by The Masked Bookwyrm

Spider-Man reviews page 1

"While attending a demonstration in radiology, student Peter Parker was bitten by a (radioactive) spider...Peter soon found he effect, become a human spider."

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Spider-Man published by Marvel Comics

Daredevil / Spider-Man: Unusual Suspects
is reviewed in the Daredevil section

Fantastic Four / Spider-Man Classic
is reviewed in the Fantastic Four section

2nd edition cover by Ditko Essential Spider-Man, vol. 1 1998 (SC TPB) 528 pgs.

Written by Stan Lee. Illustrated by Steve Ditko.
Letters: Art Simek, Joe Rosen, others.

Reprinting: Amazing Fantasy #15 (the Spider-Man tale), Amazing Spider-Man #1-20, and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 (1962-1965)

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Marvel's "essential" volumes are massive 500 plus page, black and white compendiums collecting consecutive runs of comics. I've picked up a few Essential volumes, and generally enjoyed them for what they are -- a cheap way of grabbing a big gob of comics. Yet of all the Essential collections, Spider-Man is the one where I've been most tempted to try and collect them all -- feeling that Spidey (partly thanks to Stan Lee having scripted uninterrupted the first hundred and some issues) most played like an epic, evolving saga.

Yet I didn't start with volume 1. Why? Well, because even though I had a great passion for the old Lee-scripted Spider-Man comics (a few of which I read as a kid in reprints like Marvel Tales), it was from the later period, when he was paired with more realist artists like John Romita Sr. I wasn't sure if I would really take to the earliest issues, when the writing was more corny, and I wasn't a big fan of Ditko's art.

Still, I eventually decided to throw myself into it.

And what can I say...but wow?

Years ago I saw a documentary explaining how ground breaking was the Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, how it sent shock waves through the industry, redefining what "rock and roll" was and raising the creative bar (supposedly the Beach Boys scraped the entire album they were working on and started again, feeling they had to re-set their ambitions).

Reading these early Spider-Man comics is a similar experience. When you consider it in the context of the times, and what comics had been -- you realize Lee and Ditko were literally reinventing the genre, and the medium, from the ground up. People usually credit the Fantastic Four with that kind of impact, but I would argue if the FF raised the bar -- Spidey blew it off the poles. And decades later, with scores of "edgy" writers in comics, and the whole medium bragging about its sophistication...they're still trailing behind what Lee and Ditko did here.

Sure, the first couple of stories don't knock your socks off, but you can still see how they're playing with more complex themes, even if the telling of the tales is simple and childish. People have repeated the Spidey catch phrase "with great power comes great responsibility" so often I think they've lost sight of what was really going on (I'd argue J. Michael Straczynski and many other writers certainly have) -- but suddenly we have an origin that isn't black and white, but one tinged with grey and grown up themes of guilt, responsibility and redemption.

You can also recognize a subtle change in ambition in that most super hero comics then usually featured two or three short stories...but by the third issue, Spider-Man is using the full twenty two pages per issue to tell a single story.

But the way these early Spider-Man comics perhaps most altered the narrative convention is that you don't really feel Lee was writing about Spider-Man...he was writing about Peter Parker, who happened to be Spider-Man. And Peter Parker is a real guy, with virtues, obviously, but also flaws. Unlike Tobey Maguire's Spidey in the movies, Peter in the comics could be bitter, caustic, self-pitying, and full of doubts and insecurities -- and funny (more on that in a moment).

And the other way you can see a whole shift in focus (and the reason I'm prattling on is because I'm not sure if I've seen anyone point this out -- though they may've) is by the fact that Spider-Man had a supporting cast!

Sure, many comics had supporting characters. But generally such casts were utilitarian: an authority figure (police commissioner, newspaper editor) who could provide the hero's impetus into the adventure; a sidekick who could share in the action scenes and provide a sounding board; a love interest to be rescued, or provide last panel comic relief as she thinks how the hero's alter ego is nothing like the super hero. They served functions. But Spider-Man introduced a supporting cast that often had little if anything to do -- directly -- with the hero's adventures. Heck Betty Brant is introduced in issue #4...and doesn't play her first "damsel in distress" scene until issue #11!

And it's in this way that Spider-Man seemed to break away from the norm. Even the Fantastic Four still tended to focus on the characters as super heroes. And funnily, it's this element of kitchen sink drama that tends to be missing from even modern, supposedly "more realistic" super hero sagas -- including modern Spider-Man comics! (Even Marvel's allegory-tinged Civil War crossover is about super heroes dealing with a super hero dilemma.)

But beyond all this is the simple fact that...this volume is a lot of fun. Telling generally single issue adventures (which, by virtue of Ditko's use of multiple panels and Lee's heavy verbiage, usually work more into a single issue than most modern comics would into two or three), these stories are usually fast paced and entertaining, deftly mixing pathos and angst, and charming silliness and laugh-out-loud wisecracks -- some of the snappy badinage evokes the feeling of watching a Howard Hawk's comedy. Peter Parker juggles the ups and downs of his love life, his alternately endearing and smothering Aunt May, and other things, while battling a colourful array of super foes, almost all of who are still regularly trotted out by Spidey writers to this day. Heck, when you read Spidey's first encounter with the're reading the template for every Lizard story published since then! While Spidey's first encounter with the Sandman has a level of suspense missing from most subsequent encounters.

As well, there are memorable tales featuring stand alone menaces, like one involving Spidey battling a rogue robot that does succeed in generating some suspense and tension.

The art by Ditko is also quite effective. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I wasn't necessarily that fond of Ditko's style, preferring the more straight ahead art of, say, John Romita, Sr. But though Ditko's art starts out a bit crude, very quickly it evolves into something stylish and effective, where his use of shadows can add some true artfulness to some of the scenes, and his slightly caricaturish style suits the tone of the series, which is constantly stradling comedy and drama, action and character. In fact, I think his art here is actually better, in some ways, than what it would evolve into. Like a lot of artists, Ditko's later style maybe became a little too formulaic, too sure of itself, lacking that extra edge he has here.

Of course, the stories here are frequently goofy and childish, full of uncomplicatedly villainous villains and suspect plot turns. But you know what? So are most comics to this day. And Lee makes it all work for an adult audience because of the the ever-present tongue-in-cheek...married with seeming heartfelt sincerity. The problem with a lot of comics that go for the humour and wisecracks, is they have trouble then grounding the serious moments. Not so Lee, who even when he's layering on the slapstick, never seems to lose sight of the fact that he's, ultimately, writing about a real guy.

And even as the adventures are generally self-contained, there's a nicely evolving sense of Peter's world as supporting characters are introduced, and relationships begin to be established. Mary Jane herself is introduced as a character -- at least, she is referred to, in a running gag in these early issues as Aunt May tries to set Peter up on a blind date with her best friend's niece.

Despite my own initial scepticism, Essential Spider-Man vol. 1 is, just read for its own sake, a genuinely fun, entertaining, involving collection. And viewed as a product of its time, is a little like Citizen Kane was to movies or, as noted, Sgt. Pepper was to rock.

Bring on volume 2, baby!

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.99 USA.

2nd edition cover by Romita Essential Spider-Man, vol. 2 2005 (SC TPB)

Written by Stan Lee (and Steve Ditko). Pencils by Steve Ditko, John Romita. Inks by Steve Ditko, John Romita, Mike Esposito.
Black & White. Letters: Sam Rosen, Art Simek.

Reprinting: The Amazing Spider-Man #21-43, Annual #2, 3

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

I mentioned in my review of Essential Spider-Man, vol. 1, that of all the Essential volumes (and DC's similar Showcase presents TPBs), Spider-Man was the one where I was most interested in collecting them all, because Spider-Man, particularly in its 1960s era, was a comic book that was most like an evolving, on going drama -- even as there is no overall story "arc" that is being developed or teased toward fruition. Rather, it is just the saga of a guy's life -- a guy with super powers.

The first volume blew me away more than I expected it to, and this second volume also offers some interesting surprises, both in the development of Spidey's life, and in the creative and artistic ambitions of its creators, and the comics medium. From a "Spidey mythos" point of view, this period of comics sees the introduction of Gwen Stacey, Harry Osborne, and the first appearance of Mary Jane (after having been referred to but never seen for a number of issues -- and right off the bat, we are told she has ambitions to be an actress!); and in addition to reappearances by now-established foes like Doc Octopus and the Green Goblin, we see the introduction of the Molten Man, the Rhino, and a few others. And there are guest appearances by Daredevil, The Avengers, the Hulk and Doctor Strange.

Lee and Ditko continue their partnership -- no fill in or "guest artists" for them -- but with an interesting shift, as Ditko starts receiving the full plotting credit, with Lee listed as the scripter/editor. Given the early "Marvel Style" (in which it is readily acknowledged the artist contributed more than just pictures to the storytelling) one wonders if this indicates a change from the earlier issues...or whether Ditko was simply demanding fuller acknowledgement of his contribution. (What's curious is how there are a lot of aspects to these Ditko-plotted issues that don't really reflect the body of Ditko's non-Spidey work, which tended to be more didactic, more about Ditko pontificating on his personal ideology, and rather more impersonal when it comes to characterization -- here, it's very much about the characters and soap opera).

Anyway, there's a pretty high level of entertainment value, whoever was responsible. What's interesting about some of these issues is how there's as much emphasis on comedy as there is action and drama -- the series at times seeming as though it's about Spidey's misadventures as it is his adventures. But I would argue, unlike a lot of modern super hero comics which also go for humour (and where the humour can take you out of the story with its too self-aware quips and references), the funny is rooted in a kind of quirky realism -- intended to make the series seem more plausible, not less.

And the emphasis on continuity is becoming more pronounced. The earlier issues (in volume 1) seemed a departure from other, then-contemporary comics, with their emphasis on a recurring supporting cast, and a linear development to the characters and their relationships. Although the plots were, generally, self-contained, you couldn't simply jumble the order of the issues without noticing. Here that becomes even more pronounced as they (Ditko?) tease sub-plots through a few consecutive issues -- such as a humorous sequence where Spidey loses his costume and has to spend a couple of issues improvising a replacement.

As well, we see a greater introduction of multi-issue stories -- stand alone tales still dominate, but given that in the first volume there were no blatantly "to be continued" issues, and only one or two interlocked stories, it's significant.

It's also significant that the multi-parters are actually pretty good, perhaps a reflection of a time when, because they were more the exception (rather than the rule) they only did them if the story seemed to warrant it. So we have stories like the one in #26-27 in which the Green Goblin teams with a mysterious new villain, that does manage to work on the level of a mystery, where you can go back and re-read a scene or two to see how you were cleverly mis-directed. Or the classic Master Planner saga from #31-33 (with threads introduced in #30). I had read the climax to the saga before, reprinted in the Very Best of Spider-Man, and didn't quite see why it warranted its accolades...but read in its entirety, it really is a strong, twisty saga, teasing a few disparate threads that come together unexpectedly, and with some emotional power to Spidey's angst. And the two-parter wherein the Green Goblin's identity is revealed (and which seems as though meant to be the end for that character) also scores quite highly.

In a way, if there's a style to some of these issues -- reflecting, perhaps, Ditko's plotting -- it's a kind of stream of consciousness plotting, where plots aren't necessarily laid out in a rigid, formulaic pattern.

Ironically, you can see a bit of the downside to the Ditko-plots/Lee-scripts process in the aforementioned #30, where Ditko tells a tale of a cat burglar...while, in a sub-plot, introduces a gang of villains that will be relevant to the #31-33 trilogy. But Lee -- not surprisingly -- must've assumed they were part of the same story, so he has the gang referring to their boss as the cat burglar...even though the two are separate plot threads (and by the next issue, Lee rectifies his mistake and identifies their boss as the Master Planner).

Ultimately, what distinguished these Spider-Man issues from most contemporary comics (and, indeed, from most modern comics, including modern Spider-Man comics) is the sense Lee and Ditko are writing about Peter Parker...who happens to be Spider-Man. Some of his trials and tribs, dealing with his ailing aunt, or his romantic complications, have little, if anything, to do with his super-heroing.

Heck, I'd argue there was no other comic of its time -- and very few after -- which would think to carry on a cover a notice that the issue features Peter Parker's high school graduation, as if that is supposed to be an enticement to its readership to pick up the issue in question.

Ditko's art is quite strong throughout -- and I say that as not necessarily a big Ditko fan. But I think this was his peak period, his art stylized and slightly caricaturish, but also dynamic and expressive, with a thicker ink/line work lending shadow and dimension to his figures. The team up with Dr. Strange (from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2) is particularly rich, visually -- even reprinted here in black and white.

Ditko left abruptly, though the reasons have been more speculation than definite fact. It was generally claimed Ditko quit over a story wherein the Green Goblin was finally unmasked -- that Ditko had wanted it to be a unknown character, reflecting the randomness of life, whereas Lee wanted it to be a revelation that would have some resonance for the readers.

Reading these issues, it's hard to say how true that claim might be. For the Goblin's alter ego, Norman Osborne, is introduced a few issues prior to the revelation (while Ditko was still contributing) and his "outing" as the Goblin does seem a not illogical culmination to his appearances (not only do we know Osborn is villainous, bat there's a scene where he somehow escapes Spider-Man in a way that would seem to hint at some sort of super power.

It's also possible that Ditko was just running out of steam. As much as this collection delivers some classic tales, towards the end of Ditko's run, it also seems to be coasting a bit. Scenes with Peter at university, gaining the ire of his classmates for his perceived snobbishness (when he's really just distracted -- a kind of artificial plot device) -- and in which we are introduced to both Gwen Stacey and Harry Osborn as decidedly unpleasant characters -- just seem kind of repetitious and undeveloped (echoing the earlier high school scenes with Flash Thompson and Liz Allan, but without the same spark -- or humour).

So when Ditko bows out there's a definite sense the comic could maybe use a kick in the pants.

And it comes with John Romita (Senior).

Romita brings a more realist art style to the comic that perhaps ideally suits the soap opera-y, character-based well as being dynamic enough for the action scenes, too. There also seems to be a slight shift in tone -- whether a reflection of Romita's influence, or Lee simply moving away from Ditko's plotting (or just chance), who's to say? But the more overt comedy aspects seem to be downplayed a bit --the comic is still funny, but more relying on wisecracks and interplay than out=and-out humorous sequences. And there seems a sudden softening in tone regarding Peter's classmates, and we see the tentative shifting from Peter as outcast loner to Peter-and-a-circle-friends, with Harry inparticular starting to move more towards being the friend we later know he becomes. In short: they become a little more rounded personalities.

But there remains the sense of this being Peter's story as much as Spidey, with whole sequences devoted to Peter buying his first motorcycle. And the added sense of an almost kitchen sink realism comes about when Peter finally breaks up with Betty Brant -- and yet she continues to be part of the cast, as opposed to being written out as a now-extraneous plot element. And throughout this collection, there's the increasing attempt to root the series in its reality, as there are pop references, hippy-esque catchphrases...and then Flash Thompson even receives his draft notice, for the first time referencing the war in Vietnam.

Sure, the fight scenes can be a bit protracted -- for all my emphasis on the soap opera aspect, this is still, first and foremost, a super hero adventure series, and the battle scenes can run on more than they need to. At the same time, Lee, Ditko and Romita maybe make them a little richer than comparable scenes today, as Lee peppers the panels with dialogue and thought balloons that lend a human dimension to the action -- whether it be a wisecrack, or Spidey genuinely worried he can't beat his foe.

Overall, this helps remind you why Spider-Man has endured for so long. The Lee-Ditko team deliver some entertaining, clever little sagas and then, just as there may be a bit of a dip, a lag in creativity, along comes Romita to kick it on to a whole other level, with his more realist, more down-to-earth art -- and my enthusiasm is rekindled all over again.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.99 USA.

2nd edition cover by Romita Essential Spider-Man, vol. 3 2005 (SC TPB)

Written by Stan Lee. Pencils by John Romita, and Don Heck. Inked by John Romita, Mickey Dimeo (a.k.a. Mike Esposito).
Black & White. Letters: Sam Rosen, Art Simek.

Reprinting: The Amazing Spider-Man #44-65, Anuual #4 (1967-1969) - with covers

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Note: The early printings of this included issues #44-68, and no Annual -- contents that were changed in later printings.

Although I've picked up a few of Marvel's Essential collections (massive consecutive runs of a series, reprinted economically in black and white) on impulse, Spider-Man is the one where I find myself deliberately getting them as a complete "run" (as opposed to just buying a random volume as a grab bag of issues).

Spider-Man -- particularly compared to its contemporaries -- seemed most to have an evolving continuity, a sense that the whole really was chronicling the life of everyone's Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Guy (without being mired in incoherent continuity references that would leave a casual reader stumped). With its rather extensive supporting cast -- many only peripherally connected to the super herodom -- and the soap opera-y romantic entanglements, Spider-Man had a style that other comics -- even other Lee-scripted Marvel comics -- only seemed to mimic palely. (Consider: in contemporaneous Daredevil comics, the cast didn't change much beyond three regular characters in scores of issues!)

Plus, of course, there's plenty of action, supervillains, and wisecracks.

John Romita Senior had taken over as artist from Steve Ditko in the last few issues of the previous Essential Spider-Man volume, bringing with him a more realist art style that suits the "human drama" sub-plots, even as he's equally efficacious at drawing the high flying action scenes. In fact, Romita's more realistic-looking Spider-Man maybe enhances the quirky eeriness of the character in a way even Ditko's more stylized art didn't. When Romita draws Spider-Man clinging to a wall, it really does evoke the strangeness of seeing a human spider. Romita also sometimes draws Spidey hitting thugs with an open hand -- a kind of interesting visual choice, but one that is subtly effective, emphasizing how strong Spidey is that he doesn't need a fist.

There was also a subtle change in tone from the Ditko era (whether Romita's influence or just Lee changing his style, who's to say?) Although the early Spidey comics had plenty of angst...they also had lots of silliness and joke sub-plots. Although there remains humour, it now tends more to be banter that stems from the otherwise dramatic situations. One could almost see it as a maturing of the characters, as the teen hijinks give way to the more worldly concerns of the now-young adult cast.

By this point, there is a much greater emphasis on multi-part stories, with the one-off adventures definitely in the minority. Part of that can be attributed, perhaps, to Romita's use of bigger panels, meaning less can be crammed into a single comic. But the interesting thing is how the multi-part stories...usually justify their length. They don't just seem like Lee and Romita were trying to save themselves some work be stretching out a thin plot over multiple issues (the way some modern writers seem to do). Instead, they often come up with interesting plot turns that keep a multi-issue arc fresh and lively over its issues. As well, because of the emphasis on Spidey as the angst-riddled, hard luck hero, there's often an added emotional twist to these sagas that make them seem more rich and dramatic than just a serial buoyed along by cliff hangers.

So we've got Spidey battling Doctor Octopus...only to have the villain escape and take up lodgings with Peter's unsuspecting Aunt May -- which, needless to say, doesn't make Spidey a happy bug! Then the story takes yet another, even more unexpected twist, making for a saga (from #53-56) that keeps the curve balls -- and angst -- coming.

In the three-part story that runs from #50-52, the first issue is remembered these days, both as the introduction of the sinister Kingpin (he became Daredevil's arch nemesis many years later) and for its seminal story of Spidey considering giving up his super-heroing (an issue that served as some of the basis for the movie Spider-Man 2). #50 was even reprinted in the Very Best of Spider-Man TPB (although part of a three-part story, the Kingpin stuff is more a building sub-plot with the Spider-Man No More idea wrapped up in that one issue). But the whole saga works quite well. Once you get past some of the simplistic corniness (as, once again, a mobster attempts to unite all of New York's underworld...a plot Lee used a few times before in Spider-Man), the main body of the story is surprisingly effective and dramatic. Maybe it's because we know the Kingpin will go on to be a major villain, but he really does seem just that much more menacing, that much more serious than some of the mob villains Spidey had fought in previous issues (maybe Romita visualizes him well, with his dark-lined eyes). As well, there's a sub-plot involving Frederick Foswell, a one-time villain who had reformed and been a mainstay of the series for a number of issues as the Daily Bugle's crime reporter, who returns to his criminal ways and which builds to a -- darn it! -- a genuinely emotional climax.

Another story arc involves a villain brainwashing people, including George Stacy, the dad of Spidey's love, Gwen, creating all sorts of emotional complications. Told ya the multi-parters often had emotional undercurrents, beyond the action.

Later in this collection, there seems to be some ill-defined creative shuffling. Issues are still credited to Stan Lee & John Romita...but Romita's actual contribution is vague, as the art chores are turned over to Don Heck. Maybe Romita was still providing lay-outs, because there's still a Romita look to the art...just not quite as good. That may be partly because Heck made less use of shadow, making his figures flatter, more comic book-y. In an issue where there is a heavier use of ink and shadow, Heck's art looks better. Though not a dramatic change, it is significant enough that the visuals aren't as strong, and it's nice when Romita comes back by the final issue in this collection (a pretty good tale of Spidey getting caught up in a jail break).

As mentioned at the start of this review, a big appeal of this era of Spider-Man was the whole use of a supporting cast and the sense of Spider-Man living in a real world, where being Spidey was only one part of Peter Parker's life...something that few modern comics -- whether Spider-Man or whoever -- seem to capture. So there's the romantic entanglements involving Peter, Gwen, Mary Jane and Harry Osborne (with whom Peter begins sharing an apartment). In addition to the elimination of Frederick Foswell -- which might not seem significant to modern readers, but at the time he had been a recurring character for many issues -- and the introduction of George Stacy (who, likewise, was more significant at the time than now) the most significant appearance in these issues is the introduction of Joe "Robbie" Robertson. It's not an auspices debut -- he's just part of the Daily Bugle scenes all of sudden --but in the context of the times, was significant...precisely because of its nonchalance. Non-white supporting characters had appeared before in comics, but usually in roles that (however well intentioned) later generations could infer as slightly demeaning, as manservants and sidekicks. But Robbie was a clear authority figure, though it's not until toward the end of this collection that he begins to develop more of a presence, and a sense of the integrity and strength-of-character he will come to personify.

J. Jonah Jameson continues as Spidey's ever present (non-super villain) nemesis. What's funny is that Jameson's irrational hatred of Spider-Man could often seem a bit, well, silly -- too obviously just a plot device, a stock characterization. But though, from time to time people (including Lee) have attempted to explain Jameson's antipathy...strangely, I begin to think maybe it works best not being rationalized. The very unmotivated nature of Jameson's prejudice maybe makes it a perfect metaphor for bigotry. Why do bigots act the way they do? Can it really be attributed to some convenient childhood trauma? Can it really be explained with a tidy Freudian analysis? (Though, Lee is smart enough to give Jameson some integrity and dignity -- after all, he's not prejudiced about skin colour).

What I liked about Spidey's supporting cast, and the way Lee used them, was it reminded you there's more to life that just tights n' fights. By this point, Flash Thompson had entered the army (during the Vietnam War) and though Flash's war experiences would be fuel for a super hero adventure...that's many issues later. As such, you don't for a minute think Lee threw that in as grist for a later Spidey plot...he threw it in because that was reality for Peter Parker's generation. In fact the evolving of the characters becomes particularly prescient when, at one point, Harry remarks that some day Peter and Flash might be best friends -- I don't think they ever became "best" friends, but they certainly outgrew their early animosity.

This emphasis on the people means that when Norman Osborne crops up -- the erstwhile Green Goblin but with no memory of his criminal career -- and starts being plagued by vague memories (in a sub-plot that goes unresolved in this collection) the suspense is as much because you sympathize with Norman as because you fear the re-emergence of the Goblin.

Strangely, despite this emphasis on the human drama/relationships, Lee kind of fumbles a bit of the development of those threads. For a while Peter is dating Mary Jane...but secretly pining for Gwen who is dating Harry. Yet then somewhere along the line, Peter ends up with Gwen...apparently without causing much friction with either MJ or Harry!

Ultimately, just on a gut level, this run of issues isn't as strong as some of the other Essential Spider-Man collections. Maybe some of the fight scenes run on a bit; maybe the emphasis on multi-part stories means that you don't seem to get quite as much material for your money. Maybe, as I say, some of the soap opera-y threads are kind of teased along...then get kind of lost. But it's still pretty darn entertaining. Maybe, when your talking about this era of Spider-Man comics, saying this is a lesser period is more a compliment to the strength of this time overall.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.99 USA.

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