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Nate Powell/Top Shelf Productions

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Nate Powell/Top Shelf Productions

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. March Book Two

By Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
Top Shelf

Well-timed for the week of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the release of the film Selma is the second of three volumes in Rep. John Lewis’ graphic novel biography and retelling of the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, March.

Picking up the story after the successful lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders board a bus and venture into the deep south where they encounter shocking examples of lynchings, police brutality, and outright murder.

As in the first book, Lewis is joined by co-writer and policy aide Andrew Aydin as well as artist Nate Powell whose beautifully composed and dramatic ink drawings make this not just an important American history lesson, but a great piece of comics storytelling as well.

Here’s some more information and a preview at Top Shelf’s website.

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2. Fatherland

By Nina Bunjevac
Liveright Publishing Corp.

Nina Bunjevac’s memoir/biography of her father and the history of the Balkan conflict is a chilling and informative read. Growing up in Canada, her mother whisked her and her sister away to Yugoslavia to escape her father, a Serbian nationalist who had put them in danger by becoming involved in a terrorist group. However, the girls were forced to leave Nina’s older brother Peter behind and, after their father died in an explosion, the family would never be reunited. Sadness pervades the story of Nina’s family, reaching all the way back to her great-grandparents caring for their son with tuberculosis and to her childhood in 1970s Yugoslavia.

It is all accentuated by her photo-realistic, stippled and cross-hatched drawing style. She brings everything to life in starkly lit detail, from her mother’s melancholy face to the twisted darkness building behind her father’s eyes. If you’re unfamiliar with the complicated existence of the country once known as Yugoslavia and details of the conflict between its people, Bunjevac does an admirable job of explaining it all here.

Here are some preview images from the book.

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3. Eel Mansions

By Derek Van Gieson
Uncivilized Books

Probably the most Lynchian (as in filmmaker David Lynch) comic to be made since Dan Clowes’ 1993 graphic novel Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Derek Van Gieson's Eel Mansions has plenty of Eraserhead’s confusing imagery but with Twin Peaks’ wry sense of humor as well. Every couple of pages bounces from one seemingly unconnected set of characters to another, slowly weaving together…something, although I don’t know what exactly. There are lizard people, secret agents, a cult that worships Eric Clapton, and the scene-stealing, boozy hipster comic book creator, Janet Planet, who is almost always drawn looking slyly to the side while delivering some epic putdowns.

Van Gieson, who got his start as a contributor to Fantagraphics’ influential comics anthology Mome, has been self-publishing Eel Mansion in comic-size installments with the whole story now collected by Uncivilized Books. His drawings are inked with a heavy hand and rough around the edges, but he pulls off a number of styles throughout, from depictions of Lovecraftian monsters and Picasso-like abstractions to Janet’s very Moomin-like children’s comic strip. This is like a love letter to the work of Lynch, Thomas Pynchon, William S. Burroughs, and early ‘80s post-punk music (which seems to come up a lot). Van Gieson does it all with a lot of laughs, even when you’re not quite sure what the hell is going on.

You can order a copy from the publisher here.

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4. Atomic Robo

By Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener
Atomic-Robo.com

Atomic Robo is a popular sci-fi comedy comic series by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener about an intelligent robot invented by Nikolas Tesla in 1938 and hired by the US military to fight Nazis. Since it began in 2007, it’s had a loyal fan following and has prided itself on its lack of superhero angst and cheesecake.

This week, Clevinger and Wegener announced a bold move for the future of the comic. They have allowed their contract with Red 5 Comics to expire and will now make all future Atomic Robo comics free as a webcomic on Atomic-Robo.com. In addition, starting today, they will begin making all 9 previous volumes of the story free online as well, starting with Volume 1 and working their way up. Print collections will now be for sale directly from the creators and digital comics will continue to be available on Comixology. Plus, there is a Patreon for fans to donate funds on a monthly basis for extra goodies.

This is a big and unusual publishing shift for a popular comic, especially as the webcomic model has seemed to give way to the digital comic model in recent years (although Clevinger and Wegener are tackling both here). A lot of other self-publishers will be keeping an eye on these guys in the coming year to see how they do.

The creators lay out all the details in this blog post.

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5. First Year Healthy

By Michael DeForge
Drawn & Quarterly

The latest graphic novel from the prolific and always surprising Michael DeForge is almost more of an illustrated novel than a traditional comic book. First Year Healthy is the story of a young woman who gets out of a hospital after what is alluded to as a very public emotional breakdown and falls into a relationship with a potentially criminal Turkish immigrant.

It is full of many of the visual eccentricities we’re used to seeing from DeForge. However, the format of this smallish, 45-page hardcover—with its full-page color illustrations paired with simple serif typeface—makes you realize how much of a way with words DeForge has when they are visually divorced from his artwork.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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