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DC Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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DC Comics

Every Wednesday, I highlight the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, Comixology, Kickstarter, and the web. These are not necessarily reviews insomuch as they are me pointing out new comics that are noteworthy for one reason or another. Feel free to comment below if there's a comic you've read recently that you want to talk about or an upcoming comic that you'd like me to consider highlighting.

1. Caliban #1

Written by Garth Ennis; art by Facundo Percio
Avatar Press

Fans of deep space horror such as Alien or Prometheus will want to check out this new series written by Garth Ennis (Preacher, Punisher Max) called Caliban. Set in a universe in which mankind has spent years exploring the galaxy without finding any evidence of other life, missions proceed uneventfully and by the book. That makes it all the more shocking for a crew on a routine exploratory mission when, out of nowhere, they suddenly crash directly into an an abandoned alien spacecraft.

Both Ennis and the publisher, Avatar Press, are known for stories with high shock value and disturbing levels of gore, so think of this as Prometheus if it were made by Quentin Tarantino. Facundo Percio, having previously worked with Alan Moore and Warren Ellis on Avatar books Fashion Beast and Anna Mercury, completes some sort of shocking writer hat trick by teaming with Ennis here.

Here's an unlettered preview of the first issue.


2. Aquaman And The Others #1

Written by Dan Jurgens; art by Lan Medina
DC Comics

Probably the most unexpected hit of DC's "New 52" relaunch of their line of titles has been Aquaman. Geoff Johns revitalized the character by making him a bit of a bad-ass while also embracing the idea that everyone thinks he's kind of a joke. That said, it's a little surprising that DC seems to believe there is a market for two simultaneously ongoing Aquaman titles but, considering at one point last year Aquaman was outselling every single Marvel comic, maybe they're on to something.

The Others are also a New 52 success story. Apparently, before the formation of the Justice League, Aquaman had another team he used to hang out with. Each member of the team–Ya'wara, Sky, The Operative, Prisoner-of-War, and Aquaman himself–possesses an artifact from Atlantis that gives them their powers.

With their own book, written and drawn by DC regulars Dan Jurgens and Lan Medina, these new characters will be given a chance to develop a little and we'll see what kind of staying power (and selling power) they have.

Here's a preview.


3. Study Group Comics

By Various Cartoonists

Study Group Comics is perhaps the premier art-comics collaborative out there. They publish a variety of interesting webcomics from a range of talented creators such as Farel Dalrymple, Sam Alden, Malachi Ward, Sophie Franz, publisher Zack Soto, and more. They experiment with the capabilities of comic art and storytelling without being so "out there" as to turn off your average reader. The Study Group collective has been publishing magazines with work from various contributors as well as print editions of webcomic contributions. To help fund their Spring 2014 catalog they've taken to Kickstarter to allow readers to pre-order the books.

Study Group Magazine #3D will contain a special 3D section and feature work from some of the creators mentioned above as well as others like Jim Rugg and Kim Deitch. In addition, they are planning to publish print editions of Farel Dalrymple's It Will All Hurt #2–printed on newsprint with risographed covers–and Sam Alden's 96-page, wildly colored Haunter. Both works have been serialized online.

There are lots of reward levels to choose from in the Kickstarter including a very cool Study Group t-shirt designed by Michael Deforge. Check out and consider pre-ordering at the Kickstarter here.


4. Inhuman #1

Written by Charles Soule; art by Joe Madureira; colors by Marte Gracia
Marvel Comics

Inhuman, the long-delayed mini-series event from Marvel, finally hits comic shops and digital devices today. After original writer Matt Fraction was taken off the series due to months of creative disagreement with editorial, new writer Charles Soule was brought on to start from scratch. We'll have to wonder what Fraction's rejected plans for this book were as they are probably locked away in some drawer. It's notable that one of Marvel's biggest creative stars could not find a way to come to terms with his editors and yet, unlike the PR fiascos we've seen when similar problems arise at DC, everything about this change has been amicable—at least in public. Soule—who is a rising star and is known for managing to write more comics at once for both Marvel and DC than pretty much anyone—now gets the opportunity to make a huge mark with a story that will set the course for the Marvel Universe for the immediate future.

The plot of Inhuman revolves around a family of characters called The Inhumans, first created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in their original run on The Fantastic Four. However, the focus will be on new characters who, as a result of the detonation of a bomb that releases a cloud of what is known Terrigen Mist, are suddenly turning into super-powered Inhumans. What the Terrigen Mist actually does is unlock genetic DNA that was implanted in mankind back in the prehistoric era by an alien race known as the Kree. The implications of where Marvel is going with this series could be big. Is this a shift from the mutant gene being the typical go-to origin? Are they setting the stage for a big push for the Inhumans to be a driving force in both the comics and future Marvel movies? After having greatly expanded the number of mutants in the universe at the end of the Avengers vs. X-men series, will there be any normal humans left in the Marvel Universe?

Anyway, fans of X-men comics from the 1990s will be excited to see artist Joe Mad (Joe Madureira) coming back for a stint on this book. Here's a preview.


5. The Field #1

Written by Ed Brisson; art by Simon Roy
Image Comics

Dead Letters #1

Written by Christopher Sebela; art by Chris Visions
Boom Entertainment

Both The Field and Dead Letters are new comics that begin with their protagonist waking up with amnesia and find themselves being pursued for reasons they don't understand.

In The Field, the four-issue mini-series from Image, a man wakes up in the middle of a wheat field wearing only his underwear. Suddenly, he finds a cell phone on the ground next to him and a text message from an unknown caller who tells him only to "run." Written by Ed Brisson (from the excellent Image series Sheltered) and drawn by Simon Roy, who is perhaps best known for his work with Brandon Graham on Prophet, this crime noir story takes our underwear-clad hero on a weird ride involving meth, "dirty sex," and Christian rock.

Preview the first few pages of The Field here.

Meanwhile in Dead Letters, the new ongoing series from Boom Entertainment, a man wakes up in a hotel room in a strange city that is overrun with gang violence. Like the guy in The Field, he also has no idea who he is or how he got there. This protagonist has on more than underwear but for some reason he's wearing hospital scrubs and both his arms are bandaged. He also finds himself suddenly being pursued by people he doesn't seem to know. While also very much a noir-ish thriller, this one has a little bit of a supernatural bent to it that will reveal itself over time.

Dead Letters is written by Christopher Sebela who is on the verge of becoming a big star. His digital comic series High Crimes, a thriller set on top of and around Mount Everest, is one of Monkeybrain Comics' most acclaimed series and has led to him co-writing Marvel's Captain Marvel with Kelly Sue DeConnick. Artist Chris Visions is an illustrator with a very energetic, painterly style. The pieces on his website are well worth your time to browse (although some of it is NSFW) and you can read a preview of Dead Letters #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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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]