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Ivan Reis/DC Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Ivan Reis/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. Sisters

By Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical followup to her beloved graphic novel Smile

In today’s world of comics, a book can be a best seller while also being virtually invisible to large portions of comics readership. For readers of a certain age, Raina Telgemeier's Sisters is the most anticipated new graphic novel release of the year and may wind up being one of this year's top selling books (it's first printing is already higher than just about every comic Marvel and DC put out)—but your average comic shop customer will probably not even know it exists.

Legions of pre-teen girls have been clamoring for this graphic novel since reading Telgemeier's first work about her pre-teen years, 2010’s Smile (Scholastic has smartly designed the cover of Sisters so that both books match nicely when set together). If you need to prove a point to people who say young girls don’t read comics, look no further than Smile which, to date, has spent an astounding 113 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List.

Telgemeier is a fantastic cartoonist with a drawing style and comedic sense that was honed by reading the great newspaper strips of the 1980s like Calvin & Hobbes and For Better or For Worse. She takes events from her childhood and turns them into entertaining and relatable stories that are as laugh-out-loud-funny as they are touching. Whereas Smile showed us Telgemeier’s family life and friendships through events surrounding all the dental drama she faced from a severe childhood accident, Sisters focuses primarily on her relationship with her younger sister Amara and revolves around an eventful family road trip from California to Colorado.

For parents with girls around 8-10 years old who aren't already Telgemeier groupies, Sisters will be a great introduction to her work. It's perfectly attuned to that age group while being safe and appropriate enough to make parents feel comfortable.

Here’s a preview of Sisters.


2. Genius #3

by Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman and Afua Richardson
Top Cow

A neighborhood strikes back against the police

Without a doubt, the most topical comic on the stands right now is Genius, published by Top Cow (an offshoot of Image Comics that is generally not known for topical or politically-charged comics). With the situation in Ferguson, MO shining a new light on racial injustice in the U.S., a comic that was initially written 6 years ago reaches the world at its optimal point of relevance.

In Genius, seventeen-year-old Destiny Ajaye had watched her parents get gunned down by the LAPD when she was a child. Now, after years of training, she has become an expert at military tactics and is ready to bring the fight back to the police. Uniting the disparate South Central gangs under her leadership, she takes back three blocks of her neighborhood from the police with unflinching force.

This is a brutal and edgy book that dares to be militant in its approach to racial injustice. In contrast to the mostly peaceful protests in Ferguson, Genius shows a more violent scenario. When writers Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman originally shopped it around to various publishers, they all passed because of its depiction of cops being killed. It walks the line between being two types of books: one that takes a smart, analytical look at a serious problem from an anti-authoritarian point of view we don’t often see in media and popular culture, and one that is like a bombastic, sometimes implausible action film.

In 2008, an early version of Genius was a winner in Top Cow’s “Pilot Season” contest in which readers voted on a group of one-shot issues to give a chance at becoming a series. After a very long delay, Top Cow and Bernardin now seem prescient by releasing all 5 issues, one per week, in a month when everyone is talking about the uneasy dynamic between law enforcement and the black community. It’s worth noting that 2/3 of the creative team, writer Mark Bernardin and artist Afua Richardson, are African American. We have been seeing more diversity—particularly gender diversity—among comics creators in the industry these days, but African-American creators are still under-represented. Richardson's art really comes into its own as the series progresses, likely due to the passage of time and her personal growth as an artist during the long production process, so it will be interesting to see what this creative team moves onto next.

The third issue of Genius is out this week. Here's a preview.


3. The Multiversity #1

By Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis
DC Comics

A team of heroes from across the multiverse aims to save reality

For five years now, fans of DC Comics and Grant Morrison (All-Star Superman, Batman Inc.) have been waiting for The Multiversity, the 9-issue series in which the popular writer attempts to map out and explore the entire DC “multiverse.” Since the series was first announced, the DC universe has gone through a line-wide reboot that has slightly altered some of Morrison’s plans, and his own previously heavy involvement in all things DC seems to have been dialed down. The Multiversity promises to revel in the rich, sometimes loony, web of alternate-Earths and what-if scenarios that hardcore DC fans love. It also sounds like it will be the prototypical Grant Morrison comic, full of anachronistic Silver Age ephemera and meta-fictional constructs.

Each issue of the 9-part series will be numbered 1 (except for the final issue with will be numbered 2) and will be a standalone story exploring a different parallel Earth (fans of Morrison’s now classic Seven Soldiers series will recognize this somewhat similar format). In future issues we’ll see Earths populated by classic pulp heroes, characters from Charlton Comics, teen celebrity heroes, and heroes from an Earth where the Nazis won WWII.

Morrison has a lot of tricks planned for this series as evidenced by the elaborate Multiverse map that was revealed. In typical Morrison fashion there will be a comic within the comic, characters that are at least partially aware that they are in a comic book, plans for an issue of the comic to be “haunted,” and an issue that will take place on Earth-Prime which is the Earth we, the readers, inhabit.

This is a comic that will require some extra-curricular reading to get the full effect of what Morrison is doing. There will likely be a number of DC experts analyzing every panel of this series and their insights will only help make this series more mind-expanding. In the meantime, here’s a preview.


4. The Fade Out

By Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Image Comics

A Hollywood writer wakes up to find the star of his film murdered in the next room

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been making noir-infused comics together since 2003, and with each new project they have been honing that partnership while turning it into its own brand. Recently, they added colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser to their team and have struck a unique deal with Image Comics that gives them carte blanche to make the type of comics they want to make.

The Fade Out is the first series under this new Image deal and is a return to straight-up noir comics, minus the mix-ins of horror and superheroics they’ve added to recent efforts like Fatale and Incognito. Set in 1948, it centers around the death of a Hollywood starlet during the troubled and stalled shoot of a noir film. It aims for authenticity, with Brubaker and Phillips adding a research assistant to their team who specializes in old Hollywood and the famous Black Dahlia case. Phillips, whose moody, sexy art is greatly influenced by illustrators from the time period, is right at home

Here’s a preview.


5. I Want To Live

By Erika Moen
The Nib

A very personal response to the death of Robin Williams

Robin Williams' death seems to have affected almost everyone, but especially those who have suffered from depression and have considered taking their own lives. It inspired a lot of open and honest talk online about the reality of suicide, including input from creative people who seem to suffer from depression in overwhelming numbers.

One of the best and most honest reactions came from Erika Moen on’s The Nib. One of the great, early cartoonists to start her career making webcomics, Moen has specialized in personal comics. In I Want To Live, she talks about her own struggles with depression over the years in response to her feelings about Williams’ suicide.

It’s a short read and well worth your time.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”