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Skottie Young/Image Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Skottie Young/Image Comics

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.

Two Brothers

By Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon
Dark Horse Comics 

Unlike the antagonistic twins in their latest graphic novel Two Brothers, Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon are brothers who seem to enjoy close collaboration. They take turns drawing story arcs in the popular super-spy comic Casanova and other works. But for their latest graphic novel, they are acting as a more typical writer/artist team, with Fábio writing and Gabriel drawing.

It is pretty clear why this story would appeal to the twins. Adapted from the highly regarded novel The Brothers by Brazilian author Milton Hatoum, they lovingly craft every detail of the story, which is set in mid-century Manaus where two rivers converge. After a violent incident as children, the brothers of this story are separated from each other and things do not improve when they are reunited years later. Yaqub, their father’s favorite, goes off and becomes an engineer while Omar, their mother’s son, stays home, lazily cavorting with prostitutes and other shady characters. Their rift hopelessly and tragically eats away at the rest of the family and the secrets they hold onto.

This is Bá and Moon’s most mature and sophisticated work to date. It drifts back and forth through time with narration that comes from an initially unseen observer. Bá’s wonderfully stylized black and white artwork, so full of stunning contrast and implied movement, pulls you into every scene. Here’s a preview.

Twilight Children

By Gilbert Hernandez, Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart
DC Vertigo 

The most unexpected (yet welcome) creative pairing of the year has to be Gilbert Hernandez (Love & Rockets) and Darwyn Cooke (DC: The New Frontier) for their new mini-series The Twlight Children. Hernandez and Cooke usually work alone, and they aren't often associated together except when talking about best-of-the-year lists. This collaboration is part of a new push from DC’s Vertigo imprint, and it serves as a reminder that the publisher is still a source for interesting comics for readers with discriminating tastes. Starting with last week’s The Survivor’s Club, Vertigo will be introducing a new series every week over the next three months.

In a small Latin American village, a mysterious orb washes ashore and explodes in the faces of three children, leaving them blind. A large cast of characters featuring a hard-nosed sheriff, the village drunk, and a cheating wife mix it up with outsiders like a scientist, a CIA agent, and a beautiful woman who may be an alien. Hernandez’s penchant for fun, melodramatic characters and Cooke's (and colorist Dave Stewart’s) expertise at creating a cinematic sense of wonder seem a natural fit together. Here’s a preview.

I Hate Fairyland

By Skottie Young and Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Image Comics 

The brilliance of Skottie Young’s I Hate Fairyland is that it’s a fairy tale in which the main character is a relatable figure for parents rather than kids (despite being a little girl). This comic might provide some welcome satisfaction for parents who have ever found themselves frustrated with the inanity of saccharine children’s books.

Little Gertrude was transported to Fairyland when she was a just a girl, and for the past 30 years has been fighting to get back to home. And by fighting I mean she claws, bites, chews, kicks, and wantonly shoots holes through annoyingly cute little characters that get in her way. Gertrude may look like an eight-year-old girl, but she has the mind of a frazzled and ticked-off 40-year-old. Young is the incredibly popular artist behind Marvel’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz comics and their recent Rocket Raccoon series. He has a very kid-friendly look to his work, but it also has a lot of edge so be aware that this one is not for little kids.

Here’s a preview.

Killing and Dying

By Adrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly 

Adrian Tomine is one of the great indie creators who rose to prominence in the 1990s along with contemporaries like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, and Charles Burns. His contemplative short stories about troubled 20- and 30-somethings are fully realized and perfectly drawn—every gesture he draws seems utterly familiar. As he has done his entire career, Tomine publishes his graphic novellas first through his one-man anthology comic Optic Nerve and then every few years collects a group of them as a bookstore-friendly hardcover.

Tomine’s latest is called Killing and Dying, and the stories show how much his work has grown. The opening story, “Hortisculpture,” is uncharacteristically humor-driven, and its format is based on the structure of a daily newspaper strip. It examines the risk of making art, but in a self-deprecatingly funny way that we normally don't see in Tomine's comics.

More info and preview images here.

Superman: Lois & Clark #1

By Dan Jurgens, Lee Weeks, Scott Hanna and Brad Anderson
DC Comics 

In the 2011 Flashpoint series, DC Comics brought almost 30 years of continuity to an end, rebooting their entire line in order to be more accessible for new readers. But what about the fans of the way things were? This week, two pre-Flashpoint characters come back in an unexpected way as part of this new continuity.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent were happily married for many years, but the Lois and Clark of the new continuity are just friends. This summer’s Convergence mini-series brought back some characters that had been erased in past reboots, two of which were pre-Flashpoint Superman and Lois Lane, pregnant with their first child. That series ended with them entering the current DC Universe, and now in Superman: Lois & Clark #1, we see how they're getting by in a world that is not their own. With their son, Jon, who is now a grown boy, they have decided to live in secret, using aliases, and pretending to be a normal family. But Superman has to be super, and he can’t help himself from going out and saving people every once in a while.

Longtime comics fans will appreciate the veteran creative team on this new series. Dan Jurgens is no stranger to Superman, being the writer of the classic "Death of Superman" comic from 1992. Lee Weeks has been more of a Marvel artist in the past, but his style manages to mix the boundaries of yesterday and today well, suitably fitting the anachronism for which this comic aims. 

Here’s a preview.

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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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