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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Manly Men and Buxom Babes: Body Types in Comics

This post as well as the article linked within have got me thinking.

The idea of the men being over-muscled is not a new one to me. Pretty much any time a feminist blogger occasionally complains about the objectification of female characters, the musculature of the men is brought up as a counter argument.

I think that there is a valid point in the argument, obscured by the use of these images as counter-argument to feminist complaints. The image portrayed can be negative. They can help lead to a negative self-image.

The main difference for me is the whys of it though. Because the comic book industry is male dominated, essentially you have guys complaining about an image created by other men as an ideal to be. Which is, I believe, a little different from women complaining about the ideal created by other men, designed to please those men.

I am admittedly biased about the issue though.

I'm actually not against sexualization in comics. To the extent that it's not a detriment to character or story at any rate. I don't like the covers of She-Hulk because I think the pin-up poses do not reflect the content of the series. By pandering to the lowest common denominator, they're projecting an image of a comic that would be of no real interest to women. We look at the cover and think, "Oh, just another of those comics." Which is a damn shame, as the comic is really nothing of the sort.

In contrast, I really like Storm's current costume. Sure she's almost naked, but it's really very pretty. Ororo is not a character that I'd ever associated a lot of physical modesty with, and between her powers and the likely warmer climate of Wakanda, I can't see how a more substantial costume is really required.

Anyway, I'm not trying to attack this article. I don't doubt that the hyper-muscular portrayals could be conidered harmful. It did get me thinking though.

I think there is, without a doubt, a lot more variance to the way men are portrayed in comics than there is for women. Sure, Superman, Batman, Captain America, Captain Britain and the like are all very muscular and big men. But then, off the top of my head, you have characters like Sanderson Hawkins, Dick Grayson, Roy Harper, Pete Wisdom, Cyclops (who sometimes gets the hyper-musculature treatment) Reed Richards... They're characters who, while drawn with exaggerated musculature, still have a very different build-type than the first. The Green Lanterns hover somewhere in the middle. Hal's probably portrayed as closest in build to Superman or Batman, but still tends to appear quite a bit leaner. John and Guy are pretty big as well, but usually portrayed as a bit smaller than Hal. Kyle's, in turn, much slimmer. The Flashes vary as well.

There is variation among the women too. Certainly Kitty Pryde is not built like Emma Frost. But I think the majority hovers around a certain standard. Kitty is very slight. Power Girl and Wonder Woman in contrast are very buxom, but also bigger framed, with (when drawn by the ideal artists, at least) solid musculature. But in general, I'd say most women in comics have a very similar body type.

It's the lack of comparitive variety that gets to me.

Look at the early 00's Morrison-league-era JLA for example. Look at Superman, Bruce, Aquaman, Plastic Man, Kyle and Wally. All of them had markedly different body types. Even Bruce and Clark, while both dark-haired, blue eyed men with similar dimensions, manage to look strikingly different even in civilian clothes. Kyle and Wally are both lean young men, but their musculature is very different. Wally's rangier, Kyle's softer, it's variance.

In contrast, let's take the Birds of Prey. Dinah, Helena, Barbara. I love this comic and these characters, so please don't take this as a critique of the actual comic. But look at the body proportions. They've all got roughly the same slim, well-endowed, long limbed frame. Ignoring differences in costume and coloring, we could very well be looking at the same woman.

Teen Titans? Beast Boy, Cyborg, Robin, Superboy and Kid Flash all have very distinct builds. But honestly, one of my biggest complaints with Young Justice was that once Cassie lost the stupid wig...when you had her, Arrowette, Secret and even Empress, barring her coloring, you were basically looking at the same teenage girl body. Teen Titans had the same problem lately with Wonder Girl and Ravager.

Heck, Supergirl's build is problematic in my opinion (unless they are deliberately intending an eating disorder storyline, which would be actually quite interesting to see attempted and she's certainly got psychological motivators), but when she met up with the JSA in one issue and spoke to Stargirl, she might as well have been looking in a mirror.

Even the cartoons occasionally reflect this. The 90s Avengers cartoon had a marked difference between the builds of the men. Captain America was very big, naturally, as was Wonder Man (who seemed broader about the chest). Falcon and Hawkeye were mid-range, built like athletes (Hawkeye was rangier, Falcon more like a football player), Hank Pym was much slighter. But Tigra, Wasp and Scarlet Witch had very similar proportions. (Though Wanda was admittedly gaunter.) The 90s X-Men cartoon was similar. The men were all reasonably varied, with some slight similarity between Gambit and Cyclops. But save Jubilee, Jean, Rogue and Storm were built almost the same! To give credit where credit is due, both X-Men Evolution and Ultimate Avengers were pretty good at giving the women varying body shapes like the men. I'm avoiding critiquing JLA simply because due to the stylistic elements of the design, there are a lot more similarities across the board character-design wise.

But anyway that's my real problem, when it comes down to it. Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel have roughly the same dimensions, but their builds, musculatures and body language all get to be different, whereas except for a few exceptions, the women don't. (Heck, even She-Hulk and Starfire tend to be larger scale models of the same proportions.)

This is why as harmful as the male portrayals might genuinely be, I do not put them on the same scale as that of the women. Not when there are artists out there who draw Sue Storm as nigh-indistinguishable from Emma Frost.

That's just not right.

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29 Comments:

  • At September 14, 2006 10:38 AM, Blogger Amy Reads said…

    Hi Kali,
    You said a million things I completely agree with, and also, It's the lack of comparitive variety that gets to me.

    May I take this One Step Further? Mr. Reads collects the Marvel Legends series of action figures, and you see vast, great variety among the male characters and their builds. For example, look at the difference here between, say, Iron Fist and Bishop. But then take a good look at X-23. She has the *exact* same build as Elektra, Kitty Pryde, Mystique, Jean Grey, and any of the other female characters both before and after her. It's as if all of the female characters come from The Exact Same Mold, literally.

    It bothers me, because the manufacturers should consider me part of the market, too (or goodness, even those Serious Male Collectors like Mr. Reads who get Very Upset over the lack of Variety). While I own Kitty Pryde and Elektra of this series, I only own them because they were gifts from my husband. I've been far too disappointed in the manufacturing of the female characters in this series to collect with any great regularity.

    At least Barbie and Ken give no pretensions of difference. They're all from the same mold, and admit it, with no shame.
    Ciao,
    Amy

     
  • At September 14, 2006 11:06 AM, Anonymous Mark Engblom said…

    This topic has always fascinated me. I'm not happy with the cartoonish proportions the female characters are routinely drawn with, since it gives male comics fans (and creators) such a poor image. Even though superhero comics sprang from the 1930's pornography market, I would have thought we'd have outgrown that association by now.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 11:37 AM, Blogger Lis Riba said…

    One of the things I liked about Perez' days illlustrating Titans was that the female characters *did* have very different body types:

    Starfire was buxom (nicknamed bubble-bod), Raven was relatively flat-chested, and Donna somewhere in the middle.
    When they added Terra, she was younger than the rest and had an adolescent body.

    You can see similar diversity in Perez' illustrations of Paradise Island. Some women were heavyset, some more muscular... Paradise Island was supposedly female ideals, but even then it managed to recognize that there are multiple ideals and not make them all cookie cutter clones.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 12:09 PM, Blogger SallyP said…

    This is an on-going problem and has been for years really. Go waaaaay back, and silver age women all not only have exactly the same bodies, but the exact same faces as well, the only difference being hair color. It would be nice to see varying female body types. I do enjoy seeing the men portrayed differently, frankly prefering the long and lean to the hideously over-muscled. But there are a whole lot of ways to draw a woman dfferently and still make her beautiful Personally I think that having hips is a good thing.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 12:32 PM, Blogger 100LittleDolls said…

    I feel like the lack of different body types for female comic book characters is a true testament to the beauty myth, i.e. that there's only one way a desirable woman should look, and we all should try our damndest to look like it.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 12:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I seem to recall there was an artbook that described different body types in terms of exact proportions...might prove useful...Google,anyone?

     
  • At September 14, 2006 1:27 PM, Blogger Racy Li said…

    I'm a superhero erotic romance writer, and I've been coming across this exact problem in my search for a good artist to develop images for my site (not yet up). The applicants I've gotten tend to draw all their women with the exact same body type. And jeez, not that I have to prove sexualization of women in comics to this crowd, but you'd think there would be more than 1 or 2 artists who know what I'm talking about when I say I want a sexy male superhero.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 1:28 PM, Blogger Eudaimo said…

    I'm generally turned off by cheesecake comics and by indistinguishable comic women. I've been reading quite a bit of feminist comics blogging lately, and I find your post to be the most reasonable and well-observed critique of the industry I've read in some time.

    Thank you for moving past the simplistic "They're different, ergo it is a result of misogyny" mantra, and actually investigating the whys and the wherefores.

    I am also particularly annoyed by the "mismarketting" effect you discussed. The most notorious is the Emma Frost miniseries. Despite the legacy of the character, the book was a teen drama, directed at young women. Despite that and the rather conservative illustrations within, it featured some of the raunchiest covers I've ever seen.

    Original cover: http://eudaimo.com/Images/Emma_Garden_z4.JPG

    Trade cover when head was removed from ass: http://eudaimo.com/Images/emmafrost-dg1.jpg

     
  • At September 14, 2006 1:39 PM, Blogger Evan Waters said…

    What there needs to be is at least one female character who is in-story referred to, or more likely refers to herself, as being flat-chested, the way that Power Girl's endowments have been commented on in-story and thus made a fixture of her appearance. Most female characters don't have any set proportions, and a number of artists resort to big breasts and small waists by default, so to set down at least one character as having a different shape would help.

    Granted, it's hard to find an appropriate in-story moment to comment on something like that, but a clever writer could make it work.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 1:44 PM, Blogger Elayne said…

    "In contrast, let's take the Birds of Prey. Dinah, Helena, Barbara. I love this comic and these characters, so please don't take this as a critique of the actual comic. But look at the body proportions. They've all got roughly the same slim, well-endowed, long limbed frame. Ignoring differences in costume and coloring, we could very well be looking at the same woman."

    It's something I've mentioned to the inker as well, as you may imagine. :) And he does what he can to vary them, but the drawing itself (whether body types, poses, backgrounds, whatever) is up to the penciller, and there's not that much an inker can do about that and still do his or her job right (i.e., being true to the pencils and pleasing the editor).

    As Robin says, this falls under "basic construction." That said, be assured that Robin's pencils do indeed vary body types. :) That may be because he admires folks like Neal Adams and Alan Davis, whose characters (both male and female) always feature differing body types.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 2:01 PM, Anonymous Lyle said…

    I don't like the covers of She-Hulk because I think the pin-up poses do not reflect the content of the series. By pandering to the lowest common denominator, they're projecting an image of a comic that would be of no real interest to women. We look at the cover and think, "Oh, just another of those comics." Which is a damn shame, as the comic is really nothing of the sort.

    I reacted similarly to the Emma Frost comic, which I ended up enjoying greatly in the digest form (where the pin-up covers were eliminated).

    As to the overall focus of your post, I've reflected on this before and I think this is something that actually pertains to the media in general. Look at entertainment media in general, with a few exceptions, the only variety in the images of beautiful women is in personality.

    Meanwhile, even if you limit it to media that sexualizes men, you'll see a variety of body types. Details recently had an article about how "fat" was becoming more accepted in actresses... and then turned to Liv Tyler, Scarelett Johansson, Rachel Weis and Drew Barrymore as examples of "fat" caresses. (I don't see anyone calling George Clooney fat outside of roles where he gained weight even though he probably has a similar body fat percentage as those examples.)

    It's actually something I asked straight men. Women who are presented as sexy tend to look the same to me, usually because hair and makeup seems designed to push them into a particular mold, so I asked if that kind of sameness is something that straight guys actually liked. (They expressed frustration at the sameness I noted.)

     
  • At September 14, 2006 2:23 PM, Blogger Eudaimo said…

    Look at entertainment media in general, with a few exceptions, the only variety in the images of beautiful women is in personality.

    I agree that the standard for beautiful women is definitely more uniform. Men are much less likely to disagree dramatically on whether a woman is attractive. They might fight over whether Jessica Biel is better than Jessica Alba, but it's quite rare for there to be any real disagreement (leaving aside faux-disgust). Even men with wildly different body tastes (Pamela Anderson vs. Natalie Portman), tend to be looking for relatively the same things in faces.

    I actually saw this proven somewhat objectively recently. Do you remember the "What Celebrity do you resemble" Meme that was going around for a bit? I actually ran dozens of my friends. What I discovered was that Men routinely score lower than women, while women either looked like celebrities or did not. Women in the former category tended to resemble SEVERAL celebrities. Women in the latter tended to resemble NONE.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 3:30 PM, Blogger Denyer said…

    On a semi-related but superficial note, there's an annoying lack of eye candy for those of us who like real women. The situation doesn't markedly improve even away from cape books.

    What there needs to be is at least one female character who is in-story referred to, or more likely refers to herself, as being flat-chested

    Pick up Ellis' StormWatch if you can. "The first time you lose your backbone over a problem, I'll kill you, Henry. I won't wear one of those damnfool spandex body-condom things. I don't have the bust for it." —Jenny Sparks

    those Serious Male Collectors like Mr. Reads who get Very Upset over the lack of Variety

    It's irritating, certainly, though the economics probably make sense -- that female characters will be shortpacked (not enough appeal to the target demographics, with adult males making up much less of them than the younglings) -- and what's produced usually does more-or-less clear. Maybe more would if more effort was put into the designs, but I actually doubt it, again due to the main percentage of buyers.

    http://www.toybiz.com/showitem.htm?id=71170

    Eek. Balls for hips.

    http://www.toybiz.com/showitem.htm?id=71331

    Actually, the ones on Lady Deathstrike aren't nearly so bad...

     
  • At September 14, 2006 7:42 PM, Anonymous David Horenstein said…

    Great article Kali. Regarding one of your points, it isn't straight men that control the fashion industry. And, more straight men prefer women with curves. Yet, why so many lollipop women in fashion and Hollywood?

    Before they lost too much weight, you used to hear men talk about Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Garner, and even Jennifer Lopez (she has lost considerable weight since "Selena" and "Out of Sight"). There weren't a whole lot of men that thought they needed to lose a few pounds. Yet they all did (and it is any coincidence that male interest in them dropped the moment they dropped weight?). So, why are women losing all that weight?

    It's similar for young boys and men. Growing up, I knew a ton of 15 - 28 years olds that took steroids (I even debated taking them myself, I didn't). It wasn't for athletic purposes. Not only that, but then some would take laxatives to get a washboard stomach.

    Men have the exact same issues women do with body types. It's often ignored.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 8:07 PM, Blogger notintheface said…

    I think it hinges on the individual artist's skill and training. Earlier in the silver age it seemed like the main adult male superheroes seemed to have mostly the same body type (except for Plas, Golden Age Atom and shrinkers like Doll Man and the Silver Age Atom) and the variety was reserved for their teenaged or dumpier sidekicks. How many stories were there that involved Batman or Flash being able to switch identities with Superman and fooling everyone, including the reader, completely, even rendered by greats like Curt Swan? DC could pull that off today with Clark and Bruce, but no way could they do it with Clark and Barry or Wally. Or what about my favorite phenomenon, the GENERIC BLONDE MALE HERO GUY? Try distinguishing these guys sans costume, powers and personality: Aquaman with short hair, Buddy (Animal Man) Baker, Adam Strange, Barry Allen, Henry Pym, pre-goatee Oliver Queen, Booster Gold, Hawkeye, Cap( although now he's built like Supes), the original Human Torch (not Johnny), the adult Sand Hawkins, etc.? Even now, in the last 52, I only distinguished Buddy and Adam by their eyes or lack thereof.

    I agree that Perez is one of the greats in distinguishing heroes of both genders.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 8:10 PM, Blogger notintheface said…

    I forgot the archetype, Flash Gordon.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 10:39 PM, Blogger Erich said…

    I remember when James Brock wrote and drew a few back-up stories starring Volcana (in Marvel Comics Presents and a Fantastic Four Annual, if I recall correctly), it seemed obvious to me that he really enjoyed drawing an attractive woman who was heavier than most cookie-cutter comic females.

     
  • At September 14, 2006 11:35 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    amy: Yeah, it's pretty frustrating. Why bother reproducing the few variable characters available and make them exactly the same. :-(

    mark: Heh, a bit optimistic aren't you? :-P

    lis: I have to admit, Perez is one of the good ones in that respect. Unfortunately, not many others seem to follow his lead. :-(

    sallyp: Definitely. Both sexes could show more variation, but women could use even as much variation as men have. Hips and curves are nice, darnit!

    100: There may be a case in that. I think it might be the stylistic elements of comics itself. For whatever reason, deviation doesn't seem acceptable except in rare cases.

    anon: That'd be interesting.

    racy: Heh, that's a shame. Superhero erotic romance sounds like a blast!

    eudaimo: Thanks. I've never read the Emma Frost series myself, but I've heard that it's pretty awful mismarketing as well. It's silly. Emma and Jen could still be sexy without being quite so off putting, I think.

    It's really annoying when the inside is drawn so tamely.

    evan: I think Supergirl was in 4 or 5 of her series. But yeah, it'd be nice to have a bit more canonical body shapes worked in somehow. If not verbally...

    elayne: :-) His efforts are very appreciated, believe me! I've always thought inking must be a very hard profession...you never get the credit for any improvements you make to the art, but you get linked for blame. :-) It's not fair.

    lyle: It's really strange. Most real straight guys I know are not so picky as to only like that small type of woman. Heck, I get dates occasionally. :-) And I've never looked like them.

    It's a shame that variety of all types isn't appreciated more. Men and women. :-)

    eudaimo: I got mostly men, myself. That kid who was the son from the future on Charmed and one Asian actor. Which is a little odd. :-) At least they're attractive. (Though I got James Ensor too...odd)

    denyer: Yeah Ellis is really good at poking fun at the cliches of the genre. :-)

    david: Oh I don't doubt it. :-) Kind of like how I find romance novels occasionally horribly misogynistic. It's not limited to straight men.

    In this case though, the male dominated nature of the comic industry means they'll, sometimes unfairly, be singled out. :-)

    notinthe: Oh yeah there's definitely been huge strides for the men.

    The variety is a new and welcome change, I just want to see it extended for the women. :-) (And naturally the men could still afford more variation as well. Though I admit shamelessly, I first became interested in Hank Pym because in the cartoon, he looked like a slightly more psychotic Sand.)

    erich: That sounds neat! I have no idea who Volcana is, but I want to read about her now. :-)

     
  • At September 15, 2006 12:11 AM, Blogger notintheface said…

    Except for the powers, he IS a more psychotic Sand.

     
  • At September 15, 2006 12:16 AM, Blogger notintheface said…

    Elayne, that's ok. You wouldn't want Robin embroiled in some Steve Sadowski-Michael Bair or John Byrne-Nelson DeCastro dispute.

    Also, does Robin have pencils online?

     
  • At September 15, 2006 12:17 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    And my strange fascination for Hank is explained. :-P

     
  • At September 15, 2006 2:06 AM, Blogger Erich said…

    Volcana was introduced in "Secret Wars" (the '80s mini-series, not the Bendis book "Secret War"), as one of two civilians given super-powers by Dr. Doom to serve in the villains' army. (Her friend became Titania, who later served as a recurring foe for She-Hulk.) She wasn't that committed to being a villain; her primary concern was protecting the Molecule Man, whom she'd fallen in love with. (I think her most recent appearance was a Peter David Hulk story where Molecule Man tried to convince her to come back after their break-up.)

    Throughout "Secret Wars" and "Secret Wars II," several other villains (including The Wrecking Crew and the Enchantress) made snotty remarks about her weight, and Shooter even made her the butt of a joke in "Secret Wars II" where she calls the Avengers for help, but is so stressed-out that she scarfs down a doughnut while waiting for them to pick up the line.

    I got the feeling that part of the reason James Brock did those solo stories was a response to the previous stories' attitude towards the character...sort of his way of saying "So what if she doesn't have a barbie-doll figure? What's wrong with you people?" (I did a bit of searching since my last post; Brock's Volcana stories appeared in Marvel Comics Presents #88, and Fantastic Four Annual #23 and #24.)

    I did find this link with a scan of Mike Zeck's drawing of the character for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe:

    http://www.marveldatabase.com/wiki/index.php/Volcana

     
  • At September 15, 2006 8:43 AM, Blogger Dan Jacobson said…

    In the old Thing comics there used to be a whole league of super powered wrestlers who were women. There was a bit of variety there, but of course it was all concentrated on that one group rather than spread throughout the whole Marvel U.

     
  • At September 15, 2006 8:51 AM, Anonymous Ununnilium said…

    "Men are much less likely to disagree dramatically on whether a woman is attractive."

    Oh, I disagree. I have wildly different tastes from that which is presented as the norm, and I know many people who feel differently from me, the norm, and each other.

    It's just that the media pushes a single, homogenized vision of attractiveness. McWoman, as it were.

     
  • At September 15, 2006 11:45 AM, Anonymous green means wheelpower said…

    The whole image thing is very sad for everyone of us.

    As noome has broughtit up yet, I will, woman are atractive +powerful beyond the physical.
    Storm is example #1 of this, even if she did not look the way she does, if she were to enter a room every hetro man, Lesbian, AND nearly everyone else would be awed by her majisty(sp?) alone.

    In regard to birds of prey's Oracle. There is a scene in the first arc of BATGIRL, while tryimg to teach Cassandra words she says "celulite" and Cass points right to her atriphied legs which are usually drawn acurately by the way. Also her chest and breasts would be IN REAL LIFE enhanced by her increased use of abbs, Pectoral and arm muscle. How is this not bs, because i'm a manual wheelchair user myself and have the male equivalent to her body type (thus my GL variant sig)
    Despite this she still nets Ted, Dick & who knows how many others, think about that.

    Kal: You get dates because of your personality. However, & this goes for your roommate as well, DO NOT SELL YOUR LOOKS SHORT!:)

     
  • At September 15, 2006 1:01 PM, Anonymous Papervolcano said…

    Eventually, when I've some spare money to waste, I'd like to commission either a group portrait or a series of individual portraits of Steph, Mia, Cissie, Cassie, Kara and Courtney, all in streetwear, and play spot the difference. I suspect it may be quite difficult.

     
  • At September 16, 2006 4:12 PM, Blogger SallyP said…

    Hey Kalinara, go and look through some of the Beau Smith and Mitch
    Byrd "Warriors". I found Byrd to be a bit on the cartoony side, but I will say this for him, his women actually have hips and butts and thighs and tummies. The complete opposite from Michael "I'm the new
    Liefeld" Turner's Supergirl. Byrd's people actually have room in their torsos for organs and stuff.

     
  • At October 03, 2006 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In contrast, I really like Storm's current costume. Sure she's almost naked, but it's really very pretty. Ororo is not a character that I'd ever associated a lot of physical modesty with, and between her powers and the likely warmer climate of Wakanda, I can't see how a more substantial costume is really required.

    Am I the only one that remembers when she was _actually_ naked? (I believe it was in the X-Men Hidden Years series.) And her current costume harkens back to that. It does evoke images of primitiveness, and I think that _is_ a problem, especially considering the fans' reaction to her and Black Panther's relationship.

     
  • At October 04, 2006 5:03 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    erich: Thanks!

    dan: Aww. Well. At least one comic had *something*.

    ununnilium: Which seems a damn shame really. Unfair for everyone.

    green: I don't necessarily have problems with how Oracle is drawn (though it's nice when they get her right. :-)). It's just that casually, there really doesn't seem to be enough variation with the other women...which makes me sad.

    papervolcano: It'd be fun though!

    sallyp: *nod* I like Byrd. There are quite a few individual artists I like...just the majority I see...

    They're pretty pictures...but needs more variety!

    anon: hmm. Honestly, I don't think a primitive costume would necessarily help or hurt the pairing as is.

    Honestly, the costume never seemed really primitive to me. Exotic yes, and I suppose I can see how that could be problematic, but not necessarily primitive.

    But I admit, I may be grasping at semantic straws here. I just really like it because it's pretty. :-)

     

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