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Kyle Starks

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Kyle Starks

Every Wednesday, I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, Comixology, Kickstarter, and the web. These are not necessarily reviews (though sometimes they are) but more pointing out noteworthy new comics that you may want to seek out. 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. Over Easy

By Mimi Pond
Drawn & Quarterly

In one of my first columns here, I highlighted Mimi Pond's charming webcomic about a road trip she took with some friends to a hamster show (yes, a hamster show. Just go read it). Pond has had a long career making short comics and writing for a variety of classic TV shows (she wrote the first episode of The Simpsons as well as episodes of Pee Wee's Playhouse and Designing Women). This week, she releases her first graphic novel, a fictionalized memoir called Over Easy that she has been working on for the past 15 years.

Pond recounts her experiences as an art school dropout who took a job as a dishwasher in a quirky restaurant in Oakland, CA. She has changed the names of all the characters that appear, as well as the name of the restaurant itself. It's referred to as the Imperial Cafe, but the real restaurant (which still exists) is called Mama's Royal Cafe. She also changes her own name (here she is Margaret who, in turn, takes on the name "Madge" as way of reinventing herself within the story). This is a coming of age tale in which young, naive Madge learns to become a confident and creative woman.

Over Easy is set in a transformative era in California when the hippie subculture of the 1960s quickly becomes the punk subculture of the 1970s. Sex and drugs were still flowing freely but women, living at the start of second-wave feminism, now were becoming freer to make their own choices about what they want to do and who they want to do it with. Madge practically idolizes the waitresses in the Imperial Cafe for the no-nonsense attitude they take with their customers and for their freedom to pick and choose who they sleep with (who are sometimes their customers). Eventually, Madge works her way up to becoming a waitress herself, learning to navigate the sexual and social politics of the job.

Pond's artwork, a combination of pen and watercolor wash, gives her story an approachable, quirky look. The entire book is colored in a greenish blue hue that seems somehow "diner-ish" while also feeling like it is conveying the soft haze of a memory. Like a lot of auto-bio comics, there can be a sense of "well, you just had to be there" with some of Pond's anecdotes, but she generally has a knack for telling funny, engaging stories. She is currently working on a sequel, which will explore the next stage of her young adulthood.

Drawn & Quarterly has a PDF preview of Over Easy here.

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2. Sexcastle

By Kyle Starks
Kickstarter

If you love '80s style action movies (and who doesn't, really), you're going to want to back the Kickstarter for Kyle Starks' 200-page graphic novel that has a name you can’t forget: Sexcastle. It's a mashup of all the tropes you love from cheesy tough guy films, and filters them through the absurdist lens of comic book comedy.

We first meet Shane Sexcastle at his birth when the doctors inform the nurse that “this baby was born mean." Fast forward 30-odd years to Shane being released from prison. He’s a former assassin/secret service agent who is ready to start a quiet life without all the constant killing that usually surrounds him. Shane is like a cross between Kurt Russell, Patrick Swayze and David Carradine, complete with eye patch, long hair, kung-fu skills and a frank way of telling you how it’s going to be. Almost immediately he gets caught up in defending a mother and her son from a ruthless small town crime boss and has to fend off a team of assassins that resemble all your favorite '80s action stars like Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, and Mr. T.

This is a laugh-out-loud comic from a real rising talent. I first noticed Starks' work on Tumblr with his hilarious series of comics, Secret Agent Toddler In A Man's Body. He draws in a simple, angular style similar to Box Brown and Bryan Lee O'Malley. Starks has a great sense of comedic timing and can really draw an action scene. He hits all the right notes here—anyone who grew up on these movies will eat this up.

There is a week to go on the Kickstarter for Sexcastle and it has already exceeded its goal. I'm not sure what Starks' future publishing plans are, so this may be the surest way to get your hands on a copy. Pledge your support here.

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3. Flash #30

Written by Robert Venditt and Van Jensen; art by Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund
DC Comics

One of the biggest questions since DC rebooted their line of comics in 2011 has been: "Where is Wally West?” Debuting in 1959 as Kid Flash, the teen sidekick to the “Silver Age Flash" Barry Allen, West took over the name after Allen's death in 1985's universe-altering mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths. For an entire generation of readers, Wally West was the Flash. That is, he was until 2009 when Barry Allen was brought back from the dead. The older Barry Allen fans were ecstatic, but younger readers were a little put off. Then, when the so-called "New 52" reboot took place and Flash #1 debuted with Barry Allen as the one-and-only Flash, Wally West was seemingly not a part of the new continuity.

Now, finally, 30 issues into the new series, DC has promised we'll see a new Wally West. There has been a lot of speculation about how the character might be different in this new universe and whether or not DC actually plans to make him into another version of the Flash. The answer may lie within future timelines that will apparently play a part in this new story arc, and that will feature heavily in upcoming DC events like the new weekly series Future's End.

This issue also debuts the new creative team of co-writers Robert Venditti and Van Jensen with artists Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund. Venditti and Jensen have previously worked together on the Green Lantern books. Like fellow writer Jeff Lemire, they are some of the few current DC creators who have come in from successful careers making indie comics (Venditti is best known for his series The Surrogates and Jensen for the much-loved Pinocchio Vampire Slayer). Jensen spent years as a crime reporter for a small newspaper and will be bringing that experience into the police procedural aspect of the book in which Barry Allen is a forensic scientist for the Central City police force.

You can read a preview of Flash #30 here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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