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Heather Penn

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Heather Penn

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. C.O.W.L. #1

Written by Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel; art by Rod Reis
Image Comics

Superhero teamster unions in a Mad Men-style drama.

Back in the day, superheroes were generally depicted as lone vigilantes. When they'd organize, it was usually as a loose-knit team often funded by a wealthy benefactor or by one of its own members (there’s almost always a rich playboy running around in tights ready to help out financially). In recent years, comics have begun to explore the team angle from more real-world perspectives. We began to see corporate-sponsored (WildC.A.T.S) or government-funded (The Ultimates) supergroups. Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, and Rod Reis are adding to this trend in their new series C.O.W.L. in which superheroes are able to join a labor union.

Set in Chicago in the 1960s, a time in history when both unions and comics were in something of a “Silver Age,"C.O.W.L. seeks to tell different kinds of superhero stories. There's a touch of Mad Men's style and sex appeal as well asWatchmen’s serious approach to heroes. This first issue mostly introduces us to the cast of characters and sets some pieces in motion, but you can tell it’s going to be a complex drama with super heroics used mostly as a jumping-off point for stories about politics and personal drama.

What makes it all work is the stunning artwork by Rod Reis. Digitally painted in a style that calls to mind some of the great advertising and poster illustrators of the 1960s, Reis gives this comic a proper look that many contemporary comics set in this era can’t achieve.

Here is a preview of the 1st issue.

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2. The Amateurs

By Conor Stechschulte
Fantagraphics

What has caused two butchers to lose their memory and what lengths will they go to to hide it?

One morning, two butchers open up their shop located in a small shack just off the river, and mysteriously find they have no recollection of how to do their job. When customers come in, the men scramble to figure out how to slaughter the animals and fulfill their orders without raising suspicion.

This is how Conor Stechschulte’s debut graphic novel, The Amateurs, gets going and quickly turns into an uncomfortable and bloody black comedy. With its turn-of-the-20th-century setting, surreal sense of horror and humor, and cross-hatched artwork, The Amateurs puts you in that era as if you’re watching some weird, early “talkie.”

Stechschulte has been making mini-comics for a number of years and originally self-published The Amateurs back in 2011 before it got picked up by Fantagraphics. His work leans towards experimental art comics, but The Amateurs can be enjoyed by most, even when it leaves you wondering what is really going on.

Fantagraphics has some preview pages here.

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3. Final Incal

Written by Alejandro Jodorowsky; art by Moebius, Ladronn and others
Humanoids

The conclusion to a 30-year-old science fiction epic.

85-year-old comics iconoclast Alejandro Jodorowsky first released The Incal (L’Incal) in 1981. It would eventually be the middle piece of an epic trilogy that would include Before the Incal and Final Incal. The comic was a collaboration with legendary artist Jean Giraud, better known by the name Moebius, and has been among the pair’s many influential science fiction works. It was considered such an influence on Luc Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element that Jodorowsky and Giraud unsuccessfully sued the filmmaker for pilfering their visual ideas. It also kickstarted what is known as the “Jodoverse,” a connected universe of stories written by Jodorowsky that includes other classics such as Metabarons and Technopriests.

The story of The Incal trilogy follows the exploits of John DiFool, a private detective who finds himself in over his head when he is given a powerful crystal called the Light Incal. With characters and aspects based on tarot cards, The Incal explores grand concepts of life, love, and technology with action and a bit of comedy.

Jodorowsky and Giraud reunited in 2000 to create the intended final piece of the trilogy After The Incal (Après l’Incal). However, Moebius, ill at the time, turned in pages that were in a much more cartoony, simple style than the previous books. Jodorowsky was not happy with the visual disconnect and approached José Ladrönn, known for his realistic sci-fi/fantasy work on comics like Hip Flask, to redraw the pages and complete the book.

This week, Humanoids will release the English translation of Final Incal, which will include Ladrönn’s 154-page concluding chapter as well as the 56 pages that Moebius (who died in 2012) originally drew for After The Incal. There are multiple formats being released, ranging from lower priced digital editions to a large, limited edition $600 hardcover that include book plates signed by Jodorowsky and Ladrönn.

Some preview images and options to buy here.

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4. Everywhere Antennas

By Julie Delporte
Drawn & Quarterly

A fictional diary by a young woman unable to cope with the modern world.

Being that Julie Delporte’s previous graphic novel was a collection of hand-drawn diary entries called Journal, you’d be forgiven for mistaking her latest effort as another autobiographical comic. Everywhere Antennas is written and drawn to look like very personal entries in someone's sketchbook, but in fact is a work of fiction about a young woman in the midst of a nervous breakdown that she attributes to TV, radio, and wifi waves constantly permeating her brain.

Delporte uses colored pencils to write and draw the story in a series of dated diary entries accompanied by observational life drawings. The book is printed with such high definition that you can see the grain of pencil and edges of Scotch tape. Considering the book is about the toll that technology takes, it very deliberately looks handmade and human in every aspect.

You can see a preview of the book here.

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5. Thermohalia

By Heather Penn
tapastic.com/series/thermohalia

A beautiful webcomic about mermaids and robots.

Heather Penn’s webcomic Thermohalia joyfully combines mermaids, robots, and teen aliens. With about 3 chapters posted to date (some are on her website, but she seems to have moved to updating the comic more regularly on Tapastic.com), the story follows a young mermaid (or maybe part-girl/part-eel) named Coi who ventures into a city above the water where she meets a part-human/part-bird robot named Heghera.

Penn paints the comic digitally, using tall panels that are filled with breathtaking vistas to immerse you into the quiet, sunny, beautiful world she is creating. It’s the kind of webcomic you wish you could set to fill your widescreen monitor in high resolution wonder.

There are not that many pages posted yet so you can catch up on the story in less than half an hour, starting 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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