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Daniel Clowes/Cliff Chiang/Faith Erin Hicks/Mitch Gerads

The 12 Best Comics of 2016 (So Far)

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Daniel Clowes/Cliff Chiang/Faith Erin Hicks/Mitch Gerads

Why wait until December to start giving out accolades to some of the best comics and graphic novels of the year? If you’re looking for some good summer reads, here are 12 outstanding titles published in the first half of 2016. 

1. THE SHERIFF OF BABYLON

By Tom King and Mitch Gerads
DC Vertigo 

Vertigo, DC Comics’ mature-readers line, started off 2016 by launching a number of new series, and without a doubt the standout of the bunch has been Sheriff of Babylon. Set in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it begins with the murder of an Iraqi police cadet who was being trained by an American cop-turned-contractor named Chris Henry. His investigation into what happened has him partnering with Nassir, the last Iraqi policeman from the old regime, and Sofia, a former exile turned local crime lord.

Writer Tom King was a real-life CIA officer stationed in Iraq, and he draws upon a lot of his own experiences to add rich detail and a sense of gravitas to this story, while Mitch Gerads’ photo-realistic artwork adds to the authenticity. They have completed seven issues of this ongoing series so far, and the first trade paperback collection hits stores in July.

2. 5,000 KM PER SECOND

By Manuele Fior
Fantagraphics

Piero and Lucia meet as teenagers in Italy and fall in love. Fast forward a number of years and Lucia has left Piero to live in Norway, where she falls for another young man. Fast forward again and both Piero and Lucia are married to other people, but their hearts seem to be elsewhere. By the end of the book, the two reunite in middle age and try to recapture what they had as teenagers.

5,000 km Per Second won the prestigious Grand Prize at the 2010 Angouleme Comics Festival and it finally made its English language debut this year, thanks to American publisher Fantagraphics. Not only is it a gorgeous book full of beautifully expressive watercolors, but it's also a masterful piece of storytelling by Italian cartoonist Manuele Fior that describes a relationship between two people by showing us only the time that passes when they are apart.

3. RULES FOR DATING MY DAUGHTER

By Mike Dawson
Uncivilized Books 

Mike Dawson’s switch from making longform narrative graphic novels to short, non-fiction essays proved to be a successful career pivot for the cartoonist. Many of the comics collected in this Kickstarter-funded collection were originally posted online and shared repeatedly via social media because they touched a nerve with a certain type of young parent—progressive, politically-minded, and anxious about their children’s future.

Dawson pours his own parental love and insecurity into smart, funny and creative comic essays about subjects like feminist dads, talking to your kids about how we get our meat, school shootings, and the class values of the Disney Jr. show Sofia the First.

4. PAPER GIRLS

By Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson
Image Comics

Writer Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man) has another hit on his hands with his new series Paper Girls, a collaboration with popular artist Cliff Chiang, who recently completed a long run drawing DC’s Wonder Woman. The true nature of the plot that drives Paper Girls is still unfolding, with only six issues released so far, but it begins following a group of 12-year-old girls delivering newspapers in the wee hours of the morning in 1988. It quickly veers into a science fiction epic involving time travel, aliens and the end of the world.

Partly due to the setting, but mostly due to Vaughan and Chiang’s Hollywood-style sense of drama and suspense, this reads like one of those classic Spielbergian kids' adventure films of the ‘80s.

5. THE ART OF CHARLIE CHAN HOCK CHYE

By Sonny Liew
Pantheon 

When The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was first released, some book reviewers were fooled into thinking this was an actual career retrospective of a famous Singaporean cartoonist. In fact, what makes this book so astounding is that it is 320 pages of comics, sketches, life drawings and paintings convincingly created by Sonny Liew to invent a lifetime’s worth of work. Liew (Dr. Fate, The Shadow Hero) uses the fictional life of Charlie Chan Hock Chye to tell the history and evolution of mid-to-late century comics, while mixing in the social and political history of Singapore.

The book has sold out multiple print runs in Liew’s home country, and its commentary on political activism led the government to revoke a national grant given to him to make the book. It is an impressively designed book that mixes documentary-style “interviews,” dramatizations and faux-historical artifacts.

6. PANTHER

By Brecht Evens
Drawn & Quarterly

While mourning the loss of her cat, a 5-year-old girl named Christine is visited by a talking spotted panther who arrives from another land through the dresser drawer in her bedroom. The panther is charming at first, but his charm seems to be hiding ulterior motives. At least it seems that way to the reader but not to the innocent and trusting young girl who is enchanted by everything he says and does. When her favorite stuffed toy dog tries to escape the madness, the Panther does something horrible to him. 

Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens presents this book like a colorful children’s tale, but underneath the whimsical and expressive paintings lurks an analogy to something unspeakable that will slowly get under your skin as the story goes along. It’s like The Cat in the Hat taken to almost horrific extremes.

7. THE VISION

By Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles
Marvel Comics 

Tom King is having a career year, having launched two new books in 2016 that are both on this list: the previously mentioned Sheriff of Babylon and his first book for Marvel, The Vision. This 12-issue series shows the well known synthezoid Avenger relocating to the suburbs to live the American Dream with a wife and children—Virginia, Viv and Vin—that he created himself.

What sounds like the premise for a wacky sitcom is actually a dark and tragic tale of assimilation and the lengths one will go for their family. Each character is a commentary on a classic family member archetype—Vision is the frequently absent dad; Virginia, the fiercely protective mom—and King uses their Spock-like emotional detachment to create a quiet, contemplative rumination on family that is often jolted by shocking and violent plot twists.

The real stars of this book, though, may be the art team of Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire, whose work lends this title the somber weight that makes it so riveting.

8. PATIENCE

By Daniel Clowes
Fantagraphics 

Daniel Clowes's first book in five years was one of the most anticipated graphic novel releases of 2016. Being a time travel story, Patience seems like it would be a departure from the usually grounded character pieces you expect from Clowes, but it's really not too removed from his various genre-dabbling like The Death-Ray and David Boring. It is about a young man named Jack whose life is ripped apart when his pregnant wife Patience is murdered.

Thirty years later he finds a way to go back in time to try to prevent this tragic event from unfolding, but is Jack’s undying love for Patience actually the root of all their problems? Using retro sci-fi influences from mid-century EC Comics, Clowes tells a very Clowes-ian story about disaffected outsiders and nostalgia.

9. THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL

By Ryan North, Erica Henderson and Rico Renzi
Marvel Comics 

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is Marvel’s most unique comic. It is geared towards a different kind of audience—young girls—than most of the publisher’s books and does not take itself as seriously as 90 percent of today’s superhero comics. It also features a female protagonist who looks nothing like any other super heroine out there. Most of all, though, it has a sense of humor that is more similar to what you’d find in webcomics than superhero comics. That’s because the creative team of Ryan North and Erica Henderson is also unlike most creative teams you’d find working for Marvel. North is the creator of the popular webcomic Dinosaur Comics and Henderson is a relative newcomer whom this book has now made into a star.

Now in its second series (all the Marvel titles relaunched this year), North and Henderson have been upping their game on Squirrel Girl with a multi-part time travel story featuring Doctor Doom and a hilariously clever choose-your-own-adventure issue. The popularity of Squirrel Girl has paved the way for Marvel to try out more colorful, light hearted, comedic books, as well as more titles aimed at female readers.

10. BEVERLY

By Nick Drnaso
Drawn & Quarterly 

In Nick Drnaso’s first graphic novel, Beverly, he collects a series of vignettes set in and around a mostly white suburban town with a somewhat interconnected cast of disenchanted youth. Each story is heavy with impending tragedy, but also funny when you don’t expect it.

The diverse vignettes include one about a teenager whose story about being raped by an unknown Muslim assailant isn’t what it seems, one about two girlfriends in their early 20s who reconnect at a party, and the central piece about an incident during a family trip that sets a young boy’s life on an awful trajectory. 

Drnaso is a promising new talent who has a knack for interesting characters and unusual storytelling choices (in one unusually extended scene he depicts an entire episode of a fictional sitcom, including commercials). His dark sense of humor and minimalist drawing style is like an Adult Swim program created by Chris Ware.

11. THE NAMELESS CITY

By Faith Erin Hicks and Jordie Bellaire
First Second 

Faith Erin Hicks has proven herself to be one of today’s great YA graphic novelists, writing and illustrating books across genres such as science fiction, supernatural and even superheroes. Her latest is the first in a three-book fantasy series set in a fictional city modeled aesthetically, and somewhat historically, on the city of Tibet.

The titular “Nameless City” is a strategically well-situated city that gets conquered and renamed every few decades by surrounding kingdoms. The citizens live in resentment of each new invading army, especially Rat, a young girl who lives on the streets and gets around by jumping from roof to roof, parkour-style. She becomes an unlikely companion to Kaidu, a newcomer and member of the latest invading army that is responsible for the death of Rat’s parents.

Hicks is joined by prolific and brilliant colorist Jordie Bellaire, and the two have created a visually stunning world that makes this one of the best looking books of the year so far.

12. CRIMINAL 10TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

By Ed Brubaker, Sean Philips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Image Comics

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips returned to their career-making creator-owned series Criminal with a new one-shot story published in an oversized magazine-style format that calls back to the popular publishing trend of the 1970s. The format comes into play when we, along with young Tracy Lawless (a character we’ve previously seen all grown up in other Criminal stories), start reading a raunchy kung-fu werewolf comic within this story of Tracy and his dad on the run.

The format and the extra in-story send-up of ‘70s horror comics are nice selling points, but it's Brubaker and Philips, along with colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser, who are all at the top of their game right now, producing a great piece of crime noir that doubles as a heartbreaking story about the relationship between a father and son.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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