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Box Brown/First Second

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Box Brown/First Second

Every Wednesday, I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, digital, Kickstarter, and the web. 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. Andre the Giant: Life and Legend

By Box Brown
First Second

Box Brown depicts the tragic life of Andre the Giant in his own inimitable style.

Graphic novel biographies are fun because you get to see the subject’s life interpreted through the idiosyncrasies of the artist's drawing style. There's a wonderful synergy that’s apparent when reading Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend because Andre seems to be born right out of Brown's graphic, geometric style. He exaggerates the unbelievable size and laid-back demeanor that pro wrestling fans came to love about Andre.

The subject of professional wrestling is a natural match for comics, I think, but it is a hard one for creating a factual biography of any of its participants. Brown explains in the book’s introduction how the need to maintain the illusion of wrestling being “real" is ingrained in anyone involved, especially from the era of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Interviews with retired wrestlers can be an unreliable source of information as they are constantly putting on a charade. But Brown does an admirable job of working with the facts of Andre’s interesting and tragic life via a series of vignettes.

We see Andre Roussimoff go from a boy living on a farm in rural France to an international superstar thanks to a condition called acromegaly that caused his body to never stop growing and would eventually kill him. Brown portrays many aspects of Andre’s character: his loneliness, his penchant for off-color jokes, his friendship with fellow wrestlers, and his estranged relationship with his daughter. Andre comes off as a likable character, but not exactly the gentle giant you might expect.

You can read a preview of Andre The Giant: Life and Legend here.

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2. This One Summer

By Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
First Second

The new young adult graphic novel from the award-winning team of Jillian and Mariko Tamaki.

This marks the much anticipated return of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki to the world of young adult graphic literature. The two cousins (Mariko is the writer and Jillian illustrates) first collaborated on 2008’s Skim, which won a number of awards for its story of adolescent outsiderism.

With their follow-up graphic novel, This One Summer, the Tamakis again provide a thoughtful, original and, beautifully illustrated story of young girls learning how to grow up. Rose and Windy are friends who see each other once a year when their families spend summer vacation in the same sleepy beach town. They’re both at that age when they’re too old to hang out with their parents but too young to hang out with the local teenagers who hang around the general store, drinking and partying. Rose finds herself captivated by the sexual drama she observes between two teenagers while, at the same time, she becomes alienated by the building tension between her parents.

This One Summer does not travel down the well-trodden path of your typical coming-of-age summer dramas with simple moral lessons. Instead, the Tamakis explore how disconcerting the grown-up world can seem to a twelve year old girl who wants so badly to be a part of it but can’t quite comprehend the unspoken glances and complicated sexual dynamics.

This book will be a thought-provoking read for teenagers and young adults whose memories of this age are still fresh in their minds. It is a masterful piece of storytelling that is sure to garner more awards for this creative team. Jillian Tamaki has already become a very influential illustrator in the past few years, but her work here is a revelation.

Here’s a preview of This One Summer.

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3. Manifest Destiny Vol. 1

Written by Chris Dingess; art by Matthew Roberts; colors by Owen Gieni
Image Comics/Skybound

What if Lewis and Clark discovered some real strange supernatural stuff on their expedition?

The conceit behind Manifest Destiny, Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts' new series for Image Comics, is a good one: President Jefferson has sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase territory not just to establish a western route, but also to document any strange and mysterious creatures they come across along the way. What makes this such a great read is the way historical fiction is mixed with a sense of fun and outlandish adventure.

Dingess and Roberts are relative newcomers to comics. Dingess has written for the SyFy channel’s Being Human and Roberts has done some work for Image, but this is his first ongoing title. Together they’ve created a story that is part Master and Commander and part Lost, which amounts to a well-researched period piece with lots of sci-fi trappings.

Manifest Destiny was an immediate hit and the first issues sold out instantly. This week sees the release of its first collected volume (as well as a simultaneous release of the 6th issue.)

You can read a preview here.

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4. Comics Unmasked: The Digital Anthology

By Various
British Library in London/Sequential App

Some of the greatest British comics made by some of the best creators to ever work in the medium.

The British Library in London has a new exhibit running through August called Comics Unmasked that explores the history of British mainstream and underground comics. It focuses on the more “anarchic” and adult works that challenge categorization, sexual and social norms, and the overall status quo. It is the largest ever comics exhibition in the UK.

To celebrate that exhibition, a digital anthology containing many works from the show is now available for free through the excellent digital comics app Sequential. The 150-page collection has excerpts from creators such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Pat Mills, Bryan and Mary Talbot, Posy Simmonds, Eddie Campbell, Dave Gibbons, and more.

This is a fantastic way to peruse the broad range of comics that have been produced by some of the greatest writers and artists to ever work in the medium. It’s also a great way to introduce yourself to Sequential’s comics app. They sell a lot of fantastic digital graphic novels, many with a more European flavor than are available on Comixology.

Find out more here.

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5. A Body Beneath

By Michael DeForge
Koyama Press

Collecting the early work of one of today’s most influential young cartoonists.

A Body Beneath collects bits and pieces from issues 2 through 5 of Michael DeForge’s much lauded but hard to find one-man anthology comic, Lose. The reason it doesn’t contain anything from issue 1, as DeForge explains in the book's intro, is that he can’t bear to look back on how rough his early work looks. Even if that is true, he sure seemed to be the fully formed Michael DeForge that we now know by issue 2, where he explores body horror and laces with intricately grotesque imagery and casually funny dialogue.

DeForge's moment of self-deprecation makes for an apt comparison to the comically down-on-himself Chris Ware and, in many ways, DeForge is the next-generation Ware. In Lose, he explores artistic experimentations that remain readable because of his sharp sense of humor and surprising storytelling. As a result, he has become an influential nexus in an array of talented young comic creators who are pushing beyond the observational sensibilities of ’90s and early '00s era indie comics while moving into a fusion of fantasy, horror, auto-bio, surrealism, and pornography.

While this year’s Ant Colony is probably the better gateway into reading DeForge, A Body Beneath is a great way for DeForge fans who missed out on the early issues of Lose to see how he has developed as an artist over the years.

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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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