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First Second

5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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First Second

Every Wednesday, I preview the 5 most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, Comixology, Kickstarter and the web. If there's a release you're excited about, let's talk about it in the comments.

1. Battling Boy

By Paul Pope
First Second

One of the most anticipated books of the year (years even, since this is arriving later than many had expected) is the first volume of Paul Pope's sci-fi epic Battling Boy. Set on an alternate earth, monsters are overrunning the sprawling city of Arcopolis, stealing children and eating automobiles. The only hope Arcopolis has is their Batman-like vigilante science hero, Haggard West. Except that Haggard West is now dead and that hope now rests in a 12-year old boy.

Paul Pope is one of the comic industry's rare rock stars. He is adored by indie and mainstream fans alike—at least since his award-winning 2006 graphic novel Batman Year: 100 put him on many people's radar. One of the reasons' Battling Boy has been so delayed is that Pope has gotten himself involved in the movie business, including writing a potential film adaptation for Brad Pitt's production company of this very book even though he hadn't yet finished writing the book itself.

Most people will find it was worth the wait, though, as it pulls together many of the elements we love about Pope's work while being a little more all-ages-friendly than most of his previous books. Pope is one of the great sci-fi cartoonists working today. He has a loose, sexy and inimitable way of drawing comics that looks like what would happen if Hugo Pratt or, heck, Egon Schiele had created DC's Fourth World. He mixes a European sense of sci-fi scale and landscape with early 20th century gadgetry and clothing styles and a Japanese feel for action and storytelling to create a very American story of superheroes and overcoming insurmountable odds. 

The titular Battling Boy is going through a rite of passage and is sent by his demigod father to complete the Herculean challenge of saving this world. He comes with a suitcase of goodies to help him along, including a set of printed T-shirts that embody him with the power of whatever animal is depicted on its front (i.e., a Tyrannosaurus Rex). Despite this, Battling Boy is in over his head when it comes to fighting these monsters, and that's a secret he wants to keep from the people of Arcopolis who want him to be their new Haggard West. Battling Boy looks like a typical Pope protagonist with his tousled hair and skinny jeans, but he's also a straight-out-of manga, monster-fighting boy hero. However, the more compelling character of the book may be Haggard West's teenage daughter, Aurora, left behind by her father's death to make sense of his secret lair and all its weapons. I imagine she'll become even more central to the story in the book's sequel. 

Battling Boy is out today and you can read a preview here.

2. The Nib

Edited by Matt Bors
Medium

Medium is the newest social media/blogging project from Evan Williams, the man who brought us Blogger and Twitter. It is basically a blogging platform with many of Twitter's successful aspects built into it: a central feed of incoming content, easy sharing of that content, and a growing user base of smart, thoughtful people creating the content. If you haven't heard of it or read anything on it yet, you probably will soon. It has begun to get a lot of attention across social media due to both the high quality of some of the articles and some controversy surrounding a few of the lower quality ones. It is considered to be revitalizing the nature of blogging, but it also is considered a potential avenue to follow for the online publishing industry. While Medium has been invite-only during its roll out, it has also been paying for a certain percentage of its content, in some cases without making that completely clear to the readers.

That brings us to The Nib, a new section of Medium that launched a few weeks back that falls into the paid content category and is openly promoted as such. Cartoonist Matt Bors (who I've previously written about here) was hired by Medium as a full-time cartoonist to create editorial cartoons but to also hire other cartoonists to contribute their own work to the section. Bors so far has curated a collection of primarily Progressive editorial pieces that include: political cartoons about subjects such as Syria and drone warfare; a tongue-in-cheek info graphic about MillennialsBill Roundy's cartoon about being gay and dating transgender men, and Molly Crabapple's illustrated account of visiting the prison in Gitmo. Many of the contributors are familiar names in political and editorial cartooning like Ted Rall, Susie Cagle and Brian McFadden. 

As many alt-weeklies are folding across the country and editorial cartoonists are finding it harder and harder to make a living in this field, Bors and Medium have suddenly come along with a new and promising outlet for this type of political-minded comics.

Browse through the list of offerings on The Nib and, while you're at it, admire that nice logo graphic designed by comic artist Jim Rugg.


3. Superman/Wonder Woman #1

Written by Charles Soule; art by Tony Daniel
DC Comics

It's easy for me to lose sight of whether or not civilians (people, unlike me, who don't keep up with the ins and outs of comics) are aware of the fact that since DC Comics rebooted their publishing universe as "The New 52" a couple of years ago, Superman and Wonder Woman have been a couple. It got a lot of mainstream press at the time and has been controversial among fans (particularly Wonder Woman fans who are understandably wary of a feminist icon being relegated to girlfriend status). Having not kept up recently on either character's books, I briefly forgot about this romantic hook up, myself, even though it may be the biggest change they've introduced to these characters in a long time

In the new ongoing Superman/Wonder Woman, Charles Soule, a new addition to the DC stable of writers, along with veteran artist Tony Daniel, explores the romance between these two iconic heroes. In this new rebooted universe, only a few years have passed since the Justice League came into being, so not only is this romance a new thing but these versions of Superman and Wonder Woman actually don't have much of a shared history together. This book will take the opportunity to show them getting to know each other as well as each's supporting cast and family. Somewhat disappointingly, to me at least, the romance and relationship will often be treated as a subplot to the superhero business that has to go on in this type of book. In the first issue, we see the first introduction of the "New 52" Doomsday, the villain that once killed Superman back in the classic 1990's event "Death of Superman." So think of it as a team-up book with the fighting occasionally broken up by a discussion of feelings.

DC seems to be trademarking the "/" as a way of denoting team up books, particularly in regards to Superman. This book comes on the heels of Batman/Superman which looks to explore the often adversarial relationship between those two characters. The use of the "/", especially in the previous book, makes some people chuckle at the probably unintentional reference to "slash fiction." With this book at least, any romantic overtones are indeed intentional.

4. Pulp

Written by Jeremy Holt; art by Chris Peterson
Self-published

Jeremy Holt and Chris Peterson recently released a 24 page comic, called Pulp, that they're selling in PDF form through the Gumroad shopping cart service that many self-publishers have taken to in order to easily and painlessly sell DRM-free digital comics. They're even going with the "pay what you want" model popularized by everyone from Louis CK to Brian K. Vaughan. For digital comics, selling through a service like Gumroad is becoming a nice alternative to Comixology that definitely has a number of pros and cons compared to that service.

However, the reason I mention Pulp is because it is a very good comic that will be well worth whatever you choose to pay for it. As the name indicates, it has a noir slant to it and a deliciously bleak twist ending that harkens back to the pre-Comics Code short stories from EC Comics. It is also a commentary on writing and the pains of trying to get published that makes Holt and Peterson's route for self-publishing all the more important to the theme of the story.

Since I don't want to give too much away about the plot and its twist, I'll just say that it is about a writer, holed up in a house in the snowy woods, working on his latest novel. The scenes of him writing are interspersed with scenes of him meeting at the offices of his publisher. The writer is visited multiple times by a mysterious woman who appears to be his publisher's secretary from the scenes in the office. By the time we get to the end and see what's really going on, you'll probably want to go back and re-read it.

Holt and Peterson have both been self-publishing comics and working for smaller publishers. Peterson, especially, stands out here with some expressive brush work and great use of two colors—blue and yellow—to differentiate time and place as scenes intercut back and forth.

Go here, read a quick preview and then pay what you want for Pulp.

5. Rocket Girl #1

Written by Brandon Montclaire; art by Amy Reeder
Image Comics

Rocket Girl began its life as a successful Kickstarter earlier this year with funds going towards printing and production costs for the initial 5-issue story arc for a planned ongoing series. Image Comics, the popular publisher for creator-owned genre works, stepped in to distribute the series and now the first issue is hitting stores this week.

The hero of the story, Rocket Girl, is a teenage police officer from an alternate 2013 that is sent back to 1986 to investigate "crimes against time" committed by a megacorporation called Quintum Mechanics. Her investigation soon leads her to realize that her 2013 should not even exist.

Amy Reeder draws the book and co-created it with writer Brandon Montclaire, with whom she previously collaborated on another creation called Halloween Eve. She has done a variety of work for DC Comics, most notably on Madame Xanadu for which she was nominated for an Eisner, and an ill-fated run on Batwoman that ended abruptly due to stated "creative differences". With surprisingly few female artists working in the superhero and sci-fi genre for the bigger publishers, Reeder is developing a successful career with her own projects like this one. Her work is dynamic and stylish and with this book she gets to show off not only her ability to draw future tech but her ability to capture the essence of the '80s.

Read a preview of Rocket Girl here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Shaolin Cowboy Vol. 2 #1
Geof Darrow's ultra-violent, insanely detailed art fest, which began way back in the mid-2000s when the Wachowskis briefly had their own comic book company, returns this time from Dark Horse. Read a preview and marvel at the line work.

Three #1
Another new book from Image plays off the story of 300, as Kireon Gillen and Ryan Kelly tell the story of three slaves trying to escape the Spartan army. Preview here.

God Hates Astronauts Vol. 1
Another Kickstarter success story brought to Image Comics. Ryan Browne's absurdist satire of superheroes, NASA and other things is a cult favorite. Info here.

Mind Mgmt Vol. 2
Matt Kindt's excellent series about a shadowy agency and the mind-manipulating people that once worked for them is collected in a second volume here.  Here's a preview.

SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

The second volume of my own graphic novel, Nathan Sorry, comes out on Comixology today. You can read all about it and buy volumes 1 and 2 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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