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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
technology
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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
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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