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Dark Horse Comics

Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Dark Horse 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. “The Fart Party’s Over”


By Julia Wertz
Narrative.ly

Julia Wertz's The Fart Party was a hilarious autobio comic strip that became one of the most popular webcomics of the mid-2000s (it was later collected into three print editions and a forthcoming omnibus). She retired the strip in 2011 and subsequently stepped away from comics for a time, focusing instead on photography projects involving abandoned buildings

Recently, Wertz published an article on the curated blogging platform Narrative.ly that is about 50 percent comics and 50 percent written word called "The Fart Party's Over." In it she opens up about her very personal struggles with alcoholism and her reasons for moving away from making a comic that was having a negative effect on her life. The comics shown here are a combination of strips that were previously published in her most recent collection The Infinite Wait and Other Stories and some previously unseen journal drawings that are startlingly different in tone and nature from her Fart Party strips. Together they tell a harrowing but ultimately triumphant story about her downslide into alcoholism and severe depression, her entry into rehab and, ultimately, her new focus on helping herself.

Wertz begins the article with a point about how the best comedians seem to mine their material from their own depression. She herself made a career out of getting people to laugh at often troubling events in her own life. Her decision to abandon a project that was ultimately not good for her is a decision that I think a lot of creative people tend to face when trying to achieve a certain work/life balance in addition to grappling with both the reality and expectations of being a struggling and starving artist. I think there is a lot that most artists can relate to in her story, not to mention anyone who has actually dealt with overcoming addiction or depression.

Read her article on Narrative.ly here.

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2. Furious #1


Written by Bryan J.L. Glass; art by Victor Santos
Dark Horse Comics

It's a difficult task these days to find a new spin on superheroes. So much so that it's a wonder anyone even tries anymore. Dark Horse Comics, as a publisher, seems committed to giving a voice to those that have some genuinely good ideas for this genre. Between the recent Buzzkill in which an alcoholic derives superpowers from drinking and Adam Warren's ode to superhero cheesecake Empowered, there seems to be room for modern takes on super heroics outside of what Marvel and DC have been doing. Add to that the new 5-issue mini-series Furious, which explores the ideas of being a superhero with a secret identity in today's celebrity-driven culture. And it looks to turn that concept on its head.

The world's first superhero is a woman named Cadence Lark who calls herself The Beacon. However, the media has named her "Furious" after she was videotaped losing her cool on some criminals. Lark has become a superhero to work through some things in her past and, in a twist on the concept of secret identities, must hide who she really is to protect her superhero identity because the public truly despises Cadence Lark.

Furious is written by Bryan J.L. Glass, a comics veteran and the writer and co-creator of anthropomorphic fantasy comic Mice Templar. This is very much a departure for him but it's a story that he's been wanting to tell for years. He's joined by artist Victor Santos, who has previously worked with Glass on Templar and who draws in a style that is reminiscent of Marcos Martin or Javier Pullido. 

Early reviews on this book promise some juicy plot twists as we learn about what led a troubled young woman to become a superhero in what may be a doomed attempt to redeem herself.

Read a preview of Furious here.

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3. Lost at Sea (10th Anniversary Edition)


By Bryan Lee O’Malley
Oni Press

Bryan Lee O'Malley has now been around long enough and made enough of a mark on the industry that we are at the point where we will be seeing his work reprinted in commemorative editions to celebrate his career. Oh, also, his highly anticipated new book, Seconds, comes out later this year, so that could have something to do with it as well. Ten years after the release of Lost at Sea, his first graphic novel, Oni Press is putting out an anniversary hardcover edition with the requisite supplemental material added including a previously uncollected short story that had only appeared online. The original book was published in black and white but some color has apparently been added in this edition.

While working on his now-classic 5 volume Scott Pilgrim series, O'Malley became one of the most influential creators of the 21st century. His style and approach to comic storytelling can be seen emulated among many of the younger generation of webcomic creators. Lost at Sea may not be as groundbreaking as Scott Pilgrim, but it is just as accomplished. Much in the way Scott Pilgrim seemed to perfectly capture a certain way of life and attitude among 20-somethings, Lost at Sea feels like it did the same for college-aged teens.

It's a coming of age story about an introverted teenage girl named Raleigh who is on a cross-country road trip with some college classmates whom she barely knows and has trouble relating to, socially. Raleigh's problem, she feels, is that her soul was stolen by a cat. And now she keeps seeing cats popping up everywhere. 

Though maybe not as laugh-out-loud funny as Scott Pilgrim, this book is charming and quirky and almost akin to a Haruki Marukami novel with its existentialist pondering and proliferation of spiritual cats.

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4. Li'l Sonja

Written by Jim Zub; art by Joel Carroll
Dynamite Entertainment

Recently I highlighted another book in the “Li'l” series, Li’l Vampi. Just as that book did with the character of Vampirella, Li'l Sonja takes a character that is steeped in a history of exploitative cheesecake art and makes an all-ages version that can appeal to young girls. Thanks to a successful new series, also published by Dynamite Entertainment and written by popular writer Gail Simone, Red Sonja is enjoying a bit of a comeback right now, capitalizing on Dark Horse's popular new Conan series and the general marketability of violent swordplay dramas. Li’l Sonja, of course, is something a little different. Here, in this one-shot release, the cute little red-haired She-Devil fights to solve a series of thefts plaguing a small town. 

Dynamite has pulled together an array of appropriately “cute” artists to illustrate all of these “Li’l” books they’ve been doing, including Art Baltazar who provides the cover for Li’l Sonja. The interiors are done by relative newcomer Joel Carroll, whose simple, happy cartooning gives Sonja a manga/video game character look as you can see from this preview. He’s joined by writer Jim Zub who has gained a lot of popularity for his creator-owned Skullkickers series as well as the new and well-regarded launch of IDW’s Samurai Jack comic.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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