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Frank Miller/DC Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Frank Miller/DC 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.

Dark Knight III: The Master Race

By Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson
DC Comics

Thirty years ago, Frank Miller changed comics forever with The Dark Knight Returns, maybe the most famous Batman comic of all time. It helped usher in a grim and violent era for superhero comics that still hasn’t left us. Fifteen years later, Miller dumbfounded many of his own fans with the deeply weird sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which was a garish, lowbrow satire of the superhero genre and the original DKR itself. It seemed to kickstart a disconcerting second phase to Miller’s career that alienated many of his original fans with off-putting books like the raunchy All-Star Batman & Robin and the anti-Islamic rant that is Holy Terror.

Now, another fifteen years later, comes the third installment with a name that makes Miller critics cringe: Dark Knight III: The Master Race. This time out, DC may be hedging their bets a little by pairing Miller with known quantities like co-writer Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) and veteran artists Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson (Miller’s original inker on DKR).

It’s a little unclear how much involvement Miller has in this book beyond providing the basic plot, but each issue of this series will be packaged with a mini-comic, and the first one is written and drawn by Miller himself and features The Atom. Both the mini comic and the main comic are set three years after DKSA. The main story, drawn by Kubert with heavy Miller influences on the layout, focuses primarily on the women on the Dark Knight universe: Carrie Kelley, Commissioner Ellen Yindel, and Lara, the daughter of Superman and Wonder Woman.

DK III is being billed as the “epic ending” of the Dark Knight series, but Miller has already announced that he plans to write a DKIV.

The Eternaut

by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano Lopez
Fantagraphics

The Eternaut is a revered science fiction classic in Argentina, though it is mostly unknown in the States, having never been translated to English until now. Serialized weekly in the Buenos Aires newspaper Hora Cero from 1957 to 1959, it was written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, a staunch leftist who structured the story with political allegories about collective strength triumphing over military might. Along with his biography of Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara, The Eternaut made Oesterheld and artist Francisco Solano Lopez enemies of the state. In 1977, Oesterheld and his family went into hiding and were never seen again, believed to have been disappeared by the Argentinian government. In order to avoid such a fate, Lopez fled Argentina for Spain.

The comic begins with a mysterious, phosphorescent snowfall that immediately kills anyone who comes in contact with it. A group of friends playing a card game notice what is happening outside and manage to seal themselves off from the danger and rig protection suits out of SCUBA gear. What appears to be a nuclear winter soon reveals itself to be an alien invasion, and one dangerous situation leads to another.

Mixing post-apocalyptic drama, aliens, and even time travel with political subtext and a literary sophistication that American science fiction comics of the era couldn't match, this is an absolutely gripping page-turner that holds up all these years later, thanks in large part to the care Fantagraphics has taken in translating and repackaging the material.

Here is some more information about the Fantagraphics edition, including an excerpt.

Apartment 3G

By Margaret Shulock and Frank Bolle
King Features Syndicate

For 54 years, Apartment 3G has appeared in newspapers and on the web via the King Features Syndicate, but on November 22 it ran its final strip. It was an anti-climactic, bordering-on-incoherent finale that, if you had been following this comic recently, you would've known to expect. As this AV Club article notes, a small collection of blogs sprouted up over the years dedicated to following this strip and cataloging just how odd it was becoming.

In 1952, psychiatrist Dr. Nicholas P. Dallis and artist Alex Kotzky created this soap opera strip about three unmarried working women sharing an apartment in New York (a novel subject at the time). Kotzky was an exquisite illustrator who gave Apartment 3G a fashionable look equal to any of the great "realistic” strips of that era. Dallis and Kotzky kept working on it up until their deaths (Dallis in 1991 and Kotzky in 1996). Kotzky’s family handed the strip over to writer Margaret Shulock and artist Frank Bolle who continued it until the very end. At some point, however, Shulock and Bolle brought the strip (unintentionally, but who knows?) to a level of absurdism that no one would expect.

Dialogue became incoherent, and the now 90-year-old Bolle's artwork seemed to only show talking heads and the barest indication of backgrounds.The increasingly bizarre plot lines introduced over the years seemed to never amount to anything and, in the final stretch, Shulock and Bolle jumped the story ahead four weeks in order to avoid tying up any of the loose threads. The very last strip combined disparate scenes from the previous week (as many of the Sunday strips tended to do). The addition of a never-before-seen dog peering over Margo’s shoulder perplexed anyone who had been following this strip.

Comics journalist Tom Spurgeon has a puzzled yet positive write-up that describes the path the strip ended up taking as containing a "what-we-call-Lynchian quality.” You can go back and read the final strips here, but I’d recommended reading them through one of the hilarious commentary blogs like The Lovely Ladies of Apartment 3G. A comic strip wandering off to a shaky end like this after half a century of daily output is sad and, perhaps, is a symptom of a greater extinction threat to daily comics. If you're looking for a silver lining, at least it seemed to entertain the few people that were still paying attention.

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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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