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Leandro Fernández // Image Comics

The 5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Leandro Fernández // 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.

1. THE ART OF CHARLIE CHAN HOCK CHYE

By Sonny Liew
Pantheon

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is about the life and work of "Singapore’s most famous comic artist," Charlie Chan Hock Chye, as told by his sketches, comics, personal newspaper clippings, and writing. The presentation of this book is so dense, thorough, and convincing that many early reviewers were fooled into thinking that Chan is a real person rather than a fictional character created by writer and artist Sonny Liew.

While the title character may be fictitious, much of what Liew explores in this book is rooted in the real-life social and political history of Singapore. From its beginnings as a British colony to its failed merger with neighboring Malaysia and struggle for independence, Liew explores these years through the types of comics Chan supposedly made at the time and how they reflected his own political persuasions. It also runs a wide gamut of comic book history, with Liew turning in a tour de force artistic performance to show Chan’s own style change with the popularity of different comic styles of the era, mimicking the work of artists such as Osamu Tezuka, Carl Barks, Frank Miller, and others.

Liew, a native of Singapore, received a grant from the Singapore National Arts Council to create the book, only to have it revoked on claims that his work “undermines the authority or legitimacy” of the government. This would prove to be a controversial move that led to the book selling out its first few print runs in that country. Now, it comes to the States, where Liew is known to many comics fans for his work on DC’s Dr. Fate and 2014’s acclaimed The Shadow Hero with writer Gene Luen Yang. This, however, may be the book that truly makes him a star in the U.S.

2. THE DISCIPLINE #1

By Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernández
Image Comics

In the first issue of The Discipline, an unhappily married woman meets a seductive European art collector and can’t help but fall under his thrall. By the end of the issue, the seduction has turned into a full-blown supernatural fight for her soul.

Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernández began work on their new series The Discipline a few years ago, originally intending it to be published by DC’s Vertigo imprint. DC declined to publish it, leaving the work in limbo for a couple of years. Now, it gets to see the light of day as Milligan’s first Image Comics-published series. It’s not known why DC passed on the book, but there is definitely a lot of graphic sexual content which might test the nerves of some publishers. Its depiction of dangerous, forbidden sex with a supernatural twist (think 50 Shades of Grey if Christian Grey was an incubus) brings to mind some of Milligan’s groundbreaking and edgy early Vertigo work like Enigma. Leandro Fernández’ deep, rich shadows and clear, slightly exaggerated lines provide a great complement to Milligan’s dark and witty writing.

3. THE COMPLETE WIMMEN'S COMIX

Edited by Trina Robbins
Fantagraphics

Franck Bondoux, the executive officer of the Angoulême Comics Festival, defended the decision to nominate only men for its lifetime achievement award, insisting that there just aren't many women in the history of comics art. "The Festival likes women, but cannot rewrite the history of comics,” he said in an interview with Le Monde.

There’s no better time than now for The Complete Wimmen’s Comix, a big, two-volume hardcover box set, to come along and prove Bondoux and his fellow festival organizers wrong.

Back in 1972, ten women cartoonists started the first comics anthology featuring only women comic creators called Wimmen’s Comix. The underground “comix” movement of the 1960s inspired different kinds of artists to make different kinds of comics with an anything-goes attitude. Cartoonist Trina Robbins had previously put out a one-shot comic called It Ain’t Me, Babe. It was the first comic made entirely by women, and it became the impetus for the Wimmen’s Comix collective to form.

Published by Last Gasp, Robbins and her fellow “founding mothers” made comics about subjects you never would have seen male cartoonists of the ‘60s broach: abortion, lesbianism, menstruation, and feminism in general. Over the next twenty years, Wimmen’s Comix would go on to publish a number of women cartoonists who deserve to be considered among the all-time greats, such as Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Melinda Gebbie, Phoebe Gloeckner, Carol Tyler, Mary Fleener, and others.

This $100 box set from Fantagraphics contains an introduction by Robbins, the It Ain’t Me, Babe comic that started it all, and every issue of Wimmen’s Comix, many of which have never before been reprinted.

4. BLACK WIDOW #1

By Mark Waid, Chris Samnee and Mathew Wilson
Marvel Comics

These days, Marvel has moved to a “seasonal” approach to publishing most of their series, in which titles are renumbered as if they were TV shows starting a new season. These frequent #1 issues are more enticing for new readers (and I guess they also hook people like me into writing about them more than, say, a 13th issue). The impetus for a relaunch is usually a new creative team coming in with a new storyline or direction, and that is exactly what is happening with Black Widow.

The previous series by Nathan Edmonson and Phil Noto was a moody espionage thriller with painterly, realistic art from Noto. The new creative team of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee will be changing the tone much in the way they did a few years back with a similarly moody character—Daredevil. They excel at fun action, and that is exactly their plan for Widow, with this first issue consisting of a big chase scene as Nathasha Romanova goes on the run from her handlers at S.H.I.E.L.D.

5. STELA

Since Comixology launched in 2007, they have dominated the digital comics landscape with their expansive library and “Guided View” technology allowing for panel-to-panel reading on a smartphone. No one has come close to competing with their technology or selection, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for something new.

An iPhone app called Stela launched last week with a different approach to digital comics. Unlike most digital readers, they are focusing on smaller screens rather than tablets and are commissioning original content that's created specifically to be read on their app. Stela comics are designed for easy legibility on screen, and you read them by scrolling vertically instead of tapping or swiping. This page-less approach to comics is something that has been embraced by many webcomic makers, and it feels more natural on the phone than even Comixology’s Guided View solution. Some of the comics on Stela, like Irene Koh’s Afrina and the Glass Coffin, cleverly use visual cues like word balloons that overlap the next panel down to guide you in the right direction.

Stela has recruited an interesting mix of up-and-coming creators like Koh and established veterans like Brian Wood to create original content just for the app. You can read the first chapters of any comic for free and then subscribe for $4.99 a month to get full access.

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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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