Permanent Damage

Wed, October 14th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist
33

I've long held the notion that decades don't break along calendar lines. In politics, for instance, the '60s began with the assassination of John Kennedy in November 1963 and ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974. In comics, by my reckoning, they began with the publication of FANTASTIC FOUR #1 in 1961 and ended with the August 1973 Supreme Court decision that "localized" obscenity standards and effectively destroyed distribution of underground comix. While it's now commonly (and erroneously) presumed that undergrounds were a fad that faded away with hippies, they were still going very strong in late 1973 - some titles outsold Marvel and DC, though that comparison is slightly skewed; unlike "mainstream" comics, i.e. comics that could be sold in 7-11, undergrounds weren't exactly periodicals and often stayed in print as long as there were readers interested in buying them – but the prospect of facing criminal prosecution in dozens, or hundreds, of jurisdictions, each with their own peculiar statutes drove distributors to shut down and publishers (there were four or five major underground publishers and scads of minor ones) to curtail operations. Just like that, undergrounds were over, at their height, and the event set the tone for the rest of the '70s: it was an era of commerce, and commercial considerations, not art.

By other reckonings, the '60s in comics might be thought to have ended in Spring 1971, when Marvel successfully challenged the Comics Code and published a three-issue story partly involving drugs (an anti-drug message, natch) in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN without the Code seal of approval, and sales weren't affected one bit. Shortly afterward, under pressure from other publishers, the Code was rewritten and liberalized as it tried to maintain its grip on the market, and for almost two more decades companies paid at least lip service to it, but for the Comics Code, the game was already over.

Artistically, it's difficult to find a convenient borderline. The '60s can be seen as a fitful movement toward more personal styles, though publishers didn't generally see it that way. (There's the famous story of Stan Lee greeting John Buscema's meticulous pencils for the first meeting of the Surfer and Thor in SILVER SURFER #4, considered by John a stylistic breakthrough and possibly his finest job to date, with the criticism that Buscema's Asgard didn't look enough like Kirby's.) Pressure was coming from all sides. Jim Steranko at Marvel and Neal Adams were the most prominent new artists of the late '60s to enter a field that had been relatively hostile to new artists (most of the dominant mainstream artists of the '60s started working in the '40s or '50s), and breaths of modernism, referencing advertising art and pop art as much as comics. Despite vastly different styles, both favored designs that drew on depth of focus and angularity that put the reader in the center of the action while slightly disorienting them to increase the tension, and placed special emphasis on lighting and body language as emotion cues. Not that these things were unknown in comics by any stretch, but publishers traditionally deemphasized them.

Both were hugely influential on how a new generation of artists thought about what comics should look like, though Adams was arguably more influential; his approach was more visceral and, more importantly, he ran a studio in Manhattan where many young artists started their professional careers. Many of the same young artists were equally conversant with underground comix, and besides introducing sex, drugs, politics, ultraviolence and mockery as valid subjects for comics, underground comics put forth the relatively alien (to mainstream comics) notion that comics were a perfectly fine vehicle for personal expression, an idea comics companies weren't known for promoting. Comics fandom was also tentatively embracing the notion – by the mid-'70s it would become a tenet of comics criticism – and comics fandom was the launchpad for many of these same young artists.

It's strange, then, that the '70s weren't a very memorable era for American comics art. Chronologically, they began with a burst of eager new talent whose main common characteristic was their lack of a common style. The names are mostly familiar now, among them Bernie Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Ralph Reese, Jim Starlin and Mike Kaluta.

Don't get me wrong: it was a heady, exhilarating time to be following comics. The sudden arrival of so many new and varied talents made things, for a time, very interesting. They, along with Mike Ploog, Larry Hama, Frank Brunner, Alan Weiss, a rapidly changing Barry Smith, Paul Gulacy and others, seemed to represent a new energy and a visible break with what by then was a general stodginess in mainstream American comics art, especially at DC Comics. They brought inflections of the undergrounds with them, and sometimes more than inflections. But in those early days their art was more interesting for their potential than for what they were producing. They produced a sensation of opening possibilities.

It didn't last long. Their work mostly appeared in new, short-lived titles and anthology titles, and once those lost heat the artists mostly only popped up here and there or wandered away from comics. They were the last gasp of the '60s, and harbingers of the '80s, not the '70s, because the possibilities they represented didn't really take root until the '80s. American comics in the '70s retreated mainly into dullness, with Marvel mainly solidifying the stylistic advances of the late '60s and DC's, once Neal Adams' prominence on their pages had waned and they filled in the gap with a growing legion of Adams imitators the same way Marvel recruited Kirby imitators, mostly retreated into uninspired blandness driven not by visual drama but by lumpish, traditionalist storytelling.

But there were a few additions to the stylistic vocabulary of American comics, in the '70s. They just didn't come via the mainstream. Primarily: American comics rediscovered the world. Fanzines opened that gate, covering comics from Australia to Italy, and publishers, facing dwindling sales, were thrilled to find vast pools of accomplished artists willing to work at much lower rates than their American counterparts. At Marvel and especially DC, Filipino artists came into vogue, dominated by Tony deZuniga (whose wife, if I remember correctly, operated as an agent for many Filipino artists), the Redondos and Alex Niño, who alone among them had a progressive style by American standards. At Warren Publications, Spanish artists debuted, mainly Estaban Maroto (who produced so much it was rumored he was the pseudonym of an entire shop), Luis Bermejo and José Ortiz.

Personally, I never cared much for any of their art. The Filipinos were generally too influenced by comic strip art, their figurework too posed and stiff, their pencils overrendered and overinked. It was claustrophobic. Again, the major exception was Niño, whose work was all curves and air, appealing in its life and looseness. Maroto, whose art rivaled Niño's in those qualities, was sabotaged by a tendency to abandon coherence for psychedelic effect, visually striking but structurally incoherent. Most other Spanish artists, drawing for black and white, produced extremely claustrophobic art.

My tastes in foreign work ran instead to French and Italian artists. It didn't hurt that six years of French classes left me barely fluent in the spoken language, but at least able to read it, and some of it began seeing American translation. By the early '70s, French comics albums were a fixture on their comics scene, and by the mid-70s they had largely replaced the comics magazine there as the medium of choice. It was these albums in the late '60s that had started more progressive American fans thinking about graphic novels, to the extent of coining the term, and much French material became available through shops in France, California, and New York. A wide variety filled in the content gaps of American comics, and, operating on a canvas considerably larger than American comics had succumbed to, even larger than magazines like CREEPY, European artists were regularly outdoing virtually anything done in America. Philippe Druillet (LONE SLOANE) incorporated pop art design into his psychedelic science fiction landscapes on a level Jim Steranko had never dreamed of; Guido Crepax (VALENTINA) explored psychotic fetishism; though cartoony, the science fiction of Jean-Claude Mèzières (VALERIAN) attempted give the reader sensations of alien conditions and environments; while Jean Giraud (soon to be immortalized as Moebius) took brutal ultrarealism to new heights while creating stunning Western vistas in the Leone-esque LT. BLUEBERRY.

These were all prime examples of how excitingly strange and striking comics art could be.

There were other art trends in the '70s worth following. A number of artists bubbled up out of fandom, in fanzines and semi-pro publications: John Allison, John Byrne, Robert Gould, Mike Zeck, Don Newton and others. Undergrounds had fallen, but a few pulled free of them - Art Spiegleman (whose experimental RAW magazine became one of the most influential comics publications of the early '80s), Robert Crumb, Richard Corben – to create a counter-mainstream, while various self-publishing talents and aspiring publishers tried to turn a growing fandom into a market for a more mainstream alternative comics press, known variously as "ground level" or independent comics, dangling before both established and aspiring talents the promise of creative freedom and a bigger piece of the pie, but these mostly collapsed for want of a new distribution system that was yet years down the road. The other huge art influence of the '70s was the unprecedented flood of reprint material, mostly higher caliber pivotal old newspaper strips like KRAZY KAT and PRINCE VALIANT but Eisner's THE SPIRIT, Kurtzman's humor strips and the EC catalog were also resurrected, recovering all but forgotten other possibilities for comics.

But, again, those things that came in during the '70s rarely came to fruition until the '80s, and other conditions had changed. There was still a comics mainstream, but all other trends were scattered and struggling, homeless except in a fairly rarified segment of fandom.

By late 1978, I was working as a professional writer, and while my tastes continued to expand, it's clear to me now that what I expected from comics art, though unarticulated, had solidified into what I described last week: realism, in the sense that the artist's work was complete enough to generate a fully believable separate reality. What most people would call "the artist's vision." The late '70s were a bad time for that, and now is a bad time for that. I'd always held "fine art" in a fashionable contempt, but moving to New York in '78 afforded me entrance to the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and for the first time I saw real paintings rather than prints or photographs in books. Paintings, it finally dawned on me, weren't meant to be viewed in books or prints; much of the technique in paintings is in the physical application and layering of the paint and other substances, and reproduction wipes out that "tactile" sensation – seriously, you get so much more sensation looking at a real painting than at a print of the same work – and makes appreciation much more an intellectual than a visceral affair. A good painting generates a visceral response first, and this may be true of any good works of art in any medium.

The problem with mainstream comics in the '70s, and the problem continues to this day, was that the easy road into the business, for artists, was to mimic other artists. Almost all comics artists start out mimicking some artist or another, but there are those who use that as a stepping stone and those who become mimics. Frank Miller's style, in his early DAREDEVIL work, could easily be dismissed as an amalgam of thefts from Will Eisner, Steve Ditko and Gil Kane. But his sensibilities were strong enough that even while showing those influences his work developed an individual personality, and his style rapidly evolved into something unique. But there are too many others, then and now, won over by the visceral impact of their influences' work, who are content to do nothing more than dub their influences, and it's to the point after all this time that a lot of comics art, mainstream comics art especially, tries to sell itself as the painting, but it isn't even a print of the painting. It's a photo of a Xerox of a print of the painting, about as far removed from visceral impact, from a convincing separate reality, as can be imagined.

On the other end of the spectrum, embraced mostly by alternative comics but occasionally finding favor in mainstream comics as well, is a stunted simplicity, an unambitious, self-satisfied primitivism that, though the opposite of the drab, overwrought third-generation emptiness afflicting much mainstream comics art, has the exact same effect: no effect.

That's the worst effect comics art can achieve. Where's all the metaphorical blood and guts? It's not enough to see comics art. We have to feel it too.

The Democrats are at it again, reportedly gearing up to try to shove the Baucus "health care reform" package through this week while giving constituents as little time as possible to comment on it. Governmental "transparency," an Obama rallying cry during the election campaign, to separate the candidate from the obsessive secrecy of the Ghost administration (or, rather, their obsessive secrecy; you, citizen, deserved no privacy at all, let alone secrecy, which makes it a bit funny that so many conservatives now howl about Obama's supposed "socialist" agenda when the Ghost's agenda was often downright Stalinist, and they praised that) is apparently now considered a luxury America can't afford. You know, like personal liberty. Congress in particular is bristling at posting full contents of bills online well prior to vote, so that citizens can weigh in; apparently on both sides of the aisle the operative premise is that Congress is voted in to represent The People so The People don't have to concern themselves with specific measures. Nice theory, if Congresspeople even read the full contents of bills themselves before they voted on them. But whatever the promises of the Obama campaign, Congress (and, to be fair, the O-Ring, themselves often pursuing the course of secrecy while promoting an image of "transparency" mainly with "informational" websites that seem mainly designed to collect their visitors' information) apparently wants nothing to do with public meddling in their affairs. Except for form letters thanking constituents for expressing views via phone, letter, email or website posting (see how hip to modern technology they are) about [fill in the issue] and assuring constituent that [senator or representative in question] has always been concerned with [broadest summary of issue possible] and continues to vote in the best interests of [district/city/region/state].

And then they vote for crap laws.

Recently, while the country concerned itself with David Letterman's extramarital affairs with staff members (correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't Letterman fooling around with women on his staff been more or less public knowledge for twenty years or so?), Congress quietly passed a half-trillion plus defense bill, as well as forbidding the relocation of Guantanamo prisoners anywhere on US soil - yeah, like they were all going to end up with stockboy jobs at Walgreen's – and effectively shutting down Obama's promise to shut down the Guantanamo prison. Presumably this was a "bipartisan" effort, since it has mainly been the Republicans screaming about the evils of "releasing" (because release and imprisonment on American soil are apparently the same thing now) Islamic terrorists on US soil. Which, when you boil it down, is really a fear about putting them on trial, since once in America trials would theoretically become necessary where they weren't before (American military bases now only being American soil when local authorities want to take Americans out of them, I guess) and would only point up, at great embarrassment and possible criminal charges to everyone involved, the number of prisoners held, and "interrogated," at Guantanamo who had nothing to do with terrorism.

Like I said, this week they're reportedly planning the same treatment for the Baucus health care "reform" bill, a stripped down form of reform that I wrote up a couple weeks back, whose main provision is forcing all Americans to obtain private health insurance without putting any obligations on insurance providers to accept applicants, pay for treatment of existing conditions, or make health insurance affordable. The other main provision is a boondoggle to wrack up money for a badly strapped government and give the IRS something else to do, since noncompliance would be met with a $1700 fine that the IRS would collect.

The Baucus bill, now being touted as a "reasonable compromise" is a bad, bad law that exists mainly to force Americans to shovel more money to insurance companies. The last major health care reform was passed under the Nixon administration, creating HMOs with the specified purpose of putting as much profit in health care provider coffers with as little health care actually provided as possible. This new "reform" is effectively the same thing, with insurance providers the main beneficiaries this time around rather than medical corporations, and American taxpayers bearing the burden. It's possible that by the time this column sees print Congress will have already passed it, since they seem bound and determined to circumvent any public opposition to Baucus like the kind that short-circuited the Obama "plan" a couple months ago. Oddly enough, insurance companies, whose already obscene profits fanned the flames with propaganda and underwrote "tea parties" to stop the earlier proposals – particularly the "public option" – aren't mounting a similar "public information campaign" on Baucus' proposal.

But if that hasn't happened, I strongly urge you to get in touch with your senator and representative to tell them that they should vote no on Baucus, and object if it's later passed as a codicil to some other bill, or at least postpone the vote until there's adequate public discussion of it - and that if the bill is passed there'll be hell to pay. Because there will be, and we'll be the ones paying it.

What's with all the hubbub about The Bible these days? Suddenly I'm inundated with it.

First up is what should be everyone's choice for a comics-related Xmas gift, both giving and receiving: Robert Crumb's THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED (WW Norton; hardcover, $24.95). It's fabulous, a straightforward, unembellished, beautifully illustrated transliteration of the first book of the Bible. No doubt some will think the creator/illustrator of "Joe Blow" and "Mr. Natural" illustrating the Bible is by its nature sacrilegious, but Crumb adds nothing, not one word of dialogue not in Genesis, save for a smattering of explanatory footnotes. It isn't a great interpretation of Genesis because it's not an interpretation at all; even Crumb's illustrations only show what's in the original text, and make no ironic commentary on it. It's an act of amazing restraint from one of the dominant social critics ever produced by comics.

But interesting things happen. Even though Crumb sticks obsessively to "the script," it's more than just an illustrated story; it's true comics. The art has two striking effects. It's a terrific argument for the power of cartooning, as the Genesis "players," even those who pass through the story like Seth, Jubal and Enoch, are given a presence, a physicality, that transforms them from to names to genuine characters; one glance at them, in the earthiness of Crumb's work, and it's easy to imagine their whole lives to that point. And the art breaks up the Biblical passages without damaging the thread of the story (more to the point, it enhances the Bible story and makes it easier to absorb than endless blocks of copy do), and produces moments of pause to consider the information the book presents. That alone may offend some, since it highlights logical fallacies in a book some consider absolute, immutable truth. Like if Cain and Abel are the only children of Adam and Eve – and the Bible mentions no others, at least at that juncture – and Adam and Eve are the first humans, who does Cain fear will kill him if they find him after he kills Abel, and where does his wife suddenly materialize from? Sure, you can come up with explanations, but any explanation is interpretation, and once you start interpreting you're no longer talking immutable truth. (Not that Crumb makes claims for the Bible's infallibility, he just wants as accurate a transliteration as possible.) One bit of dialogue from Genesis is especially striking, highlighted by the comics format, since it blows the hell out of apocalyptic Christianity: following Noah's adventure on the Ark, The Lord states, "I will not again curse the ground on Man's account, though the devisings of Man's heart are evil, from youth. And I will not again strike down all living things as I did. As long as the Earth endures, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease." So what'll it be, apocalyptic Christians: does The Lord keep his word or not? Anyway, whether you want to form your own opinions about Genesis or just want to read it in a highly entertaining form, both illustrated and illustrative, Crumb's THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED is the book to get.

Interestingly, a prominent Old Testament scholar, Ellen van Wolde, made waves last week by proclaiming that bad Bible translations from its first translation out of Hebrew on have mucked up our perceptions of what it actually says. Starting at the very beginning: her contention is that translations incorrectly state that God created Heaven and Earth when the Hebrew original, understood in context, actually says God separated Heaven and Earth, with no suggestion that God created the world or the universe at all. If accurate it sort of shores up the Gnostic interpretation of the Old Testament Jehovah as demiurge.

The other book I received last week also has to do with the Bible, Willis Barnstone's RESTORED NEW TESTAMENT (WW Norton; $49.95). I don't quite understand why people persist in sending me prose books (though if Norton wants to lay THE RED BOOK on me, I wouldn't complain) but in this instance I'm grateful. THE RESTORED NEW TESTAMENT is thick, almost 1500 pages, and copiously annotated with explanations for his literary decisions, as Barnstone basically abandons 2000 years of Bible tradition and returns to the Greek and Aramaic originals of the texts for new translations; keeps original character names (Yeshua for Jesus, Shimon Kefa for Simon Peter, etc.); maintains as best he can the poetic designs of the original texts; separates out but doesn't abandon what are clearly later additions to the texts, such as "The Longer Ending Of Mark"; reorganizes material according to historical considerations; produces fascinating discussions on various issues connected to translation; and reattaches several apocryphal gospels and other material once included in the New Testament but excised when the "official" New Testament became established in the fourth century. Like Crumb, Barnstone doesn't so much alter meanings of the texts as illuminate them, but the voluminous footnotes provide a wealth of context about the history and development of the early Christian church, especially the tensions and divisions between the Pauline and Jewish factions. It's a terrific work of scholarship and a fine companion piece, strange bedfellows though they are, to Crumb's book.

The Bible popped up a fourth place last week, with the announcement of The Conservative Bible Project. Apparently they think the Bible isn't conservative enough; words like "comrade" need to be dumped along with passages that don't support the conservative worldview – no more beating swords into plowshares, I guess - and "free market parables," whatever those are, need to be introduced. Among their intended designs for this thing is to provide a "Conservative Bible" that "could become a text for public school courses," even as in the same breath they comment on "activity no public school would ever allow." But whatever happened to that "immutable word of God" thing? Is the Bible a divine text or not (mind you, this is a rhetorical question) or are these guys saying anyone should be allowed to change it to fit their own mundane political perspective? Most amusing is their claim that "liberals will oppose this effort, but they will have to read the Bible to criticize this, and that will open their minds." Yeah, good luck with that one. Funny how conservatives keep equating an open mind with agreeing with them. Curiously, this one popped up right around the same time I was invited to work on an atheistic re-translation of the Bible...

In the immortal words of Dan O'Neill, it's a good book, but who wrote the book?

Notes from under the floorboards:

You're probably sick of hearing about it, but this is the last time, so: just a reminder I'll be at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in San Francisco this weekend, signing ODYSSEUS THE REBEL along with artist Scott Bieser at the Big Head Press table in booth 513. Look for me; I'm not hard to spot.

Did you know WIZARD is thriving? Neither did I, and neither did its legions and legions of laid-off former employees. But The New York Post seems to think so, and I guess in Rupert Murdoch's world that makes it true... Of course, in The New York Post's version of reality (which is to say fiction) Adam West never attended a comics convention before next weekend...

An email recently asked for my thoughts on "motion comics." The short version: it's just a medium. Whether they ultimately have any value depends entirely on content, but the content will have to be original, and generated especially for the medium. (On the surface they don't seem especially different from Flash animation, a fad no one much bothers with anymore.) Those few I've seen have been crap, cannibalizing existing comics work that was never meant for the medium and doesn't work in it. As long as motion comics exist mainly to pillage and rape old comics, there's not much chance of the medium ever being more than a slight novelty with an extremely tenuous future.

This site just came to my attention: San Diego 2009 in cosplay...

Know those "Mac & PC" ads Apple runs all the time with Justin Long? Haven't seen a new one in a while, but here's something I bet they won't mention in an ad: if you've installed the new Snow Leopard OS upgrade for Mac, kiss all your data, documents, music files, etc. goodbye. So much for Mac's OS being the safe one... Meanwhile, T-Mobile and Microsoft teamed up this week to demonstrate the fatal flaw of "cloud computing" – storing and manipulating all your data out in the net ether rather than on a local drive or chip – when users suddenly couldn't access their data. Combine that with the propensity of "storage services" to abruptly go belly up and shut off access, and with the users' inability to certainly safeguard data against deletion, corruption or theft, and cloud computing remains an idiot's game. But that's not stopping all kinds of software and hardware companies from claiming it's the next big thing. Then again, so were toxic financial assets, once...

I'm sure I wasn't alone when I woke last week to news of President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and immediately wondered, "For what?" Then I thought, hell, they gave it to Henry Kissinger, so why not? I'd rather they give it to someone who hasn't done much of anything than to someone who bombed Cambodia...

Ireland quietly (as far as the American press is concerned, anyway) voted to join the EU a couple weeks ago, after the Lisbon Treaty was soundly shot down the last time it went to vote. Could one of my Irish readers please tell me what changed? Exactly what's going on with the EU now is hard to tell, as the EU has already taken steps to abolish any autonomy for member states. Looks like Federalist Europe is just around the corner. I wonder how long before they start drafting for that European army the Lisbon Treaty gives the EU the power to organize...

Congratulations to Jason Goodier, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "fire." Jason wants you to look at his WATCHMEN video on YouTube, so check it out.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but don't get royally peeved if you can't find it. Good luck.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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