Panel to Panel Classics #2

Steve Murphy Comes Out Of His Shell

an interview with John Rovnak

Steve Murphy’s life is an open book. It’s no secret what he is thinking or feeling, just read any of his stories from a nearly 25 year career in comics. Whether he’s talking about politics, the environment, or his personal life, Murphy reveals all. And whether he’s writing about mutant turtles or government agents, Murphy holds nothing back, and demands that his audience view his worlds with unflinching eyes.

Beginning his career in the black & white boom of the mid 1980s, Murphy soon came to work for Mirage Studios, home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A job he had for nearly 20 years. When we spoke, it had barely been a year since it was announced that the cable channel Nickelodeon (a subsidiary of Viacom) had purchased all of Mirage’s rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property; a move that left Murphy quite vulnerable, both as a person and as an artist.

In February of 2010, Murphy decided to return comics, this time creating his most personal and revealing work yet. Contains Traces Of, both written and drawn by Murphy, premiered online in the guise of an unassuming blog. Posting a panel a day, Murphy once again began giving us stories that hold nothing back; a captivating tale of his own life, full of fears and insecurities, and raw human emotion. Contains Traces Of allows Murphy’s unique voice to shine in ways it never could before, and allows him to look towards a very bright future, as he dissects his past for all of us to see.

This interview was conducted via email during September to November of 2010.

John Rovnak: When did comics first enter your life? What’s your earliest memory of comic books?

Steve Murphy: I’m not sure when comic strips first entered my life but I’m sure it was early on via the various Sunday papers we had around the house: both the Boston Globe and the more local Worcester Telegram, as well as the occasional Boston Herald. My first memory of comic books is a bit later, when my great uncle brought me into his local smoke shop and newsstand and, feeling a bit intimidated by the group of friends he was talking to by the checkout, I wandered around the store and came across a low display shelf lined with comics. I can still see it all clearly in my mind. I’m sure my jaw dropped. It’s also the day I made my first comic book purchase – or, rather, my uncle did for me – an issue of the Amazing Spider-Man – I think it was number 71 – that featured Spider-Man fighting Quicksilver on the cover. Quicksilver is running a tight circle around Spidey, punching him over and over again from multiple points as he runs round and around like only Quicksilver can. And all visualized by Romita Sr in a full body shot that at the same time was in-your-face, like a close-up. From that moment on I was hooked and went back to that newsstand at every occasion. I still have that comic in my collection. Late 60’s to early 70’s: that’s my golden age of comics.

Rovnak: The Puma Blues, to my knowledge, was your first published work in comics, with you as writer and Michael Zulli as artist. Can you explain the origins of that book, and of your relationship with Zulli?

Murphy: You’re right: Puma is my first published work and Michael’s as well. We actually worked together on a couple of short stories first though, just to see how we’d get on together. Those have never seen print. How did Puma start? That was a long time ago, something like twenty-five years now, and half a lifetime away. Puma actually began life several years before I met Michael. I was taking a “comic creating” class in Northampton, Massachusetts. I think it was through the long defunct Northampton Art Guild. The teachers were two very talented local cartoonists, John Hayman and Brian Turner. The class’ final assignment was to start an actual comic book. I can’t say precisely how it came together for me but at that point in my life I had been spending most of my free time hiking the Quabbin Reservoir and, I suppose, doing a fair amount of daydreaming. One of the things or stories about Quabbin was the increasing circumstantial evidence suggesting that the area was either being visited by a mountain lion – a puma – or that the watershed area was actual home to one. I think that possibility, which I saw as both romantic and melancholic – a lone puma out and about in the shadows of man – struck a chord deep within myself and gave voice to my sense of isolation and alienation. At any rate, I wound up calling it The Blue Puma, writing the first few pages and even illustrating them in my own cartoony way. The class ended and a few months later I got a job at Moondance Comics, a comic store in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I continued developing the story during my free time, changing the title to The Puma Blues. Michael was a regular customer, someone whom I was a little afraid of at first – he can be very off-putting at first, a defense mechanism of his – but when a fellow employee told me Michael was an artist I got up the courage to talk to him and before long we warmed to each other. One day Michael gave the store a clock he had made: a basic clock face mounted on a beautiful piece of wood (more a slice from a tree showing both rings at the center and bark at the edges) upon which Michael had painted a very dark image of Batman. It was amazing. I soon got up the courage to ask if he’d like to work on some comics together and before long we did (those short stories mentioned earlier). We then started spending some time together outside of the store and at some point I explained the whole Puma series concept, which Michael strongly identified with. Feeling we were kindred spirits we tackled the project.

Rovnak: How did it come about that Dave Sim and Aardvark-Vanaheim published The Puma Blues?

Murphy: Moondance had Dave and Gerhard as guests one day. Michael and I, knowing this in advance, decided to screw up the courage to show Dave the first eight or so finished Puma #1 pages, as it had been announced that Sim was going to be reviewing portfolios for future A-V titles. Michael and I waited in line with the other hopefuls and dreamers. As soon as Dave read the first three pages he said he’d publish it and that Michael and I were the next Alan Moore and Barry Windsor Smith. No shit. And, obviously, at least as far as I’m concerned, not quite. Few can even come close to Alan.

Rovnak: The Puma Blues went through its share of ups and downs, including the well-documented battle between Dave Sim and Diamond Comics, which you were caught in the middle of. It seemed to be a battle well fought. The book’s writing and art seemed stronger than ever, the Creator’s Bill of Rights (which you and Zulli played an integral part in) came out of this mess with Diamond, and overall seemed like a great “David vs. Goliath” story. Why after such an upward battle to keep the book alive and well, did The Puma Blues end so abruptly soon after?

Murphy: I’ve voiced various answers to that question over the years but now I think I finally know the real reason: Puma was too autobiographical for me to continue. You see, when I started writing it, I was living the life of a somewhat pathetic loner. It was easy to get into the mind of Puma’s main character, Gavia Immer, because we were the same being (Gavia Immer, by the way, is Latin for the common Loon; oh so clever). After becoming a “studio mate” at Mirage, I started to change; becoming more outgoing and confident, thanks, primarily, to my roommate and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) collaborator at the time, the very talented and often overlooked Ryan Brown. Simply put, it became harder and harder for me to both be and write Gavia. Finally, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Strange as it sounds, at this point in my life I think that I could. One of the pluses to being old: emotional distance, professionalism.

Rovnak: So are you saying you’d ever consider returning to The Puma Blues?

Murphy: I’ve been seriously considering it but I haven’t discussed it with Michael and have no idea how he’d feel about it. I’ve only recently realized that the first issue came out twenty-five years ago. Half my lifetime!

Rovnak: How did Michael feel about the book ending?

Murphy: We’ve never discussed it and in fact never even had any sort of meeting during which we officially ended it. I’m sure he was displeased with my drifting away from and eventually abandoning it. On the other hand, it may have lead to his seeking outside work and his eventual stint on Sandman. So for his own professional life, it was for the better.

Rovnak: In Zulli’s TMNT: Souls Winter trilogy, you’re credited for providing the script. Is this a credit you had from the inception of this story, or were you brought in later, out of necessity, to help complete the project?

Murphy: My memory’s a bit fuzzy on this but I’m fairly certain that all three issues were fully conceived by Michael. He wasn’t feeling all that confident about tackling the script on the first issue so he asked that I come in and give it an “organizing polish” as it were, writing from his script notes. Since his notes were so extensive I also seem to recall encouraging him to fully script the next two issues, which he of course did.

Rovnak: You write comics with a message, whether it’s The Puma Blues or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the books you write have a social awareness. While I imagine this seems quite natural to you as a creator, it’s not always the norm in comics. Do you think comic readers are open to these messages?

Murphy: I think some are. At least those fans that have told me that they glommed on to my messages when they were kids, especially the great many that read my main TMNT gig, Archie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures. Keep in mind that in its heyday, the title had multiple reprints in many languages and sold in the millions of copies per issue. Far more than the seventeen thousand that were buying Puma at its peak, or the ten thousand who were actually reading it. Which, in hindsight, is another reason for my drifting away from Puma: I was very aware that I had a huge audience through Adventures. Ryan saw this before I did. I also found that I loved telling stories to kids. Still love it. My six-year old daughter and I have a very rich alternate universe story that has been ongoing since she turned four, one that we add new elements to every day. It blows my mind how rich the story is. Me, I enjoy thinking like a kid. I love how my daughter thinks.

Rovnak: Are publishers and editors open to comics with a conscience?

Murphy: I honestly don’t know. Dave Sim, as publisher, never gave me any feedback at all, ever. Nor did Eastman and Laird. For the latter two, I came to realize it was because neither of them are writers and simply don’t understand how writers think. Pete didn’t step up to the editorial plate until he was in complete control of Mirage and even then his changes were more plot-driven than thematic. At the end of the day though it comes down to this: I never had a story rejected and for the most part no one said a thing about whatever messages the stories may have contained. Archie only balked over one story element (Hitler’s brain! Ooooh!) but we beat them back like the money-grubbing dogs that they are. Or were. Are they still around? Actually, I read in the Times that they’ve put out an Archie newsstand magazine. Only it’s new-newsstand. Toy and maybe grocery store checkouts. I love how Archie keeps it old school. What will they do next, plastic model kits? Gumball machine character rings? Actually, that might be too cool.

Rovnak: Speaking of the TMNT Adventures series, who is Dean Clarrain?

Murphy: I am. It’s an anagram based on the name of a woman I was dating at the time I started writing TMNT Adventures. When I first started Adventures I wasn’t sure whether or not I would like it or be good at writing for kids. There was also an element of trying to maintain two careers, as it were, but then Clarrain eclipsed Murphy. At least for a while.

Rovnak: Did you find it challenging to write from the point of view of a teenager (or in this case, four teenagers)? How did you find their voice?

Murphy: Strangely enough, no, it wasn’t challenging at all. Finding their voices came pretty easily once I figured out and developed their personalities in ways that were different from both the Mirage and original cartoon characterizations. I had to “make them mine” first, so to speak.

Rovnak: In 2003 you were turned down for the writing job on the Dreamwave TMNT series, in favor of Peter David. Was this a blow to your ego, having spent the majority of your career working on these characters?

Murphy: Ha, no, not at all. It was a shot against the odds knowing that Dreamwave wanted a “name” writer on the project. In fact, it was somewhat interesting being the Mirage liaison on the project, relaying Peter Laird’s feedback to Peter David’s scripts, then David’s comments back to Laird’s, and then watching the two of them act hissy towards each other in follow-up emails. Later on, I wound up tweaking my two Dreamwave scripts and using them during my stint writing the Mirage’s Tales book.

Rovnak: What other failed or rejected submissions do you have in your files?

Murphy: Hmmm, failures and rejections, let’s see. I also tried out for the position of writer on what would have been the second Imagi TMNT film, submitted a handful of plots, got them all rejected (and I’m still not even sure by whom). I even adapted the first Mirage issue into a full screenplay which Imagi also rejected but was then purchased for an intended third party direct-to-DVD CGI film that was to bridge the “product gap” between the first and second Imagi films. Imagi later shut that project down, unfortunately. And then of course Imagi lost the TMNT film license shortly thereafter. The next producers made it clear up front that they wanted a name writer for their film so that was that. Once Viacom bought the TMNT brand they killed that script but, I believe, have somehow retained the same producers.

My greatest disappointment was my first rejection, which took place a few years before beginning Puma. Jim Shooter, editor-in-chief of Marvel at the time, placed an open audition of sorts for new writers. I was fresh out of college and submitted two very detailed plot synopses, one for Spider-Man, one for Captain America. I immediately got a very nice “close but no cigar” rejection letter from Shooter (I still have it). However, about nine months later my Cap synopsis was used as a three-part Captain America story arc (wherein Deathlok came back in time and fought Cap, etc.). That was both disappointing in the short run – and eye opening – but also somewhat encouraging as time passed: after all, the idea was good enough to be stolen.

Rovnak: Have you ever suffered writer’s block? If so, for how long and how did you remedy it?

Murphy: Shit, John, I suffer from it lots of the time. I suffer, in fact, from two kinds of writer’s block. The “usual” and more mundane form is what happened once I got married and which worsened since having a child: I just don’t have the head space and quiet late-night time that I used to have when I was a swashbuckling (although very dedicated) single. Too many writing-less nights go by – usually due to the exhaustion of being a husband and father and worrywart – and I can plunge into a non-productive writer’s block. The old remedy was that I would shut myself off entirely from my family for a few hours, usually after they’ve fallen asleep, and always out of insane and somewhat depraved anxiety and frustration. The current remedy is much the same, only more, like, mature: I now own a cabin on a mountaintop near the Vermont border that I escape to (my friend Keith McCleary points out that the cabin’s setting is very much Gavia’s [see The Puma Blues – editor]; the solitude and forest visuals minus the reservoir). It’s twenty minutes from home. I head up there for an afternoon or evening when I need to. This past year I’ve put in electricity and a composting toilet. The wood stove cranks and there are framed posters of Frazetta’s The Bear to keep me in line and of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire to remind that the times they are a changing, fast, and that I’m getting old, also fast. There’s an impressive view of Mount Monadnock through the east-facing glass doors. Also a generator and good line of sight all around. When the shit hits the fan, I’m Jeremiah Johnson with an old lady, a beanpole and a beagle-mix.

That other, more daunting form of writer’s block sets in when I’m majorly depressed. I’ve only suffered this three times in my life. The most recent period was during my last two years working at Mirage. I just couldn’t deal with the way I was being treated by the CEO, nor handle all the various grumpy or unhelpful personalities around me. It was killing me. I couldn’t write Turtles – or anything else – for shit. It’s a miracle that I lasted until the endpoint when the Turtles got sold.

Rovnak: At some point you made the move from Managing Editor to Licensing Director. Was this an upward move, lateral move, or a step down? In Tales #13, you mention a disagreement with Peter (Laird) over how the letters page should be presented. Were situations like this just the “tip of the iceberg” for you, and did this influence you move within the company?

Murphy: Actually I was both Licensing Directing of Mirage Licensing and Managing Editor of Mirage Publishing for several overlapping years (but not editor of Pete’s TMNT title which was always under his direct control). I eventually got sick of how the production on the books was always late and as a result, very stressful; often necessitating my receiving proofs while on vacation via Fed Ex. It was beginning to lower the quality of my life. So I threw in the towel on publishing but without diminishing my salary, although I did lose out on more and more writing opportunities as new editor Dan Berger developed a more systematic way of approaching things, more democratic if you will, which resulted in more competition to get plots approved. At the same time Pete took a greater interest in the book, even altering many plots to the point where they became as much his as a given writer’s. For me, that’s fine in small doses or if it strengthens a plot, but when my story ideas got changed too much – to the point where it became a different story altogether – I’d lose interest in the plot; it just wasn’t the story I wanted to tell anymore. I’m grateful to Pete for many things but a few rounds of that and I’d had quite enough with writing for Mirage.

Rovnak: The TMNT name, brand and license is, in recent years, a very viable and popular property, even 25 years later. What do you attribute that to? So many properties, especially in the comics world, are swallowed up by Hollywood, turn a quick dollar, and are then forgotten never to be heard from again. What made the Turtles different?

Murphy: The TMNT earned, what, six billion dollars in revenue by the time the second movie came out? Those are six billion big reasons to keep it going and by that I mean licensees as well as by agent and owners. But that’s only half the answer of course. What set the Turtles apart are several things: the obvious mix of action, adventure, humor and kung-fu mayhem (filling the void left by Bruce Lee), along with an element of family and brotherhood that struck a mass nerve. Plus, perhaps, an underlying sensitivity that appealed to girls without alienating boys. Mind you, I’m talking about the TMNT once it left the confines of the direct comics marketplace.

Rovnak: When all is said and done, the Turtles are (and will be) remembered for the cartoons, the films, the toys, the breakfast cereal, etc. The comics will, quite possibly, be among the last thing to be remembered. Why, do you think, comics are doomed to be forgotten when it comes to properties like the Turtles, Batman, X-Men, etc.? Why can’t comics seem to ever really achieve the mainstream acceptance we so badly want?

Murphy: We live in a multimedia age, with the winning media being the largest common denominator if you will. It’s a generational thing. For me, growing up in the sixties, comic books remain the media by which I define Spider-Man, Batman, etc., because comic books were the dominant media for those characters at that time. If I grew up in the eighties or nineties, I’d define those same characters by their films or video games; again, the dominant media form of the time. I think it’s all a matter of which media rules the general culture at a given historical time.

As far as comics achieving mainstream acceptance… well, I think it’s all about content and marketing and the fact that most Americans don’t read for pleasure, whether it’s comics, graphic novels or serious literature. Also, comics used to be aimed at kids. Now they’re aimed at adults. Mind you, there are exceptions. And of course now comics have become secondary to the films that can be made by their being optioned to Hollywood. Comic-based movies are as close to mainstream acceptance as it’s going to get. Also, comics are just so damn expensive: one doesn’t get much bang for one’s buck.

Rovnak: What was it like working within a “studio” setting at Mirage? Comic’s creation is usually such a solitary process; having worked both in and out of the studio setting, which do you prefer? What are the benefits, and what are the downsides?

Murphy: There were two Mirage studio spaces. The first was a true open shared studio space (circa 1987-1990), the second and final “studio” was a suite of offices, one per artist, and not really a studio but more a, er, mirage of one. I never did much creative work in the shared space: there was just too much loud music, socialization, horsing around and, at times, media intrusion (interviews with Eastman and Laird were often carried out in the studio). In the later office set-up, I got much more done but even that wasn’t ideal. For me, like you say, creation truly is a solitary process and as a result I tended to (and still tend to) work alone. I have home office space and the cabin but I sometimes work at the local public library if the mood suits me.

Rovnak: In the late 1990s you published V-Mag, an arts and entertainment magazine for the Northampton, Massachusetts area. How did this venture begin? What was it like to go from the “published” to the publisher?

Murphy: I was visiting a friend living in Pennsylvania and saw an arts related magazine for his area and thought maybe the Pioneer Valley could use the same; something in addition to the Valley Advocate, which I abhorred for its smugness and elitism. However, as with most creative things I undertake, V-Mag (for “Valley Magazine”) became something else entirely, something more reflective of my own interests, and thus something more difficult to explain to potential advertisers. It’s strange, but I folded it about ten years ago and only now are various people contacting me and telling me what a great publication it was. Too bad I wasn’t hearing that at the time!

Being a publisher and managing editor (and eventually layout person as well) was challenging and a huge amount of work. I learned a lot about people, dealing with freelancers and staffers, most of which I was able to put to use in my twin capacities (explained above) working for Mirage managing both artists and licensees. It was an enriching experience that lost me lots of my personal savings but it was worth it on many levels, not least of which was that’s how I met my future wife.

Rovnak: In 2006, your first non-TMNT comic since The Puma Blues, Umbra was released by Image Comics. What inspired this mini-series?

Murphy: When I came back to Mirage in 2002 to work in Licensing I also worked at getting Publishing up and running, which I did with the re-launching of Tales and related titles. But I also wanted to work with Jim Lawson and Eric Talbot on creator-owned projects. With Jim in mind I created Umbra, inspired in part by my trips to Iceland and Alaska a few years earlier but based, more so, on a series of dreams I had following the Icelandic trips. Askja, the main character, was an extension of myself, at least when I was working through my substance abuse problems. The sequence when she finds herself approached by a pod of killer whales really happened to me on my third trip to Alaska, although I was kayaking with several friends, not solo. Lawson, for reasons he never quite explained, passed on Umbra after reading the scripts. Luckily, through Dan Berger, I met Mike Hawthorne and the books came together better than I ever could have imagined.

Rovnak: How were your experiences working with Image Comics?

Murphy: Image was very hands off. Artist Mike Hawthorne and art assistant Erik Swanson and I just delivered the books and that was that: no editorial input at all. Image was also great about making their U.S. payments. Their biggest problem – at least at the time – was a lack of organization that I perceived as their being a bit of a dodge: when I discovered foreign reprints of Umbra that Image hadn’t made me aware of (nor sent payment for) I blew my top. In hindsight, I’ve come to see that I overreacted.

Rovnak: In the second issue of Umbra, you’re interviewed and make mention of two other projects in the works. It’s now nearing 2011, five years later: what has happened to Sturgeon Creek and God’s Dog?

Murphy: God’s Dog is the project I alluded to above that I created with Eric Talbot in mind. Talbot was into it and spent a long time trying to get a handle on the first issue. When it became clear that he wasn’t all that into it, or getting anywhere on it, we parted creative ways on it and I in turn offered the book (it’s six 24-page issues) to Dario Brizuela. The art’s been completed for several years and I’m finally getting off my ass and beginning the lettering. Sturgeon Creek is my second project with Mike Hawthorne and Erik Swanson. It’s a 120-page autobiographical graphic novel and the art is ninety percent done and the lettering now underway. If Mike can finish it up soon, I’ll put Sturgeon and Dog out in 2014, along with an unrelated 32-page stand-alone book with art by D’Israeli. I’d also like to finally put out a trade collection of Umbra. Not sure which route to go, though: publisher or self-publishing. Time will tell.

Rovnak: What part of your life is Sturgeon Creek about?

Sturgeon Creek

 

Murphy: Sturgeon takes place during a single autumn night during my senior year in high school but also flits back now and then to various moments earlier in my childhood. It takes an evening when certain threads of childhood unravel and end, while others begin to come together. Not obvious at the time of course, only in hindsight. For someone who wasn’t there and didn’t know me at all in my youth, artist Mike Hawthorne has done a brilliant job of capturing my friends and I, just based on a handful of old photos. Uncanny!

Sturgeon Creek

 

Rovnak: Speaking of autobiographical comics, in February of 2010, you premiered Contains Traces Of online, posting a panel every weekday. In your own words, what is this blog/webcomic about?

Murphy: It’s about me, and about how I came to learn a deep family secret. About how I deal with the knowledge of that secret while trying to uncover other information related to that knowledge. It’s mostly a retelling of the therapy sessions I went through as I came to grips with it all. This is going back to late 2001 and early 2002. It also deals with the problems I was having when employed by Mirage, and how I dealt with those problems and my anger through therapy. Typical “dark night of the soul” stuff.

Rovnak: Why did you choose to handle the art chores as well, and not just stick to the writing?

Murphy: Traces is just something I wanted to do alone. First, just to take the challenge – I mean, I can’t draw, so how can I even attempt to do the art? Once I figured that out – by tracing and/or altering existing “found” art – it came together fairly quickly by providing a somewhat primitive frame or medium of delivery: one panel at a time. Also, because I wanted to post just one panel per day (aside from most weekend days) I couldn’t expect any artist to get behind something so, I don’t know, I guess so ongoing, something with no clear end in sight. Plus, obviously, it’s an extremely personal story that begs to be told by the writer alone, without even the slightest input of or altering by anyone else’s vision. It’s more words than pictures.

Rovnak: Your name appears nowhere on the blog, and no fanfare was made when it was launched. Who do you hope finds this, and how?

Murphy: I don’t care who finds it, honestly. I launched it by sending the link to my ten closest friends. They’re my true audience for this. A few months later Ryan Brown told Dan Berger about it and Dan was kind enough to link it to what’s left of the Mirage web site. Now I merely link it as the “signature” at the bottom of all my emails and let happen what may. It’s incredibly liberating to just produce the thing and not worry about paying an artist for it or dealing with anyone telling me how to do it, nor to be concerned about making money off it.

Rovnak: The events in the story begin, and revolve around, the eve of September 11, 2001. As the story unfolded, panel-by-panel, weekday after weekday, throughout 2010 it reached a real crescendo during the month of September watching you discuss the events of nine years earlier. If you were following the story, as I was, it was hard to not be moved by the synonymous barrage of news coverage of 9/11 and your story. Did you have the timing of your panels mapped out when you first began Contains Traces Of, or was this a happy accident?

Murphy: I have certain milestones or important dates in mind relative to the unfolding of the story. Some of those milestones I reach, some I don’t. I don’t plan it out very far ahead, on average two weeks of posts at a time. I may write out five or six weeks in a given evening and then spend another evening doing the art and any editing for the next two-week batch. The writing, for the most part, is first draft. I’m trying to be honest.

Rovnak: How long do you anticipate this story running?

Murphy: I have absolutely no idea. My story hasn’t ended yet.

Interview © John Rovnak

About John Rovnak

John Rovnak can hardly remember a time when comic books were not a part of his life. He has bought them, sold them, written them, drawn them, collected them, bought them again, and sold them again. He has endured a lifetime of ridicule and shame for his hobby, but that hasn't stopped him. Most recently he's written and edited a book about comics. He's planning more.
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