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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. Supreme: Blue Rose #1

By Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay
Image Comics

After the success of Brandon Graham’s neo-Euro-comic take on Prophet, reimagining characters created by '90s comics icon Rob Liefeld has become something of a cottage industry. Supreme itself is no stranger to reinvention by other creators, most famously by Alan Moore and his now-classic 1997 run on Liefeld’s Supreme comic. Now, Warren Ellis and artist Tula Lotay give us a 21st century spin on Liefeld’s creation.

In Supreme: Blue Rose, Ellis and Lotay take Liefeld’s Superman analogue into a more mysterious, science fiction direction full of strange dream sequences, elliptical dialogue, and odd-looking characters with no faces. Investigative reporter Diana Dane (think Lois Lane) is hired by billionaire Darius Dax (think Lex Luthor) to find out who Ethan Crane is (take a guess). Longtime Supreme readers will dig the links to past stories but newcomers will enjoy its compelling mystery just as much.

This book will be the first place most people will see the art of Tula Lotay. She has been wowing social media followers with her paintings of glamorous women that have a unique half-finished look to them. She brings that same quality to this book where mysterious blue lines and scratches sit underneath gorgeously drawn characters, giving the entire comic a dream-like quality. Lotay is about to become a major star in the comics world and this is where it all begins.

Here's a small preview of the first issue.

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2. Transformers vs. G.I. Joe #1

By Tom Scioli and John Barber
IDW Publishing

Normally, a comic that takes two licensed properties and mashes them together is not noteworthy outside of the initial nostalgic glee. This isn’t even the first time that Hasbro’s two most popular toy franchises have shared a comic together, but IDW’s new ongoing series Transformers vs. G.I. Joe is worth calling out because it looks like it is going to be absolutely insane.

Rather than playing it safe by putting an artist on the book that has the type of slick, detail-oriented style you’d expect, IDW has brought in an idiosyncratic artist who is not afraid to put his own creative vision into the work. Tom Scioli is known for his graphic novel American Barbarian and his work with Joe Casey on the Image Comic series Gødland. He has a style that is like Jack Kirby on crack — retro, dynamic, tongue-in-cheek and very over the top. Scioli is also co-writing this series with John Barber.

Each issue will be exactly what the title advertises, with Joes fighting alien Cybertrons in a series of stand-alone stories that will build into a larger narrative. Scioli is looking to take everything he loved about these toys (and comics) as a kid and crank it up to 11 in hopes that a kid picking it up today will have his or her mind blown. IDW released a preview of this series to lots of acclaim on Free Comic Book Day in May. You can see some preview images and read an interview with Scioli and Barber here.

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3. Blood Blokes

By Adam Cadwell
Great Beast Comics

Despite over-saturation, vampire stories keep coming nowadays, perhaps because they’re so easily applied to different types of genres. In Adam Cadwell’s Blood Blokes, he drops vampires into a British slacker comedy about four twenty-something flatmates who bond together through their mutual thirst for blood.

There are no hard and fast rules for how vampires work, allowing for lots of storytelling leeway. Our protagonist Vince is a newly turned vampire and his three new friends show him the ropes and demonstrate how Cadwell’s own version of vampires work (they’re kind of just like us except they tend to suck on blood popsicles; they can even go out during the day since it’s often so cloudy in Manchester). His cast of characters have a very likable rapport which makes this a fun read, even if vampires bore you to tears.

Cadwell is a cartoonist who really knows how to work in black and white. His crisp inking and snappy panel sequencing are reminiscent of Jamie Hernandez when he is in his most Dan DeCarlo-inspired mode.

Issue #4 of Blood Blokes comes out this week but you can buy a bundle of all four issues to date here.

Here’s a preview of the fourth issue.

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4. Street Angel

By Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca
Adhouse Books

In 2004, a little five issue miniseries called Street Angel took the indie comics world by surprise and put artist Jim Rugg on the map. Set in the fictional ghetto of Wilkesborough, it featured the adventures of the world’s greatest homeless skateboarder, twelve year old Jesse Sanchez. Using her skating and martial arts skills, she fights to keep the streets clean from “evil, ninjas, and nepotism.”

As a funny, often ludicrous, sendup of both superhero comics and action films, Street Angel had plenty of appeal for indie comics fans, while its expertly drawn action scenes appealed to sincere fans of those genres. The fifth issue of Street Angel featured a “blaxploitation” character named Afrodisiac that Rugg and Maruca would later spin off into the award-winning graphic novel of the same name, making Rugg a sought-after star in the comics world.

Rugg has brought the original Street Angel to Adhouse Books to give this new reprint the same hardcover design treatment they gave to Afrodisiac (which Adhouse also published). Since the book is in all black and white, Rugg researched the paper that was used to print Charles Burns’ black and white masterpiece Black Hole in order to get the same contrast and quality. A new cover has been designed that utilizes the trademark pink hue that adorned the original softcover release.

If you’re new to Street Angel, Adhouse has a pretty great PDF preview you can download here.

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5. Ragnarök #1

By Walt Simonson with colors by Laura Martin
IDW Publishing

Walt Simonson is probably the definitive Thor artist in most people’s minds. His classic run on Marvel’s The Mighty Thor in the 1980s brought the superhero back to his Norse roots, creating a dynamic fantasy adventure that – at the time – did not look like anything else out there. His ornate costumes and epically-sized monsters gave the comic a mythic and alien look while the angular abstractions of his effects became elements of his signature style.

Now, at the age of 67, Simonson is launching Ragnarök, his creator-owned series in which he returns to Thor (the god, not the superhero) to tell the story of the Norse mythology's end times. Simonson is joined by veteran colorist Laura Martin who brings a modern richness to Simonson’s art that we’re not used to seeing.

Here’s a preview of the first few pages of Ragnarök.

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6. 100th Anniversary: Avengers

By James Stokoe
Marvel Comics

A couple of weeks back I wrote about the first issue in Marvel’s month-long “100th Anniversary” event. I mentioned the standout book from this series was going to be James Stokoe’s Avengers and, now that it is out, I figure it's worth mentioning again.

Stokoe is an exciting, unique voice and seeing Marvel let him do his thing with their number one property – even if only for an out-of-continuity one-off – is refreshing. He excels at designing pages that are crammed with miles and miles of monsters and destruction, showing a sense of scale you can only really get in comics. In 100th Anniversary Special: The Avengers, he shows us an America lost to the Negative Zone, a reincarnated Doctor Strange, an immortal Rogue, Beta Ray Bill standing in for Thor and a sentient Stark Tower. It’s going to be a wild comic.

Here’s a preview.

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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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May 23, 2017
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