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The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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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. Beautiful Darkness

By Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet
Drawn & Quarterly

You might think you know what you're getting at first glance with Beautiful Darkness. It opens with a romantic tea party between pretty young princess Aurora and the charming Prince Hector, but by page two everything begins to go downhill fast. The world around them starts falling apart in bloody chunks and Aurora and her friends are forced to run for their lives from inside the head of a dead girl in the woods. From there, this gaggle of whimsical characters must find a way to survive the harsh reality of mother nature–deadly insects, maggots infesting the rotting corpse they have not strayed too far from, the onset of winter, and each other.

Beautiful Darkness is a stunning and deeply disturbing graphic novel. It's a play on the children-in-jeopardy theme that has been popularized by Lord of the Flies,  Battle Royale, and The Hunger Games. Except, instead of children, it uses the fanciful figments of a child's imagination.

Originally released in France in 2009 as Jolies Tenebres, this translated edition comes to us from Drawn & Quarterly. It is wonderfully illustrated by husband and wife team Marie Pommepuy & Sébastien Cosset, who refer to themselves as Kerascoët, and is written by French comics writer Fabien Vehlmann based on a plot by Pommepuy. The artwork, painted in watercolor, is lush and beautiful. The mix of loosely and comically drawn cartoon figures with realistically painted trees, animals, and people accentuate the way fantasy and reality meet and become tangled together.

Drawn & Quarterly has a preview on their website. You probably don’t want to buy this for your kids, but grown-up fans of dark and twisted fairy tales will love the cruel and unexpected nature of this story.


2. Oak

By Max Badger

While Beautiful Darkness may not be the kind of fantasy story you'd want to read with the kids, Max Badger's debut graphic novel, Oak, certainly is. Set in a magical, medieval world filled with talking snakes, shape-shifting clouds, and wandering spirits, Oak follows the adventures of a young, nameless orphan who is on a journey to return to his village where he can be reunited with his one true friend, a girl named Clara. The boy has been destined for greatness, but when we meet him he's an unassuming, honest, and friendly little guy who seems to easily pick up travel companions everywhere he goes, be they dead kings guarding treasure in their tombs or a one-armed female knight looking to avenge her own death.

Max Badger is one of those creators who seems to know exactly how to put together a professional-looking graphic novel and have it be laugh-out-loud funny to boot. He was one of the last batch of cartoonists to receive a grant from the Xeric Foundation, the prestigious, pre-Kickstarter route for self-publishers to gain funding for their comic book projects. After working on it for about 2 years, Badger completed this 120 page black and white hardcover that he now sells via his own website.  Although it stands well on its own, Badger plans to continue the story in later volumes.

You can preview Oak on Max’s website and order it through his store here.


3. She-Hulk #1

Written by Charles Soule; art by Javier Pulido and Muntsa Vicente
Marvel Comics

Like Daredevil, She-Hulk is one of the Marvel Universe’s professional superhero lawyers. Unlike Daredevil, she doesn’t separate her lawyer persona from her big green giant self. This becomes a source of conflict in the first issue of her new ongoing series when she loses her position at a top law firm for not using her superhero connections to bring in some lucrative clients.

She-Hulk has a history of critically-lauded but low-selling series. Her most recent, which started in 2004, also played up the superhero lawyer aspect but with more of a screwball, sci-fi comedy tone to it. This time out, it’s still a fun, lighthearted take on the character but with some influence from the success of Marvel’s Hawkeye series where the focus is more grounded and focused on She-Hulk’s life outside of being a superhero. This new book is being written by Charles Soule who, in addition to being one of the most prolific writers in comics (he's currently writing seven different monthly titles), is also a practicing attorney and can lend some real-world knowledge and legal gravitas to She-Hulk’s exploits.

Joining Soule is Javier Pulido, who may not be the first artist you’d expect to see on a She-Hulk book. His rendition of the character is very different from the statuesque and muscular heroine we’re used to seeing (though maybe not that far removed from Juan Bobillo's somewhat beefy but elegant take from early in the last series). Pulido's She-Hulk is stylish and modern with trendy hairstyles and a fashionable wardrobe. Complementing Pulido on colors is Muntsa Vicente whose eye-popping work on Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's The Private Eye has brought her to the attention of everyone in the industry this past year.

Read a preview of She-Hulk #1 here.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]