Monday, September 24, 2007

Remembering JAG


Jag was the last traditional boy's adventure weekly published by Fleetway in the 1960s. Launched on Saturday April 27th 1968, the comic was somewhat different to its companion comics. Tabloid sized, on better quality paper, and with 4 of its 16 pages in fully painted full colour (and four in spot colour), Jag was closer in style to Odhams Eagle than Fleetway's black and white newsprint comics such as Lion or Tiger.

Sadly, this dominating format perhaps proved a burden to Jag, as the comic lasted just 48 weeks, and towards its end it had been revamped into a 32 page regular-sized comic (but still keeping the better quality paper). Why did it fail? Surely not because of the material, because Jag featured some of Fleetway's top talent doing some of their best work. Here's a selection of some of the most memorable strips in the comic:

The Mouse Patrol was illustrated by Eric Bradbury. Perhaps inspired by the Children's Film Foundation movies that were screened at ABC Minors Saturday morning cinema matinees at the time, the strip featured three plucky boys in World War Two. Set in the North African Desert, the boys set out in a stolen German tank to search for their missing fathers who had been captured by the Nazis. In a typically bizarre British comics twist, they were assisted by Cleo, a chimpanzee in a German helmet.


Cap'n Codsmouth, a humour strip initially drawn by Joe Colquhoun (and later by Doug Maxted) featured the slapstick crew of the S.S. Scuttlebutt.


The Indestructible Man was drawn by Jesus Blasco, and like Blasco's Steel Claw strip, featured a hero who could turn invisible and also zap people with his fingertips. However, this hero, known in the present day as Mark Dangerfield, was an ancient Egyptian who had learned ancient secrets whilst being entombed for centuries, including the power of indestructibility. Inspired, I would strongly assume, by the Captain Scarlet tv series. However, The Indestructible Man could, after using his powers, age into a wizened old man and only bathing in fire would restore his youth. (Like all Jag strips, The Indestructible Man has never been reprinted, possibly because editors felt that readers might emulate him? A pity if so, as it's a very exciting strip with an offbeat and mysterious character.)




Custer occupied one page of Jag's full colour centre pages, giving artist Geoff Campion an ideal opportunity to relish in hand coloured artwork. The strip followed the traditional look and heroic characterization of General Custer, who I believe had appeared in a British comic before (Comet?) although these were, I think, brand new strips. Another artist took over the strip with later issues.


New World For Old was a favourite of mine. Not sure who the artist was, but the story, set in the year 3209, concerned an Earth-like planet which was populated by feuding factions based on different periods of human history. Confederate soldiers versus Roman warriors against a futuristic backdrop. Mad stuff.


Obviously New World For Old's odd premise wasn't appealing to most of Jag's readers so after a short time it was shunted inside to make way for new cover strip Football Family Robinson. This full colour humour-action football family saga was illustrated by Joe Colquhoun (the original Roy of the Rovers artist, and long before he'd get grim and gritty with Charley's War). The strip became a huge hit with readers and survived for years after Jag's demise.


Boy Bandit was a young rebel fighting "the cruel Mexican government" and was initially drawn by Tom Kerr, turning in a superb job as usual.


Despite these strong, well illustrated strips from the finest artists of 1960s comics, mixed with a few illustrated features, Jag's fortunes were not good. Its format meant it was a relatively expensive comic to produce. By February 1969 it changed format to a standard 32 page comic, and a few weeks later, with issue dated 29th March 1969, announced "Exciting News for all readers" as it merged into Tiger the following week. One benefit being that the new combined Tiger and Jag gained Jag's better paper and print quality.

However, were poor sales the only reason Jag was canceled? At that time, late 1968 and early 1969, the media giant IPC emerged, absorbing Fleetway and Odhams and mercilessly axing comics right left and centre. I suspect that IPC had its own ideas about comics and what they considered to be acceptable sales figures, and those that didn't fit were either changed beyond recognition (Smash! and TV21) or axed outright (Pow!, Eagle, and Jag). IPC also had strong ideas for new "theme" comics (like Scorcher, and Score n Roar), and segregating the line into adventure and humour titles. Jag was probably seen as being a bit of a dinosaur with its variety of content. However, the titles that IPC later created in that vein, such as Thunder and Jet came nowhere near to the quality of Jag, last of the Fleetway line.

Although only a short-lived comic, Jag did produce spin-offs. 1968 saw the Jag Football Special published, and there were four editions of Jag Annual cover dated 1970 to 1973.


Ironically, Jag, the last Fleetway comic, was the first one from that publisher that I bought regularly. My late Grandad, one of the original Illustrated Chips readers when he was a boy in the 19th Century, bought me a copy because its format reminded him of the comics he used to read. (The edition shown a few photos above, dated 6th July.) I'd never seen it before but was immediately impressed by the excitement and colour of Jag's content and stuck with it for quite a while, and subsequently became a regular reader of Tiger and Jag, Valiant, Lion, and all the other IPC adventure comics. Thanks Grandad! :)

Friday, September 21, 2007

WHAM! No.2 - online!


If you've checked out the Comics UK website this week you'll know that in their Daily Page section they're currently running scans from issue No.2 of Wham! from 1964. This rare issue features artwork by Leo Baxendale, John Burns and others and is a fine example of how sixties comics packed their pages with a variety of humour and adventure strips.


Today's page is the first of a two page Eagle Eye Junior Spy strip. (Leo Baxendale drew these early episodes, but not the ones in later issues.) Clicking on "previous" to view earlier pages doesn't work at present, but if you change the page number in your address window you'll find the page you want.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fleetway faves return in ALBION ORIGINS


Once again, Titan Books have released another gem in their determination to re-present some of the best British comics of past decades. In the same format as their previous hardbacks Charley's War, King of Crooks (The Spider), and The Steel Claw comes Albion Origins.

As the cover logo makes obvious, Albion Origins is aimed at the readers who bought the Wildstorm Albion graphic novel (published in the UK by Titan). Inside the book are a selection of some of the early adventures of characters that Albion revived: Kelly's Eye and House of Dolmann (from Valiant) and Janus Stark and Cursitor Doom (from Smash!). It's a good choice of stories. The Kelly's Eye strip is a long serial from the early 1960s (before Tim Kelly was joined by the Doctor Who influenced Dr.Diamond and his Time Clock) and House of Dolmann and Janus Stark reprint the very first stories of those characters. Cursitor Doom is also one of the early strips of that character, from 1969.


Albion Origins features just four of the many characters that made British comics unique, but what a bunch! These bizarre and basically unhinged characters may seem unsettling for readers used to American superheroics, but it's their very strangeness that's in their favour. No square-jawed clean cut heroes here. Tim Kelly is probably the closest thing to a superman Valiant had, but he revels in his invincibility a little to much to be sane. Same goes for Dolmann, a ventriloquist who not only talks to his puppets but squabbles with them too, even when he's alone with them! Then there's Janus Stark, a black-eyed angle-faced cross between Houdini and Oscar Wilde, and finally Cursitor Doom, who was a mystic investigator but looked more like a burly nightclub bouncer! (Brian Bolland's new cover for the book captures the darkness and weirdness of the characters perfectly.)


A few slight niggles; Steve Holland's introduction seems to imply that Incredible Hulk, Batman, Fantastic Four, Daredevil and Spider-Man were all running in Smash! at the same time ("swamping British creativity") which wasn't the case. Also, he quite rightly gives credit to the several artists who worked on Janus Stark, but there's no mention of Tom Kerr, who drew the second Janus Stark story reprinted in this very book. (And a great Tom Kerr strip it is too, with plenty of detail and atmosphere, as can be seen from the example below.)


Once again, as with the Albion trade paperback, no humour strips are represented in this collection, despite Grimly Feendish and Bad Penny being major characters in Albion. Whilst I appreciate that space is limited, surely a couple of pages could have accommodated those old single page strips? Perhaps if Albion Origins is the success it deserves to be Titan will hopefully consider a humour collection featuring The Nervs, Eagle Eye Junior Spy, Bad Penny, Dolls of St.Dominics and others who played a part in the Albion saga.

Those small points aside, Albion Origins is an excellent collection. Reproduction of the strips is extremely good considering scans of 40 year old comics were the source material. Thankfully, no attempt has been made to edit out the title logos at the beginning of each episode, and every strip retains the toplines, resumé captions, etc as they did in their original publications. Some may dislike this, thinking they disrupt the flow of story, but in truth they add to the authenticity of those bygone comics, when cliffhangers were described as "spine chilling" and each installment "breath taking". All of which was part of what made British comics of the sixties so compelling and exciting.


Albion Origins, hardback, Titan Books. 112 pages. £14.99 R.R.P. but available for less from Amazon.co.uk here.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Desperate Dan classics - in colour


As mentioned here a few weeks ago, the new-format of The Dandy (Dandy Xtreme) now features a Whizzer and Chips "two-in-one" style format of a 16 page Dandy Comix inside a 20 page magazine. The comics section has come under criticism from some fans for having so many reprint pages (5 out of the 16) but for my money one of those reprints is worth the £1.99 cover price alone, and that's Desperate Dan.

The Desperate Dan strips currently running in the comic are classic pages by the original artist, Dudley Watkins, from the 1940s. The first three issues of the Dandy Comix pull-out ran the strips in their original black and white, but with the latest edition, full colour, via Photoshop, has been added to the strip. This isn't as bad an idea as some might think, as hopefully it will make the 60 year old strips more attractive to even the most modern yoof on da street. Then again maybe they'll just think it's "old fashioned" and "uncool" because there's no fart gags in it. Who knows?

It may seem odd to re-publish Desperate Dan strips from way back when at a time when Dandy Xtreme is trying to pull in new readers. The strips certainly look very dated, (in a good way, in my opinion) but they have an attitude as fresh as ever that may still appeal to kids of today.

The stories themselves show a meaner Dan than the "big kid" personality he had become in modern times. Not meaner in terms of malice, far from it; Dan was always good hearted. Yet in these early tales his clumsy slapstick has more of an edge. This week, given a temporary job as school caretaker he thinks nothing of immediately breaking up school property to burn for the boiler, then accidentally clobbers the teacher and ends up inadvertently demolishing the school, giving the kids a holiday. That's the kind of anarchic humour that made The Dandy great, and maybe the liveliness and sheer comedy genius of these Dudley Watkins classics will put a smile on the faces of 21st Century kids too. Time will tell.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Iron Man trailer online


Want to see a peek at next year's Marvel blockbuster movie? The first trailer for Iron Man, (starring Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow) is now available to download as a Quick Time movie at:
http://www.apple.com/trailers/paramount/ironman/large_trailer.html

The Bumper Book of Look and Learn


Look and Learn, the high quality children's educational magazine of the 1960s to the 1980s made a return at the start of this year as a subscription-only fortnightly partwork. Now, like in the days when the original magazine was around, there's a chunky hardback "annual" in the shops for the Christmas market.

The Bumper Book of Look and Learn is published by Century at £18.99 r.r.p, and living up to its self-proclaimed "bumper" status is a large format 256 page hardback on top quality stock, bigger and better than any Look and Learn Annual of the past. Like the revived magazine, it features reprints from the original title, selected for the book by Stephen Pickles. The reproduction of the old pages is first rate, with sharp text and rich, colourful artwork. (The images are far better than the photographs I took of the book here.) Clearly a lot of care and attention has gone into the production of this volume.


Legend has it that most people seem to have bought the original Look and Learn solely for the luxurious Don Lawrence artwork on The Trigan Empire comic strip (a complete story of which is also included in this book). It was also the magazine that parents bought for their children, hoping it would educate and entertain. Truth is, there must have been many children who did lap up the articles as Look and Learn was selling in the region of 300,000 copies a week for four years before The Trigan Empire joined it from Ranger magazine in 1966.


Looking through the book it's understandable to see why Look and Learn lasted for 20 years. The artwork was always of the highest standard, featuring artists such as Ron Embleton, Angus McBride, Peter Jackson and others. Sadly, the one downside of this book is it fails to credit the artists unless the original feature had already done so.


One of the notable things about The Bumper Book of Look and Learn is that the historical articles have all been paginated chronologically. In the original magazine, there was no such order to the features; an item on the moon landing on one spread, an article on the battle of Agincourt on the next, followed by a feature on the Industrial Revolution, for example. In collating the book however, Stephen Pickles has cleverly put all the articles into a historical order, from the animals of the Ice Age to an item on space probes. This gives the book an added benefit of being an impressive history book for children.

The articles in Look and Learn were always concise, running to two or three pages at most, but thankfully not as brief as some of the "features" in today's children's magazines. These old articles are thorough and well researched and cover such subjects as great battles, British castles, famous historical figures, social changes, and nature and wildlife.

For people who remember the magazine, this is a wonderful collection of quality work representing those days. For those who are new to the title it's a worthy book on history, intelligently written and superbly illustrated.

The Bumper Book of Look and Learn is available in bookshops for £18.99 (r.r.p.) or from Amazon.co.uk currently for £11.39.

The official website for The Best of Look and Learn magazine, where you can subscribe to the 48 issue run, is here:
http://www.lookandlearn.com/index.php


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Comics Britannia reviewed

This week sees the start of the much anticipated BBC documentary series on British comics, kicking off tomorrow night (Monday 10th September) at 9.00pm on BBC Four. The BBC have kindly sent me disks of all three documentaries in the series to review...

Just to get the negative points out of the way first, what should be made clear is that Comics Britannia is not a detailed history of British comics. Much has been left out, including, quite bizarrely, the first 60 years of British comics history. There's no mention of Comic Cuts, Illustrated Chips, Film Fun, or any of the other many successful long running comics of the Victorian / Edwardian eras and this unfortunately leads to some distortion of the facts. Whilst I appreciate that a condensed version of history was necessary for time limitations it does seem odd to totally ignore the very comics which originated the themes which this series celebrates. Comics Britannia focuses heavily (and quite rightly) upon the essences of British comics - slapstick, championing the underdog, cynical attitudes to authority figures, - but it was the Victorian and Edwardian comics which set the template.

Instead, the series kicks off with the launch of The Dandy in 1937. Whilst it's true that this comic did herald a new, robust, modern style for the times, it's given a little too much credit with the claim that The Dandy led an innovation in speech balloons and that all comics before it only had text beneath each panel. (In truth, speech balloons appeared in British comics long before The Dandy, and Dandy itself featured some strips with text captions and no balloons for many years, so the boast is quite misleading.)

Okay, that's the downside out of the way. You'll be pleased to hear that, those aspects aside, everything picks up and the documentaries offer many rewarding moments.

The first programme, The Fun Factory, is basically a history lesson about the peak years of The Dandy and The Beano. Impressively, it focuses on the artists that made the comics great - specifically Dudley Watkins, David Law, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid. It's very satisfying to see these four gents given the respect they deserve, and the camera pans over many pages of their artwork, including some original pages where the ink-lines (and still-visible un-erased pencils) really convey the joy and sheer quality of their work.


Of those four creators, only Leo Baxendale survives today and it's a pleasure to see him interviewed at length on screen talking about the 1950s origins of Little Plum, Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids. (The Little Plum strip which features in one sequence - a funny set about Plum buying a car, - is featured in full in this year's Dandy/Beano hardback The Beano and The Dandy: Crazy About Creatures.)

Although Ken Reid passed away in the 1980s, his son is interviewed and sadly reveals that Ken drove himself to a nervous breakdown in the early 1960s with the intensity of his work. Ken's Jonah strip from The Beano is showcased, as is Frankie Stein as the programme enters the mid-sixties with a few minutes dedicated to Odhams' Wham! weekly. There's also a mention of Whizzer and Chips with a brief appearance by former IPC humour group editor Bob Paynter, but unfortunately the entire IPC humour output of the 1970s onwards is rather casually dismissed. Whilst it's true that much of the material in those comics was just fodder by Baxendale-style "ghost artists" there was a lot of distinctive work by the likes of Cliff Browne, Jack Oliver, Ian Knox and others that is simply ignored. However, the core of the series is to concentrate firmly on "A-list" creators and keeping the casual viewer involved. Therefore it's perhaps understandable that there's no time to stray off to wax nostalgic about comics that were entertaining but which didn't shake up the industry.

The second programme, Boys & Girls (airing on BBC Four on Monday 17th September at 9.00pm) spotlights adventure comics. It begins with the advent of Eagle in 1950 and features some interesting archive material of Frank Hampson at work in his studio. It tells the now well known origin of the comic, of how the Rev. Marcus Morris had the idea of a wholesome comic to rival the imported "horror comics" from America, (even though the horror comics shown are actually from a few years after Eagle was launched) and focuses on the lead character Dan Dare. Don Harley, (who still draws Dan Dare today for Spaceship Away comic) is one of the relevant people interviewed.

The episode then goes on to feature Girl (the Eagle for schoolgirls) and other girls' titles such as School Friend and Bunty with recollections from people such as cartoonist Posy Simmons and children's book author Jaqueline Wilson who were readers at the time. (We're reliably informed by Ms.Wilson that the hugely popular Jackie comic magazine was named after her, when she was on the staff at DC Thomson back in 1964 when it was launched.)

What all of these documentaries do so well is to put the comics into the context of their historical and sociological environment. (How the imagery of the "slap up feed" was an enviable reward in days of rationing for example.) In another instance it's explained how the girls' comics promoted domesticity and more emotional content whilst the boys' comics favoured action-based stories. Looking at the main themes of war and football in boys' comics, Valiant (solely represented by Captain Hurricane) is mentioned, as are the Commando comics. Roy of the Rovers is the inevitable choice to represent sports comic strips.

Moving into the 1970s the changes in society inspired IPC Magazines to try a tougher breed of comic. Not with the boys' line as might be expected, but with the girls' weekly Tammy in 1971. There, the emotional trauma of characters in strips such as the luridly titled Slaves of War Orphan Farm had an edge that Bunty or June had lacked. This period also gave birth to the boys' comic Battle of course, and anti-war strip Charley's War is given good coverage in the programme, with an interview with writer Pat Mills.

This growing realism in British comics smoothly leads into the third and final programme in the series, Anarchy in the UK (BBC Four, Monday 24th September 9.00pm) which deals with British comics for the older reader. The theme being that comics are "growing up" and reaching a new, adult audience. (Again, if the early history of British comics had been included it would have been evident that the first British comics were aimed at adults, but instead we're led to believe this is a relatively new direction.)

Starting with the origins of Viz, the programme interviews the comics co-creators Chris and Simon Donald. In recent years Simon has become something of a regular on "talking heads" documentaries such as these so it's good to see him given the opportunity to talk about his own work.


The IPC boys' weekly Action is featured next, along with the "moral panic" caused by the violent storylines featuring its anti-hero characters. 2000 AD is also featured, with contributions from Kevin O'Neill, Pat Mills, Alan Grant, and Carlos Ezquerra. (Kev O'Neill turns up a lot in Comics Britannia, always with interesting and relevant recollections, but apart from a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen cover none of his artwork is shown unfortunately.)

Developing the theme of British comics becoming more mature and socially relevant, the programme then features Alan Moore, particularly his work on V for Vendetta and how it was inspired by the political landscape of Thatcher's Britain. Heading towards the programme's conclusion, it explains how the outstanding work of British creators in the 1980s led to them being "headhunted" by American comics publishers (in particuilar DC Comics) which gave birth to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. (Moore reads aloud from a few pages of Watchmen, deliberately giving the character Rorschach a fittingly melancholic and disturbed tone. I wonder if the future Watchmen movie will follow this lead?)

Covering Watchmen and its deserved success as a graphic novel then leads the documentary to waver off tangent a little. With Dez Skinn and Paul Gravett speaking of how bookshops now carry numerous graphic novels the fact is overlooked that most of those titles are American in origin, and the focus of the series is supposed to be on British comics. What's not mentioned is that "graphic novels" are not a Western invention and that such softback and hardback full-length comic books have been in the mainstream of European and Japanese bookshops for decades.

The series concludes with a look at Bryan Talbot's outstanding Alice in Sunderland graphic novel, and Alan Moore and his wife Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls trilogy of books. No doubt the strong sexual imagery of Lost Girls will shock some of the "old boys" who have tuned in hoping for more Eagle recollections but let's hope their hearts survive it. ;-)

So there we have it. A series of documentaries with a few small flaws but on the whole a very worthy and watchable experience. Worth mentioning also is the distinct look of the series. Using CGI, guests are featured sitting inside comics panels that are relevant to the discussion. In lesser hands this could have looked childish and silly but here the effect is skilled and holds the viewer's interest.


Paul Gravett, (author of Great British Comics) features as the resident comics historian throughout all three documentaries, and smoothly utilizes his comics knowledge to explain the social and political background to these groundbreaking comics.

The aim of the series is clearly to show that British comics are not only a source of good entertainment but also as a valid art form, which they manage admirably by focusing on the top talent in the industry and its most distinguishing comics. By starting with children's funnies and concluding with graphic novels the agenda seems to be that British comics have "grown up". Whilst this has some truth to it, the fact is that comics in the newsstand arena (where these documentaries began their focus) have become increasingly younger in tone. Was this aspect ignored just because it didn't fit in with the direction of the series? Also ignored is the proliferation in small press comics. Admittedly the majority of these are not professional comics, and whether any will grow in popularity like Viz to have any long term effect on the UK comics industry is still unknown, but it could have been an optimistic addition to the series. Nevertheless, Comics Britannia is a fine tribute to the best of British comics and very entertaining viewing.



Notes:
A three page comic strip by Bryan Talbot featuring a whirlwind History of British Comics appeared in yesterday's Guide magazine (free with The Guardian). As can be seen from the page above, it manages to cover the area the documentaries fall short on - the early days of comics.

Ian Gray, a former editor at DC Thomson sadly passed away last week. The Fun Factory episode of Comics Britannia, in which he appeared, carried an on-screen dedication to him.

Paul Gravett spoke to Arthur Smith about Comics Britannia on Radio 4's Loose Ends. Listen to it here.

Paul will also be interviewed on BBC Breakfast tomorrow morning (Monday 10th Sept) around 8.40am (BBC One) with Children's Laureate Micheal Rosen. (Update: More info about it on the Forbidden Planet blog.)

A companion programme to the series, Jonathan Ross goes in search of Steve Ditko can be seen on Sunday September 16th at 9.00pm (BBC Four).

The official BBC Comics Britannia website can be found at
http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/comicsbritannia/


UPDATE: The Comics Britannia website now has additional online interview footage with Leo Baxendale and Alan Moore, not seen in the documentaries. Visit the site and click on the 'Exclusive Interviews' link on the right hand column to see more!
Kim Newman reviews the series for The Times, displaying impressive comics knowledge himself. Read it here.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Cracker of a mystery comic!


Brought to my attention thanks to Richard Sheaf on the Down the Tubes Blog, the latest UK batch of goodies up for bidding at Comic Book Postal Auctions has amongst its offerings a very curious item. It's the front cover artwork to the first issue of the 1969 comic Cracker. Very nice artwork, allegedly by Alf Soporito. (Looks more like Gordon Hogg's work to me but I'll take their word for it as the image isn't very sharp. Could be Soporito influenced by Hogg.)

One huge mystery though: as far as I know, there was never a comic in 1969 called Cracker! (There was a DC Thomson title of that name in 1975, but that was a completely different comic.)

Three possible solutions:

1: The 1969 Cracker was a promotional comic (like Wonder Comic, which was only sold at Esso garages) so had limited distribution.

2: This is the cover to a dummy issue of a comic that was never published.

3: It was published in a test area, never caught on, and was quietly dropped.

Of the three, I have a feeling option 2 might be correct. The cover price of 3d seems unrealistic for 1969. However, perhaps Cracker was an early version of Whizzer and Chips and instead of "Two comics for only 6d" (a 32 page title) Cracker was going to be a 16 page comic for 3d? Then the idea was rejected for its low profit margin and replaced by Whizzer and Chips? (Note the cover date of Cracker - 18th October - is very close to the cover date of Whizzer and Chips No.1 - 25th October, so it could have been stage one of the same project.) I'm assuming that "Cracker" is an IPC comic. It looks very "IPC - ish" for the time. (Very "Odhams - ish" too, which would be appropriate as IPC had just supplanted Odhams.)

Anyway, that's my opinion. Does anyone out there know the true story behind this cover? Please leave comments about it if so.

Update: Over at the Comics UK forum, Phil Rushton has noticed that the cover bears no free gift announcement - a very unusual thing for a sixties comic! This would indicate even more, in my opinion, that "Cracker" was only a dummy comic. Which may make the artwork more collectible for some!
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