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DC Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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DC Comics

Every Wednesday, I preview the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, Comixology, Kickstarter and the web. I'm trying a slightly different format this week so let me know what you think.

1. Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years/Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years

By Various
DC Comics

What's it about?
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Superman, DC is releasing two hardcover volumes dedicated to both Superman and Lois Lane, collecting some of their definitive stories. The Superman volume begins with Action Comics #1, of course, and moves forward from there with selections from the Golden, Silver, Bronze and Modern age of comics that Superman has managed to span.

Some of the many single issue stories collected in the Superman volume include:
- The first ever team up between Superman and Batman from Superman #76 in 1952
- Some Silver age classics illustrated by definitive Superman artists like Curt Swan and Wayne Boring
- Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic "For the Man Who Has Everything" from 1985
- The battle with Doomsday in the 1993 issue of Superman #75 that would lead to the Death of Superman event
- And Grant Morrison's recent "The Boy Who Stole Superman's Cape" From Action Comics #0

Meanwhile, the Lois volume includes:
- Some of Lois' first appearances in the early issues of Action Comics
- The marriage of Earth-2 Superman and Earth-2 Lois in Action Comics #48
- John Byrne's re-introduction of Lois Lane in issue 2 of 1986's Man of Steel
- Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's now classic All Star Superman, issues 2 and 3
And lots more.

Why is it interesting?
These are two of the oldest and most loved characters in superhero comics. Seventy-five years is a big deal, and it's nice to see Lois getting equal treatment. Chris Sims over at Comics Alliance gives a thorough rundown of what is included in the Superman volume and what those selections have to say about how DC sees its own hero. He notices that many of the stories here feature more of a sad sack, defeated Superman rather than a heroic, hopeful one.

Still, both of these volumes contain a number of classic stories that show how the presentation of these characters has changed from era to era, and they feature the work of the most definitive Superman creative teams. From Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's original stories of a significantly less super-powered hero fighting gangsters and political corruption in the '30s and '40s to the loopy, sci-fi stories of multiple earths, distant futures and imaginary tales by Otto Binder, Bill Finger, Curt Swan and Wayne Boring in the '50s and '60s. From the post-"Crisis" reboot by John Byrne in 1986 to Superman's death and rebirth in the 1990s and finally Grant Morrison's modern and even post-modern takes of the past few years. Of course, Lois Lane has weathered a lot of changing cultural attitudes towards female comic book characters and it might be most interesting to see how consistent she has been as an uncompromising woman (despite many, many unflattering stories where she is just crushing on Superman and falling for his silly secret identity tricks). Together, all these stories give you a pretty complete picture of Superman and Lois and their trip through 75 years of comic book history. 

2. Black Science #1

Written by Rick Remender; art by Matteo Scalera and Dean White
Image Comics

What's it about?
Grant McKay is a bit of a Randian individualist, a self-educated member of the Anarchist Order of Scientists whose hubris in tampering with the "black science" has trapped himself and his crew in a parallel dimension full of hostile environments and strange, violent creatures. Wracked by guilt for endangering his crew (which includes his own family) and inflicted with doubt that he can't actually save them, McKay must jump them through one horrific alternate reality after another to get them all home.

Why is it interesting?
Rick Remender has become one of Marvel's hottest writers after the surprise hit of his dark and twisted run on Uncanny X-Force. Now he's even writing one of their flagship titles, Uncanny Avengers. What originally put Remender on the map, though, was his penchant for making comics that take pulpy concepts straight out of the EC Comics or dime store paperback novels from the early 20th century and put a modern, gritty, yet human spin on it. 

In Black Science, Remender returns to throwback sci-fi territory similar to his 2004 series Fear Agent but with more of an emphasis on both "weird science" and real science. He has spent some time researching heavy concepts like string theory to give some weight to the story even while it leans heavily towards being a Doc Savage type of adventure full of frog and fish people and laser bull whips. Remender often does a good job of giving his tough guy heroes something for you to latch onto and care about, though, and McKay's love for his family and his fear that he has doomed them may be just that.

Matteo Scalera and colorist Dean White go absolutely crazy with the visuals. White has a unique, painterly approach to his digital colors which helps give this book the feel of a Frank Frazetta painting. In that regard, Andrew Robinson provides an amazing, Frazetta-like cover for the first issue.

You can see for yourself with this four page preview.

3. Peanuts Every Sunday: 1952-1955 Vol. 1

By Charles Schulz
Fantagraphics

What's it about?
For the past decade, Fantagraphics has been releasing beautiful, bookshelf volumes collecting all of Charles Schulz' Peanuts strips from the beginning to the end. Previously, any Sunday strips have always been reprinted in black and white, but for the first time they are appearing again in color and with great care taken to replicate Schulz' original palettes.

Why is it interesting?
This large format, hardcover book is just an enjoyable experience to look through and a great way to introduce Charlie Brown to younger kids who may not be as keen to look at black and white reprints. Fantagraphics always takes great care with their printing and the colors here are rich but not overly saturated like you might see in other lesser quality reprints.

Being that it collects strips from the first three years, it is fascinating to see how Schulz was still finding his way with some of the characters. Linus and Lucy initially appear as infants for a number of strips before catching up to Charlie Brown's age. Even Charlie's shirt goes through a few different color choices before settling on the classic yellow.

Fantagraphics has more info about the book plus some previews on their website.

4. Animals: Chickens

Written by Eric Grisson; art by Claire Connelly
Self-published

What's it about?
Depicting life on a small farm, we meet a young girl named Marigold who is itching to get out and live her life. She soon befriends her mother's older, male tenant as troubles arise on the family farm. Oh, did I mention the family are all chickens and they farm and slaughter humans?

Why is it interesting?
There have been a number of great "poultry comics" recently that you might want to even label as "vegetarian comics" because of they way they might make you reconsider your stance on eating chicken. Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan and "Farmer's Dilemma" by Sam Alden come to mind. You can add Eric Grissom and Claire Connelly's "Chickens" to that list. The thing is, Grissom and Connelly mostly avoid tackling the gimmick head-on and instead focus on telling a good story about growing up and chasing your dreams, letting the grisliness of a slaughterhouse for humans lurk in the background. Grissom says this is done "to mimic our own world where we have a vague idea of how our food is made, but mostly we just eat it and go about our business."

"Chickens" is one installment in a planned 4-part series (future installments being "Pigs", "Cows" and "Humans"). Each story will be self-contained but will all revolve around the farm that we see in this story.

Grissom and Connelly are selling "Chickens" through the Gumroad service under a "name-your-own-price" model.

5. Pink


By Kyoko Okazaki
Vertical/Random House

What's it about?
Yumi is a beautiful young woman who, by day, has a regular office job, but at night works as a prostitute. One of the reasons she needs to work two jobs is so that she can afford to feed her pet crocodile.

Why is it interesting?
Vertical is publishing this 1988 manga for the first time in the U.S. as part of their translation and introduction of the work of Kyoko Okazaki to Western audiences. They previously published her 1995 manga Helter Skelter about a fashion model whose excessive use of cosmetic surgery leads to psychological derangement. Okasaki is hard to categorize as her work was intended to appeal to young girls (shōjo manga) but would often deal with controversial and mature subject matter that pushed her into becoming one of the most prominent creators of manga for mature women (josei manga).

Okazaki's work was popular in the '80s and '90s in Japan because of its keen ear towards modern dialogue and because her second career as a fashion illustrator worked its way into how she dressed her characters. It also shows in her style of drawing, although Pink, being one of her earlier works, is considerably less fashiony than her later work on Helter Skelter.

Random House has some more info about the book including where to buy it here.

ALSO

Please consider helping Usagi Yojimbo creator Stan Sakai who is facing insurmountable healthcare costs for his wife. These kinds of healthcare issues are unfortunately very common for the many under-insured comic artists out there.

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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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