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Jason Latour/Image Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Jason Latour/Image Comics

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. Southern Bastards

Written by Jason Aaron; art by Jason Latour
Image Comics

Two comic creators from the South collaborate on a new series that both reveres and pokes at the underbelly of southern culture.

The Jasons–Jason Aaron and Jason Latour–are good old boys, one from Alabama and the other from North Carolina. They are frequent collaborators.They co-wrote a Wolverine digital comic together and Aaron recently handed the writing job on Marvel's Wolverine & The X-men series over to Latour. In Southern Bastards, their new series from Image, Aaron writes and Latour provides the visuals (even the coloring with some assist from Rico Renzi) for a gritty, "Southern fried" crime story set in rural Alabama. The two Jasons pull from their own upbringings and past experiences to paint a picture of Southern culture that glorifies it a little, but looks into its dark side as well.

Much like Aaron's now classic Vertigo series Scalped, this is a story about a prodigal son coming home. Earl Tubbs returns to the house he grew up in down in Craw County, Alabama. He's now an old man and has no interest in staying in town for more than a couple of days while he handles the affairs of a deceased uncle. Earl's dead father who, back in the day, was the town's sheriff and wielded a baseball bat like Buford Pusser in Walking Tall, casts a long shadow on Earl's life, and he's reminded of this the moment he returns. His hometown has changed quite a bit and is now under the thumb of a man referred to as "Coach Boss." Naturally, Earl is not going to be leaving town as quickly as he had hoped.

The authenticity that the two Jasons bring to this book is a big selling point. Everything looks and "sounds" just right, from the ramshackle homes to the southern drawls. There are a lot of funny little jabs at southern culture (a "Y'all Haul" moving van, a logo for sweet tea that appears to be a mashup between Col. Sanders and the Kool-Aid Man), despite the fact that it's a mostly foreboding story. Latour is a rare case of writer/artist who thrives on working with other writers and artists (as opposed to simply making comics on his own). His drawings are so gritty and rustic, they look like they were chipped and peeled off of an old hand-painted liquor store sign. You can tell both Jasons are in their element with this story.

Here's a preview.


2. The Guardian Weekend Comics Special

By Various

Can some of today's top novelists actually write a good comic?

This past weekend, British newspaper The Guardian devoted their weekend special to an intriguing idea: They paired six well-known novelists with well-established comic book pros to make exclusive short comics.

Although the stated idea of the series is for the pairs to "create new works” together, a couple of the stories are actually adaptations of previously written short stories. The adaptations (one by A.M. Homes and the other by Margaret Atwood) are the wordier of the bunch and you can tell the artists needed to work with a little more dialogue and narration than most comic panels can comfortably hold. The others, where true collaboration took place, have interesting behind-the-scenes interviews posted on The Guardian website that give us a peak at how the writers and artists worked together.

The 6 writer/artist match-ups include:
• Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) came up with a great idea about a mom who decides to take matters into her own hands when it comes to dealing with school bullies.
• Christian Ward illustrates Margaret Atwood's Freeforall about a future in a world ravaged by incurable sexually transmitted diseases. This one is really more illustrated prose than comic, but Ward has some interesting and unique layouts going on here.
• Dave Eggers (editor of McSweeney's) chose to draw his own story, a tongue-in-cheek tale of a bison having a vision. It would have been interesting to see what an artist could bring to this story, but Eggers' own drawings give this a sketchbook-y feel, appropriate since he came up with the story while traveling.
• Michael Faber (Under the Skin) and Roger Langridge (Popeye and Muppet Show comics) made a fun little comic in which Barack Obama and David Cameron meet at a comic shop and discuss the impact of British and American comics on each' other's culture.
• Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler's Wife) and Eddie Campbell (From Hell) have probably the most intertwined collaboration, telling the story of two lovers in which Campbell draws the man and Niffenegger draws the woman. They worked together to find an ending to this unfinished story that Niffenegger wrote years ago.
• And finally, Frazer Irving adapts a weird A.M. Homes (The End of Alice) story about a woman explaining a mysterious phone call to two odd investigators. Despite being simply an adaptation, this one may be the best looking of the bunch.

You can read all the comics as well as the behind-the-scenes interviews here.


3. The Love Bunglers

By Jaime Hernandez

The story of Love & Rockets' Maggie has been building to this moment for decades.

Jaime Hernandez is one of the comics world's undisputed masters. Unlike many other kings or queens of their mediums, his best work seems to always be his most recent. The Love Bunglers is a new graphic novel that collects a story that previously ran in two parts within the 3rd and 4th issues of the annual publication Love & Rockets. It is another chapter in Hernandez’s continuing exploration of the life of Maggie Chascarillo, and it is a profound one. Maggie deals with failure and loss in both the past and present and, towards the end, reconnects with longtime, on-and-off-again boyfriend Ray Dominguez.

The story of Maggie is one that Hernandez has been telling for over 30 years and it’s possible that this chapter is meant to be the ending he’s been working towards all this time. There’s a remarkable scene consisting of flashback panels recreating moments from Maggie and Ray’s history that will be immensely rewarding for loyal Love & Rockets readers. This article dissects each panel and the original scenes that they are referencing.

Although this book will have the most effect on readers who have been following Maggie's exploits all these years, the beauty of the way Hernandez tells her story is that it’s possible to jump in at any point—even at this late stage—and get hooked.

Fantagraphics has some preview images here.


4. Cleopatra in Space Vol. 1: Target Practice

By Mike Maihack

Mike Maihack's popular all-ages webcomic finds a new bookstore audience thanks to Scholastic.

Fifteen-year-old Cleopatra of the Nile is abducted from ancient Egypt just before her coronation as Queen and transported into the far future. She travels through the distant reaches of space and a prophesy stated by a race of talking cats says that she will be the savior of the universe. In order to prepare her for battle against the army of the alien Xerx, she must first go to school where she will learn how to shoot a ray gun, battle robots and, ugh, solve algebra equations.

Cleopatra in Space, the first in a multi-volume series, is one of those books I can't wait for my own daughter to be old enough to enjoy. It's got everything you'd want your own pre-teen to sink his or her teeth into: a smart, butt-kicking heroine, spaceships, a flying motorcycle shaped like a Sphynx, ray guns, high school drama, a love triangle, and talking cats. Maihack handles both action and comedy with natural ease. His artwork is stylish and cute and it's no wonder this comic was such a hit online (especially with all the cats), but he really is a great storyteller. I especially love his ability to get laughs with a simple reaction shot—like a snarky raised eyebrow from Cleopatra or a blank, disbelieving stare from her feline mentor, Kenshu.

Here's a preview of the first 13 pages.


5. Amazing Spider-Man #1

Written by Dan Slott; art by Humberto Ramos
Marvel Comics

The return of Peter Parker and a relaunch of the flagship Spider-Man comic (just in time for the movie).

For the past year, in case you haven’t been keeping up with it, the man underneath the Spider-Man mask has actually been Otto Octavius (a.k.a. Doctor Octopus) inhabiting the body of Peter Parker. Their minds were switched when Octavius’ body died and we, the readers, had to assume that Peter’s mind and soul were lost forever (or until this story ran its course and it was time for a reset).

That story, which ran for 31 issues in the now-complete Superior Spider-Man series, was so much better than it probably sounds from my description. We were given a fresh take on Spider-Man–what he could be when put in the hands of someone else–and what it means to be a hero, especially for someone who used to be a villain.

Now, with some strategic planning on Marvel’s part, Peter Parker is back in his own body and the Amazing Spider-Man title replaces Superior Spider-Man just in time for the release of Amazing Spider-Man 2 in theaters next week. Writer Dan Slott, who has been shepherding the Spider-Man comics for a while, has brought his long-term Octavius plan to fruition and is now ready to give a fresh start for Peter and for readers who are ready to jump into a new Spidey comic.

Here’s a preview.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]