Opus 81: NEWS&COMMENT (February 27, 2002). A statuesque Prince Valiant will soon be standing, life-sized, in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. The city council approved the 6-foot monument thanks to Brian Kane's recent biography of Valiant's creator, Hal Foster (see Opus 77 for a review). Cal Johnson, owner of Strange Adventures bookshop in the Canadian city, and some other literate citizens took the biography to a council meeting and pointed out that Foster, who grew up in Halifax, could trace his family history in Nova Scotia to the 18th century, to Lord Halifax and the province's Governor Edward Cornwallis. "It was the family history that convinced them," Kane told me. "It proved Foster's lineage. Had we done just a straight art book it probably wouldn't have had the same impact because the lawyer for the group used quotes from the book in his presentation." (For more about Hal Foster's place in the history of the medium, consult a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies; for a preview, click here.)
The Boondocks' Aaron McGruder joined such luminaries as singer Janet Jackson, the late Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, activist Dick Gregory, singer/activist Harry Belfonte, and CNNewsman Bernard Shaw as a recipient of the NAACP Chairman's Award on February 23 during the taping of the 33rd annual NAACP Image Awards ceremony. The tape will air on Fox on Friday, March 1. The Award is bestowed for distinguished service and dignified representation of people of color. Said Julian Bond, NAACP Chairman: "Aaron McGruder's sharp artist's pen combines the biting tradition of Thomas Nast with the political sensibilities and humor of Ollie Harrington; he skewers the powerful from Presidents to rap stars. At a young age, he has joined a tiny band of social satirists who use the medium of the cartoon to make us wonder and think. The NAACP is honored to salute him."
McGruder's misanthropic hero, Huey Freeman, often speaks out on racial issues and doesn't hesitate to slam into African-American icons, too-most frequently, BET (Black Entertainment Television). One thing is certain: McGruder wasn't overwhelmed by NAACP's honor. During the week the award ceremony took place, Huey was lobbying NAACP in the strip to add to its roster of awards one for "the most embarrassing black person" and another for "the most ignorant black person." In the strip for February 23, the day of the ceremony, Bond writes Huey, telling him his suggestions are "ridiculous" and that "something may be wrong with you." But when Condoleezza Rice gets an award, Huey thinks at first that NAACP has accepted his suggestion for a Most Embarrassing Black Person award; then he finds out she received one of the prestigious Image Awards and is appalled: "I wonder if Pat Buchanan is getting a lifetime achievement award," he shouts in exasperation.
Naturally, not everyone thinks McGruder is God's Gift to Interracial Harmony. On January 26, the Washington Post published a letter from a reader that began: "I cannot imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. would say if he were alive and read The Boondocks comic strip that ran on Monday [Martin L. King Day].... a strip that referred to 'hating outside the box' and 'challenging the reader to expand his or her hate horizons.' Since when is racism funny? Where is your sense of responsible journalism? ... I know that this comic strip offends readers. What are you trying to promote?" Well. Anyhoo, I'm glad the NAACP hasn't forgotten about Harrington.
Disney is in the toils of a law suit over rights to A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh. Apparently, 'way back in 1930, Stephen Slesinger (which has subsequently become Inc. in Florida) acquired American merchandising rights from Milne. Disney, which first licensed Pooh and Company in 1961, maintains that Slesinger's rights include only such things as toys, pajamas, pillowcases, and the like-not movies and videos and tv and comic books. Slesinger, naturally, disagrees, claiming a piece of the Disney Empire's Pooh Pfiefdom. The case has been dragging on for a decade or more, and my guess is that, despite interim rulings in favor of the Slesinger family, Disney will eventually prevail. After all, they get the U.S. Congress to extend the life of a copyright every time Mickey Mouse gets close to public domain; surely they can twist a little Florida company around their corporate finger. Another reason I mention this contest here is because of the odor of Enron that has arisen around the case: according to the National Post, Disney has destroyed thousands of pages of documents that might have favored Slesinger. Gee, what a surprise: all these giant corporations have the integrity of a bed of oysters....
NBC announced that it will begin airing commercials for liquor this year, the first time booze will be touted on tv in fifty years. But the ads extolling drunkenness will be shown only after 9 p.m. Eastern time; after that, it is assumed, the kids will be nestled all snug in their beds instead of watching the tube. The notion of a "family hour" for television has always flown in the face of fact: 9 p.m. EST is 8 p.m. CST, where tv programs are simulcast, and so that means kids go to bed an hour earlier in Central Standard Time? Why? Why should children in the midwest be sleepier than children in New York? Just another example, I ween, of the rampant provincialism of the New York-Washington axis. (Yes, axis-axis, axis, axis! Talk about your evil.)
It took Olympics officialdom a week, but they finally made it right, awarding gold medals to the Canadian duo, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. But it could easily have gone the way of all Olympian fiascos. The International Skating Union seemed poised to skim as lightly as possible over the icey issue with polite but vague promises of future reforms in the judging criteria, but Jacques Rogge, the new, tough-minded president of the International Olympic Committee, had other ideas. According to Time, it was Rogge who persuaded the ISU to rectify the situation now, this week, by giving a second set of gold medals. Seems the best solution to me. And it bodes better for the future, too.
Sean Connery has been signed to play Allan Quatermain in the 20th Century Fox production of "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." So another Alan Moore concoction makes it to the silver screen, but, apart from doing a "period piece X-men," what is the thematic function of telling a story that lumps together a small flock of Victorian leading men? Allusion should serve some literary purpose beyond populating a cast.... Garfield is giving up on his private jet. Cartoonist Jim Davis bought a 10-passenger Dassault Falcon 20F-5 in 1987 when he needed to commute from Muncie, Indiana, PAWS headquarters, to New York on syndicate business and to Los Angeles on tv business, but now, Davis commutes via Internet, so the airplane is up for sale, asking price, $7.6 million....
FOUR-COLOR RAMBLING. In Alan Moore's Tom Strong's Terrific Tales No. 2, we meet the co-creation of Steve No-relation Moore and Arthur Adam, Jonni Future, an extraordinarily well-upholstered young woman who wears an impossible costume. This battle garb is impossible on at least two counts. First, the headgear is impossible to wear. It appears to be forged of some sort of metal and has a vaguely birdy appearance-feathers and wings. The latter Viking appendages arise on each side from a scollop at the edge of the helmet which, by fitting over the wearer's ears, secures it to the head. But I can't imagine anyone actually putting this thing on and wearing it. The aperture for the ears is simply too cute for practicality: even the slight thickness of the metal would make the wearer's ears stick out like jug handles. And, with the metal edge resting on the ear, the ear would hurt. Ask anyone who wears spectacles. Moreover, the helmet would be so precariously balanced on skull and ears that the wearer would not have freedom of movement; she couldn't move her head without risking the cap's falling off. How could you do battle under these circumstances? But we should, perhaps, be thankful that Adams did not compound the impossibility: in an earlier sketch of the costume, he experimented, as revealed in the ABC Sketchbook, with ear-wings that were three times the size of the present impossibilities.
The other impossibilities of the costume have less to do with what is physically possible than what is purely tactical. The costume has armor for the shoulders, wrists, and legs from the knees down. The shoulder plates also descend, so to speak, over Jonni's breasts, protecting the upper portions thereof. The rest of the raiment is diaphanous or skin-tight but thoroughly unsuitable for going into battle. From the waist down, Jonni wears skin-tight pants; so tight that the cleavage between her buttocks is clearly seen. Well, maybe that's okay: freedom of movement dictates design, I 'spect. From the waist up, she wears a see-through blouse with a neckline that plunges to the navel. Even Jonni, whom we watch, voyeuristically, as she dons this garment for the first time, wonders about her shirt: "Shouldn't this blouse fasten up somehow?" she asks as she attempts, vainly, to close the neckline's gap over her bountiful bosom by pulling the parted halves of the garment to the center. "Not really," says her attendant, a talking leopard named Jermaal.
Spectacular thought this vision of femininity may be as a pin-up, her costume scarcely protects her. The most vulnerable portion of the anatomy, the warrior's torso, neck to waist, is entirely exposed to whatever damage her foe may care to inflict. Perhaps the design is cannier than I suspect. Maybe it's not all titillation. Maybe the idea is that no enemy on the battlefield would want to inflict any damage on this udderly pendulous landscape. So Jonni is as safe encased in diaphanous silk as she would be ensconced in a tank. Incidentally, her costume is based upon the costume worn by the original Johnny Future. In the ABC Sketchbook, he wears exactly the same garment, even to the plunging neckline, which, in his case, reveals not global amplitude but a hairy chest.
Jonni adorns the cover of Terrific Tales No. 2, too. But almost a third of the book (11 of the 36 pages, counting covers) is devoted to advertisements. Jonni and her bodacious rack also appear on the cover of the current issue of Comic Book Artist, No. 17, in which Adams is extensively interviewed by editor Jon B. Cooke. In the cover incarnation, Jonni appears to be carrying Adams' head in a jar. Her pose defies anatomy, though. In fact, her anatomy defies anatomy. I'm reminded of what Playboy cartoon editor Michelle Urry once said to me about Vargas, whose female figures became more and more exaggerated as time when on, assuming poses that were physically impossible: "He forgot where the tits went," she said.
Illustrating the interview are numerous delectable and copiously detailed Adams renderings, and from these, we conclude, correctly, that he is as interested in gorillas as he is in curvaceous humans. He invented Monkeyman and O'Brien at the prompting of Erik Larsen and realized, as soon as he'd conjured up the duo, that "Oh, my God-I just made up Angel and the Ape!" From the early samplings of O'Brien drawings, we can see that Adams' female anatomy gets more and more magnificent in the chest as time goes on. O'Brien's proportions were, at first, realistic; Jonni's are not.
Which brings us, willy nilly, to the 9th issue of Codename: Knockout, a title that makes blatant reference to the well-rounded heroine whose embonpoint is displayed throughout the book. The cover of this book is customarily another occasion for exhibition of feminine curves: a succession of talented pin-up creators have depicted the toothsome Angela in fetching poses that have nothing to do with the story inside. For this issue, Tomas Giorello and Alex Sinclair have achieved a stunning example of a new pin-up genre in which the artistic purpose is to depict both the ta-ta's and the derriere of the subject in the same image, imparting to "T&A" a visual bond as closely linked as the alphabetical one. This objective can be accomplished only by twisting the woman's body into a fleshy pretzel: usually, the buttocks dominate the near foreground while the bosom is revealed by giving the torso a wrenching torque to the extreme right or left. This title has offered a generous sampling of this genre in previous numbers, but the Giorello-Sinclair effort, bursting with amplitude, is doubtless the champion of the lot. But it's the interior work of penciller Amanda Conner and inker Jimmy Palmiotti that sets me free: Conner's slightly amped version of the so-called animated style is enhanced by Palmiotti's boldly inked outlines, deploying an undulating line of grace and fluidity. The best interior art this book has seen. Meanwhile, Robert Rodi continues to provide plots that tantalize and dialogue that snaps with wit.
The current Birds of Prey, No. 38, inked by Andrew Pepoy, is another instance of crisply inked art. And penciller James Fry is another of the butt-and-bosom school, supplying several examples of anatomical impossibility: you can't, really, combine an upshot of the rear-end with a simultaneous downshot of the upper story unless you dismember the body or ignore its structure. This issue's other affront to common sense is in the story. Black Canary encounters a foe who is accidentally infected with "the next generation of artificial intelligence," namely, "nanites, billions of self-replicating microscopic machines" that coat his body in a seamless swarm. Oracle, seeing all this on her monitor, cautions Canary: "Stay away from him, Dinah! Don't let him touch you!" Presumably, she'd be infected with the same plague. Ah, but then, two panels down the page, Canary kicks the guy in the jaw! So she touches him, right? So why wouldn't those billions of nanites leap, flea-like, to her bod? Dunno.
Incidentally-while we're all wrought up here by female anatomy-Newsquirks goes a long way towards explaining our preoccupation with the mammary features thereof. According to Ms. Gillian Bentley of University College London, women's breasts are larger than those of other primates but not in order to attract mates. No, human female breasts are larger to prevent babies from suffocating as the human face became flatter. Bentley points out that human infants have lost the protruding jaws and lips that let chimpanzees suckle safely from a flat breast. So it's all about nutrition, dummy. But I guess I knew that.
Instructive though all this might be about anatomy and other imagineerings, we encountered a couple of genuinely educational efforts elsewhere last week. In Christopher P. Reilly's The Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy, for instance, writer Reilly and artist Darron Laessig retell the original story that has animated British sidewalk glove-puppet shows since the 17th century. Punch, a name and character derived from Italian commedia dell-arte's Pulchinella (meaning "pullet" or "chicken"), is an irascible autocrat who, when he doesn't get his way, resorts to a handy club to beat his opposition into submission. Or, in the case of his neighbor, Mr. Scaramouch, to behead the offender. In a succession of encounters, Punch's violence escalates rapidly as he beats his wife, Judy, and then throws their wailing baby out of the window.
The comedic appeal of these antics may be illusive, but the children who made up the traditional audience for the shows apparently shrieked with delight at the puppet's outrageous belligerences, each accompanied by Punch's self-congratulatory pronouncement, "That's the way to do it." Called to account after a parade of these brutal hilarities, Punch manages to trick the hangman into hanging himself. And then, in the last act, Punch takes nihilism to new heights when he meets the devil himself. And kills him. With that, Punch becomes a hero rather than a thug. But whether his ascension excuses his previous viciousness is another matter, something debated by generations of scholars seeking import in the nonsense of the play. Infantile nihilism is probably the best explanation: the children who rejoiced at Punch's brutalities were surely indulging in an unconscious rebellion against the authority of the adult world, and Punch's victory over the devil excused the kids for their secret wishes by sanctifying them. And since the unconscious fantasies of our infancy haunt us all our lives, the appeal of the Punch and Judy show extends into adulthood. With the puppet show and its anarchic glee as background, it's easy to see why the founders of Britain's legendary humor magazine chose Punch for its title. (And the name prompts me to wonder, as I often have in the past, whether the expression "punchline" derives from the magazine. Probably not. But it pleases me to think it does.)
Laessig's visual interpretation of the traditional tale is a quirky delight. His character designs are exaggerative caricatures as wooden in expression as the glove-puppets who inspired them, and his stark settings, often drenched in solid black, reinforce an aura of abstracted reality.
But I don't want to let loose of Punch just yet. The Reilly-Laessig enterprise prompted me to unearth a tiny tome entitled The Last Days of Mr. Punch by D.H. Myers (McCall, 1971). Myers impersonates Punch for the latter's autobiographical purposes and also quotes extensively from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1861) an interview with a "Punchman" (the fella whose hands are in the glove puppets). The Punchman tells us that it was the first British Punchman, Piccini, who, "emboldened by rum," permitted Punch to win over the Devil; until then (1790), the Devil carted Punch off in the last act.
The Punchman is persuaded that the "Punch and Judy" show he does is high art of the sort that endures. "Punch's name is writ in the annuals of history," he says, "and handed down as long as grass grows and water runs-for when grass ceases to grow, you know, and water ceases to run, this world will be no utility; that's moral." The grass and water image reminds me of similar quotations attributed to Native Americans, which proves, I suppose, that they were all Punch fans.
"Punch is an opera," the Punchman continues, "an huproar, we calls it-and the most pleasing and most interesting of all as was ever produced. Punch never was beat, and never will be, being the oldest performance for many hundred years, and now handed down to posterity. There's a fine moral in it, too. The killing of the Devil makes it one of the most moral plays as is, for it stops Satan's career of life, and then we can all do as we likes afterwards."
Punch, or the philosophy of Punch, is still with us. H.L. Mencken trots him out in an essay on "Newspaper Morals" in 1914. As a young practitioner of the drama critic's black arts, Mencken asked a more experienced hand for advice.
"The main idea," that worthy expounded, "is to be interesting." That's how you get readers to read what you write, he explains. "The only way to make them read you is to give them something exciting. Knock somebody in the head every day-if not an actor, then the author, and if not the author, then the manager. Make it hearty! Make it hot! That is Rule No. 1 of American psychology-and of English, too, but more especially of American. You must give a good show to get a crowd, and a good show means one with slaughter in it."
Punch knew. "That's the way to do it," as he was forever intoning.
Newspapermen ever since Mencken, and for a long time before, have perpetuated the principle. And they continue to do so. All in high moral dudgeon. Most recently, they've taken unto themselves credit for righting the wrong of the pairs skating competition during the Olympics. If it hadn't been for tv news keeping the feet of officialdom to the fire, claim the newsies, the Canadians would never have been awarded the gold medals they deserved.
Probably true. But in heaping garlands of laurel on themselves, the newsfolk conveniently ignore all the other stories they've overlooked or botched, stories the coverage of which might have averted civic disaster had the news media not been too busy with, say, Gary Condit to cover the early signs of Enron's coming collapse, or with Monica Lewinsky to devote the sort of attention to the Pope's visit to Cuba (which occurred just as the Monica scandal was breaking) that might have helped foment Castro's downfall. Examples of this sort of maladroitness are legion, which accounts for the eagerness of the news media to give themselves credit on the rare occasions that they deserve it.
Before my errant attention span wavers too furiously afield, here's a recent issue of Linda Medley's Castle Waiting, No. 12 to be exact-the one that marks her return last summer to self-publishing as Olio. Herein, we discover that Toddy wants to sell the mill and Rob wants to buy. I've been a fan of Medley's careful art style for some years now even though I'm not a passionate reader of this title. Visually, Castle Waiting is elegant. But the story's focus on everyday medieval life and its assorted viscisitudes, none very earth-shaking, has yet to engage me. That's more my fault than Medley's, I'd say: my taste is coarser and less refined than hers, and so the kitchen routines at the convent or the castle don't keep me a-goin' even when it's a nog log they're making and the nog is slightly intoxicating.
Medley's storytelling skills are well-honed, however, and she not only delineates her milieu with clarity and authenticity but paces the episodic story expertly, deploying the resources of the medium for emotional impact. And in No. 12, she provides a prose essay on the inside covers in honor of April Fool's Day. She tells us about Sir Percival, one of the Knights of Arthur's Roundtable, who came within an ace of achieving the Holy Grail. Percival, Medley says, comes from "parsi-fal," meaning "pure fool." And it is Percival's foolishness, his dunderheaded self-absorption, that prevents him from attaining his heart's desire. I didn't know that, and I've been wandering around the Arthurian Legend for years. Thanks, Linda: I love tidbits like this.
And now, to return to nihilism, let us pause, briefly, to consider Frank Miller's latest Batman enterprise while it is in midflight. I've encountered some disparaging remarks about the quality of the artwork recently, and I beg to differ. (I am also working on a Dark Horse project involving Miller's Sin City series, so my opinions may be highly suspect.) Without the final chapter before us, it's clearly premature to form any over-all verdict about Dark Knight Strikes Again, but some of the thematic underpinnings of Miller's tale suggest directions.
Once again, it seems he has divided the world's superheroes into two camps: the oppressors and the resisters. A champion of law and order, Superman is on the side of the establishment, hence, of the oppressors. Batman, as a denizen of the night whose relationship to the minions of the law is shadowy, is essentially an outlaw, a rebel: his nearly ungovernable passion for righting wrongs and punishing criminals is so powerful that, in obeying its impulses, he must go outside the law. He cannot await its orderly machinations. He, therefore, resists the dictates of the establishment, and that pits him against Superman.
By extension, Batman champions the individual as opposed to the group. Individual freedom as opposed to social order. In Freudian terms, the Id vs. Superego. Or creativity vs. conformity. Art vs. Commerce? The first two chapters in Miller's story resonate with echoes of these themes.
In Miller's construct, superheroes, following Superman's example, fought the wrong enemy while the real foe of humanity wreaked quiet havoc and grew strong, dismantling protections for individual aspirations while building a fortress of governmental regulation to nurture its mercantile ambitions and its desire for power. The echoes of an Enron event are eerie, but the story was written before we knew anything specific about such monstrous deceptions. Miller was simply working from attitude outward. His prescience, however, is uncanny and awful.
As for the conclusion of the tale, Batman seems to be threatening to take the "information" age to the next level-where superheroes will come out into the open, leaving secret identities behind. And what will happen then? What about the secret kingdom of the establishment? Stay 'tooned.
Throughout this venture, Miller sprinkles vignettes of superhero comedy, mustering the roster of wasted heroes in their futile endeavors-the Question, the Flash, Jon Jonzz, Captain Marvel, Ralph Dibny, and, my favorite so far, Plastic Man in the guise of a muscle car. Volume 2 of the 3-volume series begins with the Sunday morning gasbags fulminating on tv-George Will, Cokie Roberts, Chris Matthews, Ted Kopple, George Stephanopolis, Robert Novak. And, later, is that Jenette Kahn? Probably not, but....
Those who find Miller's drawings crude are missing the function of the artwork in this undertaking. They expect the kind of figure-drawing that has animated superhero comics since the beginning. But Miller is aiming for something else here. One does not attack convention with convention. The artwork here embodies the screaming raw emotion that animates Miller's assault on received wisdom. He is not drawing to depict action; he is drawing to express emotion. The crudenesses, the lapses in symmetry and in anatomical realism-all bespeak rage, raw almost uncontrollable rage. The lines are not drawn. The ink is not laid down smoothly, routinely, in the methodical manner of the artist. Instead, the clots and gouges of the linework suggest that Miller is working with a blunt instrument. An instrument of destruction, not construction. Beating away at a hated object. Scraping away as if with a dull chisel. Gouging, cutting, battering. Seldom in funnybooks has technique been so emblematic of feeling, so wedded to purpose.
And for more about Miller's place in the history of funnybooks, check my book, The Art of the Comic Book; for a preview, click here.
PITHY PRONOUNCEMENTS. Eustace Tilley, the monocled dandy invented by cartoonist Rea Irvin, is back in all his pristine (not to say prissy) glory on the cover of The New Yorker's end-of-February anniversary issue, where he has been for almost all of the 77 anniversaries of Harold Ross's magazine, missing only a few during Tina Brown's reign as editor and buzz-meister in the 1990s. In the same issue, we learn that an exhibition of New Yorker cover art will be traveling the country from sea to shining sea but stopping nowhere inbeween: San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York are cited as show venues, but nothing in the great middle of the country. No Chicago, St. Louis, Denver. Apparently only on the coasts are people sophisticated enough to understand New Yorker humor. Conjures up recollection of Saul Steinberg's notorious March 1976 cover for the magazine, the one that depicts the entire continent west of the Hudson River as consisting of Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, then the Pacific Ocean and Japan, China and Russia in the remote distance. Like I said: they're a parochial lot on Manhattan Island.... Prompted by Greg Rucka's work on a recent Batman title, I picked up a couple issues of his Queen & Country and encountered his now-familiar terse and intense narrative style; the current artistic team, Brian Hurtt on pencils and Christine Norrie on inks, is more agile than Steve Rolston, whose linework was a little stolid but still quite suited to Rucka's storytelling manner.... Mark Laming's pictures inked by John Stokes in American Century No. 11 remind me of Al McWilliams-full of meticulous detailing, annoyingly fussed over, it seems to me; so realistic do they attempt to be that it's difficult to tell one character from another, and since this issue is my introduction to the series, I'm completely lost: neither pictures nor words catch me up to what's going on.... In the Amazing Spider-Man No. 38, we watch Peter Parker and Aunt May bare each other's souls in a cover-to-cover talkfest unusual in superhero comics; just as Peter has always assumed the blame for Uncle Ben's death, so does Ben's wife, who had an argument with her husband, driving him from the house for relief, and while he was out, he was killed. Colorist Dan Kemp mutes the visuals by casting an appropriately light blue-gray pall over John Romita Jr.'s pictures. But when did Peter break his nose? I coulda missed it, not being a regular Spidey reader; or is this just one of Romita's artistic tropes? ...
Two-thirds of the way through Dark Horse's Superman/Tarzan: Sons of the Jungle, I'm hooked by Carlos Megila's angular drawing style. Pleasing though it is to watch, his tendency to whittle his pictures into abstract imagery sometimes makes it difficult to recognize what's going on, exactly: in one place in No. 2 of the 3-issue series, I'm not sure but what the jungle-born Superman isn't missing a leg altogether. One of Megila's narrative devices, however, is tantalizing: he isolates certain key images in an otherwise panoramic or full-page picture, drawing a border around them to focus our attention on the aspect of the action they incarnate. An intriguing touch with dramatic potential. The concluding issue, No. 3 in this trilogy, should hit the stands in March....
Until then, metaphors be with you.
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