Avengers, Assembled (and Visualized) – Part 2

Last week I shared a set of visualizations I made, exploring the history of The Avengers – the Marvel comic series which first appeared in 1963, and was last week released as a bombastic, blockbuster film (which, by the way, I enjoyed tremendously). I looked at the 570-issue archive as a whole, and tried to dig out some interesting patterns concerning female characters, robots, and gods (as far as I know, there are no female robot god avengers – though I guess Jocasta comes pretty close). If you missed that first post, you might want to give it a quick read right now, as I’ll be picking up where I left off.

So far, the discussion has been mostly around the characters of the Avengers, at a collective level. Lots of data is available about each individual character, as well – for example we can look at any Avenger and see every appearance they’ve made over the last 50 years. Here’s Captain America’s record number of appearances:

Captain America

And Iron Man, who’s not too far behind:

Iron Man

An my personal favourite, Hawkeye:

Hawkeye

In each of these graphics, I’ve marked the issues where the character has returned after a significant absence. We also, of course, see their first appearances (Hawkeye’s being in issue #16th, ‘The Old Order Changeth‘). You can see a pile of other Avengers’ ‘appearance maps’ in this Flickr Set – if there’s another character you’d like to see, let me know.

For the first time here we can see that we can gets some information about the individual issues past the issue number. We can look at the title, the characters who appeared in the issue, the geographic locations involved in the issue (from Alaska to the Kree homeworld), and more (the Comic Vine API offers the possibility of concepts to be linked with individual issues as well, but this information hasn’t been well-populated in the wiki).

One thing that you might have noticed from the graphics so far is that there are a lot of spikes – issues in which a lot of Avengers characters are present. The most spectacular example of these ‘party issues’ is Volume 3, #10, ‘Pomp & Pageantry”, in which a whopping 119 Avengers appeared! Here are all of these party issues since 1963:

Avengers - The Party Issues

We can see that these heaps-of-heroes issues are a pretty new phenomenon – and also that the current Avengers writer, Brian Michael Bendis, LOVES a party. He’s written lots of issues with more than 30 avengers, and even a couple with more than 50.

Which brings us nicely into a discussion about creators. So far we’ve been focused mainly on fictional characters – what about the real people that made these comic books? Like, for example, Sam Rosen, and Artie Simek:

Mr. Rosen and Mr. Simek hand-lettered all of the dialogue, and drew all of the word balloons for most of the first 50 issues of the Avengers, most often alternating back and forth, issue to issue. They’re part of a group of about 7 letterers who have been responsible for most of the Avengers typography:

Avengers CREATORS - letterer

Similarly, we can see that there are about 10 people who have been editors on the series for long stretches of time:

Avengers CREATORS - editor

You don’t see nearly this kind of consistency with pencillers:

Avengers CREATORS - penciler

Or inkers:

Avengers CREATORS - inker

I wondered after getting a look at how these creators were involved in the history of the series, if perhaps they (particularly the writers & editors) might be responsible for some of the content decisions that I examined in the last. For example, are there certain editors or writers who included more female characters in their books?

I overlaid a heat map onto the creator maps just saw above, with red stripes to indicate a high number of female characters and blue/green stripes to indicate the boys-club issues. Here are all of the editors again:

Avengers: Editors & Female Characters

And all of the writers:

Avengers: Writers & Female Characters

While it probably begs for some statistical analysis, it does seem that the gender balance gets a boost when Jim Shooter takes up the series in the early 70s. Indeed, he’s in charge during the high water mark of Avengers feminism in 1983-1984, a level which the series never gets back to.

We can see similar correlations for the numbers of gods/eternals per issue:

Avengers: Writers & Godliness

Or robots/synthezoids/androids per issue:

Avengers: Writers and Robotitude

From these we can see that while Brian Michael Bendis DOES like to party, he DOESN’T particularly like robots, and definitely isn’t a big fan of the gods.

Besides that, what have we learned from this two-part data-exploration of the Avengers? You’ve probably learned that I have too much time on my hands. I’ve learned that I really need to get my old collection out of storage and revisit some of these excellent stories. I’ve also learned that, if there’s one form of punctuation that defined the silver age of comics… it’s the ellipsis. So, to finish us off, here’s a medley of the 53 ellipsified issues in the history of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes:

(You might see a blank box here, in which case you might want to try viewing the page in Chrome).

Avengers, Assembled (and Visualized) – Part 1

This post is about comics. It’s also about superheroes, robots, Norse gods, shrinking men, and women made of light – so it makes sense that it was inspired in the first place by a 10 year-old.

Last week, I was pointed by Santiago Ortiz to this excellent chart made by Theo Zaballos, in which he plots the relative interestingness in Avengers characters from the animated series, over time. It’s a fantastic example of the power of visualization to help us understand things – or, put another way, the power of building systems to think about systems. It’s also a reminder that visualization doesn’t always need to be pitted against huge, world-changing tasks – it can be useful in exploring small, fun, even seemingly frivolous things.

I started reading comics in 1985 (coincidentally, when I was 10). For years, I’d visit the comic shop every Wednesday, and pick up a stack of titles – and The Avengers was a real mainstay on my list. I was always more of a reader than a collector; my longboxes were full of dog-eared issues from incomplete series, which I revisited over and over again until the stories imprinted themselves in my brain.

There’s a huge storehouse of mythology, cultural touchstones, and real historical events contained in the pages of the 570 issues of the Avengers.

Inspired by Theo, and using comicvine.com’s API, I’ve put together a few datasets and some tools that I can use to visually explore some of this leotarded history.

The Avengers has been published pretty much continuously since 1963. Here are the covers of all 570 issues:

Every Issue of the Avengers

Now, you might be aware of a little, low budget art-house movie that’s being released tomorrow about this particular group of costumed heroes. That movie features 5 avengers – Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, and Black Widow. But did you know there were 127 more Avengers? You may know that the Avengers were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but you might be surprised to hear that there were 184 other people who invented Avengers characters. In total, there have been 581 men and women who written, edited, pencilled, inked, colored, lettered, and otherwise created at least one issue of the Avengers.

Let’s start with a look at those characters. My first thought was to use images of the characters in my visualizations, but while the Comic Vine API provides images in all kinds of sizes, the styles of drawing are so varied that it ended up not holding together. Instead, then, I built a small tool that let me go through those characters and pick three colours that I thought represented them the best (everybody gets a shield!). Here are all of the Avengers in an overlapped plot that doesn’t really tell us much, but gives you an idea of what these icons look like:

Avengers20_54_41

These character icons can be drawn at any size, and give us a nice way to plot the characters that isn’t just dots or boxes. Here’s all of the Avengers again, this time plotted by their number of appearances:

Avengers21_12_42

Below Captain America is a cluster of the most consistent Avengers – Iron Man, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Thor, Hawkeye, Wasp, and Henry Pym (aka Ant Man). That blue and grey dot trailing just behind is Jarvis, the Avengers’ butler – who also happens to be an honorary member of the team.

Using those same shield icons, but sorting by issue so that characters in an issue together form a radial line, here is every appearance of ever Avengers character in every issue:

Every Avenger.

It’s not too helpful, but we can use this same system, and filter it by any number of criteria. For example, let’s look at just first appearances of Avengers:

First Appearances

You can see the same graphic in a timeline form here:

First Appearances - Timeline

I built a little tool to let me assign three colours to each Avenger, so they’re all represented by small spheres (now would be a good time to look at the full resolution version of that image – a good strategy for everything I’m going to put in this post) We can see a big cluster of major Avengers appearing in the first few episodes, with some other big names coming in the next few years (Vision, the Avenger with the 3rd most appearances in issues, doesn’t come along until #57). While there are a couple of major additions along the way (She-Hulk & Photon in 1982), we can see that the cast of characters for the team is defined pretty early.

One of the first things that I was interested in was the gender balance in the Avengers over time. While there have been women on the team since the beginning (Janet Van Dyne, aka The Wasp, appears in issue #1), has this changed or increased over the 50 year span of the series?

Let’s have a look:

Female Avengers Characters

Female Characters - Timeline

You’ll notice that the Wasp (in yellow), and the Scarlet Witch (in red), pretty much hold the fort for the female Avengers until the late 70s, at which time variety and frequency of female characters increases. There are some dips – 1990 to 1992, and 2005 to 2007, and overall the female ratio at the Avengers mansion peaks in the 1980s and never quite gets back up to that level again.

Of course, there are many other categorizations of comic characters that we can make aside from gender. I mentioned Vision before, who is a robot (OK, OK, he’s a synthezoid). How have superheroes of the electronic persuasion fared amongst Earth’s Mightiest Heroes?

I’m glad you asked:

The Robots

Here we see some much more interesting patterns. Robots are big from the late 60s to the early 1990s, after which they disappear. There’s a robot renaissance of sorts from 1990 to 2005, but again they lose density (see what I did there, Avengers fans?).

We can do the same thing with Gods, and Eternals (if you don’t know the difference, ask your local comic shop clerk):

The Gods

Gods & Eternals - Timeline

Again, there is some real patchiness here. Now, the clever ones among you might be wondering if these patterns are tied to historical periods, or if they are linked to the preferences of specific writers, editors, or artists. Is that crowded patch of Gods in 1985 due to a cultural fascination with myth? Or do Mark Gruenwald & Jim shooter just really, really like Thor? Great questions, and ones that I’ll take a look at Part 2 of this post.

This week-long dig through Avengers data has been fascinating. Even as an Avengers fan, it’s been surprising to see the depth and richness of content that finds its way into the pages of every issue and volume. As I’ve been working, I’ve also been reading a lot about the various people – inkers, letterers, writers, who have built the Avengers story over time. It has been a good reminder, particularly in the wake of a blockbuster film, that myths are rarely formed by individuals.

Finally, it should give anyone fearing a shortage of Avengers storylines and characters for possible sequels some reassurance – 5 down, 127 to go. (Mr. Whedon, if you’re looking for a researcher, you know where to find me.)

‘Nuff said. (For now.)

Infinite Weft (Exploring the Old Aesthetic)

How can a textile function as a digital object? This is a central question of Infinite Weft, a project that I’ve been working on for a the last few months. The project is a collaboration with my mother, Diane Thorp, who has been weaving for almost 40 years – it’s a chance for me to combine my usually screen-based digital practice with her extraordinary hand-woven work. It’s also an exploration of mathematics, computational history, and the concept of pattern.

Most of us probably know that the loom played a part in the early days of computing – the Jacquard loom was the first machine to use punch cards, and its workings were very influential in the early design of programmable machines (In my 1980s basement this history was actually physically embodied; sitting about 10 feet away from my mother’s two floor looms, on an Ikea bookself, sat a box of IBM punch cards that we mostly used to make paper airplanes out of). But how many of us know how a loom actually works? Though I have watched my mother weave many times, it didn’t take long at the start of this project to realize that I had no real idea how the binary weaving patterns called ‘drawdowns‘ ended up making a pattern in a textile.

IW - Process - January 8th 2012

To teach myself how this process actually happened, I built a functional software loom, where I could see the pattern manifest itself in the warp and weft (if you have Chrome you can see it in action here – better documentation is coming soon). This gave me a kind of sandbox which let me see how typical weaving patterns were constructed, and what kind of problems I could expect when I started to write my own. And run into problems, I did. My first attempts at generating patterns were sloppy and boring (at best) and the generative methods I was applying weren’t very successful. Enter Ralph E. Griswold.

Ralph E. Griswold

Ralph Griswold was a pioneering computer scientist, best known for developing the string programming language SNOBOL. He spent a decade at Bell Labs, studying non-numerical computation, and went on to become Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona. After this illustrious career in computing, he shifted his attention to the mathematics of weaving. Mr. Griswold died in 2006, but he left behind a huge archive of resources for weavers and curious learners, including academic papers on pattern generation using cellular automata.

The first successful pattern possibilities for Infinite Weft came from applying and modifying the techniques in the paper. I built a simple interface in which I could advance the automata generation by generation, and switch between a set of very simple rules (courtesy of John von Neumann). Here’s what a sample pattern generated from these von Neumann automata looks like on the software loom:

von Neumann automata patterns on a software loom

And here’s a sample, woven on a table loom with black & white yarn to make the pattern clear:

Infinite Weft - Samples

While these techniques produce fairly satisfactory results, the automata themselves tended to repeat after not too many generations – while you can alternate between rules, and start with different ‘seed’ patterns, and adjust the threading of the loom to get a variety of finished patterns, the systems themselves would inevitably repeat. What about a truly infinite weft?

As it turns out, there are some cellular automata that are non-repeating. Given any generation N, the result of the next generation, N+1, can’t be predicted from the outcomes that have happened before. Could I apply such an automata to generate an infinite ‘pattern’? Well, I gave it a try, and the results look promising. Here is a look at a pattern generated using Wolfram’s Rule 30, a (quite possibly) universal cellular automaton:

IW - Process - Jan. 8 2012

And a similar pattern, hand-woven by my mother:

Infinite Weft - Samples

Now we get into some pretty interesting conceptual territory. In theory, a long enough stretch of this woven textile would be Turing-complete – a computable fabric. Embedded somewhere in the pattern would be instructions to solve any conceivable problem. Past the math, this system also lets us challenge what we think of as a pattern, in a fabric context (after all, this pattern has really no pattern at all).

This project is still very much a work in progress – this blog post is a peak into the process and chance to get some of my thoughts into writing. The next obvious step is to finalize work on the pattern generation, and get some large-scale textile woven from my mother’s ‘real loom’, which is a 16-harness floor loom (for this we’re going to need a computerized dobby head, which is a bit of an investment). I would also love to see other weavers outputting sections of this ‘infinite’ weft – please get in touch if you have a loom and would like to try weaving a section.

Source code for Infinite Weft is available in a public GitHub repository here.

And, as always, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

Data in an Alien Context: Kepler Visualization Source Code

Last year, I released a video visualization of the 1236 exoplanets identified by the NASA’s Kepler mission. Since then, there have been another 1091 candidates identified, and I thought it’d be a good time to update my visualization – and release the source code.

So, here it it: http://github.com/blprnt/Kepler-Visualization

I’ve tried to comment the code as well as possible – and the sketch overall is fairly simple. You will, of course, need Processing to get it running, as well as Karsten Schmidt’s esssential toxiclibs.

TEDxVancouver: The Weight of Data

In November, I was asked to come back to my hometown and give a talk at TEDxVancouver. The overarching theme of the event was ‘The Frontier’ – along with me, there would be talking about space, deep-sea science, and spiritual exploration. I decided to frame my talk around what I consider to be a largely un-explored part of the big data conversation that has opened up over the last few years: thinking about data in a human context. I talk a bit about my history with HyperCard, rattle over a series of data-based projects, and end with a call-to-arms for artists, poets, writers and other creatives to join the discourse around data.

I won’t give the whole talk away, since you can watch it for yourself below. As always, I’d love to hear feedback/questions/ridicule – you can leave a comment below, or join in on this already feisty thread on Google+.