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The 13 Most Interesting Comics of August

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Each month, we’ll round up the most interesting comics, graphic novels, webcomics, digital comics and comic-related Kickstarters that we think you should check out.

1. March: Book Three

By Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
Top Shelf

The third and final book in Rep. John Lewis’ autobiographical account of the Civil Rights Movement begins with a horrifying scene inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham moments before a bomb set off by white supremacists kills four young girls. It ends with the hope achieved by the march from Selma to Montgomery and the signing of the Voting Rights Act but with the solemn understanding that the struggle will outlive the Movement itself. Each volume of March has seemed to land with the added relevance of today’s racially charged current events. Book 2 was released shortly after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Book 3 comes out amidst an even more pronounced national conversation about race and injustice. It even contains a scene from the 1964 Republican convention that is very reminiscent of this year’s GOP convention.

March is going to go down as one of the greatest books about this period in American history. Lewis, with co-writer Andrew Aydin, has managed to pack as much gut-wrenching emotion into his story as he does informative detail, and artist Nate Powell has shown exactly how to handle real-life material like this. It is a true accomplishment to create a work of such drama and visual grace that feels like it sacrifices none of the historical accuracy that is so crucial to conveying its story. This is a book that will be taught not only in history classes but in art classes as well.

2. Bera the One-Headed Troll

By Eric Orchard
First Second

Eric Orchard’s latest children’s fantasy graphic novel is an adventure about a troll named Bera who finds herself responsible for the care of a human baby that has mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. Bera, a simple pumpkin gardener, is not prone to adventure but realizes that it is up to her to keep this child safe from the dangers that lurk around and that consider this baby’s presence a threat.

Young readers will enjoy Orchard’s matter-of-fact humor and eerie-yet-cute artwork (sort of a cross between Victorian-era children’s books and Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas). Adults will marvel at it as well and may appreciate the book’s subtext, which subtly hints at issues of mental illness. Orchard actually drew part of the book from a hospital while being treated for OCD and anxiety issues. He also modeled the character of Bera’s nearly incomprehensible aunt off his own mother, who suffered from schizophrenia.

3. The Omega Men: The Complete Series

By Tom King, Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Farjado, Jr.
DC Comics

This book almost did not come to be. Halfway through this planned 12-issue series, DC Comics canceled The Omega Men due to poor sales, only to reverse its decision in the face of fan protest. Now, the critically-acclaimed series (it was on my own Best of 2015 list) hits bookstores with a trade paperback collecting the entire story.

The Omega Men is responsible for launching the career of writer Tom King, who is now writing Batman. A former counterterrorism operations officer for the CIA, King took his real world knowledge and applied it to a story about fundamentalism and insurrection set in the far reaches of space. It has one of the most shocking opening scenes of any comic you’ll read this year, reminiscent of an Al-Qaeda-style video showing a kidnapped former Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner being beheaded. The Omega Men has also made the career of artist Barnaby Bagenda who, along with colorist Romulo Farjado, Jr., has a painterly, Eurocomics style that helps elevate the material above most cosmic superhero fare. With King, the artists make use of a nine-panel grid structure throughout the comic—a format made famous by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen—that gives this book a dramatic and unique pacing.

4. Spoiler: On the Campaign Trail with Jill Stein

By Sarah Glidden
The Nib

Politically-focused comics portal The Nib has come back strong from an extended hiatus with lots of coverage centered around the 2016 election. In their longest piece of comics journalism to date, Sarah Glidden traveled around with Green Party candidate Jill Stein to create something we don’t see much from the mainstream news media: an expose on a third party candidate.

Glidden is a cartoonist who specializes in journalistic travelogues like How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less and her upcoming Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq. In Spoiler, she interviews Stein at her home in Massachusetts and watches her in action on the campaign trail on the west coast, giving one of the fullest and most nuanced accounts of Stein’s campaign as you’re likely to read anywhere.

5. The! Greatest! Of! Marlys!

By Lynda Barry
Drawn & Quarterly

Lynda Barry is one of the most influential comic creators of all time and one of the industry’s most important female cartoonists. A veteran of alt-weekly comics of the 1980s, her funny, observational comics about childhood, starring a freckle-faced little girl with the unusual name of Marlys were originally published as part of her Ernie Pook's Comeek strip. She has inspired many of today’s female YA-comic makers, particularly today’s most popular creator, Raina Telgemeier. Some young fans of Telgemeier’s comics may balk at Barry’s wordy, roughly drawn and decidedly not “cute” Marlys comics collected in this giant book from Drawn & Quarterly, but they will absolutely connect with the cutting humor and the surprising realness that Barry conveys through the eccentric Marlys.

6. All Star Batman #1

By Scott Snyder, John Romita Jr., Declan Shalvey, Danny Miki, Dean White and Jordie Bellaire
DC Comics

There was a lot of trepidation from fans and probably even DC Comics management when it was decided that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo would no longer be the creative team on Batman. Arguably, their run on the title was the only aspect of DC’s 2011 “New 52" relaunch that will be looked back on as being a success. Snyder is not leaving the character though and instead is using the All-Star Batman title to tell a story he felt that he couldn’t do within his run on Batman proper.

All-Star will see Snyder working with an all-star team of artists beginning with John Romita, Jr., the longtime Marvel veteran. With Dean White’s coloring giving Romita’s art a modern, edgy style, the first issue of this series hints at a more fun and stylish Batman than we’ve seen in recent years. There is also a backup story illustrated by Declan Shalvey with Jordie Bellaire on colors that blends the ‘60s pop color of the Batman TV show with the darker, post-Frank Miller grit of the modern era.

7. This is Not Fine

By KC Green
The Nib

Another big moment for The Nib this month saw cartoonist KC Green revisit a 3-year-old comic that has since become the defining meme of the 2016 election. The first two panels of 2013's “On Fire” from his popular Gunshow webcomic have been shared many times as a meme to represent blind acceptance, but it blew up, so to speak, this year as a symbol for how we’re resigning to the madness of 2016 current events. When the GOP, a frequent target of the “This is Fine” joke, used the cartoon on their official Twitter account in a half-hearted criticism of the Democratic Convention, it seemed to set off a bit of anger in both The Nib and Green, leading to Green creating a sequel for the site called “This is Not Fine,” a perfect reaction to 2016’s normalization of the abnormal.

8. Kill or Be Killed #1

By Ed Brubaker, Sean Philips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Image Comics

The protagonist of Kill or Be Killed, whom we first meet as a masked gunman mowing down unidentified “people who deserve it” in a dark apartment building, fits the bill of a stereotypical "lone gunman." We see him pining for a girl who is playing with his emotions, showing weakness when confronted by bullies, and even attempting suicide by jumping off a roof. How he goes from being put upon and suicidal to becoming a violent aggressor seems like a story ripped from the headlines. But when he miraculously survives that fall, we learn it is thanks to a demon who gives him back his life in exchange for his promise to commit murder.

Brubaker, Philips, and Breitweiser return here to the supernatural genre they recently dabbled in with Fatale and while in some respects this feels like a palette cleanser coming off The Fade Out—their astounding and historically grounded tale of old Hollywood and film noir—this team is so on top of their game right now that anything they do is going to be a significant work.

9. Alena

By Kim W. Andersson
Dark Horse

Kim W. Andersson’s 2012 graphic novel Alena was recently adapted into a Swedish-made film that debuted at the Santa Barbara Film Festival this year. Its positive reception has led to Dark Horse Comics bringing the original book to the U.S. this month. Alena is a disturbing story of a teenage girl who transfers to a boarding school after the death of her girlfriend, Josephine. She is haunted both literally and figuratively by Josephine’s death as she tries to make new friends and deal with the bullying of the school’s top mean girl, but the constant visits from Josephine’s inexplicably living corpse are making that impossible for Alena.

Andersson’s story reads like a YA-style drama with some explicit elements of graphic horror and sexual situations, but its strength actually lies in its depiction of loss and bullying which at times is more realistic than you’d expect from a story that at least appears to be about a dead girl taking out her vengeance on the living.

10. Batgirl #1

By Hope Larson, Rafael Albuquerque, and Dave McCaig
DC Comics

DC Comics’ latest line-wide relaunch is aiming to fix some of the tonal mistakes they made during their last attempt to modernize their heroes, but one comic that didn’t need a lot of fixing was Batgirl. The previous creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, and Babs Starr went against the grain of DC’s grim and gritty house style to turn Batgirl into a modern, female-positive, and fun comic. With that group moving on to other projects, DC is being smart to keep the momentum going by putting their most interesting new creative team on the job. Hope Larson is the popular writer and artist of young adult graphic novels like Chiggers and the comic adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. This year has seen her working solely as a writer on multiple books, collaborating with artists like Rebecca Mock on Compass South and Brittney Williams on Goldie Vance. On Batgirl, she is joined by Rafael Albuquerque, an artist of dynamic and moody visuals, known for his run on the Vertigo comic American Vampire.

Larson and Albuquerque begin their new Batgirl series by keeping a lot of the tone that made the last series work but start out by taking Barbara Gordon away from her supporting cast and her hipsterish Gotham City borough, Burnside, for a soul-searching backpacking trip across Japan full of romance and hand-to-hand combat.

11. The Meek

By Der-Shing Helmer
Kickstarter

Der-Shing Helmer began working on her webcomic The Meek back in 2009 when she was still a teenager. Her lush, polished artwork looked more like stills from an animated feature than the typical lo-fi work you’d often see on the web at the time. It was one of the great examples of long form webcomic storytelling from the first half of this decade and Helmer managed to retain a loyal readership even during some lengthy hiatuses. Now, she is rewarding longtime fans and welcoming potential new readers with her first print edition of The Meek, funded via what is looking like a very successful Kickstarter. And as good as Helmer’s art has always been, she’s taking the opportunity of the new book to go back and polish up some of her earlier pages.

The Meek is an adventure that follows Angora, a green-haired young girl from the jungle who is sent by her grandfather on a mission to save the world from something called “The Center.” She has no idea how she is going to do this and hopes to figure it out along the way as her journey takes her to all corners of this fantasy world.

12. Lady Killer 2 #1

By Joelle Jones and Michelle Madsen
Dark Horse Comics

The premise of Joelle Jones’ Lady Killer series is basically: What if Betty Draper was Jason Bourne? In the sequel to the hit 2015 mini-series, prim and proper housewife Josie Schuller and her family have moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida where, in between hosting tupperware parties and avoiding her mother-in-law, she is secretly starting up her own business as a freelance assassin.

While drawn in a modern comics style and rife with gory comics violence, Jones meticulously recreates the fashion and atmosphere of its 1960s setting, taking lots of cues from the advertising and design of that Mad Men era. Jones is known primarily for her stylish artwork but after co-writing the first series with frequent collaborator Jamie S. Rich, she is the solo creator on this new series (along with colorist Michelle Madsen).

13. Fantasy Sports 2: The Bandit of Barbel Bay

By Sam Bosma
Nowbrow Press

The delightful premise of Sam Bosma’s all-ages fantasy series is that a pair of travelers, a young girl named Wiz and her musclebound sidekick Mug, end up challenged to various sporting competitions by the fantasy-world creatures they encounter. After playing basketball with Egyptian mummies in volume 1, the pair is teleported to a beach town and end up in a volleyball tournament with the town’s amphibious residents.

Fantasy Sports 1 was Bosma’s first graphic novel, but, an accomplished illustrator and art professor, he is already a master comics storyteller. Comics about sports are a rarity in the West but have always been big in Japanese manga where Bosma has found a lot of inspiration for this series. This book is sure to be a hit with kids who’ll enjoy seeing their favorite sports played to the extreme by funny-looking monsters.

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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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