a bar in Shreveport, Louisiana, he scribbled equations on napkins for each shot, and he calculated the most difficult straight-in shot of all. Most experienced pool players would say it’s one where the target ball is halfway between the pocket and the cue ball. But that, according to Mabry’s equations, turned out not to be true. The hardest shot of all had a surprising feature: The distance from the cue ball to the pocket was exactly 1.618 times the distance from the target ball to the pocket. That number is the golden ratio, which is found everywhere in nature—and, apparently, on pool tables.

Do you need to consider the golden ratio when deciding where to place the cue ball? Nope, unless you want to prove a point, or set someone else up to lose. You're doing the trig automatically. The pool sharks at the bar must have known this, because someone threw away Mabry's math napkins.

5. RE-TILING THE BATHROOM // CALCULUS

tiled bathroom with shower stall
iStock

Many students don't get to calculus in high school, or even in college, but a cornerstone of that branch of math is optimization—or figuring out how to get the most precise use of a space or chunk of time.

Consider a home improvement project where you're confronted with tiling around something whose shape doesn't fit a geometric formula like a circle or rectangle, such as the asymmetric base of a toilet or freestanding sink. This is where the fundamental theorem of calculus—which can be used to calculate the precise area of an irregular object—comes in handy. When thinking about how those tiles will best fit around the curve of that sink or toilet, and how much of each tile needs to be cut off or added, you're employing the kind of reasoning done in a Riemann sum.

Riemann sums (named after a 19th-century German mathematician) are crucial to explaining integration in calculus, as tangible introductions to the more precise fundamental theorem. A graph of a Riemann sum shows how the area of a curve can be found by building rectangles along the x, or horizontal axis, first up to the curve, and then over it, and then averaging the distance between the over- and underlap to get a more precise measurement. 

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History
The Sky Was No Limit: The WASP Women Pilots of WWII
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shirley Slade sat on the wing of a plane and looked off into an uncertain future. Slade—clad in her flight suit with pigtails guarding against Texas wind—was posing for the July 19, 1943 issue of Life magazine, and the composition between the aircraft and its operator was a juxtaposition spelled out in the cover headline: "Air Force Pilot."

Slade was one of more than 1000 women who had been solicited by the U.S. government to enter an intensive seven-month training course that would make them the first female pilots to enter the Air Force. What had been a boy's club was being forced into a kind of reluctant gender neutrality as a result of World War II and severe pilot shortages. By recruiting women, the Air Force could maintain delivery of aircraft, ferry supplies, and perform other non-combative functions that fueled the war efforts. Collectively, the group would become known as WASPs: Women Airforce Service Pilots.

While all of these women risked their lives—and more than a few lost them—they were not perceived as equals. Because they were designated as civilians, they were denied military honors and compensation. As the war wound down, men returning from combat jockeyed to take the WASPs' places as active-duty pilots. Occasionally, the women would be used in target practice. It would be decades before the women of WASP would finally get their due.

 
 

America's entry into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor heralded a new policy of rationing. Food, materials, and manpower were doled out carefully, but demand for pilots quickly exceeded the available personnel. By 1942, the Air Force realized they would have to tap into new sources in order to continue their campaign.

Jacqueline Cochran had a solution: A pilot in her own right and a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, Cochran knew there was a strong contingent of female fliers who had licenses and had logged air time who could be recruited for support missions. She petitioned the Air Force, including commanding general Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold, to approve a training program that would ultimately relocate volunteers to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Another pilot, Nancy Harkness Love, submitted a similar proposal.

WASP pilot Elizabeth Remba Gardner looks out from her plane while on a Texas runway
WASP pilot Elizabeth Remba Gardner
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cochran and Love were up against considerable resistance to involving women in military efforts. General Dwight D. Eisenhower once admitted he was "violently against" the idea (before concluding that none of his concerns came to light and women were an integral part of the effort). Internally, there was concern as to whether women would even be capable of handling a massive aircraft like the B-29 bomber, so superiors hedged their bets by creating two organizations.

Love was put in charge of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS)—an organization to ferry planes—while Cochran was put in charge of the Women's Flying Training Detachment, which did whatever the Army Air Corps required of it. A little under a year later, these two groups were merged into a single organization: the WASPs. This new group demanded that incoming women logged at least 35 hours of flight time before coming to Sweetwater. More importantly, the women would be considered civilians, not military personnel.

Roughly 25,000 women applied; around 1900 were accepted and 1100 completed training. On their own dimes, these women streamed into Texas to begin the seven-month program that taught them every aspect of military flying except for gunnery duty and formation flying. Every day in the barracks included intensive lessons, physical fitness training, and studying. At night, the women would dance, sing, or play ping-pong. Life described their ambitions as "piloting with an unfeminine purpose" and noted that some of the women needed cushions in order to sit comfortably in planes designed for male bodies. Their mascot, a tiny winged sprite named Miss Fifinella, was designed by Disney, and the patch appeared on many of their jumpsuits and plane noses.

According to Life, the Air Force reported that the women were faster on instruments while the men "had better memory for details." But in virtually every way that counted, the magazine wrote, there was no practical difference in ability.

Graduates were dispatched to bases around the country, though the most pressing job was ferrying new aircraft from factories to places like Newark, New Jersey, where the planes would make the jump overseas. The women shuttled 12,000 of these planes during the war. They also escorted military chaplains from base to base on Sundays for religious services and operated test flights for repaired aircraft to make sure they were safe to fly in combat. Sometimes, they'd be tasked with towing targets behind them so soldiers could use live ammunition for combat practice.

Simulated combat may have been nerve-wracking, but it was no more dangerous than the actual flying and the very real possibility that the WASPs would experience equipment malfunction or fuel issues. In the two years the squad was active, 38 women perished during missions. At the time—and for decades afterward—the families of those women were denied many of the basic privileges afforded to the families of their male counterparts. When a WASP died, her colleagues—not the government—would pitch in to pay for her burial. Their families were prohibited from putting a gold star in their windows, a sign of a military casualty, nor were they "allowed" to drape the American flag over their coffins.

 
 

On December 20, 1944, the WASPs were sent home. The war wasn't yet over, but men returning from the front lines were dismayed that jobs they expected to find waiting for them were being occupied by women. Despite Cochran's petition to have the WASPs permanently incorporated into the Air Force, Congress turned her down.

WASP pilots are photographed circa 1943
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The pride the women had felt serving their country turned to confusion. By being classified as "civilians," the WASPs found little respect for their efforts. When entering the workforce after the war, some even became flight attendants, as no commercial airline would hire a female pilot.

In the 1970s, the Air Force announced they'd be accepting female recruits for the "first time," a proclamation that angered the surviving WASPs. Their efforts had largely gone unheralded, and now it seemed like the government was wiping them from history completely. Petitioning for recognition and receiving aid from fellow war ferry pilot Senator Barry Goldwater, they were finally granted military status on November 23, 1977.

As the WASPs aged, a handful got the chance to enjoy another honor. In 2010, the women were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their efforts. After flying 77 different types of planes over 60 million miles during wartime and being largely ignored for decades, it was recognition that was long overdue.

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