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Our Mothers, Our Whores

29 Sep

I was born a male. I have lived my entire life as a male, and barring something unexpected I expect to die a male. It is not a source of pride, really, but an incontrovertible and undeniable aspect of who I am. I am a male, my astrological sign is Leo, I wear a size 11-1/2 shoe. These are simply facts about who I am.

I considered myself an “Enlightened Man” long before I’d even hit puberty. Owing largely to a strong maternal figure and a liberal upbringing, along with generally being more bookish than rowdy, I had a cadre of platonic girl friends at an early age (which, incidentally, endeared me in no way to the boys at school.) I was raised to respect women, to assume their intellect as I would assume any man’s. And for a long time, I thought I did this–even admitting an opposite sort of prejudice where I expect more from women than men, because I think women are generally smarter and better at constructing logical arguments. And so I went in my smug little way, happily traipsing along, silently denouncing the cat-calls of blue-collar workers and frowning disapprovingly at my friends’ misogynistic comments. Whatever vitriol being heaped upon men by feminists certainly did not apply to me, because I was an Enlightened Man.

Recently it began to dawn on me that I may have been, to borrow a French phrase, full of shit. There has been lots of warranted feminist outrage on the internet lately, from GamerGate to the wrongful termination of Jennifer Williams, to the #YesAllWomen twitter campaign, it seems like women are using the digital platform to take a stand for themselves. My gut reaction was to largely ignore these controversies because I didn’t think I should get involved. Surely I’ve never denigrated a woman or made her feel uncomfortable. I’m one of the “good guys,” the fellows that compliment ladies on their clothing and ask women for relationship advice and only look at their boobs for a few seconds rather than entire minutes. I believed I was supporting the fight for feminism by not diluting it with my testosterone. And then I decided to go against common sense and check the comments section.

I was absolutely stunned by the aggressive, angry responses I saw to these current events. Venomous, hateful threats of violence and rape. Denouncing what women wrote as divisive libel, women being called stupid and fake and sluts. Claims that women should take their grievances to lawyers or the police–I suppose to the Men Are Being Mean To Me Department, headed by Sergeant Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head–instead of bringing these discrepancies to light. It made me ashamed to have been born a male, and that’s when it dawned on me that perhaps I have been an unwitting misogynist all my life.

I have never physically hurt or threatened a woman, I don’t think I’ve even yelled at women. But I’ve definitely dismissed women for being “hysterical” or “crazy” when they complained about inequities. I’ve certainly leered at women inappropriately–and thought I was somehow better because I did it quicker than some other men. I’ve told women I like their blouse or hairstyle, never thinking that maybe women in specific and people in general don’t feel like striking up casual conversations based around the fact that you’ve been scoping them out. At a young age, I was taught that if you like a girl, go ask her out; the worst she could do is say, “no.” I wasn’t taught to respect others’ privacy and not to open a relationship by asking someone to entreat partnership with a stranger. The discrepancies between my thought and deed piled up. I considered myself a swell guy for considering most men idiots while regarding most women as geniuses. It didn’t occur to me that I was actually giving guys a pass while rigorously subjecting women to my expectations.

As it turns out, I am a male, and I feel all of the entitlement that men feel towards women–that they should be grateful for my existence, that they should be buoyed by my attention, that somehow I was doing them a favor with my condescension. I even considered my non-involvement in Feminism as some kind of benevolent acquiescence to women. “You go girls!” I thought in self-satisfaction, “Tell those nasty men off!” Never thinking that I might be one of these “nasty men,” or even that my non-involvement was more evidence that I marginalized women and their silly feelings. It’s both a comforting and terrifying thing to learn that I can have profound realizations about myself this late in life. It’s nice to know I can still learn and grow, but about what else am I kidding myself?

I find I am the subject of a lifetime of conditioning, despite my Ms. Magazine mom, and that my lifetime is but a sliver of societal conditioning stretching back to the dawn of humanity. We all come to accept some things as simply true: sex sells. Women work hard to look pretty and should be regarded for it. If a woman wears certain clothing, she wants you to gawk. These aren’t concepts I arrived to through careful consideration but by observing the world around me and being trained by the same concepts that train everyone else. We are all in this together, men and women, all of us educated from womb to tomb that boys like farts and girls like flowers, and never the twain shall meet. And, if you don’t get my point by now, that’s absolute bullshit.

How will I proceed? Well, for one thing, I’m going to cut the crap. I can silently appreciate a blouse and roundly chastise my friends for misogynistic comments. I can attempt to regard women on their merits and not based on some condescending notion about their superiority. The problem isn’t that women aren’t running the world, it’s that women by and large aren’t running shit. That even well-respected women in positions of power can be called “emotional” for speaking their minds. And I might have counted myself among those who waved off women’s problems as “Woman Problems.” The one thing I know for sure is that women aren’t going to become equal by screaming into a vacuum that no man can hear. It will be up to us, menfolk of the world, to change our perception of women and how we treat them if we’re going to see true gender equality. If you believe in fairness and respecting others as you would want to be respected, then I don’t see how you could do any less. And if you don’t believe in fairness and think women should be seen and not heard, then go fuck yourself and throw yourself into the mouth of the nearest live volcano.

Goddamn You, Robert Kirkman

1 Mar

I’ve been reading The Walking Dead in trade editions since they started coming out in 2004. For those that think this essay might be about the TV show on AMC called The Walking Dead, it isn’t. I don’t watch that show. I saw the first season and the first episode of the second season and dropped it. I found the show plodding and aimless, the dialogue ridiculous to the point of insulting, and generally found the program to be a huge letdown. I have heard from some that it’s gotten better (though others tell me it sucks still), but I don’t care. How many chances am I supposed to give a show? If you can’t ramp up to speed after the first season, then your show is a failure. Maybe I’ll catch it all one drunken weekend when the series has wrapped up, but I’ve no interest in following it week to week, and I’m not prepared to discuss anything specific about it.
The comic, however, I’ve been reading in trade editions since 2004. Frankly, I didn’t like that at first, either. The art was uneven and the drama was pretty sappy, and I wasn’t connecting with the characters enough to care whether they survived a zombie apocalypse or not. There was an introduction in the first paperback which told the reader how great the series was going to be, how profound and changing it would become, which turned me off. I walked away from the series for about a year, then went back when the story in paperback was up to where the protagonists met the Governor. I got hooked. This was no Mad Max dystopian future, it wasn’t full of insightful, annoying social commentary, it had become the rather touching story of human beings being fucked up to one another in order to survive. Even at this early stage in the story, the zombie horde was little more than an occasional nuisance. The real threat came from other members of the living.

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This point was made shockingly clear in a splash page scene of the main protagonist’s wife getting shot in the back while clutching her newborn baby. I realized at this point that I had grown to like these characters, enough to hope for their success, and to see this hopeful thing snuffed out in a very large, graphic way was disheartening. I became a fan, and started to follow the adventures of this widower, Rick, and his increasingly weird son Carl as they tried to make it in a world where no one could be trusted. I picked up volume after volume, gripped by the depths to which our heroes would sink in order to stay alive and defended. I scanned panel after panel of them walking through the wilderness, scavenging what little they could and losing hope for a stable future. I read, and read, and read about their actual and metaphorical journey. Then I started to get bored again.

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At one point, they are led to a fortified suburban enclave where a group of people have holed up and formed a community. Then it started to feel like a soap opera. Just people fucking each others’ partners and getting jealous about it. Yeah, people died, but it was often due to over-the-top reactions by blowhards with post-traumatic stress disorder. It wasn’t like I needed to see more death or deaths caused by zombies, to the contrary it seemed like deaths were being shoehorned into the plot in order to make it engrossing. I was getting bored of the series, and figured I would drop it soon if things didn’t turn around. And turn around they did, in vol. 17, Something to Fear.

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It hardly necessitates me claiming “spoilers” when this edition has been out since last November, and the floppy comics produced well before that. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I willfully spoil shit without penitence. How else am I supposed to write about the things I want to discuss? Besides, I’ve already dropped plenty of plot points in this essay already without cautioning “spoilers,” so fuck yourself. So by this point in the story, the folks in the suburban enclave have met another larger, far off community who is willing to trade supplies. Unfortunately, this larger community is being terrorized by a gang known as the Saviors, who demand half of their supplies in exchange for not fucking up the commune. Our heroes have a run-in with this gang, kill several of them humiliatingly, and then are back on the way to the larger group for supplies when they’re accosted by the Saviors. I’m leaving a lot of incidental stuff out, but the important thing, the instance that makes me want to shake my fist at Robert Kirkman and which will keep me buying new trade editions for the foreseeable future, is that the leader of the Saviors pulls Glenn out of the group and bashes his head in with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. Oh, and Glenn’s girlfriend, Maggie, had just revealed she was pregnant. Did I forget to mention that? Glenn was brutally snuffed before he got to be a real dad for the first time.

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And there it was, the same sickening pitch that lured me in the first time will lure me in for another half dozen or so volumes. Fucking Robert Kirkman. Playing with our sensibilities and emotions like some puppeteer. Forcing us to face our most deviant proclivities while you toy with our heartstrings. I don’t necessarily want to read a comic where a main character gets his head caved in so badly that his eye begins to pop out, to watch him calling for his girlfriend while a spiked bat crashes into his skull over and over. You made me do that, Robert Kirkman, with your slow burn suspense story and pandering to the lowest gory denominator. Goddamn you, Kirkman. Just take my wallet and leave me sobbing in a corner with my brutal self-realizations.

Give the Boot to Reboots

7 Feb

It’s been about a year and a half since DC Comics restarted their entire line-up of titles with The New 52, a company-wide event that did away with the past histories of their diverse line of characters and started all over again to attract new readers. I thought it was a hare-brained idea at the time, but being that I don’t buy floppy comics and I’m fairly used to DC making incomprehensible business decisions, I decided not to opine. Sure, I was pessimistic, but that’s my nature. What the hell do I know about a good Flash comic anyway? The best thing you could do for a Flash comic, in my opinion, is cancel it.

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Well, the dust has settled, trade editions of the first New 52 comics have trickled out, and what we see isn’t a more tempered, sensible universe than the one that preceded it, but the same confuddled claptrap as always. Some origins have been changed, Barbara Gordon has overcome her paralysis to become Batgirl again, but there’s no sense that we’re seeing anything new and fresh. And why should we? DC Comics has a history spanning nine decades, one they periodically try to omit with little success. DC’s concern with its past seems to revolve around the fact that their characters have been portrayed in many ways over the years. This makes sense because different people have written and drawn the comics, and public sensibilities have changed radically in the last century. For some reason, this doesn’t sit well with the powers that be: they feel that Superman should never be depicted changing clothes inside a phone booth when we live in a cellular phone world.

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I think that DC Comics should embrace their storied history, and not in the cornball way they usually do by dragging kitschy characters like Challengers of the Unknown and the Bat Mite out of storage for a “modern” revamp. A “reboot” usually means the male heroes will all have stubble and wrestle with their consciences while they clobber globs of snot from outer space. Instead, DC should admit that they have a lot of characters spanning a healthy person’s lifetime and let writers do what they fucking want. You want to write a story about the early days of Wonder Woman? Go ahead. You want to depict Batman with an iPhone and a Bat-Segway? Let’s see what you’ve got. Many of these characters have become archetypes for our culture and personal gratification. The important part about Superman is that he can punch people through walls, not whether or not his adoptive Earth parents wore spectacles. Cut it out with these title-spanning events that change DC continuity and make Superman have to wear ridiculous costumes.

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What I’m saying is that a fictional world of people who can fly unencumbered through space and fire laser beams from their fingertips doesn’t need a reboot. It’s fantasy, and as such writers should feel free to depict these characters in any fashion, from any era, and respect the readership enough to take these stories at face value. I know DC has its Elseworlds line, but I’m talking about having fun with these heroes and villains in series. Maybe depict the Joker with some humanity. Allow Superman to fight alongside Aquaman with the bureaucracy of the Justice League getting in the way. Let the Green Lantern cut a fart now and again. His uniform already leaves little to the imagination, it’s not a far leap to begin showing his endocrine functions.

Forget the Stupid Justice League Movie Already

14 Dec

Hey, there’s been some recent news about the long-rumored Justice League film, due out 2015! Isn’t that exciting? Haven’t you been waiting for a movie about the Justice League for like freaking ever?! You know the Justice League, right? That collection of DC Comics properties that includes Superman, Batman…I think Wonder Woman is in it…also the Flash and Green Lantern, and…that green guy. No, not Green Lantern, I already mentioned him. The other one. The guy that’s as strong as Superman plus he turns invisible. Also the guy with the wings, Hawkman is in it. I think that’s it. Oh wait, Aquaman, he’s got to be in there. Basically everyone from the SuperFriends except the non-white characters.

Wait, there’s more heroes in the League? You say that the Justice League contains every hero belonging to DC Comics, going back to 1938? Well, fuck me. There’s something lackluster about a specialized league that anyone with a talent remotely approaching a super power can join. They have two heroes with the power to stretch themselves like taffy. There are about four that can run faster than the speed of sound. And there are so many meta-humans with the power of flight, that their base of operations has to be held on a fucking satellite. Otherwise, they’d have to employ air traffic controllers, opening up a host of labor problems. There are more people in tights in the Justice League than the Ringling Bros. circus. And every time they hold a meeting, there’s a rift in the space-time continuum or something that spells imminent disaster for the cosmos. I mean, I’m not saying there’s a causal relationship, but it’s a coincidence worth investigating since the fate of the universe seems to depend on it.

Why Warner Bros., parent devils to DC Comics are so gung-ho for a Justice League movie, I have no idea. It’s not like their other attempts at comic books-turned movies in the new millennium have been successful excepting Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and, to a lesser extent, attempts to turn Alan Moore’s graphic novels into movies. Green Lantern was an irredeemable piece of shit. Superman Returns was almost as confusing as it was boring. What DC has proven is that when they have a lot of input into how one of their characters is represented in movies, the result is garbage. Only when more talented people take the ball and run with it, like Nolan did, are the results satisfactory. “Perhaps,” you begin, pushing your coke-bottle glasses up the greasy bridge of your blackhead-specked nose, “comics are already in their perfect medium and require no film representation at all.” You might be right, despite the cloud of halitosis you belched in making that comment. But Marvel comics has made a bunch of superhero movies in the 2000s that are entertaining and enjoyable. They even made a pretty good movie around their clown costume conglomerate, The Avengers, which collects a bunch of well-known Marvel heroes, many of them already established in their own films.

That’s the first reason that the Justice League movie shouldn’t be made: we haven’t seen decent representation of the heroes involved outside of comic books and cartoons. And let’s face it, only nerds and fatties watch cartoons and read comic books. The rest of the world will be scratching their heads wondering why a hero like the Flash exists when there is already an even buffer dude named Superman who can move at super-speed. Batman as represented in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy obviously doesn’t exist in a universe populated by other superheroes, and besides–spoiler alert for this movie that’s been out for six months–Bruce Wayne gives up the Batman mantle at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. It would seriously taint an otherwise solid trilogy if DC dragged the same character out of retirement so he could fight space fish with Dr. Fate and Plastic Man. The implication of the article linked in the first paragraph is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will play Batman in the Justice League movie, tying it to the Nolan trilogy since Gordon-Levitt was in the last movie. But that strikes me as totally unnecessary and stupid. For one thing, this would mean that Bruce Wayne will not be Batman in the Justice League movie, which will thoroughly befuddle and irritate the average person who is familiar with popular representations of Batman. For another thing, it’s entirely unnecessary. The tale of Batman is timeless, it can be (and has been) told and re-told a lot of ways, provided the basic tenet–that the son of wealthy socialites deals with the trauma of having watched his parents get gunned down before him by dressing up like a bat–remains the same. Jospeh Gordon-Levitt could fit that bill well enough, particularly if he’s to be surrounded by other heroes in their technicolor dreamcoats. He would be a cog in the Justice League machine, so a fully fleshed-out character may not be necessary.

But even given that fact, a Justice League movie would only serve the highlight the fact that DC has made little progress ingratiating their characters with the general public. Where is the long-rumored Wonder Woman movie? How about an attempt at telling Hawkman’s fairly intricate origin story outside of a film that will have to squeeze in the characterizations of at least half a dozen super folks? Baby steps, people. This apparent need for DC to skip to the end of the story was the main flaw in the Green Lantern movie. Yes, as I wrote before, Ryan Reynolds was mis-cast in his role as Hal Jordan. But it might have been a serviceable movie had his character not gone from ordinary test pilot to a cgi space cop battling the oldest evil in the universe in the space of one movie. In the comics, Hal Jordan doesn’t even get contacted by the Intergalactic Nerd Cops until he’s dicked around with his new ring for a while. They might have stretched the Green Lantern story into two and three movies, instead of making one largely incomprehensible piece of shit. And that’s what we’re looking at in a Justice League movie in two years.

It’s the movie few people understand and nobody wants. Maybe if I thought they’d do the Justice League from Keith Giffen’s run in the 1980s, I’d get on board. That was a group of secondary heroes doing a kind of Moonlighting/Hill Street Blues type of thing, and the characters were evinced through dialogue with each other. I guess I fear that the Justice League movie in 2015 might open with Batman and Superman standing on the bridge of their satellite headquarters, then during the credits they get attacked by Starro the space monster. Twenty minutes later, they’re already on an alternate earth fighting Owlman and Ultraman. By the last half hour of the movie, they’re replaying the events of Infinite Crisis to a thoroughly bewildered and bored audience. But maybe I’m too pessimistic. Or maybe I ACTUALLY WATCHED THAT FUCKING GREEN LANTERN MOVIE WITH RYAN REYNOLDS AND I WANT MY GODDAMNED TWO HOURS BACK.

Maus vs. Watchmen

24 Oct

There are two graphic novels that get mentioned in circles where people do not read graphic novels: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. These two titles are considered more “literary” than your average comic book fare, and for good reason. Maus did earn a Pulitzer Prize, among other acclaims, and Watchmen is the only graphic novel to receive the Hugo Book Award. The two works are very special, and couldn’t be more different: Maus is a roughly-drawn, black-and-white memoir, while Watchmen is a full-color superhero story with some social commentary. Why, then, do both of these books get bandied about by smarty-pants comic book snobs? You’d think that fans in general would eschew one or the other, being that they are so contrasted. It would be like if your two favorite foods were chocolate and parsley.

The main thing that Watchmen and Maus share is that they’re in their perfect medium: comics. As straight text books they would be too complicated, as cartoons or movies they lose all of their frozen-frame nuances. Maus is primarily the retelling of the author’s father’s experience in Jewish ghettos and concentration camps during the Nazi regime in Europe. He does so by portraying the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, and other ethnic groups as various animals. In the second book in this two-part work, the author addresses the reader directly, in human form, but with a mouse mask obscuring his face. This is a gimmick that would not work in written form, it would make absolutely no sense. Watchmen is even better-suited for the comic book format since it is at once a commentary on comic book history and the superhero genre, as well as an engaging narrative about a compelling cast of fictional characters. There is even a comic book within Watchmen, a pirate-themed title called Tales of the Black Freighter, the events of which parallel occurences in the main tale, in (what has since become) traditional Alan Moore style. Indeed, I worried about how this might be handled in the Scott Snyder film version of Watchmen; to have a meta comic within a movie isn’t very meta at all. Happily, they excised it from the movie altogether and instead told only the surface story, leaving the unworkable comic book commentary in the book where it belongs (there was a butchering of Tales of the Black Freighter in horrible cartoon form on some DVD editions, but we can pretend it didn’t happen.)

What interests me is that these two wildly different books get mentioned so often during discussions of the genre. We’re certainly not suffering from a dearth of graphic novels, high-falutin’ or otherwise. The obvious answer is that these were two of the first graphic novels to treat the genre seriously–not the first, but two of the first (he wrote, trying to stave off a lot of angry comments by comic book nerds). These books came out in the 1980s, which is an important decade for comic books for two reasons: one is that the model for comics distribution changed so that publishers could ship books directly to comic book stores. This affected comics because it connected the fan base more securely to publishers, who were no longer jockeying for position on the same racks that carried People magazine and Newsweek. But the other thing that happened in the 1980s, the thing I believe is more profound than and may have contributed greatly to the creation of a direct distribution model, is that baby boomers entered the middle class en masse, and started to pine for their younger days when they’d read Silver Age comic books, safely nestled in their nuclear fallout bunkers and dreaming of Russian space dogs. Or something like that. My father, one of the aforementioned baby boomers, had tomes upon tomes collecting various comic books and comic strips from his childhood, and throughout my time growing up would regularly bring home newer editions. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that I was seeing something relatively new and unique to my parents’ generation, who had grown up squirreling comics in the bottom of their clothes closet, only to have them thrown away by mom during freshman year away at college. For my part, this reference material gave me the opportunity to learn about Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and EC’s The Vault of Horror. I was able to read an entire year’s worth of Popeye comic strips, then put that aside to look at the origin issue of Plastic Man.

As mentioned before, I don’t buy “floppy” comic books, I prefer the collected trade editions and standalone graphic novels when it comes to my panel stories. I think this is partially owed to the fact that there were so many comic book books around my house when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that it might be weird to own and pursue such things. My dad is very literate, always reading two and often three beefy books at a time, but that doesn’t stop him from poring lovingly over old issues of Donald Duck or the collected Barney Google strips. I think that this is a somewhat modern mindset: many of my peers do the same as I do, ignoring floppy comics and waiting patiently for them to appear as inevitable trade editions. So you might see me reading The Epic of New York City on the subway, or you might see me reading Vertigo’s Preacher comic series. Arguing whether or not comic books are actual art or should be taken seriously is dead, you either think comics are worthwhile or you don’t. Now the discussion turns to: what are the greatest examples in the medium of notch-bound graphic novels and collected trade editions?

The answer, apparently, is Maus and Watchmen. I’ve recommended these books many times, the former for people who have never read a comic book or any sequential art beyond the Peanuts comic strip, and the latter for people who have fodt memories of reading funnybooks as a kid, but haven’t so much as cracked the four-color cover of a comic in decades. Each seems to serve its purpose, both books routinely impress their readers. In fact, the persistence of these titles as viable books is a testament to their validity. You can go back and read the first issues of Spider-Man and learn of his origins, his awkward teenage gawkiness and struggle to use his powers wisely. But you could never appreciate these comics without the context of their production. Watchmen and Maus, both works fixed in specific times and real places, endure long after we stopped giving a shit about The New Teen Titans and their decidedly yuppie angst. Which is the better title? That’s impossible to say, for while they can be compared on basis of genre, they can’t be compared on many other levels. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll say Watchmen is the better book, because it is printed in color. Take that, Spiegelman.

Sins of the Father

18 Apr

For as long as I could remember, my dad’s evening commute included a one-mile walk from the 7 train’s terminus at Main Street, Flushing to our two-family home in Auburndale. Usually, he would come sauntering through the door, whistling some complicated tune and swinging his canvas briefcase like a happy grade-schooler handling his lunchbox. He’d maintain this jocular mood while walking up the steps to our second-floor apartment, then his happiness would disperse and he’d adopt his regular sour puss in preparation for what was to come–for very often, there was some situation involving my brother. Adem was caught cutting class again. Adem drank all the beer in the house. Adem punched the bathroom mirror, shattering it and lacerating his hands with the shards. In the ten seconds it took for my father to traverse the hallway between the front door and the door to our apartment, between his guises as Employed Guy and Punitive Father, you could catch a glimpse of the man in his natural state, unencumbered by responsibilities and ethics and harsh realities. And you know, I’m glad he had that much. Because as bad as my brother could be, there are plenty of dads who don’t get even that time to be themselves, to be absolved of their own anger and guilt and whatever other stupid feelings parents have towards their wayward children. For want of a twenty-minute walk home from the subway, other dads have no respite at all.

Take, for instance, Commissioner James Gordon, that well-known fictional character from the Batman universe. Doggedly devoted to his job and a high-minded concept of justice, Gordon is commonly depicted sympathetically by applicable funny book writers, sort of the “good cop” to Batman’s “bad cop.” But he is not without his faults, and along with his awards and trophies and commendations for stellar police work, Gordon is also the owner of one failed marriage, one second wife tragically murdered in the line of duty, a handful of crooked cops making merry on his watch, and other assorted failures and derogatory accusations. These hurdles, they wear on any man, even dads. And Commissioner Gordon is a dad, to his adopted daughter (in the current iteration) Barbara Gordon and his biological son, James Gordon, Jr.

Oh, you don’t know about James Gordon, Jr.? You don’t remember when, as a baby, he was rescued by Bruce Wayne in Batman: Year One? That act of heroism is why then-Captain Gordon started trusting Batman in the first place. See, now you remember, but you didn’t remember before because James, Jr. appears in Batman: Year One and practically nowhere else. He figures prominently in the well-done graphic novel Night Cries by Archie Goodwyn–in which we actually see Gordon’s first wife separate from him and move to Chicago–but otherwise, we don’t learn too much about the lil tyke. We’re so intimate with Barbara Gordon that we can predict her menstrual cycle, but James Gordon, Jr. remains an enigma.

Until the story arc contained in Batman: The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder. Perhaps you’ve been avoiding reading recent Batman fare because all of the established constants of the mythological world he inhabits are perpetually shifting as of late. Or maybe you never gave a shit about Batman and are asking yourself why you’ve read this much of my review. For the purposes of The Black Mirror, it’s only important to know that the usual Batman, Bruce Wayne, has taken leave and left his ward, Dick Grayson (aka Nightwing, aka the first Robin) to wear the Batman costume. Get all that? So where the Bruce Wayne Batman is all brooding and large swaths of black ink, the Dick Grayson Batman is more convivial and happy, preferring the high-flying trapeze routines recalled from his youth as a circus performer to wallowing in the filthy streets, violently separating miscreants from their teeth. Got all that? Any questions? Good. You should have questions.

So in The Black Mirror, you’ve got Dick Grayson playing Batman, trying to fill the shoes worn by his adoptive father, Bruce Wayne. You’ve got the bastard daughter of mafia boss Tony Zucco, now a bank manager trying to escape from the shadow of her biological dad’s criminal past. And you’ve got James Gordon, Jr., who approaches his poppa with an apparently sincere desire to reconnect with his family. The rub is that James Junior is a psychopath, he does not feel empathy for his fellow man, and is suspected by his dad of having committed several violent crimes. Intertwining all of these characters, The Black Mirror challenges the idealized nature of father/son relationships, affirming the dichotomy of being any member of a family and its contradictions. Parents are sometimes required to dole tough love, children need to be self-reliant and independent in order to prove that they’ve been raised with due attention. Dealing with members of your immediate family can sometimes be like looking into a mirror, a black mirror at that, a very similar reflection turned unfamiliar by obfuscating the features we expect to see.

And that, my patient readers, is where The Black Mirror fails. For while I was able to create an adequate metaphor for the story based on the title of this trade collection, Todd Snyder goes on for the entire run about how Gotham City is “hungry,” how it feeds on pain or whatever trite bullshit you want to assume about a city that’s positively famished. Sure, Gotham City is hungry, it’s also sleepy and sneezy and Doc if you sit and think about it long enough. You can apply virtually any metaphor on a fictional city, so why Snyder insisted on going to the long way around to describe its hunger is beyond me. It’s called Black Mirror, many parent/child relationships can be construed as each person being a mirror for the other, and sometimes that mirror is blackened in that we see things about ourselves that might not be pleasant. How does a starving city play into this? What does a corrupting, peckish city have to do with fathers and sons? Very little, I think, and Snyder doesn’t seem to care enough to draw even those parallels. It’s more like he wanted a noir concept to run through the series in order to tie the narrative together, but either didn’t see or care to acknowledge the lay-up concept. No matter. It’s disappointing to see an easily-fielded ball dropped, but it doesn’t mar this engaging story terribly. Check it out, Batman fans.

Comics Worth Avoiding: Piranha Press

24 Jan

I have a confession to make: I never really liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I got into the comic book around 1987 because I had a crush on some girl who was into it. Wanting to impress her, I made an investment of time and money (the former mine, the latter my parents’) to get the first four trade editions of the comics and become an expert overnight. There were aspects I enjoyed, such as the unsubtle satire of Marvel Comics’ writing and the fact that it was independently-produced, but by and large I felt it was boring. The only thing oddball about the series, in comic book terms, was the title. The characters went through the same one-dimensional foibles and well-timed action scenes as any other dumb superhero book on the market, and did it worse than a lot them besides. But for an excuse to hang around this girl, I got into the Turtles and acted like a devoted fan. We even assumed the characters’ monikers as our nicknames: I think she was Donatello, I was Raphael.

The massive popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the industry-wide shit storm that followed has been well-documented and opined upon. I don’t want to do that. I want to relate my memories of the time, and to my recollection, virtually all of that black-and-white comics shit was awful. In the wake of the Turtles’ direct market success were dozens if not hundreds of sub-par, cheapo action comics, seemingly written by retards and drawn by spastics. I remember a direct Turtles’ knock-off about radioactive hamsters or something, a third-rate parody of second-rate satire. I recall a comic with the tantalizing title of Reagan’s Raiders. I didn’t take any of this shit seriously, and neither did anyone I knew. Maybe I was a little too young to appreciate this crummy renaissance of underground comix, and it was all enjoying robust sales and positive critique among the older high school crowd. But the prepubescent set that I ran with thought the black-and-white comic books revolution was a load of bullshit.

Even worse than these black-and-white action comics were the black-and-white “artsy” comics, each attempting to emulate American Splendor in its own way, most of them falling well short of that relatively attainable goal. If we weren’t buying Hamster Vice, we sure as fuck weren’t going to check out some girl’s maudlin poem framed by a bunch of doodles she made while chatting on the telephone. It was just a lot of garbage that got play during a brief sliver of time when speculating on comic book collecting was profitable and trendy. And that’s where I remember Piranha Press stepped in, DC Comics’ answer to the unasked question that was the chaotic landscape of comic books in the late 1980s. Again, someone more knowledgeable and capable than I can detail the wherefores and particulars of how the imprint began. I was only familiar with the title because (as mentioned before) my father worked in comic books and brought home every Marvel and DC title, every week. That meant I was taking crap like Secret Wars II and Piranha Press titles along with the Batman.

Like I say, I don’t know the specifics behind how Piranha Press began, but I can guess that it was DC’s attempt to exploit the burgeoning black-and-white comics market. They probably appointed someone eccentric to head it up, and he hired a bunch of his friends, regardless of their talent and acumen. What resulted was a sporadic but runny stream of shit that spewed forth from DC like a million continuity reboots. DC was enjoying some great success in the adult comics market with graphic novels like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, yet the stuff coming from its “funny books for folks what don’t like funny books” line was the most puerile, forgettable claptrap. There was a series called Gregory by Marc Hempel that was a study in wasting the reader’s time. And there was this ridiculous series called Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children that featured these rejects from a introductory creative writing class printed alongside grotesque–and possibly well-rendered–pen and wash drawings, however you couldn’t tell how good they might be because the black-and-white pulp printing turned them into featureless grey smudges. And I was ostensibly getting copies direct from the printer, not handled and shuffled around by some distributor or store owner. I’m guessing the hapless fools who actually purchased copies of Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children thought it was a story interspersed with a series of Rorschach blots.

No comic exemplifies the backwards stupidity of Piranha Press and its low standards than Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn. I’ve hated this comic for years, but before writing this essay, I did a search online to see how many people agreed with my accurate and unassailable assessment of this junk. I was surprised to find mostly positive reviews of the work, describing it as quirky and innovative and a whole bunch of other shit that flat out does not apply. I like Kyle Baker, I think he’s a terrific draftsman, and Why I Hate Saturn is, for the most part, meticulously drawn and well-paced. The lettering is also kind of fun. But the story is so meandering and pointless that you end up wishing the words were excised altogether so you could flip through the nice pictures unmolested. It’s clear that the deadline was approaching fast while creating this book, since the last half of the story is jammed in the last eight or so pages. The comic, like Piranha Press as a whole, is a nice experiment that ultimately fails miserably. However, Piranha Press did sort of morph into the Vertigo imprint, so it did some good in the world.

Good Lord! *Choke*: Supernatural Superheroes

12 Aug

I mentioned already that one thing I like a lot about crappy horror comics from the 1960s and 70s is that they consist of encapsulated, one-off stories that don’t involve superheroes and their stupid fucking personal dilemmas. However, I was lying when I wrote that. Horror comics (and their nearly identical cousins, war comics) would routinely showcase heroes and serial stories in an effort to get people to buy the stupid things on a regular basis. In the post-Golden Age era, I think the first hero team created solely to deal with supernatural and monster-sized threats was Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown, who debuted in a decidedly non-horror comic, Showcase number six. Consisting of four daredevils with no super powers, the Challengers would take on any job too dangerous or weird for usual government task forces and agencies, which implies that until they came on the scene we were totally vulnerable to countless attacks by inter-dimensional squid and gigantic beasts made entirely from atomic energy.

There were often regular serial features included in these horror comics, almost always to bad effect (and quite often, only in the DC titles). Dr. 13: The Ghost-Breaker was featured as the last story in issues of Ghosts from 1980-1981, questionably chronicling a character who debunked hauntings in a comic titled If You Don’t Believe in GHOSTS We Challenge You to Read True Tales of the Weird and Supernatural. Johnny Peril, an “adventurer of the weird,” was featured in issues of The Unexpected. And most of these DC horror comics were hosted by some forgettable Vampira reject (no dis to Cain and Abel), a throwback to EC Comics’ trio of witches that hosted their horror titles. But there is one group of superheroes who, though they arguably did not debut in the pages of any horror comic, are the best defenders of humanity against supernatural forces bar none. And that group of heroes is known as the Doom Patrol.

I first became familiar with the Doom Patrol when I was in my first year of junior high and Grant Morrison had taken over writing duties for a resurrected version of this weird team’s title. I was unaware of their legacy at the time, though it didn’t impede my enjoyment of the series under Morrison’s authorship one bit. I read it for a little while, until my dad quit working for DC Comics (for the second time) and I stopped thinking about the Doom Patrol. I forgot about the series completely, in fact, until the late 1990s when I began creeping my way back into comics by way of trade collections and saw it in a burgeoning section of Vertigo titles at Cosmic Comics on West 23rd Street (now Manhattan Comics under seemingly new ownership). I remembered having enjoyed the series as a pubescent pre-teen and vowed to pick it up again sometime, after I’d waded through The Preacher and collections of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Having already tested the comic years earlier, I felt sure that I would like it, unlike my hit-or-miss attempts at reading DMZ or Ex Machina.

And then, I forgot about it for another eight years.

Eventually, I read through Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol and loved every weird, surreal minute of it. It was, and remains, the best self-aware comic–yes, even better than Morrison’s Animal Man and John Byrne’s She-Hulk–and this title is truly the only one of its type. There are plenty of superhero teams with weird abilities that secretly keep the space-time continuum in check, but how many of them also have issues dedicated to complete parody and satire of other genres? I read through the entire six paperback run of Doom Patrol in about a week, then re-read it, then did something I could never have done when I read the first issue in 1987: I went on the internet and did a search for “Doom Patrol.” And there, I made a startling discovery: Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol wasn’t the first one, in fact it wasn’t even the second or the third. The first Doom Patrol series began publication in 1963, a few months before John Kennedy’s brains splattered his wife’s dress in the back of a convertible in Dallas. At that point, being who I am, I determined to read the original series and learn more about this strange group of freaks that saved the world so many times from unseen and incomprehensible disasters.

Then, I forgot about it for three more years.

About a month ago, I was poking around that venerable New York institution The Strand, and I discovered volumes 1-4 of the DC Classics Archives edition of Doom Patrol at a very affordable price, and I quickly snapped them up. I am no stranger to the Silver Age of comic books, having learned long ago to read these titles with my tongue planted firmly in cheek when regarding the patently obvious pandering and ridiculous pseudo-science that is their hallmark. I began reading these hardback editions, and you know…I started to like them. Really like them, not just in a detached, ironic way. The Doom Patrol were freaks, yes, and their stories formulaic and largely predictable (though I could never have predicted a villain as stupid and weird as Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man), and yet there was something more real about these odd characters, more real to me than billionaire Bruce Wayne or zit-faced Peter Parker. The action is telegraphed: wheelchair-bound leader Niles Caulder gets a distress signal and sends the team out to deal with some incorrigible disaster. But in between the action, there are quips, quarrels, self-reflective statements that make these fictional mutants seem much more human. There’s even a marriage and an adoption within the series, a rare Silver Age moment where there’s a change to the plot that isn’t wiped away by the next issue. I think the best example of this kind of chicanery was when the Doom Patrol set out to find a group of atomic mutants bent on destroying the world with their eerie mutant powers (which consisted of them shooting rays out of their eyes and/or limbs). The team splits up to cover more ground, and in doing so two ancillary members of the group, Mento and his adopted son Beast Boy (later Changeling, then Beast Boy again) discover the Abominable Snowman. The creature starts to attack, but Beast Boy thwarts the Snowman by showing him a picture of Alfred E. Newman of MAD magazine fame. It’s a little aside that has nothing to do with the immediate story but which sets the tone for the series nicely.

I liked the first four volumes so much, I went and found the final, fifth volume, where the Doom Patrol actually sacrifices their lives in order to save a remote fishing village in Maine (under stupidly complicated circumstances, take my word for it). How many comic book series end with the protagonists dying? However, no comic book series ever “ends,” as evidenced by the subsequent versions of the Doom Patrol that continue to the date of this writing. Having read only two authors’ work on it, I am far from an expert, but in my opinion the Doom Patrol are the best bunch of supernatural superheroes, or perhaps superheroes of the supernatural, in comic books. If only they’d been building superintendents, they’d be supernatural superhero supers.

I can’t end this without addressing a bit of controversy: the contention that Marvel Comics bit the idea for the X-Men from DC Comics’ Doom Patrol, and the lesser controversy that the idea for the Doom Patrol came from Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Those uncanny Marvel muties debuted three months after Doom Patrol, suggesting that a direct cribbing is unlikely, yet a salacious rumor persists that shadowy double agents of Marvel overheard Arnold Drake pitching the idea for Doom Patrol and scurried back to Stan Lee to divulge this million-dollar notion. Except it didn’t actually make DC a million dollars, so clearly the concept was wielded more effectively by Kirby and Lee. Whatever the case and its thin premises, I don’t think it matters who came up with the idea first. Sympathetic uglies have been saviors of luscious damsels throughout literary history, and if these guys hadn’t thought up the idea, some other loser eventually would have. In conclusion, comic books are for nerds and if you’ve read this to the end then you definitely are one.

The Dark Knight Rankles

20 Jul

My hordes of faithful readers already know that I’m a pretty big fan of Batman. I know I’m not his only fan, and I don’t think I’m his number one fan, but I think Batman is cool as shit and I’ve followed his comic book exploits religiously since I was about eleven years old. I’ve even gone back to get reprints of older Batman comics so I could get the full scoop on this enigmatic multi-billionaire superhero–yes, even many of the incredibly shitty Batman comics from the 1950s where he hangs out with space aliens and crap like that. Turns out that my research was for nothing, since DC has rebooted their overall continuity more times than I care to remember, effectively doing away with Batman’s past right after the point that his parents’ lifeless forms crumpled in Crime Alley, leaving poor Brucie Wayne an orphan.

In 2012, the final movie of Christopher Nolan’s triumphant Batman trilogy comes out, and I am pretty excited about it. “Geeked out” would be a better term, as I’ve been on the internet speculating about this imminent film since before the last movie was even out of theaters. Of particular consideration was which members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery would be facing off with the Dark Knight in the last chapter of Nolan’s saga. Pretty much every name was thrown out, and several were derided and discarded by more vociferous fans as not being in tune with Nolan’s “realistic” portrayal of Batman. Among the villains assumed to be too weird for the movie were Poison Ivy, the Penguin, and Killer Croc.

Which criminal has been confirmed? Bane, that South American in a luchador’s mask whose mass increases by a factor of ten when he shoots himself up with specially-formulated steroids.

When Christopher Nolan said he wouldn’t brook any silliness in his Batman movies, I assumed this was only in contrast to the prior live action series directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Because, to my mind, if you’re going to make a Batman movie, there’s going to be some silliness in there. Once you assume that one of the world’s wealthiest men would suit up as a bat in order to pummel criminals more efficently, then you can pretty much go wherever you want with the story. In actual reality, a man like that would be locked up and the key hidden in a stack of All-Star Batman and Robin comic books, never to be found again. I mean, the last movie had Two Face in it, for crying out loud, and featured a guy with half of his face burned off and an eye hanging out of its socket hopping out of his hospital bed to gain haphazard revenge on people who, you know, didn’t have half of their faces burned off. That fairly well stretches the limit of credibility, as far as I’m concerned.

Why Bane is a more sensible villain than, say, the Penguin is also beyond my comprehension. In medical terms, Bane’s existence (heh) is a load of grade A horse shit, while the Penguin is just a dumpy little guy named Oswald Cobblepot that has a lot of trick umbrellas. In fact, there’s no real reason a guy like the Penguin couldn’t exist, except maybe that an umbrella-helicopter wouldn’t actually work. Also, he’s alarmingly agile for a man with Danny DeVito’s body type. The more important question here is: why are we trying to make a “realistic” Batman movie? Sometimes realism can show all of your flaws, like in the live action Garfield movies. We knew he was a fucking annoying and lazy cat, but only computer graphics could show us how godawful ugly he is.

The very idea of a serious approach to Batman is patently retarded. “Finally! The truth can be told about the lonely billionaire who swings above city rooftops in his underwear.” It’s this same impetus that makes comics fans and creators alike such sticklers for continuity, as if consistency regarding these decades-old fictional characters means fuck all. What would Batman be like in the real world? Most likely, he’d be dead, tripped up by one of his own Bat-laces or felled by a well-placed bullet from the gun spray of some gangbanger. We love Batman, we don’t want him to die. So let him fight Poison Ivy and leave the realistic, serious criminals to that Jason Bourne guy.

Good Lord! *Choke*

15 Jul

A childhood friend of my father’s moved to sunny Los Angeles after divorcing his wife. It was around 1985, and in preparation for this cross-country jaunt, the guy had to sort through a large collection of comic books. A tremendous collection of comic books, in fact. Three entire floors of a house worth of comic books, all stacked on top of each other, often to the ceiling and blocking out the entrances of several rooms. My brother, my friend and I were all enlisted to deal with this mass of funny books, perhaps for some nominal pay but with the implicit understanding that we would be making off with some printed goodies.

Unfortunately, at this time, my brother, my friend and I knew little to nothing about comic books. My brother liked Judge Dredd, which was printed on much better paper in that funny, oversized trim that the United Kingdom uses for their periodicals. I was a big fan of Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Bros., reprints of which I’d pilfered from my father’s nightstand. I don’t recall that my friend liked any comics at the time, but if he did they certainly weren’t his core interest. The three of us beheld a trove that could have stocked its own comic book convention, and none of us had any idea what it was worth or what to do with it. My brother made off with a few issues of Playboy magazine and some of the more salacious-looking Epic line of comics. My friend took a box of Vigilante issue number one, which I assume he is still sitting on in wait of a cushy retirement. And I took home a box full of crappy horror comics from the 1970s.

Horror comics have a long and venerated tradition, taking off just as superheroes were waning in popularity after World War II. The great grandpappy of them all was Bill Gaines of MAD magazine notoriety, who took over his dad’s educational comics publishing business and turned it into something much more profitable. It was his books The Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Horror, along with half a dozen other titles, that were specially targeted as obscene by Frederic Wertham in his book Seduction of the Innocent. Buckling almost immediately to social pressure, Gaines’ Entertaining Comics dropped much of their horror and war comics line to concentrate on humor and romance. These condemned tomes are well-known by fans of comic books and Americana, with their bloody, high-quality artwork and cold, stark writing produced by a Leroy lettering set. Imagined hideous cackles of “Eh…eh…eh…” and almost audible shrieks of “Good Lord! *Choke*” were mainstays of this abolished art form.

Though it wasn’t quite abolished, was it? Because there I was, in 1985, holding comics published ten and twenty years earlier and with no foreknowledge of their tortured history. I guess some writers and artists couldn’t give up the game of fear, for horror comics continued to be produced, by both DC and Marvel, until the early 1980s. These were the comics I held in my hands, not the illustrious EC Comics of the 1950s. What I had were a whole bunch of Tales of the Unexpected, Where Monsters Dwell, and GHOSTS. I grabbed about sixty of these for want of knowing what else to take, and because our gracious benefactor wasn’t exactly willing to part with anything good. I took these comics home and, as is my fashion, proceeded to devour them instantly. I loved every poorly-rendered page and obvious ironic twist that hoisted each story’s antagonist by his own petard. I loved them so much, I read them again. And again. And again.

I’ve noted that I was never much of a comic book collector, but these shitty horror comics I did collect, kept in an empty wine bottle box in a corner of my room for instant and incessant retrieval. I won’t say that some of these comics weren’t rendered to shreds by sneakered feet as they lay on the floor of my bedroom, I won’t say that some choice issues didn’t end up in the garbage after one of my mother’s periodic whirlwind bedroom cleaning sprees that stopped happening around the time I reached puberty. But while I saw practically every other comic book I owned as disposable, these I regarded as precious. In fact, I still own the bulk of them to this day, each one creased and torn and fiscally ruined through repeated handling by my greasy hands. I think they’re still in the same wine box, even. I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

A typical story in these comics went like this: two gentlemen who adore the same woman enter business together. Their business thrives, and both men attempt to woo the object of their collective affections, but ultimately she chooses one man over the other and they marry. The loser in this scenario seems affable and conciliatory, but secretly he harbors a lot of spite and murderous revenge fantasies. The jilted lover kills his business partner in a way that seems accidental, often making it look like a mishap that happened on the job. For instance, if the two men are pearl divers, then the murderer would fix his victim’s scuba gear to malfunction under water. If the men own a circus, then the killer might release one of the big top’s tigers at an appropriate time and place that will result in the victim being mauled. If they were rabbit breeders, then the victim might be thrown into a vat of bunnies and left to suffocate in fluffy softness. That last scenario never happened in any comic I read, but it should have.

The newly-wedded widow mourns this loss, and the bloodthirsty executioner exploits her vulnerability to become her lover. There is a brief period of happiness for the murderous criminal, often lasting four panels or less, but eventually the butcher is killed, very often by the flesh-mottled skeletonized corpse of his business partner. This is usually where the story ends, so we can only assume that this walking zombie goes on to terrorize the public while his beleaguered wife is committed to a mental institution for the rest of her life. Everything wrapped up in a tidy package, justice is served. Mind you, every issue of these stupid comics had a minimum of three individual stories, each one following a similar plot. So once you’re done reading about one terrifying supernatural incident, you’ve got to steel yourself for at least two more. Or, in the way I read them, two dozen more.

I think that my predilection to grab these horror comics over The New Teen Titans or whatever says a lot about my sensibilities and what I like. Horror comics of the 60s and 70s are, like shitty movies: successful in their failures, earnest in their endeavors but falling short of the mark more often than not. They feature shabbily-drawn monsters, wraiths, and demons, each just a little bit better than what you could scratch out yourself with ball-point pen in your loose leaf notebook. But what I believe was really enticing to me, what I think I can still appreciate about these comics, twenty-five years after first receiving them, is that they are all self-contained stories. Crummy, formulaic stories, but stories nonetheless, each one divvied into a satisfying, bite-sized chunk. I think something has been lost from comics since they did away with these kinds of titles so many years ago, titles that exist outside of the retarded canonical continuity that both Marvel and DC attempt to shore up with increasingly futile and overwrought attempts. Comic books don’t have to be about flying muscular people that beat alien starfish to puddles of goo, they can be about ordinary life, love, and shuffling, moss-strewn vengeance from beyond the grave.

Or, as I will show in part two of this essay, they can be about all of those things, and more.

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