Derek McCulloch is one of those people involved with comics who always does things his own way. Derek's written several ambitious, multigenerational graphic novels, including Gone to Amerikay (with Colleen Doran), Pug (with Greg Espinoza) and Stagger Lee (with Shepherd Hendrix). Both books are complex, novelistic, satisfying reads. Derek is following up those books with yet another ambitious creation: Displaced Persons, illustrated by Anthony Peruzzo. As you'll discover in this interview, Displaced Persons is itself displaced – a book that was started, abandoned and restarted over the last few years. As you'll also discover, this new graphic novel is as ambitious and satisfying as its predecessors.
I also spoke to Anthony Peruzzo in this interview. As you can see from the artwork that accompanies this interview, Anthony is a talented artist with a keen eye for setting and detail; it was fun getting to know him for this interview.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: So, Displaced Persons is yet another ambitious graphic novel from you. Think you can do enough multiple storyline, multiple character type dramas set in the real world?
Derek McCulloch: This is actually the second one that I wrote, but it ended up being the fourth one in print. Just because of the vagaries of the graphic novel printing process, this one took a really long time to get done. I was thinking after Gone to Amerikay that I need to mix things up a little bit for my next one. I'm kind of "typing" myself here…not to say that they're all the same thing; they're all done very differently. But yeah, they're all multiple story lines and multiple time periods, and it might be nice to just do a story that takes place over a weekend, for once.
CB: I know how you love to work on big projects. So I'd imagine that's a big part of your approach to this.
McCulloch: Everybody in comics has a dream project that they'll never get around to, I suppose, and mine is a five-volume, thousand-page behemoth that will take place over the course of seventy years, all in Oakland. I don't know that I'll ever be able to sell it to anybody, but it's the thing I think about in the back of my mind when I'm working on everything else.
CB: These won't be the super-powered protectors of Oakland.
McCulloch: There's the problem. No, it's just about people.
CB:[sighs] Why can't you compromise? Create graphic novels about men with powers!
McCulloch: Anthony and I are actually talking about a couple of other book projects that still aren't super hero themes, but maybe a little closer to the zone of what would be considered the comics mainstream.
CB: You were into superhero stuff when you were younger, but it's just really something you've moved away from. Your interests, and most of your reading and consumption of media is outside of comic-related stuff. I think that influences what you like to create in comics. I know your love for Damon Runyon, for example, and there's definitely a bit of Runyon in Displaced Persons.
McCulloch: There is, and there's a bit of Runyon in Pug, too. The thing I'm most excited about in my work currently is that there's actual Runyon in the stuff that I'm doing because that’s what it is, it's Runyon stuff. The next book that comes out for me is probably going to be the anthology of adaptations of Damon Runyon stories that I've been putting together on and off for the last several years. It's not nearly as long as Displaced Persons. Anthony did one of those stories with me, Shepherd Hendrix, we did another story.
Ron Turner, not Ron Turner the owner of Last Gasp Comics, but my high school buddy Ron Turner, my long-time collaborator, whom I did comics with back in the 1980s, is the art director for the book, putting the whole thing together.
CB: With Displaced Persons being a bit of an older book, I wonder if the Runyon roots were a little on the surface, especially in the first storyline.
Anthony, how did you approach creating the period elements of the story?
Anthony Peruzzo: A ton of research basically. Derek mentioned the Runyon book earlier, and Ron, the art director, put together this massive digital archive of old movies from the time period of the Runyon book. So I basically did the same thing for Displaced Persons. It was a huge challenge. I bought DVDs like The Wolfman, Bullitt, The Streets of San Francisco, etc. There are probably hundreds of film stills I gathered of San Francisco from the '40s, '60s and 90s.
For the really old stuff- like 1800's, I had to dig into the San Francisco Library photo archives, which was a huge help.
I feel like Displaced Persons was kind of like my "grad school" of comics. I learned a lot and it really shaped my process as a comic artist.
CB: Derek, why don't you talk a little bit about the over-arching different character arcs are in Displaced Persons, and also what you see as the main working themes?
McCulloch: I just have to say really quickly that at the time that I wrote Displaced Persons, I had no idea that I'd ever be writing anything that had anything to do with Damon Runyon. What Runyon influenced there is in Displaced Persons is probably just apparent to me. I'd say that Dashiell Hammett was a larger influence, particularly in the '30s section. Hammett was, of course, himself a private detective in San Francisco in the 1920s, actually—well before my story takes place, but he knew the area very well and wrote about it in very specific geographical and local detail in The Maltese Falcon. It's kind of impossible, I think, to set a detective story in San Francisco in 1939 and not think about Dashiell Hammett.
CB: What do you see as the glue that holds the story together?
McCulloch: The glue that holds the story together is the larger theme of displacement. The idea of this family's own displacement in time as a metaphor for the way that the big forces of history act to displace real families in regular time. Wars, famines, pestilence. Did the galley you get have the all the text pages and chapter breaks in it?
CB: Yes, it did. With the time lines and such.
McCulloch: Yes, the time lines. That was an element I had in my head for years and I was never really quite sure exactly how it would play out. I just knew I wanted to somehow graphically represent the linear time line of the family that the story revolves around, with the linear time line of wars, famine and pestilence in the twentieth century. I cobbled together a comprehensive list of all of those things and laid them out on paper, and it was just this horrible jumble of dates that made no sense graphically.
I remember saying to Rantz Hoseley, when he was working on the project back in 2007, that I had no idea what this is going to look like but when it comes time to do the book we'll just give it to John Roshell from Comicraft, and he'll figure it out. Seven years later, long after Rantz left the book and Anthony Peruzzo took over on the art, that's exactly what happened.
We gave it all to John and said I have no idea how this works, or looks graphically, but I trust that you can make it look good. He made it look great. He made it readable, and comprehensible, and it served the function that I intended of visibly underscoring the theme that underlines each of the three stories of people who are displaced.
In each chapter there's at least one character outside the family who has been displaced from their native land, by political turmoil, or war, or what have you. In the first chapter, obviously, is a pretty prominent character, Davy Abramowitz, who's fled Nazi Germany, and relocated in San Francisco.
In the middle chapter, you have a Cuban character who left, came from a privileged family, who fled Cuba after Batista was toppled.
Then in the 1990s chapter we have a pretty minor character, but he was born in Viet Nam and an orphan, and came over in Operation Babylift in the 1970s and has been raised in San Francisco.
Peruzzo: I remember telling John I had this idea of the timeline looking kind of like the old wallpaper on Subway (sandwich shop) walls, where they had all of the old images of subways, people, etc. He really translated that into what you see. He did a heck of a job.
CB: Yeah, it's just a tiny allusion to Operation Babylift, and it definitely had me intrigued. Having lived kinda through the 1990s tech boom, the whole attitude in that chapter really rang true to me. It felt very real to me – the gold rush mentality, the whole '90s Silicon Valley culture.
McCulloch: What's really funny about that chapter, is when I started working on this book, 1999 was the near future. When I first figured out the structure of it in my head, and when I finally got around to writing the script in 2007, 1999 was as much a period piece as the other two parts in the sense that I had to take some care in putting period markers in it.
I mean, there were things in the 1930s chapter that I was just really excited to put in that don't make any difference at all to the story or anything but are really great background elements. I've always loved the concept of the Automat restaurant. Preston Struges's Easy Living had a scene set in an Automat, and I got Rantz a copy of that film and he just loved it too. He loved all the design, and it was great how in these restaurants you would go and open up these little plastic doors and take out fully cooked meals in crockery. It seems today like a very elegant fast food.
I don't even know if Automats existed on the West Coast, actually. They always seemed like a very East Coast thing. I tried getting some specific information about whether there were any on the West Coast or in the Bay Area, and I couldn't get confirmation, so I just thought, oh what the hell, in my story there are, there was at least one automat in San Francisco, because I put it there. In the '60s, the 1969 chapter, one thing I was really adamant to have was a 45 center.
CB: What is that?
McCulloch: A 45 RPM record, weird-shaped yellow plastic centers you could put on and play in your turntable. I was really specific about that in the script. I wanted one visible. Because I've always loved the design on those things and I just know that there are so many people reading this book who will have never seen one in their life until they see it in that chapter.
There had to be stuff like that in the 1990s section, too. It's weird when you work on a story that's set now, whenever now is, when you're working, you have no idea what's going to be some kind of period marker at some point in the future. So it was good that I had a lag of a few years there to be able to think of some stuff, at least, that could have that function in the 1999 chapter – the reference to Y2K is the main one that springs to mind now. Because people are gonna forget what a big – they've already forgotten, what a huge, weird deal that seemed like at the time.
CB: I guess it's a little like doing a movie now and when you look at it twenty years from now, all the markers are different.
McCulloch: Yeah. You don't know looking at it now what's going to stand out twenty years from now. Which is kind of an interesting thing to think about, really, watching a movie now and trying to pick out what's going to look so 2014 when you look back at it.
When I started the story, 1999 was the near future and when I wrote the script it was the past, and now that it's finally coming out, seven years after the script was written, there are going to be people reading with zero memory of any of those three time periods. Kind of blows my mind to think about it, but it is true.
CB: To your children and mine, these are just kind of distant concepts.
McCulloch: People who are eighteen now were born in 1996. So, they were three in 1999.
CB: Right, exactly. Well, I mean, my daughter, who was born in 1999, starts high school in the fall.
McCulloch: There you go.
CB: Anthony, what sort of research did you do into the design elements of the different time periods?
Peruzzo: A lot of googling, haha. I mentioned films earlier. I had to make stuff up as well. Pinterest started around the time I was drawing the book, so I used that a lot to keep track of the period. I'd bring up all of my photos on Pinterest from a certain time period and it really helped keep me in that space- the feel of 1939 or whatever.
CB: Is it easier or harder these days to do references? It can be so easy to find a reference that I'm sure that readers are pickier than they were before the Internet became so prevalent.
Peruzzo: Exactly. It easy but also very frustrating. Sometimes you are looking for a particular piece of clothing, or place, and you only get fragments. You really have to take a leap of faith and fill in the gaps.
In the 1999 chapter, Derek features a restaurant that has since closed. There were pictures of the interior, but it was hard to get a sense of the layout, so I had to guess as best as I could. When Derek looked at the drawings, and Derek had frequented the establishment, he mentioned I put them in the wrong area of the place, but it wasn't such a huge deal to correct it. We left it as is and moved on. It's really trying your best to get a feel for the period and not get too hung up on the small details.
CB: Anthony, what research did you do into the landmarks and other settings of the book? There's a strong sense of place in this book.
Peruzzo: Yeah, like I said, I wanted San Francisco to be a character. We have landmarks in there like the clock tower on the Wharf, but also the interesting architecture. Nowhere else in the world do you see buildings like you do in San Francisco. It is immediately recognized, with buildings on these gigantic steep hills. It's exciting to draw the scenery and I hope I captured it well enough for people who live there.
I was actually born in the Bay Area, but never really lived there. I have family there and visit quite a bit, but I live in Minneapolis, which at times feels like a world away.
CB: This isn't a period piece as much as it's a family piece, though. It's more of a chronicle of the various ways that the family is displaced, which I thought was an interesting take on things. It's definitely a generational saga, you could say.
McCulloch: There's a thing that I wrote — a promo that we did for the book. It was about how when you look at family history compared to world history, it's similar to looking at rings on a tree.
That if you look at the rings on a tree, if you look at the spaces between the rings on a tree, you can see where the drought years were, the long winters were, and all this information about the greater world, from looking at the progress of the growth of the individual tree.
A family tree is very similar. That if you see somebody born in Poland in 1908, and their child was born in Poughkeepsie in 1947, there's a significance to that that you can draw between the rings of those trees.
While I was writing that, I wasn't even thinking of another important thematic element in the book, which is trees. We have this tree on the front cover of the book. There is this particular tree in Golden Gate Park that plays a pivotal element in the displacement of all these people, and intentionally, I wrote that intending to tie together to the idea of the family tree.
But somehow that idea was not in my head when I said that about the tree rings in the press release, it did not occur to me how well I was accidentally tying it back to my own themes.
CB: Anthony, what other material would we know your work from?
Peruzzo: I worked with Derek on shorts in Popgun and Fractured Fables. I've illustrated a few stories in Nightmare World — all of these are from Image. I did my own graphic novels when I started out eight years ago (don't look them up they are terrible). But this really is the first large project I've done.
CB: I know you weren't the first artist attached to this project. What was it like coming in while things were shifting around?
Peruzzo: That's the way things have worked for me on a lot of projects. I'm kind of like the artist "closer" on projects when another artist bails. I had seen the previous art on the book- I think Rantz got to 75 pages or something. I basically ignored what was done previously and started over. The coloring ideas and format were kept for the most part, but I had a much different idea in how I wanted to draw the book. I wanted it to look ethereal or dreamlike, which is why I used a more painterly approach with the washes.
I think I also concentrated more on scene and environment. It was critical to make San Francisco and the time period a character, so a lot of my effort went into establishing space for the characters to exist in.
CB: Along with the displaced family, by society, there are sort of displaced characters, too. And you can almost call these McGuffin sorts of characters in the midst of it. Are they meant to be more literal characters, or symbolic characters?
McCulloch: I never thought of treating them as anything other than literally. When they interact with all the other characters, they become involved with their lives in different ways, in some cases only briefly. That's an interesting thought – not one that would have occurred to me, actually.
When Rantz and I first pitched this book to Heidi MacDonald, when she was still in Vertigo, back in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Probably the early '00s, I guess. We figured aw, Heidi's our friend, she'll buy our book.
There's your object lesson, for anybody who wants to go that route. She turned it down. One of the things she said to me at the time, she said "You know you're really gonna have to explain it all, don't you?" That comment just lodged and festered in my head for years. I really resisted it, because I always think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, versus 2010: Odyssey II. The first one gives you mystery and unanswered questions, and the second one gives you explanations, and which is the one that stays with you? I always think that leaving the mystery to linger is gonna be better.
But that idea just stayed there, and I did ultimately feel there needed to be a kind of a linchpin moment for the whole thing. For the longest time I had no idea what it was, until I came up with something that itself tied in with the idea of displacement. I'm talking around the subject here because I don't want to be giving away too much of the book, but the prologue sequence for the middle chapter, the story that Gerhard Schroeder tells around the campfire in 1879, is, I hope as ambiguous enough that it is and isn't an explanation, which is as close as I want to get to it.
CB: Okay. We'll leave it cryptic, Derek.
McCulloch: It's better if the reader has something to explain to themselves, you know? Reading and writing, and every literary method is collaborative. Film is obviously collaborative, comics are obviously collaborative, but you write a novel by yourself and it's still collaborative because half of the job is done by the writer and half of the job is done by the reader, and it's always going to be a different book for whoever is reading it. That's my feeling, anyway.
CB: Well, you're the writer. It should be your feeling.
McCulloch: And you're the reader.
CB: Yeah, personally, as someone who doesn't need answers to everything in life, I like having that ambiguity, I liked having just the sense that these are characters who are just not explained, and that makes them more interesting in some way. Would could they be going through? What is their mental space? How do they overcome their sort of strange circumstances to still be able to enjoy their family life? These are central characters, rich characters, who have a very kind of unique viewpoint on things.
McCulloch: Yeah. That was one of the tricky things about how to approach that exactly. It's an interesting dilemma existentially because they're literally people who don't have a past. No one knows their past and they don't know their own past. They just have to, at whatever stage in life they are, suddenly, define themselves all over again in an unfamiliar context.
Some of them are more successful at it than others, which again functions metaphorically for the real-world idea of displacement, and of people who come to a new, foreign land, and then have to start their lives over again. Some of them are going to be more successful about it than others.
CB: As much as anything, too, we're always all carrying around our pasts in different ways. So what if you didn't have that, but you still had a sense of who you are? It's an interesting paradox, because you both have a past and a personality.
McCulloch: You do and you don't, know where you came from.
CB: Right. And so that's the kind of things that I enjoy having a certain amount of resonance in the story.
McCulloch: I hope so.
CB: Derek, You mentioned that earlier, when talking to Dashiell Hammett, but I keep flipping through the book and finding scene after scene that looks directly like it's from the pages of a newspaper, in a way.
McCulloch: Definitely. In all the graphic novels I've had published so far I've had a real obsession with getting the geographic details right, getting the setting right.
With Stagger Lee, neither Shep nor I had ever been to St Louis when we made the book, but we worked from an enormous amount of photo reference, and we did a lot of research, tried as well as we could from a distance to get the place right.
In Pug, I never even say what city it takes place in, but it is a specific place, a specific real environment, and I gave Greg a lot of photo reference and I put a lot of clues in the text, that if you knew enough about this place, you know where it is.
With Gone to Amerikay, Colleen and I both went kinda bananas making sure that we had very specific real place references. We even went and shot photos there together of different places that were going to show up in the book.
With Displaced Persons, it was a little easier because I actually live here in the Bay Area and I got to call out stuff that was right in front me. That shows up particularly in the 1999 segment. There are environments there that are just — like the office building I worked at for twenty years, we used that as a model. The place I went for lunch every day, we set a scene there.
There was one scene where we were, this is one of the little tragedies of the book, in the 1999 chapter, where Lily and her husband go out to dinner to a place in the Mission. The place that they go to is a real restaurant called Ti Couz, it’s a crêperie. It was a favorite dining spot for my wife and I – we used to go there quite frequently. When Rantz was still working on the book and came out to do reference photos with us in, I think 2008, we all went out to dinner at Ti Couz that night, and he took the opportunity to obsessively photograph every inch of that restaurant. He did a 360 panorama. He photographed the plates, the crêpes, the wait staff. He wanted to make sure he had every last detail of this place for this scene.
Then years passed and Rantz wasn't on the book anymore, and Anthony couldn't come out here but I took some video reference for him of the real places, the office building and the lunch place. I went to get photos of Ti Couz and found that it had gone out of business, which was a real tragedy regardless of the book, because it was such a good restaurant.
Rantz, very very kindly made available to us all of his extensive photo archives that he had taken for the book. He'd taken a ton of photos of Golden Gate Park, and of Ocean Beach, which figures prominently in all chapters, but the one thing he didn't have was his photos of Ti Couz, he couldn't find them anywhere, and it was the one thing that couldn't be replaced.
I managed to show Anthony photos off the Internet of the exterior of what it looked like when it was still in business. Because no one puts up pictures of the interior of a restaurant, or at least practically nobody does. There weren't any up that we could find, anyway. Anthony faked it as best as he could and he got it pretty close in a lot of respects. But that was a big shame. I was really sorry about that.
CB: Well, of course, would anyone know the difference? Anyone?
McCulloch: No. Nobody would. But I would. I would know how real it is. Of course I’m totally contradicting myself about the Automats that may not have even existed on the West Coast, but I do think this is the whole point of that sort of thing. If you know, making it, if the artist knows, making it, in their heart of hearts, that this is exactly what this place looks like, that comes true. Whether you know it or not as a reader, that's part of what sells you on it – what makes it real.
CB: So you think that's important as a reader, too. Like thinking, he knows that.
McCulloch: I don't think anybody will know why they know…you know? It's a feeling that comes through on the pages. You're not looking at it going, oh why yes, this is the right fork, I can see that this is the fork they used, but you feel the truth.
CB: This is exactly what Colleen was talking about, and this is a story I tell about meeting her. She was like so obsessed about getting everything right in Gone to Amerikay, which I guess may explain part of why this book has taken so long to reach newsstands, or comic shops, because of the insane amount of detail involved.
McCulloch: Displaced Persons had its own particular set of long tangled problems. Anthony actually, he was a rocket getting this book done. He turned pages out like a metronome. He moved really quickly, which was great. But every stage of it from inception, through writing, to the long protracted production period which went through several different artists, through actual production with Image, each step of it has had different kinds of problems to make things take a little longer than they perhaps should take, or would normally take. I always say: I've been at it fifteen years. A couple more months are not gonna make a difference to me.
Peruzzo: I'm not sure I was like a metronome, but I was pretty dedicated to getting the book done. I have a lot of pride and wanted to prove, hey, I can do a big complicated project like this! Also, I love the story. I think it's easily the best thing Derek has ever written. It's probably the best script I've ever seen. How could I fail that? I thought I owed it to the story to get this thing done and get it done as best as I could.
But Derek is right, it seemed like a cursed project. I finished the art about a year ago and we've had to wait on timing for publication — had to wait for this or that. Publishing a book has a ton of moving parts and it can be a long time before it sees printed ink to paper. I'm looking forward to August and seeing the book in my hands.
CB: Is this just one of those projects that takes forever? Or is there a common denominator?
McCulloch: I think this project was just accident-prone. But I'm not gonna sweat that. It's out now, and that's what counts.
Peruzzo: It was a displaced project!
CB: I've been a couple places where people referenced Stagger Lee, so Derek's name is out there now and I wonder if the reception of this book would be a little different than if it was just the second book that was out there?
McCulloch: Yeah, it could be. I dunno.
CB: It could be that you built up some credit with readers.
McCulloch: We'll see. I was really very pleasantly surprised to hear from a prominent retailer that I have a following in his stores/ I didn't know I had a following anywhere.
CB: Yeah. I'm always shocked when people reference my reviews, too. Like, wait, you're reading me? What? How is that even possible? Oh, good, there's someone on the other end, right? That's one thing about comics: you're so much in your own little world, you and your collaborators and your teammates or whatever, a lot of the time you just have no idea what anyone else is thinking of what you're doing.
McCulloch: Oh yes, yes. Until you get to a certain level in these things, there's always this feeling that you're talking to yourself. I'm really comfortable with that, so it's fine with me.
CB: What's coming up next? How's that stage play coming along?
McCulloch: Yeah, I'm working on two different plays. One is an adaptation of Damon Runyon’s Madame La Gimp, which also has had some ups and downs along the road but the last I heard from the producer is that he is scheduling us to be on stage in October of 2015.
CB: Wow, you've worked so hard and so far ahead.
McCulloch: There's a lot of work that has to be done between now and then – we don't have a score written yet. We have, I think, a musical team in place, and that's gonna be something. Did you know that I'm writing lyrics?
McCulloch: Yeah, I started as off as a librettist and I ended up being the lyricist too. Surprised me as much as anybody else, to learn that that's something that I can do.
CB: Yeah? I guess in a way it can't be that different from doing comics. The work must have a rhythm and a beat.
McCulloch: The mechanics of it is really very similar for me. From the very first thing I've ever worked on in comics until today—it's always been like a little magic trick for me, where I'll write this thing in a vacuum, and I'll have some idea in my head of what maybe it should look like, but then I'll send it off to the artist and it comes back to me, and it's not at all what I pictured, but it is what it ought to be.
It is a real thing. Somebody’s taken the schematic descriptions of actions and transformed it magically into a real comic book. My work doing lyrics has been almost exactly the same thing. Everything I've done has been lyrics first, which is not always the way it’s done, but I will write a set of lyrics in a vacuum and I will send them off to my collaborator. Then back they'll come to me with a finished demo of a song of my words.
There’s pretty much no relation to my rudimentary melody I had in my head while I was writing it, but it is a real song. It's the same strange magic trick of taking my starting blueprint and giving me back the finished thing.
CB: Yeah, yeah. That's a good way of putting it. A strange, odd sort of collaboration where you're passing something back and forth, and each one is performing work on it, but it's not the same as what either of you would have created by yourself.
McCulloch: Exactly. Exactly. If you're working with people who know what they're doing, it works. If both ends of the equation put the right thing into it, you end up with something good.
CB: Mhmm. We all have good days and bad days, too, so you also have to even things out. You have to make sure that they all work correctly. It's a fascinating way of doing your work, but I guess as a writer, you have to do that.
So a couple more graphic novels, and also more plays. How do you keep yourself from going crazy with all your projects? I keep going crazy from all my projects.
McCulloch: The thing is, most of the work on them was done a really long time ago, and I really need to get something new going now.
What I'm specifically working on right now is the outline of the Stagger Lee musical. We've gone through a few different versions of that, and we're still trying to get it right. I need to keep working on shepherding Damon Runyon's Broadway, the Runyon graphic novel anthology, into production. I hope that's out next year, next summer maybe.
Then I have a project I want to do, a publication that I want to put together with the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund, which will be involved. As I mentioned, Anthony and I have two projects that we're talking about that we have a whole bunch of work to do for. I have to make sure I can get them done before Anthony has too much work elsewhere to work with me anymore.
The things that I'm talking with Anthony about actually, are periodicals. I'm gradually being forced to come to the conclusion that putting out one book every few years is not the way to build a profile in comics.
CB: That's a strange evolution, that it seemed for a while like the industry was moving toward graphic novels being the main medium for production, but oddly it seems, like especially at Image, like the monthlies really drive it.
McCulloch: Yeah, it's still the way you get your name known, is my having your name out on something every month. I think it's time I had me some of that.
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