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Liam Sharpe

Margaret Atwood on Writing Her New Graphic Novel, Angel Catbird

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Liam Sharpe

This month, acclaimed best-selling novelist Margaret Atwood will release an original graphic novel, Angel Catbirdthe first of a three-volume all-ages series. Angel Catbird is something of a throwback to the early days of superhero comics in which a laboratory accident turns a young scientist into a cat/owl hybrid. It’s full of action, romance, humor, and even a message about making our world safe for cats and birds. It’s also beautifully illustrated by Atwood’s collaborators, artist Johnnie Christmas and colorist Tamra Bonvillain. Ahead of Angel Catbird Vol. One's September 7 release, mental_floss chatted with Atwood about what it was like to write a comic book and work with a team, and gave us an exclusive first look at some pages from the graphic novel.

How did Angel Catbird come to be? Did you always plan for it to be a graphic novel?

It was always going to be a comic. How I did it was through Hope Nicholson, who is a comics producer. I had helped her on a Kickstarter in which she was raising money to republish some black and white comics from Canada in the ‘40s—this guy called Brok Windsor, who has entirely disappeared. He was one of those heroic people—but not a superhero—who went around battling Nazis without his top on. Johnny Canuck similarly was frequently topless when doing the Nazi fighting.

Therefore I got to know Hope and helped her out on her book The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, which she initially did herself and has now been picked up by Dark Horse. So I said to her, I have this idea but it’s not an idea I can do on my own. And I explained Angel Catbird to her and said "Can you help me with it?" And she said, "Yes, I could." She sent me a bunch of artists’ work that I could look at and therefore we identified Johnnie Christmas.

Did you know what you were looking for in an artist?

I knew exactly what I was looking for. I was looking for a ‘40s superhero look with a touch of noir, but since it was an all-ages book it couldn’t be too slathered in blood. I needed somebody who can draw. One of my theories is that all of that figure drawing that Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci used to do is all in the graphic arts now. So someone like Johnnie knows how to draw bodies. He knows anatomy. He can draw hands and feet and that really separates the sheep from the goats. When you look at amateur paintings, you’ll often notice that the hands and feet are hidden by red velvet drapery because they can’t actually draw them. They’re a big challenge. But Johnnie can really draw them as you’ll see by how he can draw claws and talons for Angel Catbird. He’s very accomplished and I knew he could draw anything I threw at him. And he has been able to do that. His Angel Catbird creation is really gorgeous.

Do you find it challenging to write an all-ages book?

I’ve written for children before. I’ve even written for very young children in which I wrote, drew and lettered the entire book myself. It was in the 1970s, a book called Up in the Tree. I did it because my publisher at the time said there wasn’t any children’s writing in Canada, take a crack at it. There wasn’t then, there sure is now. The reason that it’s in those funny colors was that we could only afford the two-color printing. So we chose blue and red which mixed into a funny third color which was sort of a browny/purpley color. They did a reissue of it recently and I said I’ll only do this if we keep the original look. I didn’t want it brought up to modern color standards. I wanted it the way it was.

In the back section of Angel Catbird it shows some sketches you drew for Johnnie to help convey some ideas for a particular outfit for one of the characters.

Yes, for the nightclub outfit. I was in England at the time so I was scanning these things in and sending them to him and he would send sketches back.

I needed someone who could actually draw, unlike me. My drawings are pretty basic. They’re essentially lines. [Laughs] This had to have an atmosphere.

Would you ever consider drawing a graphic novel yourself?

I think it would be very boring to have 72 pages of that. The thing about Johnnie is he’s able to vary the look of the lines. Some of that comes from the color. He’s worked with Tamra Bonvillain before so they understand each other. She’s picked kind of a early ‘50s color range. How can I describe it? It’s the right tonality for that period. There was a period in kitchen appliances [laughs] when they went from white and everyone thinks they went to that ‘60s range of avocado green and harvest gold and this horrible brown color that was very popular at the time but they went to an intermediate period of aqua pink and primrose yellow. These sort of Miami Beach colors.

How did you all work together?

Our team is five people: Johnnie; Daniel Chabon, our editor; Hope Nicholson, who brought the team together in the first place; and Tamra Bonvillain, the colorist, who operates once the rest of us have done our stuff.

So, I’ve now met all these people but before I hadn’t actually met them. They were all at Comic-Con, except for Tamra. It was all done over emails and scanned sketches. It’s similar to developing a film or television script but instead of writing scenes you’re writing panels but same stuff in them. Who’s in the panel, what are they saying? Point of view, where is it taking place. The difference in film is that you can’t have what people are thinking unless you do a voice over. In comics you can, because you can have a thought bubble. Or you can have narration that says “A week later” or “back in the forest” or in the “sewer system of New York” or whatever you want to put in. You can tell people where we are.

Is collaboration hard when you’re used to having total control of how you tell a story?

I worked in television in the ‘70s, so it is similar. You actually have more control in comics in that they are not expensive to create. Meaning, you don’t have investors putting millions of dollars in and therefore having a say. It’s just you and your partners.

It’s very different from working on a novel because it’s a team. Luckily I have some summer camp counseling experience which is the same. You’re working on a team, planning things, executing them. It all has to do with how do you get on with the other people. Are there going to be fights? Are there egos involved? Happily, that was not the case. It was all copacetic. The world of comics is somewhat amiable compared to other kinds of worlds. They seem to help each other out. They mention each other’s books on Twitter. They seem to be more friendly towards one another than other areas have been known to be—I say, being extremely tactful.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because they felt they were a small, beleaguered, misunderstood group for so long and therefore they had to help each other out. And I, of course, was a writer in the ‘60s in Canada when we were a small, beleaguered group ourselves and we were all very helpful to each other.

Are there any current comics creators whose work you follow?

I just discovered some new ones at Comic-Con. There’s this one called Lady Killer which is about a ‘50s housewife and the artist (Joelle Jones) obviously looked at a lot of ads of the period. I was there—I can remember all this stuff—but for a person of her age it’s probably ancient history, and she thinks it’s all funny. So this ‘50s housewife is driving around in her station wagon and getting groceries and making sure the twins have their ice cream cones but she’s also secretly an assassin. It’s really funny.

There’s also one I’m very fond of which is called Blacksad. It’s a cat detective, Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler type of noir. It’s so well done. It’s beautifully drawn and it goes into social issues and it’s just really interesting.

There’s so much out there right now, and I think that people are creating for all sorts of audiences that have not been typically represented. I’ve discovered one called Mama Tits Saves the World. It’s about a superhero who happens to be a drag queen. She has a magic word composed of the initial letters of a lot of gay icons like Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp, and the mission of Mama Tits is to intervene when someone is being beaten up for being gay. So these things are springing up left, right, and center. If there’s a niche that hasn’t been represented, you’ll find someone there already or moving into it now.

Angel Catbird will be a three book series, right?

So far. Who knows? I’m blocking Volume 3 right now. Two is done. I think it’s even inked and some of it has gone to Tamra. Volume Two will be out in February.

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In addition, we spoke with Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain, the art team on Angel Catbird.

Was working on this book very different from other comics you’ve worked on?

Johnnie: I approach the project like any other I’ve been involved with. The profile is way higher, that’s true! But at the end of the day I’m still at a drawing board with an ink brush in my hand, trying to find the best way to artistically serve the story.

Tamra: The process itself wasn't too much different than other books. I've worked with Johnnie before, so I have some experience there. It's just a matter of tailoring what we do to fit this story.

How did you and Margaret develop the look for this book together?

Johnnie: We have characters that reference different times, places and historical contexts. So I might look up early 20th century Romanian nobility for one character (Count Catula) or modern business attire for another (Cate Leone). We actually didn’t talk much about old comics or influences at the beginning of the project but I was given windows into Margaret’s thoughts on relevant bits of story as we went along.

I’m most proud of Strig/Angel Catbird’s design. Do you know how hard it is to merge a cat, owl and human into one design?!

Tamra, Margaret referred to how your color choices perfectly captured the era of the 1940s. Was this a conscious strategy on your part or happy accident?

Tamra: It wasn't conscious, no, but I usually try to let the story and art influence how I approach coloring any project, so I'm glad to hear it worked out! I wanted very bold colors, and to help scenes stand apart from one another, I will try to key them as dominated by certain colors. Generally, I tried to start off things kind of cold and simple, then as things amp up, the colors get a little wilder and warmer throughout.

Were you guys fans of Margaret’s work before getting involved in this project?

Tamra: I'm a little embarrassed to say that I hadn't read any of her work before starting, but once this project was put together I went out and read The Handmaid's Tale, and then Cat's Eye, both of which I enjoyed very much. I already loved working with Johnnie, and after familiarizing myself with Margaret's work more, this only added to my excitement to work on the project!

Johnnie: I was familiar with Margaret’s work (I think they’d march you right out of Canada if you weren’t), and I think it’s brilliant!

Johnnie Christmas, photo by Avalon Mott

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Below is an exclusive 3-page excerpt of Angel Catbird, in which the book’s protagonist, Strig Feleedus, in his cat-owl hybrid form, meets a group of cat-human hybrids who give him his new name. You can pick up your copy here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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