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Guido Crepax //Fantagraphics

The 4 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Guido Crepax //Fantagraphics

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 COMPLETE CREPAX: DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, AND OTHER HORROR STORIES

By Guido Crepax
Fantagraphics

Guido Crepax // Fantagraphics

The late Guido Crepax was one of the most influential comics artist to work in erotic graphic literature. Crepax pulled elements of 1930s German Expressionist films, 1960s French New Wave, Art Nouveau design, BDSM, and the keen eye of figurative artists such as Egon Schiele. His kinky and surreal comics could be appreciated even more for their elaborate, psychedelic compositions and slightly exaggerated anatomy than for their eroticism. His influence is apparent in the work of contemporary cartoonists like Frank Miller, Paul Pope and Kevin O’Neill.

Most of the Italian artist’s work has been unavailable in the States, but U.S. publisher Fantagraphics has begun an ambitious endeavor to collect and translate his complete oeuvre over the course of 10 hardcover graphic novels. The first book hits stores this week, and rather than collect his work chronologically, the publisher has opted to release them by theme, with this first volume focusing on erotic horror. It begins with a number of Valentina stories from the 1960s that showcase Crepax at his best. Originally intended as a love interest for a super-powered hero named Neutron, Valentina quickly captured the attentions of both Crepax and his readers, even inspiring a 1973 Italian-French film. With a look drawn from silent film actress Louise Brooks and Jean-Luc Godard muse Anna Karina, Valentina is a strong, sexually liberated heroine.

This volume ends with two adaptations—one of Bram Stroker’s Dracula and the other of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—produced later in Crepax’s career. While they lack many of the distinguishable stylistic characteristics that make his earlier work so recognizable, they still take the original material and add a number of erotic flourishes.

2. BATMAN #50

By Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and Danny Miki
DC Comics

DC Comics

Typically, comics have always loved celebrating issue number milestones (#25, #50, #100), but these days, with most series relaunching every couple of years, longevity is no longer celebrated. DC helped start the relaunch trend in 2011 when they reset all their titles back to #1, but they’ve managed to stick to that sequencing for 50 issues. To mark that milestone, they are publishing some extra-sized issues this month. Of all the #50s, none will be as worthy of being treated as a milestone as Batman #50.

Batman has been, without a doubt, DC’s best title these past few years, and that is all because it has maintained a consistent creative team since issue one: Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. They approach Batman with a post-Christopher Nolan edge and add some nice elements of comic book hyper-realism to the dark, grounded tone of the films. In their 50-issue run, they have retold Batman’s origin, physically deformed the Joker, introduced new mythologies to Gotham, and killed off both Batman and the Joker. That brings us to this issue where, of course, Batman returns from the dead. The beauty of this story is that Snyder and Capullo never tried to make us think that Bruce Wayne was actually dead; it’s been one of the best “Batman dies/someone else takes over” arcs ever.

This June, DC will be renumbering most books back to #1. However, for two of their oldest titles— Action Comics and Detective Comics—they will restore the legacy numbering in order to hit the mother of all milestones: issue #1000.

3. CANCER OWL

By Matthew Paul Mewhorter
cancerowl.com

Matthew Paul Mewhorter

Cartoonist Matthew Paul Mewhorter is a survivor of colorectal cancer (or as he calls it: “ass cancer”). When he was first diagnosed in 2014 at the age of 35, he began journaling about it using a little cartoon owl, called “Cancer Owl,” as a stand-in for himself. He created dozens of cartoons that, in a touching and effective way, poke fun at situations cancer patients can probably relate to: getting unsolicited treatment advice from strangers, trying to hold it together while talking with fellow patients, and of course dealing with the pain and suffering of chemotherapy. After Mewhorter beat his cancer, he was determined to continue the comic in hopes of using it as a form of therapy to help others.

Mewhorter posts new Cancer Owl comics every week and has just launched a Patreon campaign to raise money for supplies, advertising costs, and other projects. You can read all the Cancer Owl comics to date at CancerOwl.com and go to the Patreon page to support the campaign.

4. CARPET SWEEPER TALES

By Julie Doucet
Drawn & Quarterly

Julie Doucet // Drawn & Quarterly

Julie Doucet was one of Drawn & Quarterly’s early finds when the prestigious indie comic publisher first launched 25 years ago. Her Dirty Plotte anthology was picked up by D&Q in 1991 and made her an important name in late 20th century indie comics and a feminist icon. Doucet soon retired from making long-form comics and became a fixture in the Montreal arts community, but now she is back with a new graphic novel that is very different from her previous, hand-drawn autobiographical comics.

Carpet Sweeper Tales can best be described as an avante-garde remix of Italian fumetti (photo novels) from the 1970s. Cutting up those vintage magazines, she repurposes them into absurdist scenes of men and women speaking in stilted advertising slogans and typographical nonsense. It’s like revisiting how memes must have been made before there were ever GIFs and Tumblr.

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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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