Thursday, June 20, 2024

Notes on a Fourth World Re-read (part 4)

The story in New Gods #7 reveals the pact that had maintained a truce between New Genesis and Apokolips and the origins of Orion and Scott Free, infants exchanged to be raised on worlds not their own. Orion became a warrior for good, albeit one constantly challenged by his nature. Scott Free was given over to Granny Goodness to be trained to conformity, perhaps to become another cog in the Apokolips machine, except that his nature wins out and he escapes. Mister Miracle #7 (1971) has Scott and Barda return to Apokolips to face the horrors of their upbringing and its architect.

The social order of Apokolips is a little hard to fathom. On one hand, we are shown Granny's fascist training camp orphan where conformity and submersion of individuality is all important. On the other hand, the villains from Apokolips bedeviling the heroes of the Fourth World titles are a diverse, even eccentric, lot. It's unclear how many of the villains we see are a product of Granny's tutelage, but certainly Virmin Vundabar and at least some of the Female Furies seem to be.

I suspect some of the Apokolipsians (Doctor Bedlam, Desaad, Kanto) are products of the older, aristocratic society of Steppenwolf and Heggra that Darkseid has transformed into a fascist state. The others are probably the most "successful" graduates of Granny's schooling. These strong-willed enough to retain some individuality, while still being conditioned for Darkseid's service. This presumably is the outcome Darkseid intended for Scott Free. Unless the irony of the son of High Father being merely a faceless grunt in his army appealed to him. This seems unlikely to me, because Darkseid seems more calculating than pointlessly cruel.

Mister Miracle #7 gives us our most extended look yet at the hell that is Apokolips. It's an armed camp emblazoned with grim, fascistic slogans. Workers are dressed something like a combination of Medieval serfs and German work camp prisoners. Here, they're attacked by Kanto, an assassin who looks like he grabbed his style from the Italian Rennaissance. He's a man of honor after a fashion. He let's Free and Barda go out of respect. His sort of evil is out of place in the more mechanized, modern Apokolips.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Notes on a Fourth World Re-read (part 3)

I had intended to talk about Mister Miracle #6 and Funky Flashman this week, but instead I read Forever People #8 (on sale February 1972), and I feel like that better encapsulates the oddness of what Kirby was doing with the Fourth World saga.

There is a lot going on in this issue. A man known as Billion-Dollar Bates lives out in the desert with a barrier and deserted town guarded by para-military private security. He's involved with a Satanic cult called "The Sect" who has a ritual space beneath his mansion and wears weird looking masks. He's holding a group of prominent citizens against their will with some "power."

If that isn't enough, someone is infiltrating Bates' compound, wearing the masks of the Sect, and killing his guards. Then the Forever People show up.

Ultimately, we discover that Bates (like time-lost Sonny Sumo) has the "Anti-Life Equation," the innate ability to control minds. Unlike the virtuous Sumo, who worried about ever using the power, Bates has made himself wealth and powerful--and still has the desire to gloat to others about his deeds. It ends badly for him:

The infiltrators are Darkseid and his minions. And accident keeps Darkseid from the Anti-Life Equation: bullets through Bates. This is the second time Kirby has introduced the Equation in the flesh, and the second time he takes it off the table. Presumably he feels if it's ever here to stay he's reached the climax of his story.

With his ribbon tie, big cigar, and jowled face, Mister Bates is a rich man caricature. His very name hints at the self-gratifying nature of his use of the power and the way he has lived his life. He also fancied himself a "wheeler dealer," he tells his captives, but then the Sect revealed the true nature of his power. His life blessings almost literally derive from Satan.

The weirdest thing in this issue is, when confronted with the Forever People, Darkseid starts sort of playing drill sergeant and lines them up to berate them. Later Darkseid reveals it was a ruse to throw the Forever People off-guard, suggesting he fears them a bit. It's not at all how Darkseid is portrayed in the modern DCU.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Notes on a Fourth World Re-read (part 2): Boat to Glory

One thing that virtually all of the continuations of the Fourth World saga by other hands seem to miss is that it isn't just a superhero action epic, but like all good mythologies, there are things going on beneath the surface.

New Gods #6 (on sale in October of 1971), continues Orion's struggle against the Deep Six, a group of Apokiliptian fishmen with the ability to mutate other lifeforms. They are not the best villains of the saga by any means, but Kirby uses them in issue 5 to reveal things about Orion, and in this issue, "Glory Boat!" to tell an allegorical story about war and its human cost.

The setup is almost Biblical. A great sea creature recalling Leviathan and all the primeval, Chaos monsters of the depths, a family, emblematic of humanity as a whole: the bellicose and overbearing father, the "conscientious objector" son, and the daughter who doesn't get to do much between the two's bickering. God of war Orion also has someone to play off here, his friend, Lightray, embodying the enlightenment of New Genesis.

Where Orion's instinct is to destroy his foes, Lightray strives to show a better way, to rehabilitate. He succeeds in transforming one of the Deep Six's creatures into the service of our heroes. Unfortunately, for the humans, the Deep Six are drawn back to the boat.

The father freezes, having some sort of breakdown when confronted with the creatures. The son, the peacenik, goes on the offensive, attacking the Apokoliptian Jafar. Jafars kills him, mutating his face into that of a featureless, metallic mannequin. Lightray opines that the war has taken "another faceless hero."

Lashed to the mast, the father bears witness to what is to come.  Orion and Lightray take the son's body and launch themselves into a possibly final attack against the remaining Deep Three, in an epic two page spread.

But Lightray and Orion are not destined for some Neo-Vahalla just yet. The boy goes "to the Source" and the New Gods live to fight another day. The father, still on the mast amid the wreckage of the ship is left to wonder (as Kirby tells us): "What is a man in the last analysis--his philosophy or himself?"

It's heavy-handed perhaps, but no more so than work of the writers that would come to be seen as seminal figures of the 70s leading the "maturation" of comics.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Notes from A Fourth World Re-read

Back during the pandemic, I realized I had not read the entirety of Jack Kirby's run on his so-called "Fourth World" titles at DC in the 1970s (Forever People, Mister Miracle,  and New Gods, and ok, it starts in Jimmy Olsen, but I'm not reading that) since the black and white collections of 1999, so it seemed like a good time to revisit the series. I did that in a haphazard fashion, and these are the notes I made at the time...

These titles were supposedly an attempt to write a new mythology for the modern age, an idea Kirby had had at Marvel, but never got to execute. The titles are interrelated but not strongly interlinked (not unlike Morrison's Seven Soldiers over 30 years later). Last night I read Mister Miracle #3 and 4 both published in 1971.

Mister Miracle tells the story of Scott Free, a man from another world, who befriends, and then assumes the stage persona of an aging escape artist known as Mister Miracle. While Free's athletic and escape abilities are impressive, he accomplishes most of his escapes by using advanced alien technology. Scott Free is being hunted by agents of the planet Apokolips. So far, we've seen their human, organized crime agents, Intergang, and the monstrous orphanage matron, Granny Goodness.

Issue #3 introduces us to Doctor Bedlam. Bedlam is a being of pure thought, and very malign thought at that. His psychic assault upon Mister Miracle and his assistant, Oberon, is almost Satanic (or maybe Outer God-like) in intensity--only Free's "Mother Box" device protects them.

Bedlam draws Free into a trap in an office building. After a confrontation with what is essentially an android body possessed by Bedlam, Free must make his way through 50 floors of people turned into violent suffers of psychosis by Bedlam's "paranoia pills."

Bedlam is a great concept, particularly within the Apokolipsian pantheon, who all are some sort of aspect of oppression. His name comes from the nickname of Bethlehem Royal Hospital, which at one time represented the most frightening and dehumanizing aspects of mental asylums. Bedlam seems a personification of the snake pit asylum. He is almost literal madness in human form, or rather in the form of a number of faceless automata--suggesting the evil of systems, not individual actors.

Free's escape through 50 stories is likewise a great story conceit that would work well today. The choice of a single office building and an urban setting as opposed to some sort of small town or even city street, seems to suggest the deleterious mental effects of corporate employment, or maybe the paranoia induced by office politics. It's not hard to see Kirby's experiences at Marvel as informing these choices.

As good as it all is, Kirby seems to have a dilemma as to how to deal with the amazing feats of his super-escape artist. The "trick" of the last three of Mister Miracle's daring escapes are related to Oberon as he and Scott make dinner, and all involve the use of one really versatile device. Oberon's response seems to sort of lampshade the shakiness of it all:

The other weak spot is a couple of panels of Big Barda (who is introduced this issue). Perhaps is was the inker (Vince Colletta) that let him down, but I suspect being a one-man band essentially on some many titles just sometimes led to him being rushed.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Review: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Despite the attention lavished on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, and even Star Trek or the Alien universe, I feel like the science fiction franchise most consistent in quality is the Planet of the Apes. Sure, it's not without its duds (Burton's film) and lesser lights (the last original film, the cartoon, perhaps), but the Wyatt/Reeves reboot?/prequel? series of the 2010s defied sequel gravity and only got better as it went along. (To me, anyway. Some would say Dawn was the high point. Either way, War was still good.)

When Reeves left and Disney acquired Fox, I had some trepidation about where the series would go. Happily, it seems like Wes Ball has things well enough in hand, at least with this first installment. While it's not as good as the best of the 2010s series, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes was more enjoyable and more substantial than any other existing-franchise entry I've seen in the theater since the end of the pandemic--though perhaps that's damning with faint praise.

Anyway, it's "many generations" after the time of Caesar. He has become a mythic/religious figure. His name is borrowed. and his legacy evoked by an up-and-coming bonobo tyrant who (like King Louie in the Jungle Book) wants the technology of humankind. He needs (ape) slave labor to get it at it and a mysterious, young human woman, so when he captures Noa's village and kills his father, the young chimpanzee makes common cause with the human. 

There are hints of Beneath of the Planet of the Apes in here, and (perhaps unintentional, perhaps not) Biblical echoes with a hero named "Noa," but those are as they should be with an ape installment. The special effects are amazing, and it makes me mad the Marvel Cinematic Universe films often seem sloppy. I guess when your whole premise requires motion capture, you have to get that thing right.

I miss Andy Serkis here like everybody else, but he trained the new cast of apes well. It probably could have been a bit shorter, particularly for a film that is a lot about establishing a new conflict, but I'm not immediately sure what I would have cut.

All that to say, if you liked the previous ape films you should see this one. If you haven't seen any of the new apes films (which lately I've discovered a large group of folks that haven't) then you should see those and see this one.

You can also check out the watch and commentary Jason "Operation Unfathomable" Sholtis and I did of the much less good but still entertaining 70s Planet of the Apes TV show.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Spinner Rack Flashback: The Brave and the Bold vol 1 #200

Brave & the Bold vol 1 #200

Cover Date: July 1983
On Sale Date: April 21, 1983
Editor Len Wein
Cover Artists Jim Aparo, Anthony Tollin

Story Title:  "Smell of Brimstone, Stench of Death!"
Penciller: Dave Gibbons
Writer: Mike W. Barr
Inker: Gary Martin
Letterer: Dave Gibbons, Gaspar Saladino
Colorist: Adrienne Roy

Trey: This comic was the end of the road for The Brave and the Bold, a series that started in 1955. It was initially an anthology book of adventure strips featuring the likes of the Silent Knight, the Viking Prince, the Golden Gladiator, and Robin Hood, but with issue 25 it got a makeover as a "try out" book for new concepts/characters. The original Suicide Squad got their start here, as did the Silver Age Hawkman, and then in #28 a little group you may have heard debuted: The Justice League of America.

With issue #50, it became a team-up title, and with issue #74, exclusively a Batman team-up book. The title was the first to feature Neal Adams on Batman and the place where Adams' redesign of Green Arrow debuted.

I didn't know any of that stuff when I read this issue as a kid, though. What captivated me about this issue was this was the first place I was exposed to the idea of Earth-One and Earth-Two. Here was a Batman and Robin that acted like the ones I was used to in the cartoon, and then this darker, serious (and somehow sadder to 10 year-old me due to his Robin-lessness) other Batman.

Jason: The contrast between the golden age pastiche and the state-of-the-art early 80s Batman (and the Earths portrayed here is stark, both in style and substance. I felt a pang that the kinder, gentler, zanier Batman of old depicted here was by this time no longer available in the comics. The Earth-Two stories I remember from the Adventure Comics a handful of years before this were as modern and "adult" as anything else on the stands at the time. Earth-Two Batman was already officially, canonically "dead", at least as much as can be managed in the comics!

Trey: In the main story, Earth-Two Nicholas Lucien is a B-grade villain with a devil gimmick who is defeated by Batman and Robin and put into a long coma by a head injury. He revives 28 years later in Arkham to find himself an old man, and Batman dead and thus beyond his vengeance.  Unwilling to accept this, he mentally reaches out to that other him he always sensed existed, a respectable businessman on Earth-One. He essentially possesses that version of himself to execute a terroristic plan to lure Earth-One Batman into a trap and kill him.

And then, there was a preview for a brand new comic! Batman and the Outsiders. New comics with a whole slate of new (some just to me, some completely new) characters. That was not the sort of thing that happened every day, in my experience.

Jason: Indeed! With no generic filler or reprints, this special double-size issue delivers bang for the buck admirably, especially for its era.

Trey: The main story isn't as mindblowing as I found it to be as a child, but I still think it's a good one, in no small part to Gibbons shifting art styles for Earth-One and Earth-Two. I also think Brimstone as a good central motif for a Batman villain and could have been used more, though I do like the implication that Golden Age Gotham might have been awash in theatrical criminal wannabes and almost-wases. I also think it's a nice twist that the so-called World's Greatest Detective never knows what exactly was going on here.

Jason: The opening pastiche sets the tone for the level of realism one is to expect from this incarnation of the Caped Crusader. By the time we're asked to swallow the whole possession from another, more cartoony reality angle, the premise seems perfectly reasonable in the context of this tale and we need not ask questions. The Golden Age sequence was delightful, and the incrementally more sober Late Bronze Age sequence delivered as well.

Gibbons turns in a hell of a job here. His trademark precision and beautifully rendered backgrounds, his eye for meaningful details (one of the hoods' cartoony cauliflower ear, etc.), and his ability to present multiple styles that transition seamlessly elevate this work and render harmless any flaws in the story. It's an early career tour de force, I tell you!

Trey: It's also billed as a Batman and Batman team-up, but the two Batmen never meet.

Jason: The cover is nebulous enough to fit within the ethical standards of comics of the day. It doesn't actually guarantee anything. Never trust a cover, as the savvy spinner-rack devotee of 1983 already knew!

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Spinner Rack Flashback: Saga of the Swamp Thing #14-15

Saga of the Swamp Thing #14-15

Cover Date: June-July 1983
On Sale Date: March 10 and April 14 1983
Editor Len Wein
Cover Artists Thomas Yeates

Story Title:  "Crystal Visions, Shattered Dreams"; "Empires Made of Sand"
Plotter/Penciller: Bo Hampton
Scripter: Dan Mishkin
Inker: Scott Hampton
Letterer: John Costanza
Colorist: Tatjana Wood

Trey: Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson for House of Secrets, but somewhat retooled, starred in his own series from 1972-1976. In 1982, with a movie by Wes Craven on the way, the series was revived. This series, and perhaps the character in general, is best known for the run by Alan Moore, mostly with Steve Bissette, but there were 20 issues of the title before that creative team came together. Most of them were scripted by Martin Pasko, but there was this two-parter where another writer stepped in, Dan Mishkin, joined by the Hampton Brothers, Bo and Scott, on art. These issues happen to be my first exposure to Swamp Thing comics as a kid.

One interesting thing about this issue is the origin of the villain here parallels the Swamp Thing’s origin—and this being the Bronze Age, they don’t fail to clue you into that fact even if you have no prior knowledge of the character!

Jason: As a kid growing up in a one-spinner rack town, the editorial practice of endlessly recapping prior issues and origins in ongoing stories actually served its purpose, as I often didn't have the opportunity to get consecutive issues of comics. Early 80s pocket money being what it was, I sometimes had to settle for a single issue of the Micronauts after squandering my quarters on the most fleeting of video game thrills (damn you Centipede!).  

As in this issue, the origin recap also gives the current art team a crack at presenting the story in their style. The Hampton brothers, both of whom were in their early 20s at the time of publication, provide as seamless a transition from Thomas Yeates as readers were likely to get, as they both embody a classic comic strip and illustration style. The EC Comics influence, especially Al Williamson (and Frazetta), is strong and appreciated by me!  

Trey: One thing I appreciate now but I didn't appreciate at the time was how much this is a Phantom Stranger story. He's obviously a guess star, sure, but the structure of the story is very much like the Phantom Stranger backups by Barr and others that had been running in earlier issues of Swamp Thing: the Stranger introduces the situation as narrator. He then intervenes at points, trying to get characters to do the right thing. This playing with the conventions of DC horror anthology titles in a more different sort of narrative is something that Alan Moore would do in his run. In many ways this story is in line with his approach.

Jason: While it will still be a sea-change when Moore takes over, the book is already moving in a more adult oriented direction as evidenced here. Not quite there, but still better than I expected. 

Trey: What I also didn't recall is how poorly fleshed out the bad guy's plan is! I mean, sure he's made of living crystal, but other than them both containing the element silicon, how exactly will that enable him to control computers and rule the world?

Jason: Well, we see it all happen right there! I mean, silicon. Computers. You know! Seriously, that's the trouble with comics struggling through these growing pains. Swamp Thing is still a weirdo-of-the-month Frankenstein vs. Dracula book and you're asking it to make sense?

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Spinner Rack Flashback: DC Comics Presents #59

DC Comics Presents #59

Cover Date: July 1983
On Sale Date: April 7 1983
Editor Julius Schwartz
Cover Artists Giffen/DeCarlo

Story Title:  "Ambush Bug II"
Plotter/Penciller: Keith Giffen
Scripter: Paul Levitz
Inker: Kurt Schaffenberger
Letterer: Ben Oda
Colorist: Carl Gafford

Trey: This post debuts a new feature here on the Flashback Universe blog. Jason and I thought we'd take a break of watching old TV shows and get into...reading old comics! Which, I have been doing a lot of anyway. In it, we're going to discuss some comic, probably from the Bronze Age.  First up, the second appearance of Ambush Bug.

Jason: Trey, as the only person I know who has undertaken a systematic reading of DC Comics' output in the years leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, you are uniquely positioned to speak to this issue in relation the slow transition from the late Bronze Age to whatever comes next.

While merely an okay, readable, perhaps entirely forgettable comic of its day, I think there are at least tonal elements that mark it as (slightly) ahead of its time. Am I all wet?

Trey: Having read every other comic DC put out that week (and the week after for that matter) I can say these Ambush Bug appearances are atypical. I think that's down to Giffen (Ambush Bug's creator) taking his first forays into writing.

Jason: It feels like Giffen stands on the precipice of nailing down a humorous approach to superhero comics that will see fruition several years later in his highly successful Justice League run (written in collaboration with J. M. Dematteis). The arch tone is in place, but this is an early attempt.

Trey: I think you are right, though first he's going to go to his more overtly comedic collaborations with Robert Loren Flemming in the Ambush Bug limited series.

Jason: Do you think Giffen's use of humor is, in part, a tribute to or revival of the light, sometimes wacky sensibilities of DCs Silver Age?

Trey: That's an interesting question. I'm tempted to say no to revival, but I do think there's is a bit of celebration in its goofiness at a time when comics were becoming more serious. Unlike later works which will try to rehabilitate it, though, I think here in the 80s the approach of doing that seems to be to (lovingly perhaps) make fun of it.

Jason: I thought the running gag involving the never resolved fate of Stoneboy was the most successful and most "modern" use of humor in the story. 

Trey: Well, you should read the Legion of Substitute Heroes oneshot from Giffen/Levitz in 1985, because there's more of that!

Jason: Giffen's art is in a transitional phase as well, somewhere between his Kirby-derivative Marvel period and his incorporation (some would say "appropriation") of the influence of Jose Munoz a few years later. I always enjoy an homage to Joe Shuster's slit-eyed style, and Giffen brings out this retro-Superman's old school charm.

Trey: Yeah, it's good stuff, I think, though he has quite perfected the look of Ambush Bug, I don't think. It gets better.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Have Gun – Will Travel (1957)

Have Gun – Will Travel
Debut: September 14, 1957
Created by Sam Rolfe, Herb Meadow
Starring: Craig Stevens, Lola Albright, Herschel Bernardi, Hope Emerson, Byron Kane
Synopsis: The man known as "Paladin," a gentleman gunfighter, makes his living as a troubleshooter-for-hire in the Old West. 

Trey: The television version of Have Gun – Will Travel aired on CBS from 1957 to 1953. Interestingly, there was a radio version starring John Dehner as Paladin which debuted on November 23, 1958, making Have Gun – Will Travel of the few shows in television history to spawn a successful radio version, instead of the other way around.

We watched Season 3 episode 1 "First, Catch a Tiger" on YouTube. In this episode, two of the three men responsible for hanging Jacob Mordain's son have been gunned down, shot in the back, by the assassin, Fred Horn. The third, Paladin, is invited to Wyoming to face him, and finds himself staying in a hotel with three other men, unsure which is the killer.

I have heard a few episodes of the radio show on radio classics. I must admit having Richard Boone in the lead had kept me away from the TV version a bit. The urbane air of John Dehner seems to fit the character for me. Boone is familiar to me as the heavy in Westerns like Big Jake and The Shootist or more rough-hewn characters like in Rio Conchos. I guess there's always his role in The Last Dinosaur, but anyway nothing makes me think "gentleman gunfighter."

Jason: Bonus points awarded for Boone's ability to pull off that mustache. 

I'm also a fan of his rugged not-so-good looks as a breather from today's relentless beauty.

The well-established relationship between the Western and Chanbara genres really jumped out at me in this episode.  Paladin, Mordain, and the three possible assassins are all bound by rigid (if idiosyncratic) codes of honor without which, we would have no plot. Paladin voluntarily checks into a hotel full of hostile parties, not least among them the proprietor, and hangs out awaiting an inevitable attempt on his life with all the grim dispassion of Mifune's Sanjuro munching on rice balls in a town full of cutthroats. 

Trey: All of the additional cast here are classic TV stalwarts. No particularly other roles jump out at me, but I know I've seen them all before.

Jason: Hollywood legend Ida Lupino directed this episode, and it feels richly cinematic despite the economies of tv production. It looks damn good (and I was grateful for the image quality of the scan we watched) and Lupino's visual storytelling choices shine.  When violence breaks out, while kept relatively bloodless for television, it hits hard. The fistfight sequence was pretty epic! 

Trey: Indeed! Despite my prejudices against Boone, I liked him in this, and I enjoyed the episode overall. In fact, I wish there was more of it! It's really too short to build much tension, and tension is what it's plot needs.

Jason: We agree on Boone and the episode, though in regard to your previous criticism, I may have felt the tension more keenly. Or maybe after reviewing shows like M Squad and Peter GunnI've become some kind of 30-minute drama format knee-jerk partisan! 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Movin' On (1974)

Movin' On
Debut: May 8, 1974
Created by: Philip D'Antoni and Barry J. Weitz
Starring: Claude Akins, Frank Converse
Synopsis: A crusty, veteran trucker teams up with a younger, college-educated co-driver to haul cargo across the country and get into adventures.

Trey: This concept debuted as a made for TV movie In Tandem that aired on NBC in 1974. It was in the style of shows like Route 66 that featured the main characters traveling around and getting involved in the drama of the lives of people they met, and road the growing wave of trucker interest and mystique. Despite a theme long by Merle Haggard and reportedly being President Ford's favorite TV series, Movin' On last only two seasons.

We watched the first episode of the regular series, "The Time of His Life," in which Will and Sonny stop to help a young truck driver (played by Michael Pollard) after he almost runs them off of the road. When they find that he is terminally ill, they determine to show him a good time before he dies on a trip to Portland.

While this could easily have been a setup for an action show, based on this episode, this show seems to be more drama. In this case, lightly humorous drama.

Jason: There was a bit of rough and tumble trucker fisticuffs here and there, but it was not the focus, rather a natural consequence of the mores on display here. The 1970's trucker mystique phenomena puzzled me as a child, but its appeal makes sense in retrospect. America needed an iconic stand-in for the increasingly problematic cowboy and the rambling trucker fit the bill, with a touch of the outlaw thrown in especially due to the cop-thwarting capabilities of citizen's band radio. Speaking of outlaws, Merle Haggard's theme song only helps here, with explicatory lyrics and some tasty finger-picking guitar. 

Trey: Akins and Converse are a good pair in the lead roles, but Pollard's Joe Shannon is the character this episode spends the most time on. Due to his baby face, Pollard played a lot of "kid" rolls in the 60s, including in the Star Trek episode "Miri." He's also good in Bonnie & Clyde.

Jason: Pollard is a talented actor especially suited to misanthropic/outsider roles.  His career reminds me a bit of Jackie Earle Haley (previously noted in our survey of the Planet of the Apes tv show here), often projecting a more than a bit creepy vibe in his portrayals. 

Trey: One thing I found interesting here was the story leaving Shannon's presumed death completely off stage. The way these stories typically go is to make the light-hearted moments bittersweet, by showing their end. Not only does Shannon not die before the credits roll, he isn't even notably sick by the time the episode ends. It's an unusual choice for this sort of plot.

Jason: I too was surprised when the episode came down to its final minutes at the lack of a hospital room sequence (and I may never know if Claude would have conjured up a single, manly tear for the occasion). My biggest surprise was the overall watchability of the gentle, slice of life drama.

Trey: Yeah, it feels very 70s in that way. The stridency of the 60s was past, so no one is getting hassled by the man, and the brashness of the 80s has yet to arrive, so there are no goons working for trucking syndicates to contend with. It's people just living life and getting by.

Jason: Moving on, if you will!

Past as a Foreign Country Dept., exhibit A: While demonstrating dating techniques to Pollard, middle-aged Akins approaches a young woman at the arcade shooting range and wraps her in an unsolicited embrace to ostensibly provide shooting tips. This actually goes quite well. 

Trey: Don't try this at home, guys! For those of you wishing to learn more about this series, here's an interview with one of the creators about it.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Inhumanoids (1986)


Debut: June 29, 1986
Starring: Michael Bell, William Callaway, Ed Gilbert, Chris Latta, Neil Ross,
Richard Sanders Susan Silo
Synopsis: Earth Corps, a team of scientists/explorers and their nonhuman allies are the surface's only defense against ancient, evil monsters from beneath the Earth.

Trey: Inhumanoids was a Hasbro toy concept developed initially by Marvel's Tom DeFalco, then further refined by Flint Dille. As was common in the 80s, there was an associated animated series to sell the toys by Sunbow. The cartoon began as a series of seven-minute segments on the Super Sunday anthology series, running to 15 installments that were later combined into a movie, which was then in turn split back into five half-hours and coupled with eight brand-new shows to form a complete season of thirteen half-hour episodes. 

The toys sold well, but not as well as Hasbro wanted using the success of G.I. Joe and Transformers as a metric, so it was cancelled. This had the effect of giving the writers of the cartoon a relatively freehand to go in a more horrific direction and more serial rather than episodic in its storytelling. According to Wikipedia: "Visually, the show was distinctive for its application of heavy shadow, use of split screens, and sometimes brow-raising for its graphic content, such as monstrous amputations or writhing deaths by toxic waste, which would be hard-pressed to sneak their way into contemporary 'children's hour' programming."

We watched the first two half-hour episodes.

Jason: I was a teenager when Inhumanoids hit the then-smaller screen, but I still cared about animation (and SF&F subject matter) enough to peek at new things here and there, if only to end up sneering. I peeked at Inhumanoids and sneered contemptuously.  

The monster designs appalled me, and their voice-acted shrieks repelled me before I could even begin to perceive the distinctive qualities that set it apart from other adventure-oriented animated series of its day. Which isn't to say what I witnessed in watching the first two episodes was necessarily good! 

The animation itself was limited, as TV animation almost always was, but the speed of the editing mitigated this a bit. The images were well executed, matters of taste and design aside. I will however never get over the ludicrous design of D'Compose, and his name isn't helping a tiny bit either. Those Barn Doors of Forlorn Encystment on D's chest and his Godzilla skull with glowing fangs and teeth are all toyetic as anything, but the whole exquisite corpse-style of design was in this case the magic bullet that assassinated my suspension of disbelief. 

Trey: I will grant the silliness of D'Compose as name. As to the design, I'm going to disagree--a bit. The simplicities of the animation does it no favors, for sure, and I can't deny its fundamental tokusatsu "monster of the episode" character, but I think there is a mythological undercurrent to D that the other two (being pure pulp monster riffs) lack. In his skull I see echoes of Mari Lwyd and in his snapping rib cage, Tezcatlipoca.

I think it's fair to say a mythological monster in such a pulp/kaiju world is a dissonant choice, certainly.

Jason: Point taken! As you mentioned, Inhumanoids had no qualms about (making an attempt at) scaring little kids to death! In general, tv cartoons of the era, when they tried to be scary, swiftly reassured audiences that there are no such things as monsters and order is always restored by the end of the episode. Not so in the world of Inhumanoids, a series designed to sell a line of toys to small children.

The storytelling in this show was unusual in its speedy pace, due at least in part to the original short format used for the Super Sunday compilations. As a result, the cuts were quick from shot to shot and scene to scene, somewhat jarringly so I thought. This condensed format had the effect of creating a firehose of narrative that advanced the plot visually and kept the dialogue minimal, to the point of confusion at times. If the story was to be understood by kids, their full attention would be required, which is actually a plus in my book. 

Trey: Yeah, there's very much a movie serial style rush from one peril to the next.

Jason: By the end of episode two, though, an impressive amount of world building has unfolded. It's unlikely but not impossible that if I sat still long enough to take this material in as a teenager, I might have found myself at least somewhat intrigued. Alas!

Trey: If there was ever a property that could benefit from an adult, film or TV series reboot, I think this one could bear the conceptual load.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: The Champions (1968)

The Champions
Debut: September 25, 1968
Created by Dennis Spooner and Monty Berman
Starring: Stuart Damon, Alexandra Bastedo, William Gaunt, Anthony Nicholls
Synopsis: Three agents for the UN law enforcement division Nemesis get superhuman abilities after being rescued from a plane crash by a secret civilization in the Himalayas, and then use their abilities to take on threats to world peace.

Trey: The Champions is a British series broadcast in the UK on ITV during 1968–1969 and in the U.S. on NBC, starting in the summer of 1968. Dennis Spooner created the series, working with producer Monty Berman. The two would also be responsible for the later series Department S and Jason King. They would use writers on this series that had previously worked on The Avengers and Danger Man.

We watched the first episode, "The Beginning," on YouTube. It introduces the three Nemesis agents, Sharron MacReady, Craig Stirling and Richard Barrett, who crash in the Himalayas after an escape from a bioweapon facility in China. They awaken to find their injuries mysteriously healed. Soon, they learn they have had new abilities bestowed on them by their rescuers, the people from a hidden, ancient civilization. The evade capture by the Chinese military and return to Europe having completed their mission.

First thing, I was struck by a few parallels with the Challengers of the Unknown who debuted in 1957. A plane crash is the pivotal event that changes the course of their lives, and the Challengers' refrain that they are "living on borrowed time" is voiced by one of the Champions just after the crash. Then there's then names they are just similar but seem to fit together: the challenger takes on the champion, after all.

Jason: I noticed those similarities and perhaps a wee bit of the original Doom Patrol, if only in the manicured beard of their agency commander. Speaking of the names, I thought the three starring actors had better names for the genre than the characters!

For a spy-fi show with a touch of plain-clothes superheroes thrown in, I found it quite effective, despite budgetary limitations. 

The plane crash sequence was suspenseful despite the use of miniatures and a foregone conclusion. The fight scenes worked well despite the small soundstage and put me in mind of a less expensive Star Trek. 

Trey: I enjoyed the show quite a bit, too. It had the standard sort of groovy Brit style of the era and an intriguing concept. I'd be interested to see what more episodes are like. 

Jason: I especially like its successful threading the needle of earnest adventure story with its tongue positioned in precisely the right part of the cheek. 

Trey: My only quibbles might be there didn't seem to be enough of it! I think it would have been better served by a two-hour pilot, and maybe a central villain of the episode.

Jason: The production staff may have shared your concerns and sought to correct in future episodes. Perusing an online episode guide alerted me to the fact that episode 2's special guest antagonist was none other than Peter Wyngarde!

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Columbo (1971)

Debut: September 15, 1971
Created by: Richard Levinson and William Link
Starring: Peter Falk
Synopsis: Rumpled and unassuming Los Angeles homicide detective, Lieutenant Columbo, doggedly reveals even the most well-concealed of crimes.

Trey: Columbo had two movie "pilot episodes" in 1968 and 1971, then series aired on NBC from 1971 to 1978 as one of the rotating programs of The NBC Mystery Movie. It was brought back in the 80s on ABC on a sporadic basis from 1989 to 2003. That's when I became acquainted with it.

Columbo was partially inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment character Porfiry Petrovich as well as (according to Wikipedia) G. K. Chesterton's cleric-detective Father Brown.

The first episode of the 1971 series follows the (at the time) innovative formula of showing the audience the crime from the beginning, thus removing the mystery ask, except in regard to just how Columbo will eventually catch them. It was written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg. In the episode, a member of a mystery writing duo resorts to murder to break from his less talented partner.

Jason: I remember the presence of Columbo in the pop culture of my childhood but don't recall ever having seen the show in its day, possibly due to the draconian bedtime I strove against in my single-digit years. For decades, references to the series and impersonations of Falk were ubiquitous. I've previously mentioned my general lack of interest in the crime drama genre which, like many things, was once strident but has softened over time. I enjoyed this chance to better acquaint myself with the series and character that became, for all intents and purposes, iconic.  

The young Spielberg wastes no time distinguishing himself with a cinematic approach and clever visual storytelling even as the credits roll. While perhaps trying a bit too hard at times, the episode amounts to a very effective portfolio piece. Somebody give this kid a feature!

Trey: Yeah, I think he's got something and is going to go places. Wonder whatever happened to him? I'd also call out writer Steven Bochco as the creator of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue among other credits. 

Jason: The titular character doesn't show up until nearly the 20 minute mark, as goes the show's formula, and he doesn't disappoint. As everyone already knows, Falk is uniquely charming in the role. 
His opponent, as expertly portrayed by Jack Cassidy, couldn't be more arrogant, slimy and unlikeable, despite his sophistication and impeccable manners. The rest of the cast give naturalistic performances, leaving it to the leads to provide the understated climactic fireworks.

Trey: In latter series, they did a lot of celebrity casting of the "murderers of the episode" and that and the focus on their viewpoint sometimes gives you (or at least gave me) a bit of sympathy for them: "Alright, alright, Columbo. They're guilty! Quit playing with them and arrest them, already!" Not here, though.

Jason: As an unsophisticated newcomer to the genre, I give this show high marks. I'm tempted to watch more. 

Unlike many of the shows featured here in the Flashback Universe, this one is anything but obscure and much ink has been spilled on its behalf. I found this article to be an effective expression of the warm regard Columbo still enjoys. Exhibit A: BBC Why the World Still Loves the 1970s Detective Show Columbo. Oh, and here's a Columbo statue in Budapest, Hungary. My only regret is that his dog doesn't appear in this episode!

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Captain Midnight (1954)

Captain Midnight
Debut: September 9, 1954
Starring:  Richard Webb, Sid Melton, Olan Soule
Synopsis: Captain Midnight of the Secret Squadron flies around the globe in his jet the Silver Dart, fighting various criminals and spies with his sidekick Ichabod Mudd and aided by a scientist, Dr. Aristotle Jones.

TreyCaptain Midnight (later renamed Jet Jackson, Flying Commando on TV) is a franchise that debuted as a radio serial in 1938. The character's popularity throughout the 1940s and into the mid-1950s saw him appear in movie serials (1942), a syndicated newspaper strip (1942), a comic book (1942–1948) and of course a television series (1954-1856).

The series aired on CBS and was sponsored by Ovaltine and Kix/General Mills.

Jason: 'll just go ahead and admit this was a pretty fun watch for me, the heavy handed in-world pitches for chocolaty, vitamin-laden Ovaltine only adding to the goofy charm. 

However, it swiftly becomes clear why legislation was enacted in the 1960s to regulate children's television, especially as regards advertising content. But thank your lucky stars that hero of supply side economics, former president Ronald Reagan, rolled back these restrictions, or else we may never have gotten to know He-Man, GI Joe, and Optimus Prime quite as intimately.  

Trey: The Gipper made Tv safe for product placement again! This really is a whole number level of undisguised shilling, though. It reminds me of The Shadow radio show and its Blue Coal pitches, except with more kid appeal.

I should mention before we get too far along that we watched Season 2, Episode 3, "The Frozen Men." Noted scientist Dr. Hartley is kidnapped by foreign agents. Captain Midnight, Ikky, and Tut figure out he has been working with extreme cold to make a super-durable metal. There's an atomic bomb dropped in this episode, though not directly on our heroes.

Jason: Spoilers! Anyway, Richard Webb, whose portrayal of a Starfleet officer deranged by the rigors of their duty is forever burned into my memory banks...

Trey: That would be Ben Finney in the Star Trek episode "Court Martial."

Jason: Yes. Here he does an admirably straightforward job of embodying the Cold War American Hero. His jaw is square enough and he delivers lines with the precise diction every Cold War school child should strive to perfect.   

His sidekick Ikky, who in this episode at least is in near-constant need of a hot shower, provides the kind of comic relief that might have generated some laughs for children of the 1950s. For us moderns, the humor is barely detectable. I did laugh out loud when, certain his Captain was incinerated in a nuclear blast, Ikky frowns slightly and delivers a somber, momentary salute before immediately moving on with his life. 

Trey, the science in this science fiction is worth mentioning I think. You've forgotten more about science than I'll ever know. Can you give us a breakdown on the speculative elements in this episode? I hold no degrees in the sciences, but I'm pretty sure some liberties may have been taken.

Trey: Well, I think the whole idea of super-metal Protonium that is created from nothing by intense is utterly fanciful. Then there's the medication profrigidium that is evidently super-endotherm in its reactions. None of this is science but rather "Science!" as found in pulp media. Of course, that's not even mentioning the 50ss naiveté about the horrors of nuclear bombs.

Jason: I'll regretfully cancel my profrigidium order at the pharmacy.

Trey: You wouldn't like the co-pay, anyway.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Jason King (1971)

Jason King
Debut: September 15, 1971
Created by:  Dennis Spooner, Monty Berman
Starring:  Peter Wyngarde
Synopsis: Playboy novelist, Jason King, after working as a consultant with an intelligence agency as a sideline, keeps finding himself thrust into the role of international, amateur sleuth.

Trey: The character of Jason King was created for the British spy-fi series Department S (1969). Spooner and Berman originally conceived the character as a sort of middle-aged, tweed coat and pipe smoking academic sort, but when Peter Wyngarde came on board, he had other ideas. According to Wikipedia, Wyngarde "applied much of his own personality, style and wit to the role." With the Swinging London style, and cool wit, the character was apparently compelling enough to spinoff. It ran for one, 26 episode season.

We watched the first episode, "Wanna Buy A Television Series?" on YouTube. I have to say it's perhaps the cleverest structured show we've watched so far--and unusual in the sense that the character Wyngarde plays in the most scenes in the episode isn't Jason King but rather King's blatant author-insertion protagonist, Mark Caine. Caine is solving a mystery set among the glamorous Mediterranean, as a group of criminals give a woman plastic surgery to look like a dead woman to attempt to scan yet another criminal. All these (fictional) doings are intercut with scenes of King trying to sell this script and series to an American TV exec. 

I thought the metafictional touches were quite clever, though I agree with the TV exec that the basic plot of the script King is pitching is pretty convoluted.

Jason: An opinion I share. Which would elicit exasperated rebukes from Jason King, who has only limited patience for unsophisticated Colonials unable to keep up. 

I also enjoyed the show's premise and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of its execution. The interplay between the frame story and the meta story was quite clever and frequently amusing. It felt good to be genuinely entertained by a piece of entertainment, no ironic detachment required.

Trey: Wyngarde's cool is definitely of its place and time. Without the clear context clues to know how his world takes him, I think he might be a bit baffling to the modern viewer.

Jason: Modern Bafflement Exhibit A: King's astonishing hair do and mustache situation!

Trey: The past is a different country. One with tonsorial excesses. 

Jason: But I was won over pretty quickly! As the story(ies) unfold, the cumulative effect of Wyngarde's multiple subtle and not-so-subtle characterizations reveal an entertainingly complex King, who is no mere Bond parody despite the intrinsic humor. 

According to Wikipedia this ITC production was shot on 16mm film (rather than the more expensive 35mm as a cost-saving measure) which makes it look infinitely better than Star Cops (produced 15 years later!) Jason King actually had a budget and it shows. 

Trey: Anyway, It's worth pointing out the influence this actor, character, and series had on comic books. The X-Men villain Mastermind is named "Jason Wyngarde" after the actor and this character and draws some from a villain he played in The Avengers episode "A Touch of Brimstone" which is where Claremont got his Hellfire Club. In Morrison's The Invisibles, Mr. Six has some of Wyngarde's style and appearance (including his moustache) and at one point works for an organization called Department X.

Jason: I am illuminated!

Trey: But wait! There's more! Outside of comics, the flamboyantly dressed protagonist of Kim Newman's The Man from the Diogenes Club, Richard Jeperson, is partially inspired by Jason King.

Jason: I have to admit the actor was never really on my radar until watching this show but he will always have a place in my heart for his portrayal of the diabolical Klytus in Flash Gordon. His performance in Jason King only enhanced my admiration.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Star Cops (1987)

Star Cops
Debut: July 6, 1987
Created by: Chris Boucher
Starring:  David Calder, Erick Ray Evans, Trevor Cooper, Linda Newton, Jonathan Adams, Sayo Inaba
Synopsis: In 2027, British career cop Nathan Springer leads the International Space Police Force, nicknamed the "Star Cops," as they try to keep the "High Frontier" safe.

Trey: Star Cops was the creation of Chris Boucher, the writer of several episodes of Doctor Who and script editor for the entire run of Blakes 7.  It ran for only 9 episodes on BBC2, having never found an audience. Wikipedia opines it has since undergone a reappraisal and is praised for its fairly realistic approach to near future science fiction. We watched the first episode on YouTube.

Jason: It is fondly remembered by its fan base (it might be fair to say "cult following") as one of the rare TV shows to embrace hard science fiction, sacrificing the fantastic for scientific plausibility in its presentation of the near future. Very near, in fact, as the show is set in 2027. Other than failing to predict the dissolution of the USSR, how'd they do, Trey?

Trey: It's tough to say, in that, I feel it's not so much unrealistic as unconvincing. The technical details we are given that, in the abstract, seem accurate, but how it's realized in terms of set dressing and the like might as well be the fantasy of Dr. Who. Springs digital (AI?) assistant did seem well done though.

Jason: It certainly also embraces the mundane, sacrificing action and dynamic pacing for character exploration and the nuances of life in the near future. That said, by the end of the episode, we know a lot about Nathan Spring, the setting and the rest of the cast is introduced, he effectively solves two murder mysteries (one each on Earth and in orbit) while the climactic action sequence occurs entirely off camera.  

Trey: I think that's true. The script seems definitely interested in his character. I don't think it gives Calder enough support in turns of scenes or dialogue to really make a lot from that. His given the chance at some acerbic comments that seem very British.

Jason: Well, Boucher's script is notable, among other things, for its refusal to hold the viewer's hand. While the characters must spew exposition, it is often handled entertainingly, I thought. The Robert Altman-esque overlapping dialogue I found hard to parse, occasionally, but I appreciated the intent, which I take as an element of the relentless grounding in realism attempted here. 

Trey: Sometimes it seems the realism of a community theater production...

Jason: Like most BBC efforts of the era, the effects budget is minimal, and it shows. The unfortunate need to depict freefall so often hurts it. I did enjoy Spring's frequent episodes of space nausea, a realist touch used to humorous effect.

The miniatures and designs of space stations and shuttles are well done and ring true enough, especially for 1987, but it's all shot on videotape which just looks terrible, especially on big ol' 21st century TVs. It's a barrier to entry! 

Trey: Agreed on both counts. It desperately needed some cinematic lightning like Miami Vice. Speaking of which, did you notice the oversized suits on a couple of the Brit cops?

Jason: I did, and I'm tempted to contrast Star Cops with its relative contemporary (previously reviewed here) in other ways. With alarming frequency, SC zigs where the MV zags! Spring and Theroux are the Bizzaro World Crockett and Tubbs! MV is above all a visual spectacle and mood, while SC has sharp dialogue delivered by actors dangling from crotch-harnesses!

Trey: That says it all really.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Chico and the Man (1974)

Chico and the Man
Debut: September 13, 1974
Created by: James Komack
Starring: Jack Alberston and Freddie Prinze
Synopsis: A cranky, old, white owner of a rundown garage gets a new partner and friend in the form of a twentysomething Chicano.

Trey: Chico and the Man ran on NBC for 4 seasons from 1974 to 1978. It survived the tragic death of one of its leads, Freddie Prinze by suicide in 1977. It was the creation of James Komack who also was responsible for The Courtship of Eddie's Father and Welcome Back, Kotter. It's been suggested that the idea was taken from a couple of Cheech and Chong sketches, something that Komack (at least according to wikipedia) doesn't seem to have entirely denied.

We watched episode 8 from the 2nd season, ""Mister Butterfly" on Tubi. In this one, George Takei guest stars as a Japanese businessman who arrives at the garage believing Ed ("the Man") to be his long-lost father.

Two things to me are notable about this episode (and really series because I also watched the first episode). Both are things I knew so they aren't surprised, but they bear repeating. One is that these older sitcoms are pretty unfunny by modern standards. They have moments of humor, sure, but at best they are relatively less "joke dense" than modern sitcoms and at worst they rely on the lamest sight gags or just general amusement at certain sorts of stock or stereotypical situations. This last I think is mostly a trait of the form. It's present to greater of lesser degrees in "trad" sitcoms up to this day--there just get to be fewer trad sitcoms post the 90s.

Jason: By chance, I also watched (most of) the first episode, after experiencing mild bewilderment with the second season episode we selected. Doing so provided a bit more clarity on the series' intent and the flavor of comedy we should expect. Without getting into it too deeply, I agree that it just wasn't that funny (anymore) and that this social and topical kind of humor is very much rooted to the era it attempts to reflect. Funny faces remain funny over the years, as physical comedy is pretty much eternal, but as cutting edge as C and the M was in its day, the jokes (a nebulous term with many meanings and subcategories) just haven't aged well. 

Trey: Going with "rooted in the era," there's the degree of casual racism and racial stereotypes. The 70s was, of course, getting more honest about these issues after the whitewashing of America common to earlier sitcoms, so it's a trait of things like The Jeffersons, All in the Family, etc. So, Ed's and (in the first episode) these two cops' prejudice and racial slurs in the first episodes are typical of the recognizing the problems and building understanding sorts of elements of these shows. 

Jason: The show was emblematic of what seems to have been an earnest attempt at addressing this whitewashing and lack of representation for the diverse groups that made up the American viewing audience but is clearly a baby step in this direction and likely wouldn't have had the success it did with a more radical approach. The lovely opening montage, depicting early 70's life in an East LA barrio, accompanied by Jose Feliciano's theme song, set my expectations too high. 

Trey: Undercutting its good intentions, perhaps, is Chico's casual stereotyping of Asians in S2 ep 8. Or the broad stereotypically Japanese portrayal Takei and Beulah Quo (as his mother Mariko) are required to give. 

Jason: This stuff set me reeling, as my expectations were thwarted. I expected that stuff from The Man, of course, but not Chico! I wondered if depicting the cultural bias of the ostensible hero of the series wasn't some coded way of excusing the likes of The Man. We're all bigots in some way, after all.

The long shadow of WW2 hangs over the episode, so I was relieved that the stereotyping was of a slightly less-malignant variety than it could have been, which may have been intentional. 

Trey: On the positive side, I think Prinze's charisma is apparent even in just the slim space of an episode. I don't know that it sells me on his standup, but I could see him having had a long career. Albertson is likewise good in his role, such as it is.

Jason: He is charming throughout and his star power shines through the rough material. It may be my imagination, but I thought he might have been struggling with barely concealed discomfort throughout his performance. Whether that be due to his well-known personal problems or a displeasure with the material is unknown to me of course.  

Albertson's embodiment of the Man was pretty much perfect.  


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