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Marvel Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Marvel Comics

Every Wednesday, I highlight the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, Comixology, Kickstarter and the web. These are generally more short previews rather than complete reviews. Feel free to comment below if there's a comic you've read recently that you want to talk about.

1. Captain America: Winter Soldier

Written by Ed Brubaker; art by Steve Epting
Marvel Comics  

It's a common misconception that blockbuster Hollywood superhero films automatically lead to an increase in sales for the comics that inspired them. This usually isn't the case. A movie like The Avengers has so many related graphic novels that an engaged moviegoer has no real clear-cut choice of which to buy after they've seen the film. With the upcoming release of the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel is making an effort to get their bookstore and movie theater synergy in place.

This is made easier because the film's plot is apparently closely based on a long story arc from Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's award-winning run on the 2005 Captain America series. This new hardcover volume collects that entire "Winter Soldier" story which ran in issues 1-9 and 11-14. There's also a movie-related image right on the cover so that the choice at the bookstore is clear.

Brubaker and Epting created the definitive modern take on Captain America during their time on the series. They took Marvel's patriotic (but bland) do-gooder and set him within a super-espionage thriller with a dark and serious tone with Hollywood-style action scenes drawn in a slick and realistic style. It's Captain America for the conspiracy-laden, government-fearing 21st century.

There's more info on this book over on Marvel's website.


2. Leaky Timbers

By Joey Ellis

Joey Ellis has had a very successful career as an illustrator and animator working for clients such as Disney, PBS Kids, Facebook, and Lowes, using a varied drawing style that touches upon retro 1950s advertising and corporate iconography. It has long been Ellis’ dream to be able to tell his own stories outside of that client work, and he has chosen to do so by making his first comic book and selling it on Kickstarter.

Leaky Timbers is a 72 page hardcover, black & white comic about a group of monsters that live in a rundown apartment complex. It’s a collection of kid-friendly short stories drawn in a style that is part Yo Gabba Gabba and part Adventure Time, with a little bit of the Muppets thrown in.

The Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing is well on its way to reaching its goal. The Kickstarter page is a joy to behold on its own. The main character from the book, Wolfie, appears in live-action puppet form in the introductory video and all backers (even if you just fund $1) get periodic video updates from Wolfie answering questions about the book and singing Bon Jovi songs. Wolfie even has his own Twitter account to help promote the campaign.

If you follow Joey Ellis on Twitter (<@joeyellis), you’ll know he’s remarkably funny and this book looks like it will be a delight. Donate to the Kickstarter here.


3. Cape Horn

Written by Christian Perrissin; art by Enea Riboldi

Set in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago off the southern coast of Chile at the end of the 19th century, Cape Horn is an epic historical drama in which a large cast of characters come together in violent and unexpected ways at the bottom of the world. While the story bounces back and forth among the characters, it primarily focuses on a rugged cowboy type named Johannes Orth with a mysterious past and Anna Lawrence, an English missionary who has lived her entire life among the indigenous people of Cape Horn.

This 228 page oversized hardcover is being released through the French publisher Humanoids, who specialize in high end graphic novels from celebrated European creators like Moebius and Alexandro Jodorowsky. Cape Horn comes from French writer Christian Perrissin and Italian artist Enea Riboldi, who bathes it in authenticity with beautiful, realistic artwork. His landscapes are lushly illustrated and the characters are distinct and real, giving this the feel of a Hugo Pratt or Milo Manara adventure comic. However, American comic readers should be warned that it's less a rollicking adventure and more of a pensive period drama. There is a very deliberate pace to the story but when big things happen it makes them all the more surprising.

You can read a short preview on the Humanoids website where they also sell digital editions of their books.


4. The Remains #1

Written by Cullen Bunn; art by A.C. Zamudio; colors by Carlos Nicolas Zamudio
Monkeybrain Comics

Cullen Bunn brings his latest horror comic to digital publisher Monkeybrain Comics this week. The Remains is a four issue mini-series set on a Tennessee farm visited by a wandering stranger. Bunn is best known for his excellent supernatural western series The Sixth Gun but is also a rising star over at Marvel, poised to launch a new ongoing Magneto series next week.

Bunn is joined by newcomer A.C. Zamudio (and her husband, colorist Carlos Nicolas Zamudio) who has previously contributed to the Real West digital anthology, also for Monkeybrain. While Bunn is now a breakout talent, we're seeing Zamudio here at what is probably the start of a stellar career. She excels at characters and expressions, particularly in depicting the fear that runs through the faces of the two young girls in this story.

Monkeybrain publishes digital comics at the very attractive price point of 99¢ an issue, making it easy to give it a chance.

You can buy The Remains #1 through the Comixology digital comics app or website 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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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.