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Image Comics

Wednesday is New Comics Day

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Image Comics

Every Wednesday, I preview the 5 most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, Comixology, Kickstarter and the web that week. These aren't reviews, just brief highlights. If there's a release you're excited about, let's talk about it in the comments.

This week's comics include: 
- A complex story about family
- A spy comic that will feature a different artist each month
- A comic described as Beavis and Butthead meet James Joyce
- China Miéville's coda to Dial H
- And a superhero who gets his powers from alcohol

1. Household

By Sam Alden
samaldencomics.tumblr.com

It's understandable if you're not familiar with Sam Alden's work—he's only in his early 20s and has been publishing his comics in a random assortment of Tumblr posts, unrelated websites, and ontributions to StudyGroup Comics. Each is like a discarded clue scattered across the web to help you piece together what this exciting new artist is all about. Almost every comic looks wildly different from the next and they range in genre from autobiography to fantasy. His body of work to date is really worth seeking out and just this past weekend he won a prestigious Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent.

Just before winning that award this past week, Alden released his newest comic both on his Tumblr and as a mini comic at last weekend's Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD. Household is a short comic about a brother and sister who are reunited in New Orleans after some time apart. Their relationship is shadowed by a troubled childhood that they're each trying in their own way to escape from. Seeing each other again seems to complicate that in a big way.

This is a complex and emotionally harrowing comic that some will find a little too disturbing for them [edit: As noted in the comments below, I should mention that this comic gets very graphic about halfway through and is definitely for mature readers only]. Alden has many strengths as a cartoonist and one of them is knowing how to pull off the emotional gut punch. This story stuck with me for days after reading it. Alden drew it in a quickly pencilled style very similar to his Hawaii 1997 comic. It is unassuming in its rough quality and seems spontaneously drawn, belying the subtle layers of thematic storytelling beneath. You can often see where he he has erased lines of dialogue and his panel borders are wonky and uneven, but, there are so many elements of his cartooning that are more accomplished than you might at first realize. His sense of light and shadow as seen in that title page is beautiful. His realistic gestures (paired with spot-on dialogue) give his characters naturality that is so hard for many people to pull off in comics. And the way he structures his story, with interlocking scenes, sometimes switching back and forth in time from panel to panel, is just masterful.

Sam Alden, as his recent Ignatz Award indicates, is the next big thing. Check him out.

Read "Household" here.

2. Zero

Written by Ales Kot; Art by Michael Walsh, colors by Jordie Bellaire, lettering by Clayton Cowles
Image Comics

A new ongoing series called Zero takes an interesting approach to comics storytelling that may be drawing inspiration from some recent trends in comics publishing. Writer Ales Kot is structuring his first ongoing comic so that each issue tells a standalone story feeding into a larger overall narrative. Each issue will also be drawn by a different artist. 

Set in the near future, Zero is about a spy named Edward Zero who begins to uncover the uncomfortable truth behind the motives of the agency that employs him. Each issue focuses on a different mission and will tell a complete story but will build on the overarching story of Zero and his search for the truth. The first issue is drawn by Michael Walsh, the artist on the new X-Files comic for IDW. He has a gritty, realistic yet simple and clean style that is very reminiscent of Michael Lark (of Image Comics' Lazarus). Future artists will include Mateus Santolouco, Morgan Jeske, Tradd Moore, Will Tempest, and Tonci Zonjic. The consistent glue that will hold them all together is regular colorist Jordie Bellaire and letterer Clayton Cowles.

With the ever increasing popularity of digital comics, which rely more on single issue sales than collected editions, a comic that sells itself as consisting of "done-in-ones" where you can jump in at any point is a smart approach. Meanwhile, a recent comic that has successfully utilized multiple artists to tell different stories within one ongoing story is Brandon Graham's Prophet. The use of fresh talent and their varying art styles is a selling point for that book and fits in with the nature of the story in which the protagonist has multiple clones, each with their own stories to be told. Kot is capitalizing on a similar approach with some new names and rising stars on his roster and a story with changes in settings and time periods that allows for a flexibility in the book's aesthetic. 

You can read an interview with Kot and see some preview pages from Zero here.

3. School Spirits

By Anya Davidson
Picturebox

For those readers that look for comics that push the envelope and experiment a little with form, the best places to look these days are probably out in the wild world of webcomics or within the Picturebox catalog. Started by Dan Nadel, co-editor of The Comics Journal, Picturebox publishes an eclectic mix of art comics and historical comic publications. Their books tend to value things like publication design, artistic experimentation and avant-garde aesthetics that you don't see in even the most independent of indie comics these days. 

This week, Picturebox is releasing a couple of books and the one that most fits (or maybe breaks) the mold of artistic experimentation is Anya Davidson's debut graphic novel School Spirits. Davidson, a Chicago artist and former singer with the underground noise rock band Coughs, has been working on zines and mini comics for a number of years. Her work is very much in that punk frame of reference with loud, clashing color palettes and anything-goes storytelling. At times, her work is very reminiscent of classic, punk-comic provocateurs like Gary Panter but there are shades of many other influences in there including Mayan and Indian artwork, French cartoonist David B. and event a hint of Jack Kirby.

Davidson describes School Spirits as "Beavis and Butthead meets James Joyce's Ulysses," which is about as compelling a "___ meets ___" as I've heard in a while. It consists of four chapters that use different narrative techniques to tell a story involving a high school student named Oola with "an unusual connection to the supernatural."

You can preview some pages of School Spirits here.

4. Justice League 23.3/Dial E #1

Written by China Miéville; art by various
DC Comics

A nice little gem hidden within DC Comics's "Villain Month" (in which all their major superhero books are taken over by villains and temporarily renamed in their honor) is a comic that takes the place of Justice League #23.3 (there are 4 issues per title this month, hence the decimals) and is alternately titled Dial E #1. It is actually a coda to science fiction novelist China Miéville's highly acclaimed but recently cancelled DC comic Dial H.

A reworking of a goofy old DC comic—Dial H for Hero—Miéville's comic took the same concept (a guy finds a phone-like dial and whenever he dials H-E-R-O he turns into a new and different superhero) and added a dark and surreal flavor that calls to mind some of Grant Morrison's early work on Doom Patrol. Here, Mieville gets one last hurrah, but this time out there is an E dial that turns the criminals that find it into super villains.

Similar to the approach we mentioned in #2 with Ales Kot's Zero, Dial E uses an array of different artists within this one issue to differentiate the 20 different, brand new super villains it creates with the E Dial. The list of contributors is an exciting mix of artists that you'd regularly find in a DC Vertigo comic like Jeff Lemire, Brendan McCarthy, Jock and David Lapham as well as lesser known artists that you wouldn't typically see in what is ostensibly a Justice League comic like Tula O'Tay, Emma Rios, Sloane Leong, Annie Wu and many more.

You can see some preview pages here.

5. Buzzkill #1

Written by Donny Cates and Mark Reznicek; Art by Geoff Shaw, colors by Lauren Affe
Dark Horse Comics

We're all familiar with stories that show the devastating effects that alcoholism can have on someone's life. We also have seen how the power and confidence a story's character gets from alcohol is what eventually leads to the devastation. We may even have experienced these things ourselves in real life. However, in Buzzkill, a new 4 issue mini-series from Dark Horse, we meet a superhero whose power is derived from how much alcohol he imbibes. With that power comes blackouts, loss of control and massive amounts of destruction. After many years of this, the hero decides it is time to give it all up, which is exactly what his enemies want.

The creative team behind Buzzkill are all relative newcomers. Donny Cates got his break with Dark Horse with a story called Hunter Quaid that was published in their anthology Dark Horse Presents. Mark Reznicek is new to comics and a member of the band The Toadies who co-wrote the story with his friend Cates. Even artist Geoff Shaw has a short comics resume that's highlight is a 10 page story in a Batman anthology comic. Together they seem to have hit on a unique concept that looks to tell a serious story about addiction but within the larger-than-life trappings of a modern superhero comic. Despite its seemingly solemn take on alcoholism though, a sign that the comic will not take itself too seriously is in the names of some of the other heroes and villains that appear in the book, all with names derived from bands that Reznicek enjoys, i.e. "Panteradactyl."

Read a preview of the first few pages here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Brothers James #1
Zero's Michael Walsh has another comic out this week. This one is available through Comixology's Submit program for self-publishers. It's about two brothers driving across the country on a revenge mission to take out the people that killed their parents when they were kids. Preview and buy it through Comixology here

Kinski #3
I haven't yet had the opportunity to mention the digital comic Kinski published by MonkeyBrain Comics and written and illustrated by the amazing Gabriel Hardman (Hulk, Secret Avengers). It's a weird, Hitchcockian story about a traveling businessman who ends up stealing a dog. The third issue goes on sale today for the very affordable price of 99 cents.

Inkshot
Also from Monkeybrain is this new 260+ page anthology consisting of 3 to 5 page stories all done by Brazilian comic creators, some whom have appeared in American anthologies such as Popgun and Dark Horse Presents and others that are most likely brand new to us American readers. Also on sale at Comixology.

Pompeii
Picturebox's other big release of the week (in addition to the previously mentioned School Spirits) is a graphic novel about an artist's assistant living in Pompeii, Italy before the deadly volcanic eruption that destroys the city. Writer and artist Frank Santoro is someone who loves to deconstruct and teach the art of making comics. He has drawn this book in a style that is reminiscent of Roman frescoes and drawings. Preview it here.

Reggie-12
Brian Ralph's sitcom-like take on Tezuka-like robot manga gets collected in this new hardcover volume from Drawn & Quarterly.
Peruse the comics 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
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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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