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Jelena Kevic-Djurdjevic/Valiant Comics

The 5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Jelena Kevic-Djurdjevic/Valiant 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.

1. Beverly

By Nick Drnaso
Drawn & Quarterly

In Beverly, Nick Drnaso gives us stories of suburban dread, sexual longing, and the poor decisions people make when trying to deal with one another’s hangups. With a minimalist drawing style that looks like Chris Ware (if Ware directed a Cartoon Network show), Drnaso’s first major comics work shows that he is entering the scene already a very accomplished storyteller.

Beverly's interconnected vignettes are set in and around the same suburban town, and they include: a young woman dealing with sexual feelings for a childhood friend, a pre-pubescent boy whose sexual curiosity about his sister ruins a family vacation, and a teenage girl who finds the worst possible way of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Drnaso tells these stories at an almost languid pace and takes unexpected turns that keep you anxiously looking ahead. It’s a fresh and compelling book that I am mentally filing away for inclusion in my Best of 2016 list.

2. Faith #1

By Jody Houser, Francis Portela, Marguerite Sauvage, Andrew Dalhouse
Valiant Comics

Since relaunching in 2012, Valiant Entertainment has been building a rich and compelling universe of comics. One of their most unique characters is Faith Herbert (codename Zephyr). Faith is a rarity in superhero comics—a plus-sized female heroine. She always wants to do the right thing, as evidenced by her short stint in the shadowy government-sanctioned superhero group Unity, which ended when the questionable moral nature of the work didn’t sit right with her. She’s an upbeat, confident, and fun character who has the potential to be the company’s breakout star if given the chance, which she’s getting now with a new four-issue mini-series to call her own.

In a funny, modern touch, she looks to get herself a secret identity as a reporter and ends up writing celebrity listicles for a Buzzfeed-like website. Writer Jody Houser and artist Francis Portela bring a lot of heart and laughs, and the amazing Marguerite Sauvage steps in a couple of times to draw the book’s multiple fantasy sequences.

3. Some Other Animal’s Meat

By Emily Carroll
www.emcarroll.com

Whenever Emily Carroll posts a new webcomic, it is an event worth mentioning. In "Some Other Animal's Meat" we follow Stacy, a middle-aged woman who seems to be in a state of melancholic self-reflection. Her marriage is loveless and her greatest joy seems to come from selling a skin-care product called Alo-Glo that she herself is afraid to try. Is she allergic to it, or is it causing her to slowly lose her grip on reality?

Carroll is one of the greatest horror cartoonists who has ever worked in this medium, and with each new comic she finds a way to push her work to become both more beautiful and more horrifying.

4. The Adventures of Supergirl #1

By Sterling Gates and Bengal
DC Comics

With so many superhero characters making the jump to TV and movies, comic publishers are grappling with “synergy” problems while trying to convert viewers into readers. Oftentimes what makes it to a TV show is a distilled version of a character that doesn’t really resemble the comic book version with its years of impenetrable backstory. Case in point is Supergirl. With the new CBS television show proving to be a success, DC seemed caught off-guard by not having an ongoing Supergirl comic already on the stands. Her most recent series was cancelled last year, and DC has decided to try a new series that exists in its own separate universe, one that more closely matches the show than the existing comics.

The result is something that fans of the TV show should enjoy. It carries its lighter attitude and is written by Sterling Gates, whose work on Supergirl in the past was an influence for the current TV iteration. He’ll be joined by a rotating stable of artists including Bengal, Emma Vieceli, Jonboy Myers, and Emanuela Lupacchino. DC is releasing this through their Digital First program on Comixology, meaning it will initially only be available in digital format at 99 cents an issue and will eventually make its way to print, but only in graphic novel (not “floppy”) format. For that added touch of “synergy,” each new issue will be released bi-weekly on Mondays, the same day the show airs.

5. Mean Girls Club

By Ryan Heshka
Nobrow Press

Ryan Heshka’s short comic Mean Girls Club begins with a call to order of the "113th secret meeting of the Mean Girls Club." What follows is a stylishly drawn parade of throwback “good girl" subversiveness that would make John Waters and Betty Page proud. Drugs, lingerie, euthanasia, mayhem, and ceremonial insect venom transfusions are all on display here. (None of it is really offensive unless you happen to be from the 1950s.) Heshka has the retro-exploitation vibe down perfectly and his artwork—printed all in black and white and hot pink—is a blast.

This is the latest offering in Nobrow’s 17x23 “graphic short story project” in which they give young cartoonists the opportunity to tell short, one-off stories in a beautiful yet affordable single-issue format. Heshka is an accomplished illustrator and has even published a couple of children’s books, but this is his first comics work outside of anthology contributions.

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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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