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Marvel Comics

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. Ms. Marvel #1


Written by G. Willow Wilson; art by Adrian Alphona
Marvel Comics

The new Ms. Marvel--a name created in 1968 to tap into the women’s movement of that era--debuts in her own title this week and it’s a very big deal (UPDATE: A reader pointed out to me that Ms. Marvel actually did not debut until 1977, even though her original alter ego, Carol Danvers, first appeared in 1968). Taking over from Carol Danvers (who now goes by Captain Marvel) is a sixteen-year-old Pakistani-American Muslim named Kamala Khan.

Women of color are generally under-represented in comics and characters of Muslim faith are especially few and far between. DC Comics deserves credit for introducing an Arab-American Green Lantern (Simon Baz) last year and Marvel introduced an Arab mutant named Dust in the pages of New X-men years before that, but this is the first American Muslim to be given the high-profile launch of her very own comic.

The new Ms. Marvel is the brainchild of Marvel editor Sana Amanat. She collaborated with fellow Muslim American, writer G. Willow Wilson, to use elements from their life experiences to pour into the character. Kamala Khan lives in Jersey City with her immigrant family. She is devout in her faith but refuses to wear a traditional hijab. She avoids eating pork products despite really, really wanting them. She goes to school, hangs out with friends and, like any normal teenager in the Marvel Universe, obsesses about the Avengers. Kamala is a 21st century version of a long Marvel tradition of ordinary teenagers with everyday problems suddenly gaining extraordinary powers and great responsibility. In this first issue she becomes a shape-shifter, gaining the ability to grow and shrink various parts of her body and change her appearance, which is sure to lead to some interesting meta-commentary on cultural assimilation.

A lot of people of Muslim heritage will be watching this title closely to see how true-to-life Kamala’s experiences are but also to keep an eye on how respectfully their faith and culture is handled in the context of a modern day superhero comic. 

You can read a couple of previews here.

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2. Ant Colony


By Michael DeForge
Drawn & Quarterly

If you follow indie comics, you've probably heard of Michael DeForge. Over the past few years he has risen to become one of the most interesting and respected cartoonists of his generation. From his self-published one-man anthology Lose to his various online comics and his recent short story collection Very Casual, he is a prolific creator with a lot of work to seek out. Yet, until now, he hasn't really had that one major work that you could point new readers to as your official Michael DeForge Starter Kit. With the release of Ant Colony from Drawn & Quarterly, we now have what is not only arguably DeForge's best work, but also probably his most accessible in a beautiful hardcover format.

Ant Colony was previously serialized on DeForge's website as "Ant Comic" before being picked up by D&Q. Much like his highly regarded short story "Spotting Deer" from the Very Casual collection, it reads somewhat like a nature documentary set on some weird alternate Earth. There are ants of course, but they are very stylized in their appearance. The queen is an enormous, very sexualized (yet alien) representation of a female body, lying in wait. Other creatures include dog-headed spiders, centipedes that motor around like stretch limos, and creepy earthworms that emit laughing sounds even when they are chopped into bits.

Through a series of vignettes, the book depicts life in and around the ant colony — the ritualistic fertilization of the queen, the dangers of spiders and toxic cubes of Sweet 'n Low, and eventual war with a colony of red ants. We meet a number of interesting and likable ant characters including a gay couple, a young boy who ingests ground-up earthworm and becomes sort of a prophet, a corrupt cop, and a female member of the low-caste "Infertiles."  

Chris Ware recently explored the life of a bee in an installment of his 2012 graphic novel Building Stories. It's hard not to draw parallels here as DeForge similarly depicts his colony of ants with a deadpan sense of humor even when dealing with horrifying situations. Deforge's work always tiptoes around the edge of body horror and grotesque sexuality, yet he does so here with wit and imagination and an appealing group of characters that help make this as much fun to read as it is occasionally icky to look at.  

You can download a preview and find out more at the publisher's website.

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3. Red Light Properties


By Dan Goldman
IDW Publishing

I've been a fan of Dan Goldman's Red Light Properties since he initially launched it as a webcomic many years ago. Since then he has distributed it as a digital comic through Monkeybrain Comics and this week he is releasing the first in a series of print collections through IDW Publishing.

Red Light Properties is about a Miami real estate agency run by Jude and Cecilia Tobin, who have found an unusual niche in a tough housing market. They flip previously unsellable properties that have been haunted by exorcising the ghosts, then selling the “clean” houses to new buyers. They get rid of the ghosts by helping the spirits find the closure they need to move on. The stress of their unusual line of work takes its toll on the Tobins' marriage, making RLP part family drama, part comedy and part paranormal thriller. It actually reads very much like the kind of high-quality cable TV series you might find on AMC or HBO (maybe with a little HGTV thrown in).

Goldman has an unusual process for creating this comic which involves shooting video, generating 3D backgrounds, photographing models, and digitally drawing and coloring over it all in a way that pulls it all together. A lot of other artists using similar approaches might push this too far into photo-comic territory but he makes it work by using trippy, eye-popping colors and off-kilter page layouts.

This first ever print edition from IDW features recolored, relettered artwork, some rewritten dialogue, and 20 brand-new pages. You can find out more at the publisher's website.

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4. Loki: Agent of Asgard #1


Written by Al Ewing; art by Lee Garbett
Marvel Comics

Marvel is starting off the new year by launching a bunch of new titles in what they've dubbed "All New Marvel Now." In addition to Ms. Marvel this week and a relaunched Wolverine comic, we get the first ongoing series starring a villain who has recently become more of an anti-hero and a real fan favorite thanks to the Marvel films: Loki.

The character of Loki, Thor's deceptive half-brother, has become more and more prominent over the years, starring in his own series of stories in Journey into Mystery and appearing as a regular member of the Young Avengers. In those stories he had been transformed into a precocious tween which made for an entertaining new spin on the character. Now he's been transformed once again into a young adult version of his old self. And, not by coincidence, he now looks a lot like the Tom Hiddleston version we've seen in the Avengers and Thor films.

In Loki: Agent of Asgard, written by Mighty Avengers writer Al Ewing and illustrated by Lee Garbett, Loki is working as a secret agent for a group of goddesses referred to as All-Mother, and his first mission is to break into Avengers mansion. Ewing promises an episodic nature where individual missions will be contained to one issue but will all feed into the larger story that he is telling.

You can read a preview here.

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5. Hourly Comics Day


Comic above by Dan Berry
Every year on February 1 cartoonists all over the world take part in "Hourly Comics Day" in which they draw a little auto-bio cartoon for each hour of the day that they are awake. The results are posted to blogs, LiveJournal, DeviantArt, Tumblr and Twitter under hashtag #hourlycomicsday. This is not to be confused with 24 Hour Comics Day in which cartoonists challenge themselves to complete an entire comic within a 24 hour time period.

Hourly Comics is treated as a fun exercise and the results are generally more about enjoying a peek into the process of comic creation than getting a finished masterpiece of a comic to read. That said, some cartoonists just can’t help but make really great comics to read.

There are too many Hourly Comics out there to mention but here are a couple I thought were worth checking out:

Vera Brosgol
Maris Wicks
Audra Furuichi
Graham Annable (Crossover alert! His and Vera Brosgol's comics feature the same group of people getting together to watch Sherlock on TV) 
Sarah McIntyre
Dan Berry 
Sarah Searle
Faith Erin Hicks 


Comic above by Vera Brosgol


Comic above by Audra Furuichi 

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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
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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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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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