INTERVIEW: J.M. DeMATTEIS: UPDATED"Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds upon soil...
Conducted by Jonathan Ellis
Reality, dream, god, redemption, love, tragedy, universal truths, Sinatra and more. You can't chat with J.M. DeMatteis without mentioning these.
From SPECTRE to SUPERGIRL to BATMAN, these are just some of the projects he is currently developing. Read ahead, maybe you'll learn something.
I see Spectre has a strong sense of family, do you feel your own experiences as a family man has had a strong baring on your recent writing? One minute you're reading Alice in Wonderland to your kids, the next you find yourself inspired to write a whole new arc.
All my experiences feed into my work; but, of course, my family being such an intimate part of my life, they can't help but have a profound influence. I'm sure there are aspects of my relationship with my daughter in Hal's relationship with Helen (not that I'm doing it very consciously).
Joker. Our Worlds at war. Do you find big inter-company crossovers have a negative effect on your storylines? Interrupting set plans with special tie-in issues and so forth?
To be honest, I've always HATED these Big Crossovers. Find them nothing but an annoyance. That said, I always try to do my best to come up with as good a story as I can within the context I'm presented with. But, if I had a choice, I would NEVER participate in these things.
Speaking of Joker, I know you're a Batman fan - but I see Joker as a particular constant with you. Do you feel you're drawn more towards the chaos in characters?
The Joker is one of those incredibly fascinating characters... perhaps because we don't really know who he is or what made him into the lunatic we so love and fear. He could have been any of us before he snapped. Yes, as you note, there's a chaos in the Joker... and it's a chaos we all have within us.
My four-parter "Going Sane," which ran in LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT about nine or ten years ago, remains perhaps the best super-hero story I've ever done - and it's because I got to explore the Joker's psyche in a whole new way.
All that said, I think over-exposure can beat any character into the ground... and I hope the Joker gets a rest when this current crossover is finished.
I see you've got a new LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT arc starting up, and from the description it seems sort of like Robin vs. Kathie Lee. Could you tell us a little about the story?
"Grimm" is set in the early days of Robin's career... Dick Grayson's a pretty innocent, inexperienced kid, still in awe and, yes, a little frightened of Batman. The villain of the piece is Mother Grimm: a throw-back (at least initially) to the more innocent, less psychotic villains of the 60's. The whole story has a Dickensian feeling. Oliver Twist in tights. My main goal with this one was simply to have some fun. Nothing earth-shaking here... just a good, solid story. Trevor Von Eden did the pencils. The amazing Garcia-Lopez did the inks.
Also coming up is the Batman Hardcover ABSOLUTION. Knowing you the title alone is interesting enough to make me want to hear more. Could you share with us the story? Has an artist been chosen as of yet?
ABSOLUTION is the opposite end of the spectrum from "Grimm." It's a very realistic story... no costumed characters other than Batman himself.... that begins a decade ago with the bombing of Bruce Wayne's office building by a left-wing terrorist group. The story follows Batman's pursuit of the woman behind the bombing... and it takes him around the world... ultimately to India, where what he finds is not at all what he expected.
The question at the heart of the story is: Can a man truly atone for his horrendous deeds? Can he balance out the evil that he's done by acts of compassion? (This, of course, is also the primary theme of Hal Jordan's quest in SPECTRE.)
The fully-painted art is by a newcomer named Brian Ashmore. I think he's about two-thirds of the way done with the book by now. No release date set... and given current events, I have a feeling DC might wait a little longer than planned to put it out.
Understood. It is a little eerie how so many themes in comicdom draw parallel to recent events. It should be known that this story was in development before the events of September 11th.
Speaking of Hardcovers. They're beautiful. Look nice on your shelf. And are terribly expensive. Do you see the growing abundance of Hard Cover exclusive stories a good idea or are the increasing HC books maybe a bit too much all at once?
I love the format. For something like WILLWORLD, where Seth Fisher's art really deserved a superb presentation, I thought it was totally appropriate. At the same time, I agree with you: That's a lot of money to dish out... and I think the high price may just limit sales in an ever-shrinking marketplace. At the same time, I think these kinds of items, placed in bookstores (as opposed to comics shops), and promoted properly, will do very well. So perhaps a soft-cover version for the direct market and a hardcover for the bookstores...?
What made you decide to have the narrative of Monsieur Stigmonus interact directly with the audience? I feel almost drawn to the theatrical sense of drama.
I love Monsieur Stigmonus. He's one of those characters who just came alive on the page. So, really, I didn't decide anything: he did. That device just suited his personality perfectly. I look forward to bringing him back in Year Two of THE SPECTRE.
Was there any specific influence for the character? When I say theatrical I can't help but relate Stigmonus to the old melodramatic villains that would turn his head to the audience or lean downstage and explain his evil plans. Encouraging boos and waxing mischievous moustaches.
I was looking for a character who would inject some energy into the book. An opponent who would be, in all ways the philosophical and moral opposite of the Spectre, and yet who would have real depth and be interesting, colourful, chaotic. When I was doing MAN-THING at Marvel, I (with brilliant visual help from Liam Sharp) created a character called Mr. Termineus, who had many of these qualities. I decided to come up with a character who would be, let's say Termineus's distant cousin, living in the DC Universe. And starting from that, Stigmonus began to take on a life of his own.
Speaking of which... Do you ever intend on maintaining certain patterns in your work. The relation between characters such as Stigmonus in SPECTRE and Mr. Termineus in MAN-THING for instance. Both visually similar, both strongly connected to a child.
Yes, all the work connects up. Old themes re-emerge. Old characters find new forms. I think most writers, artists, and musicians have certain themes and ideas that obsess them. We're all trying to tell our story, sing our song, and constantly refining it, trying to get at it in new ways. I think that you have to look at any artist's work as one piece. I certainly look at mine that way.
How would you describe SPECTRE to new readers? See, I don't think of it as a DC Heroes book, and it's not a Vertigo book. It's something in between. Between the super-hero and the unnatural, and 'Supernatural' is just too easy and answer.
How to describe SPECTRE? Supernatural? Super-Hero? New Age? Dark Fantasy? It really does depend on the issue, doesn't it? In the coming months, the book is going to veer off even more into different directions. We've got a Christmas issue that features Santa Claus, Charles Dickens, and Ebenezer Scrooge, another issue that will be presented as prose accompanied by illustrations, another in which the Spectre doesn't even appear until the end of the story. Then we're going off into space for something a little more (excuse the expression) comic-booky. Spaceships and aliens and strange new worlds. So we're trying different things.
At its core, it's the theme of the book that matters, I think: Hal's search for redemption-and hope-for himself... and for the world. It's a theme that's become even more powerful, and poignant, in light of recent events.
Considering we create our own heaven and hell, is Hal Jordan's quest for redemption even necessary? If he need only to discover the power to redeem within, can he continue his outward quest for long, and if he were to find redemption would he continue as the Spectre despite it?
I think you've hit on something very important: Hal himself has to totally believe he has redeemed himself in order for his personal mission to be fulfilled. (Just as Abin Sur had to realize that he no longer needed to be in a Hell of his own making in SPECTRE #9.) It's not really God Hal's waiting for. God, I believe, is far more forgiving than we are.
And, even if Hal does achieve it-or realize that it's already there-there's still his broader mission in the world: helping us, as a race, realize what he is in the process of realizing. Where will it end? Well, I could see Hal coming to the end of his quest and having someone else take over the role of Spirit of Redemption. Or he could finally divest himself of his Hal-ness... evolve... and stay the Spectre for thousands of years. This is the kind of book that can go off in any direction-and that's the fun of it.
Heh. Even in one's own spiritual quest. You're your own worst critic. Speaking of the book's evolution into any number of directions, do you see yourself as staying on for long as possible or could you see yourself one day passing on the title to another?
I have no clue. I've been working in this business long enough to know that something could happen tomorrow and I could find myself booted off the book. Or I might suddenly decide that I've said whatever I need to say via this character and his world and quit. Or I'll find myself so filled with story ideas that I'll stay for three years. Or I'll PLAN to stay for three years and the book will be cancelled. You never know.
Now I came on this book without reading the LEGENDS OF THE DCU arc which preceded it. I feel I can read it well enough without having read those issues, but there are numerous references to the events carried out therein. Should readers use the LEGENDS OF THE DCU arc as a jumping on point before coming to the series? Any set plans for trade paper back collections of the LEGENDS OF THE DCU stories or the first few issues of SPECTRE?
No plans for a trade paperback of the Zulli-illustrated stories from LOTDCU. I think it's helpful to have read it, but the book has been moving along under its own power long enough that a new reader doesn't need to have seen those stories. I think, when the previous stories are referenced, we make things pretty clear.
I see Ryan Sook has come into some extra work recently, is he set for the series as far as future issues go? I also see Craig Hamilton is back for another guest spot, any chances on his filling the role of 'official' fill in artist or does DC have plans for him?
Craig Hamilton is our official fill-in guy. And he's done-and is doing-an incredible job. His work on SPECTRE #14, an interesting piece about a vampire, is his best yet. Blows away his previous issues.
As for Ryan, who quickly became one of my All Time Favorite Collaborators, I'm sorry to say that SPECTRE #13 will be his final issue. Happily, it's also his best issue... and the story just may be our best so far. It really breaks my heart to see him go. We had such a terrific time working together. But he had an offer he couldn't refuse and, really, that's the nature of the business.
Norm Breyfogle (of Batman fame) has signed on to do the arc after Craig's vampire story... and I hope he'll be sticking around for a while after that. His work is very different than Ryan's: Norm brings a new kind of energy to the book. He is extremely passionate about what he does... and it shows on the page.
Might that last issue of Ryan's be the prose issue?
Yes. SPECTRE #13 will be Ryan's last and that's our prose/illustrations issue. I'm extremely happy with the way it's turned out.
Do you ever find you adapt a script to fit a certain artists strengths. Maybe even something as small as a location, or certain symbols.
As I get more comfortable with an artist, I find I can trust them more. Once I knew what Ryan Sook was capable of, I knew I could push things as far as I wanted. That he would "get" what I was saying and not just visualize it but embellish and expand it.
Craig, too, is an extremely creative artist and I love his way of interpreting a story.
But I think that, rather than tailoring the story toward an artist's particular strengths, what happens is that, as I get to know what first-rate artists like Ryan and Craig are capable of, I relax and just push the borders outward, knowing that they'll be able to do whatever I ask... and then some.
That said, the final issue of Spectre was very much tailored to Ryan. I had discussed the story and my ideas about it with him and, based on that, he did a cover. One look at the cover (which I think is one of the best comic book covers I've ever seen) and I knew just how the story should be told. The cover gave me the method of telling the story.
Something similar happened years ago with Jon J Muth on MOONSHADOW. We had discussed the story, he read my original outline, and then he showed up at my house with these wonderful Dickensian sketches. Looking at his visual interpretation of my ideas I suddenly understood how I should tell the story. His visuals gave me Moonshadow's voice. And that's the great joy of collaboration, isn't it? Writers and artists inspiring each other, pushing each other's comfort zones so that they'll try new things, discover new ways of telling the tale.
If reality is a dream, how would you envision your dreamer? Or your dream for that matter?
That question requires a book to really answer it; but I will say that, based on my own experiences (and all of this is so totally personal; everyone has to come up with their own answers), there's only One Dreamer and that's God... Who doesn't just dream all of us, but, like a writer getting profoundly involved in one of his stories, becomes all of us.
Now we all have different conceptions of God/The Dreamer and I tend to relate to the more personal aspects: Divine Incarnations like Rama, Jesus, Buddha and, above all, Meher Baba (and their female counterparts). In my experience, in my dream, what it all seems to come down to, no matter what spiritual/religious tradition one comes from, is Love. The universe may be an illusion, but Love is the Reality that binds the Dream and the Dreamer-that binds all of us-and makes our lives truly worth living.
That's the short answer, anyway. (Maybe I'd better get going on that book!)
Since each individual has the ability to shape dream/reality, will the Spectre then be drawn into particular individuals dreams of reality?
We touched on that at the end of the Stigmonus storyline... with Stigmonus being so rooted in his dream/worldview that he was literally incapable of seeing the other, more hopeful, universe Spectre was trying to show him... and we've touched on it, thematically, in the whole series. But a story that addresses that issue so directly is actually an intriguing idea. Maybe we'll do it.
HaHa! Of course once he gets stuck in one dream he may very well be pulled into others, and once you actually exist within a dream how could you NOT question reality? Also, think about dream as a whole other realm. If dreams exist on a separate plane, then do dreams continue to exist once the dreamer passes away? But then that's a whole other book isn't it?
Yeah. But (in my experience) it's not just about dreams. It's about the REALITY underlying the dream, connecting up all the dream-universes of the individual dreamers. And that Reality is God (the Original Dreamer. The Dreamer in all dreamers). And, to very loosely paraphrase Meher Baba, the reason why God dreamed all of these universes, dreamed all of us, into being... is so that the Love that He Is can have expression.
But then, that's a whole other book, too!
Last we talked Swamp Thing was brought up as a possible guest appearance and having just recently read the latest trade, the idea of 'What is evil' was brought up...
is aphid evil? Is ladybug evil? Is soil evil?
Where is evil, in all the wood?"
Alan Moore: BOOK 4 - A MURDER OF CROWS
...An idea crucial to the role of the Spectre. Have any Yin Yang conundrums popped up in writing this series?
Isn't the whole universe-on one level, at least-just one big "Yin Yang conundrum"? How could that not be reflected in anyone's writing? The whole Stigmonus storyline was certainly a Yin Yang ballet.
What I was thinking was also in terms of the Spectres quest. He who is intent on stopping evil and rectifying wrong. How does he decide on what is and isn't evil? Especially if evil doesn't exist? But then that's a whole other book isn't it? [I think that'll be my new mantra]
The Spectre's quest has become less and less one of seeking out evil. I'd say that the Spectre is not an anti-evil force, but A PRO-MERCY FORCE. Remember, he is no longer the Spirit of Wrath, he is the Spirit of Redemption. So the Spectre isn't intent on punishing/ending evil, he is intent on opening the doorway into good that exists in each soul. (But of course all of this is still a little confusing for Hal Jordan. It is for me, too!)
Have the obsessive Hal Jordan fans of the world been beating down your door over the series yet? "Hal wouldn't say that! He doesn't look right! He should use a giant mouse trap!"
I think there are quite a few old-time Hal Jordan fans out there who really hate the idea of Hal as the Spectre and no matter what we do, they're not gonna like it. But really, this isn't the Hal Jordan they knew. This is someone who went mad, went bad, died and was reborn in a new role, a new life. You can't expect him to be the same.
That said, I understand how they feel. As a reader, I never particularly liked the idea of Hal going nuts and becoming a murderer and I sometimes think the new Spectre would have been better served-and more warmly welcomed-with a brand new character instead of an old and beloved one. Still, I LOVE writing the character; Hal's been one of my favourites since I was a kid, and I think his journey is fascinating and opens up many wonderful story possibilities in all corners of the DCU. And I am extremely pleased with the way the book's been evolving.
Just so long as you weren't one of the people sending Kevin Dooley death threats.
Also upcoming is your SPECTRE: SOUL WAR story. Will this be a Hardcover as well? Knowing the OLD Spectre character, I'd guess this would be about judgement upon the heroes, but with the new direction I'm curious as to where this will lead. Can you tell us a little about it?
SOUL WAR is a Spectre-JLA story about an alien invasion of Earth; but, unlike the invasions we usually see, this one isn't on the physical plane: it's on the level of human consciousness.
Character-wise, the story explains the often strained relationship between the Spectre and his former partners in the JLA, with a special focus on the Hal-Batman relationship.
And, yes, it's another 96 page hardcover. Daryl Banks is the artist.
Now, are you a big fan of adversity? I've noticed in works like SPECTRE and GREEN LANTERN: WILLWORLD that just upon a moment of achievement or understanding there will be some obstacle that pops up to shoot them down, making them to start all over again. To forcefully change their way of thinking. Is this part of a mischievous sense of humour or perhaps your own technique for a more entertaining story?
Well, no story's gonna work without adversity. There has to be SOMETHING for the protagonist to push against... even if it's just that his feet are swollen and he can't get his shoes on in the morning. But more than being a fan of adversity, I'm a fan of the human spirit that can re-perceive adversity as a gift. The ability to come up against something that seems awful beyond words and use it to unfold psychologically and spiritually into something absolutely joyful.
Considering your work on books like SPECTRE and the SUPERGIRL: WINGS GN, have you been doing much research in terms of religious views and the mythology of Heaven and Hell, God and the devil? I see classic archetypal projections, such as the image of a snake have been showing up.
My relationship with-for lack of a better phrase-the Spiritual Reality has been at the core of my life, the hub around which everything else in my life turns, since I was seventeen years old: I couldn't keep it out of my work if I tried. So I guess living life is the real research.
"When I was seventeen... it was a very good year..."
One of your recent one-shots SUPERMAN WHERE IS THY STING [excellent] dealt with, amongst other things, Superman dealing with survivors guilt. A very interesting take on the complexities of Kal-El's psyche, I was wondering if this action was inspired by any specific person/people?
I just know-from my own personal experience and observation of other people-that children take on whatever's around them. If they're in an abusive situation, a traumatic situation, that makes them feel lost and powerless, they create guilt, a sense of responsibility: "It's MY fault. I caused this to happen!" In a warped way, by taking on the responsibility they are giving themselves a sense of power. (If you caused this nightmare, you must be very powerful indeed.) It's a method of psychological survival. But, once you're out of the situation, it's an utterly useless method and we have to grow beyond it.
As for Superman, what excited me was the fact that no one had ever thought of this before. Survivor's guilt is a fairly common thing in traumatic events. It wasn't a huge leap to think of the sole survivor of a doomed planet sitting on a toxic waste-dump of guilt. And I think it worked very nicely in the story. It gave us a new angle on Superman's psyche.
Can you tell us a little about your upcoming KANSAS SIGHTING GN? "It was a weather balloon! I swear!"
I've been fascinated by the UFO phenomenon for some time... especially the work of researchers like Kenneth Ring and John Mack who look at the UFO experience from a perspective of altered states of consciousness.
A few years ago, I was working on a Superman story and got to wondering who, other than the Kents, saw a UFO the night Kal-El came to Earth? Maybe that sighting has become legend in UFO circles? And maybe that rocket from Krypton wasn't the first one Jor-El sent? (Would you just blast your son off to another world without sending a few probes first?) And what if Superman himself was abducted by entities that were far, far different than the usual comic book space visitors?
Anyway, those thoughts led to THE KANSAS SIGHTING. I'm writing the first issue now (it'll be two 64 pagers), Jamie Tolagson is illustrating it, and I think it's going to be terrific, providing us with another, very different, take on Superman. But don't expect till 2003!
In stores as of October 10th is also the aforementioned SUPERGIRL: WINGS one-shot. Following an angel that has lost her way in her mission of caring for human souls. Wanting to disassociate from humanity, she is taken down a road of self-discovery that ultimately brings her closer to one soul than any other, that of Linda Danvers. Now I'm unfamiliar with Supergirl, is she an angel as well, what exactly is going on there? Why did you choose Supergirl to headline this story, as opposed to say, Zauriel, Superman or Aquaman who also make appearances but not in the leading roles.
I chose Supergirl for a very simple reason: The editor asked me to do a Supergirl Elseworlds! I wasn't all that familiar with the current version of the character (although I later read quite a few issues and have to say I was very impressed with Peter David's work on the book) before tackling this project; but when the editor suggested a story in which Supergirl was a literal angel (as opposed to the quasi-angelic superhero she is in the monthly), I got very intrigued and signed on.
The good news is you don't have to know ANYTHING about Supergirl to pick up WINGS. It is a complete, stand-alone story that has nothing to do with current continuity. Yes, we get to play with the DCU and see familiar characters in unfamiliar roles (Batman shows up as Satan himself, Aquaman is the literal Lord of the Oceans)-but it's the kind of tale you can just pick up and read without being burdened by years of back-story. I just got my copies this week and I think the book is quite lovely. Jamie Tolagson's artwork is elegant and truly magical. (Which is why I grabbed him for THE KANSAS SIGHTING.)
Now you're a New York boy, I hope you're well. Hope you and your family are well. Were you far enough from the towers to be safe? Have you made plans to address the tragedy in your writing or your music anytime in the near future?
Although I grew up in New York (Brooklyn, to be precise) and have lived in Manhattan, I now live a hundred or so miles away from the City... but I still have friends and family there so the whole thing was fairly traumatic. As for addressing the tragedy in my writing, I've signed on to do a story for DC's benefit book and that provides a wonderful outlet for my thoughts and feelings. And I'm sure these events will colour everyone's work in the days and months ahead.
As a music man yourself, what have you been listening to lately?
As I write this it's John Lennon's birthday (October 9) and I'm listening to lots of Lennon's solo work, which remains some of my favorite music of all time. Other things I've been enjoying? I've been on a World Music kick this year and (among other things) I've been listening to Krishna Das, Lama Gyurme & Jean-Philippe Rykiel, Jai Uttal, Tulku. But I really like all kinds of music, from the Beatles to Radiohead to Sinatra to Prokoviev.
Also in the works is J.M.'s ABADAZAD, a sort of contemporary Oz piece, an original graphic novel specifically aimed at a younger audience.
What can you tell us about ABADAZAD? Have any confirmations been made yet? I know you're interested in doing comics centered towards the children market, but rather then the comics industry why not take your books directly to other book publishers such as Scholastic? Wouldn't you have a better chance of reaching a wider audience that way, or are you just adamant about making a children's comic work?
No, I'm not at all adamant about only doing these stories in comic book format. I've completed one manuscript for a short children's book which my agent now has... and I am not adverse to doing something like ABADAZAD (or the equivalent) as a novel. In fact, I'm going to have to because it means so much to me.
But, as I've said before, I do feel that it's important for the comic book business to get its collective head out of its collective butt and start doing material that is accessible to younger readers. And I think ABADAZAD would be perfect. Michael Lark has expressed interest in illustrating the story, Joey Cavaliere wants to edit it, and, at the moment, we're waiting for Michael to finish up a project. When he gets close, the "official" proposal will go in to the Powers That Be at DC. So we'll see.
What about cross-promoting. Doing the story as a cartoon or movie simultaneously as a comic series or children's book?
Yes, I have considered that. I am STILL considering that.
In SUPERMAN WHERE IS THY STING you wrote about the mind and how it's not simply confined to one's head.
"Every cell in our bodies resonates with memories... intelligence.
Every atom of our being holds clues to who and what we are."
Which reminded me of something I once scribbled down about how our molecules are windows into other dimensions. Do you subscribe to the theory of a universe within? Power within ones self is obvious, but creation?
I guess I'd say that we're not just a PART of the universe (or universes) but we quite literally ARE THE UNIVERSE. I recently took a six day Qi Healing workshop with a seventy-three year old Chinese Master and the way he began each meditation was by saying: "You are universe... universe is you." I don't believe that's metaphorical. I believe that's the literal truth. The difference, as Meher Baba once noted, is in the states of consciousness. What we are (or aren't) AWARE of. It's one thing to say you're the universe, another to be that statement. And live from that truth.
Other then all mentioned, plug section. Plug away for all and everything you want.
Nothing to plug, really. Although I always encourage people to go to amazon.com's music section and buy lots and lots of copies of my CD, "How Many Lifetimes?".
Thanks to J.M. for taking the time to talk with us, and special thanks to J.M. for being an ever interesting interviewee.
For those who haven't yet discovered SPECTRE, keep your eyes open for a nice jumping on point in the months ahead. December's issue [#12] will be apart of DC's FULL COVERAGE month wherein the majority of it's titles will be tailored as entry point issues for new readers, all featuring specialty designed cover art. It's also a Christmas story, or as the solicitation reads:"The Spectre of Christmas." The Phantom Stranger! Santa! Charles Dickens! Guest stars don't get any bigger than this. Our own friendly ghost joins in the ultimate team-up, as Hal Jordan takes on an evil Scrooge hell-bent on the destruction of Christmas, and ultimately, the hopes and dreams of all humanity. The Spectre must face demonic gargoyles and a blood-thirsty Victorian mob in order to save the world from an encroaching storm of darkness and despair!
And in January look for Ryan Sook's last issue with SPECTRE 13. A prose issue with detailed illustrations, which should be worth picking up for those reasons alone. Then in the following months, Craig Hamilton fills in, followed by a story arc featuring the work of Norm Breyfogle. So check it out, or if you're looking for a good self-contained story be sure to pick up the SUPERMAN: WHERE IS THY STING [featuring the best artwork Liam Sharp has done for years] and SUPERGIRL: WINGS prestige format one-shots, in stores now.
Jonathan Ellis is Interviews Editor for PopImage.
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