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Celebrating Pogo and Walt Kelly

A 60th Anniversary Effusion (December 18, 2002)

Born in a comic book, Pogo (a possum by trade) outgrew the form (which, at the time, was a brand of juvenile literature) and graduated into the adult world, newspaper syndication, where he appeared in what became the greatest comic strip of the century. In Walt Kelly's Pogo, the comic strip achieved the most of which the medium is capable. Comics can be high art in the right hands. And for over twenty years, Walt Kelly's were the right hands.

            In Pogo, the artform of the comic strip was raised to its zenith. If we accept the definition of comic strip art as a narrative of words and pictures, both verbal and visual, in which neither words nor pictures are quite satisfactory alone without the other, then we must say that Kelly welded the verbal and visual elements together into a comic chorus so unified, so mutually dependent, that it crystalized forever the very essence of the art.

            For those who aren't acquainted with Pogo, it's scarcely enough to describe the strip as "an animal strip" set in a southern swamp. In Kelly's hands, the strip reached above and beyond the animal strip tradition (as continued in such strips as Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck—even Animal Crackers). At its core, Kelly's strip was a reincarnation of vaudeville, and its routines were often laced with humor that derived from pure slap-stick. To that, Kelly added the remarkably fanciful and inventive language of his characters—a "southern fried" dialect that lent itself readily to his characters' propensity to take things literally and permitted an unblinking delight in puns.

            An animal strip, yes, but Kelly's animals were more than animals. They were perfectly content being animals, you understand, but sometimes on an otherwise idle summer's afternoon, they would (for their own amusement) try out for roles as human beings. They'd wander backstage at the human drama, picking up a script here, a bit of costume there, and then assemble after hours before the footlights for a little play-acting. But somehow it never quite came off as intended.

            We, the human spectators, could recognize some of the parts being assayed, but there was always something vaguely out of kilter. The animal actors had picked up the jargon and the costumes, but they didn't seem to understand the purpose in any of the human endeavors they mimicked. So they would make up reasons, rationales, as they went along—discarding perfectly sound, human, reasons for everything they did in favor of some of their own invention. Sometimes, to derive purposes that made sense to them, they attached meaning and significance to words, taken literally, rather than to the ideas the words represented. Adrift in misunderstood figures of speech, mistaken identities, and double entendres going off in all directions at once, Kelly's creatures wandered further and further from what appeared to have been their original intentions.

            One thing led to another by free association leap frog: it made a wonderful kind of logic all its own, but it left motivation in tatters somewhere along the way. An episode in the fall of 1950 began with the swamp's wholesale courtship of a skunk that turned into a brief panic about sea serpents that became a migration West that subjected everyone momentarily to the ministrations of the resident con man that resulted, finally, in a cow taking work as a cat.

            But you had to be there: it loses a lot in the telling.

            Easily distracted (from even the scripts they'd apparently undertaken), the residents of Kelly's swamp needed almost no encouragement to abandon the human roles they'd taken up so lightly in order to bask in the friendly glow of a fish-fry and perloo. In the fellowship of the feasting, the animals regained their good and common sense: concentrating upon the meat-and-potatoes of existence presumably regenerated them after the strain of behaving nonsensically like humans.

            The trick of Kelly's social satire was that we couldn't help but glimpse ourselves in his menage, looking just as silly as we often are. But if the animals —"nature's screechers"— knew we were silly, they didn't usually let on. Moreover, they remained blissfully unaware of their satirical function. They, after all, didn't take life as seriously as we: "It ain't nohow permanent," as Kelly—or was it Porkypine?—used to say. All of this is funny enough in itself, but Kelly went even further in honing the satirical cutting edge of his humor.

            In 1952, three years after the national syndication of Pogo began, Kelly ran Pogo for President against Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. Pogo lost (as you may have noticed), but the popularity of his campaign showed Kelly that the time was ripe to enter a whole new field of comedy. "It was the sort of period," Kelly wrote, "in which the naive boy cartoonist began to examine the gift horse's feet. He looked to see if they were straw or clay.... Crime investigations, a political campaign directed by PR men, real and fancied traitors in government...made the believer count all his beads to see if a few had stuck to the pot. I finally came to understand that if I were looking for comic material, I would not ever have to look long. We people manufacture it every day in a hundred ways. The news of the day would be good enough. Perhaps the complexion of the strip changed a little in that direction after 1951. After all, it is pretty hard to walk past an unguarded gold mine and remain empty-handed."

            Before long, the double meaning of the puns in the strip took on political as well as social implications, and the vaudeville routines frequently looked suspiciously like animals imitating people high in government. Just so we wouldn't miss the point, Kelly underscored his satirical intent with caricature: his animals had plastic features that seemed to change before our very eyes until they resembled those at whom the satire was directed. And the species suggested something about Kelly's opinions of his targets. Khrushchev showed up one time as a pig; Castro, as a goat. And Spiro Agnew appeared as a uniformed hyena; J. Edgar Hoover, as a bulldog. One consequence of this technique was that the verbal and the visual, the words and the pictures, were perfectly, inseparably, wedded—a supreme achievement in the art of the comic strip.

            "No cartoonist had more gifts than Walt Kelly," Jules Feiffer once wrote. "He drew like a dream and wrote better. And imagined even better than he wrote. Pogo's swamp was less a metaphor for our world than our world was a metaphor for Pogo's swamp; our reality, our attitudes, our excesses humanized, made tolerable by Kelly's poking fun at them. Kelly, among the most angry of satirists, was also the most benign, the most jovial, the most affectionate."

            Kelly did not reach the heights of this artistic achievement overnight. He grew up to it, then blossomed into full flower in the midst of that long summer afternoon that was the Eisenhower fifties. The seeds were sown in Kelly's youthful enterprises in the newspapering game while in high school, in his apprenticeship at the Walt Disney Studios, and in his journeyman labors for the burgeoning comic book industry.

            Kelly was an amusing and lucid writer of prose as well as a master cartoonist, and over the years he committed several autobiographical essays, most of which masqueraded as biography written by some anonymous author. Here's a typical tongue-in-cheek production: "The first two years of Walt Kelly's life were spent in idleness. This statement is not to be confused with the statement: The first two years of Walt Kelly's life were spent in Philadelphia. Both are true but the first is regrettable and the second is not. If a man must squander his youth, it can be done in Philadelphia with dignity and thrift."

            Born August 25, 1913, the son of Walter Crawford Kelly, a theatrical scene painter, and Genevieve MacAnnula, Walter Crawford Kelly, Jr., squandered only his infancy in the City of Brotherly Love and then moved with his parents to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where his father had obtained work in the Remington Arms munition plant. Once safely moved in, he tells us that he entertained the neighbors by singing such popular World War I ditties as "Mama Sell from Arm and Tears."  (This linguistic skill evidenced so early would run rampant in due course once Kelly launched Pogo.)    

            Eschewing idleness in this fresh venue, young Walt improved his natural drawing ability by constant practice until, at the age of thirteen, he sold his first political cartoon to the Bridgeport Post. By the time he was attending Warren Harding High School, he held an after-school job at the paper as a campus stringer, reporting school news and sports. At school, he was an associate editor of the school newspaper, and he did a great deal of artwork for it and for the yearbook—"under the impression that he was taking Algebra One," as Kelly put it later in his autobiographical essay.

            Graduating high school in 1930, he found work wrapping scrap cloth and sweeping up in a ladies' underwear factory. After three years of this scanty employment, he secured a job at the Post as a reporter. While there, he also produced his first regularly printed comic strip, an illustrated life of the city's most famous hometown boy, P.T. Barnum. It was an assignment that threatened to be prolonged into a life's work, Kelly said: "Every time the writer got Barnum to the death bed, old P.T. would get a flash and his entire life would [start to] pass again before his eyes" for another six-month run of the strip.

            After a year or so of this, Kelly left the paper and worked for a short time as a clerk and inspector for the Department of Public Welfare and then as a clerk in an art store. But he was proudest of his experiences as a working newspaperman, and throughout his life, his closest friends were journalists.

            In 1935, Kelly left Bridgeport to try freelancing his art in New York City, where, he said, he "starved quietly" but did some drawing for the embryo comic book industry. Late in the year, he moved to Los Angeles because his inamorata in Bridgeport had been transferred there. On January 6, 1936, Kelly joined the growing staff at Walt Disney Studios, working first in the story department, then in animation, on such features as Fantasia, Dumbo, Pinocchio, and The Reluctant Dragon. In September 1937, he married Helen Delacy, his Bridgeport sweetheart; they had three children.

            Although Kelly's later work bore none of the earmarks of the Disney style, he doubtless acquired much technical skill under the rigorous Disney training program. But he was not happy in the assembly-line work of animated cartooning, and so he seized the opportunity to leave that was afforded by the notorious labor dispute at the Studio in the spring of 1941. With friends on both sides of the picket line, he took a leave of absence to attend to "family problems" (his sister was ill) and was back East in a few days. Helen followed, and Kelly never returned to Disney.

            The Kellys settled in Darien, Connecticut, from which Walt made frequent forays into New York City to find work, usually in comic books. The comic book industry was on the cusp of a growth period almost unprecedented in periodical publishing. Virtually nonexistent less than a half-dozen years before, comic books would flood the country—and the world—during world War II. Although ostensibly manufactured for juvenile readers, comic books were purchased in hundreds of thousands of copies by soldiers, who, between trains and flights, in foxholes and bunks, found just the right kind of light escapist entertainment to while away the idle moments of their transitory, uncertain existence in the four-color pictorial narratives of these pulp magazines. And the producers of comic books were not long in tailoring a sizeable portion of their product for adult readership. In comic books of violent adventure, gaily-attired superheroes acquired buxom female attendants, and scantily-clad jungle queens supplanted Tarzan in the tropical forests. Kelly claimed to have been shocked by all this when he penned his autobiography:

            "He read with growing horror the kinds of comic books being left about where children could reach them, and decided that real juvenile work was his forte, rather than the adventure type of business. 'It was impossible for me to draw a naked woman,' he explains. 'It was blinding work. I would no sooner have her clothes of than I would removed my hat out of respect. With my eyes unshaded, I couldn't see what I was doing. Besides the editor said that as an adventure, man, I had better stick to drawing mice. So I concentrated on puppies, kittens, mice in red and blue pants, and elves ... every once in a while glancing back at the men who were grimly penciling out the Pueriles of Pauline, taking clothes off and dagging people with butcher knives.'"

            For a year—from roughly June 1941 to, say, September 1942—Kelly did various comic book features for Western/Dell, the first of which showed up in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies No. 3, which appeared on the newsstands late in 1941. Kelly drew "Kandi the Cave Kid" for that issue and the next three and then intermittently for three more. But his most impressive work of this period was on the first issue of Fairy Tale Parade, cover-dated April 1942. And he did miscellaneous other work for Western. But it wasn't until the summer or fall of 1942 that Pogo was conceived.

            About that time, Kelly had landed a regular assignment, drawing for Oskar Lebeck's Animal Comics, and Pogo appeared in the inaugural issue, cover-dated December 1942-January 1943. But Pogo was not yet a star player. He appeared first in a story starring a voracious alligator named Albert; Pogo was, Kelly said, "a sort of Jeff to Albert's Mutt." Not even that. Albert has the title role and plays a pivotal part in the story, but his principal second is a black kid named Bumbazine. Although Bumbazine is billed as Albert's co-star in the next three stories, it is clear that Kelly's imagination was on the side of the animals in his cast: he gave them all the best lines. Bumbazine is less and less a presence in the stories, and by early 1945, he has faded away entirely. Kelly said he dropped the character "because, being human, he was not as believable as the animals." Some historians have speculated about possible racial causes for Bumbazine's disappearance. While it would be impossible to discount this line of reasoning, it is more likely that Bumbazine simply failed to engage Kelly's creative energies. Fascinated by the antics of his animals, Kelly concentrated on them, and Bumbazine was gradually elbowed off-stage. And by mid-1945, Pogo was given equal billing with Albert.

            Most of the regulars in the Pogo cast first appeared in the pages of Animal Comics—although frequently, they are not called by the names they would later make famous in the newspaper funnies. The comic book was aimed at children, and so are Kelly's stories, but he nonetheless sometimes touched chords that could resonate only in adult readers (presumably reading to their offspring). And many of the themes that Kelly introduced in the comic book he would return to in the strip.

            Kelly worked in comic books for most of the decade, creating material for several Dell titles, Our Gang, The Brownies, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Santa Claus Funnies, and Easter with Mother Goose. He also did covers for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories and some interior pages. And he illustrated some children's books for Julian Messner, Inc., using the pseudonym Tony Maclay. During the War, exempt from active military service because of childhood rheumatic fever, he illustrated dictionaries and language guidebooks for the Foreign Language Unit of the Army Service Forces.

            In New York, Kelly renewed his friendship with an old Bridgeport Post chum, Niles White von Wettberg, who introduced him to John Horn, a fellow Newsweek staffer. Childhood illnesses had rendered all three men ineligible for military service, and they had much else in common. They shared a passion for newspapering, and they loved to talk politics in bars. For the next twenty years, the three of them had lunch together at least once a week in one or another of Manhattan's most convivial saloons. Through his friendship with Horn, Kelly met the editor of the a-borning New York Star, George Wells, who invited the cartoonist to be art director of the paper when it began publication in the summer of 1948. Animal Comics had ceased with its December 1947 issue, and Kelly was casting about for work to fill the gap in his schedule and in his wallet.

            The New York Star was what was left of a journalist's beatific dream, a reincarnation of PM, a newspaper founded to publish the truth as its staff saw it (not as it was seen by advertisers). When the Star folded after a meteoric seven-month run, The New Yorker said of it that it had been the "semi-official outlet of advanced liberal thought" put out by "a staff of indefatigable crusaders." Kelly was at home at the Star. And he was an inexhaustible worker. He did all the artwork for the paper—all column headings and decorations and the political cartoons (for which he invented, during the 1948 Presidential campaign between Thomas E. Dewey and Harry S Truman, a mechanical man to represent the notoriously stiff Dewey). And in late September, having decided the paper needed a comic strip, he resurrected the swampland characters he'd done for Animal Comics. Pogo made his newspaper debut on October 4, 1948.

            By this time, the feature's cast had taken fairly definite shape in Kelly's mind. Pogo was now the uncontested title character. According to Selby Kelly (Walt's widow) and Pogo historian  Steve Thompson, Pogo is "the friendly ideal we like to imagine ourselves to be." They go on to describe Pogo as "gentle, unassuming, level-headed, intelligent but not brainy, honest, forthright . . . the touchstone that keeps the swamp on an even keel. He can always be counted on to straighten out confusions, solve misunderstandings, organize the fish fry and keep a full pantry for everyone to borrow from." A rather bland personality, he is the neutral center around which the other characters revolve.

            Albert, no longer the titular character, frequently assumes that role by virtue of a transcendent ego. He thinks he's Pogo's best friend and, as Kelly and Thompson say, "will do Pogo good whether Pogo wants it or not." Because Albert sees himself in a heroic mold, he takes the center of the stage whenever the opportunity arises. His great redeeming trait is that he sometimes deserves that spotlight. Porky the porcupine is a suitably prickly personality—a sourpuss and a cynic, as Kelly and Thompson observe; but his show of cynicism masks a compassionate heart. Howland Owl is the ostensible brains of the strip; clever in a cunning, self-serving way, he is full of plans and plots, and he therefore initiates many of the characters' activities. The turtle, Churchy Lafemme, plays the good-natured dupe in many of Owl's schemes. And Beauregard Bugleboy the Bloodhound is full of himself and his tradition—"the noble dog," he often intones, referring, naturally, to himself. Over the years, Kelly would increase his cast by hundreds (not counting a host of un-named bugs and birds and bunny rabbits), but these six were his principal players.

            The strip accompanied the Star through the remaining weeks of its fated life, ceasing with the paper's last issue on January 28, 1949. But the brief four-month run had convinced Kelly that what he wanted to do was to draw a comic strip. For the next several weeks, he made the rounds of the syndicate offices in New York, finally selling Pogo to Post-Hall, which launched the strip anew on May 16.

            At first, the strip was much the same as it had been in Animal Comics and in the Star, a slapstick comedy with animals imitating humans in their various enterprises. The satire was on broad societal matters rather than specific political issues. But after a couple years, Kelly could no longer restrain himself. That gold mine of political foibles beckoned irresistibly.

            Following the Presidential contest of 1952, Kelly's first foray into the jungle of politics—this time with caricature as his machete was—was the next summer, and his prey was Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, whose self-serving crusade to rout Communists from government yielded a new term for smear campaigning, "McCarthyism." In the strip, the McCarthy caricature, a menacing wildcat named Simple J. Malarkey, is tarred with his own brush, a denouement of nicely ironic poetic justice that took place nearly a year before Edward R. Murrow's celebrated unmasking of McCarthy on television.

            One consequence of Kelly's satirical technique was that words and pictures were perfectly, inseparably, wedded, the very emblem of excellence in the art of the comic strip: neither meant much when taken by itself, but when blended, the verbal and the visual achieved allegorical impact and a powerful satiric thrust, high art indeed. (For a more thorough discussion of Kelly's artistry, check into a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies, a preview of which can be had by clicking here.)

            Kelly's linguistic hijinks did not end with accents.  He salted the strip with an inspired assortment of exclamations (Rowr, Oog, Org, Aaargh, Gack, and Rowrbazzle, f'instance) and memorable cant phrases, such as:  Albert, when donning some period costume or another for some occasion or another, could be depended upon to smirk at himself in the mirror and say, "Funny how a good lookin' fella looks handsome in anything he throw on."  Or, on another more exasperating occasion, he might growl, "If I could only write, I'd send a letter to the mayor if he could only read."  Or the legions of irate beetles who, while out strolling with their offspring, would take umbrage at some imagined slight from an unsuspecting bystander and exclaim, "Destroy a son's faith in his father, will you?" and attack the offending personage with a handy bumbershoot.

            Nor was Kelly content to leave his lingo at that: he made some of his characters speak in typography that suggested their personalities.  The fastidiously censorious Deacon Mushrat spoke in Old English Black-letter type; P.T. Bridgeport, the promoter, in circus poster headlines.

            Kelly drew with a brush.  And what a brush it was.  He pencilled his strips with a light blue pencil and then lay into the sketches with a fluid brush stroke, sometimes bold and brash, sometimes delicate and winsome.  His line waxed thick and waned thin, and wherever it was thick, it gave the figures volume and weight and the appearance of Pla-do flexibility.  And as he went along, Kelly embellished the drawings with the most exquisite hachuring, little fish-hook lines that gave the pictures texture and the animals furry or scaly hides.

            Although renowned for its political satire, Pogo is much more than a political strip. Much of its humor is driven by the personalities of its characters, and Kelly often gave them their heads, letting them take the action wherever they inclined. And Kelly always delighted in vaudevillian routines, sight gags, slapstick, and word play. One of his earliest forays into the latter occurred around Christmas 1948 in the Star. The characters all gathered around to sing carols, and because, as usual, they only half understand what they hear humans saying (or maybe only half-hear what they think they understand), their version of "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly" came out "Deck the Halls with Boston Charlie." That's the way they heard it; that's the way they sang it. "This caught on with a number of elderly child minds," Kelly later wrote, "and finally children themselves. There was relief in it, and few feelings were bruised. Those that protested against this violation of all that was holy were told as gently as possible that the carol in question was one that was left over from the midwinter pre-Christian pagan rites celebrating the return of the long day in ancient Britain." Over the years, Kelly would write six verses for his parody. And Pogo fans took them to heart (which is to say, they memorized the all).

            Pogo was responsible for the spread of two other catch phrases. The first arose from Churchy LaFemme's paranoia about Friday the Thirteenth, which for him could spring out of the bushes at him any day of the week: "Friday the Thirteenth comes on Wednesday this month," he'd shriek. The other phrase has been adopted by every pressure group in the country at one time or another to support their cause: "We have met the enemy, and he is us," Pogo said on several occasions, in support, usually, of ecological campaigns. Kelly's first use of the expression, however, was not in the strip but in the introduction he wrote to a reprint book, The Pogo Papers: "There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us humans are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve, then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us. Forward!"

            On Sundays, Kelly avoided politics altogether in favor of parody and other fun-loving nonsense. On Sundays, he celebrated the World Series every year. And the Easter Bunny. And fairy tales. And he produced parodies, continuities, that often ran for weeks. The parodies are plays-within-a-play: the Pogo ensemble decides to enact the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, for instance, and Pogo puts on a wig of blond curls and takes the part of the heroine. Albert, a little muddled as usual about details, takes the heroic part of the woodsman, having confused Goldilocks with Little Red Riding Hood.

            Pogo is not only high art: it is therapeutic. It is uproariously funny.

            In the last years of Kelly's stewardship of the feature, his political satire seemed sometimes a little strained, but his graphics matured into a dazzling display of decorative technique, and he reached for new allegorical heights in a curious long sequence set outside the swamp in "Pandemonia," a venue of the Australian outback that Kelly populated with prehistoric characters and features reminiscent of the work of a cartoonist he admired, T. S. Sullivant.

            Kelly divorced his first wife in 1951, and later the same year, he married Stephanie Waggony, with whom he had three children. She died of cancer in late 1969, and by then Kelly's diabetes and heart condition were creating fatal complications. He was virtually an invalid the last two years of his life; a gangrenous leg was amputated in October 1972, but he continued to produce the strip, even from a hospital room, and worked on an animated cartoon of his creation. He married his animation assistant Selby Daley (Margaret Selby) in 1971, and she supervised the production of the strip after Kelly's death October 18, 1973, in New York. She discontinued the feature on July 20, 1975, after paying all the medical bills. It was hard enough "being Kelly," she said at the time, but it was impossible with the steadily shrinking size of comic strips.

            At its best, Pogo was a masterpiece of comic strip art, an Aesopian tour de force—humor at each of two levels, one vaudevillian, the other satirical—and it opened to a greater extent than ever the possibilities for political and social satire in the medium of the newspaper comic strip. Without Pogo, there may never have been a Doonesbury.  We can't say for sure, of course.  What we can say for sure is that Walt Kelly is sorely missed.  Ditto his Pogo.  Those of us who loved the strip can doubtless hear its praises being sung in this characteristic effusion from Mam'zelle Hepzibah, the swamp's most desirable female, a svelte skunk lady, who, even now, I can hear exclaiming in her vivacious Gallic accents:  "Ah! M'seiur ees GORGING!  Magnifique!  I applaud!  Tres beau!  La viand rose!  Le baton rouge!  Le fromage bleu!"

            Praise indeed.  And Kellyesque on a grand scale.

Bibliography.  The only biographical information on Walt Kelly is contained in various volumes reprinting segments of Pogo.  In Ten Every-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo (1959), Kelly himself traces the history of the strip, annotating certain sequences with biographical background.  And a series of reprint books edited for Simon and Schuster's Fireside imprint by Selby Kelly and Bill Crouch, Jr., contain assorted autobiographical and biographical articles and essays:  The Best of Pogo (1982), Pogo Even Better (1984), Outrageously Pogo (1985), Pluperfect Pogo (1987), and Phi Beta Pogo (1989).  A useful supplement to these materials is Pogo Files for Pogophiles:  A Retrospective on 50 Years of Walt Kelly's Classic Comic Strip written by Selby Kelly and Steve Thompson (Richfield, Minnesota:  Spring Hollow Books, 1992).  Much of the comic strip has been reprinted by Simon and Schuster in two dozen paperback books published during the run of the strip (beginning with Pogo in 1951 and concluding with Pogo's Bats and Belles Free in 1976). In an on-going project, Fantagraphics Books began a systematic reprinting of the strip's entire run in 1992 and with the eleventh volume has reached February 1954.  Walt Kelly and Pogo:  A Bibliography and Checklist compiled by Steve Thompson (Spring Hollow Books, 1987) attempts a complete listing of all Kelly's work and all published information about him. Thompson also edits and publishes The Fort Mudge Most, the "official" bi-monthly newsletter/magazine of the Pogo Fan Club, six issues for $25 (Spring Hollow Books, 6908 Wentworth Avenue So., Richfield, MN 55423). Kelly's papers and some original art are archived at the Ohio State University Cartoon, Graphic, and Photographic Arts Research Library in Columbus.


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