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Frank Cho/Marvel Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Frank Cho/Marvel 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.

The Sheriff of Babylon

By Tom King and Mitch Gerads
DC Vertigo 

DC Comics is in the midst of launching 12 new titles to Vertigo, their mature readers imprint, hoping to breathe life into the once groundbreaking publishing line. The most promising of these new titles might just be Tom King and Mitch Gerad's The Sheriff of Babylon, which begins this week. Set in Iraq in 2003, it follows three characters looking to solve the murder of an Iraqi police recruit.

Tom King is a former counter-terrorism operations officer for the CIA who was stationed in Iraq, which is an experience he draws on for this comic. (King has said in interviews that he has to submit every issue to the CIA’s publication review board for approval.) This has been a breakout year for the writer whose other DC books, Omega Men and Grayson, allowed him to apply his knowledge of espionage and insurgencies to the world of superheroes.

Perhaps it’s how this comic explores the underworld of an embattled, post-war country, or the gritty realism of Mitch Gerads' artwork, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to a great comic DC published in the early ‘00s called Winter Men. Fans of that series, which explored post-Cold War Russia through the eyes of a superhero-turned-policeman, will probably want to see what King and Gerads do here. Winter Men artist John Paul Leon is even providing the covers for this series.

The Abaddon

By Koren Shadmi
Z2 Comics 

Koren Shadmi’s The Abaddon was a webcomic that began in 2011, and it comes to print this week courtesy of indie publisher Z2 Comics. The compelling mystery reads like a dream: creepy, sexy and laden with cryptic meaning. It begins when a man named Ter, recently returned from an unnamed war and still bearing the bandages, attends an open house in an old, two-story apartment occupied by four roommates. Once he accepts their offer to live there, he finds that there is no way to actually leave, and what proceeds is like MTV's The Real World on an acid trip.

Since most of the action takes place inside the apartment (at least for the first half of the book), The Abaddon reads like a play. (It is loosely based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist play No Exit, about a group of people locked in a room that turns out to be hell.) The Abaddon deals with death, karma, and the afterlife, but it's not all that bleak. It will make you laugh as often as it makes you cringe. An Israeli cartoonist based in Brooklyn, Shadmi's expressive pencil drawings are reminiscent of the great animator Bill Plympton, and the tones of green and red he uses with them add to the unreal, dreamlike nature of the story. 

Totally Awesome Hulk #1

By Greg Pak, Frank Cho and Sonia Oback
Marvel Comics

As Marvel Comics comes back from the other side of their Secret Wars event, they have promised that everything will return “All New, All Different.” The most different of these returning comics may be the new Hulk series (now called Totally Awesome Hulk) which stars not Bruce Banner but Amadeus Cho, a teenage Korean-American “boy genius.” This is the latest move in Marvel’s attempt to diversify their A-list heroes, following the new female Thor and the African-American Captain America.

From the perspective of new storytelling opportunities, Bruce Banner as the Hulk had long ago lost his punch. There have been other Hulks recently like Rick Jones and Thunderbolt Ross, but none have added much interest to the concept. Amadeus Cho has been a popular supporting character in the series for a number of years and is a logical successor to Banner. He was created by writer Greg Pak who returns for this series along with fan-favorite artist Frank Cho (Liberty Meadows, Shanna the She-Devil).

Pak and Cho plan to bring a sense of humor and fun to the Hulk, a character that has become too often about joyless aggression and angst. The fact that Amadeus Cho can turn into the Hulk at will because he wants to, unlike Banner who always dreaded the transformation, is a nice wrinkle that readers looking to enjoy some good “Hulk Smash” might appreciate.

The End of a Fence

By Roman Muradov
kuš! 

Latvian publisher kuš! (pronounced “kush”) has been on a mission since 2007 to introduce comics to the adult reading audience in their home country through magazine anthologies like the eponymous kuš! and its sister-publication š! (pronounced "shh"). Before they came along, comics were unpopular in Latvia, but kuš! has been responsible for helping the medium by showcasing an international array of cartoonists, as well as some up and coming Latvian ones.

Now, kuš! is making the move into publishing graphic novels, and their first book is a beautiful little 100-page comic called The End of a Fence by Russian illustrator Roman Muradov (he currently lives in San Francisco). With a mixture of geometric shapes, brushy textures, pixelation, a beautifully soft color palette, and an almost alien-looking typeface, Muradov explores humanity’s relationship with technology in a way that is like watching a wonderfully designed graphical interface degrade and break apart.

This is Muradov’s second graphic novel, his first was the Ignatz-award nominated (In a Sense) Lost and Found. You can order a copy of The End of a Fence through the publisher.

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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
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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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