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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 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. Miracleman #1

Written by Mick Anglo and "The Original Writer" (whose name rhymes with Halan Shmoore); art by Garry Leach and others
Marvel Comics

This release is the long-hoped-for return of one of the great lost classics of comic book history. It was one of the first revisionist, realistic takes on superheroes, written by two of the greatest writers to ever work in that genre: Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.

In 1982, Moore revived what was then called Marvelman, a 1950s British superhero created by Mick Anglo as a blatant ripoff of Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel in a series of short, black and white stories for British anthology magazine Warrior. Eclipse Comics picked up the series and changed the name to Miracleman to avoid a lawsuit from Marvel Comics, although this would be just the beginning of Miracleman's vast legal troubles. 

The Miracleman series was written by Moore around the same time he was writing Watchmen and  is a similar deconstruction of the genre, dealing with the more terrifying aspects of how superpowered beings might interact with human beings. Many readers consider it to be just as good and just as important as Watchmen. Moore wrote the series until issue #15 and then passed the reins to newcomer Neil Gaiman, who continued to write it into the early 1990s while also beginning work on The Sandman for DC Comics. 

Gaiman and artist Mark Buckingham were in the middle of a climactic 18-issue storyline to bring the Miracleman saga to a close when Eclipse Comics went bankrupt in 1994. Gaiman and Buckingham had actually completed what would have been their next issue, #25, but it has never seen the light of day. The legal wranglings of the following 20 years are too much to get into here, but you can read a detailed account of it here. The upshot is that Marvel Comics (with Gaiman’s help) acquired the rights to Miracleman from Todd McFarlane (like I said, it's a long story, just read this) and will now release remastered (re-colored and re-lettered) editions leading up to Gaiman and Buckingham finally getting a chance to finish their story. Moore wants nothing to do with the project and requires that his name not be associated with the reprints, hence the credit to "The Original Writer."

Many comics purists will object to the modern coloring applied here but Marvel seems to be taking great care to introduce this series in the best way possible to modern audiences while also looking to compile the most definitive collection possible. As a result, this first issue contains only about 10 pages of Moore's story while being filled out with extras and some necessary precursor stuff from the Mick Anglo years. This is an important piece of comics history whose legend has grown enormously due in part to the small number of people who have actually been able to read it. It will be interesting to see whether or not this classic can stand on its own today without the veil of mystery that has always surrounded it. And we’ll see whether new readers will be able to appreciate a comic that has previously influenced so much of what they have now taken for granted over the past 20 years.


2. Black Dynamite #1

Written by Brian Ash; art by Ron Wimberly and Sal Buscema

The latest offering from the partnership between IDW Publishing and Cartoon Network is an adaptation of the popular Adult Swim series, Black Dynamite, which itself is adapted from the 2009 film of the same name. Black Dynamite is both a parody and a celebration of "Blaxploitation" films of the '70s. Its titular hero is an ex-CIA, Vietnam vet who uses his kung-fu skills to clean up the streets, squaring off against drug dealers, ninjas and, his arch-nemesis, Richard Nixon. 

The new mini-series is written by Brian Ash, a writer and producer of the animated program. He previously wrote a Black Dynamite graphic novel in 2011 called Slave Island. Here, he's collaborating with artist Ron Wimberly who originally designed some of the characters for the TV series.
Much like how the film emulated the look and feel of low-budget, one-take '70s blaxploitation films, the comic takes on the look of comic books of that era and even employs veteran comic book artist Sal Buscema to ink over Wimberly's pencils.

The preview for this looks really fun.

It's a big week for Ron Wimberly fans. He also happens to have some work in this week's issue of Brandon Graham's Prophet from Image Comics.


3. D4VE

Written by Ryan Ferrier; art by Valentin Ramon
Monkeybrain Comics

A middle-aged, suburban husband dreams of his glory days while toiling away at a corporate job that is sucking the energy out of him. We've seen various mid-life crisis fantasies played out in everything from American Beauty to The Incredibles, but in the new 5 issue digital series from Monkeybrain Comics, D4VE, there's a fun new twist. The hero of this story is a robot who was once a warrior in the AI revolution that brought about the extinction of mankind. Now, he’s just a middle management cog in a corporate machine. The robots, in taking over Earth, also took on all of man's characteristics, habits, neuroses and failings. And now that the robots have become as lazy and complacent as their human predecessors, an alien threat has arrived to take control of Earth from them.

In the second issue, which came out last week via Comixology, D4VE finds himself saddled with an obnoxious teenage son named 5COTTY that his wife “ordered” for their family, unbeknownst to him. Plus, S4LLY, his wife, gets fed up and leaves him, his job gets even suckier and, oh yeah, aliens are invading. But that may actually be his best hope at salvation.

This is some pretty funny stuff and it seems to be quickly building a devoted audience. Ferrier brings some of his own personal experience (working dead end jobs and having existential crises) into the material and he and Ramon also put in plenty of clever visual and verbal gags that make this a delight to read.

You can pick up both of the issues that have been released so far for 99¢ each on Comixology.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]