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Joe Ollmann/Drawn & Quarterly

The 10 Most Interesting Comics of January

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Joe Ollmann/Drawn & Quarterly

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

1. The Abominable Mr. Seabrook

By Joe Ollmann
Drawn & Quarterly

William Seabrook was a writer who gained renown and success by traveling to locales considered exotic and unknown to most white people during the ‘20s and ‘30s. He once tasted human flesh in order to write about cannibals in West Africa (though because he believed that the natives had given him ape meat, he ate human flesh in France after he purchased it from a hospital). But his true claim to fame was bringing the idea of the Haitian zombie to a wide audience. Seabrook’s interesting life was scandalous and disturbing for its time. He had a penchant for bondage and alcohol and would eventually drink himself to death.

Cartoonist Joe Ollmann has been working on this exhaustive biography of Seabrook for over 10 years. Almost every page is drawn in a dense, nine-panel grid and Ollmann packs in as many excursions, marriages, benders, and kinky dalliances as he can. It’s a compelling look at an interesting literary figure who is mostly forgotten today.

2. Beowulf

By Santiago Garcia and David Rubin
Image Comics

This visually stunning graphic novel is the latest adaptation of the famous poem. Spanish writer Santiago Garcia and artist David Rubin are faithful to the original but depict it with a modern visual style full of ultra-violence, gory details, and dynamic page designs. There are moments that come filtered through modern Hollywood horror and action films like Alien, Predator, and 300, in an effort to evoke the modern association of the word epic. Rubin, currently the artist on Dark Horse’s Ether, is an inventive and exciting artist who is about to become a superstar in the States. This book was originally published back in 2013 in Spain and is seeing its first English-language release this month.

3. Love is Love

By various
IDW and DC

Writer Marc Andreyko organized a star-studded assortment of writers and artists to create one- to two-page stories with an LGBTQ focus for this anthology benefitting the victims, survivors, and families of last year’s Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. DC Comics and IDW have joined forces to publish it, meaning we get an interesting mix of mainstream and indie creators telling some heartfelt stories about coming out, acceptance, and dealing with the truth of this tragedy; some of the stories feature familiar DC superheroes. The contributions range from heavy-handed to heartbreaking and profound. The contributors include big name comic creators like Mark Millar, Gail Simone, Jason Aaron, Jason Latour, and Jonathan Hickman as well as some comics-friendly celebrities like Patton Oswalt, Taran Killam and Damon Lindelof.

4. Superman Vol 1: Son of Superman

By Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Doug Mahnke and Jorge Jimenez
DC Comics

DC’s “Rebirth”—a relaunch of all their titles that aimed to overwrite 2011’s “New 52” relaunch—has largely been a critical and sales success. This month, the first batch of Rebirth-branded trade paperback collections hit stores, and most of these books are really worth checking out, especially if you’re a longtime DC fan who has been turned off by the direction the books have taken over the years. Unlike with a reboot, this relaunch is continuing the current status quo but with a tonal change to re-embrace the classic feel of DC’s style of super heroics. Of all these titles, Superman has the heaviest lift to make since DC had literally killed off Superman leading up to this relaunch. In this new book, they attempt to replace him with an older version of the character, transported from the multiverse along with his wife Lois and their son, Jonathan. This new Super-family is now attempting the trick of slipping into the lives of their deceased counterparts without anyone else realizing what’s up. Where this is all going and how DC makes it stick will be interesting to watch.

5. Resist!

By Various
Desert Island Bookstore

The first comic of the Trump era is a true work of political expression distributed for free during the Inauguration and the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Resist! is a 40-page tabloid curated by Françoise Mouly, famed art editor of The New Yorker and co-creator of the influential 1980s alt-comic Raw. Mouly’s daughter, the writer Nadja Spiegelman, collaborated with her and Gabe Fowler of Brooklyn’s Desert Island Comics to sort through over 1000 submissions they received after a post-Election call for entires. The comics and illustrations chosen are from mostly female artists (contributions selected from male artists are pushed to the back in a section called “The Man Cave”) that include comics legends like Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel and Roz Chast. Finding a copy may be tricky at this point, but if you’re lucky, your local comic shop may have one.

6. Loose Ends #1

By Jason Latour, Chris Brunner and Rico Renzi
Image Comics

About 10 years ago, a four-issue series called Loose Ends began publication through small press publisher 12 Gauge Comics. It was a “southern crime romance” by a young creative team led by Jason Latour, an artist who was making his first attempt at writing a comic. The final issue was never released, but Latour and Rico Renzi would soon go on to create the popular Spider-Gwen character for Marvel, and Latour would team with writer Jason Aaron to create the award-winning Southern Bastards, southern gothic crime that seems born out of this book in many ways.

Now, the series is finally being completed and re-released to a wider audience through Image Comics. The book’s artist, Chris Brunner, is a talented but still mostly unknown creator who will surely turn some heads and make a name for himself when more people check this book out.

7. Libby’s Dad

By Eleanor Davis
Retrofit Press

Eleanor Davis is prolific at creating short comics that pop up in various small press anthologies and one-off publications like this one which comes through Retrofit. It is a beautiful minicomic about that age when you’re still a little too young to fully grasp the world around you. The story takes place during a pool/slumber party at the house of quiet, somber Libby. Her group of friends can’t help but buzz about a rumor they heard involving Libby’s dad pulling a gun on her mom. The comic is told from the point of view of Alex, the youngest and most impressionable of the group and is drawn in a crayon-like manner that captures a nostalgic, child-like simplicity.

8. Supergirl: Being Super #1

By Mariko Tamaki, Joëlle Jones, Sandu Florea and Kelley Fitzpatrick
DC Comics

Thanks to the success of the new TV show, there's room in the market for multiple books with varying takes on Supergirl. This new four-issue series, written by Caldecott Medal award winner Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Eisner Award nominated artist Joëlle Jones, brings some YA-style teen drama with an origin story set outside of normal DC continuity that avoids all the typical Kryptonian setup. Kara Danvers knows there is something different about herself—especially during a memorable scene involving a super-powered zit—but she is more concerned with normal teenage girl stuff like yearbook photos, high school track and hanging out with her friends than being a superhero. This type of superhero story—removed from the intricate web of continuity and crossovers—is what companies like DC need to do more of in order to bring in the kind of audience that loves the Supergirl TV show.

9. Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation

By Damian Duffy and John Jennings; adapted from the novel by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred is a classic work of sci-fi literature about an African-American woman who is transported through time from her suburban home in the 1970s to a pre-Civil War plantation where she encounters her ancestors: a white plantation owner and the black woman he has made his slave and concubine. Damian Duffy, an academic who has written about underrepresentation in comics, and John Jennings, an African-American artist and educator, have the honor of adapting this work into a new medium for potentially a new audience.

10. Adventure Time: Marshall Lee Spectacular

By Melanie Gillman, Mariko Tamaki, S.M. Vidaurri, Trungles, Asia Kendrick-Horton and Audrey Mok
Boom! Studios

As an added incentive for Comixology’s new “Unlimited” subscription service, the premier digital comics company is launching a line of original comics. The first of these books is a one-shot from Boom! Studios popular Adventure Time comics featuring Marshall Lee, the gender-swapped version of one of the show’s stars, Marceline. This comic features three stories by a group of diverse, up-and-coming creators led by award-winning writer Mariko Tamaki.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.