Monday, 24 December 2012

On Simon Baz, Green Lantern (Part 1 of 2)

     
Inspiring polemics aren't typically fuelled by an excess of timidity. There may be exceptions to the rule, but I'm struggling to think of any. Passion, yes. Conviction. Daring. Scorn. Desperation. Loathing. Learning. Wit. Smart-mindedness. But not a deliberate and bloodless timidity. Sadly, that's exactly what the defining characteristic is of Geoff Johns' scripts for the Green Lantern issues which have featured his new creation, the Arab-American, Muslim protagonist Simon Baz.

It's easy to be baffled as well as underwhelmed by the title's past few issues, filled as they are with what at first seems to be persistently contradictory messages. On the one hand, Johns and his fellow hypesters at DC have made a fuss about the company introducing its first major-franchise Muslim hero. Yet having huckstered up the media's attention where Baz's religious and ethnic background is concerned, Johns has then managed to produce a protagonist who doesn't appear to be anything of a Muslim at all. Never once in all four appearances to date has Baz referred in any way to his religious principles, let alone undertaken a ritual or displayed a habit that we might associate with his beliefs. In fact, he's the Muslim who never once thinks of Islam, which, given how desperate and challenging his circumstances are, is a perplexing business. I've never met a believer who didn't frame their decisions according to one aspect or another of their faith, but that's not ever true here. You might imagine that a man of even passing religious conviction would refer to it when thrown into a world of alien super-cops and monsters, super-heroes and government-sanctioned waterboarders, and so on. But not Baz, who - the occasional appearance of his hijib-wearing sister aside - seems to have nothing of any distinct American sub-culture about him at all. (A brief, single sentence reference to a disagreement with his father over the propriety of his tattoo is the very closest we come to any culturally specific detail, and even that's hardly a conflict that's unique to any one aspect of American society.) Why would DC publicly drum up their introduction of a Muslim, Arab-American character and then make him so conspicuously lacking in anything but the very broadest markers of religiosity and ethnicity?

       
But then, why would DC announce Simon Baz as the next Green Lantern while intending to portray him as a car-thief? And if Baz is to be a criminal, then why constantly downplay the importance of his choice to be one? What's the point if Johns is going to represent the man as someone who only took cars which "no-one would miss", and who only did so because he was laid off in the economic slump and couldn’t provide for his hospitalised brother-in-law's child? Is Baz a symbol of an uncaring America or of its self-pitying underclass? For if it's important that we know that Baz is a Muslim and an Arab-American, then what are being told about the citizens of the Republic with those attributes who face equally hard times? And if all this business about criminality and cultural identity doesn’t really mean anything much at all, then why are we being told about it in the first place? What is Johns' purpose? For as Baz admits to his sister, he's made "thousands" of dollars through his thievery. That's no passing career, and yet here, it’s presented as a minor issue, as a mark of the burden borne by the soon-to-be-originised superhero. Even Baz's road-racing - which led to his brother-in-law ending up in a permanent coma - is used to solicit our sympathy for his hard done-by victimhood. That that aspect of his past actually shows, once again, that Baz is a bloke with a lack of impulse control matched an absence of common sense is just ignored

There may be, its seems, someone who bears some responsibility for the state of the economy, and for the acts that it influences some of the poor to commit. There may be groups and institutions who might be blamed for the way that American Muslims have so often been labelled and harshly treated. But Johns has no interest in suggesting who that might be. Where prejudice and economic disadvantage comes from seems irrelevant. In the absence of that key information, it’s impossible to grasp why Johns seems to believe that we should be so fond of Baz in spite of his habit of pilfering other people’s property. Johns hints and then hints again at some greater meaning, but he never defines himself. Underneath all these passing references to headline issues, all he does is give the impression that repeatedly indulging in substantial property crime during a depression is no big deal at all. In fact, Baz has only been laid off for four months, and yet he's well into his career as a thief by the time we meet him. We're shown no sign of poverty on either his part or that of his family, and yet a lack of funds is used to excuse his thieving. Could it be that Johns is suggesting that his brother's health-care is ruinously expensive, or that there's a lack of fair pay in the Federal bureaucracy that employs his sister? Why is Baz has been driven to these crimes, and to what degree is he responsible for his own actions? Sadly,  there's no clear explanation in Johns' scripts, and that means that the reader's quite lost as to why its so important that this Muslim, Arab-American hero should be a thief . The sense that we should pity him saturates every page, but sense itself is absent.

 

But then, what did Johns think might be read from the fact that the Green Lantern ring which chose Baz as its wearer was clearly faulty? For a comic which seems to have been designed to accentuate the undeniable fact that Muslim, Arab-Americans are the equal of any others, Johns certainly loads up his scripts with examples of how Baz really isn't anything of the kind. He's the Green Lantern who got lucky despite rather than because of his history, and who'll have to establish that he deserves to belong despite the evidence that he doesn't. The well-meaning outsider who, full of potential and yet marked by his difference and a heavy burden of sins, has to prove that he's one of us and on the right side. With hard work, with a change of heart, with a public display of his willingness to sacrifice for the general good, with an end to the car-stealing, he can be as good as any other hero, just as good as the rest of us.

What an odd and disturbing set of choices these are on Johns' part. Yes, he's briefly presented us with scenes symbolizing how post-9/11 America persecuted its fellow Muslim citizens. Or it least, two panels are given over to (1) the sight of racist slogans on walls following the attack on the Twin Towers and (2) the adult Baz facing what seems a remarkably polite measure of police harassment. It's a shockingly mild, passing and misleading indictment which seems to be designed to explain much of why Baz ended up repeatedly breaking the law. But because Johns only sketches in the briefest and thinnest of details, it's impossible to grasp how Baz was affected. As quickly as he can, Johns moves on, and in doing so, leaves Baz as one of only two people breaking the law from that point onwards. Johns may have intended to be fiercely critical of the racism that's been leveled at the groups which are his subject, and yet his script keeps focusing on Baz's anti-social past instead. Accordingly, Johns doesn't so much defend Muslim Arab-Americans as sentimentalise a polite and facile version of their plight. Empathy, he seems to believe, will win over the unconvinced where facts never will. That the communities he's trying to speak well of are being primarily represented in his tale by a repentant petty criminal inevitably suggests that they have fallen short and need to reform and prove themselves. In that sense, he's not saying that Muslim Arab-Americans are the equal of their fellow citizens, but rather, that they can be good citizens if they make the effort to put right their wrongs. Though Johns undoubtedly didn't mean that, a crass polemic unavoidably generates crass readings.

      
Even when locked away by the state and faced with torture, Baz surprisingly expresses no political criticism of the Republic at all, and neither does anyone else. Strangely enough, the prejudice and persecution which he's faced since 9/11 hasn't led to any kind of political and/or religious radicalisation at all on Baz's part. Circumstances have helped drive him beyond the law despite his generous heart, but not beyond apathy. Beyond knowing something of what goes on in Guantanamo Bay, he appears remarkably apolitical. Some mixture of the economy and bigotry and the police and whatever else has made a felon of Baz, but it hasn't inspired any awareness of such influences. Johns seems to have wanted to make sure that there's nothing too contentious about his tale, and so he's left us with a character without the brain or heart to engage ideologically with the world  that's supposedly been so cruel to him.

A Simon Baz who has behaved as he has because of a conscious loathing for a racist, capitalist system would be a 21st century version of the social reformer that was the O'Neill/Adams take on John Stewart. But Baz's life-story just suggests he's had it pretty tough and isn't it a shame? Because of the lack of specifics, just about anyone from any disadvantaged American community could be substituted for him in the narrative and nothing essential would change. This is not, beyond a few obvious signifiers, a story about Islam or Arab-Americans at all. All such details have been as stripped out from the story as they possibly could be. As such, Baz is nothing more than yet another one of Johns' entitlement heroes, who are admirable not because of what they do or say or think, but because they're wearing a superhero's uniform, performing the flashy stunts and representing the corporate brand. They're heroes because Johns says they're heroes, and that's that.

Johns' typical - and superficially elegant - strategies for sketching in backstory work very well when he's reminding readers of the origin of the likes of Starro The Giant Starfish. But they're shamefully inadequate when it comes to a story which carries with it a company-serving suggestion of political and social importance.

        
It may even be possible that we're not supposed to look to Simon Baz at all for the meaning of Johns' tale. Could it be that it's his law-abiding, loving sister Sira that's supposed to be expressing what Johns wants us to believe? She is admirably calm and sensible, loving, forgiving and clearly competent, though she's only appeared twice to function as Baz's conscience rather than a protagonist in her own right. (*1) If that's so, then why didn't Johns chose to lend her the costume and power ring? But no, the writer, as is par for the course, just doesn't seem too interested in how his work might be read in anything but the most general way.  For this isn't a subtle depiction of America that sidesteps both politically correct and incorrect over-simplications, that offers a smart-minded mix of left and right wing points of view. Rather, it's a confused mish-mash which succeeds only in generating both PC and PIC values all at the same time. It means that Baz does appear to have been given a free pass for his protracted anti-social behaviour because of a trying degree of racist unpleasantness and economic woe. (Right wingers rise up in protest!) And yet Baz also appears to be representing a community while being characterised as catastrophic irresponsibility and persistently criminal. (Everyone to the left of the reactionary right wonders how that decision could possibly have been made.) In not making sure that he's true to one particular view, Johns has only succeeded in simultaneously pushing some of the least attractive aspects of several opposing ideologies.

*1:- She's even working for the Government, although she's asked not to come into work because other workers are frightened, it seems, of her association with her "terrorist" brother. Aren't there laws about that? Was there not a single workmate or organisation that she could turn to beyond the boss who, for all her pleasantness, told her to go away until the poor scarified people became less so?

        

But there is another way of looking at the overwhelming absence of coherence and sense here, and that’s to suggest that Johns is actually struggling to fulfil a very specific agenda. It might be argued that he isn't being unconsciously insensitive and frustratingly imprecise at all. For it often seems that Johns is trying as hard as he can to simply avoid taking a potentially contentious stance on anything at all that he can possibly avoid. So, America is shown to be running a savage regime of torture, which seems like a principled and daring matter to discuss. And yet the strong suggestion is that those who are running it at all levels are responding to an overwhelming danger and ought to be granted our sympathy too. Baz did, after all, drive a van full of explosives into a factory, though only through a mixture of light-fingeredness and ill-fortune. Indeed, only once are the soldiers and suits who imprison and torture Baz given to express anything other than an efficient if generally cold-hearted concern for the truth, and that's when a guard insultingly refers to him as "Muhammad". (Again, it's a moment that made as little play as possible of, as if - gosh - someone might actually notice that it's been said.) Torture's undeniably horrid, Johns and artist Doug Mahnke appear to argue, and innocent though highly suspicious folks have been subject to it. Yet they're also suggesting that the torturing has to be done, and that those who’ve been tortured have given every reason to make the authorities suspicious. There are more and less well-meaning government torturers on show. But that's not the same thing as a criticism of anything other than the procedural matters of how the tortured should be spoken to and when they ought to be made to suffer. The idea that torture should not be happening under any circumstances, and that those indulging in it are behaving as monsters, is quite absent. For all the sympathy that's shown to Baz, this is a comic that argues that torture can be considered necessary even if it's undoubtedly unpleasant.
        

But then, the America of the New 52 is one that's constantly under threat by apparently unstoppable and fearsomely predatory Others. Even in these four issues, packs of murdering aliens are running wild across the USA, murdering innocents in a disgusting fashion, and - oh no! - there's no-one to stop them. It's a context which can seem indistinguishable from a reactionary vision of America as the virtuous and yet largely defenceless victim of an entirely hostile, vicious world. The state is helpless in these stories when its not incompetent and corrupt! The forces of good are few and constrained by law and convention! The enemy has few if any virtues, and terrible things are happening to our people every day! Ammonia in the eyes of Alfred! Superheroes regularly stabbed right through and then stabbed again! In such a paranoid context, in which the conventions of the superbook are so often - if not exclusively - taken to bleak-hearted extremes, it becomes hard to suggest that even the most vile measures to protect the nation and the world aren't necessary. In the New 52, the reactionary are nearly always objectively correct; the world really has gone to hell, and only the most severe and immoral behaviour on our own part will save us.

Of course, Johns is no stranger to exploitation for exploitation's sake. So many of his tales rely on all typical ways of maintaining everyday life turning out to be entirely useless. Only the super-vigilantes can save us, and they can only do so by pushing everything but their own will to one side. It's a reduction to absurdity that brings with it ever darker shadows. For if society can't protect its members under any circumstances, then society's values and laws aren't just inadequate, but entirely counter-productive. Trying to load even a mild liberal concern into such a context is an incredibly trying business. When Johns suggests that torture really isn't a very nice thing at all while implying that it's a sadly necessary business, he contributes nothing to the debate beyond an entirely useless sense of regret and pity for those who've been tortured despite their innocence. The very worst that Baz is given to say about Guantanamo Bay is that submitting to its lack of lawyers and due process would get in the way of his being a good and successful superhero. And yet, that's the most radical gesture that Johns feels able to make. The New 52 is so often a comicbook far-right fantasy taken to a bloke-thrilling, ultra-violent extreme. Social criticism of anything other than an uber-rightist kind will always struggle in that framework.

to be concluded, when we'll try to make sense of that gun and that mask, of the fact that whole local Islamic community ostracized the Baz family because of the crimes Simon was accused of, and so on ..

38 comments:

  1. The introduction of John Stewart on page 5 of Green Lantern #87 has always been one of my favorite comic book pages, and now I think it should be included in the textbook given to all aspiring comics writers to show them how a mere character trait can be turned into a living character in the space of three panels.*

    The sad thing is, it's hard to avoid thinking Johns had that issue in mind when creating Simon Baz ("he's not just a token, his origin will speak directly to a hot social issue facing his ethnic group in America today!") but Johns never figured out how to make his initial thought grow into anything more than a diagram.

    (*The two of us should totally write that book someday.)

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    1. Hello Richard:- Establishing character in 3 panels? I'm up for it.

      I cut a substantal digression about John Stewart from GL #87 and how he managed to both stand against the status quo but not against the state. His was a rebellious, politicised opposition that was committed to making the system work. Baz doesn't even seem to have the tools to know that their is a system. You'll remember John slapping down the policemen in that GL tale? I can't imagine Baz having the ability to do that.

      If Johns did have a purpose, he's managed to get through 4 issues without showing it. But then, if I had to bet my life on it, I'd say his intention was to show a vague if sincere measure of CARING while upsetting as few folks as possible.

      "Timid" is a polite way of putting it, I fear.

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    2. If you'll forgive a P.S.: just think how much we learned about John Stewart in those three panels! He's angered by an act of injustice; he's not shy about confronting it; he's not afraid to stand up to policemen who could arrest him on a pretext and disappear him into the system for a bit; the moral authority of his rightness and his force of personality is so great that the wiser patrolman actually tells off his colleague. Right there the reader is already thinking "this is a hero." That he declines the mask may also be a bit of symbolism: John Stewart isn't a regular Joe putting on a disguise as a hero, instead he's revealing what he was all along.

      I think John was at his finest in his first outing and declined since then. Maybe Simon Baz will follow the opposite trajectory in the hands of some other writer.

      (And a further P.S.: agreed with everything SallyP says!)

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    3. Hello Richard:- Of course, you are always welcome here!

      I'm absolutely with you about John's introduction. But I'm sad to say that I've read nothing with that force and conviction in the super-book for a good while, and you'd think that FORTY YEARS would have brought more and not less daring and heart.

      I would so agree with you that John declined from that point onwards. He has had some moments, such as Mosaic. (Sally would know better than me about his more outstanding recent appearances.) But his first appearance presented qualities which most writers struggle to convey in combination; he was outspoken but exceptionally bright and sharp without smugness or any excess of edge. He was tremendously impressive, and not even the military-straight John of the JLU can match him.

      We know that Simon Baz will end up in the Justice League, so he certainly has a future. But ... they're not exactly presented a sharp, impressive adults anymore, are they?

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  2. Simon Baz has been presented as something of a cipher, at least as I see it. He also seems to be a strange amalgamation of Hal, Guy, John and Kyle, in the way that he reacts to things. It seems as though Geoff Johns wants another Rookie Green Lantern, but Kyle is too far beyond that now. And what the heck, why NOT make him an underdog from the start? Having a black Lantern is no longer a novelty either, so lets make him Muslim!

    But as you say, he still reacts as just an average guy, with no real depth or other indications of his faith or upbringing beyond a few panels showing how rough he had it as a kid. Guy had it rough as a kid too.

    I don't know. He seems a nice enough fellow, I just don't know how he is supposed to charge his ring, or what is going to happen to the other four Earth Lanterns, who quite frankly, I have a whole lot more emotionally invested in, than Simon Baz.

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    1. Hello Sally:- You're right, he's a nice guy. In fact, he's such a nice guy that it's impossible to believe that he's a career criminal. (Those thousands of dollars are far more than a single moment of weakness.) Nothing about Baz convinces at all. Not his supposed criminality, not his guilt, not his love of dangerous racing, not his lack of religious or political convictions, not even his lack of low-level resentment; it's a mess.

      Of course, you're looking at Simon Baz from the perspective of GL fan too, whereas I'm focused on the difference between the gestures in the surface of Johns' story and the lack of sense those gestures create. But your points about the GLC are equally important, given that he does operate in that context. So, as you say, what does he offer? Well, he knows nothing and he shows every sign of lacking the ability to control his impulses and behave ethically. An odd choice for an inter-galactic cop as well as for a supposedly positive representation of Muslim and Arab-American citizens.

      He is indeed "a nice enough fellow". He drives dangerously, he thieves, he doesn't seem to have grasp of the social, political and religious issues which affect his family and community, but Johns sure has made him seem nice. I suppose that means that all the daftness in the story might be masked by the niceness of Mr Baz. Pah.

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    2. Dear Colin,

      You're absolutely right of course. Simon Baz really isn't all that nice, when you take into consideration what he has actually been up to. I suppose that we are supposed to be cheering for him, because in COMPARISON to what he is accused of, being a reckless driver, a car thief, and apparently the guy who put another guy in the hospital seems so...so innocuous.

      Ok, he's not a terrorist, and he made fools out of the Justice League, two things that are actually in his favor. But he still seems so very bland in comparison to the fleshed out characters of Hal, John, Guy and Kyle. Or for that matter, Katma, Arisia, Soranik, Kilowog, Salakk and Tomar Tu.

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    3. Hello Sally:- You've nailed it; we're supposed to think he's hard done by because he's only a car thief etc and not a terrorist. Imagine picking any other racial stereotype and suggesting that the people so misrepresented are only thieves rather than the worst that is typically said of them. There'd be a terrific kerfuffle. But somehow that hasn't really happened here.

      And again, I quite agree with you. Even strip away all that stupid-mindedness and his character itself is so bland. As I've been writing today, he only becomes an ethical creature when he's been captured, tortured and given super-powers. Yet Salakk, for example, is an ethical reactionary with strong and admirable principles and a personality that could strip paint. Compare the two and even as basic types, Salakk's fascinating and Simon Baz is a great sap of a man.

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  3. I'm fascinated by this subject; more please!

    An episode of the Simpsons which dealt with patriarch Homer Simpson's homophobia concluded with the declaration: "Homer, I won your respect, and all I had to do was save your life. Now, if every gay man could just do the same, you'd be set."

    Likewise, the message here seems to be, "Simon Baz, you've won our respect and all you had to do was save the world. Now, if every Muslim could just do the same, your kind would be set."

    If Baz's religion is as neglected as you say, I wonder why he wasn't simply a secular Arab? There might have been a point to be made there to see someone who doesn't even practice Islam being accused of belonging to its most egregious ranks.

    More than 70 years ago, before US involvement in World War 2, Simon/Kirby produced the Captain America story "Killers of the Bund" which went out of its way to stress how not all German-Americans were sympathetic to Nazi Germany. Are today's super hero comics more or less sophisticated? Where the US' "guilty until proven innocent" stance on Muslims is being represented, it seems much less sophisticated.

    Still, here's one post-9/11 comic which isn't afraid to declare, "Not all Muslims are terrorists! Some of them are thieves!" To which any sensible Muslim should respond, "Please stop trying to help us."

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    1. Hello Michael:- Thank you. For good or ill, there will be a second part of this - already written but not edited yet - up in a few days time.

      Your Simpsons quote is right on the nose. And yet Johns doesn't seem to grasp that that's what his work suggests. I really don't think he meant to offer up such an analysis, but then, the fact that we've had 4 issues in which the only reference to Islam is an insulting one suggests that Johns doesn't have the faintest idea of what he's doing. (In - I think - the second SB tale, his father declares that none of their friends will speak to them now their son has been arrested as a terrorist, and the Mosque has banned them all from coming in. I'll return to that in the next piece, but if you've got one representation of an American-Muslim community in comics, I'd suggest that's not the way to represent them. There may have been a Mosque in the USA which has done that, but whether or not, it's a hurtful way to label an entire religion in a comic that claims that be about positive representations. An entire community which sends one family to Coventry without their being guilty? A "hero" who's a car thief? It's just ... crass.)

      I think the idea of Simon Baz as a secular Arab-American would've been the better choice if Johns was going to ignore religion. When I taught in Leicester and London, I worked in school with high numbers of Muslim students. I can't recall even the most laddish of them failing to display aspects of their religion. In fact,Islam was very rarely not an influence that at the least was close to the surface. I'm pretty sure their local Mosques and community organisations weren't in the happy of excluding entire families either. Johns wants to be able to gain points for mentioning "Islam", and then ... well, he doesn't have the will and/or craft to know what to do next.

      Killers of the Bund is a fine story. And I would want to say again, Johns doesn't seem to grasp what he's saying about Muslim, Arab-Americans. Apart from Simon himself, there's his sister and father, who are sensible, compassionate and both, as I said, excluded from their Mosque. And that's the whole community. Since the father and sister are represented only in the context of Simon's own story, and since neither of them are given any space in the story to stand as protagonists, he's the only one who stands as the moral centre of the tale. It's not that Johns can possibly have meant to suggest that all Muslim Arab-Americans could be good Americans if only they sorted themselves out. Of course not. But it is that this kind of tale is just beyond him at this moment in his career. Why didn't someone say to him "You do realise that you've potrayed an entire group of Americans as uncaring, decent if poweless or criminals here?"

      The more I think about it, the more amazed I am. I tried to write this in order to work out how I felt. I felt irritated and worse at what Johns was doing. But the more I look, the worse it seems.

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  4. So is this timidity coming from Johns? In a 2006 interview (http://www.talesfromthelongbox.com/2006/09/27/geoff-johns-green-lantern-oa-prime-more-newsarama), he stated: "Whenever I fly – I’m half Lebanese – half of my family gets looked at when they get on airplanes. They don’t blame people, it’s just what they’re going to do, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying. I was getting flagged at airports, because my middle name is Lebanese. My wife and I couldn’t understand it when I kept getting pulled aside for extra screening, and I finally realized that my middle name is right there on the boarding pass." Of course, Lebanon has a large Christian community, so I don't know if he has a Muslim background at all or how he was raised, but wasn't the point of introducing this character, who is explicitly both Arab and Muslim, to explore these issues?
    You already noted the positive example of John Stewart, and we should not forget that he was clearly introduced as a Marine, engineer and firebrand. The first two descriptors meant that the reader could not doubt his patriotism or his intelligence, and that gave more power to his political statements.
    Frankly, although I had no great love for Guy Gardner, his character did serve a purpose: heroes are not always nice guys. Kyle Rayner, on the other hand, bored me so much that I stopped reading GL. Now, with Simon Baz, we have got the most thoroughly redundant GL ever, and his hideous mask (forgive me) makes it looks likes he just assassinated Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics! I'm nonplussed.

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    1. Hello Rabbi Joe:- That's a terrific quote, an absolutely illuminating one. Thank you.

      There are moments in these four issues when Johns touches upon the social problems associated with a Muslim, Arab-American background. And then, as if he daren't look with any too much precision, he pulls away again. There's no guts here, and, as I tried to say, what it ends up saying is something which I strongly expect Mr Johns would never want to be associated with. And yet, how could he have expected any different? Introduce a hero representing a minority community/ies and have him feature as a criminal? Then represent the few other members of that community as being essentially nice but helpless and subject to the persecution of the Islamic community too? How could anyone thinking about their own experiences- such as shown in that interview you referenced - think that could be a good idea?

      That it should be a community so close to Mr Johns' own experience ... that quite takes my breath away. As I've been saying, I've no doubt he means well. But to make such a series of misjudgements with that degree of insight on his part ...

      I'd forgotten that John Stewart had been introduced as a marine. But, yes, he was part of the community and working to make it better. Baz is nothing of the sort. He can't even bring himself to talk to his sister when it's that or committing crimes. Community?

      The problem with Guy was that he was always changing characters, and for a long while the one which stuck was the role of reactionary idiot. Thankfully, that's not how he's always been depicted, and although it's not my own politics, I think that comics could have benefited from a political reactionary who was also quite clearly not a gung-ho idiot. When Guy's used to be portrayed a man who is obvious no liberal, but decent and humane all the same, then I have alot of time for him.

      Baz's mask I'll be getting to next time; I've not forgotten it. That DC should have decided to make a splash by presenting Simon Baz in a way that clearly signified terrorist Other .... now that is despicable. It's not irony, it's not deconstructing the audience's expectations; the comic wasn't even out when the images of the mask and gun were abroad. It was shock tactics irresponsibly exploiting dangerous stereotypes. Idiocy.

      Pah. And pah again :-(

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  5. I wont be having much of a Xmas this year due to our bereavement but may I take this opportunity to wish you and yours [and everyone here] a very Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year.
    Off to get blinding drunk now to take me mind off things. I'll be back in the real world come January [if I sober up in time or DC gives us a decent Wonder Woman comic, whichever comes first].

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    1. Hello Karl:- It must still be a very tough time for you. It would be for anyone. I hope that the season brings you as much kindness as is possible under such sad, demanding circumstances.

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  6. I'm very confused by Baz. First, after saying loudly "MUSLIM ARAB-AMERICAN LANTERN", the first preview image is of him with a gun and a mask, the sort of thing that'd be shorthand for "scary terrorist" - now I'm pretty sure in the early 70s, the cover of John Stewart yelling angrily with an afro was a shorthand too but it's one that suggests whatever villain has just messed with Hal is gonna get beaten up. Baz looks like he's attacking the reader (not helped by the form "EVERYONE MUST RUN THROUGH COVER" dictat).

    Then, you've got a guy trumpeted as Muslim who doesn't do much Islamic. Maybe he's not a very devout Muslim, though his sister looks like she is (and with some conservative religious views), so if he isn't that should surely come up in the strip. Compare to Faiza Hussain, who only gets two references to her faith in four issues - hijab withstanding - and the first is citing "religious reasons" as part of why she can't kill Skrulls, which sells her faith early.

    And then there's him being a car thief after mentioning "our Muslim Arab-American Green Lantern!!", which clashes with the marketing - a Muslim Arab-American superhero who used to be a criminal out of necessity, sure, other heroes have backgrounds like that, but it's probably not what people looking for a Muslim Arab cosmic franchise hero were going to be looking for. Subverting GL expectations, maybe? Trying to create a really big contrast between where he comes from and his GL career? (It doesn't sound like they went with that)

    I'm not sure what the heck is going on with this one.

    Oh well. Have some ponies singing a carol: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWfiW7iy3w0

    - Charles RB

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    1. Hello Charles:- Your confusion is - as of course you'll know - one that I share. And the thing is, if you've only got one franchise-leading Muslim, Arab-American hero, and if you're making a great play of it, then you can't afford to confuse people. And this isn't a mildly confusing comic either. It's all over the place, insulting, insensitive, stupid .... It's a cluster-*$!£ from beginning to end. Which makes me think that DC is even more out of control and short of competency at the top end of the chain of command than I realised. This comic just should never have appeared. Never. The very idea should have been shot down from the moment said, let's make him a thief who's stolen thousands of dollars of cars! Instead, some other idiot - or was it the same one - added, "and let's drum up some interest by presenting him as a super-terrorist!".

      Too stupid to imagine. As a satire, it would have been hilarious. But it's not a satire.

      The comparison with Paul Cornell's Faiza Hussain is a fine one. I've got a reference to that as part of the pieces conclusion, although I can now cut a few sentences thanks to you, good man :) The truth is, either Johns either isn't interested in showing respect to Islam or he doesn't think - for whatever reason - that it's appropriate. And even if next issue is an in-depth examination of the issue, he's let 4 issues go by without taking a stand on the very issue that the book was sold as representing.

      It is possible to speculate where the whole car thief/road racing set-up came from. MAKE HIM BAD-ASS! MAKE THE ROAD TO SALVATION IN THE CORP MORE IMPRESSIVE! And so on and on. But the problem is, it was a terrible, terrible decision, and whatever fan-boy reasons Johns has for it, it's as stupid as it's unhelpful. If there were a key Muslim member of the JLA and, say, Batgirl had converted too, then the situation changes; as you and I have discussed before, when there's a series of representations of a community, they can be allocated differences and failings without the group they come from appearing to be labelled. But a %!£* car thief? And a fairly hard core one too, by the book's own evidence? And the rest of his community represented as either nice-but-powerless or uncaring and excluding?

      That's just .... pathetic.

      ps: thank you for the pony carol :)

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  7. Perhaps it is that Johns is just a limited writer with a narrow scope of world/cultural experience. I'm not joking. Additionally, taking a real stance, taking real chances in a very populist entertainment channel is far too risky- it's a shame, but probably true. Don't get me wrong, I've liked some of the kid's work, but we all know about the hype-machine- I'm a simple man, but even I know when I'm being fed. I LOVE Mahnke's grawing though, and I really enjoyed the beginning of this book with Sinestro's reinstatement as a Green Lantern- Mahnke draws Sinestro so very well-

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    1. Hello SDTB:- I'm baffled by Johns' work here, because he has shown himself more than capable of storytelling that's subtle - in the context of the superbook - and moving. Taking chances hasn't - to my knowledge - been something that he's been concerned about, but his work for many years was far better written and far more emotionally affecting than it has been in recent years.

      It's all a mystery, I fear ...

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    2. ooOOoops, I meant "drawing" above, Doug Mahnke's DRAWING. As a writer and former teacher, do you ever feel nauseous reading our misspellings? Heh heh :D Yes, I'm unsure what the deal might be- The Blackest Night stuff was a neat way to be introduced back into comics as an adult, and made me an official and rabid GL fan...

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    3. Hello SDTB:- Oh, typos and the like are the bane of my life. In truth, sentences only ever reveal whether they make sense or not after about 3 weeks, which means that blog pieces are always packed with shameful mistakes. I'm only grateful that I'm not the only one who trips up .... :)

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  8. This article pretty much sums up why I can't read anything Geoff Johns writes these days without feeling like my intelligence is being insulted. I mean, his writing is just so formulaic and uninspired that I'm 100% convinced that he has no interest in appealing to anyone outside of the emotionally and intellectually stunted among us -- those "bloke fans" as you like to call them. Honestly, I'm having a hard time recalling anything "great" he's done since "Sinestro Corp War" (and even then he had a co-writer).

    I think its safe to say that he's become the Michael Bay of comics.

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    1. Hello Sergeant Hartman:- It's daft that Johns should be writing so much material that really does feel insulting. He's proven himself to be a smart and emotionallyu literate writer. For a good many years he worked through themes of family, love, loss and acceptance in his scripts that were heartfelt and smart-minded. Yet the closer we get to the present day, the more banal and apparently rushed his work seems to become. And it's impossible not to wonder why that should be. Sometimes I even wonder whether he's writing to please the bloke-fans that turn up at his comic shop. With all the lure of a misguided hypothesis, it would at least explain why he's so good at targetting that niche and so lousy at holding everyone else's attention.

      The Michael Bay of comics? That's a very sad thought. And yet, it's hard to argue with you, though I doubt that Bay would ever sell a crass Transformers movie as a socially responsible representation of minority. Which puts him one up in my opinion ...

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  9. Thanks for a well-argued piece, Colin. Many of the faults you look at were evident in the first issue - the one labelled, stupidly, #0 - and that's as far as I got with Mr Baz. It's a shame to hear that the problems have been compounded.

    My usual query - is Johns, like Dan DiDio, so elevated at DC that editors are wary of pointing out even the most fundamental problems? A potato could see some of the prorblems here.

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    1. Hello Martin:- A potato could indeed spot these problems, you're absolutely right. So, what can have happened to make the company not just ignore this project's massive shortcomings, but actively publicise them under the guise of social commentary of the most vital kind?

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  10. Hi Colin, I just dropped on by to see if I could convince you to take a look at my write up concerning Amazing Spider-Man #700
    (http://stonetextures.blogspot.ca/2012/12/amazing-spider-man-700.html)

    However, not wanting to be a poor guest, naturally I've read through your first part of this Simon Baz business. I'm very glad for the John Stewart reminiscing, his first appearance had me loving him as a character (unfortunately, none of his other appearances have done much to match that first outing- rather they just make me like him less)

    So you say they've given this Baz fellow a busted ring that would have otherwise not chosen him? That does sound bad. It sounds like the book would have been more interesting had the sister got the ring. It almost sounds cliche to make the new muslim character a woman, because then you just have the character walk around in a burqua as a visual identifier and then you're done with your research... unfortunately, even THAT hasn't been done often enough so that it can really be called a cliche. There's Dust over with the X-Men (though the way they kill off young X-Men I wouldn't be surprised at all to hear that she's gone now) and that's about all I can think of.

    To be fair, Dust, in all the stories I read of her, was actually a really well done character, and not just a cipher in a burqua, so, sorry to suggest otherwise, just making an extreme example to illustrate my point, as people are wont to do.

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    1. Hello Isaac: I've not read ASM #700, so I find myself torn between speaking about the run in general, with the specific examples of it that I've read, and hushing up. I started commenting after your genuinuely interesting piece and then realised that starting by saying "I've not read this, but" would hardly look good as a first response. But I can look daft on this, my own blog, and perhaps I might offer a few thoughts which your post kicked up here. For one thing, I think you really nailed some of the fundamental problems of DS's run. Now, I have to be careful here, because the whole Spider-Torture business has soured me on the comic from beginning to end. But my general feeling is that Slott tried to remove Peter's reasons for feeling hard-done by and then kept Peter's sense of being hard done by. Of course, that may be an illusion created for me by the fact that I read some issues and not others, but DS was caught in a situation - substantially not of his own making - in which Parker was obviously a lucky, lucky lad with little to be unhappy about. But then, that's the problem Marvel has created for itself with the character's success as an Avengers, member of the FF etc etc. And DS was caught up in making that make sense and, for my money, failed. Added to that has been the sense of the book desperately, desperately trying to attract readers through Events, and an air of second-guessing the audience in order to maintain some air of Surprize and Shock. Though Ive not read the last issue, what you say about the problems in it reflect my concerns about the issues which led up to it. And on top of that, there's my bafflement as to why I should want to read about Doc Octopus as Spider-Man. I have no idea why anyone at Marvel thought that would be of the slightest interest at all. After all, I've not been interested in this Peter Parker that's been offered up since the whole Devil/ex-wife business. Peter Parker the miserable success isn't of any interest to me, and Doc Ock playing Spider-Man and Peter certainly isn't. It all smacks of miscalculation and desperation to me, though folks I greatly respect see things differently.

      On Simon Baz: I have no doubt that the faulty ring which empowers him will become a mark of his being a new kind of GL, one not informed by the Guardians increasingly insane behaviour. But read in the context of the comic and all of those other crass decisions, it reads badly. It just does.

      The distance from John Stewarts first appearance to the debut of Simon Baz marks the failure of the super-book to embrace the humanist agenda which marked the sub-genre in the Sixties and Seventies. Compared to then, today's superbook is often reactionary if not apathetic, and I'm only grateful for the Gillens and Simones and Cornells who do attempt to address ethical issues in a way that avoids "might makes right".

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    2. Thanks for sparing some time and giving it a look, and thanks again for an encouraging response.

      Both the Spider-Man issue and the new Green Lantern actually share a similar question that you just brought up: who wants to read about these guys? I buy my ticket for Peter Parker. If there's a replacement headliner, well, this is an entirely different book, and I have to re-evaluate whether it's worth my time.

      When Jaime Reyes showed up, a character only nominally related to the previous Blue Beetle, I bought the book because I liked the character. I stopped buying the new 52 version because it wasn't the same character (and what's more, I didn't like this new character).

      With Simon Baz they seem to be trying to reach, less the muslim crowd, but to the Vin Diesel Fast and the Furious crowd. I can't imagine there's much hope looking to that market, but I've been wrong before. Regardless, it's not a character that I find appealing.

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    3. Hello Isaac:- Who indeed is DC trying to reach. I think you're right, they want a bad-ass Green Lantern, but they don't actually want him to run the risk of offending anyone. That the same character has been sold on the back of representing a specific community is clearly at odds with this, but in the end, the fan-pro mind and the profit margin do tend to win out in the super-book. Not always, it must be said, and poor, poor starts have led in the end to fine characters before. But Simon Baz has started out as such a pathetic character that I won't be around to see how the ride plays out.

      As for Doc Ock as Spider-Man; I had a terrible thought after reading your post that he could be considered wish-fulfillment for greying, over-weight bloke-fans. What if they could be young again? What if they could inhabit a life and a body which had already earned success? What if they could get close - shall we say - to the likes of Mary Jane by pretending to be the very thing they're not.

      It's an ugly business. Yes, it might be brilliant. But if it is ... well, hats off and three cheers will be the order of the day.

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  11. It is odd that you hear so little about Geoff Johns having Lebanese ancestry: I only know about this because a Lebanese colleague sent around an article on Baz from a Lebanese-American newsletter when the character wad first announced. While entirely unfair, this background does make Baz look even weaker as a symbolic character, given that so little of actual experience seems to come through.

    I still think that DC would have been far better off making this Green Lantern non-American, but I suppose that might have looked bad given the fact that ring is apparently faulty. Not that it doesn't look bad anyways. This whole Baz thing will be the textbook example of how not to bring an idea to fruition.

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    1. Hello Cory:- I'm just finishing off tidying up the second part of this piece in Simon Baz and the more I re-read the issues, the worse they reveal themselves to be. I find myself become more and more baffled about how this cluster*%$£ managed to ever make it to the page. With his own take on Vibe apparently on the way, it seems that Johns has taken the job of creating more "minority" heroes at DC. I have no doubt his intentions are good, and perhaps Vibe will be sensitive and fair-minded as a representation. But the Simon Baz stories are at best an expression of incompetence, and as you say, GJ's Lebanese ancestry makes it all the more mysterious that that should be so.

      I doubt we'll ever know how this comic ever came take the form it has, the decisions that were made, the editorial layers it passed through - or didn't. But that would make a fascinating story, and far more interesting than the new Green Lantern's career so far.

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  12. One of the things the short-lived American Documentary TV series All-American Muslim did managed to pull off was selling the idea that the various Muslim families that starred it were different but never Others: while Islam was, to various degrees, important to them, and shaped their lives in particular ways that could not have been replicated had it not been a factor, they were, fundamentally, people, who as such lived unremarkable, mundane lives. I found it fascinating.

    Given what you've said about Johns' depiction of our newest Green Lantern, Colin I can sort of see an attempt at doing the same thing here with the reduction of Simon's faith to what amounts to a footnote: hey, nothing to fear here--he's just like everyone else! However, if that's he was attempting, it lays bare a rather appalling and cynical view of humanity, since "everyone else" is a thief.

    And then there's all the actual additional context, which cannot be ignored. Simon Baz would be acceptable--although maybe not compelling--in a story in which Muslim people are in fact treated as people, and in a context in which the very fact that he follows Islam makes him exceptional. In a story in which he's the only one? Again, it makes it seem like that's the most one can expect--that the numerous Muslim people who've managed to improve the world in measurable ways don't matter--none of them have what it takes to be Green Lantern. But I'm regurgitating.


    In the end, something like this stinks of appropriation: taking other people's stories, recontextualizing as ones sees fit, and in the process obscuring the actual stories of the community (keeping in mind that said community is not monolithic--although you make a convincing case for the argument that Baz represents none of them). Yes, the new DC Universe needs Muslim heroes, whether super- or not. However, all Baz seems to do is allow those who think that one exceptional Muslim character is enough to declare that the job is finished, and that no more needs to be done when it comes to making the the people of the comic book universe look more like those in our own.

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    1. Hello Ian:- I never caught All-American Muslim. I don't think it ever appeared on British terrestrial TV. If as you say - and I've of course no reason to doubt you! - it managed to accentuate both the difference and yet the essential similarities where American Muslims are concerned, then I regret not seeing it.

      My concern wasn't so much that the book implies that everyone else is a thief so much as it uses a thief to represent the Arab-American community. Indeed, I'd not thought that Johns had thought of thief as a profession which represented Americans as a whole! But it is an interesting way of thinking about the strip. And if true - as you say - it is rather appalling and cynical.

      The key thing - which you put your finger on - if Baz HAS to be such a wet blanket of a criminal is to represent the community he comes from in a way that marks out their own diverse strengths. Yet Johns doesn't do that. All we hear about is how the Islamic community has sent the Baz family to Coventry, which is a remarkably ignorant thing to do. On the one hand, Johns doesn't want to mark out this particular community - or actually series of communities - as particularly different, and on the other he seems not to notice how he's failed to allocate very much of worth to their name at all.

      Your final panel is one that I couldn't disagree with. Hear hear. It's been a real head-in-hands experience, reading there stories. I still find it hard to believe that these choices have been made.

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  13. I must admit I haven't read the issues but with regards to the failure to represent anything Islam about Simon Baz, couldn't Johns do what Paul Cornell do when he was writing Dr Fazia Hussain inCaptain Britain & MI13 and have some assist/advise on the character if it's something he's not familiar with.

    Given that Cornell (up until the recent announcement of his Wolverine Series with Alan Davies) was DC exclusive, surely Johns could have foreseen the potential minefield he was walking into and speak to Cornell about potential issues/ideas he had.

    May be it just speaks to Cornell's politeness and John's position as CCO that no one thinks to question/challenge the stories he hands in. That and seeing the 24 hour new-cycle generated ****storm that occurred around the use of a real-live political slogan Marvel got into about Captain America they've just decided to neuter any political content at DC.

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    1. Hello timber-munki:- It's not that Johns didn't try to present a positive representation. But it is that - in my opinion - he didn't manage to pull the trick off. He does, for example, have Simon phone his sister at the beginning of the zero issue, as if he wants us to know that some Arab-American Muslims work for the govt rather than steal vans. And he does briefly - as I say above - refer to conflict in the Baz family over tattoos. But that's not any kind of cultural detail, and given that Simon is the active, changing, heart of the tale, brief mentions of his lovely family doesn't lend weight to any values and habit beyond his own. By contrast to Mr Cornell's handling of Fazia Hussain, its been a very disappointing business.

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  14. Good debates--articulate and eloquent, but let me take this out of context. I am thinking of, if you are familiar, the way Dust in the New Mutants (Marvel) is handled. She is a heavy-hitter; she is intelligent, modest, and devout. In this example, her Islamic heritage is gently presented as a sub-alternate to her mutant abilities (an outcast of the outcasts, if you will). As such, she is a well-developed squall of confusion mixing feelings of timidness, loneliness, and shame inherent with being a mutant, a teenager, an X-Man, and a Muslim.

    Johns misses this fully-developed character in creating Baz by making him a pre-conceived prejudice amalgam to prove that he does not conform to this image. But he really does live up to the spiteful, ignorant stereotypes. Hal has always had more courage than brains (endearing), Guy is too aggressive and impulsive to feel fear (a familiar, all too realistic character), John is a black architect/Marine (the tactical soldier-Epic Hero--sort of an Achilles/Oedipus merging), and Kyle is a artist/writers projection who, in my opinion, never had any definitive traits that made him a Lantern. Baz has all of these qualities (impulsive, angry, black , and projected) but he has none of the characteristics that make him relatable as anything buy a stereotype. He lacks Hal's heroic nature, Guy's insecurities and loyalty, John's patriotism and dedication, and Kyles --blech--sensitivity.

    Johns has had too much say in the DCU since 52, and he has really ruined GL for years, with his disdain for Hal, either undermining him or killing him off. Like Morrison, Clairmont, Miller, Gaiman, and Moore, he had a successful run and transcended editors and common sense no matter how racist and hackneyed his characters or stories become (I'm looking at you Grant Morrison.)

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    1. Hello Brett:- I still know too little about Dust to comment, though you and several of your fellow, and very welcome, commentors have made her seem a very interesting character at all. Certainly the qualities that you associate with her would appear to be almost entirely missing from the tales of Simon Baz.

      You're make an excellent point about the qualities of the various Earthling Green Lanterns, and you certainly help me grasp why I never quite felt Kyle fitted even as I liked and admired him as a character. Simon Baz really does lack what we might call "heroic" qualities, which in itself might be interesting if he hadn't been sold as an example of diversity.

      I really haven't been able to enjoy the GJ Green Lantern years. It's something of a relief to read of someone else who feels the same. I fully accept that he turned the franchise into a winner in the comic marketplace. I couldn't help but notice how many folks on Twitter were sad at his moving on from the title. For me, it was thin stuff.

      I must say, I retain my respect and fondness for the work of the other gents you mention! (My regard for Claremont has returned as his work has receded into the historical memory.) But of all of them, Mr Johns has seen the most dramatic fall in quality. I look forward to seeing if his work recaptures the qualities which I at one time so much admired.

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  15. It is more reasonable to expect that a Muslim superhero would be found on the battlefields destroying American drones that are killing innocent Muslims, especially women and children at weddings and funerals.

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    1. I fear that I've not been following the Green Lantern franchise since the above was written. As such, I have no idea whether the absolutely key issue - or rather host of issues - you raise have been touched upon, let alone how well such a business might have been done. But if DC truly had been telling the truth about wanting to represent not just "diversity" in its vaguest sense, but the Islamic community in America itself, then it's hard to see how the matter of drone strikes could have been ignored.

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