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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: February 2012

Remember that Ben Stiller superhero spoof from 1999 called Mystery Men? Or the Bob Burden comic book it was based on?

Well, those aren’t the mystery men I’m talking about. Keep rewinding. To the 1930’s.

Before there were superheroes, there were mystery men. In fact, superheroes WERE mystery men. Look at Action Comics No. 6: “Dedicated to assisting the helpless and oppressed, is a Mystery-Man named Superman!” Victor Fox (Will Eisner’s boss) started publishing Mystery Men Comics in 1939. After its first issue, Marvel Comics switched its name to Marvel Mystery Comics.

And starting last year, mystery men are back at Marvel. There’s no comic shop in my town (I know, shocking), so I waited for the first reprint binding (did it really have to be hardback?) of David Liss and Patrick Zircher’s Mystery Men to appear in my mail box last month. The duo were tasked to create “all-new characters that evoke the pulp aesthetic but also felt like real Marvel characters.”

So as the U.S. reboots from the Great Recession, Marvel decides to rewrite its history to the start of the Great Depression. And like any look backwards to an imagined golden age (see Rick Santorum’s Presidential campaign), the results are a mash-up of fuzzy nostalgia and cold-blooded invention.

Mystery Men is set in 1932. A nightmare moment for the American economy, but a dream one for superheroes. The Shadow had premiered the previous Spring, and Doc Savage, the Depression’s second mightiest pulp phenomenon, would appear the following year, alongside runner-ups the Spider, the Phantom Detective, and (on radio) the Lone Ranger. Liss appropriately calls this “the murky pre-WW2 years of Marvel’s history.” Future Marvel publisher Martin Goodman hadn’t even broken into the market. Western Supernovel Magazine, his first pulp magazine, hit newsstands in 1933.

Liss dubs the first in his cast of “time-honored archetypes” the Operative. Aside from the baklava Zircher draws over his face, he’s L. Frank Packard’s 1914 Jimmie Dale, AKA the Gray Seal. A modern day gentleman thief employing his safe-picking skills against members of his social class in acts of Robin Hood do-goodery (what Republicans keep accusing  Obama of). The Op even leaves a calling card—like the dozen other Packard imitations of the teens and twenties and thirties.

He’s joined by the seemingly supernatural Revenant—a fancy word for “phantom,” the most overused name  in pulpdom (as in Fantômas, Grey Phantom, Phantom Crook, Phantom Detective, and, oh yeah, the Phantom). Lots of pulp heroes had occult (or at least hypnotic) powers, notably Chandu the Magician, the influential radio serial that premiered in, you guessed it, 1932.

But by issue two, Liss downgrades the Rev’s magic to Broadway gimmicks (like Mitt Romney after all the Primary debunking). Revenent is just a magician’s assistant rolling out stage tricks (“Crap. Not that fog again”) to battle police corruption. That seats him in the same casting call as the Shadow, Phantom Detective, and Doctor Coffin—a Hollywood actor who fakes his death to assume a crime-fighting alias. (What year? 1932.)

Third up: the Aviatrix. Despite the (intentional?) echo of dominatrix in her name, Zircher keeps this heroine admirably clothed. And so not a gesture toward the scantily-clad Domino Lady of 1930’s softporn fame. Which is a shame, because we get some misplaced “modern sensibilities” inserted into the series instead.

The Aviatrix is a female twist on The Rocketeer, who, in fact, was not a 1930’s character but David Stevens’ retro-creation for his 1982 comic book (better known for the 1991 Walt Disney film). Stevens was inspired by the Rocket Man film serials of the early 1950’s.  So Liss and Zircher only missed their target by two decades—or five or six depending how you do the math. (There’s probably a Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin joke in there, but I’m resisting.)

The Surgeon echoes another not-really-an-archetype type. Anyone remember Liam Neeson in the 1990 Darkman? I hope not. But Neeson’s character was another early example of a retro-pulping. Which for some reason includes horrific burn disfigurement, a trope I can’t find till the comic book-influenced Black Bat of 1939 (the hero gets a face full of acid, which in turn, spills back into other comic book origins). Liss’ Surgeon also flings a lot hypodermic needles, a visual motif of early comics I’m happy to see retconned.

Liss is back on target with the Surgeon’s murder streak. Forget Dexter and the Punisher. Homicidal heroes thrived best in the 30’s. Mister Death was first, a Gray Seal variant who instead of calling cards leaves corpses. (Go ahead, guess what year.) But no one can match the Spider’s body count, a blood trail dripping from 1933 to 1943. Though Liss’ Achilles comes close. The guy has to kill to prevent his magic amulet from killing him instead. (Which might explain a lot of Newt Gingrich’s behavior too.)

So instead of repeating more Rocketeer or Darkman anachronisms, Liss does effectively inject “modern Marvel sensibilities into older pulp archetypes.” Mimicking Stan Lee’s Silver Age pantheon of sad-luck mutations, we have a hero whose powers are as much curse as blessing. Liss also dips into another venerable Golden Age trope: archeologist discovers power-bestowing relic. (Achilles is the “A” from “SHAZAM,” Captain Marvel’s magic word, but that’s the wrong kind of Marvel.)

Liss also studied up on mystery men motivation. Unlike Golden Agers’ selfless philanthropy (why exactly does Superman care about truth and justice?), or Silver Agers’ struggle for redemption (with great powers come yada yada), these Mystery Men are all small-a avengers. They’ve been wronged. Batman was just a throwback. Alleys in the 30’s were stacked with the mission-inducing corpses of murdered loved ones. Those blood-spattered pearls spilling from the neck of the Operative’s girlfriend are Zircher’s visual homage to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. And since the Op’s girl is also the Aviatrix’s sister and the Revenant’s best friend, her death is a motivational grand slam. (The Surgeon has to settle for the massacre of his hometown, and Achilles is just pissed off because his girlfriend dumped him.)

Liss also stirs up “some of the real issues of the period” (including Nazis, union-busters, and Charles Lindbergh’s kidnapped baby), but he’s even more careful to inject “modern sensibilities” into the period’s “race and gender inequality.” Did I mention Revenant was African American? Zircher plays with the motif well, framing the character’s dark face with the hood of his white costume, a kind of reverse image Shadow. Unlike Rev. Herman Cain, he looks good in a white towel too. Liss pairs Rev off with the Aviatrix, despite the Operative’s romantic competition—and the array of state laws prohibiting interracial marriages. Costumed vigilantes (not the comic book kind) made those laws superfluous. The Klan was alive and kicking in 1932.

So Liss only dips his creative toe into the inequality cesspool swirling through the 30’s. Which is fine. He and Zircher just want us to have a friendly romp through their retro-theme park. Mystery Men is as much about reverse-sprinkling Marvel minutia (Baron Zemo, the Daily Bugle) into the time period as it is about the period itself. No complaint there.

Though with all the forgotten pulp heroes languishing in public domain limbo, couldn’t Marvel resurrect a few originals instead of cloning them? Or better, perform a minor retcon on some of those abandoned Timely characters from the early 40’s—the Angel, Black Widow, Miss Furry. The idea for Mystery Men originated not with Liss but his editor Bill Rosemann, so from a corporate perspective there are probably some very good reasons for minting all-new knock-offs. Which is perhaps the series’ loudest fun and its quiet failure.

(The GOP is rebooting itself with a cast of all-new knock-offs too. From a corporate perspective, there are probably some very good reasons to vote for them. If it were 1932, Republicans would have to settle for Herbert Hoover. And then watch FDR sweep all but six states in November.)

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Well, he’d like to be. Mr. Incredible was Santorum’s surprisingly witty answer when asked by nine-year-old Ari Garnick what superhero he most liked. (As previously discussed, the rest of the Republican field went with the yawningly obvious Superman. Republicans in Tights.)

Mr. Incredible is the dad from Pixar’s 2004 The Incredibles. It’s creator, Brad Bird, worked with a budget of $92 million and grossed over $631 million worldwide. Mr. Santorum’s 2011 fundraising budget was under $2.2 million. Until he swept Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, then he pulled in as much in two days.

But Santorum wasn’t talking cashflow with Ari. He was talking family values: “I would have to go with the guy who played in The Incredibles, because he was a good dad, cared about his family, and cared about his community and tried to do what the right thing was.”

Unfortunately, the Incredibles aren’t the kind of family Mr. Santorum would ever value.

The Incredibles hid their true selves under the name Parr (get it?) because their community hated them for being “super.” Their country even passed legislation to prevent them from living in the open. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl didn’t choose to have superpowers. Like Lady Gaga, they were born that way. And so were their three kids. Which means a life of pretending to be “normal.”

This is the America Santorum would create for gay people. He declared that homosexuality is the same as bigamy, incest and adultery. The legislation he has in mind is the Marriage Protection Amendment to prevent same-sex marriages anywhere in the country. He would even turn the military clock back to the days before Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell.

So what kind of families does Santorum value?

Well, he says old style “shotgun marriages” weren’t all that bad. And with abstinence-only sex education high on his agenda, you can count on a lot more of them. Fortunately, he’s making sure there are plenty of shotguns cocked and ready. He voted against trigger locks and background checks, and he doesn’t think anyone should ever sue a gun manufacturer. His abstinence plan is double barreled too, because he thinks it will stop poverty (although a higher minimum wage apparently won’t). Stricter divorce laws are in, and mandatory inoculations for children are out, as is public education and state mandated insurance (because then forced sterilization would be okay). English would be the “official” language, and, oh yeah, the division between church and state, that’s out too. Santorum’s American will be a Christian nation the same way Iran is a Muslim one.

So if you’re gay, non-English speaking, not a Christian, be prepared to live like the Parrs. Because under Santorum’s family values agenda, your family is all you’re going to have.

But that actually worked out pretty well for the Parrs. When Mr. Incredible got himself captured by the supervillain Syndrome (currently played by Mitt Romney), his wife snapped on her elastic tights and flew to his rescue. This despite Santorum’s insistence that women not perform combat duties because male soldiers will be distracted with rescuing the damsels-in-arms. (He must have been buying popcorn during Elastigirl’s scenes.)

Santorum also thinks women should stay at home, though he doesn’t seem to mind when Mrs. Santorum moonlights on his behalf. A devoted wife’s domestic chores include writing her husband’s book without receiving credit. Karen Santorum’s name doesn’t appear on the cover of It Takes a Family or in the list of names acknowledged for helping, but Rick recently explained that Karen wrote the section attacking “radical feminists.” When a passage was quoted to him, he said he’d never heard it before. So not only did he not write his own book, he didn’t bother reading it either. (And that might be the only thing he and I have in common.)

The book Santorum should read is Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel–and not because the hero sounds so gay (he’s the only superhero named after a flower). The Pimpernel is the savior of the aristocracy. When the working class rebels, he swoops in and rescues the idle rich. That’s the world Santorum thinks he’s living in under Obama’s liberal mob:  “When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left in France became the guillotine.” Santorum is even championing the division between the wealthy and the poor: “There is income inequality in America. There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be.” Since he also wants to dismantle the national education system that aids underprivileged children, more income inequality is a political promise he intends to keep.

So, let those home-schooled pregnant teen welfare mothers stay at home and eat cake from an English language cookbook and feed it to their closeted gay husbands after they all get home from church. (Which, sadly, maybe does sum up America.)

Since his three-state sweep, Mr. I-Want-To-Be-Incredible lost in Maine (another non-binding “beauty pageant”), but he tripled Gingrich’s numbers. Next week, it’s Arizona, Michigan and Washington. Then Super ten-state Tuesday a week after that. Despite his moment in the superhero spotlight, I’m praying Santorum, like The Incredibles, won’t have a sequel.

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Does the world really need another Fantastic Four movie?

If you saw Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the answer is no. Some things deserve to die.

Despite horrific reviews (one and a half stars on RottenTomatoes.com), Fox made a decent profit on the first Fantastic Four film. They spent $100 million and grossed $330 million. (You do the math). But the sequel only pulled a fizzling $160 million profit. Columbia’s Spider-Man sequels drew less than their original too, but for Spider-Man 3 (released the same year Rise of the Silver Surfer) that meant $890 million.

Is Spider-Man an intrinsically hotter commodity than Fantastic Four? Obviously. But Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America are all lower on the pantheon, and Marvel grossed $448, $623, and $367 million on each. Columbia is only making The Amazing Spider-Man because Spider-Man 4 died in development. They didn’t want to start over, but it was the only way to continue the biggest grossing superhero series in history.

Which is why the execs at Fox are weeping as they eke out the remains of their X-Men franchise, while watching their Daredevil and Fantastic Four rights grow radioactive mold. Meanwhile, Marvel keeps marching out third tier heroes to other studios for yet another round of blockbusters.

For Fox there’s only one solution. A reboot. And not just because Jessica Alba’s Sue Storm is the least convincing blonde in the history of film. She and the rest of the cast signed three-film contracts, but the internet is ripe with new casting rumors, including Bruce Willis as a CGI Thing. Sadly, Green Lantern writer Michael Green is still the top name for screenplay (did anyone at Fox see Green Lantern?). Chronicle launched Josh Trank’s name into the director race. Personally I would head back to Peyton Reed, who was once attached to the first film. He wanted Renee Zellwegger and George Clooney in his cast and, more importantly, envisioned the film as a period piece set in the early 60’s. Which is the direction the reboot should go.

Period piece? I know, it sounds all fuddy duddy, Downton Abbey in spandex. But hear me out. Fantastic Four: The Reboot needs to be a period piece because the team’s origin story is tethered to a unique moment in American history. Take away the space race and the cold war, and the FF are just Four Freaks in search of a plot. Their superpowers (all knock-offs of Golden Age heroes) don’t matter. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could have stolen from Aquaman, Flash, and Hawkgirl, and nothing central changes.

Marvel became a pop culture phenomenon in the early 60’s because Lee set his action in the moment. Heroes over at DC existed in a world disconnected from current events. The Man of Steel never battled the Iron Curtain. But the FF did. In fact, their creation was premised on it. Mutant-transforming cosmic rays were less about romanticizing a new frontier than literalizing national anxiety over the cold war.

The FF both embodied a national urge and critiqued it. Which is one reason why the 2005 Fantastic Four felt so pointless. Super genius Reed Richards radically miscalculates the effects of radiation exposure and turns himself and his closest friends into monsters. Why? Um . . . ? Writers Mark Frost and Michael France had nothing.

But in 1961 that error is the whole story. The super genius foolishly rushed his team into space for one reason. Russia. Look at the first issue:

“An angry Ben Grimm confronted Dr. Reed Richards . . .

Ben: “If you want to fly to the stars, then you pilot the ship! Count me out! You know we haven’t done enough research into the effect of cosmic rays! They might kill us all out in space!

Sue: “Ben, we’ve got to take that chance . . . unless we want the Commies to beat us to it! I—I never thought you would be a coward!”

Ben: “A coward!! Nobody calls me a coward! Get the ship! I’ll fly her no matter what happens!!”

The FF are punished for and are victims of their and their nation’s collective hubris. Reed is Dr. Frankenstein. The FF are Godzilla. The Thing (the one original and utterly unchangeable character in the cast) is a variation on the monsters Kirby was drawing in the 50’s, but now incongruously warped into the figure of a superhero.

There’s a reason Silver Age superheroes regard their powers as curses. The magic word wasn’t “Shazam” anymore. It was “radiation.” As in end-of-the-world fallout.

Which also explains the failures of both Hulk film adaptations. 2008’s The Incredible Hulk rebooted 2003’s Hulk, and now The Avengers is rebooting the character again. Why’s Bruce Banner so hard to get right? Because the guy was making nuclear bombs. Something that in the early 60’s was considered both terrifying and essential to the country’s survival.  A blessing and a curse. A monster and a hero.

Stan Lee only invented the Hulk because the Thing was so popular. Kirby even drew him as the Frankenstein creature: flat head and grey skin. And he drew the same hubris-smoldering pipe in both Bruce’s and Reed’s right hands.

So what happens when you drop the Hulk or the FF into the 21st century?

Very little.

Marvel Comics is rebooting the FF in comic book form this week. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa prefers to call it a “refresh.” He promised to give the team a “contemporary sensibility.” So his updated “Season One” characters have cellphones and Twitter accounts. Which sounds perfectly harmless. He just wants to “blow the cobwebs off,”not “alter the fundamental DNA of the Fantastic Four.” But those cobwebs are period-specific. The DNA is intertwined. Sever the origin point from its history and the story is pointless.

So why does Aguirre-Sacasa’s new Reed rush his launch? To hide it behind a U.S. Space Shuttle mission, and to woo his girlfriend. (Sorry, Roberto, that just doesn’t get the job done.)

But I know period pieces are a tough sell. The approach was fun for X-Men: First Class, but if Twentieth Fox demands something 21st century, then their writers will need to modernize more than just the FF’s social network. Newt Gingrich would like to reboot the space race, but not even unemployed NASA workers care about moon colony statehood. George W. promised a manned mission to Mars as early as 2010. But unless Iran and al-Qeda start calling for a Muslim solar system, that’s only half the equation.

So without the U.S.S.R., what are 21st century Americans really terrified of? That’s easy. Not being America any more. America the superpower. America the uncontested world leader. The greatest threat to our collective self-image isn’t Communism or Islam or anything else that can stoke cold war nostalgia. We’re terrified of becoming irrelevant. We’re threatened by anyone not willing to follow us. It’s not us against the world. It’s us against our fear of the world’s indifference.

So the FF space launch should be a genius billionaire’s bid to put Americans on Mars.  The FF is racing the world. Literally. They rush the launch to beat the multi-national team about to debark from the International Space Station. And the FF win. Sure, their ship explodes and they nearly die, but what matters is American exceptionalism. And there’s no fuller embodiment than the American superhero. Forget Mars. The original FF didn’t make it to the moon either. But they achieved their goal. They returned extraordinary.

A blessing and a curse. A monster and a hero. That’s America, folks. That’s the DNA Fox needs to reboot. The world may not need another Fantastic Four movie, but we do.

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My son is obsessed with Marvel Heroscape. He ordered it himself with grandparent Christmas money. I’ve never seen him choose to play a board game rather than a video game before. And though I’m thrilled that his eyes are peeled away from his laptop, Nintendo, and Wii screens, it means I’m playing a lot of Heroscape too.

My university is also gearing up for its Mock Con right now. Every four years Washington & Lee simulates a Presidential Convention for the party currently out of the White House. Four years ago they predicted Hilary Clinton would edge out Barack Obama for the Democrat nomination. So did I.  But that’s only their second error since 1948. No one’s got a better record. And, hey, hypothetical match-ups aren’t easy.

Look at Heroscape. Their Marvel Mock Con requires a close analysis of a complex set of specialized abilities and frustratingly random dice rolls.

For the most part they get it right. The Abomination begins with a slight advantage over the Hulk, but once wounded, Hulk’s rage attack is unbeatable. Spider-Man and Venom, though bragging different attack and defensive Spider Sense levels, come down to a coin toss. Iron Man and Dr. Doom at first appear equally matched, but when my son and I faced them off, Iron Man’s double attacks bettered Doom’s higher single attack three times in a row.

The only upset was Captain America.

Though his physical abilities are capped more-or-less within human range, the guy’s unbeatable at close combat. That means face-to-face, like, say, on stage at a debate. With his shield deflection, he can actually get an opponent to kill himself. Sort of like Rick Perry’s campaign-ending “oops” moment during the Republican debates. Cap is also a brilliant Tactician with long coattails, aiding all adjacent candidates with extra die roll on attacks and defenses.

The best way to kill him is long range attack, AKA political ads. Red Skull also poses a problem. Sure, the super-Nazi is weak on defense (a measly three dice), but he’s also a Master Manipulator. He can control Cap’s mind once each round, making the emblem of Democracy do his evil bidding. (Which might also explain why President Obama has duplicated the Bush foreign policy since he took office.)

In the Marvel universe, Captain American led an underground resistance against the Superhero Registration Act (AKA the Patriot Act). But rather than see his country torn in half by partisan combat, Cap was ready to surrender to his adversaries. Unfortunately, a sniper (another form of long range attack) assassinated him first. A scenario I imagine has crossed the mind of the first African American President of the United States more than once.

Perhaps the cross-over series DC Versus Marvel Comics is the better political allegory. Cameron got that for Christmas too. The two parties evenly divided the first six battles, leaving the last tie-breaking five to fan votes. Marvel got more, but rather than allow one side to win, the two worlds merged into the Amalgam Universe. Here opponents were recreated as combinations of themselves. Batman and Wolverine became Dark Claw. Superman and Captain American merged into Super Soldier.

Which offers another explanation for the Obama Presidency: To defeat Bush, Obama had to absorb half of him.

Romney is a different kind of mash-up. He’s not the moderate center of two extremes. It’s as if the original Romney—the one who championed gay rights, abortion rights, socialized health care—was abducted and replaced by the Romney of some mirror universe. Newt Gingrich time-traveled from the 1990’s in attempt to defeat him, but to no avail. Now nothing stands in the way of Dark Romney’s plot to conquer the Republican party one Mock Convention at a time.

I predict Washington & Lee University will succumb to his Master Manipulation this Friday.

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I’m lucky I’m not teaching my “Thrilling Tales” course in Tuscon, Arizona this semester. Three of my eight authors made the school board’s new banned books list.

Sherman Alexie scored twice with two short story collections. I’m guessing no Tuscon administrators read his time-travel novel Flight. Its teen hero guns down a bank lobby of strangers before getting inexplicably yanked into a first-hand tour of violence across United States history. Alexie argues that violence is “perpetuated on both sides of any conflict, and whichever side you’re on, the violence goes on and on and on, both sides committing incredible acts of pain and suffering.”

Sounds pretty edifying to me, but then Tuscon isn’t worried about Alexie’s message. They banned him for being Indian.

Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, but Tuscon banned him too. Not The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I’m teaching later this semester, but his first short story collection, Drown. So apparently the children of Tuscon need to be protected not just from books where “race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes” but short stories in particular.

At least Isabel Allende’s Zorro is a bonafide novel, though I doubt any board members made it through all 400 pages. They just needed to skim her bio in the back, the part about her being born in Peru and growing up in Chile. Never mind that Zorro is a flagrantly pro-Democracy melting pot tale. Allende’s hero is part Indian, part blueblood Spanish, with a Jewish fencing mentor, and Gypsies and Caribbean pirates to fill in the gaps. The novel shouts: MULTICULTURALISM IS GOOD!

So either Tuscon is deaf, or that’s exactly the sort of pernicious liberal talk they need to yank from their children’s hands (by some accounts, the books were literally yanked from students in their classrooms.) So it’s not just ethnic studies that’s getting the sword edge. Alexie, Diaz, and Allende are joined by such race-obsessed monomaniacs as Henry David Thoreau and William Shakespeare.

Tucson is selling their book ban as a curriculum change designed to avoid “biased, political and emotionally charged” teaching. That means anything Mexican-American. Except students. The district is overwhelmingly Mexican-American, but presumably Mexican-American children will not be barred from attending school. Provided they don’t arrive emotionally charged.

Students can, however, sue. Two have joined eleven of their teachers in federal court to challenge the state law that prompted the book ban. The new law outlaws courses organized around ethnic themes or that promote “resentment toward a race or class of people.”  That means resentment against white people. Which wipes out not only most American literature but most American history too.

The original Zorro rode to fight oppression in colonial Mexico (which, by the way, included Arizona). He’s riding again today, the national teach-in for spreading word of the Tuscon book ban. Zorro’s original band of followers dubbed themselves “the Avengers.” And it was ultimately the Avengers who ended state corruption in their fictionalized New Spain.

So here’s your own superhero moment, caballerros.

Hop on your electronic horse and share the outrage.

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