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Sophie Campbell/IDW Publishing

This Week's New Comics: Jem and the Holograms and More

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Sophie Campbell/IDW Publishing

Every week I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, digital, 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. Jem and the Holograms

By Kelly Thompson, Sophie Campbell
IDW Publishing

Jem and the Holograms is just about as '80s as cartoons get, and naturally it had to find its way into comic book form (this week also sees Miami Vice Remix from IDW in conjunction with Lion Forge Comics, who are planning on putting out Knight Rider and Air Wolf comics next). Known for its big hair, keytars, and excessive use of hot pink, Jem may not seem like an easy property to set in modern times, but Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell decided to do just that. But with throwback ‘80s music and fashion such a big thing these days, that shouldn't be that hard.

One way they plan to update the comic is to build on Jem’s already good track record with diversity. In addition to making rival band The Misfits more racially diverse, Thompson and Campbell will be making at least two characters in the series—Kimber and Stormer—gay. Additionally, Campbell has redesigned the characters to give them all more realistic body-types rather than the Barbie doll figures the original characters were designed with.

Sophie Campbell, a transgender woman who is in the transitioning process, recently changed her name professionally after been previously known as Ross Campbell (known for the graphic novel series Wet Moon and Image’s recent revamp of its Glory series). Campbell’s work has been applauded over the years in small indie comic circles, but this book will be her introduction to a brand new and much wider audience. Here's some preview imagery.

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2. Fresh Romance

Edited by Janelle Asselin with various writers and artists
Kickstarter

In the 1940s and early 1950s, romance comics accounted for a large sector of the comic book market but, as with other once-popular genres like horror, crime, and science fiction, the implementation of the Comics Code in 1954 resulted in a stultifying self-censorship that made the stories bland and uninteresting. When superheroes had their “Silver Age” renaissance in the 1960s, every other genre got pushed aside until the 21st century rolled around. With crime, horror, and science fiction comics now as healthy as they were back in their heydays, could it be time for romance comics to make the same comeback?

Janelle Asselin, a former comics editor for companies like DC and current Senior Editor at ComicsAlliance.com, is a respected defender of female comics creators and female representation within comics. Her columns like “Hire This Woman” highlight up-and-coming female cartoonists and also skewer publishers for covers and content that sexualize female characters that are ostensibly meant to be read by readers of all ages. Asselin is looking to revive the romance comic with Fresh Romance, a monthly digital magazine featuring serialized comics, relationship advice columns, behind-the-scenes artwork, and even a fashion report. Each issue will contain three stories that attempt to truly focus on romance between two people (both gay and straight). Though there will be some adult content, it will not simply be erotica, nor will it be light, saccharine fluff.

Included are stories about two high school girls who try to keep their love secret by pretending to compete for the same guy (written by Kate Leth with art by Arielle Jovellanos and Amanda Scurti); a regency-era romance about a couple that is about to be married despite a lack of enthusiasm to do so (written by Sarah Vaughn with period-perfect art by Sarah Winifred Searle); and a science-fiction story about a barista whose only way to escape the world she’s trapped on is to help enough lonely souls find love (written by novelist Sarah Kuh with art by newcomer Sally Jane Thompson).

Asselin is using Kickstarter to fund the first three issues as an experiment to see if the market can support this type of a comic. She will probably have easily reached her goal by the time this article is published. Throw in your support here.

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3. The Multiversity: Ultra Comics

By Grant Morrison, Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy
DC Comics

For readers of Grant Morrison’s excellent The Multiversity series, this penultimate issue is probably the one they’re most anxious to see—potentially moreso than the final chapter (The Multiversity #2 coming in April). This issue is expected to tie together the various strings we’ve seen in the mostly stand-alone stories so far. It’s the so-called “haunted comic” that has been driving the plot behind this series, which is about chaos and disruption ripping through DC’s “multiverse."

What purportedly makes this comic “haunted” is that it takes place on Earth-Prime which, in DC multiverse folklore, is the earth that we live on. We, the readers, will play an active part in the story, even being encouraged to stop reading in order to prevent the fatal events of the story from playing out (a trick Morrison seems to have cribbed from Sesame Street’s Grover). This kind of fourth-wall-breaking is classic Morrison, who is very much a believer in “living stories” and the active participation of the reader’s imagination.

Another fact to get readers and especially Morrison fans excited is that this issue sees the reunion of Morrison and Doug Mahnke, his collaborator from Final Crisis: Superman Beyond, one of the weirdest, most mind-bending comics DC has ever published. Get a glimpse of the role you’ll be playing in this story, if you choose to play it.

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4. We Can Never Go Home

By Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon, Josh Hood and Amanda Scurti
Black Mask Studios

At some point, the idea of having super powers aged from pre-adolescents wanting anything they can imagine to teenagers wanting to escape. It probably began in the 1970s with the rise in popularity of Marvel’s beleaguered mutants in the X-men, but the teen angst subtext got pushed even further into the foreground by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan in their 2003 series Demo, which told realistic stories about angst-ridden teens with superpowers relegating the super powers to the background and eventually away altogether. The team behind We Can Never Go Home seem to be aiming to explore the same peripheral space in superhero comics that Demo was going for a decade ago but with a louder, more abrupt, punk rock take on the concept.

We Can Never Go Home begins with two teenagers—one an awkward misfit, the other a popular girl—each with horrifying superpowers that they can barely control. They don’t seem like they’re going to be donning costumes or even doing anything that might be considered “good” or “responsible” with their powers, and it’s probably unlikely a kindly benefactor will be coming along to teach them how to control them. This five-issue series comes courtesy of Black Mask Studios, a new publishing and media company started by the artist Steve Niles along with film director Matt Pizzolo and musician Brett Gurewitz that aims to give new opportunities to creator-owned comics. The creators behind this one are all up-and-comers but the artist, Josh Hood, whose style is reminiscent of Steve Dillon and Jamie McKelvie, is sure to be a breakout star here.

Black Mask has put together a pretty excellent trailer for the comic here.

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5. Part-Time Princesses

By Monica Gallagher
Oni Press

Monica Gallagher is another up-and-coming cartoonist who has a number of mini-comics and anthology appearances under her belt. She has done some interesting short auto-biographical works that are based around ideas of femininity (Boobage and When I Was a Mall Model) that we don’t often see addressed with this much comfort and sincerity in comics.

Part-Time Princesses is Gallagher's first graphic novel from a major publisher, and it has a clever, promising concept that seems to fit nicely into Gallagher’s wheelhouse. Four teenage girls whose summer job is to play fairy tale princesses in a low-rent knockoff Disneyland amusement park find their dreams of college, modeling, and acting temporarily derailed and must come crawling back to the job they all hate. But when that job is about to be taken away from them and the park is about to be closed due to fear of local gangs, they decide to fight to save it.

The story has the feel of a Hollywood teen summer comedy, complete with training montages, forbidden romance, and student archetypes being forced to come together. Unfortunately, it ends up trading most of its teen comedy tropes for comic book tropes as the girls end up primarily solving their problems by fighting off gangs rather than using their individual talents to make the park a more inviting place.

Oni has serialized this book digitally on Comixology with a collected print edition hitting comic shops this week. This is an early work from a rising talent though, and she will be someone to watch in the near future.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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