How Comics Reflect Society

The Development of American Superheroes

Master's Thesis, 2011

49 Pages, Grade: 1,5



1.Explanation of quoting style


3.History of superhero comics
3.1.Before the superheroes came
3.2.The Golden Age of Comics
3.3.The comic book regression of the 1950s
3.4.The Silver Age of Comics
3.5.The Bronze Age of Comics
3.6.The Modern Age of Comics

4.What are Superheroes?

5.Kinds of revisionism
5.1.Additive Revisions
5.2.Fundamental Revisions
5.3.Conceptual Revisions
5.4.Critical Revisions
5.5.Critique on Wandtke's classification
5.6.Maturing of the medium

6.Wonder Woman 1941 vs. 2009: Comparing two origin stories and their messages
6.1.William Moulton Marston and his idea of an ideal world
6.2.Wonder Woman in the 1940s
6.3.Wonder Woman in 2009
6.4.Comparing the two stories

7.Captain America
7.1.Captain America in the late 1940s and 1950s
7.2.Captain America in the 1960 and 1970s
7.3.The War on Terror and the Death of Captain America

8.1.Batman and accusations of homosexuality
8.2.Impact of Wertham's accusations on Batman comics
8.3.Batman revisited: The “New Look“

9.Example for an English-lesson involving superhero comics


11.1.Books, Essays and Internet sources

12.1.Captain America Comics #1
12.2.Captain America Comics #76

1. Explanation of quoting style

This paper is written according to the American Psychological Association Style (APA Style), as required by the English Department of the University of Hildesheim. This style, however, proved overcomplicated for citing comics, as it demands the author rather than the title of the source to be named after a quotation. Comic writers change a lot, often after a couple of issues. To name them instead of the comic-book issue the quote is from, makes it hard for the reader to follow. Therefore, this paper makes an exception from the APA Style when it comes to citing comic books. Instead of using this format: (see Englehart (1974), p. 15), this paper writes (see Captain America #175). The writer of the issue is listed in the References-section. If the quote is from a comic printed in an anthology, the editor of that Anthology is named.

Also, the year of publishing is omitted after the first quotation of source, as some sources are reprints and the more recent date might confuse the reader instead of giving him orientation.

2. Introduction

American superhero-comics have been around for over 70 years now. In that period not only the genre and its medium matured but also the social, cultural and political environment changed. This paper hypothesizes that superhero comics change over time to stay relevant and that the observant reader can make conclusions about the time during which a comic was written by analyzing it. The first part of this paper gives a short summary of the history of superhero comics from the creation of Superman in 1939 to the Modern Age of Comics. It explains how the superhero comic originated in the late 1930s, blossomed in the 1940s, struggled in the 1950s and reinvented itself in the 1960s. Events like the introduction of the Comic Book Code and the death of Gwen Stacy will be presented and it will be explained why they had an immense impact on the comic-book culture. Also, the definition of the term superhero will be discussed.

Afterwards, the essay focuses on the different kinds of comic-book revisionism and the different reasons for it. This and the chapters before help to understand how the comic book industry works and how innovations in comic books are introduced and why they happen.

The main part of the essay continues to prove the hypothesis on the example of three superheroes that have all existed since the Golden Age of Comics: Wonder Woman, Captain America and Batman.

Each of those superheroes will provide an example for a different kind of social change: With the help of Wonder Woman, the change of the women's role and the change of feminism will be examined. Captain America is a great example of a superhero created out of a social and political need and of the struggle that arises when this need is fulfilled. He also poses as an example for how comics comment on political changes. Finally, the Batman comics are used to illustrate the power Dr. Frederic Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent had over society and over comics itself. That chapter also discusses what the changes, made to Batman comics in reaction to the accusation of homosexuality, say about the reputation of homosexuals in the 1950s.

The last part of this essay gives an example for the possibilities to use this topic in school, in English as a foreign language or history classes.

3. History of superhero comics

3.1. Before the superheroes came

As already discussed in my previous paper (Saemann 2009), comics have a long history that most people probably never have heard of. When comics are defined as “sequential art”, as Will Eisner did, or as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequences intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (McCloud 1993, p. 9), like Scott McCloud did, this includes more than one might think of: Cave paintings, Bayeux Tapestry, Egyptian paintings or even pictorial safety instructions in planes are technically comics. The term comic itself comes from the origin of the modern comic as funny but undemanding comic strips in newspapers. There is an ongoing discussion about how to classify comics. They are sometimes considered art, sometimes literature. Lately, the view that they are a hybrid of both has become more and more popular (see Saemann 2009, p.5).

Comics are capable of telling all kinds of stories and there is probably no genre comics have not touched yet. But the genre that is immortally linked with comics today is the superhero genre. However, the world of comics could look very different today if it had not been for some important moments in the history of comics.

In 1895 the first successful newspaper cartoon was published in The New York World. The cartoon Hogan's Alley, created by Richard F. Outcault, featured the Yellow Kid, a street urchin, and became so popular that it “even spawned the term 'yellow journalism', which became shorthand for the lurid reporting found in the rest of the paper” (Fingeroth 2008, p.13).

Hogan's Alley was followed by a wide array of newspaper cartoons such as the Katzenjammer Kids or Krazy Kat. The funny cartoons were soon joined by adventure strips. It was not until 1935 that these cartoons got reprinted in anthologies - soon known as comic books. The success of the comic books created a need for new material and the first publishers began to create original stories to meet that demand (see Fingeroth 2008, p. 13).

3.2. The Golden Age of Comics

Only three years later, in 1938, the superhero genre was created with the invention of a single character: Superman, the embodiment of the classic superhero. He has a secret identity, supernatural powers, a costume and a boy scout mentality. Those aspects have existed before Superman, but not in this particular combination.

According to Peter Coogan, superheroes “derived from three primary streams of adventure- narrative figures: the science fiction superman [e.g. Frankenstein, Hugo Danner], the pulp Ü bermensch (e.g. Doc Savage, Tarzan), and the dual-identity vigilante [e.g. Robin Hood, The Phantom, The Shadow]” (Duncan & Smith 2009, p. 223). Especially Hugo Danner, the protagonist of Philip Wylie's novel Gladiator from 1930, was a huge inspiration for the creation of Superman. The similarities are so obvious that it borders on plagiarism. Hugo explains to his father: “I can jump higher'n a house. I can run faster' a train. I can pull up big trees an' push'em over” (Wylie 2003, p.19). Later he also discovers that he is invulnerable to bullets and only exploding mortar shells can harm him (see Wylie, p. 88).

As described in Action Comics #1 (1938), Superman's powers include the ability to “[...] hurdle a twenty-story building... raise tremendous faster than an express train... and that nothing but a bursting shell could penetrate his skin” (see Action Comics #1, p.1). However, not all inspirations for Superman can be assigned to one of these three groups. Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster, the creators of Superman, also took inspiration from characters such as Popeye and swashbuckling film heroes (see Duncan & Smith, p. 222) as well as religious legends like Samson (see Fingeroth 2007, p.32).

In 1939, one year after the first publishing of Superman, Batman arose as the second comic superhero. As with Superman, the creators of Batman took inspiration from pulp magazine heroes. The main inspirations were probably The Shadow, Doc Savage and Nick Carter (see Duncan & Smith p.224). The first cases of Doc Savage, Nick Carter and Batman were avenging their fathers (or in Batman''s case his parents). Batman was described as “peak of human mental and physical perfection”, as were Carter and Savage. Batman's utility belt is basically the same as Doc Savage's vest pockets filled with gadgets and both of them have a fleet of useful vehicles (see Duncan & Smith p. 225). Robin, Batman's juvenile sidekick, mirrors Nick Carters 14 year old adopted boy, who he trained to solve crimes with him. Those were only a few of many similarities between the first comic superheroes and their predecessors. The reason why Superman and Batman were (and are) more successful then their role models might lie in the graphic portrayal of their heroic deeds. In a time when film was still in its infancy and special effects were basically non-existent, comic books were the closest thing to actually see these heroes use their heroic powers.

After the success of Superman and Batman, more and more superheroes followed. Wonder Woman, the first superheroine, followed in 1941. Like Superman and Batman, she was a product of DC Comics. The same year, Marvel Comics published the first issue of Captain America. He was a patriotic American super soldier who started with fighting Nazis but became known as a 'Commie Smasher' in the McCarthy-Era of the 1950s. Before the founding of Marvel Comics in 1939 and more precisely the publishing of Captain America in 1941, the superhero comic market was dominated by DC Comics. The Golden Age of Comics marks the arrival of comics as a mainstream art form.

3.3. The comic book regression of the 1950s

The era between the late 1940s and the first half of the 1950s brought change to the superhero comic market. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were still being published but apart from that the big sellers of the comic industry were horror and crime comics. Other famous genres of that era were funny animals, romance comics and westerns (see Duncan & Smith p.37; Fingeroth 2008 p.14).

In 1947, there were ten crime comic book titles, one year later, in 1948 they “were joined by twenty-three new crime titles - ten of them beginning with the word crime or criminal” (Duncan & Smith p.37).

That year also marked the time when comic books became vilified by parts of the public. It was the first time a well established psychiatrist by the name Dr. Frederic Wertham, who was the senior psychiatrist for the New York Department of Hospitals, spoke out against comics in a symposium on “The Psychopathology of Comic Books”. At the same time “[c]itizen's groups formed to push for regulation or banning of comic books. Some towns even held comic book burnings in order to exorcise the threat of crime comics from their communities” (Duncan & Smith p.37).

This encouraged some comic book publishers to form the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers (ACMP) in July 1948. They created a code of standards and a seal, which could be put on comic book covers that followed those standards. The code, however, was ignored by most publishers as they did not care for the public outcry as long as the business was growing.

In 1950, the Cincinnati Committee on the Evaluation of Comic Books published a study which stated that 70 percent of comic books contained objectionable material (see Duncan & Smith p. 38). In the same year, William Gaines, owner of Entertainment Comics (EC Comics), launched a new line of comic books: Horror Comics. Titles like The Vault of Horror, Weird Science, Crime SuspenStories and Crypt of Terror (later named : Tales from the Crypt) were among the first horror comic books. Those comics were “intelligently written, wonderfully drawn, and as gory as hell” (Duncan & Smith p.38; Slade 2000).

To better understand what that means one just has to read what EC historian E.B. Boatner had to say about them:

EC horror opened new vistas of death from sources previously unimagined by the reader. Victims were serial-sectioned by giant machines, eaten by ghouls, devoured by rats - from inside and out - pecked by pigeons, stuffed down disposals, skewered on swords, buried alive, dismembered and used as baseball equipment, hung as living clappers in huge bells, made into sausages and soap, dissolved, southern fried, hacked up by maniacs in Santa Claus suits and offed in unusually high percentages by their wives or husbands (Slade).

In the blurb of the 2007 book The EC Archives - Tales from the Crypt from 2007, an anthology of the Tales from the Crypt comics between April 1951 and March 1952, it says that EC comics is considered to be the greatest line of comic books ever published […]. These comic books were important for a number of reasons: they brought a new, higher level of writing and artwork to the medium of comics, they were popular with young adults as well as children, […] they were the first to identify and elevate the comic book artists to 'star status' with the readers, and they provoked a huge outcry from public-minded groups (and a certain psychiatrist) who maintained that horror comics in particular, and most comic books in general, were a root cause of the explosion of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s (Cochran).

EC prospered for four years to an extent unknown before. They had a huge fan following and by 1954, over six hundred different titles had been published. The number of copies exceeded 150 million books every month.

But 1954 also marked a the first big regression in the comic book industry. The good times were over when the public turned against comic books. Even before that year, in the late 1940s the reputation of comic books got threatened by essays published in popular magazines and of course the aforementioned comic book burnings. However, in the same year, Dr. Frederic Wertham published his infamous book Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth. “Wertham crusaded against all dramatic comics - including superheroes - eventually leading to congressional hearings into the industry” (Fingeroth 2008, p.15).

William Gaines made an appearance at these hearings in which he tried to convince the Congress that the severed head of a woman on a cover of one of his comic books was “good taste”. This damaged the industry and himself more than it helped.

After the hearing, the comic industry imposed a system of content regulation on itself, known as the Comic Book Code.

One of the articles in the code said that “all scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, [and] masochism” and that “scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited” (Senate Committee on the Judiciary). Other articles were formulated as precisely

illustration not visible in this excerpt

but seem even more ridiculous: “No comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title”; “Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities”; “The letters of the word “crime” on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciably greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” shall never appear alone on a cover”, just to name three examples. Titles that were in line with the code got the permission to add its seal on their cover to show parents it was safe to buy them.

This essentially forced William Gaines to end his horror comic book lines, as it was impossible to produce horror comics that were in line with the code and scary at the same time. William Gaines became very successful later, when he transformed his colored Mad comic book into a black-and- white magazine, thus evading the jurisdiction of the code (see Fingeroth 2008, p.15). Other comic book genres where affected by the code as well, but not in such a drastic way. But the 1950s held other problems for the comic book industry. TV became more and more available, and became the number one mass medium. At the beginning of the 1950s, 10% of homes in the US had a TV. By the end of the decade it was 90%. Children (and adults) began to watch TV, which was for free, instead of buying comic books for 10 cents per issue (see Duncan & Smith, p.40).

And the repressions against comics went on: “In 1955, the state of Washington passed the Comic Book Act, which required a license to sell comic books. Los Angeles County adopted an ordinance that made it illegal to sell or distribute a crime comic book to a child under eighteen” (Duncan & Smith, p.41). However, both laws were challenged in court and found unconstitutional. Nevertheless, it shows how strong the anti-comic book movement was during that time. The comic book code came as a blessing in disguise for the superhero genre. In an attempt to save the comic book market, DC revived its superheroes. While having an emphasis on action, the superhero comics relied more on clever stories than on excessive violence and therefore could be kept in line with the code (see Fingeroth 2008, p.14; Duncan & Smith p.45).

3.4. The Silver Age of Comics

During this revival of superheroes, changes have been made to make them more appealing to the readership. Most of the heroes had been on ice for a couple of years and even if they might have appealed to the readership before that, they were outdated in this new decade. Examples for reimagined superheroes are DC's The Flash and the Green Lantern, both revived by Julius “Julie” Schwartz, editor of DC Comics. The Flash got revived in 1956, five years after his last appearance in a comic book. Instead of reviving the old Flash, Schwartz decided to revive the concept of this hero. He changed his identity and costume but kept the superpowers and the pseudonym (see DC Comics, Duncan & Smith, p. 45).

Later Schwartz also decided to revive the Justice Society of America, changing the name to Justice League of America, and adding a few well known and beloved heroes like Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Aquaman and the relatively new hero Martian Manhunter. Marvel Comics did what every publisher in the comic market did (and still does): They copied a successful idea. In 1961, when the Justice League comics were doing well, Stan Lee got the assignment to create a team of superheroes for Marvel Comics. The result was the Fantastic Four. They were different because they had no secret identity, no costumes at first and a lot of personal problems to struggle with. Readers could relate to them.

This led to the creation of a number of flawed superheroes in the next few years. In the following year, in 1962, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor and Spider-Man made their debut. Spider-Man differed from all superheroes before him, as he was the first teenage superhero who was not a sidekick, but the lead. Like the Hulk and Thor, he had his flaws, which seemed to be the trademark of this new Age of comic books. (see, Duncan & Smith, p. 46). The 1960s were a good decade for Marvel Comics and especially Stan Lee. Iron Man, the Avengers, the X-Men and Daredevil were only a few of the new generation of superheroes invented by Marvel - even Captain America was revived and revisioned to appeal to the readership of this new era.

The 1960s also mark the time when young people, who grew up with comics under the Comics Code, started to create and publish own comics, with no regard to the Code. These comics where called underground comix [sic]- to distance them from the mainstream comics (see Krensky, pp. 72-76; Duncan & Smith, pp. 51-53).

3.5. The Bronze Age of Comics

The 1970s (and late 1960s) became known as the Bronze Age of Comics. While still looking similar to the Silver Age comics, with the bright costumed superheroes and colorful design, the Bronze Age started to give comics a different direction. The plots became darker, more serious and began to address real-world issues.

What event actually started the Bronze Age is debatable. It was probably when Marvel introduced the first African-American superhero, called the Falcon, in 1969. This was a direct reaction to the demand of equality that became very strong in the late 1960s (see Adams 2000, pp. 115). It might also have been in 1971, when Stan Lee managed to break the power of the Comics Code with a three-part Spider-Man story that warned children about the dangers of drug abuse. Nonetheless, the CCA (Comics Code Authority) refused to give it their Comics Code Seal, as the showing of drugs was against the Code. Marvel published the story anyway and the sales were strong. This showed that the Code was not as mighty as it might have been a few years ago. As usual in the comic industry, the successful trend was copied by other publishers. The first to follow in Marvel steps was DC. Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy became addicted to drugs and beats the addiction after a while (see Krenksy, p.72; Duncan & Smith, p. 60; Blumberg, p. 197). The Comics Code never ceased to exist, but it was updated and revised a number of times. This allowed publishers to sell more versatile stories. Today the Code has lost all of its former power and most publishers do not even submit their comics to the CCA for approval.

Another important development in the late sixties and early seventies was the coming of age of the comic book readership. The comic reading kids of the forties and fifties became older and some of them tried to get into the comic business as well. The artists and writers of the American comic industry became old and lost touch with it's readership. The publishers were in search for fresh ideas and on top of that the writers tried to unionize in 1968. They wanted benefit packages and “a piece of the concepts they created” (Duncan & Smith, p.59).

The drug theme changed the tone of comic books, but they did not lose their innocence until Spider- Man #121. In that issue, the villain Green Goblin kidnaps Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man's girlfriend and throws her off a bridge. Spider-Man tries to rescue her but accidentally kills. Arnold Blumberg described the impact of that story:

The death of Gwen Stacy was the end of innocence for the series and the superhero genre in general - a time when a defeated hero could not save the girl, when fantasy merged uncomfortably with reality, and mortality was finally visited on the world of comics. To coin a cliché, nothing would ever be the same (Blumberg, p. 199).

Spider-Man swears to avenge her death by killing the Goblin. That he threatened to kill someone marks a change in tone not only in Spider-Man, but in the genre itself:

Here was the quip-happy hero, always so light- hearted in the face of evil, vowing bloody revenge to the heavens as he cradled the lifeless form of Gwen Stacy. Here was the girlfriend of the hero, dead and gone, never to return. Every expected motif in superhero stories was turned on its ear in a few simple panels, irrevocably transforming the world of comics and its readers (Blumberg p. 200).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

3.6. The Modern Age of Comics depicted in The Amazing Spider-Man #121.

In the 1970s, the comic movement proverbially exploded. In 1976, Harvey Pekar started his autobiographic comic American Splendor, in which the readers could follow Pekar's life. Between 1976 and 2008 he produced 39 issues. The early issues had 60 pages, including the cover, which makes them Graphic Novels. Graphic Novels are generally defined as targeted to an older audience than the usual comic books and as having more pages. There have been numerous Graphic Novels before American Splendor, but it's release marks the time when they became more common.

Other notable Graphic Novels are Maus by Art Spiegelman, and the earlier mentioned Watchmen by Alan Moore. Maus was published between 1972 and 1991 (albeit it started as comic strips in 1972 - the first issue of Maus was published in 1986), in which he tells the story of his father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor (see Fingeroth 2008, pp. 16-22).

These, and other critically acclaimed works of that era, opened the comic market for stories of all kind. Comics have finally found their way into mainstream audience and as long as a story is good it will find a publisher. Today, the internet helps comic artists to find a readership, which again helps them to make money with writing and drawing comics.

4. What are Superheroes?

To analyze the history and development of the comic book superheroes, one first has to define what exactly a superhero is. Of course everyone - at least in western culture - has an idea of the superhero concept but when asking some people for a definition you would probably get a lot of similar, but still different answers.

Most would agree that a superhero “does good” and “fights evil”. But what is good what is evil? Moral values are deeply rooted in the culture that has established them. Different cultures means different values.

Certainly, many would say that a superhero has a costume and a secret identity. But this would exclude characters such as Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and nowadays also Wonder Woman. During the progress of their stories, Iron Man and Wonder Woman went public and the Fantastic Four have been publicly known by their real names right from the start (see Fichera 2008). Even the presence of superpowers cannot be used to define what a superhero is and what not as there are a number of comic book superheroes without any powers (such as Batman or The Punisher).

To find out what defines a superhero one has to take a look at the ordinary hero first:

The term hero derives from the Greek heros which originally meant demigod (see Harper). In time, the meaning of the word shifted and today it is used for persons who excel the rest of us in some way. The Free Dictionary distinguishes between four meanings of the term: a hero (or a heroine) can be a mythological character “of divine ancestry who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods”, “ [a] person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life”, somebody who made an achievement in a particular field (e.g. science, medicine), or the protagonist in a work of fiction (see

The term superhero is defined by The Free Dictionary as “[a] figure, especially in a comic strip or cartoon, endowed with superhuman powers and usually portrayed as fighting evil or crime.” This definition however, is not satisfying as it would - at least on first sight - exclude some of the most famous comic book superheroes like Batman. According to DC Comics, the publisher of Batman, he is “a master of fighting styles, […] a legendary escape artist and the world's greatest detective.

His utility belt is stocked with a wide array of tools and armaments [...]“ (Waid). No mention of superhuman powers.

But as Danny Fingeroth writes in his book Superman on the Couch:

The realm of superheroes is occupied by individuals with fantastic powers (whether magic or „science“ based), as well as people who fight their battles with advanced technology (often differentiated from magic only because the author says so) or people who are just plain brave/crazy/lucky (Fingeroth 2004. p16).

According to him, superheroes share values like strength of character, positive values (even though this is very objective, since not all societies share the same values) and „a determination to, no matter what, protect those values“ (Fingeroth 2004, p. 17). But those characteristics also describe the villain (or supervillain) of a superhero narrative. The only difference is that the villain pursues and protects values that are not considered 'good' by our society.

So a superhero represents the values of the society that has created him and fights opposing values. But a society changes over time and to stay successful the superhero has to change as well.

5. Kinds of revisionism

Terrence R. Wandtke writes in the book “The amazing transforming Superhero!”, that Superheroes do not evolve, as sometimes mistakenly stated in comic related literature. Evolution would mean, that the modern superheroes are direct descendants of their original interpretations. This, however, does not seem very likely. One prominent example for that would be Batman. He started as a somewhat dark crime fighter but developed into a “fabulous Batman open to gay readings” (Wandtke, p.6) in the 1960s. Later, Frank Miller created a version of Batman which can be described as a “grim and gritty Dark Knight” (Wandtke, p.6).

The campy 1960s Batman could be seen as an aberration to an otherwise orderly rule of development, but as the history showed the gritty Batman did not conquer the campy Batman: While the first two Batman movies, made by Tim Burton in the 1980s, were in tone with Frank Miller's interpretation, the next two movies Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, by Joel Schumacher, were more like the old TV series.

In Alan Moore's highly acclaimed graphic novel The Killing Joke (1988), both versions coexist. The Killing Joke shows a very dark and very gritty depiction of the Joker's psychosis.


Excerpt out of 49 pages


How Comics Reflect Society
The Development of American Superheroes
University of Hildesheim  (Institut für englische Sprache und Literatur )
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ISBN (eBook)
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Superheroes, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Culture, Comics, Society, Homosexuality, feminism, watergate, emigration laws, lesson, Seduction of the innocent, Frederic Wertham, Rosie the Riveter, Home Front, History of comics
Quote paper
Björn Saemann (Author), 2011, How Comics Reflect Society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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