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David Baldeon/IDW Publishing

The 5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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David Baldeon/IDW Publishing

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. WALKING DEAD: ALIEN

By Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin
Panelsyndicate.com

Panelsyndicate.com

Robert Kirkman and Brian K. Vaughan are perhaps the two most influential forces in creator-owned comics right now. Kirkman’s Walking Dead series may be the most successful creator-owned comic book of all time, and it was key in transforming its publisher, Image Comics, into something more than just a home for non-Marvel/DC superheroes. Vaughan meanwhile has leveraged his popularity as the writer of books like Y: The Last Man and Saga to venture into a new platform for self-publishing called Panel Syndicate, which distributes digital comics directly to readers for whatever price they’d like to pay. This past week, the two joined forces and combined their ventures for a one-shot Walking Dead comic by Vaughan and regular collaborator Marcos Martin, and it is being released exclusively on PanelSyndicate.com.

In Walking Dead: Alien, Kirkman cedes control of his zombie comic to another creative team for the first time. He also allows Vaughan and Martin to take the action outside of the usual Southern U.S. locale to Barcelona. But, this isn’t a one-off in terms of being completely disconnected from the main title. There’s an odd and surprising twist at the end that sets up an even more direct crossover somewhere down the line.

You can get Walking Dead: Alien from panelsyndicate.com for whatever price you think it might be worth to you.

2. PANTHER

By Brecht Evens
Drawn & Quarterly

Drawn & Quarterly

When you flip through it, Brecht Evens’ Panther looks like a beautifully illustrated children’s book about a girl and her imaginary panther friend. But parents beware: you probably don’t want your kids reading this one.

Things start off bleak when Christine’s cat passes away. Appearing out of the bottom drawer of her dresser to console her in her grief comes a large, smooth-talking spotted panther. Christine is immediately enthralled by this magical creature, but there clearly is something not right with him. His stories are just too fantastic and charming, and his physicality with her is inappropriate and off-putting. By the time he invites a couple of friends from his home and into her room, even the Panther seems to be losing control of the situation.

This is a dark story that explores a child’s loss of innocence in a disturbingly ambiguous way. It isn’t clear who the Panther and his friends represent, or how the girl’s father—a single dad represented as a faceless figure puttering around the kitchen—may or may not be complicit in what is happening. Evens illustrates the story with the panel-less flow of a picture book, and colorfully painted drawings erupt into full-page, cubist abstraction when events in the story get out of hand.

3. THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL #7

By Ryan North, Erica Henderson and Rico Renzi
Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics

The creative team behind Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has dared to be be different since the series started last year. Writer Ryan North and artist Erica Henderson took a nearly forgotten C-list character and turned her into a surprise hit by avoiding any and all seriousness, approaching the comic with the knowing wit one is more likely to find in a webcomic than a Marvel release. Now, with its seventh issue, they’re trying something really fun: a choose-your-own-adventure issue.

While North and Henderson’s sense of humor skews towards a teenage audience, Squirrel Girl has proven to be popular with all ages, and this issue, titled "Be The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl," should prove to be a hit with younger kids.

4. SPACE MULLET VOL. 1: ONE GAMBLE AT A TIME

By Daniel Warren Johnson
Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse Comics

For the last four years, Daniel Warren Johnson has been wowing fans with his intricate drawing style on his webcomic Space Mullet. This odd sci-fi trucker comedy follows a mullet-headed ex-space marine named Jonah and his Zozobian co-pilot Alphius as they get into all kinds of adventures, picking up a few misfit cohorts along the way. Beneath the fun of space goblins and Martian roller derbies, Johnson takes great care to build a story full of weighty moments and characters with dark pasts. His artwork started strong but has gotten even more detailed and confident as he has gone along, and this week, the comic will see its first printed collection from Dark Horse Comics.

5. MICRONAUTS #1

By Cullen Bunn, David Baldeon, Ficio Ossio, Max Dunbar, Jack Lawrence, David Garcia Cruz, Joana Lafuente, Thomas Deer and John-Paul Bove
IDW Publishing

IDW Publishing

If you were a kid in the 1970s, you probably remember Micronauts. This short-lived line of action figures with small, interchangeable parts came out around the time the first Star Wars film transformed the action figure market into what it is today. Micronauts spawned a classic Marvel Comics series by Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden that outlived the discontinued toy line by about six years. Micronauts have come back here and there over the years, and now they are owned by toy company Hasbro (which also owns properties like G.I. Joe and Transformers). The "Hasbroverse," as it's called, is currently populated by a group of comics all under the domain of IDW Publishing, and it will soon spawn a series of shared universe motion pictures.

Writer Cullen Bunn (The Sixth Gun, Uncanny X-men) is one of those kids from the ‘70s that loved Micronauts, and he now gets to write an ongoing series that brings back classic characters like Acroyear, Biotron, and the Time Travelers.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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