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Toni Bruno/One Peace Books

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Toni Bruno/One Peace Books

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. Kurt Cobain: When I Was An Alien

Written by Danilo Deninotti; art by Toni Bruno
One Peace Books

Italian writer and music journalist Danilo Deninotti was, like myself and many others, greatly affected when he first discovered the music of Nirvana. After he changed the face of rock music, the legend of frontman Kurt Cobain has only grown since his suicide in 1994. When Deninotti decided he wanted to create a graphic novel about Cobain, he chose to avoid the much-written about years of drug use and crippling celebrity and instead focus on Cobain's childhood and the early, pre-Nevermind years of the band.

Kurt Cobain: When I Was An Alien takes its name from a lyric in the song "Territorial Pissings." It also refers to Cobain's childhood belief that he was an alien and that someday his real alien parents would come back for him. We meet Cobain as a young boy in the early 1970s and watch him weather his parents' divorce while growing into a sensitive, artistic teen interested in drawing and playing guitar. At certain points throughout the book, Cobain sees himself and friends, like fellow band members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, as aliens with oversized, almond-shaped eyes. In actuality, the details of Cobain's childhood as shown here don't seem that troubled or traumatic; it seems actually pretty normal, making the alien metaphor a little bit of a hard sell. The decision to focus just on his early years cuts out a lot of the dramatic value of the story, bypassing all the conflict and tragedy that would come later.

The artist for this book, Toni Bruno, is exceptional. This is his third graphic novel but he is not widely known, especially in the States. He has an expressive drawing style that looks similar to Brazilian cartoonist Fabio Moon (Casanova, Daytripper). This book marks Bruno and Deninotti's first partnership and it was an enormous success in Italy, selling out within 3 months. Now, a translated edition is being released in the States through One Peace Books. Bruno's drawings really bring this story to life, and Nirvana fans will appreciate all the details that he and Deninotti get right, including cameos by other indie rock musicians of the era like Buzz Osborne of the Melvins, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, and Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.

Kurt Cobain: When I Was An Alien will be available in comic book stores (probably through a special order) and also via Amazon.


2. Genesis

Written by Nathan Edmondson; art by Alison Sampson; colors by Jason Wordie
Image Comics

Alison Sampson was an architect for 25 years before drawing her first comic book, Genesis, a newly released graphic novella from Image Comics. Comic book artists with a background in architecture are not unheard of—a recent example is Emma Rios, the artist of another Image comic, Pretty Deadly. You might imagine a comic by an architect to look structured with lots of clean, geometric lines, but the beauty of Genesis is that, on the surface, you get something that looks quite the opposite of that. It's full of loose, energetic drawings that look like they're melting off the page. All that careful thinking and measuring is still there, however, it's underneath the surface.

In an interview with Tim O'Shea, Sampson shares a diagram that reveals some of that measured thinking. She plots out visual cues within the design of the page that most readers would only get on a subconscious level. It makes you realize that architects, who spend a lot of time designing how human beings should move through a physical space, can also be really good at directing readers through the visual layout of a comic book.

You can see how an architect—or any artist, really—would be attracted to the concept of this book, written by Nathan Edmondson, who is known for espionage-driven material such as Who Is Jake Ellis?. In Genesis, a man named Adam discovers he has the power of creation. He initially uses this for simple and benevolent means, but he soon finds himself remaking the world and everything he loves in horrific and irreversible ways. The fact that Edmondson can go from writing popcorn-spy comics to something like this is fascinating—I hope he continues to diversify his output like this in the future.

The premise gives Sampson the architect room to build brand new environments with no limitations, but it also gives Sampson the artist freedom to create her own reality—a hallucination that deviates further from real-world physics with each page.

While the story itself probably falls short of saying anything too profound about creativity or theology, Sampson's work— along with the carefully chosen colors Jason Wordie uses to support it—make this a worthwhile book to pore over and examine. It is a stunning piece of comics work and it will be very exciting to see what Sampson does next.

Here's a preview of Genesis.


3. Neurocomic

Written by Dr. Hana Roš; written and illustrated by Dr. Matteo Farinella

An architect-turned-comic-book-artist is one thing, but consider Dr. Matteo Farinella, who pulls double-duty as a cartoonist and a neuroscientist. Farinella makes the most of his talents by illustrating various educational projects and he has collaborated with fellow neuroscientist Dr. Hana Roš to create a graphic novel, Neurocomic. Released this week from Nobrow Press with support from the Wellcome Trust, this comic brings Dr. Farinella's worlds together.

Neurocomic attempts to explain what we know of how the brain works by following a man who somehow gets transmitted directly inside of one. There he experiences—first hand—dopamine, hallucinogens, memory, and more. He also meets various researchers who pioneered studies in brain-related science who help explain various concepts to both the protagonist and the reader.

Farinella conveys information with a very light-hearted, comical approach. This book is similar to another Nobrow book I wrote about last year called Freud. While the concepts are still probably heady for a casual reader to immerse themselves in, Neurocomic is great for someone with a predisposed interest in science, especially young adult readers. A book like this can be an excellent gateway for young minds into further scientific studies.

Nobrow has some preview images and ordering information on their website here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]