Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Crisis On Infinite Earths, Onslaught & Ultimatum; This Is The Day The Universe Dies! What To Do With The Villain When The Heroes Just Have To Loose?

In which the blogger borrows "Ultimatum" and "Onslaught" from a country library passed during a hailstorm and is moved to speculate on why the lessons of "Crisis On Infinite Earths" aren't always followed when making the worst days of superheroes seem like successes to their readers.

1.

There can be few classes of story in the superhero genre more difficult to write successfully than the line-wide crossover. Most of us have our favourites of the breed, from "Secret Wars" to "Final Crisis" to "Siege", but there are few if any examples of the company-wide blockbuster which consistently pop up in the "best-of" lists. Of those that do, such as even the original "Crisis On Infinite Earths", there's often a qualifying explanation amended, almost in apology, claiming that the choice has been made for the fun of it, or for the nostalgia, or for both.

And nothing makes a creator seems more mortal, more fallible, than the grand crossover that fails to even capitalise on its fan-boy potential for the necessary and expected progression of epic scenes from the first unexpected meeting of hero "x" and hero "y" to the great gathering of the superfolks before the hopeless final battle, from the revelation of the true criminal mastermind behind the world's coming end to the mournful ceremonies to mark the fallen protagonists resting in the grave before their next resurrection, and so on. For the tradition of the crossover, like the superhero tale itself, is to a large degree codified if not ossified; we know most of what we're going to be getting, and we know mostly in what order too, and creators had better give us what we want and make sure that it's different this time around as well.


And so the creative teams who've been passed the poisoned chalice for this year have to hit all the expected, and yet over-familiar, highpoints while somehow surprising us, throwing in at least one shocking reversal that'll cause us to cheer rather than yawn at yet another last-pitch battle between one army of thoroughly evil baddies faced with a battleworn but unbowed and costume-torn battalion of good old to-the-death superheroes.

But the challenges facing the creators of the standard-issue crossover are nothing to the trials faced by those asked to produce the most counter-intuitive of line-wide epics, the sub-genre wherein the superheroes lose, the status quo is destroyed, and the reader expected to take satisfaction from the failure of their favourites to save anything but a little of the day.

*1:- It's telling that Alan Moore's "Twilight", that daring and unmade DCU saga, is held so dearly in the hearts of those who know of its existence and are fortunate enough to have read its authors proposal. Perhaps the line-wide crossover functions best as an ideal, a set of bright ideas bound in a bold narrative spine, unsullied by the compromises and inevitable disappointments of the tradition in print.

2.

It might be in itself a somewhat questionable statement, but perhaps we might begin from the premise that it's nearly always the superhero's task to either preserve the status quo or to return it into existence. (*2) The criminals are to be captured, the tyrants deposed, the alien invaders returned to the stars, and the ordinary citizen and superfolk alike returned to the regular routines of what passes in their strange worlds as everyday life. But in the three superhero epics I'd like to discuss here, the whole purpose of the grand and even bloated punch-ups on offer was to so thoroughly disrupt the default equilibrium of the superhero's lives that nobody would believe that things could ever be restored to normal. In essence, each of these tales - "Crisis On Infinite Earths", "Onslaught" and "Ultimatum" - was concerned to describe what happens when the end of the world occurs and the best that the massed superheroes can do is somewhat limit the damage.

In "Crisis On Infinite Earths", for example, creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez were faced with the necessity of making the destruction of endless alternative Earths, including many familiar and well-loved by the DC Comics fanbase, palatable to their audience. Putting such a reader-pleasing spin on the failure of the DCU super-heroes to maintain the previous status quo of the multiverse might be thought an incredibly difficult thing to achieve. It is, after all, the opposite of just about every commonplace narrative that the superhero is usually pushed through. The "Crisis On Infinite Earths: The Compendium", for example, lists 113 alternative Earths wiped out by the series main dominant antagonist, the Anti-Monitor, and the superhero deaths he causes in "Crisis" included front-line characters, if no longer marketplace successes, such as the second Flash and Supergirl. And yet, for all the endless deaths and defeats,"Crisis" ends optimistically, and I've yet to find a reader who didn't share that sense of the book closing on a very high note indeed. As the super-heroine Harbringer declares on the penultimate page - 363! - of the epic yarn;

"We should never look to the past, but we should always look to the future, because that's where we're going to spend the rest of our lives. I don't know about you guys, but I can't wait to see what tomorrow might bring."

Yet it strikes me now as it didn't back in 1987 that Harbringer's homily could apply equally to an condemned prisoner living in a cell on death row the hour before their execution or, indeed, a superhero who failed to save their world and ended up back on an Earth where even their family weren't exactly the same folks anymore. It's a meaningless statement, thrown in to make the very worst seem like a grand adventure that led to a happy if weary conclusion. "World's will live. World's will die." ran DC's pre-publication tagline for "Crisis On Infinite Earths", and in fact every single Earth in the DCU's Multiverse was destroyed, and all of the infinite inhabitants of those infinite Earths too, with just a handful of escapees, before a single new world was created again from scratch.

And even that single surviving world was only rescued through the accident of the Spectre's desperate attempt to halt the Anti-Monitors nefarious plan to destroy the possibility of even a single Earth surviving.

This wasn't a superhero narrative that we were in any way familiar with, though its closing made it feel as if it were. This was a massacre, or rather one massacre after another until the death of yet another universe past virtually unnoticed before the reader's eyes like another variation of cream wallpaper in a DIY store. In fact, by the stories end, everybody, everybody, in all the DCU's infinite universes had been slaughtered or erased from existence except a few dozen superheroes, who then themselves quite forgot they'd ever lived their old lives in a Multiverse at all.

How, the reader might well ask, can that be a victory? How can loosing your universe and all those in it, and then every other universe, and then even your own memories of the life you lived before, be considered anything other than the most terrible and meaningless experience ever? Imagine, where was the sense of victory positioned in the text when Superman and his be-costumed colleagues returned from the end of the world at the beginning of time and discovered that their wives and lovers, family and friends have been supplanted by what as well might have been pod-people from "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers". That Ms Lane created by the final re-jigging of reality wasn't, for example, the Lois Lane that Superman had left behind when he went off to fight the Anti-Monitor.

He was the same person, but she wasn't.

The reward for the brave and sacrificing superheroes who emerge at the end of "Crisis" is to be dropped back into a reality which is but a shadow of that they once lived in. And I always found it unconvincing that those of them who found a set of relationships apparently indistinguishable from those they'd left a few hours before seemed so happy to accept a copy of the life they'd once owned for themselves.


3.

Of course, Wolfman and Perez did succeed in making this business acceptable to their audience. Indeed, they managed to make what was close to the very worst possible outcome - everything lost, everyone dead, everything changed - seem like an exceptionally fine and satisfying business indeed. (This is no mean trick at all, and deserves to be recognised as a narrative option which might be re-used in similiar circumstances in future.) Some of that involved specific tricks which could only work for the tale being told in "Crisis". There's a fair amount of pseudo-scientific comic-book nonsense, for instance, about how there was only ever intended to be one Earth and one universe, and so the ending is supposed to feel as if a more natural status quo has been introduced if not restored. It's the most ridiculous argument, of course. There are lots of things that the universe wasn't designed to create directly. Glasses, vaccines and TV, to name just three. And if a comic book super-person decided to wipe out all those folks in history whose lives has been extended by vaccines of one sort or another because they're "unnatural", I think that character would be defined as a super-villain. And yet all those Earths and their inhabitants were swept under the continuity and defined as unnatural and old and better off gone. It's actually rather ugly thinking, in its own little innocent comic-book way. Certainly, if I'd have been born on a world in the Multiverse and lived my life out there, I'd have considered my existence a valid one, and not seen the loss of my world or the partial replacement of its inhabitants by pod people as a good idea.


But then "Crisis" also carried with it the promise of a new start for DC Comics, a company felt to be so confusing in its many separate Earths and time-lines that new readers were supposedly intimidated from engaging with it. Crisis was going to create, as Harbringer is again used to declare;

" the New Earth (and) ... one consistent past."

Part of the success of the series, therefore, and of the general acceptance that the miserable ending was in fact a happy one, might be down to that promise of better things to come after drastic housecleaning. Yet 23 years later, "Ultimatum", another of the books which falls into the "line-wide-crossover-that-destroys-the-status-quo" category, similarly changed a great deal for a company's books which were again thought to be in need of a radical restructuring, though this time by the predictability of an over-familiar continuity. And yet "Ultimatum", despite never selling less than 70 000 copies, was the most critically derided book that I've ever come across. It certainly didn't heighten a sense of anticipation for the comics set in the Ultimate Universe which would be issued after it, as "Crisis" did for DC, which would seem to tell us that the simple act of promising a new start for a superhero universe and justifying it in terms of necessary change doesn't in itself mean that such radical surgery will be welcomed and accepted by the audience.

What else, therefore, was going on with "Crisis" that meant that such a depressing end and such a meaningless spirit was accepted as a victory for the superheroes and a new day for the DCU?


4.

What was "going on" with "Crisis On Infinite Earths" was of course so simple and so effective that it's remarkable that "Ultimatum", and to a degree its kin-book in continuity-destruction "Onslaught" from 1996, didn't learn from the lessons of Wolfman and Perez's work. For "Crisis" stands and falls on the strength of its villain and the degree of power and threat that he manifests in the narrative. In essence, so fearsome is the series major opponent that anything rescued from the fearsome and apparently unwinnable battle with him is seen as a major and blessed victory.

"Crisis" seems to end on a high note because the logic of its narrative and the power of its chief villain promised that nothing might survive the tale at all. In the face of that, even the new world of the DC pod-people served as a sanctuary as precious as that blue globe of an Earth shown hanging in the photos of our world from the Moon back in 1969; in both cases, the huge expanse of obvious and inhospitable nothingness made whatever else that could support life, fictional or otherwise, seem all the more to be cherished.


Now, this doesn't mean that the Anti-Monitor was in himself an interesting antagonist. In fact, I'm going to argue that his blank character and unimpressive power set was a key aspect of his success as a plot device. (In fact the very name "The Anti-Monitor" is laughably unthreatening and unwieldy, summoning up the spirit of a school-child who insists on ringing the break-bell early and bringing the teacher lukewarm tea.) The Anti-Monitor exists solely in "Crisis" to function as what that great fibber Freud described as the death-drive, or "Todestrieb", and which was later discussed as "Thanatos" by post-Freudian fibbers after his passing. It's the very strength of the non-character of the Anti-Monitor that he exists not as an individual but rather as a force existing merely to destroy the DCU. Implacable, merciless, without depth and therefore without reasoning with, the Anti-Monitor is the Multiverse's own death-drive, acting solely to bring the whole of human-friendly existence to a definitive and vile end for no other good reason than that's what he wants to do.

Comic books are of course saturated with creatures, human or otherwise, which seek to end all life. But the Anti-Monitor was placed within a setting and a story where exactly what was needed was indeed such a one-dimensional destroyer. His lack of depth isn't an impediment but the secret of his success in "Crisis". In truth, the Anti-Monitor is at his least effective in "Crisis" when he starts to behave as a common-or-garden super-villain might, for the slightest hint of familiarity with his personality undermines his function, which is to simply scare us and to refuse to back off when we hope that he's finally been done away with.


But when he's grumbling and shouting and slapping the face of the Psycho-Pirate for not being powerful enough to help him, the Anti-Monitor is as unimpressive as any fifth-string psychopath designated "expendable cannon-fodder" for the Suicide Squad. Yet when his disembodied head, for example, reappears at the stories' end superimposed over the spectacle of an alien universe, and after his apparent death too, the character fulfils the role he was created to; he's not a protagonist in a superhero universe out to kill heroes so much as the universe itself that's hunting them down. He's more powerful than every other individual superhero, he's more powerful than all of the superheroes combined, and he won't stop coming until he's killed them all, and everyone else too;

"Superman ... I .. will .. not .. die .. until .. you .. die .. with .. me .. "

Which, in combination with the fact that, even in those pre-net days, the audience knew that alternative Earths were going to be destroyed in "Crisis", grants the Anti-Monitor considerable status as the baddest "mother...". (*4) And by the end of the story, he's not just the monster who destroyed all the other Earths, for now he's the definitive monster who's going to destroy the single Earth that's left.

And though it may be a new Earth that he's threatening, a re-constituted Earth, an Earth which isn't truly the home to any of the surviving superheroes, it's the only Earth that's left.

It's a blue jewel of an Earth alone in a universe where there's nowhere else to go, and so we care.

*4:- SHUT YOUR MOUTH!


5.

The Anti-Monitor is a trick that only works once. His appeal relies upon the reader seeing a gathering of costumes from a wide variety of previously quite separate superhero universes and realising that even this often-dreamt of and fanboy-pleasing population of Supermen and Captain Marvels can't defeat him. From this point onwards in time, with DC as with Marvel, no collection of superheroes can ever seem so impressive as those gathered in "Crisis", because familiarity is from this point onwards the nature of comicbook universes everywhere. Everybody will pretty much know everybody else, and if they don't, they'll have a friend who will. And it's therefore something of a shock to realise that so much of the pleasure of "Crisis", despite its homogenising mission, lies in the endless meetings between characters which

had rarely if ever met before. Placed into unfamiliar and incompatible environments for one last time before every different hero was reduced to one more costume on one single over-crowded Earth, "Crisis" is a catalogue of events marking how thrilling it is to see super-folks where they clearly don't belong and where they can't quite function as normally expected. Kamandi and the Earth-2 Superman! Geo-Force and Sgt Rock! Firestorm and Arion! It's the previously unseen and rarely imagined collisions between different storytelling traditions that produce much of the reader's amazement and excitement, and yet the very function of "Crisis" was to destroy this precious separateness, this distinctive incompatibility that protected every corner of the DCU from ending up as exactly the same corner no matter where it was or who lived there.

And so, when these disparate elements combine together and still can't do anything but slow the Anti-Monitor, and then at the cost of the lives of iconic characters such as the second Flash and Supergirl, then the antagonist becomes more than just a very big bad guy. He becomes the very thing that defines their limitations, and so we readers, in our comic book ways, fear him.

It's as if he were destroying all the remaining and so-precious diversity left in a fictional eco-sphere, and the reader left aware that there was barely enough of difference surviving to produce a comic book with tomorrow. As if Wolfman and Perez were slash'n'burning their way across infinite Earths and yet gathering up our thanks for not destroying a single remaining Earth of DC's choosing. (*5)

*5 - I loved "Crisis On Infinite Earths" when it was released, and I'm still fond of it. I respect the motives behind the housecleaning it contained. I just regret that it was done.

6.

We all know that the most destructive thing that comic book creators can do with characters which are closer to forces of nature than individuals is to attempt to humanise them. Galactus, for example, was quite comic-booky terrifying despite a purple skirt and an inexplicable big "G" as a belt buckle in his first appearance in the Fantastic Four, but start having him fall in love with Johnny Storms' girlfriend - no, really - or engaging in pseudo-philosophical debate with the least impressive of Marvel's no-hoper superheroes and the bloom is forever off the rose.

But the Anti-Monitor wears a helmet too, from under which nothing of emotional warmth is ever seen, and he speaks of nothing but how he's going to get us all. "You will die!" he declares, "I will tolerate no further defeats.", and that tells us all we need to know.

He won't take no prisoners, don't spare no lives, nobodies putting up a fight, as my single teenage digression into heavy metal would have it.

7.

So, as we all of course knew, the Anti-Monitor is not a person, he's a manifestation of the death-wish. He's has no character, no interesting quirks, and that's all a good thing, if he did, he'd wouldn't function as force of nature at all. He's effective only in a specific context of a free-for-all where all the great superheroes who've previously rarely-if-ever met need a protagonist to outpower them all. His appeal is founded in that fact that he will not be defeated and that he returns more powerful than ever after every defeat, and just slowing him costs the lives of well-established and indeed beloved characters.

And most importantly, for all of the above to take with the reader in a tale such as "Crisis", this incredibly effective protagonist must also be utterly expendable as a character. If the Anti-Monitor is going to be used to destroy so much of the DCU, from endless universes to much-loved heroes, then there has to be a reckoning. His sins are far too great to allow him to disappear for a while to regroup and develop a formibadle new moustache to twiddle while destroying everything again. If this story is going to close well, after all has indeed been lost, and close with a sense of victory, then the thing that's responsible for all this destruction has to go, and go forever. The victory in "Crisis On Infinite Earths", therefore,


isn't won by saving the worlds, as is normally the case with superheroes, but by finally doing away with the Anti-Monitor before he can destroy the last slither of "positive-matter" reality remaining. Once again, the slightest touching human trait, the least interesting component of personality, might mean that the audience want him to survive, to eventually return as a person rather than force, which would leave his defeat tinged with the reader's regret at his passing. And so the last thing any reader must be able to do is empathise in any fashion with the Anti-Monitor. His extinction must be an utter relief, his very absence a pleasure, and the world after him a glorious place simply because he's not there, like a miserable wet and freezing cold winter's Wednesday on the morning that an incredibly serious illness begins to pass.

Which all in combination meant that the slightest victory over the Anti-Monitor stood as an unimaginable achievement, and his final defeat in the narrative counted as such a desperate and necessary end that everything which went before could be viewed in the light of the achievement of the Earth-II Superman's killing of him. And so, just saving a single simulacrum of an Earth from him becomes the biggest big deal ever, a Dunkirk of superheroic proportions.


At the very worst moment, when everything seemed lost, some island of blue and green was saved, and salvation arrived precisely at the moment when the Anti-Monitor was, shall we say, done away with.

And that's some of how Crisis ended up with the superheroes losing everything but their own minds, which would soon follow, and yet closed with what felt strangely like a happy ending. For "Crisis On Infinite Earths" is a textbook on how to destroy most of everything and make that terrible loss feel like a good thing, because everything could have been so much worse.


To be continued, and soon as always, with a look at those other continuity-changing, status-quo changing, not-happy-go-lucky-ever-after epics "Onslaught" and "Ultimatum", where we'll be asking whether the lessons of "Crisis" were learned, and what happens if they're not. I hope this digression has been worth something of your while, and as always, I positively welcome your friendly comments, whether in agreement or not with the above. And, yes, of course, it's AC/DC's "Hell Bells". Why that caught my imagination when the rest of their work and their kin passed me by I don't know. Oh, and "Shaft" too. Huh!

I'm grateful to the Grand Comics Database for the Crisis covers.



.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Who's Scared Of Mark Millar?


10. Friday 27th August 2010


"Shameless? The Superhero Fiction Of Mark Millar."

By Colin Smith, (me),

to be published by Sequart Research & Literacy Organisation, date of publication: TBA.

No, really.


A book. A real, you-can-hold-it-your-hands-and-turn-the-pages-over book.

And all that comes with a book today too. A Facebook page that's just starting to be built, for which I'm going to have to ditch that possum photo and add a real one of myself, oh God, and a hunt-down-the-rarities programme that'll have me searching page 1124 of Google for months to come. And a regular blog about the process, because I'm fascinated, as any regular visitor to here will know, by the business of writing, and I've always wanted to know what writing a book would actually feel like, would really involve, and now I can ask myself and pass on the information too.

If anybody would find that interesting.

And, so, yeah, the title above at the very top of the page refers to me, it's me that's scared of Mark Millar, or rather, I'm scared of not doing right by his work, which is a thing worth being scared about, I'd say.



9. Tuesday 24th August 2010


It's morning and I've seen every hour of the preceding night.

Julian from Sequart e-mails, and I'm so amazed, or perhaps rather dazed, by the whole business, by the fact that he and his colleagues keep replying so patiently and kindly to my questions, that I don't even think twice about opening it up. I'm too stunned to even be fearful.

"After careful consideration," he writes, "We're very keen to green-light this book."

I read it all a few times, and a few times more, and then, having printed out a copy, potter downstairs to where the Splendid Wife is drinking the mandatory morning coffee.

"After careful consideration, they're very keen to green-light this book." she confirms, adding, "Have you eaten?"



8. Monday 23rd August 2010


Statcounter's going crazy again. Surely I've offended someone this time?

What have I done? The pitch is still, understandably, being processed, and I'm a touch in limbo, and now what have I done?

These links lead back to a page on Millarworld, and then I know, know, that they've found me out. For Millarworld is full of folks who know, and I'd hoped to sail below their radar, but the sample chapter from the book pitch that I put up - "The Very Moral Mr Millar" - has obviously been stumbled upon. And I'm not concerned that they'll be unfair, for it's a rather friendly as well as a knowledgeable board, but I just didn't want to have gotten things wrong.

When you're writing about people's work, I quickly learned, you have to try not to get things wrong. It isn't fair to the folks you're discussing, and it makes you look stupid too.

Oh, well, press the link, take the medicine, be polite and put it right.

And then the following blinks in before my eyes have properly focused and the current of my weary connection has locked;

"REALLY GOOD ARTICLE ON MY KICK-ASS, FF, 1985-ERA WORK"

Oh.

Who's it by?

Oh. Mark Millar.

How odd. Another Mark Millar posts on the Millarworld forums.

But it isn't another Mark Millar.

It's the Mark Millar, the one I've suggested I write a book about.

The bloke whose work I really do want to write about.

"THIS WRITER REALLY GETS IT." he says, with all the generosity that some folks claim he lacks.

And I think, here I am, waiting for a response to a pitch for a book on Mark Millar, and Mark Millar is commenting kindly on the sample chapter I'd been asked to provide for the pitch.

It simply wouldn't be believed if it was written up as fiction. Or even as fact, I'd imagine.

But I'm watching it happen. There. On that screen.

Fate snipes from its own grassy knoll and you don't even know what the bullets are made of or what they'll change when they hit you.

7. 16th August 2010

There's nothing, nothing, nothing like being e-mailed by your editor on the first day of his holiday to explain that the huge document of a pitch you thought you'd sent in to him hasn't actually arrived.

And all that did arrive was an e-mail saying nothing more than "Here it is!", where there it clearly wasn't.

Crushed.

But it's 4am in the UK, and at least I'm up because I can't sleep, and that means that it's still 9pm in the north of the Americas. And if I can get a bloody attachment to work, I can still meet that deadline of getting the pitch nailed and posted in seven days. Which I so wanted to do, because, I realise, that's what my father would've done, set a demanding deadline and fulfil it just because that's what he always felt he had to do.

It's that Protestant Work Ethic, which seems rather tellingly to be just as prevalent in the Catholic community at home in Scotland as it is with the Protestants.

We were neither, but we had that business of shame and work alright, so we were part of the community.

Sigh and fuss and it's about 22.12pm across the Atlantic when my pitch disappears from the screen over here in England and heads out across the interblogthingnet and into who knows where.

Seven days ago a man I'd barely heard of e-mailed me about writing a book. Now I'm e-mailing him a proposal for one, and he's on holiday watching the sun go down while I'm in Norfolk watching it limp upwards.


6. 10th August 2010

I know what I want to write. I'd really like a joust at the superhero work of Mark Millar.

Mike and Julian at Sequart say "fine". We've always been wanting someone to write about him, they declare. They're incredibly supportive. They want their writers to engage with subjects which they're enthusiastic and knowledgeable about.

Well, I'm keen, if that'll help.

And their support is all very much appreciated and I feel that the worst is behind me until I discover that I really don't know as much about Mark Millar's work as I thought. He's written so much that he must have done it just to baffle any future amateur, such as myself, who's concerned to hit a deadline grappling with his career. Youngblood. 80 Page Giant 3-page origins. 2000AD Sci-Fi Specials nobody ever mentions. It gets to the point where I can't help but feel that I've only ever read about 4 Mark Millar comic books in my life, and that's each of the Ultimates collections twice over. Oh, I thought I'd wolfed down everything of even minor consequence, I'd ticked off a fair chunk of his Wikipedia bibliography, and I was ready to go. And then I discovered that Wikipedia wasn't telling the entire truth.

Wiki fibbed. That's a partial bibliography.

There are a lot more Mike Millar comic books out there than I ever dreamt of, and daydreaming's my particular skill. Suddenly, I'm a hideous amount of money down on Next Day Delivery and that sum will be nestling in my Barclaycard's special high interest "You will owe us forever" account for, well, forever.

And now, with four and half days to go until deadline, I discover that he wrote an issue of Witchblade & Tomb Raider?

Witchblade & Tomb Raider?

It's not that there's anything wrong with the idea of Mr Millar writing "Witchblade & Tomb Raider". It's just that it's the unexpected one-off that nearly broke the blogger's back.



5. 10th August 2010

I want to write a book, I really do. I've always wanted to write a book. All my life, whenever something capricious and cruel has smacked me around the head, I've always said "But I'll write a book someday." But why did I have to say "no problem" and swear on the Stone Of Scone that I'd turn the pitch round for a book that I can't believe they're going to commission anyway in a week? That's not any proof that I'm a writer. That's proof that I'm an idiot.

But I had to, didn't I? Mike asked me if I was sure, and I said I was very sure. He's supportive, he's doesn't want me overheating when Sequart have a million projects on the go anyway, but there's something in my head that feels that it really must show them what I'm made of.

In fact, I'm stubborn, and then more stubborn, and I guess that means I'm exceptionally proud too, and so I will get my homework in before the rest of the school is even out of bed.

Perhaps I'm frightened that if I can't see the cliff that I'm going to have to jump off, I won't start running at it at all.

So I start running anyway, and while I do, I realise that this is one of the best things that I've ever had happen to me in my life. Folks spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on intensive weekend courses with journalists from the Times and the Guardian in order to gain a sense of what life as a professional writer is like.

And here I am, facing a real deadline, grappling with a real pitch, and whatever happens, I'll always have known what this process is like. This isn't a course, or even work experience, this is actually quite real. It's in truth my life.

As an experience, the whole process has, as I used to teach in psychology, "ecological validity". It's true to life. And it is.

Whatever the outcome, I'm not pretending anymore, no matter how hard I still believe I am. I'm doing the very thing that I've been pretending to all this time.


4. 9th August 2010

Mike suggests that we start the ball rolling properly with me nominating three topics that I'd like to write about.

But what do you write about when somebody asks if you've got a book in you about comics? How do you fill up a pitch with chapter breakdowns, page and word counts, career over-views, sample chapters, marketing strategies and overall themes and perspectives?

How do you even choose three topics to start the process off?

What's the right thing to go with? I start making lists.

It's a long night, a long list, and I haven't got the faintest. I want to write about everything.

3. 8th August 2010

I wake up and there's a Mike-somebody who's left a message in my in-box saying he's with Sequart, he's followed Ms Simone's recommendation to one of my blogs, and he wants to know if I'd like to discuss writing a book for his company.

I make a note, a real pen on paper note, to thank Ms Simone for her kindness, and then, in moving from the concrete to the provisional, I loose something of my bearings. That's odd, I think. This doesn't happen. There's something profoundly unfamiliar here that doesn't belong in my world, and it's that e-mail there asking if I want to talk about one of my life's few remaining viable, though unlikely, ambitions.

I mean, I know who Sequart are. I really do. I've got a couple of their books. I even picked a little argument with Tim Callahan concerning the "Zenith" chapter in his Grant Morrison book. (He didn't notice, of course, but that's OK. It's a small blog and it was a small disagreement.) But this can't be right. It's a mistake, a gag, a prank, a conspiracy, a symbol of the coming Last Days. ("Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together ...") And I check the e-mail, the company, the small print, I start to trawl the internet, and then, after about, oh, one hundred and sixty hysterical seconds later, and despite feeling that somebody quite properly is setting me up to be slammed back into my rightful and lowly place, I reply.

Yes please, I tell Mike. I'd love to write a book. I'd love to try to write a book.

Pride is a luxury for folks who have no opportunities to invest their energies in, that's what I tell myself. What does it matter if it's a joke at my expense by someone passing themselves off under Sequart's name? And, anyway, whisper it, it might not be a set-up at all.

Though of course, I know, it must be.

2. 6th August 2010

Before bed, I always look at my blog's Statcounter. It can be disheartening, in a way which proves that all my sincere talk about not doing this for attention isn't as sincere as I'd like to believe it is. Numbers have dropped off just a little for a day or two, and I don't know why. I can accept running a not-so-popular blog or two, for I know what I'm doing has that "selective appeal". But losing visitors is a different business from only having a few turning up in the first place. People not coming is far less hurtful than people deciding that they don't want to hang around or come back. And if half of my readers never come back, well, that leaves what feels like just me, registering on the Statcounter because I'm checking the spelling on the pieces I've just put up because I've not yet learnt to stop it adding me to the visitor tally.

Oh well.

But the Statcounter is going wild, because, I discover with no little bafflement and a tremendous degree of gratitude, Gail Simone has linked to my blog, and she's said the kindest things in the world, which Ms Simone does, because she's as gracious as she is sharp, and she's sharp. And all of sudden I don't feel lost out here in the windswept East Of England, but rather I'm somewhere in the centre of everywhere. I watch the people arrive, and even though most of them disappear pretty quickly, it really doesn't matter.

Hello, Alaska. Hello Spain. Look, Luton.

I'm really glad you all came. I hope it was worth your while, even if just a little.

Hey, Gail Simone recommended my blog. Now, that's .... unreal. Unbelievable.

Splendid.

How can this ever be so?


1. Six Months Before:- February 2010

I start these blogs because I'm getting better. I never thought I would be, but I am. Far, far better. I'm at the gym every morning, and sometimes I find myself, for example, walking without a stick and not even realising it. And the worst of it all is undoubtedly diminishing. I was so ill that I couldn't remember what it was like to be well, to be OK, to wake up and be able to wake up properly.

It's been a long time. I'm grateful for the change.

But my mind, my mind's turned to mush, it's lost it's edge. It doesn't work like it should do, like it used to. Once I could learn a discipline up to degree level in six weeks and teach it too, and now I can barely read for ten minutes without my mind starting to dim and my concentration fading.


So, if the body needs the gym, then why not blogging for the mind? It'd give me some intense deadlines to fulfil, and force me to work, and sharpen up the weary mental matter, perhaps, and, let's be honest, it might be fun too. I could choose something I really love, something personal, something apart from Economics and Sociology, Education, Politics, Media and Psychology.

After all, I'll keep to myself. I'll fly below the radar, and nobody will have to know I'm here. I won't bother anyone, but I'll have the evidence that I've worked up on the screen every few days. I'll know. It's my secret with myself, like a man shy in his shorts who walks back up and down his own stairs every morning instead of going to a gym.

I'll pretend I'm a writer. I've always admired writers, always thought of them as something apart and something better, in their work if not their characters and manners.

I'll pretend I'm a writer for a while and if nothing else, I'll know something of what it's like to have to meet deadlines, and produce when there's nothing in the tank, and I'll try not to write rubbish.

I'll just pretend and pretend hard. You never know.

Something might happen.


There's a little box to your right marked "Shameless?" which contains some links you might like to take a look at. There's one to Sequart, which is worth a go, and one to the barest Facebook Page ever, though I'm going to learn fast, knowing nothing of Facebook at all. If anybody is interested in how somebody like myself tries to master the business of pitching and writing - argh - a book, please feel free to add any questions and issues you'd like to see attended to in coming blogs, though of course most posts here will remain exactly as always. Your ideas, as always, are encouraged and thought of as splendid, and I hope your day is a fine one.

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Monday, 23 August 2010

Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely's "Batman & Robin: Reborn": What Becomes A Hero Most If It Isn't Torturing Phosporus Rex?

In which the blogger salutes Norfolk County Library Service for their assistance in helping the cash-strapped of this county to finally experience Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely's much-loved "Batman & Robin: Reborn" more than a year after everyone else of private means enjoyed it, discussed it, and then filed it away. And so, Late For The Performance Productions presents what happened when I at last got to read this work from one of my favourite writers and artists ever;

1.

I quite missed it on the first read through. In fact, I was in the middle of writing some notes in praise of the page where it's first shown happening when it dawned on me what it was that I was looking at. There I sat, working on how to applaud the elegance of Mr Quitely's design skills and the wickedly bleak humour of Mr Morrison's script, and then I realised what it was that I was laughing at.

How desensitised is that, that I didn't even notice what it was that I was laughing at?

For, as you can see in the scan directly above, the splash page of "Mommy Made Of Nails" is yet another example of the "superhero-as-torturer" motif, though it's such a masterful piece of work that that fact wasn't immediately obvious to this reader. Instead, I was caught up in how Mr Quitely had so effectively conveyed the sensation of a tremendous measure of juddering speed in this scene of the Bat-Monster-Quad-Bike charging into the rain. (Indeed the beast of a machine is travelling so fast that its front left wheel has already left the page.) It's such a skill of design, how the urgent velocity of this monstrous contraption is accelerated by its placement between the two lane-lines receding apparently back to infinity, and by each of its great wheels firing off water behind them, and by Batman's cloak cracking in the bike's own slipstream, and by the tires to the left of the panel leaving a trail of flame in their wake.


But then, at a second glance, it swiftly became obvious that those flames weren't the result of any effect other than that of the murderous super-villain Phosphorus Rex being dragged alongside the great quad-bike as it hurtled down a night-time freeway, a fact confirmed by the word balloon placed above the Batman, who's evidently bound Rex and who's definitely holding him up just above the ground, saying;

"Let's try that again. And pray my upper body strength holds out."

And since Batman's going to "try that again", this obviously isn't, for example, a one-off rescue of Mr P. Rex, and it's certainly doubtful that these two are out training for a motorised rodeo.

No, there's only one conclusion to be drawn about what's going on here. It's torture, again, isn't it?



2.


"ARE YOU READY TO TALK YET!!!"


"Don't drop me. I'll talk."

3.

I. And of course we've already been disingenuously shown what a disgusting human being Phosphorus Rex is in the pages of the previous chapter of "Batman And Robin: Reborn". Why, he kills police officers, and without warning or remorse too. So, I suppose the message reads, he doesn't deserve the protection of the law, does he? He's not even really human, and he's certainly not humane, so he's pretty much given up his claims on any human rights.

Whereas noble Dick Grayson is desperately searching for his lost boy sidekick Damien, who's been captured by the psychotic, and tellingly pig-masked, Mr Pyg.

Which of course justifies the business of torture, doesn't it? Phosphorus Rex is a monstrous cop-killer and Damien is a little boy and a superhero too.

Torture it is then.

II. Thank God for Dick Grayson. He'll save us all.

4.

And surely it isn't really torture anyway? There are, after all, roller-coaster rides which are more truly dangerous than what the new Batman's putting Phosphorus Rex through, and we all know Dick Grayson wouldn't ever drop even cop-killer Rex. The burning bad guys not in any real danger.

It's just a game. And even if it wasn't, Phosphorus Rex deserves all he gets.

5.

And it's only a comic book.

It's just a fun comic-book, and it's funny too.

6.

But the problem here isn't that the torture has been presented in a humorous context, though it certainly complicates matters. No, the problem is that the torture has been presented in a humorous context while the torturer has been represented to us in an unambiguously heroic light. For as soon as a hero is identified as heroic by their very willingness to torture others, which the legitimate powers-that-be will not, then torture becomes more than just an acceptable method for the super-folk on the side of the angels. It actually becomes a signifier of heroism, of the burden accepted by the noble superhero to undertake those ugly tasks which the state and its servants don't have the backbone or initiative to undertake.

Torture becomes one of the ways in which the hero can be separated from the villain, though not in the way we might have once expected. Now the hero, such as Dick Grayson, tortures criminals in order to rescue poor little ten year olds, like Damian, and the villain, such as Mr Pyg, tortures people because, well, he's bad, isn't he?

7.

I. It's hardly as if superhero comics have suddenly arrived at the point where the likes of Phosphorus Rex are shown to be deserving of a good torturing, because a good old fashioned bout of torture's obviously a virtuous thing to do so. (After all, Superman was carrying the unrighteous up the sides of skyscrapers in 1938.) But it's become such a ubiquitous and nasty business, such a mean-spirited one too, and now any trace of taboo has gone and we've jokes about an extreme act of torture being served up in "Batman & Robin" as if nothing could be more appropriate than laughing at the whole business of terrifying somebody out of their wits.

II. But regardless of how commonplace these scenes now are, their depictions of necessary and noble torture don't occur by accident; they're not beamed in from Earth-Prime and received as statements from an independent reality. Obviously not. Writers and artists decide to create these scenarios, they frame them in a deliberate fashion and they shape their stories to make such torture acceptable, if not absolutely necessary, to their readers.

These tortures don't happen by chance in a narrative. Phosphorus Rex gets set up as an irredeemable cop-killer, Damien is placed as a child superhero in peril, and the knight in shining armour who's to save one and torture the other is then presented as having to do the previously unthinkable in order to serve the just cause.

These are stories actively designed to make torture scenes entertaining, as if torture was simply another component of mass entertainment, as if it can be used without consideration for the truth of torture or the consequences it has for those involved in it.

As it wasn't even a fact, but just something to be sprinkled across the pages of a comic book without moral consideration just to give us all a good laugh, a little shiver of fear and anticipation, a swelling, if you like, at the thought of having such power and of being able to use it without restraint or license, and always for the best as well.

8.

This is world away from the Punisher of Garth Ennis, where the reader was always aware of the ironic intent of the text, and of the fact that the Punisher was a deeply damaged human being, or of John Wagner's Judge Dredd, where the Judicial State of Mega-City One is so obviously immoral that most anything done in its name becomes a dubious enterprise, or Gail Simone's "Secret Six", where there's never any doubt that the mercenaries who populate its pages can no more grasp the concept of the rule of law than they can recall a happy and well-adjusted childhood.

But there's no irony in the torture scene in "Batman & Robin" at all, which means that the violence of that torture - and that is what it is - exists solely to titillate its audience. It's contextless, this "funny" torture, except for the context of popular entertainment.

Now, I'd call that the pornography of violence, although I know I'm probably on my own here.

9.

I. What I find myself feeling most uneasy about in "Mommy Made Of Nails" is how Mr Morrison has weighted the narrative so that the police grant this Batman their complete authority to torture Phosphorus Rex. It's as if it isn't enough for Mr Morrison to have the new Batman holding his victim's face an inch above the road, and then an inch above the passing cars. He also has to make the business of torture utterly necessary and morally sanctioned, and the key to this process is the rendering of Commissioner Gordon as a moral as well as an intellectual idiot. Poor Gordon, who's allowed one single protest about the whole business with between Grayson and Rex before acquiescing in the vigilante's actions;

"I've allowed you access to a subject and you dragged him screaming through the streets. Who the hell are you?"

And given that the Commissioner doesn't know who this new Batman is at all, or even whether he has the slightest connection to the Batman he'd learnt to trust through long years of personal experience, it is a damn good question. Who the hell is that masked man? Yet, in a world crawling with despicable super-villains, Gordon faces these two new occupants of the Bat-costumes for a few

seconds and grants them "access" to his police station, and then to the cell of Phosphorus Rex? And when an even stupider policeman points out that the old Batman and Robin were "taller", Gordon agrees but still goes along with these unknown could-be-heroes. It's as if any two characters parachuting onto the Bat-signal's roof can qualify as Batman and Robin if they wear a half-recognisable uniform and talk the hero patter convincingly.

But then if Gordon and his men weren't so unaccountably and unforgivably trusting, Batman couldn't by chance be in the building to repel the attack of the circus freaks, and so he couldn't capture and then kidnap Phosphorus Rex out of his lawful imprisonment, and he couldn't save the day by doing so in such an amusingly flamboyant Batmanly way.

II. These aren't characters, these are shallow and unconvincing plot devices. And underneath the flash and entertaining surface of these tales, the likes of of the unaccountably stupid Gordon and unbelievably self-pitying Grayson are made to do whatever helps the plot jump from one improbable circumstance, from one grand showstopping moment, to another. Yet slow down the narrative and ask "Huh?" and the whole business quite falls apart.

All surface, no depth.

Which is of course fine, until that surface starts reflecting back an extremely dubious meaning.

III. Poor Dick Grayson. No longer Robin the Boy Hostage. Now Bat-Robin the idiot plot device. Either completely burdened with doubt and self pity - "I wish I could shake this feeling I'm wearing a shroud." - or possessed by a degree of machismo and tactical carelessness that strays way beyond the legally culpable, this strange collection of odd Dick Graysons all inhabiting the same body only makes sense because of the fan-boy fantasies which link up the appearances of his different one-dimension selves. Self-pitying Grayson is comforted by perfect-father Alfred. Violent torturing Grayson terrifies super-villains. Idiot proving-himself-through-brute-shock-and-awe Grayson attacks Pyg through the carefully-considered strategy of - fuck, yeah! - driving a quad bike straight through Pyg's compound. (Good job Pyg just happened to be standing right in front of the Bat-Quad-Monster-Bike when that happened, ah?)

All that connects these Graysons is our pre-existing belief that a character called Dick Grayson actually exists. It's in truth nothing but fan-glitter, but it looks great and it's a rush the first time through.

10.

Of course, the real question isn't the "Who the hell are you?" that Gordon directs at Dick Grayson, but the same query directed back at Gordon himself. How is it possible that a character previously shown to be so competent should suddenly become so stupid, so sentimental and irresponsible? For one thing, surely Gordon doesn't have the legal right to allow anybody he meets in tights and a cape access to a suspects cell, and certainly not in the absence of a supervising police officer and a legal representative. And since there must have been a supervising police officer, for surely even this Gordon wouldn't let a complete stranger in a Bat-suit alone with a prisoner, then why didn't the policeman stop the kidnapping? Why wasn't Batman shot, or the alarm raised, or the order to arrest this costumed lawbreaker issued?

Did Batman simply walk out of the building with the burning Rex thrown over his Bat-asbestos shoulder?

And why, in the above panel, is Gordon so apparently relaxed about the whole affair, with even his face turned away from the reader's gaze, as if there were nothing of an informing intent displayed there-on?

11.

I do believe that kidnapping, while not the equivalent of torture, is considered a very serious crime indeed in the Federal Courts of the USA.

As I would imagine would be the act of kidnapping a prisoner from a police cell.

And certainly the business of then torturing that prisoner, in the full view of the public, on a crowded highway, might be expected to have the police and the law-courts united in their determination to do their duty according to the law.

In fact, it's quite impossible to believe in any story where these facts aren't an absolute given.

12.

I. Dick Grayson's reply to Gordon's question is the apparently all-answering "I'm Batman.", which for all that it's a quote from Tim Burton's first Bat-movie, hardly seems to me to be an statement that makes sense. Oh, it makes the fanboy-marrow in me shiver, but that's just evidence that a familiar quote is being used to side-step narrative coherence, and indeed, decency too.

But there we are. The qualification for being recognised as The Batman despite not looking like him is simply to dress like him. And the quite acceptable explanation for a Batman when challenged on grounds of kidnapping and torture is to say "You'll just have to trust me, Commissioner." while heading off into the Gotham wildlands to dish out some more violence.

After all, Damien must be saved, at any and all costs.

And heroes aren't judged by what they do, but how effectively they can quote other incarnations of themselves in a way that seems terribly dramatic, but is really just fan-pleasing gesture and piffle.

13.

I. But the whole business of poor vulnerable Damian, whose fate forgives all transgressions of human rights and the rule of law, has been set up with some shockingly shoddy plotting. For Damian ends up captured by Dr Pyg after walking out of the Bat-Cave late at night after a row with his new mentor.

And yet that sequence of events makes no sense at all. Dick Grayson has been a career superhero for 15 years. He's been the leader of the Titans for a huge span of that time too, as well as member of the Justice League. He's an experienced and respected leader of women and men. And yet his response to the young Damian storming off in costume at that time of the day is to;
  1. hold him back?
  2. lock down the Bat-Cave?
  3. disable the engine of the Damian-cycle?
Well, actually we're not shown what happened, or even really told, which is a clever trick by Mr Morrison, given that there's no narrative he could create which wouldn't leave Grayson looking emasculated and unfit to be even a surrogate superhero parent. Indeed, all we're shown is a moping Grayson hanging around waiting for Alfred to turn up and give him a pep-talk, with Damian having long roared off into the night.

But. But. Why was Grayson ever hanging around feeling sorry for himself? Why wasn't he straight out searching for the lad? Why didn't he immediately follow Damian? Why did Dick Grayson, one of smartest and most practical superheroes in the DC Universe, just hang around?


II. Of course, Grayson was hanging around bowed under a Claremontian cloud of despair because his doing so gave Damian time to get into trouble, which would then require the new Batman to undertake some crowd-pleasing torture to save him, and also because Mr Morrison obviously felt there was a good place to stick a nice tender moment with Alfred.

Sense be damned. It's a nice scene with Alfred. Stick it there, why don't you?

Let the ten year old boy go get hurt. He's only a plot device, anyway.

Everything's just a plot device. Even the plot is.

14.

I. Dick's torture of Rex has of course been quite forgotten by Gotham's police force by the next time he encounters Gordon and his men. (I can't recall a single female police officer in the whole sequence of chapters. Gotham's police force is apparently entirely composed of middle-aged white men.) Similarly, that "oh-please-don't-bother-yourself-worrying" business with the kidnapping from police custody is gone too. In fact, in the aftermath of the final punch-up with Dr Pyg, Gordon has rather become a total, and rather weepy, convert to the new Batman and Robin team, despite still not knowing who he's dealing with.

"My men asked me to thank you for the lives you saved back at HQ. Whatever happened these last few months -- and I don't want to know what happened -- you can count on my support. Now tell me this is over."

The possibility that this Batman may have done away with the old one and be using that identity to establish a privileged presence in Gotham never crosses Gordon's mind. Nor does the fact that people who say they're Batman might not always be Batman. (The name "Hugo Strange" might come to mind at this point. Or it may not. It hasn't to Gordon's)

This, therefore, is obviously the problem with policemen in the DCU. They've been trained to judge everything on face-value and prejudice and to never evaluate the available evidence.

II. I don't know why Gordon didn't just crumple onto his back when faced with the victorious Batman, raise a leg in submission and bang his tail on the ground in apology and supplication.

But there's worse, and stupider, to come.

15.

Three chapters later in "Reborn" and the new Batman and Robin find themselves brawling with Jason Todd, now known as the Red Hood, and his psychologically unconvincing sidekick Scarlet. Things look bad for our costumed idiots, in what I assume is designed as a - sigh - post-modern homage to the worst grim'n'gritty punch-ups of the 1990s, when the super-assassin Flamingo crashes proceedings.

To cut a wearisome story short, Todd murders Flamingo in a sequence which is extremely hard to make sense of; I think Todd uses a mechanical digger to dump him into a pit before burying him under a few tons of rocks, but who knows? But, regardless, immediately after the killing, Gordon and his men turn up conveniently late for the action and productively just in time for the plot-closing business of arresting the Red Hood. The saintly Commissioner himself delivers the great moral keynote speech with all the style, but none of the content, we'd expect of him;

"We only let Batman do what he does because he keeps it on the right side of the law. This is simple. You're a murderer. And I'm taking you to jail."

16.

Finally, through Gordon's hard-boiled declaration, we posses a clear statement of what counts as acceptable behaviour on the part of vigilantes in Gotham where its police force is, and presumably the writers and editors of DC's Batman office are, concerned. Anything is acceptable as long as it doesn't involve, what, indefensible homicide? And that lovely new Batman, Gordon assures us, "... keeps it on the right side of the law."

Kidnapping?

Kidnapping a suspect from a cell in a police station?

Kidnapping a suspect from a cell in a police station and torturing them?

Absolutely acceptable, apparently. Yes, torturing's not just morally acceptable and a signifier of heroism now. It's actually within the law too. Batman's kept it on the right side of the law.

"Huzzah!" for Batman.

"Booo!!!" for bad old Jason Todd, who's shown us by his fiendish actions that the DCU really does have strict moral standards and a police force aware of the laws they're sworn to uphold.


17.

Don't stare too hard at "Batman And Robin " for too long. Underneath all that metatextuality and sub-text posing as text posing as sub-text, there's a comic book which doesn't make sense. It looks great when the likes of Mr Quitely and Mr Stewart are illustrating it, it's got terrific moments, and there's an awful lot to think about as long as it isn't the sense of the story which is being considered.

And that's fine, it really is. Whatever floats your boats. It's just a comic book. Let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of comic book writing flourish. I may think that an extra day's work on these scripts might have resulted in stories which made sense as well as thrilled, because I don't think that spectacle and craftsmanship are polar opposites. It's not an either/or proposition, after all. Mr Morrison could easily construct his Batman and Robin epics to exclude the meaninglessness while still pursuing his wonderfully entertaining take on superheroes.

All it would take is just a few more hours work.

But that torture business?

Well, I despair. I really do.

It's as if it doesn't matter. And I really do think that it does.

Because if torture doesn't matter, then what does? Telling an exciting Batman story?

18.
The last I saw of the new Batman and Commissioner Gordon, this is how the conversation went;

Gordon: "You need a ride back to the city?"

Batman: "I'm fine, Commissioner. Thanks."

Well, that's the important business dealt with then ....



In the May archive, there's an article entitled "They're not like us, are they?" which might explain something more of why I despair so as regards this whole business of the rule of law. I didn't want to repeat myself here, and make others endure me doing so, and so I didn't, but that's where anyone should go in the unlikely event that they'd like to see more of why I really do think this torture business matters so. (Just in case anybody thinks that I've only attended to the faintest slither of this business. Oh, no. There's another faintest slither elsewhere.) Thanks for persevering with the above and making it down to here. And I do hope that the day is being a splendid one for you.


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