THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE MOEBIUS
This week, a special treat! The Factual Opinion's very own Tucker Stone and I sit down with a stack of Jean Giraud "Blueberry" volumes and conduct a lively discussion on the nature of Moebius's artwork, French westerns, and what it means to have your face horribly burned off in a steam engine fracas.
Even if you've never read any of the "Blueberry" books, and you probably haven't (because they are mostly unavailable in the U.S. these days), you can thrill along to our descriptive drive down the road to Moebiusville:
Tim Callahan: So we got our hands on some out-of-print Marvel volumes of Moebius's "Blueberry," and if we're going to talk about them -- to "fondle the details" and Nabokov would say, in his creepy but always precise manner -- we should probably establish some criteria. How are we reading these things? Are we reading them as examples of Jean Giraud's work from the early-to-mid 1970s? Are we reading them in the context of 1980's American oversized paperback reprints of European material? In the context of the Western genre? As an antidote to contemporary mainstream comics? As, geez, this-is-better-than-that-"Jonah Hex"-series-I've-been-reading kind of books?
All of the above? None of the above?
What are you thinking as you read these "Blueberry" volumes?
Tucker Stone: Context, huh. I always wonder when you guys, you serious types, handle that stuff. In my case, my experience with Jean Giraud/Moebius is pretty limited. I usually find myself tracking stuff down about the creator, the context of the work, after the initial read through if at all. Having a chance to do a back and forth with Joe McCulloch really pointed me in the direction of seeing how that sort of understanding could change the way I "experience" the comic in a way that strikes me as being a lot closer to the serious side of criticism. That isn't really different this time -- everything I know about "Blueberry" pretty much starts and finishes with what I found on Wikipedia, which roughly breaks down to: this was/is hilariously popular, the Epic reprints we're reading cover stuff that Moebius didn't write, it isn't chronologically the 'original' Blueberry stories, and there's apparently a really bad movie starring Vincent Cassell, who most comics peeps know from his hilariously stupid turn in "Brotherhood of the Wolf." (While gross-out fans know him from "Irreversible.")
TC: Apparently -- and my information doesn't come from Wikipedia (only because I haven't even bothered to read that entry yet) but comes from the text pages of Volume 2 -- these five Epic volumes (which were released in America first, but aren't chronologically first, as you pointed out) deal with sort of mid-career Moebius. Or early-to-mid career. Because he'd already been doing the Blueberry character for almost a decade by the time he did "Chihuahaua Pearl," and the character was actually based -- visually -- on Sixties French New Wave sexypants Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo in Western drag. By the time these stories came out, Blueberry looked like half Belmondo and half Charles Bronson, but acted like Clint Eastwood from the Leone films. That's some context for you right there. Screw Vincent Cassell and his capoeira dance moves.
Oh and the text pieces also say that by the end of Volume 2, Moebius becomes MOEBIUS. And we're supposed to be able to tell by the difference in the art style, even though he's still Jean Giraud on "Blueberry" and saves his idiosyncratic Moebius style for his more experimental work, or something.
TS: Well, "Blueberry 1"! There's a couple of things I have problems with, but I'd have to say that I enjoy it so far.
First up: I don't know how to even respond to this without dealing with the art first and foremost -- there's some portions that I think are too dense, a tendency to fill the panels with very specific touches that end up making for stuff that's a little slow to read, to comprehend. I spent a lot of time with that page where the Confederate deserters ran into Red Wooley and Mclure trying to figure out exactly what was happening--it seemed like the dynamite was in the hands of Red Wooley, but when it cuts to Finlay, he's talking about how he and the other Confederates have the explosives -- it's minor, and I'm willing to chalk it up to my own inadequacy as reader, but this didn't strike me as a very easy-to-read sequence. Moebius doesn't do a lot of this, but I think the panel where he delivers a conversation between three men by drawing their faces against gray backgrounds -- even thought they are all in different locations -- was a mistake. I don't want to harp on it too much, but it came just a few pages after what I thought was a pretty brilliant sequence--the recap of the first album that opens this one, the second. I should probably scan it in, but it was this dialogue:
"The bait that has brought all these diverse players to Chihuahua is the most irresistible of all: the lure of gold!"
And underneath that is a nine sliver panel sequence of all the major characters, colored in blue against a banana yellow background. I loved it. I've never really had an opinion about recap sequences myself, the only time I started thinking about them was when my wife started mentioning them to me, but this was just priceless, great stuff. I'd assume that the artist and writer would rather just dive into the story, but those two pages were just excellent, some of my favorite in the book so far. It's such a clever way to use something that's designed, first and foremost, to deliver information that catches the reader up, to build the presence of the story as well. It's not just that these guys and gals are out for gold, it's got a "Bravo! Gold!" kind of tone as well. It reminds me of old Stan Lee style "Hey there kid, you like cool stuff! Look! We got a whole bunch of cool stuff!"
Another thing that I do enjoy, although I've already mentioned having a little qualm with at times, is some of the minor detailing in these panels. On the same page as the recap, here's an overcast sky of a bunch of soldiers racing across the plain, and there's this line of telegraph poles framing the road -- by themselves they're just simple line drawings, but Moebius took the time to give them a real texture, to draw them a little bent, a little broken and worn. It's the sort of thing that I imagine goes unnoticed, I only stared at it because I was flipping around looking at stuff -- I can't nail a specific example, but I'd imagine telegraph poles are usually just tossed in as a line that fills the panel. But you can see these things, you can see how Moebius chose to draw them as bent, worn trees shoved into the ground, how they don't form a straight line, they just trace their way across the plain. There's all kinds of stuff like that -- the way peoples hair falls across their face, or the way a guy holds his place in a book while barking orders at a subordinate -- these little touches that just lend the work a level of mature craft, that no image is just thrown in to fill the page.
At the same time -- and this comes up occasionally, and I hope it doesn't continue -- some of these pages are just overstuffed with fanatical detail. I'd prefer going in that direction over the current tendency of some Marvel and DC books to lazily draw people against stark white backgrounds, to never define a room or a place, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to want every single layout to take on that Bryan Hitch level of intricacy. Actually, it reminds me of some of my complaints with Ethan Van Sciver's work in "Flash: Rebirth," how it's sort of impossible to tell what's important in the panel, it's all given the same amount of attention--sorry to harp, but a picture of the Flash running should be focused on the Flash running and not on what kind of dust is on the lightbulbs that he's passing by. The thing is, it isn't just "overly detailed drawings" that has that negative effect, it's more that I don't see a sense of design in "Flash: Rebirth," I just see panel-filling. I think some of these Moebius drawings of Mike Blueberry staring off into an intensely detailed, hyper-realistic desert or canyon are just incredible to look at--and those are detailed to hell. But it's clear what matters in those sequences, nothing draws the focus, it's obvious that you're seeing what Mike sees, and you're also getting to see him cast against it--dirty, slovenly and tired in the face of something expansive and beautiful. He's the grit that gives the desert it's dark legend, not the cactuses and cow skulls.
What a ridiculous sentence. I should be killed.
TC: This is densely packed stuff in volume 1, with too many word balloons and too many details per panel. And by "too many," I mean that I am not trained to read something this overloaded with details, especially after years of decompressed American comics and my relatively recent immersion into manga. It takes a long time to read one of these relatively slender "Blueberry" volumes. I think you could read the entire "Drifting Classroom" series in the time it takes to get through the first "Blueberry" story arc . And my attention span tends to favor the pace of the former more than the latter, but "Blueberry" does find a better balance between excessive detail and engaging plot momentum during "The Outlaw" in volume 2. That story is just plain better than the ones that come before. Still packed with detail though.
You really do have to talk about the art first when you're talking "Blueberry." I mean, the dialogue is translated anyway, so it's more difficult to talk about the qualities or deficiencies of that, especially since neither of us have read the stories in the original French (and I'm incapable of such a thing, being a typical monolingual American and all -- although my wife can speak three languages, which helps balance out the linguistic lameness of our household). But the art really is pretty amazing, even if each overpacked panel doesn't help tell the story as smoothly as we're used to. It seems like it could use an even bigger page size. These volumes are oversized, but this kind of art could be the size of those huge Raw books from the 1980s, or Chippendale's "Ninja."
The best-looking image in the entire first volume is the cover, which is just a close-up of Mike Blueberry's rugged face. But the interiors never give us such big images. Instead, Moebius gives us 8-12 panels per page on almost every page. This thing just needs more room to breathe.
I wonder about some of the layout decisions too. For example, out of the nearly 100 pages in volume 1 all but two have exactly the same gutters in the middle of the page. It's like the top half and the bottom half of each page can have differing designs, and different panel sizes, but that gutter dividing the top and bottom is always right smack in the middle except for page 38 of the first story, when we see the interior of the Chihuahua Pearl club for the first time, and the image hit me pretty hard because there's actually a big panel where the mid-page gutter usually is. And then of page 42, a similar break in the pattern occurs, as the Governor asks about Pearl (the dancer) and we're just about to learn the truth about her. Those are the ONLY two times that mid-gutter is disrupted in the entire volume, and the first time seems symbolically important, but the second seems less so. It almost seems like these stories could have been serialized as half-page strips at one point, though the pacing wouldn't make sense for that at all. But otherwise, why such a consistent mid-page gutter?
What about the coloring? Moebius colored these stories himself, and used an expressive style that's completely different from American comics in the 1970s, 1980s, or even today. The closest comparison would be someone like Val Staples, who uses colors for emotional effect rather than "realism." But Moebius splatters the colors to highlight certain details at times, while other times he just gives the whole panel a yellow or purple sheen. I think the coloring makes this book harder to read, actually, even though it's expressive as hell.
Oh, and Moebius is great at drawing hair. I started obsessing over everyone's hairstyle as I was reading these stories.
TS: It certainly does take a while to read, I'll give you that. I think though I'm a little more willing to tolerate something that's overstuffed with detail against something else -- obviously, the "perfect" amount would be preferable, but when I compare this against something like a recent issue of DC's "Outsiders," which has these lazy pages of a plain white background framing a figure drawing, I end up preferring Moebius' overly detailed bar sequences. The coloring is pretty up and down at times -- constantly splashing back and forth between red and yellow hues to these bright blue skies -- I want to believe there's a logical aesthetic reason behind it, but I can't read out what it is. It just seems to be in the service of the individual panel, which is great if you're looking to pull a scan or frame a picture, but it does make for a weird reading experience when a short horror sequence -- I'm thinking of when the poor Mexican squatter sneaks up on Trevor to stab him in the back -- has so many different colors for no in-text reason. Except for the one panel that frames Trevor from outside and has to be bright, I don't really get what the point is to frame some panels in blue, red, or orange. It takes me out of the flow of the action, and it loses what could be a pretty unusual sequence, since most of the stories violence is larger and more operatic in scope. This was a great chance to do something a lot colder and more frightening -- what could be better than some random stranger stabbing a major player, who at this time is the only one aware of the treasure's location, in the back with a machete, thereby changing an entire portion of the way the treasure hunt is going to play out? Instead, it's just bumpy, with all this RED/ORANGE/YELLOW/RED AGAIN? NO NOW BLUE/OH THAT GUY DIED.
Okay, I'll check back in after "Outlaw." By the way, didn't it seem like that part in volume 1 where they sent a wagon o' explosives crashing into the compound was almost exactly the same as the sequence in "Predator" where Arnold Shwarzeneggar picks up the jeep and sends it all rolling to a big kablooey in the guerrilla camp? I loved that.
TC: So if you've read "Outlaw," even though the story continues into volume 3, then you know that the "Chihuahua Pearl" arc and the "Outlaw" arc both feature a "hey, btw, all this stuff that's been going on has actually been at the service of a much larger secret plot that involves screwing Mike Blueberry even more than he thought he was being screwed" moment. Pulling a train robbery just to get Blueberry in a much later position to be framed for the assassination of Ulysses S. Grant? That's a pretty elaborate set up, to say the least.
TS: Oh god, I finally had some time to sit down and plow through Volume 2, and I'm chomping at the bit to get some more. You're right, the set-up is elaborate, but it's in the service of one of those classic "let's jack up this guy's status quo" in a way that I'm really enjoying. That page where they show some of the torture that they put Blueberry through -- the page where they make him run with the weighted back-pack. Wow. He looks awful, it's not just the haircut and the dead eyes, but his chest, torso -- he's so emaciated, he looks awful. I love too that we're seeing this complete abandonment of the character -- Red and McClure seemed set up to be your bog-standard friends-that-never-let-you-down kind of guys, and yet they've just left Mike behind completely. There's no evidence that anybody cares about this guy anymore, it's just the reader.
I know that there's a tendency to say "seen it before" when Westerns (or I guess super-hero books) go down the road of throwing the character into a place where they lose whatever "ethics" they previously carried, but coming at this the way we are -- not having read the years of stories that built up Blueberry -- I'm not bothered by it at all. From those text pages, as well as that Wikipedia article, I already knew that Blueberry stories aren't set up to be some kind of pristine Cowboy-as-Knight stories, but this is some tough stuff-Blueberry has absolutely nothing going for him right now. No job, his name is destroyed -- I'd imagine even clearing himself isn't going to change the way his world sees him, since it's not like anybody is going to send a memo to all the people who see the wanted posters and read the news stories -- and his only ambition so far is to find Vigo and "hold my knife to his throat." I'm really taken with this stuff, it's exciting to read something so direct in its ambition to change. They clearly want to take this apart, see what they can have him do beyond the normal. At the same time, it's obvious they aren't going to kill the president, this isn't a Garth Ennis comic, and I'm sure there's a limit to how many stories they would want to tell where the main character is constantly running from bounty hunters. I'm sure something is coming that has to upend some of this stuff, and I don't know the writer enough to have confidence it won't be something like the "Chihuahua Pearl" deus ex machina where "some drifter stabbed the guy with a machete, and then we shot him because the lady recognized his boots."
For now though, I'm totally fine with this, elaborate set-up and all. The art has some great stuff happening, and while I definitely think it's denser than his later work, I've gotten more tolerant as it goes on. The only complaint I'd register is that I think, like volume 1, the larger bandit groups aren't the easiest to keep track of when Moebius is drawing them in the wider panels. Faces are easy, but these pages that have 8 or 9 horsemen aren't the easiest to take apart. I had to flip around a bit to figure out which guy it was that Gussie ended up blinding.
Angel Face is a pretty solid addition. Hopefully he'll have some more badass load up the sniper and act like a jerk sequences before Mike breaks his neck.
Last thing on my mind right now--what did you think of those last few pages, the Native American thing? I liked the drawings, but yeesh, that was just...egh. It reminded me of every single time I've had to watch an acting student do a monologue from Black Elk Speaks. The sentiment in that was just toxic, and it didn't help that the lettering looked like it had been written with a sharpie marker. It just seemed like pure page filling, didn't lend anything to the work beyond a chance to see Moebius experiment with drawing environmentalist support group posters.
TC: You didn't find it inspirational? "What will happen," Tucker, "when the wild horses are all tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is bloated by talking wires?"
Have you really considered that? HAVE YOU???
I guess you have, because you are the #1 fan of the way Moebius draws telegraph poles.
I was going to mention, "hey, let's just pretend that Native American naturalist spiritual hoo-hah isn't in the back of the book, because it's really silly," so yeah, it's pretty silly. It's also, according to the Moebius signature on every page, something he did in 1987, even though all the Blueberry stuff in volume 2 is from 1972-1973. I have no idea why it's included right next to the thilling and vicious "Outlaw" story, except maybe to show that Moebius, when writing his own stuff in later years, turned into an over-earnest Lisa Simpson.
So I just finished "Blueberry 3," and it's even better than the first two volumes. Jean-Michel Charlier isn't as wordy, and even though Blueberry acts the romantic hero, he's still a screwed-up bastard caught in a series of events beyond his control. I particularly like the sequence that begins on page 23 of "Angel Face," when Blake's men are in the tavern and we only see their reactions to events for the first four panels until the deputy gets accidentally shot. The only image of Blueberry on that whole pages is when he's surprised to see the bullet pass him by. That page in particular reminds me of something out of "Watchmen" or something (is it still cool to refer to "Watchmen"? It's really not, is it?). Even the panel on the bottom left looks a bit like a Dave Gibbons drawing. And then the following pages deal with Blueberry's make-shift ambush of these two idiots, and it's just such clear storytelling. The details are still there, but the panel by panel movement -- often without any word balloons or even sound effects -- unfolds perfectly. And Moebius uses that drop-the-background-add-yellow technique for the killshot, an image that he'd used back on page 6 as Blueberry hurled the lantern at Angel Face to thwart the assassination attempt and break free.
And how about the climax of "Angel Face"? You said this is no Garth Ennis comic, but when a pretty boy's face gets burned off after a fight aboard the locomotive -- well, can't you just see the return of horribly disfigured Angel Face in an upcoming volume? I suspect he won't end up as a rock star, though. Unless he's a rock star bent on REVENGE! (They had rock stars in the old west, right? My knowledge of history may be imperfect as it comes entirely from "Young Guns 2.")
And the second story in "Blueberry 3" jumps forward one year! I love when serialized stories jump ahead in time like that, and it's so refreshing because it reminds you that stories can do that whenever they want, but they so rarely do. In mainstream superhero comics, they're bound by an interwoven (sort of) timeline that keeps any individual comic from jumping ahead. Unless it's "One Year Later," and, well, that basically sucked. But the one-year jump in "Blueberry" works great, and we don't even see the main character for a while, but we get Wild Bill Hickock and Cochise and, uh oh, are we treading into "Forrest Gump" territory here?
TS: Sorry if I killed the momentum, I just haven't been able to sit down and plow through the typing. I have made it up to volume 4, but let me just address how delighted I am to have been completely wrong! First up, yes, cooking off Angel Face's....well, cooking off his actual "angel face" is pretty fantastic, I love how Blueberry can't help but continue to not get out of his situation and he's gone from just leaving bodies in his wake to actually leaving physical deformities as well! I should have seen the extermination of the Pinkerton detectives coming, but I'll freely admit that I really did believe "Okay, here's the guys who are going to get Blueberry cleared, and along with lady Gussie's testimony to her old frame--the President--he'll be back in the blue uniform before too long." Even reading those text pages, where the team says that they wanted to follow through with the idea of degrading Blueberry, of exploring the situation they put him in--I just assumed they meant within the status quo of what I imagine the previous to volume 1 stories to be like.
And yet they kill Gussie, kill the Pinkertons, and now he's got attempted presidential assassination hanging around his head alongside the whole "where's the gold" thing! And now he's living with the Apaches and teaching them poker!
As if that wasn't enough, there's his old buddies, Red and McClure are back to try to make up for their failures! God, if I'd bet money on any of the directions this story was going to take, I would have been dead wrong on all of them, except for not killing the President of the United States, the man who loves overweight prostitutes. God, I'm a terrible comic reader.
TS: Okay, finished volume 5 last night. Looked around to see if "Arizona Love" was available, doesn't seem to be a collected edition in English and those issues of that Dark Horse comic that reprinted it in black and white aren't that easy to come by. (Admittedly, I just checked a few places, didn't do an actual blood and guts search.) Still, all "Arizona Love" has to resolve is the Pearl/Blueberry relationship, and I'm not going to pretend I really care that much. That whole portion of the book--that the two characters loved each other but wouldn't admit it--never really held water for me. She was another stock hooker-with-heart-of-gold, and the less I saw her, the easier it was to enjoy the story.
Some of my misgivings with the book came back pretty strongly with volume 5. The coloring seemed to be way off on some of the pages throughout the entire sequence where they rescued Vigo--the blues and purples were just bizarre, i almost wonder if it was a printing error. The text was on full overload throughout the final conversation between Blueberry, Angel Face and General Allistair, and it didn't help that Allistair was so incredibly ridiculous. I've seen enough Bond movies and read enough bad comics to have gone through periods of a story where the tied up hero listens to a bad guy lay out every detail of his incredibly complicated plan o' evil, but god, this was like reading a parody of one of those sequences. It's just page after page of overstuffed panel after overstuffed panel, hell, Angel Face even interrupts his boss with the same sort of incredulous "Why are you telling him everything before you do it?" feeling that I was having. The opening text of the fifth volume, where they make it clear that Allistair's relationship with Blueberry is historically one of Blueberry foiling every single one of the guy's insanely detailed plans--that just made it worse.
On volume 4 -- well, I'm looking back and not so sure what I want to add. I will say that I really enjoyed some of the action stuff in this volume--the Apaches silently taking out all the sentries with those Green Arrow style knockout arrows, the clothesline by way of two horses, and all the alcoholic wrasslin' with McClure. The train robbery was pretty great as well, and I've enjoyed how there seemed to be a bit of a shift in volume 4, where Mike's plots and plans started to actually pay off all the way, instead of hitting snags at the end that made his situation worse than before.
Despite those aforementioned coloring problems, volume 5's story resolved a lot of stuff in a way that wasn't totally horrible. I liked it. Hell, I don't know how I couldn't enjoy something that featured Moebius depiction of the new super-villain style Angel Face, who looks like a combination of Deadpool, Two-Face, Jonah Hex, and a boiled asparagus. He died too soon, Charlier, he died too soon. I loved the throwaway dialog where Angel's compatriots started making fun of him for not being allowed to enact all the tortures of the flesh that he'd been talking about doing to Blueberry. The idea that this grotesque freak had been sitting around with henchmen and keeping them up all night with his stories of "What I'm going to do to Mike Blueberry when I catch him" is fantastic.
I feel like I should do a more cohesive kind of "let's talk about the whole thing" stuff, but I'll wait to hear what you thought of these last two. I didn't realize going into this that these five epic reprints were going to be one long story, I thought this was more like those Viz "Golgo 13" reprints, where they pick and choose some specific chapters from the Blueberry run of stories. Anyway. Cowboys and indians!
TC: The final two volumes seemed to reinforce all the things I didn't love about the first "Blueberry" book. After the "Outlaw" section which formed the middle of this Epic reprint series, volumes 4 and 5 just seemed so unfortunately safe. I, too, didn't realize this series of books told a single, long story, but after the physical and moral breakdown of Mike Blueberry in the middle chapters, I didn't want his return to form to be so...expected. Yes, Moebius is a great artist, and the density of these pages is a virtue of its own, but nothing in these final two books captured the mad thrills of Blueberry on the run.
Even Angel Face couldn't save it, in the end, with his inevitable return as an uglypants bad guy with a hankerin' for revenge. You're right: he died too soon, too easily.
It's not that I didn't like "Blueberry" in the end. I loved a whole lot of it, and I admired the hefty narrative load it carried even in the final chapters as it tried to bring Blueberry back from the depths of outcast-ery and re-establish a kind of status quo for the character. But why such a bland status quo? Why does he have to have his name cleared in the end, and why does he have to rush off to whisk Pearl off her feet? It's a Hollywood ending. A corporate comic book ending. Not the right ending for a series that once had its main character wrestle a giant eagle.
By the end, I craved more Moebius and less Charlier and Giraud. So I turned to my other Epic reprints of the Moebius stuff, and compared to the thicket that it "Blueberry," the Moebius-by-the-name-"Moebius" reprints feature a shimmering sunrise of bright colors and clean lines. Even when he does texture and detail -- as in the "Arzach" stories -- Moebius makes every composition in the most elegant way imaginable. It's nothing like the stuff he did as Giraud in "Blueberry," and I found it strangely relaxing after working to get through the final pages of the saga of Mike Blueberry.
Still, though, "Blueberry" is some damn fine western comics. Makes "Jonah Hex" look like Howdy Doody with a bit more of the old rape jokes.
At the same time...this art is pretty incredible. Details or no, I can't think of very many people who could pull off the kind of action you see here. (Like that dual horse clothesline sequence, for example.) Moebius is just ferocious when it comes to that stuff -- it doesn't look like parkour aerobics, it looks like a guy straining as hard as he can and just barely pulling off some really dangerous stunt riding. The train collapse isn't particularly strong, but the train itself is pretty amazing, as is that explosion of movement and chaos at the first attempt on the President's life.
Would I call this my favorite Moebius that I've seen so far? No. I wouldn't consider it my favorite Western story either, but that's because I think that genre has been far better served by film, philistine as that might make me. But it wasn't an experience I regret in the slightest, and I'm glad I took the time to read it with somebody else. These kinds of comics -- fun ones, exaggerated boys' adventure ones -- those should be as social an experience as possible. God bless Epic for giving me the chance.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon
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