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Nicola Scott/Image Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Nicola Scott/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.

Black Magick #1

By Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott
Image Comics 

Black Magick opens with a group of half-naked men and women performing an ancient Wiccan ritual in a park. Suddenly, a cell phone starts ringing, and one of the women has to leave to perform her duties as a homicide detective. This is a police procedural with a dash of the occult, and it's described by writer Greg Rucka as “witch noir.” You’ll want to give this one a chance due to the creative team who have been preparing this book for years—and it shows.

Greg Rucka is an acclaimed writer whose other comic for Image, Lazarus, is one of the standouts in a quality publishing lineup. Detective Rowan Black is the kind of strong but flawed female lead he’s been successfully writing since books like Whiteout and Queen & Country in the late 1990s. Nicola Scott has been primarily drawing comics for DC like Wonder Woman and Earth-2. This is her first time working on a creator-owned comic for Image, and it may be the book that makes her a star. The book is stunningly realistic and painted in noirish black and white washes that occasionally give way to surprising hints of color. See for yourself in this extensive preview.

Hellboy & the BPRD 1953: The Phantom Hand & The Kelpie

By Mike Mignola, Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart
Dark Horse Comics 

Both Hellboy and even its main spin-off title, B.P.R.D., are deep into epic story lines that have been building for years. They may not be the easiest comics for new readers to dip in and out of, but that doesn’t mean Mike Mignola won't give opportunities for the casual reader to try. This new one-shot combines two self-contained short stories from Hellboy’s early days with the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. If you’re new to Hellboy, or just prefer to pick up an occasional story with minimal investment, this book encapsulates a lot of what is great about the comics.

“The Phantom Hand” and “The Kelpie” are both set in 1953 and are delightfully eerie tales in the vein of early 20th century short stories like “The Monkey’s Paw.” Hellboy is just barely an adult as he tags along with his adoptive father and B.P.R.D. director Trevor Bruttenholm in England to investigate a ghost story involving a disembodied hand. Hellboy creator Mike Mignola is joined here by artist Ben Stenbeck, with whom he has recently collaborated on the Frankenstein Underground series.

Titan

By François Vigneault
Study Group Comics

Like the best futuristic science-fiction, François Vigneault’s webcomic Titan has a lot to say about the world that we live in right now. When João da Silva, a middle manager, is sent to inspect a mining site on the moon of Saturn, he finds himself faced with union gripes and a growing unrest between the genetically-enhanced Titan workers and their Terran management. João must find a way to increase profits or else lay off 250,000 Titans. The problem is, the way the Titans' bodies have adapted to the moon's gravity makes them twice the size of normal humans and incapable of physically moving or functioning on Earth. Therefore, what do you do with thousands of large, angry, and unemployed Titans?

Vigneault publishes Titan on the webcomic collective Study Group Comics (whose website he also art directs). When complete, it will be a 200+ page graphic novel, but in the meantime it's serialized in chunks. It has an intriguing social and political premise, and an unusual romance between João and Phoebe, the Titan liaison who towers above him, is just beginning.

Check out the first four parts of Titan here and, if you like what you read, consider supporting the artist on Patreon so he can finish this work.

Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu Vol. 1

By Junji Ito
Kodansha Comics 

Junji Ito is the author of horror manga like Uzumaki and Gyo. He has an intricate style that is perfect for depicting every detail of his terrifying subject matter. The weird thing is that his latest book, Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu, is a slice-of-life memoir about learning to co-habitate with his girlfriend and her two cats, but Ito still applies his horror aesthetic for comedic effect. Since cats can be inherently creepy, this approach may actually be pretty appropriate.

Welcome to Showside

By Ian McGinty
Z2 Comics 

Ian McGinty has gained popularity working for Cartoon Network on shows like Adventure Time and Bravest Warriors, but now he has developed a comic of his own creation, published through creator-friendly Z2 Comics. Welcome to Showside is sure to appeal to that same Adventure Time audience and there is already an animated pilot based on the comic. (Featuring the voices of not only McGinty himself but Henry Rollins, too!)
Welcome to Showside is about a kid named Kit who finds out that his father is the Shadow King and wants him to follow in his footsteps and destroy the world. All Kit wants to do is ride his skateboard and hang out with friends, but now he has this to deal with. 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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