Original image
Hermes Press

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Original image
Hermes Press

Every Wednesday, I preview the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, Comixology, Kickstarter and the web.

1. Brenda Starr: The Complete Pre-Code Comics Volume One

Written by Dale Messick; art by Matt Baker, Jack Kamen and others
Hermes Press

What is it?
Collecting, for the first time, the first 8 issues of a rare Brenda Starr comic book series that was first published in 1947, this volume features art from some of the great comic artists of the Golden Age like Matt Baker and Jack Kamen. As in the popular, long-running newspaper strip, Brenda Starr is a glamorous reporter who goes off on adventures in exotic locations. The big difference between the comic book versus the newspaper strip is that she would get tied up a lot more in the comic book.

What makes it interesting?
Although written and officially sanctioned by Brenda Starr creator Dale Messick, this is not exactly the Brenda Starr you used to read in the newspaper. These comics were published in the so-called "Pre-Code" era, before the Comics Code Authority—a self-regulating measure created in the 1950s to keep comics from getting themselves into trouble with just this kind of material. In fact, the cover shown here was actually used as a damning example in Dr. Frederic Wertham's 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent to prove the luridness of comics and how psychologically dangerous they could be to children.

Unlike in the newspaper strip, these comics showed Brenda in dangerous situations that often involved bondage, torture, and some ripped dresses. They will probably now seem tame to modern eyes, and never ventured into nudity or sexual situations, but they were definitely designed to be more titillating than the more mainstream comic strips. In fact, they are drawn by two of the greats from the Golden Age of comics and both were known for the kind of edgy work that would eventually attract the attention of Wertham and Congress. Jack Kamen was a staple artist of the infamous EC Comics, working on various horror, crime and sci-fi comics for them, and Matt Baker is considered one of the great "Good Girl" artists from that time. His immaculate renderings of beautiful women in comics like Phantom Lady and various crime and romance comics have made him one of the most respected artists of that time. His cover to It Rhymes With Lust is an iconic image from the pulp era. 

Like many Pre-Code books, these had been mostly lost to time, but Hermes Press, which has been reprinting the complete Brenda Starr comic strips for a number of years now, have managed to cull together these lost comics, including the back-up stories they originally contained. This is the first time in over 50 years they have been available to read.

You can read more about this Brenda Starr book on the Hermes Press website.

2. Broken Telephone

Written by Ryan Estrada with various artists

What is it?
This 18 part comic series begins in a call center in Mumbai, when customer service representative Manisha hears a murder over the phone. Can she catch the killer and solve the mystery from half a world away?

Cut to part 2 and the murderer from part 1 thinks he's the hero of the story, trying to catch an assassin who is the hero of Part 3 and so on… 

Ryan Estrada has been writing this elaborate story he calls Broken Telephone for seven years and has brought in 18 different artists to help him bring each piece to life. He's established a Kickstarter with multiple rewards but based on the notion that you can pay whatever you'd like for each installment and all proceeds go towards paying the artists.

What makes it interesting?
This might be the best concept I've heard for a comic book in a long time. As the title suggests, it works similarly to that old childhood game of "Telephone" where the point of the message gets transformed when passed from person to person. The hero of each story is the villain in someone else's story, and even though everyone is trying to do the right thing, they inevitably cause big problems for someone else. Each is drawn by a different artist, some of whom are active webcomic creators such as KC Green ("Gunshow"), Brittney Sabo ("All Night") and Estrada himself. Many are newcomers (at least to me) who look like future stars like Carolyn NowakRachel DukesKelly Bastow and more.

Let Ryan Estrada tell you all about it himself on his Kickstarter page. Especially take note of the lengths he's gone through to research some of the crimes and schemes he writes about in this series. 

3. Brooklyn Quesadillas

By Antony Huchette
Cunundrum Press

What is it?
Joseph is a 30-year-old animator, husband and dad. He lives in Brooklyn after moving some time ago from his native France (so far this all sounds very much like the author's life). In his spare time, Joseph directs a children's talk show out of his house hosted by a talking coffee pot. One day he is faced with the temptation of running off to Governor's Island with Denise Huxtable from The Cosby Show to direct movies starring Jessie Spano from Saved By The Bell (now it's no longer autobiographical).

What makes it interesting?
This is a quirky book to say the least. Huchette draws in a very loose, sometimes crude style, but he is full of crazy ideas that he can seem to barely help himself from putting on the page. It also reads like it is a very personal book for him even though I don't truly know how much if any of it he's drawn from his own viewpoint. At the start of the story, the main character deals with some issues with being a family man and having a wandering eye that make him a little hard to like as a protagonist, but there's a certain honesty with how he addresses all of this that makes this whole crazy story seem like it's coming from a real place. 

Huchette originally produced this book in French but Canadian publisher Cunundrum Press has had it translated for English speaking audiences. You can find out more about the book at their website.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]