Friday, March 8, 2013

Unleashing a Torrent of Toren Smith

Like most veteran Manga fans, I was shocked to hear of Toren Smith's sudden and untimely death.  I hadn't thought about the man in a long time, but was surprised to hear he died so suddenly.  He was uncomfortably close to the age of Douglas Adams' demise - dying way too soon.  He was probably the most influential ambassador and promoter of Manga, even though he was painfully shy about being seen in public.  There's not much I can tell about the man's life, though there are accounts from close friends who give more informative accounts of the man's history than I ever could.

You talk about pioneers braving the elements, blazing a trail to a new path that no one else's ever seen before?  Toren Smith did it all - he traveled to Japan on his own dime, living on ramen on a day-to-day basis, lived in an apartment with Yakuza ties, all for his love of Manga.  One memorable horror story was where he was living with GAINAX founding members who didn't bother to clean up or wash, and their room was so smelly their house was considered a health hazard and destroyed.  And after all he went through in Japan, he went back there for repeat business.  His life story was the stuff of legend, and it's somewhat surprising it hasn't been made into a Manga autobiography yet.  (Hopefully, it'd be a better read than the lukewarm cliff notes biographies of respectable celebrities such as The Dalai Llama, Che Guevera and Gandhi)

From the start, he faced an uphill struggle trying to convince publishers on both sides of the pacific that there was a potential market for Japanese comics.  Initial resistance to stories such as Oh My Goddess! were so high that Toren Smith put his own money and reputation on the line to ensure that it would have a fighting chance.  For this fan favorite title, he deliberately skipped ahead after the first chapter to  introduce Urd, the saucier rival to Belldandy's maidenly housewife figure.  Such a feat would be considered unthinkable in today's Manga-saturated society, though there are certain recent titles that have attempted this line of skipping ahead, such as the various "best of" collections of Golgo 13 and Oishinbo, and the lackluster sales of wine Manga Drops of God led the publisher to do some advance work of the story, even if the content suffers in comparison.  (Dark Horse also attempted similar results for 3x3 Eyes during their Super Manga Blast run)

His first outreach program was translating Mangas that would appeal to the Heavy Metal crowd.  To ensure their popularity in the male-dominated comics market, they released titles that would appeal to their demographic, such as Drakuun, Outlanders, Caravan Kidd, Last Continent, Venus Wars, Rebel Sword, Version, Cyber 7, Hellhounds, Spirit of Wonder and The Two Faces of Tomorrow; none of which are available for scanlation online.  More mainstream titles such as Gunsmith Cats, Ghost in the Shell and Lone Wolf & Cub would gather a larger audience.

What politer news sites will neglect to mention is that some of his most widely-read translated material were most probably part of the Eros line, famous for titles such as Bondage Fairies, Sexcapades, Spunky Knight, Super Taboo, Silky Whip, Slut Girl... you get the idea; which, until the Peanuts license was properly secured, were Fantagraphics main source of income.  While most translators would've been content to simply translate the dialogue balloons and sound effects with various grunting noises and cries of pleasure, Toren Smith went the extra mile to ensure the erotic line produce material worth fapping over by painstakingly reworking the dialogue and redrawing the background details.  In the realm of entertainment, it's the small stuff that matter.
It's not like you read porn for the plot and sterling conversations, right?
This sample image reminds me of the scene in Waltz with Bashir where the General had his subordinate fast-forward the porno tapes past the sex scenes so he could get to the "meat" of the story.

General: Faster.  Faster!
Soldier: Impossible sir!  I cannae break the laws of physics!
GeneralAaaaaand... STOP!
TV: Prithee forsooth kind sir, doth thou desireth to rest a moment?  Thine arches doth ache.

The ironic part is that his mandate of providing high quality sample from the original artwork and not cheap photocopies along with rewrites that laboured to be read naturally was what led to his downfall.  To be accepted seriously alongside the competition of homegrown American comics, Manga paperbacks were printed on double-bounded stock paper and released once a year.  Twice if the customer was lucky.  So when Tokyopop started releasing fluff titles such as Chobits and Love Hina volumes on a bi-monthly basis on cheap paper stock while barely bothering to translate the SFX, the sudden availability of popular titles in batch form made them more desirable compared to the old model of releasing long-form Mangas one chapter at a time.  This was back in the dark DARK ages where titles such as X/1999 were shown at a rate of 20 pages a month in Anime magazines.  If you've ever read any of Clamp's works, you know that it takes more than a volume for the story to really start.

For all his contributions and efforts in promoting Manga, he was simply unable to adapt to the sudden changes around the turn of the century when Manga finally became popular enough to warrant quick releases.  Even today, there are still comics customers who prefer the old business model of receiving their fix through a rigidly enforced schedule.  To get an example of this sudden shift in the market, here's an excerpt from a Toren Tech interview:

TS: The manga market is not what it used to be. I always tell these guys up front exactly what sort of sales they can expect. Well, a year ago, I could tell them that they could expect sales of like 40,000 a month. Now I have to tell them differently because, y’know...

AH: Things are tough all over.

TS: Yep. The manga market has simply settled down to what I think is probably more of a realistic level for it.

I mean, before it was riding on a wave of hysteria more than anything else. Where it is now is at a nice stable level as far as what we can expect for manga in the American comic book market. Certainly I think more people should be buying the books as opposed to some of the rubbish that’s out on the stands. But realistically, I think we’re at a very good level right now.

We’ve gotten a letter from a guy who’s a professor of Japanese at Cornell University who said that our translation of Nausicaa was near perfect as it could’ve been made. That makes us feel real good to hear that because that’s what we’re trying to do. Yet there were several places in Nausicaa where we changed things to make it read well in English.

The purists don’t like that. They don’t want to read our writing, they say--“We want to read Miyazaki’s writing.” The ideal situation would be if everyone would go out and learn to read Japanese so they could read Japanese comics. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. Still, I get letters saying, “Why don’t you just print them the way they do in Japan and get people to read the panels in backwards order?”

AH: Now that person’s got to be kidding.

TS: We’ve probably gotten several hundred letters like that and I don’t understand how these people can think this way. I mean, you can’t sell it in America!
His model of adapting Manga to the typical comics market was noble, but flawed, since his rationale was that readers were willing to pay full price for a new chapter while forgetting that the majority of chapters were first available in large magazines alongside dozens of various comics of differing quality, much like a fat newspaper comics page.  Not to mention these issues had already been published elsewhere, so why go through the trouble of pushing them on the comics rack when you could cut through the middleman and put them on the bookshelves in the first place?  It was the equivalence of acquiring popular posthumous series The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and releasing it on a chapter-by-chapter basis, because that model worked perfectly fine for novels of yesteryear.

Toren Smith's greatest lament was that all his past contributions to founding the Manga industry as we know it today was overshadowed by his resistant to change to the new business reality of quick-'n-easy mass production.  In addition, at a time when readership and fandom was at an all-time high, he spoiled the party by predicting a bust period for hastily produced Manga available for cheap.  A prophecy that was later proven to be correct.  He was someone who rallied against the mainstream, wanting to change it for the better, and only became disfranchised once it grew popular, but not the way he wanted it to.  He was a hipster before it became cool.

I saved the majority of the interviews and FAQS on the old Dark Horse Manga page before it was revamped to the new user-unfriendly format available now.   If anybody's interested, they can download the contents here.  I should warn you that there's a large amount of material present - over 200 pages worth!  And some of the entries are of forum discussions of Studio Proteus' business decisions.  One of the most amusing things about the letter columns is the frequent announcements that Hiroaki Samura plans to end Blade of the Immortal very soon... in *1999*, and it didn't conclude until late last year.

Here's a page I wasn't able to copy properly for formatting issues, since the program I originally saved in wasn't compatible with Word.

The only thing I'm missing is an Animerica Extra (or Super Manga Blast) letter of an argument between Toren Smith and Simon Cooper.  If anybody could help me fill in the details, I'd be grateful.

Speaking of which, I hope Toren Smith got the chance to finish his work for Blade of the Immortal, which he considered "his baby", which remains one of the few licensed titles that's still released in "flipped" format that's only rivaled by Yoshihiro Tatsumi's works.  It would be gratifying to know he saw how it all ended before he shuffled off this mortal coil.  He even went so far as to proclaim BOTI to be far superior to Lone Wolf & Cub, which was "rife with junk", and if it were up to him, would cut at least half of the stories out in favor of the stronger stuff.  Fortunately, due to fanboy OCD mentality of acquiring every single issue, no matter how lousy, we got to see the entirety of the legendary classic.  I still wouldn't be averse to seeing BOTI available in its native form, even if it'd mean revamping the dialogue to fit the natural pace.

While it's not by Toren Smith, below are the article The Heartbreak of Mangaphobia showing the regular high resistance from typical comics readers, and an except from a Previews Review account on Dark Horse, with added reader commentary.  More after the cut:

The Heartbreak of Mangaphobia
by Dave Chipps

Mangaphobia is a common but little-understood condition among comics readers.  Many readers are unaware they suffer from it, but if left untreated, mangaphobia can result in stunted intellectual growth, creative tunnel vision, and eventual paralysis of the diversity impulse.  As a public service during Manga Month, Dark Horse Comics would like to offer some guidelines on how to recognize and treat mangaphobia.


Read the following questions and count the number you would answer "yes" to.

Do you pass over a comic simply because:

  1. The interiors are black and white?
  2. The characters have "big eyes"?
  3. There are "speed lines" in the artwork?
  4. There appears to be Japanese writing on the cover?

Do you feel that:

  • Manga stories move too slow? 
  • Manga stories move too fast?
  • Manga is for kids?
  • Manga isn't "real comics?"

How many did you answer "yes" to?

1-2: This may be a sign of the early stages of mangaphobia.
3-5: There is a good chance you currently suffer from mangaphobia.
6-8: You are in need of immediate treatment of mangaphobia.


An informed reader has the best chance for recovery.  Memorize the following facts:

1. Black-and-white art displays the illustrator's talents in a way color art does not.  In black-and-white the illustration is laid bare for all to see.

2. Not all manga contains "big eyes" or "speed lines." When used, these design features heighten the emotional impact of the art.  Emotional content can be initially unsettling, but it makes for a more enjoyable reading experience.  It's nothing to be afraid of.

3. Exposing yourself to creative work from Japan will broaden your personal horizons and enjoyment of comics.

4. As a whole, manga comics move neither more slowly nor quickly than any other comics.  Manga's subtle and indirect storytelling may throw a new reader off at first, but that's only a defensive response to unusual stimuli.

5. Some manga is for all ages, some is not.  Manga's range of content encompasses everything from golfing to samurai dramas to cyberpunk.

6. In Japan comics are very much a part of the everyday culture -- much moreso than in the United States, for example.  Japanese comics magazines (which can be the size of American phone books) sell millions of copies, and Japanese comics conventions are truly massive events.  Manga is a legitimate, established comics form.  Any other thinking is delusional.


Armed with this knowledge, you should now read a manga comic.  Read the manga slowly at first.  Try to suppress any defensive reactions, and make an effort to study the fluid storytelling, the vivid characterizations, the craftsmanship on every page.  Over time you will find yourself relaxing as you discover a new comics reading experience.

Ask your comics retailer for more information about mangaphobia and how to prevent it from leaving you in the creative void.

This message provided as a public service by Dark Horse Comics.

Dark Horse manga… Dark Horse manga… To say that I’ve had an interesting ‘relationship’ with Dark Horse’s manga production this past year would be something of an understatement. I think that, for the most part, everyone involved (me, Jeff Macey, Toren Smith, you the consumer), I think their hearts are in the right place. Everyone’s doing their best. But sometimes, honestly, it just doesn’t seem to be enough.

Dark Horse’s historical corporate ideology regarding manga could be summed up thusly: It’s relatively quick and cheap to produce, compared to new comics, and it sells well enough that even with lower sales per-issue we’re still turning a profit. Plus, backlist! Dark Horse’s creative ideology regarding manga (typified by Toren Smith and Studio Proteus) can be summed up thusly: Certain Japanese comics are of a high-enough quality and value that they should be priced and produced exactly the same way as North-American comics, despite the massive decompression in storytelling. 48 pages of BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL for $3.50 is just the same as 22 pages of NEW X-MEN for $2.25.

Well, no, it isn’t. It’s pretty good though.

When Tokyopop announced their “100% Authentic Manga” Line, being titles that were not ‘flipped’ to be read the Western way, with sound-effects un-translated and at a significantly lower price-point, there was much sniffling. Smith and his Studio Proteus went so far as to describe the titles they were offering (GTO, CARDCAPTOR SAKURA, etc.) as fad titles that would burn out the market on manga entirely or something like that. Essentially, that when people could have BLADE Volume 12 at 232 pages for $16.95 with great re-touch work and printed cleanly and crisply, or some fad comic at 200+ pages for under ten bucks and poorly-printed Japanese sound effects, they would clearly go for the quality book, right?

I can only assume they forgot that they were in the Comic Industry, where quality’s barely in the top-ten of reasons why comics sell.

I’ve heard Dark Horse editors wondering, both aloud and in print, as to why BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL doesn’t sell better. It’s about the world’s best fighter, and he kills people, and the art is awesome. Then they talk about how their printing of LONE WOLF & CUB, which was 300 or so pages per volume for $10 a pop, featuring the world’s best fighter killing people with a sword with awesome art, they talk about how that did amazing, with hundreds of thousands of copies of LW&C in print.

You’re reading this at home, right? I mean, YOU CAN SEE IT, CAN’T YOU?

(Sometimes I wonder what’s wrong with me.)

But then again, what are they supposed to do? Admit they were wrong? “It took us since 1996 to put out 12 volumes of BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, and Tokyopop has done eight volumes of Chobits in under 2 years and each one has sold better than BotI, wonder why that is?” Nope, not going to happen (although kudos to Viz for doing just that!). Proteus doesn’t work cheap enough to get the books priced lower (almost all of DH’s manga titles are serialized in traditional comics format to get two revenue streams for each project), and they’re a very proud company. They honestly believe their books are worth $7 or so more than everyone else’s, and you know, good on’em. If they want to keep selling expensive books to a shrinking direct market instead of swallowing their pride, going for the new price point and size and cranking the material out (like their competitors), more power to them. I’m not even being sarcastic here, it’s not a business model that I would choose but it’s also not even remotely my company. I just know that, when I compare the Dark Horse manga I buy to the Tokyopop/Viz manga I buy, the stacks are very differently sized. Again, regardless of “quality”.

Which isn’t to say that they haven’t really tried to go for the fad/tie-in/cheap price point market this year. They’ve released manga adaptations of the HELLSING and RING manga and they’ve started doing the original BESERK manga too. Unfortunately they’re on a slower-than-quarterly schedule (meaning the 25+volume BESERK will take over 7 years to complete) and the price-points are still up above $10 (yes, more pages per volume than an average Tokyopop book, but so? Split them into multiple volumes, seriously.) But I guess they’re making baby steps. I guess that’s good.

I’m crying in my beer, man: Judging by the amount of people who sent me this link, I’m guessing this interview at the Comics Journal struck a chord: “In a memo expressing his frustration to Dark Horse, Smith wrote, “[Tokyopop and other manga publishers have] made their choice – quantity over quality. Personally, I’m not interested in going that direction. If it turns out to be the future of manga, then maybe it’s time for me to move on in my life. I can’t see getting up every morning to compete in a ‘who can publish the most crap cheapest and fastest’ race. No thanks. I’d rather put that effort into a carefully chosen, high-quality guaranteed evergreen like [Ghost in the Shell 2:] Man-Machine Interface we can sell for 20 years, and leave [it] to those other companies to be the bottom-feeders, operating on razor-thin margins and having multi-way hatchet fights over the shrinking shares of an inherently limited pie.”

Two points:
1.) I guess you know a market is maturing when people start raising the quantity vs. quality card
2.) If Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface is the benchmark for quality, then he’s right – the entire market is screwed.

I’m sure there’s a manga bust (or at least a manga recession) on the horizon, but bookstores’ lack of enthusiasm about stocking Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface is, to me, less than compelling evidence.

I’ve read GITS2. It’s positively nuts. I went through the whole thing twice, and I’m still not 100% sure I understood what the hell was going on. The translators deserve a Medal of Manga Commendation for their work; page after page after page consists of nothing but impenetrable jargon, with Shirow’s footnotes (as always) helpfully scrawled into the panel gutters. In other words, it’s like the first GITS only amplified by a thousand... and it’s one big story instead of a bunch of little ones. The art veers from CGI to b&w inks and back again several times (due to Shirow adding a ton of stuff after the book finished its serialization in Japan), and the cheesecake goes as far as possible (well, as far as possible without veering off into explicit sex... that appeared in one of the Japanese editions).

I’ll give it this: it’s quite different from the standard Tokyopop fodder, and obviously a lot of thought and effort and time went into it... and certain parts (particularly the final chapter) do resonate with a certain techno-wacky transcendent groove, but far more often it’s like Shirow is deliberately trying to confuse and frustrate the reader...

Gits2 is so nineties. The fans who would have been interested have moved on. Or maybe they haven’t, but Gits2 is unreadable, even to someone familiar with Shriow’s work, and it’s competing with tons of books that are cheap and accessible for space on the manga shelf. This one is for the hardcore, hardcore fans. Make a big box presentation and sell it mail-order only, don’t bother with bookstore sales.

StudioProteus/Toren Smith thought EXAXXION would sell too, and that flopped three years ago, without anyone predicting the bottom falling out of the manga market for that reason. The manga market is changing, and Toren Smith is not interested in changing with it. That’s his decision.

Do I expect a bust? Well, I don’t expect 2003-like growth in 2005, but I don’t expect manga to vanish into complete nonexistence either. But the sort of comics that Toren Smith likes are no longer market leaders.

I think you hit the nail on the head. Smith describes Ghost in the Shell 2 as “guaranteed evergreen” that the bookstores won’t pick up because it’s too good and too well-produced. But the article makes no mention of the well-produced editions of genuinely classic manga that are doing just fine in bookstores, like NBN’s beautiful hardcover Buddha or Viz’s new large-format, sepia-toned Nausicaa. Mind you, I’d like to see more of the great older manga reprinted. I just don’t think Ghost in the Shell 2 is such a manga.

At one point in the article, Smith says, “Over the years, we felt we had built a solid base for the manga market, selling to a wide variety of readers - comics fans, non-comics fans, girls, younger readers... The current boom is being fed by a Japanese-pop-culture-fan thing.”

Sorry, but this is completely ass-backwards. The American manga publishers ignored girls and girls’ comics until Tokyopop started making money from them two years ago. Children were ignored as a market until Pokemon hit in the late ‘90s. Pre-boom, the vast majority of manga series being published - by Studio Proteus, Viz, Dark Horse, and everyone else - were boys’ science-fiction/fantasy adventures and boys’ romantic comedies. These titles did attract a fair number of female readers, because even manga aimed heavily at boys has more to appeal to girls than the average superhero comic, but only in the last couple of years, thanks to Tokyopop, have manga publishers made a real effort to appeal to audiences outside the standard fanbase of adult male sci-fi geeks. The fact that Ghost in the Shell 2, a visual celebration of hardware and cheesecake, is not considered as marketable as a girls’ slice-of-life dramedy like, say, Peach Girl, represents a dramatic shift away from the fan-driven market and toward a more diverse, mainstream readership.

Compare Smith’s statement to Bill Randall’s closing words in the same issue’s “Lost in Translation” column: “In the past, English-language translations of manga have focused on easily-sold genres like science fiction and martial arts, and more recently on ‘magical girl’ stories... I just wrote an installment about two classics from the God of Manga, who took far too long to make it to English; a mainstream hit long known to the States, but only if you’re in Hawaii; and some standard-fare comics about cooks and firefighters, genres I thought would never head our way. I never imagined I’d read about firefighters, much less a Japanese firefighter comic translated into English. These are interesting times.”

I agree that the manga market is bound to drop off, because it’s largely driven by trends among grade-school kids, which never last. But this article misses the point by a mile.

Toren Smith apparently thinks the manga market is in trouble because his edition of GitS 2 isn’t selling as well as expected.

Which to me is highly amusing since they sold it in a single-issue format, which is a format proven to fail with manga. If THAT’s what his analysis is based on, then, uh, this guy has ZERO credibility. There’s a reason 99.9 percent of all single-issue manga titles have been axed. They don’t sell.

Go ask Tokyopop how well manga has been doing for them and if they think their readers would pay a third of the cost of a graphic novel for a tenth of the content.

Toren Smith = Nutcase.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface: Oh dear. What to say about this, the long-delayed trade collection of Masamune Shirow’s sequel to his much-loved landmark for manga acceptance in the US (lord knows it’s the first Japanese comic I ever knowingly read, with an ashcan preview tucked into some issue of “Wizard” back in the day)? First, I’ll say that you should try not to get it confused with Mamoru Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell: Innocence” movie, which is totally different, or the current “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” tv show, which is also totally different. While we’re at it, don’t confuse it with the episodic slow-build structure of Shriow’s original (which by the way, just recently got an uncensored edition released in the US, despite its huge popularity for years and years); this one is largely a single, ongoing plot. You should avoid as much confusion as possible going in, since there’s pretty much no chance of not being confused by Shirow’s crazed jargon-laden metaphysical harder-than-hard sci-fi plotting, with additional (and constant) author’s notes inserted directly into the panel gutters. Surely it’s a triumph of pure world-building and technical prognostication, and maybe that’s more than enough for some readers, but Shirow does remarkably little to acclimate us with his universe; we simple get reams and reams of details and information in lieu of interesting characters or emotions or any of that. I bought this entire series back when it was released in the US as a 9-issue mini, and only upon my second reading did I even begin to fully understand exactly what was going on, but it wasn’t a fun method of discovery. So much of the book is such a slog that, beyond the desire to achieve basic comprehension, there’s little motivation to unlock the hidden details that are no doubt present. And there’s indeed no doubt that Shirow has thought his world through to the farthest extent possible, and clearly he’s hugely intelligent and understands exactly what’s going on. But at times he seems to be deliberately trying to make his work as impenetrable and reader unfriendly as possible. The translators deserve goddamned medals of valor for sifting all of this through the language barrier and keeping it at least somewhat coherent, but pretty much every page still comes off like:

CUTE ROBOT 1: “Motoko! They’ve got a Zenotech 84D22 IceWall 2.72 routed off their backend! Shall we launch a cyro-meme or try and refrag their exonet B port?”

MOTOKO: “Zenotech?! Damn... that’s a beta-subsidiary of Greenwald-Kurosa! Export a Met trace beyond their intra-hook line-shield, but don’t push the BlackNet antiviral beyond the red point! I’m shifting to HUD ghost control in my B625 shell-annex, coordinates 98435 by 22090.2 Algerian groundstone!”

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: A Met trace exportation would realistically occur invisibly, but I have portrayed it here as a flying octopus dousing itself in sake to give the page more visual flair...]

MOTOKO: “Goddamn! The B625 stasis port developed a G-Purple FYAD calciworm! And all my clothes are missing!”

CUTE ROBOT 2: “00011 11100 00011 010101 10100011010 110000 1010110 01 001 0110100 0!”

And so on and so on for 312 pages. And even given all of this, the story does manage a few moments of genuine power, particularly in the final chapter as two characters discuss the Nature of Being as they stroll through all sorts of manga genres, panel by panel. The book’s ultimate point is a compelling one (after I had figured out exactly what it was) although the journey there was often headache-inducing, and there’s almost no follow up; a bunch of characters stand around to explain to each other how all of this stuff is Extremely Important and, well, that’s the end. I enjoy books that make readers do a little work and I like books that are more about ideas than action or character, and I certainly don’t want the translators to dumb the material down, no way. But I do think that Shirow, who’s always had a tendency toward richly detailed but over-convoluted comics, has finally wandered so far into technical detail and concept and world-building, that this book has lost any sense of fun (for the reader at least). And while we’re at it, Shirow’s love for cheesecake has become amplified as well, with the barely-dressed (if dressed at all) female characters thrusting their heaving breasts and spread legs toward the reader at every opportunity. We are even denied much of Shirow’s lovingly detailed b&w inks; much of the book is in color, with full computer-rendered environments, which occasionally look impressive (especially in the abstract designs outside of the ‘real’ world) but more often seem simple and undetailed. I’ll still give Shirow this: he’s surely unlike anyone else currently producing comics, Japanese or American. It’s like Thomas Pynchon and William Gibson teaming up to write the most complicated “Witchblade” arc ever; a fun idea, even admirable from a distance. But good reading it’s not.

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