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Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Original image
Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms

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. The Short Con

by Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms
Study Group Comics

True Detective meets Encyclopedia Brown but set in a girls' orphanage

Popowski (Pops) is a brilliant but hot-headed detective who has been assigned a new partner, Branwell, a brooding loner who just joined the department after suffering a terrible, existential tragedy. Pops and Branwell are also kids who live and work out of an all-girl orphanage, solving crimes involving vampires, mummies and, now, the murder of Branwell’s parents.

The Short Con, serialized on the excellent Study Group Comics website, is a fun comic that seems made for the reader who loves both True Detective and Encyclopedia Brown. Aleks Sennwald's charming drawing style is effortlessly funny as she and writer Pete Toms tackle classic detective tropes with little girls in place of weary old men. There's been less than 20 pages posted so far, but it’s already full of so many brilliant little ideas. One of my favorites is that the “police chief" is the nun who runs the orphanage and makes Pops drop five cents into a jar every time the precocious detective breaks the rules.

Sennwald and Toms have been updating The Short Con with new pages every Friday since April. It’s a standout among many great comics in the constantly revolving Study Group collection. It’s easy to catch up here.

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2. Angie Bongiolatti

By Mike Dawson
Secret Acres

Sex and socialism in post-9/11 New York

Last week, Mike Dawson published a very personal essay on Tumblr titled, "Advice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience.” In it, he lament the poor sales of his newest book Angie Bongiolatti and ponders the value of working on long form graphic novels versus shorter, web-friendly comics. It ended up setting off a firestorm within the indie-comics blogosphere with some people empathizing and appreciating the honesty and others sharply criticizing Dawson and his publisher’s marketing of and expectations for the book. Ironically, I had already planned to include Angie Bongiolatti in this week’s list even though I missed the actual release date (the fact that I missed it, despite keeping pretty up on these types of things, may be part of the problem) but the controversy may make this the most apt time to highlight it anyway.

The title character of Angie Bongiolatti is at the center of an ensemble of 20-somethings living in post-9/11 New York. Angie is a politically conscious activist working as an animator for a small e-learning company and is involved in planning a protest of the World Economic Forum. Her personality has a certain gravitational pull on her male acquaintances whose intentions are probably driven more by sexual desire than political altruism. Dawson examines the good and bad of socialism and capitalism through the viewpoints of various characters while also interjecting illustrated essays by the likes of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler.

A politically heavy book about socialism—even one with a good amount of sexual content and humor—is not going to connect with mainstream audiences despite how skilled and insightful Dawson is as a writer. He approaches his graphic novels more like a literary novelist than most cartoonists. You could imagine Angie Bongiolatti working very well as a contemporary novel, raising the question of whether it could even find its perfect audience as a comic book. As in his last book, the Ignatz Award-winning Troop 142, Dawson tells difficult stories about real and complicated people which he doesn’t present through fantasy devices like magical realism that would make them more allegorical or just plain comic reader-friendly.

Angie Bongiolatti is an interesting, if idiosyncratic, work from a talented cartoonist. It was released earlier in the summer and if your local comic shop or bookstore doesn’t have it you can order it from the publisher here.

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3. Palm Ash

By Julia Gfrörer
Self published

A tragic drama set during the Diocletianic Persecution

Julia Gfrörer’s debut graphic novel Black is the Color was released by Fantagraphics last year to much acclaim, making many critics' Best Of lists. She creates somber, shocking, and darkly funny comics that approach magical and spiritual subject matter as well as real, honest emotions with a wry sense of humor. Her thin-lined drawings have an honesty and spontaneity while very clearly conveying the exact emotion and action she aims for.

Just a few weeks back, Gfrörer released her most recent book for sale on her Etsy shop. Palm Ash is a 20-page black-and-white xeroxed mini comic about early Christians and their Roman tormentors during the Diocletianic Persecution. Within a handful of short scenes, she tells the story of three primary characters: Simeon, a Christian who, every time he is sent to the lions, causes them somehow to miraculously fall asleep; Dia, a servant and—secretly—a fellow Christian who tends to Simeon; and Drusus, one of the Roman soldiers who all seem to carry on illicit relationships with their servants.

This is a very dense mini comic that you’ll want to read a couple of times through to catch the subtle interactions. Gfrörer is deliberate in how she frames her characters from panel to panel almost giving you the feeling that you're viewing actors in a stage play. Each page is drawn in a consistent 9-panel grid that conveys a calm, distant view of the action even when some pretty horrifying stuff happens.

You can order a hand-stapled, xeroxed copy of Palm Ash from Gfrörer’s Etsy store for just $5.

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4. Moonhead and the Music Machine

By Andrew Rae
Nobrow

A boy with a moon for a head helps his fellow classmates embrace their weirdness

In Andrew Rae’s graphic novel, Moonhead and the Music Machine, a socially awkward high school student named Joey Moonhead spends his days disconnected from the reality of school and home life while the giant moon he has for a head drifts off to explore the far reaches of his imagination. After discovering his parents' old rock albums (in a wonderful sequence of visual homages to the classic vinyl covers of '60s and '70s era concept rock albums), Joey meets Ghost Boy (who is covered by a sheet) and the two wow their classmates with the joy of rock and roll and their individual weirdness.

Moonhead is a visually imaginative book with some truly great sequences, particularly when Joey is rocking out or when his head is going off on his journeys. Rae, a prolific illustrator and member of the UK-based Peepshow art collective, has a clear, colorful style that mixes together children’s book and underground comix aesthetics (I should note that this is probably more for teens rather than all-ages fare).

Here is the usual photo set from Nobrow Press that emphasizes the quality of the book’s production.

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5. Animals #2: Pigs

By Eric Grissom and Claire Connelly
Frankenstein’s Daughter

A working-class pig has a run-in with humans that have escaped from a slaughterhouse

Pigs , the second installment of Eric Grissom and Claire Connelly’s Animals trilogy, hit Comixology through their Submit program for self-publishers last week. In this series, the roles of animals and humans have been reversed so that humans are slaughtered and sold as food in restaurants and grocery stores while animals choose whether or not to show them empathy.

Pigs focuses on an employee at one of the human slaughterhouses, a quiet pig, living a simple life of going to work every day and coming home to watch reality TV with his wife. When some humans escape the slaughterhouse and end up in his backyard, the pig has to make that choice about how to treat them.

Grissom and Connelly’s trilogy consists of short single issue comics that are thoughtful character studies set against a theme of vegetarianism and animal cruelty.

View a preview and buy Pigs on Comixology 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
Original image
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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