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Shaky Kane/Image Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Shaky Kane/Image Comics

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. Pearls Before Swine

By Stephan Pastis with Bill Watterson(!!)
GoComics

Yes, that really was Bill Watterson drawing last week’s Pearls Before Swine.

By now, even if you don’t follow comics news, you’ve probably heard about Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s surprise return to the page. You probably also know that the extremely private Watterson has been pretty much a recluse since retiring his famous newspaper strip in 1995. He famously opened up by giving an interview to us here at mental_floss this past October. But now, this surprise appearance in three of last week’s strips in Stephan Pastis' Pearls Before Swine was something many people at first just couldn’t believe.

Pastis humorously lays out exactly how this all happened over on his blog, which includes the sequence of strips that he and Watterson collaborated on as well as the strips that set it all up. He had given everyone fair warning early last week, announcing on Twitter that he had a ‘mind-blowing’ surprise in store for readers of his syndicated newspaper strip. But when the strips appeared, online discussion was divided about whether or not this could truly be Watterson. Some people compared and contrasted the mystery artist’s drawing style to Watterson’s in hopes of coming to a definitive conclusion. Once the three strips were completed, Watterson gave Pastis the go-ahead to reveal the truth.

The original art from these strips will be displayed at HeroesCon in Charlotte next week and will eventually be auctioned off to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

What's next for Watterson? He’ll be drawing the poster for the 2015 Angoulême comics festival.

Read the now-famous Pearls Before Swine strips and Pastis' explanation of how this came about.

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2. Walt Before Skeezix

By Frank King
Drawn & Quarterly

The very first Gasoline Alley strips and their depiction of the dawn of an automobile-loving American culture

We’re used to comic strip characters like Charlie Brown and Peter Parker remaining roughly the same age for decades. It’s rare to see characters age in real time, such as the Patterson family in For Better or For Worse or Judge Dredd in his own comics. The first comic strip to ever do this was Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, which began in 1918 and still runs in syndication today. The comic first began showing the progression of time when confirmed bachelor Walter Wallet found a baby on his doorstep that he adopted and named Skeezix. In recent Gasoline Alley strips, Skeezix is now a grandfather, and old Walt is still kicking around at a hearty 114.

Drawn & Quarterly have published five hefty hardcover volumes designed and edited by Chris Ware called Walt and Skeezix. Now, Ware (with comics historian Jeet Heer) has gone back to the very beginning to release a “prelude” volume (what we in the comics world might call a “zero issue”). Walt Before Skeezix collects the first two years of the strip where King is just finding his footing. He started out with wordy, single panel strips focused almost entirely on automobiles—still a novelty at the time—and slowly began to establish a lively cast of characters such as Walt, Doc, and Avery. By the end of this volume, his cartooning has become more confident and the stage is set for the greatness that would soon come.

In the accompanying text pieces, Heer delves into King’s personal life and the people around him that he leaned on for inspiration. He also provides historical context for these strips and the burgeoning, post-industrial revolution consumer culture that was rising up around the automobile at the time. In a way, a comic in 1918 that tailors every gag around automobiles is much like today’s webcomics that obsess about video games.

Read a PDF preview here at Drawn & Quarterly’s website.

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3. That’s Because You’re A Robot

Written by David Quantick; art by Shaky Kane
Image Comics

Two cops. One’s a robot. One isn’t. Neither of them knows which is which.

The British artist known as Shaky Kane (real name: Michael Coulthard) got his start in the British science fiction anthology 2000 A.D. His artwork takes the psychedelic, pop-art stylings of the 1960s and adds a layer of satire and gruesome strangeness.

Kane’s latest comic is this one-shot collaboration with television writer David Quantick (most recently of HBO’s Veep). That’s Because You’re A Robot is about two cops who have just found out that one of them is a robot. However, no one knows which one, including the cops themselves. The entirety of the comic is pretty much the two officers questioning the validity of each other's humanity while patrolling the city and warding off Frankensteins, Leprechauns and other odd creatures. Think Car 54 Where Are You? but written by Phillip K. Dick.

Here’s a hilarious preview.

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4. The Empty Man

Written by Cullen Bunn; art by Vanesa R. Del Rey
Boom! Studios

Two federal agents investigate a viral outbreak that causes hallucinations, catatonia and homicidal rage.

Cullen Bunn is a busy man these days. It seems that every week he is writing new comics for different publishers (Magneto for Marvel, The Remains for Monkeybrain, The Sixth Gun for Oni Press, Sinestro for DC). His newest is an ongoing horror comic (one of his specialities) for Boom! Studios called The Empty Man. Set in the near future, years after a virus called The Empty Man has been ravaging the nation, two agents from a joint FBI/CDC task force investigate issues surrounding a new mutation of the disease as well as a number of dangerous religious cults that have formed because of the pandemic. 

Bunn is collaborating with artist Vanesa R. Del Rey on the series. Del Rey made an impressive comics debut last year with the crime noir Hit, also for Boom! Studios. Her style is like a cross between Tim Sale and Paul Pope and I think she will be a huge star in the coming year.

Here is a somewhat disturbing preview

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5. Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan

By Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn & Quarterly

A pioneer of manga chronicles Japan's history during WWII and his own personally harrowing experiences at the time

Shigeru Mizuki fought for the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II and lost his drawing arm in an explosion. When he returned home he taught himself to draw with his other hand and eventually became one of the pioneers of Japanese manga and a master of yōkai horror, not to mention the creator of the popular GeGeGe no Kitarō series of manga and anime. 

I wrote about Mizuki’s Showa books when Drawn & Quarterly released the first volume last year. The multi-volume series details the history of Japan’s Showa era (from 1926-1989 while Hirohito was Emperor) using rich, photo-realistic and intricate black and white drawings to illustrate the historical prose. Simultaneously, Mizuki relates his own life experiences during those years in an exaggerated, cartoony style so that the book cuts back and forth between being a textbook and a memoir. The second translated volume of the series comes out this week and explores the run up to World War II including the second Sino-Japanese War and the attack on Pearl Harbor. It also shows Mizuki coming of age, starting out the volume as an uninterested bystander to historical events and soon becoming an eyewitness to horrific and devastating events.

The book is so stunningly beautiful, and to think what the man who drew it went through, including having to relearn how to draw, is just astounding. Drawn & Quarterly has a PDF preview 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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iStock
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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