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Dynamic Light and Shade

12 March 2016 by Rey Armenteros

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Burne Hogarth’s series of art instruction books continues with this volume that centers on shading. It is over150 pages populated by many black and white illustrations and minimal text. Most of the drawings are by Hogarth himself. Is it a worthy art instruction book?

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Hogarth begins with the idea of silhouettes and how even in their flat and limited capacity, you can imply spaces and relationships between objects. He follows that chapter with edge light, which is when you take a silhouette and penetrate its flatness with hints of highlights around the edges of forms.

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In the third chapter, he delineates the nature of light and shadow in five types of general situations. The first one follows when an object is hit by a single light source. Then, he brings up the characteristics of dual light sources (one strong, direct light source and an indirect light source on the other side of the object). Next, he goes into diffused lighting, which is when the light sources are not distinct, such as during an overcast day. He has a category on nothing more than moonlight. And the last one is sculptural light, which is not a lighting situation that happens in nature but more of an art technique where you shade forms in order to heighten the form rather than to form realistic lighting.

He continues with other lighting situations that each get a chapter. Similar to the idea of sculptural light, spatial light and expressive light are less about depicting a natural occurrence and more about using light to manipulate the viewer’s focus or raise some higher emotion, respectively. Environmental light are the weather and seasonal conditions that can come into play, and textural light focuses on the surface texture of objects. Transparent light illustrates a few strategies when drawing objects that have transparency. Fragmentation light underscores those situations wherein light breaks up, such as light on choppy waters. And radiant light is light that is in some way aimed at the viewer.

When I teach shading, I go about it differently, but I find some sense in his categories. At first, I was reluctant to accept a distinction for the very specific moonlight, but as I read what he had to say about it, I felt that he was presenting a situation that conflated two other categories, the single light source (the moon) with a diffused light (since the moon is not a direct light source but a reflective one that can render dim contrast).

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Each category is detailed in a chapter, and each chapter gives variations for the student to understand some of the possibilities within each category. One of the biggest problems with the book is that there is no formal text. Each chapter starts with a paragraph and the rest of the words are confined to captions. In other words, he is doing very little instruction but providing many examples. He never goes into explaining how one might go about doing this, and I suppose for a beginner, it would be frustrating. Actually, I would not recommend this to anyone who is closer to the side of novice drawer; this is better put to use with someone who already knows some things about shading.

As a textbook, it could have some use, since the instructor could fill in for all the gaps in the book. It could be used as a sampler of things to look for. You could even use it to copy (as an exercise) Hogarth’s drawings. Nevertheless, it is so steeped in his comic book style, that anyone not interested in such heroic drawing will not get a lot of value from it.

Curiously, it works best as an art book that showcases the art of Burne Hogarth. His stylized drawings are reminiscent of his work on the Tarzan newspaper strip, but they are rich with intricacies that make you want to keep the book for that value alone.

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Hogarth’s Dynamic Anatomy

28 December 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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As an art instructor, I need to be aware of the various art books on the market. Though I have known about Hogarth’s line of books since my days in college, I never felt the need to ever pick them up, and my reasons always settled on the fact that the instruction we readers were getting was not how to draw, but how to draw like Burne Hogarth. Throughout his line of “Dynamic” books, he usually uses his drawings for examples, and his strong style dripped off these books, undermining any attempt at a universal approach to drawing.

However, I finally bought two books a couple of years ago, and it was for the strangest reasons anyone could have. It was during a Gil Kane kick that I had, and the more I looked at Kane’s work, the more I realized that his structured anatomy had parallels in the Burne Hogarth school of approach. So, I wanted to also look into Hogarth, and instead of buying his more popular comic strip work on Tarzan, I decided to buy his how-to books solely for the reason of admiring the stylization of his work.

In one more twist to this story, I ended up using his book, Dynamic Anatomy, as a means to study structure and found that all of my early assumptions about the book were true but were also not true. It is not an ideal anatomy book, and what may push a contemporary audience further back is his stilted prose. (Burne Hogarth, for those that don’t know, was one of the co-founders of School of Visual Arts, and this striving to carry an “educated” tone is overdone here.)

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I don’t know what decisive verdict I could give this book. It has good and bad points that seem to work off each other. Overall, it’s good if you seek to draw in this manner and to follow this very particular structure, but it’s bad for almost anything else, even if ultimately I did have some use for it.

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Showa

02 December 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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Two days ago, I wrote this: “Today, Shigeru Mizuki died,” and I didn’t know what else to say to follow it up. Words were not coming to me. What stunned me was that I am now in the process of reading the Showa series, and I was elated by the fact that he had been able to survive an incredible number of life-threatening moments and that he was 93 and still a practicing cartoonist. The very fact that Mizuki as an infantryman survived World War II is nothing but a miracle.

Showa is a series of books that tells the history of the Showa Era of Japan (1926-1989) through all of its tides and developments done in comic book form. It employs Mizuki’s signature style of having simple, cartoon figures populating realistic backdrops. The backgrounds are so realistic that they do nothing to assimilate the simple line drawings of characters. This is important because it may say something about Mizuki’s approach and why he has chosen to work this way in many of his books. The gritty realism is obviously pulled from photo references, and they exhibit a labor-intensive rendering approach that must have been an uphill battle, panel by panel. However, the pages flow quickly for the reader as Mizuki moderates the speed not by the elaboration of the drawings but by how much narrative he places per page; often, there are few words, and the detail of the photo renderings are not enough to slow you down to admire all the work. In fact, these pictures of WWII planes blowing up over rough waters and important leaders signing documents act in the opposite manner: they show familiar pictorial archetypes that can be glanced quickly. These images are covered in crosshatched textures that provide a surface “grime,” that also serve to push the reader back. It is a use of detail made to be ignored rather than pull you in.

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The general narrative begins with a plain, third-person treatment that is translated here in present tense. I don’t know if this were the verb tense the Japanese was originally written in, but in English, it feels quick, simple and current. It is one of the reasons some fiction writers use it, so that the events feel as if transpiring right now. This general narrative soon reveals itself as the words of Mizuki’s Rat Man, who eventually comes in to lace the events with a deadpan tone of incredulity. He serves the reader in ways that would show a sardonic, questioning attitude to the decisions made by the Japan’s leaders. At times, the Rat Man interacts with the powerful people, making comments or asking questions, and these historical figures either ignore him or answer his comments with their own cynical replies. The other narrative voice is that of Mizuki himself. In Showa, we have not just a rendition of a chunk of history but a personal account of Mizuki’s life as they were shaped by the times. Mizuki enjoys a special place in that he was a witness to the entire period, and the story of his life and family are interweaved with the larger events.

In the art, the cartoon characters serve as counterpoints to the realistically-drawn movers and shakers that seem so distant by comparison. However, when a famous leader is shown saying something, his physiognomy is reshaped into simpler lines showing bonehead expressions. These moments are interspersed with photo imagery culled from history. Replete with cold, photographic impressions, the series’ use of this strategy is not as effective throughout the work. At its worst, you get nothing more than an image that goes with the text, as when the narrative mentions a return trip for Mizuki that he did by train and it is accompanied by the mundane, redrawn photo of a train doing its thing.

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However, as I get to the last book, these techniques begin to feel mechanical. If you read all four books, you will have read 2,000 pages, and it is difficult to sustain interest for that long. In this last book, the war is finally over, and we get snippets of Japan’s rise from the ashes as it climbs into the status of a global economic powerhouse. The episodic nature of events in this book is fragmentary with the only real cohesion being Shigeru Mizuki’s own personal life trials. It feels like now that the war is over, it is more difficult to coalesce a suitable narrative for all the various things that happen over the next thirty to forty years. A much larger timeframe is enveloped in this book than the other three put together. It makes me wonder if tackling on the entire Showa period may have been more than anyone could have worked with and still maintain unity in the work. When the narrative breaks down into one unrelated event after another, I feel that Mizuki is striving to catch up with the rest of the era and end it already.

As I was reading this last book, I was also wondering if he had only shown those aspects of the later Showa period that he happened to have focused on when they were transpiring in his life. There were several bizarre murders that he might have brought up to show the changing psychology of a modernized Japan. The deaths of a couple of famous actors are mentioned. World events are brought in to show how they influence Japan. All of these episodes felt sporadic, and the art did not help. By now, all this grainy photorealism begins to raise ideas in my head that he and his assistants were likely working from photocopies of photos, which would have made the decision of where to place the blacks, for example, already delineated by a machine. Indeed, some of these historic moments were nothing more than a grainy snapshot of the moment without even bothering to copy them in a drawing. A great amount of these images do possess the mark of degenerated photocopies. They’re quite ugly, and I felt in the first couple of books that this was a strength since it was counterpoised with the cartoon drawings. As I’m nearing the 2,000-page mile marker, I’m not even looking at these pictures anymore. It’s just too much of the same process of a very long work.

In sharp contrast, Onward to Our Noble Deaths is a work of his that uses the very same techniques but succeeds on every level. It is a unified story that is a fraction of the size of Showa. There may be something in the respective sizes of these two works and their respective successes; any theme, any technique can overstay its welcome.

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One saving grace in this last volume of Showa is the creative way he incorporates fantasy or dream elements into the general line of events. There are moments in his life where he dreams of situations that at first seem real but soon reveal themselves to be dreams or otherworldly moments. Since Mizuki is tied to the world of yokai (ghosts from Japan), this fits with the work he is doing on his yokai manga and the interests he has had in ghosts since childhood. In one inspired moment, he has a writer acquaintance of his who has shown up in the narrative suddenly take over the narration from the Rat Man and claims that he can do a better job. It suddenly brings you out of a stupor and makes you realize that this is a living, breathing account instead of a mere recording of history. In the end, Mizuki’s playful treatment of the material and his warm outlook on the era make these four volumes of his work a notable reading experience and an artistic account of a remarkable life.

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Bravo for Adventure by Alex Toth

13 August 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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Everyone has a first Toth story. In interviews, creators who are Alex Toth aficionados are always asked when was the time they discovered Toth’s work.

Back in the 80s, when I needed alternatives to the comic books on the spinner racks, when I was looking back at classic strips like Terry and the Pirates and Prince Valiant to compensate for a lack I found in the industry, I found an ad in a reprint of Roy Crane’s Buz Sawyer that was pushing something called Bravo for Adventure. I had the feeling it was recent work, even if it had all the thematic ammunition of an older era in that one drawing: man with pencil mustache and scarf standing next to an early airplane as a young lady walks by. And in a box, I found the name, Alex Toth. The enigmatic thing about it was that the drawing was devoid of detail, which would have been anathema to me in those days because I loved detail, and yet the image and the name stayed with me for years to come.

This very same image is what you get on the cover of IDW’s new reprint of Bravo for Adventure (except they stripped away the charm of the old black and white by coloring it). It is a handsome edition of what many consider Alex Toth’s finest work, his masterpiece.

If Alex Toth would have been able to secure his lifelong dream to be a syndicated adventure comic strip creator, it would have been something like the content of this book with two important differences: the storytelling format would have been that of strips instead of the comic book pages we get here and it would have been a much larger work, comprising multiple, thick volumes the likes of IDW’s Terry and the Pirates or Dick Tracy instead of this one hundred-page sampler.

Bravo for Adventure follows the exploits of adventure pilot, Jesse Bravo, flying in the exciting vistas of the 1930s (which happens to be the golden decade of the adventure strip). The main story is 48 pages long, providing the reader with a glimpse of what could have been if it had continued. The other two stories were created later. One serves as an introduction to Jesse Bravo and his background and is presented here before the main story. The other is something of a dream sequence in which Toth tips his hat to all of his influences of the adventure strip, people like Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Roy Crane. There are also some extra features at the back of the book.

I grew up learning that the word “pastiche” had a negative connotation, and in the introduction of the book, Dean Mullaney calls this work a pastiche, even if he means it in a good way. It could be a good way, I suppose, if a pastiche is nothing less than an homage to the work of previous creators that have been an inspiration to your own work. Though I catalogue the words “pastiche” and “homage” in two different places of my brain, I entered this book with that mindset.

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And when I put the book down after having finished it, I found that it had nothing of a pastiche to it. Of course it was an homage to the old adventure strips but it was more than that. Here we have the blueprint for how to take old material and make it sing once again. Alex Toth took the conventions of those types of stories and played them up here to a higher level of humanism. Unlike the grand adventures of heroes foiling bandit armies or chasing down spy rings, the chief conflicts in Bravo had to deal with gambling debts and smearing someone else’s name. It also dealt a bit with loss as the story unfolds, and it played these more sophisticated themes with greater sensitivity than the classic strips themselves. The dialogue is sharp and to the point, with a level of realism that is appropriate for the specific timescape. Every character had a different set of qualities that set them apart from the others. Even the thugs were sympathetic, almost likable, with real personalities. And personalities were rendered by gestures and facial expressions as much as by a character’s speech patterns and intentions, offering rounded characters in every regard a comic book could offer.

I found there is another important difference between Bravo and the older works it is referencing: as mentioned  above, Toth is laying out panels on a comic book page rather than a comic strip, and this naturally grants far more freedom. The flow is not truncated by four-panel dailies, and it visually breathes better on the book page than any collection of Dick Tracy strips.

Alex Toth is known as the master without a masterpiece (at least, a masterpiece of any considerable length). Could this 48-page story be used as his proxy for a masterpiece, even if it were unfinished? Just from the fact that this was a personal work for him, that it represented the adventure genre that he loved so much, and that he created every aspect of it with no editorial obstacles, this story has got my vote.

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Creepy Presents: Alex Toth

08 August 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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As a seasoned artist, I look at Alex Toth’s work and I am inevitably delighted. I have sat in awe of a story of no consequence of nothing more than a handful of pages because it was drawn by Toth, and it would be like no other – the compositions, the flow from panel to panel, the well-formed figures, the abstracted simplicity, and the way he put all this together. It was my idea, along with that of countless others, that Toth could not disappoint.

Creepy Presents: Alex Toth was a book I had to have and it is a book I will keep, even if it has the distinction of being the least impressive of Toth’s work. From the start, the drawings feel flimsier than anything else he’s done. As I was trying to understand why I felt this way, I found clues in the gray tones. He seems to struggle with the tones; it feels like he’s filling things in. I wasn’t sure. I kept looking into it. How was this possible?

The fundamental problem, as I gathered it, was that Toth was strongest in pure black and white, without tones, unless the tones were clean or mechanically placed. That simplicity he thrived on was sheer magic when he was in complete control of the art, including the lettering. All the work in this book is also without color, but the gray tones muddy that crisp clarity he brought into his simple, albeit sophisticated, forms. Either ink wash or pencil or gray marker (I can’t tell which), the techniques used here form a veneer of possibilities, yet they never go far enough. There are never more than one or two shades of gray, almost no textural differentiation, and the worst: the grays did nothing to heighten the forms or do anything else for that matter. It was grainy in parts, washed out in others, dark and opaque in still others. It felt as if he were rushed. The signature Toth drawing was there, but the forms were often faded by haphazard scumbles – obscured – undermining the clarity he looked for.

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What was the problem here? Was it the printing limitations of the original Warren magazines? No, not at all. Toth contemporaries working with the same array of tones produced many levels above this, using a rich range of grays, employing patterns to great effect, playing with lighting to direct the eye; just look at what Steve Ditko was doing at the same time for the same publications.

The stories in which the gray tones work best still come across as sketchy; I am thinking of “Survival,” where you can find backgrounds obviously influenced by Milton Caniff, one of Toth’s inspirations. The grays enhance here and there but feel almost like surplus work.  In “Proof Positive,” you get an inkling of more effective grays, but they’re still too blurry (perhaps done purposefully to satisfy the theme of photography in this story). At other times, like in the “Hacker” stories, the more concrete shades look divorced from the line work; it reminded me of talented student work. It makes me wonder if Alex Toth was in over his head with these techniques. Perhaps here was an area of drawing that the master himself had not yet mastered. Or maybe he rendered them too quickly; I found signs that betray that he tossed some of these tones together. (If you look at the page illustrated above, you’ll find a halo around every form in Panel Four, the kind of shortcut for which I reprimand my lazier students.) Unsurprisingly, the story with the strongest mark of Toth on it is one of the few without tones, titled “The Reaper.”

So, yes, the art did disappoint. But then again, we’re talking about expectations set by Toth himself. The book does not deliver because even when you scrutinize the panels and find that the foundational drawing is there, the results themselves – as a whole – fall apart.

And the stories certainly don’t help. Most of them are scripted by Archie Goodwin, whose tales may start with a bit of snap or a strong mood, but continue with verbosity that does not read well today, and always end stale with contrived shock endings. The one exception is “The Reaper,” which had a nice rhythm to it that was in precise harmony with Toth’s panels. The stories by other writers run the same course, and word balloons pile on top of each other holding superfluous text, blotting out the art, tearing the reader’s attention from the what’s going on in the panels.

What was exciting for me about this book was the presence of four of Toth’s very own stories. One of Toth’s aspirations was that of doing his own scripting, of which he had few opportunities in his career. This book has four stories that fall completely under his creative control, from writing and lettering to penciling and inking. The stories are more of the same Twilight Zone fluff that for some reason necessitated a surprise in the end, but they are noteworthy because they are better than most of the others in the collection, and here the artist is the complete author of his work.

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The book also includes several stories in which Toth is inking over somebody else’s pencils, and I was least interested in these pages. With the exception of a panel here and there, there was little Toth to be found in them.

Ultimately, am I keeping the book? I have already said I would. Even with all the blemishes, there is still enough good quality inside, especially in the great storytelling techniques. I am thinking of stories like “Kui” (scripted by Toth), which showcases closeups of vegetation and temple walls – essentially abstract panels – heightening the sense of claustrophobia by limiting perspective (regardless if it were spotted with more of that ambiguous shading). I am also thinking of “Survival,” which is simply beautiful, even with that ridiculous surprise ending. Though not Toth’s greatest work, this collection still offers his brand of craft. Toth’s flawed work can still inspire awe.

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Steve Rude: Artist in Motion

01 May 2015 by Rey Armenteros

The independent comics boom of the 1980s created new directions in comics storytelling. The art styles were basically the same, but the approaches to story seemed to gather what was already established in the mainstream and give it a couple of twists. On the surface, Nexus was a superhero comic set in outer space, but it was actually a complicated tale about the forces behind blind justice, and how the titular character wrestled with the need to execute the guilty with his inexorable powers. The stories by Mike Baron were compelling and more involved than the standard fair in most other comics. And the art of Steve “The Dude” Rude marked rare instances of elegance in the comics of those days.

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Flesk Publications put out Steve Rude: Artist in Motion a few years ago. It covers instances of the Dude’s entire career, giving the reader a survey of all of his accomplishments. In this single volume, we get some knowledge on his influences from Alex Toth and Russ Manning, among many others. We get a detailed interview that sheds light on his approach and some of the high and low points of his career. We get a wide range of art, from comic books to paintings, from nude studies to animation stills.

The elements that gave me pause for reflection had to do with his untiring drive to learn more and more techniques. Here was a comics artist who was already extraordinarily accomplished in the 1980s with comic pages that were respected by industry professionals along with covers that had a panache for realism while still retaining the charm of fantasy. Indeed, in one chapter, he is favorably compared with Alex Ross, which is an apt connection. I would go so far as to say that the Dude paved the way for the likes of Alex Ross by doing painted covers grounded in all aspects of verisimilitude, using convincing proportions and established light sources.

Even though he was ever the innovator, Steve Rude was to this day still learning from his old painting teacher and striving to perfect his craft. It almost makes me pause once again – but in order to reflect in the other direction. As an artist, I understand all too well the obsession behind getting better and better, but I found that the exercises that he pursued in this venture were not as exciting as his comic book work, and it made me wonder why the publisher devoted whole chapters to it. Honestly, who cares about another nude study? We’ve seen millions of these, and when publishers include them in art books, it is almost as if to say, “yes, but he can also do this more serious stuff.” I don’t care for the Coke ads and the pastel portraits; there was nothing special about them – even the technique was inferior to many of his Nexus covers from the 1980s. Give me more of Nexus in costume, as real as the Dude could make him shooting beams of deadly light from his hands, and Behold!…There’s the real art in motion!

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Two Books on Joseph Clement Coll

18 March 2015 by Rey Armenteros

frankenstein2_lgWhen looking back on influences for his work on Frankenstein, Bernie Wrightson cited the work of Joseph Clement Coll alongside that of Franklin Booth. For years, I couldn’t see anything but Booth in Wrightson’s elaborate drawings; they had Wrightson’s hand with Booth’s finish. And Coll was nowhere to be found.

I had always preferred Booth, maybe because there was something inhuman about his results. He and Coll were contemporaries, and between them, their techniques were worlds apart. Franklin Booth’s carefully constructed web of forms was like something put together from blueprints, and they were exquisitely executed by a machine.

91uFdSR3yqL 3a3d791dd6bd1b3f8fa69945d088e9fbFlesk Publications came out with two books on Coll’s career. Until reading these two books, I wouldn’t have known how to describe Coll’s work. Now, I see that Coll had a variety of tension in his line work that was all his own. His style incorporated a weave of diversity that relinquished textures, speeds, and densities that invited you to read more in the drawing. And absorbing his drawings is a lot like reading because much of the detail work is hidden in the crosshatching – you can’t get the whole picture until you study it a little.

His line work revealed a sense that he did little planning for his drawings, maybe using nothing more than minimal pencils before getting into it with ink. There’s a “fly off the seat of your pants” feeling to his finished drawings, as if he were making up half of it as he was going along, compelling me to  look at Wrightson again to see if I can catch some of this spirit of enchanting the viewer. Coll’s images invite you to trek through his paths, to seek, to find fun along the way. And seeking is what drawing was always about.

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Franklin Booth: American Illustrator by Auad Publishing

10 March 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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Obsessed with line as I am, it is no surprise that I am fascinated by the varied degree of marks in Franklin Booth’s ink drawings. I finally read Franklin Booth: American Illustrator by Auad Publishing. It had useful information on his life and career, but the selection of images were lackluster. Much of the work included are small spot illustrations, or worse, large ink renderings that are intruded upon by a large blank caption that must have been used to serve some purpose when it was commissioned. Among the larger ink drawings that are intact, we don’t get the same sense of mystery from his better known work. I couldn’t get past the trite subject-matter for a moment to focus on the stupendous technique he had developed. What I wanted from the book was something more like the powerful image of trees below.

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