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Jamie McKelvie/Matthew Wilson/Image Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Jamie McKelvie/Matthew Wilson/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. witzend

By Wally Wood and others
Fantagraphics

A pricey, high-end hardcover collection of Wally Wood's famed underground magazine. 

In 1966, about 10 years after the advent of the Comics Code and right around the time of the ascendance of Marvel Comics and the “Silver Age” of superheroes, Wally Wood became fed up with the industry. Looking for an outlet where he and his friends could create original comics for adult readers, he decided to self-publish an anthology magazine he called witzend. Wood was one of the great comics artists of the mid-20th century, known for his work on Mad Magazine, but he was not a great businessman. After taking pre-orders for an eight-issue subscription, he ran through all the money before the 4th issue even came out and decided that this wasn't for him. He ended up selling the whole publication to co-publisher Bill Pearson for one dollar. Pearson kept witzend going for a sporadic 13 issues before putting it to rest in 1985, four years after Wood committed suicide.

This week, Fantagraphics is releasing a giant, $125 hardcover box set collecting all 13 witzend issues with forewords by Bill Pearson and historian Patrick Rosenkranz. witzend is something most comic fans have heard about but haven't been able to read for themselves until now. Wood enlisted some of the best writers and artists of the era to create comics, pinups, and prose, free from editorial constraints. There are contributions from the likes of Al Williamson, Steve Ditko, Gray Morrow, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Howard Chaykin, Harvey Kurtzman, Art Spiegelman, Mike Zeck, Frank Frazetta, and more.

The nature of the stories tend to be adult science fiction and fantasy, similar to what would make its way into magazines put out by Warren Publishing in the 1970s. For the most part, they are not exactly groundbreaking achievements in storytelling, but the publication itself was ahead of its time as an outlet for comics' greatest talents to create without having to answer to anyone but themselves. Two of the most well-known and lasting contributions to the magazine were Wood’s own The Wizard King, an illustrated, serialized prose novel in the making and Steve Ditko’s objectionist crimefighter Mr. A, a precursor to his later creation for Charlton Comics, The Question.

Here’s more information and some preview pages.

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2. The Hole The Fox Did Make

By Emily Carroll
emcarroll.com

A young girl seeks the truth in a shallow creek in the woods 

A new webcomic from Emily Carroll is always an event. As we await the first ever print collection of her work (Through The Woods, due out from Simon & Schuster next month) she has whet our appetite this past week with “The Hole The Fox Did Make," a brand new eerie tale about foxes, dreams, missing girls, and shallow creeks.

Regan is a young girl who finds herself dreaming about foxes and tall men and is mysteriously drawn to a nearby creek where she uncovers secrets about her mother and the father she never knew.

This is a somewhat more understated comic than some of her past strips where she’s used animated gifs and long pages. Here she works in a horizontal strip format in simple black and white until, to great effect, she breaks free. Her work is mysterious, elliptical, and so effortlessly creepy that it makes most other horror comics seem like they’re trying too hard. Carroll is a modern day Edward Gorey in that her beautiful art pulls you in and then sets you up for a disturbing payoff.

Go read "The Hole The Fox Did Make” here.

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3. The Wicked + The Divine

Written by Kieron Gillen; art by Jamie McKelvie; colors by Matthew Wilson
Image Comics

Twelve gods are reincarnated every ninety years as humans on Earth where they are loved and hated. Two years after that, they are dead.

When Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matthew Wilson decided to end their run on Marvel’s Young Avengers (which I thought it was one of the best comics of 2013), the publisher made the unprecedented move of just ending the book rather than continuing with a new creative team. That is a strong testament to their appeal and the unique voice they brought to that comic. Now, the three creatives are launching The Wicked + The Divine, a new, ongoing, creator-owned series.

Back in 2006, Gillen and McKelvie broke onto the scene with Phonogram, a mini-series that used magic as a device to explore the effect music – specifically '90s Brit Pop – has on its listeners. This time, in The Wicked + The Divine, they look at the people who make the music and the seemingly devilish witchcraft they use to entrance their fans. The series follows a group of gods who reincarnate as humans every ninety years and become celebrities that are adored and loathed. The first issue begins in the 1920s before jumping to present day where we meet three of the gods/pop stars: a teen ingenue dressed like ‘70s era Dazzler, a cross between David Bowie and Annie Lennox who claims to be Lucifer, and a Rihanna lookalike who acts like a cat.

McKelvie and colorist Matthew Wilson create slick, glossy, hyper-real comics. See for yourself in the imagery from the comic’s own dedicated Tumblr.

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4. Photobooth: A Biography

By Meags Fitzgerald
Conundrum Press

Everything you've ever wanted to know about photobooths.

The photobooth, once a staple of amusement parks, bus stations, bars, and arcades, has lost its place in today’s world of constant selfie-taking. The ones you still see usually print digital photos rather than the old-fashioned kind that used chemicals. Digital photobooths are cleaner, cheaper, and chemical-free, but like many things today, they lack in quality and archival longevity.

Meags Fitzgerald is among a dwindling group of chemical photobooth fans who are desperate to keep these machines from disappearing. To chronicle their history and culture, she has written and illustrated Photobooth: A Biography, a dense and wordy graphic novel that is part well-researched history and part journal of personal obsession.

This is Fitzgerald’s first book, and while it may be considered more illustrated prose than sequential art, the drawings themselves exhibit a pleasing range of styles from quaint and outsiderish to realistic pencil renderings.

Read more about the book at its official website, www.photoboothabiography.com

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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