Saturday, February 21, 2004

 
Early Saturday Morning -- Well, it's not too early, not for me, anyway. I've come down with a cold or something, and went to bed in a daze last night, tossed and turned between naps, and got up a couple of times to watch TV only to end up back in bed. All in all, a pretty lousy night. Wrote some reviews this morning, so hopefully we'll have a nice full review segment up on Monday, and hopefully a very special Five Questions unlike any I've done before.

 
Insulted and Injured -- Check out the newest group comics blog, Insult to Injury.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

 
Thursday Reading -- Lots of good stuff has gone up online in the last day or so:



 



Jim Crocker -- I first made the acquaintance of Jim Crocker on The Comic Book Industry Alliance's Delphi Forum, a discussion group for retailers, creators and other industry figures. I found his posts there to be insightful and intelligent, and was very interested in watching his experience as he guided what was then a new business, Modern Myths, a diverse and incredibly well-stocked comics shop in Northampton, Massachusetts. I've visited Jim's store a few times and gotten to know him in person and by e-mail, and have developed a great respect for his approach to comics retailing and life in general. I've visited only a handful of truly progressive comics stores that try to serve a full range of customers with as wide a range of comics as possible, and Modern Myths, as far as I can see, points the way to the future of comics retailing. After you've read Jim's answers to the Five Questions, see if you don't agree.

What drives you to be a comics retailer, and what would you say is the primary mission or vision that informs the way you manage your shop?

Like many careers, it’s something I ended up doing sort of by accident. In college, I was convinced I was going to take my theater degree on to New York and direct plays. A job on a small used bookstore that sold comics sidetracked that and I eventually figured out I really enjoyed the job more than the plays I was doing in the evening, and, possibly more significantly, was better at it.

The major motivating force behind my doing this every day boils down to the best effort to reward ratio of any job I’ve tried, including theater work. I work as hard at this job as anyone else does at whatever else they do, but retailing, or at least good retailing, means that a complete stranger walks into your place and leaves happier than when they walked in. It happens dozens or maybe even hundreds of times a day, and every time, it’s a reward for doing what I do, parceled out throughout the day. Whatever other petty hassles or daily grind I have to push through to get my work done is paid off by that particular dividend.

It’s also nice to see my cube-drone buddies sigh with wistful envy when they ask what I do for a living.

First and foremost, I want to run a store that looks and feels like a well-run independent bookstore you’d find in any relatively progressive college town or small city. We can write and speechify and blog until we’re blue in the face that comics are Ready for Prime Time, but if we don’t have places that women, kids, and new readers can feel comfortable and welcome, we’re not going to make much headway.

I spent several years working for the Borders mass-market bookstores, and after that it became pretty clear to me how a specialty store could succeed in their shadow by taking page from their own book, which was to look at what worked in independent bookstores and then replicate it on a mass scale using their size as an advantage. So we looked at mass-market bookstores and replicated what we could while using our size as an advantage. We offer everything they can that we’re able to: liberal return policies; no-obligation special orders; convenient operating hours; parking; clean public restrooms; racking by genre including a dedicated section for young readers; gift certificates; credit card acceptance; computerized inventory; and offset what we can’t with the advantages traditionally touted as the ways for comics shops to compete: a wide selection that includes used and O/P titles and a knowledgeable staff. Hopefully, the balance will appeal to both longtime fans and new readers, which is what we’re shooting for.

More generally, we’re an independent bookstore that happens to specialize in sequential storytelling, so we look to other successful independent bookstores for ideas about advertising, community outreach, and how to deal with competition from the chains, as well as cherry picking the best ideas from the Direct Market. It’s a genuinely mixed blessing when people walk in and remark that “I didn’t realize this was a comic shop… it looks like a regular bookstore.”

What is the biggest challenge facing you as a retailer?

In a nutshell, and not to be obtuse, it’s whatever I didn’t expect to be a challenge, because that means I won’t be prepared for it. The deck is stacked heavily in favor of large chain businesses in our economy, and every indication is that this situation is getting worse as opposed to better. There’s a reason that small businesses have such a high modern failure rate, and it’s that even the well-funded ones don’t have the capital to make too many mistakes or endure more than one or two unexpected sales-impacting events. Add on necessary but uncontrollable costs, particularly health care and weather-related stuff (our snow removal will cost a small fortune this year, for example), and that’s a lot of pressure that doesn’t have anything to do with actually selling comics.

The challenges inherent in the DM I deal with daily and they don’t frighten me because I can plan for them and have great resources (like the CBIA, Comics & Games Retailer Magazine, and private industry e-mail lists) to consult for help and bounce ideas off of. It’s the issues outside the purview of those discussions that cause the most trouble.

Or, with apologies, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

What do you believe the best method is to develop a growing customer base?

There are a number of ways to do this, and other retailers recommend many of them to me. I’m not nearly as good at guerilla marketing as I probably ought to be. We advertise less than we should.

Ultimately, my belief is that if I run the best store I can that word of mouth will go a long way to helping drive new customers to the store, because once they’re in the door, we’ll secure their business if they’re even remotely interested in what we’re selling, and that the viral nature of people with common interests will help without too much active intervention from us. When we ask how people heard about us, we get a majority answer of “a friend told me about you/I heard about you online/etc” over all the other responses. (My very favorite response is actually “I saw you when I drove by”, because it means someone stopped just because they saw “Comic Books” on the sign, without knowing anything else about us specifically, and they’re often the most pleasantly surprised.)

I am one of the people who believes that while we certainly need to expand the scope of our ambition beyond just our traditional fan base, chasing a mass audience like the kind enjoyed by, say, sports, or mainstream movies is not an efficient use of our time. We need to target the folks most likely to spend money in our store, as opposed to throwing ads at the wall to see what sticks.

That said, it’s my belief that the best effort that can be spent in ‘market development’ is in getting out of the store and into the Community to make your presence known in places where you’re likely to have an impact. One of the reasons we decided early on that we would have a staff is so that we could do just that. By attending conventions, especially ‘non-comics’ conventions like local SF and media Cons, we can actively go to potential customers rather than waiting for them to find us. Active participation in the local college events and various fandom groups means a potential pool of new customers every single semester, already predisposed to explore new stuff.

Separately, but related to this, is the fact that we sell graphic novels online. It’s a pretty simple site but it lists everything we carry new, and every sale we get through it helps support the larger mission of the store. Right now, it’s a very small portion of our sales, but it just about pays for all of our internet-related expenses, and is growing slowly. Internet outreach like our modest little proto-blog on LiveJournal and updates to our own website are particularly cool because they help keep in contact with both sets of customers at once and serve to reinforce the mission I mentioned above, but in a different context.

Tell me about the last great graphic novel you read.

The great GN I read most recently was Pedro & Me, which I reread in its entirety as a result of a contentious discussion regarding content advisories and warning labels on comics that’s going on in another forum. It holds up as one of the more human, affecting, and uncharacteristically emotionally vulnerable comics I can think of. Anyone who thinks that gays are somehow different than the rest of us should be tied to a chair and forced to read this book until they get it.

I read so much stuff that’s so different it’s really hard to nail down a single choice. Off the top of my head, I’ll say: LoEG 2 for collected GNs of genre stuff that’s appeared in periodical first, Planetes for manga, and Real Stuff for Literary/OGN.

I also just had a chance to really thoroughly read Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz, the retrospective by Chip Kidd, and I have to say it was like an epiphany… I haven’t gone back and read Peanuts in over 15 years, and rereading them now in the artfully designed context this book places them in left me nearly speechless with how genuinely seminal that work was. I was certainly looking forward to Fantagraphics’ forthcoming Complete Peanuts, but now I’m actually hungry for it, which is a good thing, because I think it’s a project that has a real possibility of generating some renewed popular interest in the classic comic strips more generally.

You live and work in a community (Northampton) that welcomes and embraces diversity, and in a state (Massachusetts) that is about to grant equal marriage rights to all, gays and lesbians included. I'm wondering how you feel about this and what impact you think it will have on your store and your community.

The specific issue of Massachusetts affirming equal rights for all citizens will have a pretty significant impact on my store in particular. Northampton has the highest concentration of lesbian citizens outside of San Francisco. This and the presence of the "Five Colleges" in the area make for a pretty progressive viewpoint regarding literature and the arts, and offers our store a unique opportunity to get comics into the hands of readers who are ready for them but would probably never have cause to enter a "traditional" comics shop.

We currently have one employee who is a lesbian in a long-term relationship who plan to get officially married when the state has worked out all the details, and two of the major stakeholders in the store are also a lesbian couple (who just celebrated their tenth anniversary!) living in Vermont under the auspices of the Civil Unions there who also plan to wed in Massachusetts when the option becomes available in May of this year.

Modern Myths specifically includes sexual orientation and gender status as protected classes (along with race, religion, physical handicap, national origin, etc.) in our diversity policy for hiring as well as companies we do business with, and has a standing company policy of offering benefits to domestic partners. Obviously, we're personally interested in the advancement of equal rights for gays and lesbians, but from our perspective it also makes very good business sense. We don't wear our political affiliation on our sleeves, and we do our best to leave discussions of contentious subjects like politics, religion, or the Red Sox at the door when we enter the store, but the obvious presence of a lesbian working in the store and a good selection of GLBT-friendly comics make it reasonably clear what our position is, and the community notices.

I think it's not unreasonable to expect that this situation will also mean a further influx not only of GLBT people seeking to gather in a region that respects their rights, but will also help to further build the larger progrssive community that will grow up as a consequence of the influx, as the friends, family, and support networks of those folks move to Massachusetts along with them in some cases. That we're set up to welcome them is not a coincidence, and a strategy that is not only in keeping with the spirit of the community of which we're a part, but also a sound business decision likely to help us secure new readers in a generally affluent, literate, and progressive customer demographic willing to spend significant entertainement dollars with businesses who welcome them and offer them something that speaks to their issues.

Stop by the Modern Myths website, and thanks to Jim for taking the time to wrangle the Five Questions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

 
Byrne Art a Fraud -- From a reader:

[The art is from] Ganthet's Tale...Page Six, bottom panel. The slick bastards who did this recoloured the image (Byrne was showing him as actually charging the battery, and thus there was this green glow which shifted all the colours around), and then added a cover logo from the Gerard Jones era of the book (just a guess from the look of it....)...very slick.

Told ya.

 
Old Pros, Old Hat -- Take a look at this image...




Whether this is true or not may be hinted at by the cover date and issue number. On the other hand, Warren Ellis really apparently is taking over Ultimate Fantastic Four as of #7, with Stuart Immonen drawing.

 

The Week in Comics -- I overslept this morning and am disgustingly behind in everything. So here's a list of what looks good in this week's comics, mostly sans commentary.

COMING WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 18TH

FANTAGRAPHICS

COMICS JOURNAL #258 (MR) $6.95 -- Editor Milo George's last full issue, packed with Steve Ditko Goodness. A must-read. Next month's will be too, for reasons very close to my heart.

AIT-PLANETLAR

DEMO #4 (Of 12) (MR) $2.95

IDW

WAKE THE DEAD #4 (Of 5) (MR) 3.99

DC COMICS

COUP DETAT WILDCATS VERSION 3.0 #3 (Of 4) (MR) 2.95
DC THE NEW FRONTIER #2 (Of 6) 6.95
HUMAN TARGET #7 (MR) 2.95

IMAGE

GRRL SCOUTS VOL 2 WORKS SUCKS TP 12.95
JACK STAFF VOL 1 EVERYTHING USED TO BE BLACK & WHITE TP 19.95
SAVAGE DRAGON #113 2.95

 
Reloaded with Duds -- Here's AK's take on Marvel's X non-event.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

 
Replacemats -- I find this NeilAlien post both sentimental and amusing.

 
Should Scars Be A Movie? -- It's an excellent graphic novel and highly recommended -- Marc Mason opines on if it should be turned into a movie.

 
A Crumb Off the Old Block -- Good profile of cartoonist Sophie Crumb, link courtesy of Artblog.

 
Previews Review -- Haven't had time to write up this week's The Week in Comics yet, but check out Christopher Butcher and Scott Robins's Previews Review for notes on this week's new releases. And thanks for the namecheck in this week's column, Chris. I promise that book was naff. You can have my copy if you want.

Joe Lawler has also weighed in on this week's new releases.

 
Confidential to Jim Henley -- Why do you think I hate you? (Link courtesy of a particularly rich Sean Collins comix and match entry).

 

Short, Sharp Shocks -- Now shorter and sharper than ever -- this week, at least. Valentine's Day and a coincidental three-day weekend ate into my writing time a bit, but here's a brief rundown of recent comics and whether they were any damned good at all.

James Kochalka's Sketchbook Diaries Volume Four -- You probably already know that The Sketchbook Diaries represent some of the most entertaining and enlightening autobiographical cartooning ever. In this volume, we see the next chapter begin in Kochalka's development as an artist and as a human being -- he and his wife Amy decide to have a baby. The year's worth of strips here also include a trip to the San Diego Comicon and numerous rock concerts. Kochalka's fame is odd and endearing and highly personal, and in this bargain-priced volume (eight bucks for a year's worth of daily cartoons), you get to feel what it's like to be James Kochalka, Superstar from the inside out. Vital work from a talent that is expanding our view of comics and the universe year by year. Grade: 5/5

Monokuro Kinderbook -- This 202 page graphic novel by Kan Takahama caught my eye with its elegant and understated design and won me over with its intriguing and autobiographical tales of life in Japan. The book features ten black and white tales of varying lengths, focusing on the enderly, artists, young lovers, children, a bartender -- real people, in other words. The stories are told in the kind of sideways, oblique way that we figure out the stories around us -- observation is rewarded as the details begin to fill themselves in, and it pays to study the details. Takahama is part of something called the "Nouvelle Manga" movement, according to a text piece, and is scheduled to have a piece in the next Comics Journal Winter Special. Her style strongly evokes David Mazzucchelli's in its deceptive simplicity and elegance of design -- and if you appreciate the aesthetic of Paul Hornschemeier, you'll feel at home here, too. This is a beautiful book from a talent that I want to read more from. You can view an untranslated preview of the artwork here. Grade: 5/5

Chosen #1 -- Mark Millar and Peter Gross deliver a current-day take on Christian mythology that wouldn't be at all out of place among such revered Vertigo titles as Sandman and Preacher. This looks to be the highlight of the Millarworld experiment, a thoughtful and intriguing extrapolation of the Jesus story with the best artwork I've ever seen Peter Gross deliver. Chosen should prove once and for all if Millar is in it to shock and awe or if he has higher creative goals -- the first issue indicates the latter by way of an unexpectedly compelling opening salvo. Grade: 4.5/5

Hard Time #1 -- Ugly, irrelevant, and made redundant by much better, similarly-themed books like Demo or even NYX. A pair of high school nerds shoot up the school, and one of them manifests superpowers during the Columbine-like events. Writer Steve Gerber's attempts at sociopolitical commentary are painful and embarrassing, as in the overweight African-American talk show hostess named "Opina," ha-ha-ha. Brian Hurtt's artwork is too simple for the obvious gravity meant to be implied by the plight of the characters, and it's absolutely crippled by the ghastly colour scheme. I just have no need or desire (or even ability) to read a full-length comic about blue people whose lives are occasionally brightened by outbursts of red. Based on Hard Time #1 and a handy preview of other titles in the back of the issue, I will be uniformly avoiding all future DC Focus titles. Grade: 0/5

Coup D'Etat #2: Stormwatch -- Not as good as the Sleeper story that preceeded it, but better than I had imagined. This second chapter of a four-issue crossover involves Stormwatch defying the Authority's, well, authority. As a sampler, it gives a good sense of what Stormwatch is about these days, although Micah Wright's characters have proven too ugly inside and out for me to manage to stay interested them very long. Grade: 3.9/5

 
Early Tuesday Blogging -- Oh, man, it is too early to be up, even for me. But the heat was down too low in the bedroom and it was freezing and my wife was snoring and gah, here I am.

Later this morning -- in just under 11 hours, in fact, I am interviewing the creator of one of last year's most powerful and interesting graphic novels. Then one week from today, I am doing a second interview, one that I've been working to set up for many months now, and that is probably the most exciting interview, for me, that I have ever been involved in.

Hopefully I'll be able to tell you more about those very soon.

All right, I'm up for the day, way too early. I'm going to go finish up some reviews and get on with it.

Monday, February 16, 2004

 


Tony Isabella -- There aren't many people that have seen as much comics history as Tony Isabella, or who are so generous in sharing their experience and wisdom. Here he answers the Five Questions.

Your recent statements about Black Lightning seem to inflame a certain underinformed segment of the online comics community. Given the murky nature of many contractual questions in the comics community, and the enormous inequity between publishers and creators, what would you like readers to know when it comes to the issues, both as they apply to you, and in general?

I’d like the readers to know that creative issues are not always or even often the cut-and-dried “work-for-hire” which publishers make them out to be. I’d also like them to realize that they do a great disservice to creators and their creations when they attribute some sort of parental benevolence to those publishers. Both creators and publishers are looking out for their own best interests, but I believe the interests of the readers are better served by creators than by corporations.

As for how the issues apply to me personally, a quick Google search will doubtless bring readers more information than can possibly be good for them or me. I’ve answered questions over and over again, and answered them honestly. If some readers choose to disparage me as a result, so be it. I knew that was a distinct possibility when I went public.

What's your fondest memory of working at Marvel and/or DC over the course of your career?

I can’t narrow it down to just one.

Getting to work with Stan Lee at the start of my comics career was a youthful dream come true and I still remember the first time that he complimented me on some turn of phrase in something I’d written.

As an editor, it was thrilling to give first or early assignments to writers and artists who then went on to have long and fruitful careers.

I once had a fellow writer come up to me and tell me that a scene I’d written in a comic book spoke directly to the problems he had been having in his life and that my “advice” helped him get through those problems.

My Black Lightning writing, especially the second series of stories I did with Eddy Newell, remains something of which I am very proud, no matter how much DC shafted me in the process. My first series of BL stories inspired at least three readers to become teachers. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I got to work with many of my comics heroes and became good friends with several of them. Developing SATAN’S SIX with Jack Kirby gave me a chance to get to know him and Roz a little better near the end of their lives. If I could get a laugh out of Jack, I knew I was doing my job well.

This subject could be an entire interview in itself. For all that the comics industry does to demean, diminish, and destroy creative talents, I don’t regret devoting my efforts to it. I entertained a great many readers, made some good friends, and achieved enormous satisfaction from my work.

What's your least fondest memory about working in the so-called "mainstream?"

The day I got fired from BLACK LIGHTNING, the second series, by Pat “the Rat” Garrahy...and the weeks that followed.

I don’t want to go into much detail, but I was angry and depressed for months afterwards. There wasn’t a person at DC who hadn’t come to realize that hiring Garrahy had been a terrible move on the part of the just-promoted Mike Carlin. I was shocked that Paul Levitz and the other executives upheld my unjust dismissal...because they had admitted to friends of mine that they knew it was an unjust and unwarranted dismissal. Against all fairness and logic, they held to the company line that you had to back editors over freelancers, even knowing that Garrahy’s career as a DC editor was going to be relatively short. As it was.

To add further insult to the injury, I quickly learned that every editorial door at DC was closed to me. They circled the wagons in support of an editor - Garrahy - who most of them neither liked nor respected. It was absolutely insane, especially since, again, many of these editors were telling friends of mine that they thought my dismissal was unjust. It was a bad time for me.

I still get angry and even depressed about that stuff from time to time, but those are momentary lapses of mercifully short duration. I’ll talk about it when I feel I must, but I don’t expect anyone at DC to make it right...or to even recognize that they should make it right.

That would be the quickest way for DC to get rid of me once and for all. If they tried to make it right, the shock would probably kill me. And then they’d probably take out a nice ad in COMICS BUYER’S GUIDE mourning my loss. Cynical, aren’t I?

One more thing. I only answered this question because you’re a pal of mine. However, having answered it, I must now make my doubtless futile attempt to ward off the usual online idiots...

Yes, I have personal grievances against DC Comics. Those personal grievances are not as important an issue as DC’s mistreatment of so many of its minority characters or the mainstream comics industry’s mistreatment of creators. If you have a quarter of a brain in your heads, you’ll realize that.

Dismiss me as a bitter old crank if you must, but don’t allow that to be the end of your discussion of those issues. I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of one writer don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy industry that demeans its characters and their creators. Someday you'll understand that.

What's your assessment of the current state of the comics industry, in regard to its treatment of creators and in general?

In the interest of keeping this answer from becoming a book, I’ll define comics industry as the traditional DC/Marvel/Dark Horse/etc comics industry.

Certainly SOME creators are being treated well, some because they are the flavors of the month, and some because they keep producing successful (as defined by the diminished expectations of the 2004 market) comics. However, it should be noted that continued success is, by no means, proof against abrupt termination. Look how many great writers and artists of the past two decades can’t get work, not because their efforts didn’t sell as well as those of the newer kids, but because editors and publishers perceived them as being old-fashioned and of no interest to the readers. Not that the editors and publishers have much of a clue as to who their readers are and/or where they will find new readers.

I miss the days when one editor would work with one writer and one artist to create great comics. Even with three storytellers, there was a clarity and a unity to the comics. These days, creatively, it seems to be all group-think and mimicry. Manga is selling, so let’s clumsily weld faux-manga stylings to our classic characters. We oughta be in pictures, so let’s write our comics as if they were screenplays and cast aside some of our best and most unique ways of telling stories. We can’t just let comics be comics; they have to be like something else.

Keep in mind these are generalized comments as per your question. There are still some brilliant editors and even publishers in this industry. But, overall, I don’t believe the skill levels of comics editors and publishers have kept pace with the skill levels of the better creators. I’d even characterize this situation as a crisis, one which hampers seasoned veterans and promising newcomers alike.

Earth-2 died for nothing.

As for the current state of the industry in general, how sad is it that we practically orgasm when a comic book sells the hundred thou copies which comics routinely sold in decades past? We’ve lowered our expectations as we’ve raised our prices.

American comic books, especially most of the periodicals, are not a good value for customers. The minimalist storytelling styles now in vogue mandate mediocre stories stretched to fit as many issues as will fill a trade paperback. I completely understand the long-term importance of those collections, but these stories should be good and rich enough to justify six or eight issues instead of the collection being used to justify the six or eight issues. Many of them aren’t.

American comic books can overcome the value gap by either being so satisfying the customer feels he’s getting entertainment equal to what he pays for them...or by offering him as many pages-per-dollar as he can get from SHONEN JUMP or manga collections. Creators and editors have to be better and more productive.

American comic books can also stop repeating themselves endlessly. The multiple Batman/Spider-Man/X-Men titles are stealing sales from each other and from titles that could otherwise be a healthy second tier for the publishers. How many Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus mini-series and specials can we reasonable expect to sell in the couple months the second Spidey movie will be in general release? Why do we think successful movies based on comics will sell those comics when they’ve almost never done so in the past? And why am I asking the questions when I’m the interview subject?

What are your creative plans for 2004?

I’m counting on every editor and publisher in the industry calling me with offers of work once you post this interview.

Failing that, my plan is to create new characters and tell stories with those characters. I’m currently developing three comics which would kind of fit into the genres of super-hero, horror, and crime. When I complete the first scripts and series bibles, I’ll shop them around to various publishers.

Once these properties fail to sell as comic books, I’ll rework them into novels and/or screenplays. Because I think it will be a lot more cost-effective and time-effective if I can get rejected three times with the same properties.

In addition to my comics writing plans, I have signed to write my weekly “Tony’s Tips” column for COMICS BUYER’S GUIDE through 2004. I’m also working towards getting my “Tony’s Online Tips” columns to post every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at WORLD FAMOUS COMICS. Humble though these venues may be, the relationships are among the most satisfying and supportive of my career. I hope they continue for many years to come.

I should also mention that Bob Ingersoll and I are eagerly awaiting sales reports on STAR TREK: THE CASE OF THE COLONIST’S CORPSE. If this “Sam Cogley Mystery” of ours is successful, it could turn out to be the first in a series of Sam Cogley mysteries. Since we had a blast writing the character and crafting the ins-and-outs of this sci-fi whodunit, and since we received wonderful encouragement and support on this novel from our editors and publisher, we would love to go back to the future and do it again.

Keep up with Tony's opinions by reading his long-running Online Tips column, and stop by his message board to say hi.

 
There Has to Be a Morning After -- Looks like Tim O'Neil has decided to fill an important hole left in the wake of Dirk Deppey putting Journalista! on hiatus. Here's Tim's list of comics news links.

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