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Zander Cannon // Oni Press

The 4 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Zander Cannon // Oni Press

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. Kaijumax Season 1

By Zander Cannon
Oni Press

Zander Cannon // Oni Press

Kaijumax is one of the most off-the-wall concepts to get published in recent memory. It’s basically Orange is the New Black but with Kaiju, set on a Pacific Island that has been transformed into a massive Supermax-style prison. The prisoners are the type of giant monsters you see in classic Japanese monster films, and the guards wear Ultraman-style suits that allow them to grow to monster-height when they need to step in and rough up a prisoner. In this ongoing series, Zander Cannon takes every Hollywood prison trope and adds in every Japanese monster movie trope: the guard dealing drugs to prisoners (in this case, radioactive isotopes); the uncomfortable prison shower scene (in this case, the shower is a waterfall); and the prisoner who has found religion (in this case, a Mechagodzilla preaching the word of technology).

Cannon is a skilled cartoonist who draws in a colorful, cartoony style that may mislead some parents into thinking this is a kid-friendly book (it’s not). His drawings offset the sometimes heavy content and, most of all, it playfully captures the man-in-rubber-suit spirit of those old monster films. Kaijumax recently completed serialization of “Season One" and it hits stores in an affordable collected edition this week.

2. Big Kids

By Michael DeForge
Drawn & Quarterly

Michael DeForge // Drawn & Quarterly

In Michael DeForge’s latest graphic novel, Big Kids, a teenage boy wakes up after being dumped by his boyfriend and starts to see the world as a place where he and everyone around him are actually trees (or, DeForge’s psychedelic, nearly unrecognizable version of trees). As a “tree”, the young teen has heightened senses and experiences mundane activities like swimming in a public pool with a euphoric state of awareness. People who used to cause problems in his life are now inconsequential “twigs.” However, with all of this new capacity for understanding, memories of his life before he “treed” are fading quickly.

Printed in a tiny 4 inch by 6 inch hardcover with eye-popping colors set against delicate lines, the book is trippy and surreal, containing DeForge’s typical preoccupations with nature, transformation, and the beauty and horror of living within your own body. It’s a metaphor for puberty and growing up that is poignant but also not afraid to portray its young protagonist as self-involved.

3. Octopus Pie Vol. 1

By Meredith Gran
Image Comics

Meredith Gran // Image Comics

Meredith Gran’s long-running Octopus Pie is one of the most popular and influential webcomics to come out of the 2000s, an important decade in the maturation of that format in which creators like Gran, Kate Beaton, Ryan North, Danielle Corsetto and others found large audiences online by self-publishing. At that time, mainstream book publishers began scooping up quirky small press and web comics, looking for the next big hit, only to very quickly give up when sales couldn't reach the threshold they were used to. Octopus Pie was originally caught in this publishing net when Villard Books put out a collection in 2010, but decided not to collect the subsequent strips.

This time out, Gran is moving her book to Image Comics, the premier publisher of creator-owned comics. Image has been pushing out of their usual boundaries of sci-fi, horror, and crime comics with selections like this. Octopus Pie follows the (semi-fictional) Brooklyn-based adventures of sarcastic Eve and happy-go-lucky stoner Hannah who were in pre-school together and are reunited by Eve’s mom to become roommates after Eve breaks up with her boyfriend. This first volume collects the first two years of strips with stories involving hipster art scenes, crazy exes, and witty observations about being at an age when adulthood becomes reality.

4. Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #1

By Neal Adams, Tony Bedard and Alex Sinclair
DC Comics

DC Comics

When Neal Adams came along in the 1960s, his realistic drawing style—influenced more by traditional figurative illustrators like Robert McGinnis than by traditional cartoony comic book artists—was a revelation. If you grew up reading comics in the 1970s, you’re probably familiar with Adams, particularly his iconic run on comics like Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

At 74, Adams is still working and is given carte blanche by DC Comics to do the occasional project of his choice. This includes 2011’s Batman: Odyssey, a deeply odd, almost incomprehensible exploration of Batman’s history featuring flying dinosaurs and a fourth-wall breaking Bruce Wayne. It garnered its fair share of scathing, bewildered reviews.

This time, with the six-issue series Superman: The Coming of the Supermen, Adams is playing in the Superman sandbox along with some of Jack Kirby’s creations like Darkseid and Kalibak. The oddness of Odyssey may be dialed down a little with this book, but it still looks like it's going to be pretty weird (for example, Superman and Darkseid intermingle with modern Middle East affairs).

While Adams’ late-era period may threaten to alter public opinion of his work, Comixology is running a sale this week of his classic work from the ‘70s if you want to see how he changed comics forever.

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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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