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R. Sikoryak/Drawn & Quarterly

The 12 Most Interesting Comics Released in March

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R. Sikoryak/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. Terms and Conditions

By R. Sikoryak
Drawn & Quarterly

It’s a safe bet that nearly every iTunes user has chosen not to read Apple’s epic Terms and Conditions before clicking the “Agree” button. In one of the oddest ideas ever put into comic form, R. Sikoryak has taken the actual text from that novel-length agreement and basically used it as “Lorem ipsum” to fill in the word balloons in an exploration of the visual language of comic books. Like an impressionist comedian, he mimics the style of many of the greats of comic book history like Frank Miller, Will Eisner, Kate Beaton, Osamu Tezuka, Mike Mignola, Raina Telgemeier, Rob Liefeld, Charles Schulz, and more. In each style, he draws Steve Jobs monologuing the text as he walks through scenes that pay homage that artist’s most famous comics.

Originally published online in black and white, Sikoryak has updated the comic every time Apple rolls out a new version of their terms, adding pages to accommodate the extra length. This is its first appearance collected in print and in color.

2. California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas

By Penelope Bagieu
First Second

Penelope Bagieu is one of France’s most popular cartoonists but is still a relative unknown to U.S. audiences, this being just her second book to be published in the States. Its subject is a very American story about one of the most renowned pop singers of the 1960s and her unlikely rise to fame, defying expectations of body image and even the desires of her own bandmates.

The book tells the story of The Mamas & the Papas’ Cass Elliot, from her childhood in Baltimore to the formation of the quartet that would write the hit song “California Dreamin’.” Bagieu draws the entire book in pencil with no ink or color, which reveals the lyrical energy of her line work. Her depiction of the larger-than-life Elliot is all loose, expressive curves and wonderfully reactive facial expressions showing her to be a magnetic and exciting heroine worthy of her own story.

3. Nightlights

By Lorena Alvarez
Nobrow Press

The most drop-dead gorgeous graphic novel of the year thus far, Lorena Alvarez's Nightlights looks like a children’s book on the surface, but parents should be aware that it takes some dark turns and doesn’t exactly spell out everything that happens in the story in order for younger readers to follow.

A young girl named Sandy, who attends Catholic school and loves to draw, meets a mysterious new girl on the playground named Morfie who no one else seems to be able to see. Morfie likes Sandy’s drawings and seems to want to harness her talent to use for her own purposes. Each page is a visual feast, inspired by classic Golden Books, Disney films, and the colorful aesthetic of Alvarez’s native Colombian culture. Nobrow Press is known not just for their refined taste in choosing new cartooning talent but also for the high quality of their publication design and this is a simply gorgeous book that you’ll want to have on your shelf.

4. The Short Con

By Pete Toms and Aleks Sennwald
Study Group Comics

Originally serialized on the Study Group Comics website, The Short Con made my Most Interesting Comics of the year list in 2014. Now, Study Group has produced a print version that can be purchased online. The comic is a hilarious sendup of detective and buddy cop films starring two orphan girls: Popowski (Pops), the hot-headed, rule-breaking, lollipop-sucking maverick, and Branwell, the new girl who comes from a good upbringing and writes depressing poetry. They are partnered together by the hard-nosed nun who runs the orphanage in order to solve crimes involving vampires, mummies and, in this story, the murder of Branwell’s parents. The creators, Toms and Sennwald, make just as great a pair as Pops and Branwell with their perfect comedic timing and cutely drawn takes on all the great cop fiction tropes.

5. The Damned Vol. 1: Three Days Dead

By Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt and Bill Crabtree
Oni Press

When Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt first released their gangster and demon mashup The Damned back in 2006, comics were just beginning to branch out into non-superhero genres again and mashing up those genres was still kind of a new trend. The pair really hit gold with this formula on their next series—the supernatural western The Sixth Gun—but are now returning to their original collaboration with a new ongoing series that begins in May. To kick it off, they’re re-releasing a new colorized version of the original graphic novel and will serialize it in smaller digital installments on Comixology. Set during Prohibition, The Damned follows a tough guy named Eddie who comes back from the dead and ends up caught between warring demon mafia families. The book crackles with the flair of those classic gangster films of Old Hollywood starring the likes of Jimmy Cagney but with a little bit of Hellboy brand of creature horror thrown in.

6. All Time Comics: Crime Destroyer #1

By Josh Bayer, Herb Trimpe and Benjamin Marra
Fantagraphics

Fantagraphics, the prestige publisher of artistic and subversive independent comics, has been avoiding and even spurning the superhero genre for decades in favor of expanding the medium to tell other kinds of stories. Now, for the first time, they're dabbling in tights and capes comics, even going so far as to create their own line called All Time Comics. Led by writer Josh Bayer, the books exhibit their own “House Style” derived from the lo-fi, nostalgic aesthetic made popular by one of the line’s main contributors, Benjamin Marra, but utilizing veteran comic book artists whose work we don’t often see in today’s publications. First up is Crime Destroyer, featuring an ex-military hero who dons a ridiculous looking costume to rid the city of crime. It has a violent, grindhouse aesthetic that draws its inspiration from ‘30s “pre-code” crime comics, early ‘70s Marvel Comics, and ‘90s Rob Liefeld comics. This first issue was drawn by legendary Incredible Hulk artist Herb Trimpe, who passed away shortly after its completion, making this his final published work. Trimpe’s pencils are inked by the aforementioned Benjamin Marra who will take over the art for issue #2. Next month’s new All Time Comics series, Bullwhip, will feature Marra collaborating with another Marvel veteran, Al Milgrom.

7. Man-Thing #1

By R.L. Stine, German Peralta and Daniel Warren Johnson
Marvel Comics

R.L. Stine, writer of the horror series Goosebumps and Fear Street, is the latest writer from outside of comics to enter the world of Marvel. And they’ve found the perfect character for him to play with. Man-Thing has been kind of a one-joke rip-off of DC’s Swamp Thing that has managed a small cult following over the years while rarely managing to carry his own title. Stine, with artist German Peralta, will take a new look at the creature’s origin story while also serving up a new take on the character who can now talk and has an urge to go to Hollywood to become famous. This five-issue series will also feature a backup story drawn by hot new artist Daniel Warren Johnson.

8. Royal City #1

By Jeff Lemire
Image Comics

Jeff Lemire entered the comics industry about 10 years ago with his highly lauded Essex County trilogy of graphic novels about rural, small town folk. Since then, Lemire has gone on to become one of the most prolific writers in comics, producing work often simultaneously for Marvel, DC, Valiant, and Image. Now, with Royal City, he is moving away from his recent genre work and back to the realism of Essex. Inspired by the deliberate unfolding of overarching plots in modern television dramas, Lemire has chosen to tell this story as a monthly, ongoing comic rather than a graphic novel to allow for a bigger, more wide ranging story than he could tell with a self-contained graphic novel. This sober drama tells the story of an economically depressed town whose own story seems wrapped up in the plight of the Pikes, a family that is still reeling after all these years from the death of its youngest member. Lemire excels at this type of character drama and it will be interesting to see how he utilizes the longform, monthly format to paint in the details of a large, novelistic story.

9. Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero

By Michael DeForge
Drawn & Quarterly

Michael DeForge is one of the most idiosyncratic visual artists working in comics right now. His work is deeply strange and effortlessly funny and unlike anyone else’s out there. While some of his comics can go pretty far into body horror and weird sex (or a mix of both), his latest is one of his most mainstream and approachable works since 2014’s Ant Colony. Originally published as a weekly webcomic, Stick Angelica is about an egotistical overachiever—a former Olympian, scholar, poet, Governor, and more—who flees society after some unspecified scandal to live in the woods as a true outdoorswoman. There she becomes an outsized presence, befriending the forest’s talking animals who steal the comic with their various comedic foibles. DeForge has a fascination with nature that shows up in his work quite a bit.

10. Young Shadow

By Ben Sears
Self-published

Ben Sears follows up last year’s Night Air with a new one-issue self-published comic about a similar masked young hero in a quirky all-ages adventure. The protagonist of Young Shadow is compelled to protect his neighborhood from all manner of crime, even saving a dog who he feels is being mistreated by a gang of thugs. Sears takes a wry, low-key approach to pulpy heroics, drawing comics about kid heroes that read with the flair and enthusiasm that would come if kids themselves made them up.

11. Hilo Book 3: The Great Big Room

By Judd Winick
Random House

Following many years of writing somewhat edgy superhero comics for DC, Judd Winick re-focused his creative energy on a new children’s graphic novel series about an infectiously optimistic alien robot boy named Hilo. Having crashed to Earth with little to no memory of who he really is, Hilo is befriended by two human kids, DJ and Gina, who show him the ropes of life on Earth (like how to tell knock-knock jokes) and end up on an intergalactic adventure with him. In the final book of the initial three-volume series, Gina has been sucked into an interdimensional portal and Hilo and DJ have to evade armies from Earth and other worlds to try to get her back. Winick, who began his comics career with a comic he drew himself called The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius, proves that this type of kids-oriented material is where he’s at his best, and also reminds us that he’s a pretty good cartoonist in his own right.

12. The Flintstones Vol. 1

By Mark Russell and Steve Pugh
DC Comics

One of the biggest surprises of 2016 was that a comic based on The Flintstones made a lot of people’s best of the year list (mine included). Mark Russell, who equally surprised everyone last year with a funny and prescient 21st century update on 1970s DC property Prez: The First Teen President, has proven himself to be a creator to watch with this take on the old Hanna-Barbera TV classic. While the original cartoon lampooned 1950s popular culture, Russell and veteran artist Steve Pugh have created a modern social satire with a little more bite. They tackle some surprisingly hefty subjects like religion, elections, PTSD, suicide, and gay marriage with unflinching bravery while reintroducing memorable supporting characters like Dino, Mr. Slate, and the Great Gazoo.

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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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