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Dark Horse Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Dark Horse Comics

Every Wednesday, I preview the 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.

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story

Written by Vivek J. Tiwary; art by Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker
Dark Horse M Press

There have been many books written about the legend of the Beatles over the years, but even the peripheral figures who were there during the Fab Four's rise to fame have interesting stories. Some of the people telling these stories have taken to the graphic novel format, perhaps so they can capitalize on the iconic imagery associated with the band. A couple of years back we saw a beautifully illustrated graphic novel about the tragic love story between former Beatle Stu Sutcliffe and photographer Astrid Kirchherr called Baby's in Black. This week brings another gorgeously produced book, this time about the Beatles' manager and the man responsible for making them famous, Brian Epstein.

In The Fifth Beatle, Vivek Tiwary has extensively researched the life of Brian Epstein, a project that has taken him over ten years to complete and has utilized the amazing artistic talents of Andrew Robinson to make this one of the most visually compelling graphic novels of the year. Tiwary is a Broadway and film producer who has never written a graphic novel before. He seems to have plans to bring this story to film as evidenced by the mysterious "The Film" tab on the book's official website. As someone who bridges the business and creative sides of entertainment himself, the story of The Beatles' intrepid manager seemed to be one he could attach his own feelings and aspirations to pretty readily.

The real star of this book, however, is Robinson, who has done mostly cover work since making an initial splash with his creator-owned sci-fi western Dusty Star back in 1997. His work here is simply stunning. He uses a combination of watercolor, marker and ink to create caricatured, yet realistically detailed drawings that feel like Mad magazine's Mort Drucker combined with the cinematic sheen of a beautiful animated film. Robinson's page designs are like wonderful, fully rendered paintings without feeling stationary, especially when he uses a number of widescreen, double page spreads. The only thing missing is a soundtrack. In one sequence he uses a superimposed image of the 45 record of "Love Me Do" over scenes of Epstein and company tracking the single's climb up the charts. It's done in a way that reminds you of a film montage set to a rollicking hit song. 

Robinson is joined by legendary cartoonist and animator Kyle Baker, who takes over the book for a sequence in which Epstein and the Beatles go on an adventurous trip to the Philippines. Baker's cartooning style is much looser and crazier than Robinson's, and he gives the scene the feel of a dreamy interlude, even though much of the core story is already peppered with imaginary elements.

Epstein's story is fascinating both for his managerial skills and because he was a gay man (as well as a Jew) living in the U.K. when homosexuality was still illegal. Despite his success, his life was lonely and tragic until his sudden death from a drug overdose in 1967 at the age of 34. Seeing how Epstein had to struggle and hide in a less enlightened era prompts you to reflect on how far we have come, and how far we still need to go.

Tiwary is admittedly very loose with the facts in this book and even has Epstein say, "You can't believe everything you read. Especially when it comes to myself and the Beatles." There are a number of hallucinatory scenes, and at least one character that is a fictional construct. This may turn off some readers who prefer strictly factual biographies, but maybe this book is about the bigger picture and the beautiful pictures it brings with it.

Dark Horse has a preview of the book on their website. Or you can find out more at the book's official website.

Meet The Somalis

By Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock
Open Society Foundations

Journalist Benjamin Dix and cartoonist Lindsay Pollock spent six months this year interviewing Somali immigrants living in seven European cities – Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Leicester, London, Malmo, and Oslo – about the experiences they and their families have been through since fleeing their homeland and assimilating in Europe. Dix and Pollock have turned their hours of interviews into 14 first-person accounts that Pollock has illustrated into emotionally engaging and personal stories they've called Meet The Somalis.

Reading through these comics I was struck by how many similar unfortunate scenarios seem to play themselves out in multiple stories: the refugees whose lives are put on hold for years while being forced to explain their escape over and over to officials looking for a reason to send them back; the young men arrested because their skin color or religious garb make them a suspect; the guilt and longing for family back in Somalia and the lives they had before war ravaged their home. I mention these similarities not to say the stories are repetitive (they are definitely not) but to underscore the sense of shared experiences that have affected a large group of people in different ways. Each account is unique and fascinating, and each makes for a captivating little story on its own. Pollock does an outstanding job bringing these stories to life, relaying the personality and character of each Somali she and Dix have interviewed. 

Each of these stories really stuck with me after reading them. Some are emotionally wrenching, but some are heartwarming and uplifting as well. In the span of just a few pages each, they manage to give you such a clear sense of the struggles these men and women and their families have faced that you are rooting for them to achieve as much of their dreams as is possible. In some cases, these dreams are hopefully achievable goals like earning enough money to send home to their family, doing well enough in school to get into the university of their choice, making new friends in their new European community. In other cases the dreams are seemingly hopeless: returning to the Somalia they once loved, being reunited with their families, escaping bigotry and suspicion from the white Europeans that now surround them.

I found out about Meet The Somalis via a blog post by comics critic Zainab Ahktar who writes a very heartfelt review of it here. I'm not aware of other cartooning work that Pollock had done, but her work here is impressive, especially if it is a debut. The nature of this piece and her cartoony, crosshatching style is very reminiscent of the great comics journalist Joe Sacco. Hopefully we will see more projects like this from her.

The Meet The Somalis comic was made possible by the Open Society Foundations' At Home in Europe Project whose mission is to advance equality for groups that find themselves excluded from civic, political and cultural life in Europe. They have made the comic available on their website here. I would recommend downloading and reading it via the PDF link in the sidebar rather than the web interface they've provided.

Harley Quinn #0

Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner; art by various
DC Comics

If you were ever a fan of Batman: The Animated Series from the '90s, you are no doubt familiar with Harley Quinn, the Joker's right hand woman. An original character from that series, she eventually became a supporting villain in the Batman comics. Her personality on the show, with her "Girl Friday" moxie and over-the-top Brooklyn accent, made her extremely popular with fans, and she has been a staple of the comics convention cosplay circuit ever since. This week, DC launches her own ongoing series with an issue 0 illustrated by seventeen high profile artists.

Harley Quinn has courted some controversy recently. The "New 52" version (after the 2012 reboot of the DC Universe) has seen her represented as more psychotically violent and scantily clad than fans of the character's original rendition appreciated. Her appearances in Suicide Squad have been lumped in with numerous examples of DC representing their female characters as sexual objects. In the lead-up to this series, DC promoted a contest for up-and-coming artists to draw a page in this opening issue. The scene DC chose to promote the contest required artists to draw her on the verge of electrocuting herself while naked in a bathtub. In fairness, the character is often steeped in outlandish, consequence-free violence like something out of an old Warner Bros. cartoon. Without that context though, the contest seemed tone-deaf, and DC had to issue an apology.

We'll see how that scene works and who the winning artist is in this star-studded issue featuring artists such as Darwyn Cooke, Becky Cloonan, Jim Lee, Walt Simonson, Harley Quinn creator Bruce Timm, and the series' ongoing artist, Chad Hardin. 

Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor will be writing the series. They have some history with taking an overly sexualized DC character and giving her some personality after they pulled off the trick with Power Girl back in the mid-2000s. In that short-lived but critically acclaimed series, they brought a sense of humor and some modern sensibility to a character that had become known only for her cleavage. Harley Quinn is a different kind of character, and it looks like Palmiotti and Connor will play up the humor but steer clear of reality. This issue frequently breaks the fourth wall with characters and comic creators interacting on the page.

Here's a preview of a few pages and another preview here.

Violenzia

By Richard Sala
Fantagraphics

Venerable comics publisher Fantagraphics made news last week by launching a Kickstarter to crowd fund their next season of books to stay afloat. They easily reached their goal within a week in what may end up being a game changer in terms of the public perception of publishers using Kickstarter to offset some of their risk. It was an unexpected move for Fantagraphics, a publisher more associated with reprinting classic comic strips than actively engaging in modern Internet-related networks.

This week they've made another unexpected first. At the urging of cartoonist Richard Sala, they are releasing his latest comic as a "digital first" release through Comixology before it is available in print. Sala is a veteran of the comics industry (as well as animation) having gotten his start back in Art Spiegelman's RAW magazine in the '80s. He has a number of horror and mystery graphic novels to his name such as Peculia and Delphine. His whimsical, almost children's-book drawing style, mixed with black humor and frightening violence, has influenced many of today's up and coming artists such as Emily Carroll.

In Violenzia, Sala introduces a new female heroine who stoically disrupts ritualistic sacrifices and Appalachian meth labs with two handguns and an endless supply of bullets. The violence is mostly bloodless but with a Tarantino-level body count. It's a light read and a nice low cost entry into discovering Sala's work.

You can buy Violenzia on Comixology for $4.99.

Hawaii

By Jed McGowan
www.jedmcgowan.com

Jed McGowan released a new webcomic this week called simply "Hawaii" that tackles the "life story" of the islands, beginning with their volcanic birth at the bottom of the ocean 500,000 years ago and ending with their last rocky remains crumbling back into the sea 20,000,000 years from now. It's a wordless and wonderful exploration of geographic cycles at an extreme macro level.

McGowan describes himself as a "science nerd." Not only did the depiction of what happens when a volcanic island is formed appeal to him, but the way he has depicted it is a visual homage to "pre-digital age" science illustrations from the mid-20th century. While scrolling through the panels of the comic on his website, you get the feeling that you are looking at scans from an old magazine or text book from the 1950s. He achieved this look by drawing in charcoal on paper and then digitally coloring and manipulating the image. The effect makes it feel both retro and brand new at the same time. Perhaps because the subject is such a classic tourist destination, I also got the feeling of looking at an old travel brochure despite the fact that human life makes only the barest of cameo appearances in these pictures. 

You can read "Hawaii" on McGowan's website where he also has some of his previous comics for sale, including his graphic novel Lone Pine which won a prestigious Xeric Grant in 2010. You can also read his webcomic called "Voyager" from earlier this year, where you can see he first worked out some of the techniques and themes he plays with in "Hawaii."

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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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