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The 12 Most Interesting Comics of November

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

1. A.D.: AFTER DEATH BOOK ONE

By Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire
Image Comics

Most wouldn’t expect formal comics experimentation to come from the writers of Batman and the X-Men, but, to be fair, Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire are two of the most celebrated creators in comics and both have had a lot of success outside of their work for Marvel and DC. In this three-part prestige format series, they are collaborating to tell a story about a future in which death has been cured. Jonah Cooke, the story’s protagonist, has been alive for centuries and in this first chapter, reflects on his life and his culpability in an event that changed the world.

The format of this book is not entirely a comic; it's a combination of sequential art, prose, and illustrations. Lemire, who lately has been writing for other artists, provides the art in his discernibly loose, outsider art style while Snyder handles the considerable sections of prose with a novelist’s skill. The result is an ominous and contemplative read about memory and mortality.

2. MUHAMMAD ALI

By Sybille Titeux and Amazing Ameziane
Dark Horse Comics

Some biography subjects were born to be in comics and the brash, super-heroic figure of the boxing world known as Muhammad Ali is one of them. He famously appeared in a comic with Superman back in 1978, but in this 2015 French graphic novel, being released for the first time in English, he gets a 128-page bio-comic all his own. Ali’s life—from his youth as Cassius Clay through his storied boxing career, his conversion to Islam, and his rise as an early hero of the civil rights movement to his final battle with Parkinson’s disease—is all covered here. Titeux gives many of the biographical events some proper historical context by providing some details of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, and the conflict in Vietnam. Ameziane’s photo-realistic artwork depicts these events with accuracy and an appropriate sense of drama equal to Ali’s legend.

3. SUPER POWERS #1

By Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani
DC Comics

Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani are responsible for some of the most popular all-ages comics and their work for DC, like Tiny Titans, is just about the best option you can find out there for early reader superhero comics. Their newest series, Super Powers, stars some of the biggest heroes in the DC Universe and begins with a story in which Batman has gone missing, leaving Superman and Wonder Woman to not only find their friend, but to also fill in for him in Gotham City while he’s gone.

4. WHO KILLED KURT COBAIN?

By Nicolas Otero
IDW Publishing

For Gen Xers, Kurt Cobain’s death by apparent suicide in 1994 was a “where were you when…” moment that is forever burned into their memories. Over 20 years later, the mystique around his death has sparked conspiracy theories and a number of books including the French novel Le Roman de Boddah by Héloïse Guay de Bellissen, which focuses on Cobain’s suicide note and its reference to his imaginary childhood friend “Boddah." French artist Nicolas Otero has adapted that book into a graphic novel that captures the feeling of the ‘90s—both the grunge aesthetic and even the page layout-driven style of the comics from that decade—while depicting a dramatized version of the real events of Cobain’s life. We see Nirvana’s sudden rises to success, Cobain's passionate relationship with Courtney Love, his struggle with heroin addiction. and his early death, all told from the point of view of Boddah.

5. ETHER #1

By Matt Kindt and David Rubin
Dark Horse Comics 

Writer Matt Kindt isn't a fan of the supernatural genre, so the protagonist of his new book is himself a skeptic who prefers science over magic. However, Boone Dias is a scientist-adventurer who is often brought from our world to a magical dimension called the Ether to solve a murder. In a world where seemingly anything can happen, the inhabitants of that world lean on Dias to find explanations for the unexplainable. Kindt is one of the smartest genre writers in comics right now and he’s paired with astounding new talent David Rubin (The Rise of Aurora West), whose richly colored art is like an hallucinatory children’s book that you’ll want to spend some time admiring.

6. BLACK PANTHER: WORLD OF WAKANDA #1

By Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, Yona Harvey, Afua Richardson, and Alitha Martinez
Marvel Comics

After his cinematic debut in Captain America: Civil War, an upcoming solo film, and a new comic series written by acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Panther has now become a high-profile character in the Marvel Universe—enough to warrant a spinoff series focusing on his supporting characters. The Dora Milage is the King of Wakanda’s elite all-female guard, made famous during Christopher Priest’s iconic run on the Black Panther series in the 1990s. Two of the members, Ayo and Aneka, have been a major part of Coates's run and will now be the focus of this book. 

Neither of the big two comics publishers have been a model for hiring diverse creators—especially when it comes to African American women—but this particular book boasts an interesting creative team of women of color, led by professor and op-ed writer Roxanne Gay who readers of Bitch Planet will know from her essays in that comic. She is joined by artist Alitha E. Martinez, while a 10-page backup story co-written by Coates and poet Yona Harvey features art by Afua Richardson, who made a splash this past year drawing the politically charged Image series Genius.

7. MAYDAY #1

By Alex DeCampi, Tony Parker, and Blond
Image Comics

This is the first issue of a proposed trilogy of mini-series that mix Cold War espionage with unexpected elements like ‘70s drug culture, Alice Cooper, and Krautrock. The series will follow a pair of CIA agents through different exploits in the 1970s. The first issue begins with the murder of a Soviet general while he is in the act of defecting to the United States. Rather than a John le Carré-style of complex spy maneuvering, it quickly veers into the unexpectedly violent and weird vibe of a Coen brothers film when the two Russian assassins hook up with a bunch of hippies and fall victim to some LSD-laced vodka.

DeCampi employs a number of neat writing tricks here, including a clever way of showing how someone trying to understand another language may miss every few words as they’re trying to keep up with a conversation. She also manages to integrate a ‘70s era soundtrack into the story, along with a recommended playlist at the end and some notes about the musical choices.

8. SUGAR & SPIKE VOL. 1

By Keith Giffen, Bilquis Evely, and Ivan Plascencia
DC Comics

Sugar Plumm and Spike Wilson are private investigators for superheroes. When someone like Alfred the butler needs someone to track down a stash of embarrassing zebra and rainbow-colored Batsuits that has been stolen or Green Lantern needs to investigate whether an alien flower on display in a museum is the same sentient being he used to wear on his lapel for a time back in the ‘80s, they turn to Sugar and Spike for help. This series, which ran in the recent Legends of Tomorrow anthology and is now collected on its own in a trade paperback edition, is representative of DC Comics's new, brighter outlook on its properties; one that embraces the silliness of the past and lets their superheroes be superheroes (Sugar and Spike themselves are meant to be grown-up versions of a couple of toddler characters that ran in a strip of the same name back in the 1950s). It’s a clever yet ridiculous concept that is played for laughs and works well, thanks to the physical comedy and character acting by artist Bilquis Evely. Amidst all the broad comedy, there are also subtle hints at a complicated but affectionate relationship between the two protagonists that leaves you wanting to know more.

9. SUNNY VOL. 6

By Taiyo Matsumoto
Viz Media

The final volume of Taiyo Matsumoto’s award-winning manga series reaches English-speaking audiences this month (it came out in Japan last year). The poignant, slice-of-life series about a group of foster children who only find solace and escape when sitting in an abandoned yellow car they’ve named “Sunny” is considered a masterwork by many. This series has been nominated for numerous awards and won the Shogakukan Manga Award this year, one of Japan’s highest honors for manga.

10. THE PLUNGE

By Emi Gennis
Kilgore Books & Comics

In 1901, Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel. And she did it at the age of 63. Emi Gennis tells her story in this beautiful new black-and-white comic, released through brand-new publisher Kilgore Books & Comics. Taylor’s life story is both an uplifting example of can-do feminism and an anti-climactic tragedy, as she would eventually die poor and alone, gaining nothing from her death-defying feat. Gennis’s crisply inked cartooning style has an appropriately old-timey feel and her depiction of the horrific ride down the falls is captivating and surreal.

11. LEGEND

By Samuel Sattin and Chris Koehler
Z2 Comics

After humans have been wiped out by a biological terror attack, dogs and cats are left to rebuild the world in their absence. But there is something else out there—a mysterious creature called the Endark—that has killed Ransom, the leader of the dogs, requiring an English Pointer named Legend to step up and take his place. Chris Koehler is an accomplished editorial illustrator who has worked for publications such as The Atlantic and Variety. His style exhibits a high level of photorealism and a designer’s sense of minimal color. He manages to translate that style to his first piece of sequential comics without losing any of his technical polish. This collaboration with novelist Samuel Sattin, also a comics newbie, should please most domestic animal adventure fans of stories like The Incredible Journey or We3.

12. Off Season

By James Sturm
Slate.com

Acclaimed cartoonist and director of the Center for Cartoon Studies James Sturm (The Golem's Mighty Swing) has been creating a webcomic for Slate that began in September and will continue through the end of the year. It is about 2016, with a focus on the election and now on its aftermath. Set in New England, it follows a down-on-his-luck divorced dad who was a Bernie Sanders supporter raising a daughter who is excited about the prospect of electing the first female president. Sturm draws everyone—including real-life players like Donald Trump—as anthropomorphic dogs, trudging through the same reality we’re all currently living in real time.

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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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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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