Original image
The Panel Syndicate

10 Most Interesting Comics of 2013

Original image
The Panel Syndicate

Every week on Mental Floss, I highlight the most interesting new comic books, graphic novels, digital comics and webcomics. Here is a top 10 list of not necessarily the best comics that came out this year (I can't possibly keep up with everything that comes out), but the ones that were the most interesting or noteworthy in some way (at least to me). If you have some favorite comics of the year, talk about them in the comments below!

10. Freud

Nobrow Press released an English translation of this French cartoon biography of Sigmund Freud this year, and it was probably one of the best looking graphic novels of the year. Written by writer/psychologist Corinne Maier and gorgeously illustrated by French artist Anne Simon, this book takes a breezy but informative trip through the life and work of Freud and does it with a great sense of humor.


9. Hip Hop Family Tree

Ed Piskor's first volume of Hip Hop Family Tree covers the beginnings of hip hop music from the mid '70s to the early '80s and the colorful cast of characters like Grandmaster Flash, Russell Simmons, Kurtis Blow, and Afrika Bambaataa, who helped make it happen. Piskor likens these rap pioneers to larger-than-life comic book characters and draws them in a style very similar to the Marvel Comics of the 1970s, complete with narration boxes, halftone dots and a nostalgic yellow fade to the paper.


8. Young Avengers

It's not often these days that you get a superhero comic about teenage heroes from either Marvel or DC that actually have a chance of appealing to actual teenage readers. Judging by its seeming popularity on Tumblr, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's smart, funny and stylish Young Avengers seems to have actually done that. Gillen and McKelvie have a creative rapport that make them one of the great writer/artist teams in comics. Young Avengers has a unique and diverse cast of teen heroes with interesting personal relationships that are the selling point of the book.

It's worth noting that Gillen and McKelvie's run on YA is coming to an end soon and Marvel has made the unprecedented move of canceling the book with their final issue rather than putting another creative team on it simply to keep churning out monthly issues. Maybe this will signal a new approach where comics with non-marquee characters are published in limited runs and only when there is a proper story to tell and an appealing creative team to tell it.


7. Meet The Somalis

This was a webcomic that came out of nowhere, funded and distributed online by the Open Society Foundations, and it is one that has stuck with me ever since reading it. Journalist Benjamin Dix and cartoonist Lindsay Pollock interviewed Somalis immigrants in seven different European cities about their experiences assimilating into a new culture. The 14 different stories presented here are heartbreaking, uplifting, horrifying, educational and touchingly human.


6. Batman: Zero Year

The reboot of the DC Universe in 2011 has left DC and writer Scott Snyder in the seemingly unenviable position of having to say that Frank Miller's classic Batman: Year One is no longer in continuity. The 1987 series by Miller and Dave Mazzuchelli has been the definitive take on Batman's origin since it was published and has influenced just about every Batman comic that has come since, not to mention the entire stylistic approach of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy of films.

With Batman: Zero Year, Snyder and artist Greg Capullo have met the challenge head on, taking Miller's influence and coming out the other end of Nolan's films, with a  Batman origin story that feels modern without disregarding much of what came before it. In fact, much of the 11 part story we've seen so far draws from Batman's early days in Detective Comics even down to the design of Batman's first costume and the types of (pre-super) villains he faces.


5. Sex Criminals

Image Comics, as a publisher of creator-owned genre comics, has been on a roll this year, putting out too many great new books to name here. One of their most interesting and popular new releases has been Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. It is only three issues in but it has been a hoot so far and has already gotten itself banned by Apple from being sold through the Comixology iOS apps. The novel and juicy concept of the series involves two people, Jon and Suzie, who learn they can stop time whenever they have an orgasm. They decide to use this special power to rob banks. It’s actually an unexpectedly sweet story about sexual discovery with some raunchy jokes, fourth-wall-breaking commentary and even a musical number that gets comically censored to avoid further legal issues.

The banning by Apple means digital comics fans have to work a little harder to buy this comic. It can be purchased on Comixology’s web storefront but Image Comics just so happens to have recently launched a DRM-free web storefront of their own which may be exactly where they'd like people to buy this.


4. Mind Mgmt

Matt Kindt’s Mind Mgmt is one of the most mind-bending thrillers to come along in some time. It follows a writer named Meru who is trying to investigate an incident on a flight in which every passenger on board lost their memory. In the process, Meru uncovers a secret organization called the Mind Mgmt that is made up of people capable of performing mass hallucination, hypnotic suggestion and mind erasure and they have been using these skills to orchestrate world events dating back to World War I.

This is a complex book with many layers. Kindt fills it with fake ads and secret messages hidden in the gutters of the pages that help give you a fuller picture of this shadowy group and the depths of its capabilities. It’s the kind of book that works best if you buy it in old fashioned comic book format so that you can get the full effect of these extras.


3.  March Book One

It’s not often we get a graphic novel written by a sitting U.S. Congressman. Nonetheless one who was also a hero of the Civil Rights movement. March Book One is the first volume of Rep. John Lewis’ autobiography, released by Top Shelf and illustrated by Top Shelf mainstay Nate Powell (Any Empire, Swallow Me Whole). This first of three volumes begins with Lewis’ childhood and takes us up to his participation in the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville in 1960. Lewis chose the graphic novel format for his story as a way of following the tradition set in the 1950s by a comic called The Montgomery Story which helped spread the word of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the early days of the civil rights movement.


2. The Private Eye

Brian K. Vaughan has had an amazing year. His sci-fi epic Saga is on most people’s top ten lists and has made a deserved star out of his collaborator Fiona Staples. It has also led the charge in turning Image Comics into the most exciting comics publisher of the year. Meanwhile, Vaughan also launched another sci-fi comic this year, this one offset with a future-noir detective slant, called The Private Eye. It is set in a near future where “The Cloud” has crashed taking everyone’s personal data and privacy with it, leaving people forced to wear disguises on the streets in order to protect their identity.

Again, Vaughan is not the real star of this creative team. Husband and wife team Marcos Martin and Munsta Vicente are doing career making work on this book. Vicente’s colors are absolutely eye-popping, giving us a prime example of how digital coloring in the age of the iPad is becoming one of the most important aspects of a comic.

Somewhat fitting for this comic about a post-Internet, post-privacy America, the book is only available in a DRM-free, pay-what-you-want format on Vaughan and Martin’s own website, New issues arrive with virtually no advance warning. You need to either sign up for email alerts or follow @PanelSyndicate on Twitter to find out when the latest issue is available for download.


1. Something Terrible

Dean Trippe wrote and illustrated an intensely personal comic about childhood sexual abuse this year called Something Terriblethat he sells in digital formats on his own website for 99¢. It is probably the most important comic of the year, and, by his own accounts, has already reached and helped many readers who have suffered through similar incidents. Trippe delves into the events from his childhood that have plauged him into adulthood and the way superhero comics—specifically Batman comics—have helped him overcome them. It is truly a triumphant story and one that even helps dispel a myth about childhood abuse (that abuse victims often grow up to be abusers themselves) that many victims themselves may not be aware has been proven false. 

Comics can be a powerful way of reaching people and educating them and this is a powerful and well-crafted example of just such a comic.


Finally, some quick honorable mentions:

Superior Spider-man. It's not easy to do something new with one of the biggest superhero characters of all time and not have fans dismiss it out of hand. By having Doctor Octopus take over Peter Parker’s body and unexpectedly embrace the concept of being a hero, Dan Slott and team have come up with something really special here.

DemeterBecky Cloonan’s third self-published mini-comic is a haunting and tragic love story. It is stunningly beautiful, especially if you get your hands on a screen-printed edition.

Cartozia TalesThis is probably the best new all-ages comic to come out this year. Set around the a maps of a fictional world called Cartozia, a rotating collection of creative teams take turns building the world and the characters and stories that reside within it. 

Le Long Voyage. Boulet’s wonderful embrace of the vertical scroll in webcomics.

The Bunker. Probably the crown jewel thus far of Comixology's Submit program for self-publishers, this Lost-style thriller involving a group of friends who find messages written by their future selves in an underground bunker warning them not to go down a path that will ruin the world. Recently picked up by Oni Press, it is now also the big success of Submit.

The Fifth Beatle. Andrew Robinson’s art on this book will probably win him some awards when the time comes for that, but this biography of The Beatles manger, Brian Epstein, is also an interesting look at the life of a gay man in 1960s Great Britain.

What were your favorite comics of the year? Tell us in the comments below.

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
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image