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John Romita, Jr./Klaus Janson/DC Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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John Romita, Jr./Klaus Janson/DC 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. Superman #32

By Geoff Johns, John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson and Laura Martin
DC Comics

Longtime Marvel artist John Romita, Jr. draws his first ever DC comic.

John Romita, Jr. was practically born in the office of Marvel Comics. His father, John Romita, Sr., defined the visual style of Spider-man and his supporting cast in the 1960s and was the Art Director for Marvel's entire publishing line throughout the '70s. Romita, Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps in the '80s with career-defining runs on Uncanny X-men and Daredevil.

Now, for the first time ever, JR Jr. is going to draw a comic for DC. To put this in some perspective, this would be like if Derek Jeter had all of a sudden decided to start playing for the Mets. Plus, Romita is not working on just any old DC Comic. They’ve nabbed him for Superman, starting with issue #32, in what the publisher promises will be a new era for the hero. It is a sign of DC’s recent creative struggles, particularly with Superman, that there is a need to start undoing elements of a less than three-year-old reboot, but the creative team on this has generated more fan excitement than we’ve seen for a Superman comic in a long time.

Romita is paired with another fan favorite, DC’s Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. Having written some highly regarded Superman stories in the pages of Action Comics (which happen to be on sale on Comixology this week), Johns has proven he gets the man of steel in a way that many other writers in comics (and Hollywood) do not. Add in veteran inker Klaus Janson and award-winning colorist Laura Martin and this is a star-studded creative team.

Some preview pages here.


2. House Party

By Rachael Smith
Great Beast Comics

What happens when three friends try to relive their glory days by throwing an epic house party?

Rachael Smith’s debut graphic novel House Party is about three university friends — Michelle, Siobhan, and Neil — who are a few years out of school and find themselves unhappy with how their lives are going. To recapture the glory of the old days, they decide to throw a house party, just like they used to when they were in their prime.

Smith gets a lot of uncomfortable laughs from these 20-somethings quickly realizing they’ve outgrown this sort of thing. But then, in the third act, she does something unexpected. Veering away from comedy, she goes for an emotional punch. Her characters end up finding that their problem was not so much that they were looking back at their past but that they were not moving on from it.

Smith’s drawing style and character demographics are reminiscent of Bryan Lee O’Malley (with a little bit of John Allison thrown in). However, she puts an emphasis more on real life versus the stylized storytelling devices of a book like Scott Pilgrim. You can get the whole 100 page graphic novel, published by British artist collaborative/small press publisher Great Beast Comics, for only $1.99 on the Sequential digital comics app. There are some preview pages there as well.


3. Ritual #3: Vile Decay

By Malachi Ward
Revival House Press

An old woman in a post-catastrophe future reflects on her past

Malachi Ward is an interesting artist whose work has appeared in Study Group Comics, Nobrow, and Brandon Graham’s Prophet series for Image Comics. For a few years he has been publishing his own one-man anthology comic Ritual through a small artists collaborative called Revival House Press. In each issue of Ritual, Ward writes and draws a 24-page short story, usually sci-fi or horror in theme, and often experimental in nature. The third issue, titled Vile Decay, is out this week in most indie-friendly comic shops and is available online.

Vile Decay begins with an old woman recounting a tale to her grandson while traversing across a future seaside landscape desolated by environmental catastrophe. The story jumps back 60 years to show, we assume, the woman in her youth during a political protest.

Ward is an interesting artist who uses a mixture of organic pencil lines, subtle digital effects and an unusual 2-color printing process on oversized, high-quality paper that makes this a book you’ll want to spend some time trying to figure out.

You can order a copy of Vile Decay here.


4. Outcast #1

By Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta
Image Comics

Robert Kirkman's highly anticipated new horror comic

You’d think The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman would have his hands full between his hit TV series and his other ongoing comic commitments, but his name equals money in the comic shops and Image Comics has already announced that the first issue of Outcast has sold out at the distributor level with a second printing planned.

Kirkman is a pretty well-rounded writer who doesn’t just stick with the horror genre (look at Invincible, Thief of Thieves, etc...) but some of the excitement around Outcast is that it does just that, being the first ongoing horror title he’s written outside of The Walking Dead. This time, instead of zombies, he’s writing about demonic possession. It's about a man named Kyle Barnes who has been plagued by demons his entire life — his own mother was posessed when he was a child — and he is now seeking answers. Joining Kirkman is artist Paul Azaceta who is probably best known for his work on the Image mini-series Grounded.

The first issue is a double sized 40 pages but at the normal $2.99 cover price. Oh, and the comic has already been optioned by Cinemax for a new TV series. Get to your shop early to snag a copy of the first issue.

Preview a few pages here.


5. Super Secret Crisis War #1

By Louise Simonson and Derek Charm

A big crossover event with all your favorite Cartoon Network characters

IDW has had a lot of success adapting Cartoon Network properties, so why not throw them all together in a big superhero-style crossover event? Super Secret Crisis War obviously nods at this fine comic book tradition as it brings together characters from separate universes like the Power Puff Girls, Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Ben 10, and Ed, Edd and Eddy to fight evil robots who are under the command of the League of Extraordinary Villains and Samurai Jack’s nemesis, the demon Aku.

This six issue mini-series is written by veteran comics writer Louise Simonson who is best known for her classic runs on Marvel titles New Mutants and X-Factor. It’s drawn by Derek Charm who has worked on a number of IDW’s Cartoon Network books as well as his own small press comics like Demon Dog and Trip Fantastic.

Here’s a preview

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