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The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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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. Big Trouble in Little China #1

Written by Eric Powell with John Carpenter; art by Brian Churilla
Boom! Studios

Now we can finally find out what happened when Jack Burton drove off at the end of the movie.

People have tried in the past to turn John Carpenter’s 1986 cult classic Big Trouble in Little China into a comic. Top Cow Comics were going to do it back in 2009, but their plan never materialized and they eventually lost the license. Now, Boom! Studios is really going to make it happen and they’re doing it with the help of Carpenter himself.

Big Trouble in Little China #1 picks up right where the movie left off. Jack Burton (played by Kurt Russell in the film) has said farewell to Wang, Miao, Gracie, and the rest and drives off in his big rig, The Pork Chop Express. Unbeknownst to him, one of the monsters they fought off has stowed away in the back of his truck.

Boom! has brought a top notch creative team in to bring this to the page. Eric Powell is the creator of the popular comic The Goon and rarely works on anything outside of that series, but he could not resist the opportunity to create a sequel to one of his favorite movies. Artist Brian Churilla got a lot of attention for his recent Secret History of DB Cooper comic and has a clean, cartoony style that fits right in. On top of all that, John Carpenter has given his blessing on this series and has provided some input on the story.

Here’s a preview.

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2. Safari Honeymoon

By Jesse Jacobs
Koyama Press

A couple spend their honeymoon on a guided safari on another world.

Jesse Jacobs’ last graphic novel By This You Shall Know Him, is probably in my top 5 favorite comics of the past half-decade, which makes his latest, Safari Honeymoon, one of my most anticipated books of the year. His comics are weird, smart, beautifully designed, and always surprising.

In Safari Honeymoon, two affluent tourists pay a presumably exorbitant fee to spend their honeymoon in an alien world full of cute but dangerous wildlife, deadly parasites, infections, temporal disturbances, and strange, confusing landscapes. The couple’s journey is both terrifying and hilarious but constantly trippy.

Jacobs is great at drawing weird creatures that make you stop reading for ten minutes just to stare at the page to soak it all in. In between these hallucinatory interludes, though, he tells a really engaging story about men and women in the wild.

Here’s a preview

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3. Blindsprings

By Kadi Fedoruk
blindsprings.com / TheHiveworks.com

Sometimes a fairy tale princess shouldn’t be saved.

Recently, a reader recommended a webcomic in the comments section (I’m always looking for new comics to check out—especially webcomics—so please recommend some below). Blindsprings is a magical fantasy about a young girl named Tammy who lives in a lush forest straight out of a fairy tale. In fact, she soon meets a young man named Harris who knows of her from reading fairy tales. Harris soon leaves for school to study magic, while Tammy is involved with some sort of secret group of forest spirits. Years later, Harris returns to “save” Tammy and bring her out into the world. But that may not be what Tammy really wants or needs.

Kadi Fedoruk is an amazing young artist whose work would look right at home at Disney, although you can see other influences as well. Blindsprings looks like what would happen if Frozen’s Princess Anna wandered into the world of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. There is definitely a mysterious undertone to this that elevates the material above simple children’s fantasy though, and it hints at darker things to come.

Jump in and catch up on the story here.

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4. Afterlife With Archie Vol. 1: Escape from Riverdale

Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; art by Francesco Francavilla
Archie Comics

There’s trouble in Riverdale when the dead begin to rise from their graves.

Undoubtedly the biggest surprise in comics the past year has been Afterlife With Archie, a new series from Archie Comics that takes the Riverdale gang and mashes them up with just about the last thing you’d expect: zombies. It’s understandable to want to dismiss this as trite bandwagon-jumping, but great reviews and impassioned word-of-mouth praise from readers have made this a hot-selling comic. Now, the first collected volume is about to hit bookstores and potential new audiences.

When Jughead’s pet Hot Dog is killed in a hit and run, he turns to Sabrina the Teenage Witch to bring him back to life. However, the dark magic Sabrina uses spreads out of control and Hot Dog is not the only corpse to rise from the dead in Riverdale. Soon, Archie and the gang are on the run and no one is safe.

This is the first book that Archie Comics has ever published that is meant for mature readers, and with its success it won’t be the last. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa just announced a new series that will focus on Sabrina The Teenage Witch in a similarly dark way. His collaborator, Francesco Francavilla, is a design-oriented comic book artist who has been making a big splash on Tumblr over the past year with his fan art posters for TV shows like Breaking Bad and True Detective. He brings that same, strong use of simple, bold color and graphic shadows to this comic to give it a look that feels true to the style of 1950s horror comics as well as the Archie comics of that same era.

Find out more about the book here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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