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Marvel Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Marvel Comics

Every Wednesday, I preview the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, Comixology, Kickstarter and the web. Feel free to comment below if there's a comic you've read recently that you want to talk about.

1. Minimum Wage #1


By Bob Fingerman
Image Comics

The 1990s are often thought of as the time comics almost ate themselves in a fit of foiled cover gluttony and nearly choked to death as an industry. It was also the decade that birthed a movement of independently published alternative comics that has led straight to the golden age of independent comics we’re currently experiencing. Image Comics, having been founded in the early ‘90s by the likes of Todd MacFarlane and Rob Liefeld (among others), is often associated with that era with both positive and negative implications. Image is on a bit of a crusade lately to find a new home for some quality independent comics that were born in the 1990s. They recently announced a return of the much missed crime comic Stray Bullets and this week they bring back one of the most acclaimed and beloved comics of that time: Bob Fingerman’s Minimum Wage.

The original 10 issue run of Fingerman’s semi-autobiographical comic was recently republished in an oversized volume by Image, thanks to the urging of Wage fan Robert (The Walking Dead) Kirkman. Now, 15 years after retiring them, Fingerman is returning to the characters and revisiting their lives three years from where he left them. The series focuses around a Fingerman stand-in named Rob who is now recently divorced, living with his mom and trying to get back into the dating scene. Very much your typical ‘90s New York slacker, Rob is now about to enter the year 2000 at long last.

Minimum Wage is often credited with being an early example of cringe comedy (years before The Office and Louie made such uncomfortable humor mainstream). It draws from realistic and relatable scenarios that artsy, down-on-their-luck guys like Rob would find themselves in. It has a devoted fan base and has inspired many cartoonists such as Kirkman but also comedians such as Patton Oswalt, David Cross and Marc Maron.

Read a preview of issue #1 here.

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2. Black Widow #1


Written by Nathan Edmondson; art by Phil Noto
Marvel Comics

We all remember Black Widow's “red on my ledger" speech from the Avengers film. The idea of the former KGB assassin having a bloody past has become even more of an integral part of her character in the comics since that scene (I believe a recent issue of Avengers even had her say a similar line). Now, in a brand new ongoing series, Natasha Romanov will explore her past as she seeks to atone for it.

Marvel has attempted a number of Black Widow solo comics over the years with very little success, but thanks to Scarlett Johansson's portrayal she is now much more of a marquee character than she's ever been. They've enlisted one of comics' newest espionage experts, Nathan Edmondson, to write the book. Edmondson made a big splash a few years back with his acclaimed spy thriller Who is Jake Ellis? for Image Comics. Since then, he's become a bit of a go-to guy for this kind of material. It's even gotten him hired to write for a Tom Clancy video game.

Phil Noto is known mostly for his pinup and cover work. His style is very reminiscent of the classic advertising illustrators and poster artists of the 1960s and he excels at drawing beautiful women. His interior comics work in the past has typically lost a lot of the richness and sexiness of his fully painted cover work but the preview images from issue no.1 of this book look like he’s found a way to bring the magic of his covers into the sequential imagery inside.

Read a short preview here.

Marvel is starting the new year with an onslaught of new books and a lot of them are hitting at once this week. In addition to Black Widow we're also getting:
All New Invaders #1 - James Robinson and Steve Pugh bring the WWII Invaders into the modern age with Captain America, Namor, the original Human Torch and the Winter Soldier.
Avengers World #1 - Yet another Avengers book under the guidance of Jonathan Hickman (with Nick Spencer). John Cassady, recently of Uncanny Avengers, is the artist on this series which will focus on developing some of the lesser tier characters that are populating the main Avengers book.
X-Factor #1 - Peter David returns to the book that he is most popular for. This time out, X-Factor is a corporate-owned mutant team featuring Polaris, Quicksilver, Gambit and others.

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3. Li'l Vampi #1


Written by Eric Trautmann; art by Agnes Garbowska
Dynamite Entertainment

The "itty-bitty"-fication of popular comics characters in order to appeal to kid readers is going strong. The trend, that owes thanks in no small part to the Oh Yeah Comics guys and books like Itty Bitty Hellboy is growing in popularity among both kids and grownups. Dynamite Entertainment is now launching a series of one-shots of "Li'l" versions of various titles that they currently publish such as Red Sonja and Battlestar Galactica. This week, they're taking a character that is steeped in adult horror and cheesecake art and transforming her into something that every little girl would love to read.

Vampirella is a teenage paranormal investigator living in Stoker, Maine (population: boring). She's a little bit emo, she has a knack for solving mysteries and stopping werewolves and mummies, and she hates when people call her Vampi. Based on the sexy, blood-sucking alien that appeared in her own magazine put out by Warren Publishing in the 1970s and which continues to headline her own comics from Dynamite Entertainment today, Vampirella is just about the last character you’d expect to see marketed towards kids. Yet, seeing her in this context, she looks like a character straight out of Monster High.

Li'l Vampi is drawn by Agnes Garbowska who is fantastic at illustrating super-cute characters like this. She's been doing covers for some of the most popular kids' comics out there like My Little Pony and Powerpuff Girls.

You can read a preview of Li’l Vampi here.

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4. Detective Comics #27


By various
DC Comics

Whether planned or by happenstance, DC Comics' recent rebooting of their issue numbers has allowed the new Detective Comics #27 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Batman's first appearance in the original Detective Comics #27. 

To commemorate, this issue will be extra-sized at 96 pages with multiple stories including a retelling of Batman's origin by novelist and comics writer Brad Meltzer and superstar artist Bryan Hitch. The Batman writers from the other Bat-titles, Scott Snyder and Peter J. Tomasi, each have stories here as well. Snyder is joined by his The Wake collaborator Sean Gordon Murphy and Tomasi by Guillem March. Other contributors include Paul Dini, Franco Francavilla, Neal Adams and more. Plus, John Layman and Jason Fabok begin a storyline called "Gothopia" that will crossover into various other Bat-books.

This issue has courted some minor controversy due to one of its alternate covers (shown above) by Frank Miller. The cover was initially rejected by DC and has been deemed by many to be oddly raunchy for a commemorative issue. From DC’s standpoint, when you've got a Frank Miller cover you run it.

Here's a preview of the Meltzer/Hitch story.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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