Review: Scooby-Doo Apocalypse #1

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Jim Lee

DC are launching fix or six Hannah-Barbera comics over the next few weeks, such as an update of Wacky Races which promises to invest the franchise with the post-apocalyptic latex bodysuits it clearly apparently needed. It’s a freakish mix of books, with what looks like a straight-laced version of The Flintstones being the only one of them which seems to be following the original spirit of the cartoons it’s based on. Perhaps.

The big one for me, though, is Scooby-Doo Apocalypse. This is one which retains the color-coding of the characters’ different clothing and not much else, it seems, with the “team of teens tackling a nefarious villain dressed as a monster” concept chucked away in favour of something really, really quite bizarre. Scooby Doo Apocalypse is a series in which the monsters are actually real: the creations of a nanotech virus unleashed on the world by Velma, amongst others.

In the world of the comic, each of the five characters has been updated somewhat. Fred now appears to be clearly coded as gay by the artist but straight by the script; Daphne is a self-invested brand in the Lois Lane fashion; Velma is a cynical scientist who triggers the events of the series as part of a sinister corporation; and Shaggy and Scooby are no longer cowards.

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Those two are the characters who hew closest to their original iterations, with Scooby basically the same he always way – with the addition of a heroic streak and a monocle which projects emoticons for Shaggy to read. That monocle is the strangest choice of the book, actually, because artist Howard Porter’s work is a huge step up from his work with Grant Morrison’s JLA (my only other point of reference for him: I’m not much of a DC reader) and he does a really quite impressive job of giving life and expression to the great dane. Scooby is arguably the most articulate of the entire team in this comic, rendering his emoticons largely irrelevant – I stopped reading them after the first two instances, to be honest, because his face told the story by itself.

What’s confusing to me about the book is where it’s meant to be aimed at. I think… me? I think my sort of age is the reference, because this certainly isn’t a book for kids. Not in the sense that it’s particularly violent or crude (although there was actually a suggestion on the last page that we might a get somewhat less moderate level of violence than you’d want on a Scooby Doo comic) but because the concepts are all just so high-level. Fred’s first few pages have him mention “granola-snorting weirdos”, for instance, before talking about, of all things, Esperanto. I’m in my twenties I have barely any memory of Esperanto! And even that was only because it got mentioned on Red Dwarf.

 

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It’s far too overwritten for younger readers, in other words. Not just because the references are ones only old readers are going to get, but because the wording of each concept is so unnecessarily convoluted and impossible. The basic idea of the comic is that a virus infects people and turns them into monsters, and the team have to stop it. But it’s not described in a simple way like that – instead, Velma strings off this hugely complicated spiel about the virus which uses big words and bigger concepts. Eight year old Steve, I can promise you, had absolutely no interest in googling to find out what a “biological template for a more abundant and peaceful world”is, nor looking up the meaning of words like “self-replicating”, “passivity”, “benevolent” and more. Why, each time, does the script use the most difficult and complex version of every word possible?

So yeah, I think I’m probably more the intended audience than the children who actually y’know, watch Scooby Doo cartoons now. On that level – I’m sort of interested in it? I mean, I’ve watched at least two Sharknado movies, and this brings out the same level of wide-eyed fascination for me. I can’t look away from the comic because I just don’t know what the plan is, how the series is looking to execute that plan, or if they even have a plan right now. The arch, knowing camp of the series when I watched it is replaced with a semi-serious tone that is possibly winking at the readers, or possibly just has something stuck in its eye.

I’m not really sure if the book is intentional or not, right now. I mean sure, you have Keith Giffen and Howard Porter as the central creative team for the series, which is a sign that DC want this to stand alongside all their DC Rebirth titles. At the same time, it’s a comic which sort-of posits that Fred is the nicest member of the team. Fred! In comparison to Velma, whose redesign makes her look like an alt-reality Dr Sivana; or Daphne, who spends the whole issue being furious about everything that happens, regardless of if its actually inconveniencing her or not; or Shaggy, who reads as a clueless and strangely earnest dude who over-explains every situation he’s in; Fred is the one who seems like the underdog here. Daphne even punches him for no reason near the end, just to make us really feel sorry for him, stuck with this nasty bunch.

Scooby comes off like a slightly toned-down version of himself. As I said earlier, that’s mainly because Porter gives him the best expressions and body language of any of them – he’s the most fun character to follow, even when not speaking or the focus of a panel. It’s also partly because he isn’t featured anywhere like as much as the others. He seems to be a supporting character at this point rather than the lead, but we’ll see how that changes over time.

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I do really like the colouring, provided by somebody at Hi-Fi. Porter gives things a Star Wars-esque sense of age and spectacle, with strange background characters passing by in every other panel. The colours could have followed that and used a muted palette, but instead they’re vibrant and bright -making the backgrounds pop and actually giving the book the grown-up effect it’s going for.

It’s such a weird direction for Scooby Doo, though. I don’t dislike it, but I can’t think of anybody I’d really recommend it to? It’s a fun comic at times, with something like a 40% hit rate for the jokes. I like Fred now, somehow. And over the course of an arc, we’ll be able to grasp what exactly the plan is for the book. How does it react to the original cartoons, what will it keep and what will it jettison? DC have taken the most predictable, formulaic comic they had (not criticisms! everybody likes the Scooby formula) and turned the book into the strangest, least predictable title on the shelf.

Scooby Doo Apocalypse #1

Writers: Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMattis

Artist: Howard Porter

Colourist: Hi-Fi

Letterer: Nick J. Nap

Publisher DC Comics

 

Review: Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #6

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DC seem to be up for collaborations: following previous projects which have teamed up Green Lantern with Star Trek and Batman ’66 with The Green Hornet, the most recent cross-publisher foray has seen them ally with IDW for a series I’m legitimately surprised never happened before. Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been a six-issue miniseries which plays into the silliness of both concepts whilst mining their shared and mirrored aspects for empathy and pathos. Having only read bits and pieces of past issues, this was my first proper chunk of story as a reader – and what worked most here was the way in which Batman adapted into the TMNT mythos.

It’s long been considered that Batman is one of those characters who can shift into almost any kind of story. He’s traded quips with Hellboy, been involved in street-level vigilantism and cosmic-level classics, and the core of the character typically manages to feel appropriate and correct to his personality. There’s something about Batman which gives him the ability to shift without losing his own sense of identity – which is actually a trait which plays into many of his stories, within the comics, as well as beyond.

Most of Batman’s life is spent dealing with people who want to see if he can change. He’s obviously got The Joker, who wants to take Batman onto his own level – but he also has people like Poison Ivy, who wants him to agree with her cause; Mr Freeze, who wants Batman to understand him; and characters like Nightwing and Tim Drake who want him to relent a little and embrace his humanity. Wherever he goes, people want to see Batman change and empathise with them, morally or intellectually – but the thing is that he can never admit to any shift in his behaviour. He is ‘The Batman’, and his mantle can’t be dropped for fear that any impact he has will be lost in a moment.

That’s why I think the Robins have been such an instrumental part of the character over the years, as more than the other villains or allies, they’ve been able to see Batman shift his approach in subtle ways. Each of them has brought new things out of his process which make him more interesting and subtle than his persona, and that balance of mythic visual with reality is why readers like the character.

I say all this because the one thing which strikes me about Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that the turtles approach Batman in the same way the Robins do: and arguably the greatest success of the comic is that they humanise the character just like Dick, Tom, Jason and Damian all have. If you squint really hard, you could even argue there’s a direct mirror between each of the four male Robins and the four turtles, although I’ll leave you to make up your mind over how that works out.

This final issue was easy to jump onto: essentially Batman is facing off against all his villains at Arkham Asylum, who have all been turned into talking animals – because, after all, that TMNT influence is the prevailing one in the story here. Ra’s Al Ghul and Shredder are commanding the scene, which is a smart combination for your main villains, whilst the Turtles are trying to work out whether they have time to save Batman or not. Hence a fight scene with last-minute appearances from the quartet (and Splinter) in which the villains are beaten, the day is saved, and everybody is happy.

Simple enough, but the real appeal of the issue is in the way Batman once again merges into a different franchise so simply and effectively. Take the opening splash page, for example, where he and Damian are being held in the arms of Bane – who has been turned into a talking elephant. Usually a page like this would indicate you’re reading a bad Batman comic, because this clearly rips you out the established tone of the Gotham we know, and takes five steps too far into ridiculous.

Those five steps are where the turtles are at home, though, and their subsequent appearance a few pages later (and further, when they appear on the scene of battle) tips you back into reassurance: this isn’t a weird Batman story, but instead a standard Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story. His taciturn, sardonic approach to the mad events of the storyline provide a solid foundation from which the turtles can wreak havoc with the standard conventions of a Batman story. Once again Batman is asked to change by outside forces, but for once his refusal means he wins over their mutual respect.

The turtles – especially Raphael, who is typically the one who in-comic tends to act the most like Batman – bring their own brand of strange into the story, yet they admire and appreciate all Batman does in the face of it. It’s not just a story where Batman proves himself once more to be a singular force for a particular brand of justice, but a story where the turtles themselves show their own quality and longevity as characters. At the end of the issue, they have not only accepted that Batman is who he is, but also offer him a show of solidarity and family should he ever need it.

So just to reiterate, there: we have a comic where they all fight Batman’s rogue’s galleries, all of whom have been turned into ridiculous and yet played-straight animals – but then the end manages to nail an emotional beat which really shouldn’t have worked at all. James Tynion IV lets the high-concept of TMNT overwhelm the crossover, but doesn’t forget that the most important part of their franchise is their heart and family. Even as everything is off-kilter and ridiculous, the core similarity in the franchises means he has a through-line with which he can develop and mature both sets of characters.

For the turtles, it means showing their trust to a new ally. Despite being four talking turtles in a different dimension to their own, they are never the outsider in this comic: that’s Batman’s role. And once more, their choice to accept Batman for who he is makes the characters feel emotive, and entertaining. Over the course of the issue we see their sense of heart, as they give Batman resolve without asking him to change what makes him who he wants to be.

As response, Batman changes. On the last page, he changes his mind about one of his longest-held traditions, and you get to feel, as a reader, that the comic has developed him. It’s bizarre that it was a cross-franchise story that managed to tell an affecting story about Batman and his glacial development as a human, but there you go. The issue is a very simple, but rather effective story – and coming at it almost as a one-shot, it makes me want to read more of this sort of thing going forward. It’s helped deepen both the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Batman for me.

Short version: The adaptive qualities of the Batman franchise meet the overpowering choices of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Franchise, and the result is a storyline which works nicely without sacrificing what makes either of the two concepts work. TMNT bring their terrific sense of spirit to Gotham, and Batman leaves the story with a trace of that spirit still in him. Happy endings all round.

 

Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #6

Writer: James Tynion IV

Penciller: Freddie E. Williams II

Colourist: Jeremy Colwell

Letterer: Tom Napolitano

Publisher: DC/IDW

A Very Long Halloween Part 2: Thanksgiving

I forgot how weak the second part of this issue is. It does, however, offer an in-one summation of every single mystery Jeph Loeb would later write in a comic. “Thanksgiving” is a very quick read, in which Batman and Gordon interrogate a team of career criminals about the bomb which ended the first issue – and, apparently, the lives of Harvey and Gilda Dent.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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Something which comes up a lot as The Long Halloween goes on is Loeb’s use of ‘guest stars’ – he features one famous Batman villain every issue, in what is essentially a cameo designed to draw attention to the rest of his story. In many cases he manages to bring in someone like The Riddler for a bit, and tie it to the larger story. In Thanksgiving, however, he has one of the weaker Batman villains to play with – Solomon Grundy.

Grundy is basically a pacified zombie, who lives in the sewers below Gotham and keeps to himself. Rather than favouring a meal of brains every now and then, he’s a fairly sedate character. He can be riled up into supreme monsterism, but only when severely provoked. Which is what happens here, basically. Batman chases a suspect into the sewers – only to then have to deal with Grundy, who is feeling a bit territorial at the moment. Batman gets a fight scene, Grundy does his cameo, sequence over.

What’s strange is how little Loeb explains what’s going on here. New readers have just met a random monster living under Gotham, in only the second issue of what was turning out to be a rather formal, Godfather-inspired take on criminality. It comes from nowhere, and doesn’t have any clear reason to exist beyond any debatable starpower that Grundy might have. It’s a large chunk in the centre of this issue, and comes at the expense of Catwoman – who doesn’t appear anywhere here. For somebody set up to be a major force in the story, that’s rather surprising.

But back to the interrogation scenes. This is the core of the issue, and it turns around a twist which Loeb has reused in many of his subsequent stories – as well as later in The Long Halloween itself! Basically, despite Batman’s opening statement “Harvey Dent is dead”, it turns out that Gotham’s DA survived the bomb attack. Not only that, but he’s wearing a mask (oh, foreshadowing) and is pretending to be one of the criminals. We were told a character was dead, and then surprised with both his survival and his new identity.

Loeb uses this ALL THE TIME. As well as in The Long Halloween, this is arguably the point of the sequel series Dark Victory’ as well as Hush, and Red Hulk, the Ultimates 3, and Ultimatum. Whenever you see a character die in the early stages of a Jeph Loeb story, readers now know that they’ll be the ultimate villain of the piece. It’s a twist that relies on the author actively lying to the reader about what information is on the page. It’s clever, if a little sneaky.

But it’s also a fairly obvious one at this point, not least because this is set in the past and we haven’t seen Two-Face yet. So the issue feels like a dud, really. After a big gothic crime saga was dangled in front of the reader, we’re now given a bizarre cameo appearance (which concludes with Batman leaving a full Thanksgiving meal in the sewers for Grundy, which doesn’t seem very in-character and looks ridiculous on the page) and a twist which is garbled right from the start.

Why Harvey Dent goes to all this trouble is a mystery, as he’s now spent a month pretending to be dead, only to then decide he’s going to re-reveal his existence to the general public at the end. I’m not sure why he had to be the one who went in disguise – he only wears it for about half an hour in the cell – nor why he had to pretend to be either dead nor alive. It feels like the twist was planned first, but then the creative team forgot to decide why it had to happen, or how.

There’s no plot progression either, as the new characters are all killed off in one big go right at the end, to further the idea of a “holiday” killer. The Harvey/Gordon/Batman plan was a bust, so nobody can pin the explosion to Falcone, and there are no real clues laid to who the serial killer is. Heck, they only actually become a serial killer in the last page. Thanksgiving, is seems, is a real dud of an issue.

The Joker’s coming for Christmas. Let’s see if things pick up.

A Very Long Halloween Part 1: Halloween

Jeph Loeb loves a mystery, as evidenced by the majority of his past comics work. From Hulk to Batman and beyond, almost all of his most successful and well-known comic stories have revolved around a murder mystery of some kind, with a secret villain working behind the scenes. One of the first mysteries, and easily his strongest, was ‘The Long Halloween’ with Tim Sale, Gregory Wright, and Richard Starkings.

Following Batman as he’s just put on the mantle and taken to the rooftops of Gotham, The Long Halloween is a thirteen-issue series which traces a year in the city. Each issue takes place during a holiday of some sort, as a new serial killer arrives and starts slaying members of Gotham’s underworld. Each time he kills someone, he leaves a holiday memento by their side. Batman has to solve the mystery of the killer whilst dealing with a gauntlet of his most notable villains, a dangerous flirtation with Catwoman, an uneasy tension with police officer Jim Gordon, and a crumbling, fractured gangster culture lashing out at anyone it can.

Loeb and Sale put together a compelling story, and I’ll be following it in real time over the next year: from Halloween to Halloween, we’re going to follow the story as it progresses and annotate/analyse each issue.

We start on Halloween.

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There are a lot of characters – at first – in The Long Halloween. Not only do we have a core group of players whom most readers will recognise (Batman, Catwoman, Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent) but we quickly assemble a cast of supporting character also. Although it can be difficult to tell them apart, Loeb’s focus is on establishing the presence and dominance of Gotham City’s criminal element, as it stands before the super-criminals begin to take the focus away. Chief among them is Carmine Falcone, who wears a distinctive rose and has three scratches down his chin – so he’s recognisable. Then we have his family members and agents, including his sister, Carla, son, Alberto, and security officer Milo. Lesser powers in the criminal world like Sal Maroni also appear in the issue, although he stands in the background during this first issue.

The murder mystery element of The Long Halloween doesn’t appear particularly in this first issue, although we do see the first murder perpetrated by the killer. Instead, the conflict lies in Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham City, and his interest in cleaning out some of the corruption. Early on in his life, he’s still willing to look for allies and partnerships – following Year One (many claim The Long Halloween to be essentially ‘Year Two’) he is already aware of Jim Gordon, and in this issue he makes full acquaintances with another white knight for Gotham: Harvey Dent.

Thus, across this issue, a battleline is drawn. The basic concept of the series will see these three working together to try and wipe out the mob in Gotham. It’s fairly simple at this moment in time, although Loeb throws in several wildcard elements to throw readers around a little. Catwoman would be chief amongst them at this point, appearing a few times to shake Batman off her own tail. Bruce Wayne is clearly interested in her, and their bickering serves as distraction from the more sombre elements of the battle against Falcone. She is portrayed here as faintly one-note, although that is a note she’s chosen for herself – she attempts to be a Batman-esque blank slate, boiling her entire caped persona down to the uncatchable cat-burglar.

These will be the characters we spend most time with across the next year: Batman, Catwoman, Gordon, Dent and Falcone. They are what hold the story together, and everything expands outwards from them.

Although we have Loeb making the introductions, the real entrance is made by Tim Sale and Gregory Wright, artist and colourist respectively. Together, they establish a mundane sense of noir into the storyline, blacking out many scenes in dark shadows or bright whites. Whilst Gotham is run by organised crime, the panels here are organised – only deviating at one or two points, notably. The very first page of the issue sets a mission statement for the rest of the series (and Batman in general) with Bruce Wayne stood, in shadow, staring directly at the reader and saying “I believe in Gotham”. That belief system will form the core of the character for years to come, and one of the recurring themes in the issue is of trust, and expectation. Sale and Wright make this a deeply ominous splash panel indeed, furrowing Wayne’s brow and leaving him stranded, by himself.

The second time the artistic team deviate is for a scene where Harvey Dent, skittering round in Falcone’s car park and taking down license plates, is beaten by the gangster’s men. As he is hit, the panels whirl out of control, decreasing in size and spiralling down into nothingness, before whirring back into consciousness as Harvey is recovered by Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. These little changes in style are important to note, as they denote the distinction between the age of organised crime and the age of the supers. Reading the issue, you also begin to note how Sale hyper-exaggerates every panel with superheroes/villains in it – such as a standoff between Batman and Catwoman – so they seem out of sync with reality.

They are out of sync, for now. But eventually they will become the norm.

Wright’s colour choices are absolutely fascinating, and he provides the most distinctive artistic choice of the issue, and the one which alerts readers as to the moment of real importance. For all Batman, Dent and Gordon work together against the mob – and they achieve a sizeable victory within this one issue alone – they still haven’t realised what’s going on right under their noses. There is a killer at work here, a killer with a gimmick who will act as the bridge into a world of Jokers, monsters, and madmen. Towards the end of this first issue, the killer creates a murder weapon (and immediately the creative team suggest that Gordon could be the killer, in an early example of Loeb’s love for a “anyone could have done it” mystery) and then goes out and shoots Falcone’s nephew, who works as an enforcer.

These two scenes are colourless from Wright, creating a drastic and arresting crime scene which makes it clear to the reader that what’s happening here should stand out and be noticed. Nothing is given away about the identity of the murderer, and readers won’t care about seeing the barely-present nephew be shot and killed. But we get this in pure black, white, and then red: this is something we have to pay attention to.

Although keeping to the central conflict of Batman’s team of agents against Falcone’s trained organisation, the first issue of The Long Halloween allows itself to wander around, building up a world and leaving the reader wondering what all these subplots might be – and which are connected to one another, or even have a relevance at all. We’re offered tantalising hints at whatever might come next, but we’re left as near-completely in the dark as Batman is, himself. We can choose to believe what we want: it won’t help us right now.

The Long Halloween finds Batman entering a formative, transitional year. As we start out, we get a solid grounding on everything that is and how they operate. Across the next year, we’ll start to find that nothing lasts forever, and we’re entering a whole new world of curious wonders and dangers.

See you at Thanksgiving.

NYCC’14: DC Spin Round Really Fast, Suddenly Reveal Wonder Woman ’77 Series

Here’s one nobody expected: a six-part digital comic from DC based on the Wonder Woman TV show, which starred Lynda Carter as the Amazing Amazon.

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Like Batman ’66 before it, the series will take the iconic and somewhat campy original series and bring it into the modern era without changing a flipping thing about it. The twirling will remain, the invisible jet will be all fueled up – and if she gets on a skateboard, you can be darned sure she’s going to put some kneepads on.

Marc Andreyko will write the series, joined by Nicola Scott as cover artist (as in the amazing image above) and rotating artists handling the interiors. Do you have interiors in a digital comic? That’s the sort of question I’m going to lazily ignore for the time being.

Debuting as a digital six-part series in December, the comic will then head to print a little ways down the line – much in the style of Batman ’66, once more. If we have a Batman and a Wonder Woman series based on classic properties, then that does make you wonder… how long until Christopher Reeves’ Superman flies in?

DC Don’t Use Recap Pages and I Don’t Know Why

Last month I made a misguided attempt to read and review as many of DC’s ‘Future’s End’ titles as possible, to see if these new jump-on one-shots would grab the attention and make me want to start picking up any new series.

The concept of the books was that each one jumped five years ahead in the current storyline, imagining a future where the current status quo continues on and develops into something life-changing. So the current villain of a Green Lantern book would have developed into a major threat, for example, or a burgeoning relationship would’ve led into marriage. That was the basic sort of concept of the thing.

What I came away with – as somebody reading a lot of books I’d not touched before – was complete confusion. Whilst books like Batman had a fairly simple concept which anybody could understand, the majority of the books relied on me having reading the whole of the series up to that point in order to know what was going on. As I hadn’t been reading Earth 2 since the beginning, I was lost for most of the Future’s End issue. If I hadn’t already known about the existence of Batwoman’s sister, I would’ve been completely confused by who this new character appearing in Future’s End was.

And then came a breaking point, which cut me off entirely from trying any of the other DC books that month: I picked up a comic, Justice League: Future’s End, which was labelled as part 2 of 2. This wasn’t mentioned on the front, and at no point did the comic think to let me know where part 1 of the storyline was. If you were like me and tried the biggest title of DC’s line just for that one issue, you picked up the second half of a two-part crossover story and had no idea where to go to find part one.

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Why am I only just finding out that this is a crossover on page four?

You know what would’ve helped me with this? A recap page. When I pick up a new comic from Valiant, or Marvel, or any comic with a backstory to it – there’s a page right at the start which catches me up as to what’s going on currently. That DC had a whole month predicated on the idea of “there are five years of story you aren’t aware of” and didn’t offer new readers any form of recap page? Ridiculous.

I’m not alone in this either.

The thing is – DC aren’t using their comics space particularly well anyway. This past week, for example, they have a six-page teaser for Future’s End, followed by another page right at the end for them to promote the new season of TV show ‘Arrow’. If they’d had, y’know, a four page teaser and put in a recap page (you can also include the credits there, to stop design from having to plonk a great bit load of text over the artwork), would people really mind so much?

It seems crazy to me that DC would sink so much time and effort into a month-long promotion which baffled and distanced new readers like me. My guess is that part one of the Justice League story can be found in ‘Justice League United’, and the crossover was designed to send some of Justice League’s readership across to that title. Probably would’ve helped if, y’know, you’d told people what was going on.

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