среда, 21. октобар 2015.

The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture

Serija od pet eseja napisanih za potrebe seminara The Rise of the Superheroes and their impact on pop culture Smitsonijana, Majkla Uslana (profesora Univerziteta u Indijani na katedri za strip i filmskog producenta) i Stena Lija. Eseji su u originalu, kako su bili podnošeni za potrebe seminara, a vremenom ću ih prevesti na Srpski i obogatiti prigodnim ilustracijama. Završni rad, sa temom Panišera sa osvrtom na uzroke njegovog nastanka i uticaja u društvenim tokovima tog vremena, nije uključen ovde i biće posebno izdvojen.  

Essay 1: Mythological interpretation of superheroes/villains

Every protagonist in American superhero universe can truly be identified as one of ancient deities. Some with more, some with less imagination and mythological background. But, to know what truly lies in inspiration of their creators and authors is only for them to tell. Just as any superhero and super villain actually (most of the time) has gone through in-depth evolution of character, where his abilities, background, and sometimes very essence has been changed, probably several times. So, to truly understand their mythological background is to look in very inspiration and interpretation of their makers.
With that in mind, we can give our sighting of mythological background that is sometimes very different from intent of people that conceived them in their mind.
First of all, let's start with a very unique super villain. Actually, not as villain but rather creature of unimaginable power and background, that caught everyone's eye on first reading – Doomsday. Doomsday is a creature, in lack of better term, that was responsible for killing Superman in a event from late 1992. As an ultimate killing machine, we see Doomsday beating his way from underground dungeon, chained and covered, only to gradually see him exposing himself trough this event. His very appearance, as seemingly mindless beast, full of bone spikes, teeth, gray skin, and desire to wipe out any life, puts him in a same perspective as primordial forces, uncontrollable and without remorse – Titans from Greek mythology, very enemy of Olympian gods in Titanomachia. Titans were children of Uranus and Gaia, and first order of Titans counted 12 deities of unimaginable power and personifications of primordial forces that terrified humans – earthquakes, eruptions, floods etc. Titanomachia is a legendary conflict of Titans and Olympian gods led by Zeus. Olympians were actually offspring of Titans, namely Titans Kronos and Rhea. Important thing, or rather – things, are that Titans were not killed after conflict. They are immortal, just as is fear from these primordial forces that even now awake from time to time and threaten our civilization (tsunami, volcanoes etc). Just as them, Doomsday is un-killable. He escaped from underground dungeon, chained, and came to uncontrollably destroy or be stopped (temporarily). He lives on and on, from one devastation to another, and becomes even more deadly every time he "dies". His very origin is from Krypton, planet of Superman origin, but his beginning is veiled in a shroud of time as a proto-project of early Kryptonians in search of genetic perfection. So, in a way, he is a predecessor of Superman that came to battle his "offspring", just like in Titanomachia. And last thing in this regard of Doomsday as first example, is the role of Superman. Morrison compares him to Hercules in All Star Superman, and it is Hercules that tipped the scales in Titanomachia. Olympian gods were to be victorious only after Hercules comes to join their ranks. So, to conclude, Doomsday has its parallel in Greek mythology as Titans, with very palpable aspects of myth that support it.
To continue in same manner to second example. Or, in better words, to continue Doomsday arc and get on to Superman. As it is pointed by mr. Uslan, professor of comics from University in Indiana, regarding his parallels of superheroes and ancient deities,  Superman does indeed have origin story in a certain way similar to Moses. But, rest of mythos just don't fit. Also, Morrison tied him to Hercules in his masterpiece All Star Superman, which is just fine, he is heroic figure with vast possibilities; we can also listen to the words of Wonder Woman in animated movie Justice League: War, when they defeat Darkseid (New52 version at least) and she points out their ties to ancient Greek gods. She calls Flash – Mercures, Cyborg – Hephaistus and so on. But for Superman she points out that he is "something that is never seen before". Well said. But not for lack of certain parallel, but better for presence of too many of them. Superman is combined might of best parts of all ancient Gods. But, if we have to point out one of them, it is certainly Helios, the son of Titan Hyperion, and not in fact one of the Olympians but Titan himself. But as many of them, like Aphrodite or Tethys, he was in peaceful terms with Olympians after and during Titanomachia, and he acknowledged supremacy of Zeus. Helios was a Sun god. He flew across sky in his golden chariot, spreading sun rays across world. He was given island of Rhodes by Zeus, where in ancient Hellenistic times stood his magnificent statue, one of Seven wonders, Rhodosian Colossus. He did not get his strength from Sun, like Superman, but in fact he was Sun. But in other terms, he could fly, like Superman, his power was in close connection with Sun. He did not have any weakness like our Superman had Kryptonite, but when you look at it there really were some connection. Only thing that Helios was afraid, like Olympians, was only thing that could block out his power – escape of Titans from Tartarus (personified in comics as escape of Doomsday). His origin was his only threat. Well, what is Kryptonite if not radioactive corrupted remnants of his home world – his own origin. And to conclude, in mentioned All Star Superman by Grant Morrison, it was Superman that reignited the Sun in the end. That was his actual apotheosis – becoming of deity. He has returned thousands of years later in a book also written by Morrison, JLA One Million, as a golden god bathed in sun rays emerging from Sun – something like Helios.
And to conclude this with an third example, we will be moving from DC universe for time being, and to Marvel comics. Since Greek mythology is foundation for previous analysis we can continue in that tone. Our target now is Captain America, created by Kirby at the beginning of World War II in 1940. Captain America originated as a small, weak patriot who went through experimental testing and got a dose of super soldier serum, which turned him in a perfect warrior in every way. So, he was a human given powers of deity. Unstoppable warrior, strong, with higher stamina, speed, endurance, and better in every possible way then best of us. But his moral founding's, his very essence was his own, uncompromised and incorruptible by anyone, and above all he respects only his own judgment, not any authority or order that he is not considering honorable by his standards. Captain America, what is very well known, was buried for years in ice after mission gone wrong, and was found by members of Avengers, namely Tony Stark, Hank Pym, Wasp and Hulk. From there he was logical person to lead this team of superheroes. Let's stop there with review. So, do we have any deity that fits in this description, even remotely? Well, it is Achilles, Greek hero from Trojan war. Achilles was a son of Myrmidon king Peleus and nymph Thetis. So, he was a mortal, with a godlike part in himself, but still mortal. Knowing this, his mother dipped him in a river Styx (Acheron) when he got his invulnerability, except on his heel where mother held him while doing this. His god part gave him stamina, warrior skills, speed and invincibility. Mother gave him invulnerability by ritual. And gods, namely Hephaestus, gave him best armor in a world. So, Steve Rogers/Captain America was given almost all those things by a scientist (father figure) that injected him super soldier serum. And also he was given vibranium shield, what is his trademark, indestructible armor like Achilles had. Similarities are obvious. Achilles had one flaw, his heel that was his only vulnerable part. Captain did not have weakness like that, but he did have something else. His only weakness are his friends, from Barnes to modern day teammates. Well, Achilles also had a fatal weakness, a love for his friends, especially his cousin Patroclus. When Patroclus was killed wearing Achilles armor, he got in a blind rage and set a series of events that resulted in his death by the hands of Paris. Long story short, Patroclus was killed by Hector, who was killed by Achilles, who was later killed by Hectors brother Paris. And we can't count times when Captain America was in danger by his loyalty for friends and teammates. Concerning Captain's morality and respect of his judgment above authorities, Achilles was also known for his short temper and conflict with kings and warriors alike, especially Agamemnon. So he too didn't respect any authority that was against his moral code.

Essay 2: Rise of superheroes in 1930s

Among numerous factors that resulted in rise of comics, and especially superhero comics in 1930s, and having in mind all political, social and economical sides, we can point out, or rather narrow to three main "why's".
a) Production and distribution
b) Money in times of Great depression
c) Crime, mob and World War II
As for first topic, there is question of production innovations in these times. We all know that XIX century industrialization resulted in great deal of new production techniques, especially steam powered engines. Printing press dates back to Gutenberg in XV century, but it was in XIX c. that we saw first steam powered press that managed to do from 1000 to 1500 impressions per hour (iph). What happened in XX century was greater use of electricity, better machines, and as result better, faster and more reliable printing press. From late 1930s we could count on steady 2500 to 3000 iph, with far less production cost. Thus, printing any form of material, poster, news, book, dime press and pulp fiction, and of course comics, was more and more profitable, with less and less production cost.
Also, there was major break in color printing, especially in 1930s. Up until then, method used for color printing was chromolithography, and later zincography, which were replaced dominantly in 1930s by offset printing. It was discovered in 1875, but was in commercial and wider use from these times, and thus more efficient, less costly and more profitable.
Also, distribution of any press, and comics, by 1930s was easier and less costly.
So, we have a product for wide population, that was now more easy to make, produce, and distribute, and it cost less to make, and by that less to charge to end users. We can say it is very important part in its popularity.
Secondly, money. And "money makes the world go round". In 1929. US initiated Great Depression, biggest economical collapse of world economy... up until XXI century. It started on September 4th 1929. with fall of stock, and culminated on October 29th same year with stock market crash. World was in trouble, and US above all. Unemployment reached to the sky, with increase of 607%, and with foreign trade plummeted 70% in minus. One thing led to another, and we had increasingly more and more poor people, hungry and unsatisfied, especially in urban centers. Public disappointment was increased, and US were on break of chaos. But, old Romans had one very good saying "panem et circenses" – bread and games. People had to be fed and entertained to be calm. Rations guaranteed that there were not to be nation-wide hunger, and low cost entertainment did the rest. And did we mention that comics were 10c? Did we say that everyone could read them? Kids and adults. Literate and others that did not went in good terms with letters. 10c was pretty low cost, even in that times. For example, steak was 20c, new radio was 9.95$, new car 685$, train set for kids 11.98$ and mince pie was only 40c. So, even in that times 10c was something that was affordable to kids. And above all, comics could go through many hands, and could be read many times. And it could be done anywhere: toilet, roof, bed...
A study conducted by Market Research Corporation for Fawcett Comics in 1943. actually concluded that 95% of elementary aged children read comics, and 90% of high school kids also consumed them. So, it was wide array of readers that grew up on them in very troubled times, mainly because it was affordable, available, and immensely fun.

Third and final thing. 1920s and 1930s, as it was mentioned, was a time of great rise of organized crime in US. Not only that, but crime was interesting. Criminals were like movie stars. Politicians were crooked, cops were corrupted... For poor kids raising up in great cities, it was only option, and for some it was like going to Big Brother in these days – way to celebrity and riches. Even "The King" Jack Kirby stated, and I quote: "...Gangster's weren't stereotypes  you see in movies. I knew the real ones, and the real ones were out for big money. The average politician was crooked. That was my ambition, to be crooked politician. I'd see them in these restaurants, and they'd all hold these conferences..."
So, it was desired by many to be one of those people. And, beyond hill there were even greater dangers lurking. Nazi's rose in Europe, Japan went their way. Suddenly ideology was important. And people needed something to inspire them. But people couldn't fight those big battles, especially when they remembered horrors of WWI. People needed to actually escape that reality, in a world when some figure, colorful and shining, someone from beyond our world, or even some rich man that desired justice, something unseen in their reality, could resolve big battles with one punch. People needed to believe that beyond any glasses, hat or cloak there was a figure to lead them to victory on those that oppressed them. People needed to believe that even one small, weak and clumsy boy could fight Nazi's after one experiment. People needed inspiration. Thus, radio drama, pulp fiction and superhero comics. First there was fighting organized crime, when came Superman and Batman, but soon after they, and those that came with them, Captain America, Namor, Wonder Woman, went to bigger battles, and suddenly gave youngsters to wish something else then being "crooked politician". And even one boy that wished that gave us Captain America instead.

Essay 3: Origin of superheroes and their authors

When we are talking specifically about Jewish authors that created bulk of superhero figures in comics throughout end of 1930s and first half of 1940s, namely during times of Great Depression and World War II, we are actually talking about implementation and inspiration of their culture. And that is a culture older than most in our world. So, sources of implementation are vast.
First, I want to divide question of development of comic book industry from actual inspiration of superheroes. Jewish immigrants and first generation of Jewish citizens left a strong mark on rise of industry, just as much as immediate inspiration on superhero culture. Jewish culture is a culture of survivalists. They adapt and search for possibilities in every environment and culture, while trying to maintain their strong imprint and uniqueness. And that culture of survivalists spent hundreds and thousands of lifetimes in specific professions, mainly financial. They were hated for it, and loved, but spirituality and finances are two things that most people associate to Jewish culture. Besides persecution and thousands of years of exile. And in new world, running from new persecution, immigrants and their children tried to do what they know best – survive. One thing about them, they are connected and innovative. Those two features made possible for comic book industry to thrive. It was loved by wide audience of children and youth, thus made a lots of profit, and its creation was all about many people making it together. Didn't Stan Lee say once that he got his first job by family connections? It's how it works in many areas, it was like that way back in 1930s too. Sense of enterprise, innovative spirit, and new frontier for publishing.
Now to head over to authors. From Jewish rich culture, there are several things that give direct inspiration for superheroes:
1. Prophets and messiah
2. Golem
First, culture of prophets and messiah mythos is strong in Old testament and majority of Jewish holy scripture. It was prophets that preached the word of God, and were bestowed special gifts, "powers" if you will, upon them. Need we go over them? Jonah and whale, Daniel and lions... It goes on. Old testament is full of miracles of "chosen ones". Moses and exodus is one long story about "superhero", or maybe dividing Red sea, Manna from Heavens and all other miracles isn`t enough? And not to mention Messiah. Hebrew scriptures preach coming of chosen son, messiah, sent by God (Heavens), to deliver people from evil, save them and be all mighty. Something that two Jewish kids made up and turned in the comic called Superman. Then what is Batman, another creation of Jewish author? Well Avenging angel, of course. One of angels that leveled Sodom and Gomorrah (even sounds like Gotham, don't it), cities filled with sin and crime.
Other approach to creating superhero, other than "sent by God" must be "made by man". And Golem is just that. Creation of man, with great power and some weakness. Story is that masters of Kabala, Jewish mysticism, can create man of clay, Golem, and to breathe life into them by magic and writing word of life on their head. Those creatures have great strength and power. It is believed that one of them was created in XVI or XVII century in Prague by rabbi, and it laid waste trough city. Golem is destroyed by wiping one letter from word of live, transforming it in death. Well, let's remember Human torch. Created by man, a scientist, kept in bottle, and in contact with air it was on fire and powerful. Let's remember Wonder Woman - created by mother from clay. Yes, clay, and given life. Sure, not all superheroes have that origin. Not all derived from Jewish culture. But, not all authors were Jewish too. One inspired others, and those inspired latter. All in one long chain. But inspiration of those thing is undeniable, and should be respected.

Essay 4: Of monsters and men

Decline of superhero comics popularity, emerging of new genres (romance, western, crime...) and especially strong opposition to comic culture, particularly superhero – that was one hard decade, from mid 1940s to mid 1950s. And it was a decade that comics really came in line with other forms of culture media in US. How? Well, it was attacked like all others.
The Cold war was emerging in a post-war world. A strict divide, Iron curtain, has split a world in two. And, say what you want about Cold war, but really it was a war of fear. Let's put it Fear, with capital "F".  Communists were afraid of western capitalism, and vice versa western world was afraid of communists – revolution and nationalization in two words. But here's a thing about fear – it leads to more and more fear. To protect one country, one of leading capitalistic countries of post war world, US government decided to make its citizens really afraid of communism. So they painted very imaginative and colorful picture of that looming threat. Communism was everything you can imagine: homosexuality, crime, hunger, starvation; every possible thing that can put fear in ordinary man and woman. And only thing standing in way to spreading of communism, according to government, was The American Way. And it was portrayed as the ideal of suburban communities, working middle class, home and family, going to church and with high sense of morality. And all thing that just didn't fit in were, amongst other, comic books.
According to experts, parents, teachers and public in general, they were a massive waste of time, poorly drawn, illiterate and violent. That some of them, many of them actually, were really bad didn't help either. Most of inspiration was gone, and society felt that children needed little more guidance other then comic books. So, when dr. Wertham started his crusade, a witch hunt of sort, he hit a society in its weakest spot. Most of children read comics, and parents just needed to be reminded by someone that they can put a stop to it. We all know what dr. Wertham did, and how, so we don't need to go over it step by step, but he did acquire a vast number of followers over years. And all that was devised on a poor and falsified study. His so called case study involving "thousands" of children, actually was a lot smaller in numbers, and he deliberately hid some of facts to fire up his claims. First of all, he concentrated only on children that were with troubled behavior. And he tied their actions to comics. Where in reality one could have dug up almost hundreds of times more kids that also read comics without any behavioral problems. His own example shows a kid troubled with homosexuality that Wertham tied to his reading of Batman. Truth is, not told by kind doctor, that boy was sexually molested, and that he didn't read Batman for years prior interview by Wertham. Those examples go on and on.
But, nevertheless, comics were started to be persecuted, burned, banned, and response of industry was actually weak. They tried to fit in, blend. They downsized production and efforts to produce quality material. Responses were few and weak, only few stand out, like:
"Lately there has been quite a debate about comics raging in the Saturday Review of Literature (...) In an article a Dr. Wertham discussed the problem of juvenile delinquency in America today, and pinned the blame for some of these cases on comic magazines, simply because many of the delinquent youngsters had read comics. 93% of all young people (from 8 to 16 years of age) read comics. Naturally a few young people get into some kind of trouble... so do a lot of older ones... and of course many of the kids who get into trouble do read comics. But what the article does not state is the fact that 93% of the boys and girls who get into no trouble at all also read comics. (...) Once again let us remind you to show our magazines, or any of the other good comics, to people who criticize this form of entertainment. Show those people that your favorite magazines are not harmful. Let them see Dr. Thompson's endorsement on the first page of every one of our magazines, and prove to one and all that the comics you buy and read are good for you." (Timely Comics Editorial, 1949)
Wertham had more than few followers, and some of them were people from medical profession, and others that didn't agree with him remained silent. Why? Fear, with capital "F". Nobody wants to stand out and give his support to something targeted as subversive like comics, and something insignificant like comics too. It was a time of witch hunt after communists in all of States, time of McCarthy and his hooligans in Committees driving many people to suicide, and fear can drive you to many things, even silence. Those that did stood out, mostly editors and authors, actually had a symbolic target on them.
To ease up the pressure, a solution from movie industry came in hand. The Association of Comics Magazines Publishers (ACMP) was formed on July 1st 1948. to regulate the content of comic books. The founding members included publishers Leverett Gleason of Lev Gleason Publications, Bill Gaines of EC Comics, Harold Moore of Famous Funnies, and Rae Herman of Orbit Publications, with attorney Henry E. Schultz serving as executive director. That very body devised Comic Code Authority several years later. Things culminated at 1954, on April 21st, when a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was summoned by senator Estes Kefauver. On that hearing dr. Wertham was one of strongest participants, and to everyone's surprise he even stated that comics should not be banned but only regulated. So government had a very strong point regarding comics at that time. Comics Code Authority was established that same year. Absurdly, things were on a way to calm down for comics after CCA have been established. Sure, it was a nuisance for publishers, and for industry itself, but by mere existing of some regulatory body like CCA government and public seemed to calm down; like there was someone to keep an eye on those comics for them and they could rest easy. There were greater threats looming in distance then cartoons and comics.
If CCA was a good thing in general, it wouldn't been abandoned years later, as it should be with any form of control and oppression. But, truth in all, there is one good thing that came out of it. Bound by CCA chains and watchful eye, comic book authors were forced to be more creative than before to survive. That explosion of creativity, new ideas, using new setting of things in world to produce new line of superheroes gave birth of Silver age of superheroes, and God knows if that would happen if superhero comic world have not been shaken a bit during 1940s and 1950s.

Essay 5: Silver age

The very term "Silver age" of comics refers to Greek mythology once again. The term was used to describe five "Ages of men" by Hesiod. Silver age was second age of man, following Golden age, same as here. In Golden age, during of rule of Kronos and Titans, people were noblest and lived longest. After defeat of Kronos by Zeus came Silver age, where people were still more noble then today, lived hundreds of years and were mighty, but not as much as in Golden age. It was a time of beginning of Olympian rule and rule of Zeus that has seen division of year in four seasons. The term Silver age of comics refers to second age of comics, and as its Greek counterpart, has seen some changes in superhero universe, some good, some less nostalgic.
America changed from end of World War II to 1956. That change, besides Cold war and all those things that brought Wertham and McCarthy, reflected in serious and palpable difference in US in just one decade.
Between 1945 and 1960, the gross national product more than doubled, growing from $200 billion to more than $500 billion. Historians use the word “boom” to describe a lot of things about the 1950s: the booming economy, the booming suburbs and most of all the so-called “baby boom.” This boom began in 1946, when a record number of babies – 3.4 million – were born in the United States. About 4 million babies were born each year during the 1950s. In all, by the time the boom finally tapered off in 1964, there were almost 77 million “baby boomers.”
Second thing is real change in civil movements, and above all strong turn towards African American emancipation. A growing group of Americans spoke out against inequality and injustice during the 1950s. African Americans had been fighting against racial discrimination for centuries; during the 1950s, however, the struggle against racism and segregation entered the mainstream of American life. In December 1955, a Montgomery activist named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat on a city bus to a white person. Her arrest sparked a 13-month boycott of the city’s buses by its black citizens, which only ended when the bus companies stopped discriminating against African American passengers. Acts of “nonviolent resistance” like the boycott helped shape the civil rights movement of the next decade.
But biggest change of all was in people views of young people. The term "teenager" was rarely used before the 1950s. During the Eisenhower years, young people began to see themselves as a distinct group. Their attempts to forge an identity worried adults, who couldn't understand the shift. The change was connected to the nation's affluence. Earlier in American history, young people often had to work full-time jobs to help support their families' basic survival. By the 1950s, that was usually no longer the case. Teens instead worked part-time jobs or received allowances from their parents, giving them money to spend on fun non-essentials. So now, young people had minds of their own, and money to spend on them, with more and more independence. But that change didn't go the way their parents planned, or at least feared.
They owned cars, cruised the highways, and frequented fast food outlets and drive-in movies. They bought records and adopted rock n' roll as the sound of their generation. Rock was a form of music created specifically for teenagers, performed by young people, and marked by a more open sexuality than the kids' parents were used to. But the youth movement of the Fifties did not overturn society, as some grown-up experts feared it would. Youth rebellion was aimed at parents and the confines of daily life, not at society as a whole. The only youthful rebels of the era who you might truly call revolutionary were the African Americans who participated in serious protests against wider injustices in society. Most white teenagers did not concern themselves with social problems and some educators referred to them as a "silent generation." Like many in the Fifties, they were restless. But as they grew up, they tended to adopt to the norms of the wider society. Almost half the young men of the era were drafted and served dutifully in the United States military. So society saw that fears of dr. Wertham and critics of urban pop culture were not real and threatening. World kept on spinning, and youth just needed its outlet. So, they had means to buy and enjoy  comics, they wanted more and more better content, and it sprung dawn of Silver age of superheroes, for much more emancipated and educated youth. It reflected world as it was in that age. Modern, fast, more scientific and exploratory.
And in that world, with youth that didn't just want simple one sided storylines, market wanted human side of stories. And that is what Stan Lee gave them. As he himself stated, he implemented a "human" story in superhero universe. Personal relations, overall grey instead of pure black and white world, that is something that exists even today in all superhero comics. Good ones at least. Not by mere inventing tons of characters, but by knowing desires of that day market, Stan changed way we perceive comics today. Writing to editors, answers to readers, personal and warm reception of everyone's opinion.
There is only left to say few words of Batman TV show that aired those years and revitalized superhero comic industry. It was silly, sure. Funny in some ways. What it was not, it had nothing to do with Dark Knight. We all know Batman, and more dark and mysterious he is, more we love him. What we don't love is almost comedy approach of "pfap", "bang" and "zing" Batman with cherry and merry villains. Joker is most loved villain, not only of Batman but almost in all universe, just for his dark and sadistic part, and we all expect our hero to keep up that tone. None of that was in Batman TV show. But, still, it was almost best thing that happened to superhero comics, and for Batman comics generally. Why? It kept the flame lit. And it even shined it further. It presented superhero in a way that anyone could see and none could judge (parents most of all). So, for a kid that watched Batman and wanted to buy comics parents didn't object. They didn't see anything wrong in it, and didn't want to bother with checking those "silly" comics. That show dulled the sword that every critic held on superhero comics, and it made people forget what they hated about superheroes. In long run, that don't seem to be a strong legacy, but it is. Just like those few superhero comics that survived Golden age, Batman TV show made possible for at least one generation to grow up loving comics, and that generation are very people that are making comics trough 1980s and 1990s, and even today.
Nikola Dragomirović

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