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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. The Wrenchies

By Farel Dalrymple
First Second

A group of children fighting to survive in a future where all the grownups have become monsters.

It’s immediately evident how much Farel Dalrymple put into all 350+ pages of The Wrenchies, a graphic novel he has been toiling over for 5 years. Not only is nearly every page fully painted and filled with intricate drawings of futuristic landscapes, but the story itself is so dense and multi-layered that you’ll probably want to go back and re-read it in order to piece together what’s real and what isn’t.

The plot of The Wrenchies is hard to synopsize. The Wrenchies themselves, a group of kids fighting demons in a dystopian future where all the adults have been transformed into monsters, are not even really the main characters of the story. The book is really about a boy named Sherwood and his brother Orson–self-professed demon hunters–whose innocence is forever taken when they enter a cave to find a horrifying, fedora-wearing monster called a Shadowsman. The two brothers are traumatized by the event and become separated on some sort of pan-dimensional level.

Sherwood grows into a troubled adult who creates a comic book called The Wrenchies that contains a hidden message meant as a call for help in his search for his brother and the battle against the Shadowsmen.

This only scratches the surface and doesn’t even get to the most compelling members of the cast–a kind-hearted but simple-minded mama’s boy named Hollis who dresses like a superhero and a giant golem with the brain of a scientist who transports Hollis to the apocalyptic world of The Wrenchies and leads them all on their ultimate mission.

Dalrymple is part of a generation that, along with people like Brandon Graham, Jim Rugg, and Ross Campbell, rose up in the early 2000s and brought an art school sensibility to genre-centric comics. From his award-winning first book Pop Gun War to his collaboration with novelist Jonathan Lethem on Marvel’s Omega The Unknown, Dalrymple has gravitated towards stories about kids finding themselves in the middle of unexpected fantasy. The Wrenchies perfectly mixes the fun with the scary. In Hollis’ case, the separation anxiety that permeates his grand adventure is more than just a longing for his mother. He spends his time in the world of The Wrenchies writing letters to God, implying that the all-knowing being he prays to is not present at all in this world.

Here’s some images of the book on Farel’s blog.

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2. Death of Wolverine #1

By Charles Soule, Steve McNiven, Jay Leisten and Justin Ponsor
Marvel Comics

Not a dream. Not an parallel universe. Marvel is killing off Wolverine.

Death of Wolverine is a 4-issue mini-series unfolding this month that will bring to a head the events that have been unfolding since the 2013 “Killable” storyline from the ongoing Wolverine comic. In that story, Logan lost his mutant healing power and now he is vulnerable to his enemies. As the title suggests, Marvel will be killing off a character who is, besides Spider-man, their most popular (Spidey, you’ll remember, was also killed off in 2012, but now he’s back). They’re doing this just in time to celebrate his 40th anniversary. No one who regularly reads comics actually believes Wolverine will stay dead, but that doesn’t mean that Marvel and the top-notch creative team behind this series aren’t treating this like it’s going to stick so they are looking to tell a story that they see as a proper send-off for this legendary character.

In just a few short years, writer Charles Soule has gone from obscurity to comics stardom, writing a number of major titles for both Marvel and DC, and is now helming one of the biggest event comics of the year (Marvel just announced that they've signed him to an exclusive contract). He’s joined by artist Steve McNiven who is best known for his work with Ed Brubaker on Captain America and, more relevantly, Wolverine: Old Man Logan, which took more of a non-canonical look at Logan’s declining years.

The question raised by this series is not whether or not Wolverine will stay dead but why Marvel is choosing to kill him. There are lots of big changes afoot in the Marvel Universe (Captain America will soon be a black man, Thor will soon be a woman); is Marvel simply looking to shake up the status quo of their publishing line? Are they testing the public's appetite for how much they can change a character before they head into costly contract negotiations with the movie stars that play these characters? Or is this just what you have to do to sell comics these days? It’s worth pointing out that Marvel is pricing these weekly issues at $4.99 each, with some bonus material like sketches and interviews to help justify the extra cost.

Here’s a preview

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3. An Age of License

By Lucy Knisley
Fantagraphics

One of the best diary cartoonists out there goes on a romantic adventure across Europe.

Lucy Knisley’s An Age of License begins unassumingly as a simple travelogue about an American cartoonist off on her own in Europe. In 2011, Knisely–who is known for her diary comics which focus on travel with a flair for culinary details–received an invitation for a free trip to appear at a comic book festival in Norway. As if that wasn’t enough of an incentive to go, she recently met a boy from Norway while he was visiting New York and makes plans for a romantic rendezvous with him while she's there.

Soon, she is traversing Norway, Sweden, Germany, and France on a romantic journey that forces her to step outside herself and think about where she should be and what she should be doing with her life. Hence the title, which refers to a French saying about the need to take some time when you’re young to figure yourself out.

Fantagraphics has printed this book at a nice, petite, travel journal size that really feels right for the material (although it might be a tad small to truly appreciate the artwork). Knisley’s drawings are primarily in crisp black and white ink with a good number of beautiful, full color watercolor paintings that act as interludes between scenes. What makes her so good at diary comics is that she not only captures the essence of the scenery and events happening around her but she also finds visually inventive ways of depicting her own ideas and emotions. She taps into the doubts and insecurities that young people feel when questioning whether or not they are in love and whether or not they love what they’ve chosen to do with their life.

Fantagraphics has a preview on their website.

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4. God Hates Astronauts #1

By Ryan Browne with Jordan Boyd and Chris Crank
Image Comics

Someone needs to stop farmers from launching homemade rockets into space and NASA has just the right people for the job.

Ryan Browne’s God Hates Astronauts began its life six years ago and its popularity led to it becoming one of the comic world's biggest Kickstarter successes. The crowdfunding success led to a deal with Image Comics to publish the next phase of the comic, a new ongoing series which begins this week.

It’s hard to describe God Hates Astronauts because it prides itself on its random, anything-goes nature. The “heroes” of the story are a narcissistic collection of jerks called “The Power Persons Five” whose main goal seems to be preventing astro-farmers from going into space (when they're not bickering or cheating on one another). The new series begins with one of these farmer-made rocket ships crashing into a spaceship commanded by Admiral Tiger Eating A Cheeseburger, a humanoid with the head of a Tiger that is always depicted taking a bite out of a cheeseburger. If that doesn’t sound hilarious to you then this book may just not be your thing.

Here’s a preview.

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5. Sex & Violence  Vol. 2

By Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Vanesa R. Del Rey, Romina Moranelli, Rafa Garres and Paul Mounts
Paper Films/Kickstarter

A sexy crime noir anthology with an interesting team of up and coming artists.

Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have pretty much got this Kickstarter thing down. As PaperFilms, they have been successfully funding one book after another and they've been using the platform to produce adults-only comics that may not have easily found a home with traditional publishers. One of these books is the crime noir anthology Sex & Violence Vol. 1, which doubled its goal upon completion of its 2012 campaign. Now they’re back for Volume 2 with three new stories drawn by three new up-and-coming artists.

The first story about a mother/daughter team of seductive con artists is drawn by Italian artist Romina Moranelli. She was a contributor to Marvel’s 2010 Women of Marvel anthology. The second is a WWII-era tale of a sniper and a dog trainer in the Soviet army drawn by Spanish artist Raga Garres who has worked on various DC and 2000 AD titles. The third effort is about a killer reflecting on his life and it's drawn by Cuban artist Vanesa R. Del Rey who has done recent books like Hit and The Empty Man for Boom! Studios (and who I think is one of this year’s most exciting new artists).

There are plenty of censored previews of the artwork on the Kickstarter page and they’ve already passed their goal with less than 20 days to go.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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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