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Ben Templesmith/DC Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Ben Templesmith/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.

Universe! #1

By Albert Monteys
The Panel Syndicate

The latest pay-what-you-wish series from The Panel Syndicate.

Last year, Bryan K. Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man) and Marcos Martin (Amazing Spider-man, Daredevil) launched The Panel Syndicate, a website to distribute their creator-owned digital comic The Private Eye. Using a pay-what-you-want business model, their venture has been an enormous success, bringing in a reported six-figure profit for a comic that readers could easily download for free if they wished. Now, The Panel Syndicate is expanding into a second title and bringing in a new creator.

Albert Monteys is a cartoonist who is well known in his home country of Spain but pretty much unknown everywhere else. Asked by his friend Marcos Martin to join The Panel Syndicate, he is using it to publish an ongoing anthology of science fiction stories called Universe! The first issue, released last week, is a time-traveling romp spanning billions of years and it's about an evil corporation that sends an employee back to the Big Bang in order to brand all of life—down to its very quarks—with the company logo. Those like myself who are new to Monteys work will read this wondering how we could possibly just be seeing his spectacular work for the first time.

Each issue of Universe!, published every two months, will tell a new self-contained story, although Monteys says they will be connected in some way.

There’s a short preview of the comic on The Panel Syndicate’s website. PDF and CBZ formatted files are available for whatever you’d like to pay for them.

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Ody-C #1

By Matt Fraction and Christian Ward
Image Comics

A gender-bent Odyssey set in outer space.

Homer’s Odyssey, the epic adventure written somewhere around the end of the 8th century, has been the blueprint for every hero’s journey written since. In Ody-C, Matt Fraction and Christian Ward bring the classical Greek poem into the future and into outer space. It’s a new series published by Image Comics—home of Fraction’s surprise hit Sex Criminals—and with Christian Ward’s colorful, hallucinatory digitally painted art, it looks like a druggy, abstract rendition of Image’s best selling sci-fi hit Saga.

Fraction does a number of weird things with this comic, the least of which is setting it in space. It’s a gender-bent adaptation of what is a male revenge fantasy about returning to your love and butchering all the dudes that have been trying to get with her.

The heroine, Odyssia, is Odysseus by way of Barbarella and Wonder Woman. She’s the captain of an intergalactic army that has been at war for 10 years, and she longs to return, not to her man, but to the infant child she left behind. Another weird thing is that Fraction writes the book in six syllable dactylic hexameter, the rhythmic style of the classical poetry Homer used with The Odyssey. Oh, and it all starts with 8 pages that fold out into one panoramic scene. Christian Ward put in a lot of time with world building and character design to make this book look as outlandish and other-worldly as possible.

Here’s a preview.

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Gotham By Midnight #1

By Ray Fawkes and Ben Templesmith
DC Comics

A Gotham City police taskforce that takes on the weird stuff Batman just can’t handle.

In the past few months, DC Comics has greatly expanded the scope of their “Bat-Family” titles which previously just consisted of multiple Batman comics and some secondary titles featuring sidekicks like Robin and Nightwing. In addition to giving Batgirl a new look and style appropriate for a millennial female audience, they launched titles like Grayson, an espionage comic featuring Dick Grayson; Gotham Academy, a supernatural comic set in a Gotham boarding school; and Arkham Manor, a book about Batman’s villains. Each book takes the world of Batman and pushes it into new genres with new storytelling opportunities.

This week brings Gotham By Midnight, a dark horror comic that, at one point in time, would have been separated from the main DC line and published within their horror-friendly Vertigo imprint.

Horror masters Ray Fawkes (Constantine) and Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night) introduce a Gotham City police task force that investigates the deeply weird goings on in Gotham that even Batman can’t deal with. The task force is led by longtime DC character Jim Corrigan (the host body for The Spectre) who leads a team of freaky specialists including Corrigan’s partner, Detective Lisa Drake, their expert on all things religious, Sister Justine, and forensics scientist Dr. Szandor Tarr. It’s kind of a B.P.R.D for the DC Universe.

Here’s a preview which gives you a good sense of Templesmith’s unique style of eerie, smokey, monotoned art, if you aren't already familiar.

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Frontier #6

By Emily Carroll
Youth in Decline

Another creepy comic—in full color print!—from Emily Carroll.

2014 has been a good year for reading Emily Carroll comics in book form. The cartoonist, who is known for pushing the medium of webcomics with her inventive, subtly animated horror comics, released her first book via a major publisher this year, Through The Woods. Now, she quickly follows it up with a short story, Ann By The Bed, published in the 6th issue of Youth in Decline’s anthology comic Frontier.

Ann By the Bed, in typical Carroll fashion, tells an eerie story about a young woman who was mysteriously murdered long ago and has become an urban legend, the stuff of parlor games that young girls play to scare themselves silly during slumber parties. To read Carroll is to witness the beginnings of one of the great careers in comics history. She is a modern day Edward Gorey in tone and subject matter and is one of the most technically proficient young cartoonists working today. It’s hard to believe that she is only just getting started.

Frontier is a great little comic that is printed using full color digital Risograph printing, which allows self-publishers to put out low cost color books with ease. Each issue showcases an up-and-coming artist and Youth in Decline has proven themselves true tastemakers with their choices so far (previously we’ve seen exciting new cartoonists like Hellen Jo and Sam Alden). You can buy a copy of Frontier #6 or any previous issue directly from the publisher.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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