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CSBG Archive

Comic Book Legends Revealed #452

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Welcome to the four hundred and fifty-first in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous four hundred and fifty. This week, did Stan Lee really debate Fredric Wertham or Gershon Legman? Discover the surprising first comic book appearance by Conan! Plus, discover the issue of Doctor Strange that was lettered with a script that didn’t match the comic!

Let’s begin!

NOTE: The column is on three pages, a page for each legend. There’s a little “next” button on the top of the page and the bottom of the page to take you to the next page (and you can navigate between each page by just clicking on the little 1, 2 and 3 on the top and the bottom, as well).

COMIC LEGEND: Stan Lee debated Fredric Wertham and/or Gershon Legman on their views about comic books.


Reader Greg P. wrote in recently to ask about something he read in Stan Lee’s 2002 autobiography, Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (written with George Mair), and whether it was true or not.

Here is the passage from Lee’s book, about Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that violence in comic books were harmful to children.


To me, Wertham was a fanatic, pure and simple. I used to debate with him, which was fun because I usually won – but that was rarely publicized. He once claimed he did a survey that demonstrated that most of the kids in reform schools were comicbook readers. So I said to him, “If you do another survey, you’ll find that most of the kids who drink milk are comicbook readers. Should we ban milk?” His arguments were patently sophistic, and there I’m being charitable but he was a psychiatrist so people listened.

Lee then detailed a story of an old Timely “funny animal” comic book cover that drew the ire of Wertham:

Well, I was invited to have one of my Lee/Wertham debates at New York University at a class that discussed social issues. Dr. Wertham couldn’t attend, but sent one of his acolytes to speak for him. If memory serves, his last name sounded something like Legman. Out friend Legman held up that same giraffe cover that I’ve just described and started ranting about the fact that every young reader certainly understoof the subliminal sexual message being so blatantly exhibited in that drawing. It was hard for me to reconcile something subliminal being blatant, but who was I to contradict a follower of Fredric Wertham?

When the professor and his mystified students asked the raging crusader to explain what the hell he was talking about, he said that the giraffe’s neck obviously represented the male organ and – well, you can guess the rest. Within minutes, the erudite Mr. Legman was ushered out of the classroom and ordered never to return as the professor apologized to the students and me for Legman’s obscene tirade.

So, as to whether any of this happened.

First off, Lee and Wertham never had any debates. Wertham thought of people like Lee as essentially the lowest of the low, and would never indulge in actually debating with them.

Secondly, the Legman that Lee is referring to is Gershon Legman, whose book Love and Death actually predated Seduction of the Innocent, and dealt more with the idea that the depiction of violence in popular culture was a result of the repression of sex. Later in life, Legman actually claimed to have ghost-written Seduction of the Innocent.

Anyhow, there do not seem to be any evidence of Lee actually debating Legman, either. In fact, the one notable example we have of Lee actually debating someone related to Wertham came many years after Wertham’s peak, and at a time when Lee was much more well-known in the comic book field. In 1968, Lee debated a colleague of Dr. Wertham’s, Dr. Hilde Mosse on the Barry Farber radio program on WOR-AM Radio in New York (the whole thing is transcribed in Danny Fingeroth and Roy Thomas’ great book, The Stan Lee Universe). In that debate, Lee retells the same basic story about Legman he told in his autobiography, only this time he describes the events as occurring in a lecture by Legman that Lee attended. A lecture that did not end with anyone ushering Legman off of the stage. Now that certainly sounds a lot more believable, no?

Story continues below

Lee obviously DID greatly disagree with Wertham’s beliefs, and Lee did a fine job in the 1968 debate with Mosse.

In addition, even back in the early 1950s, when Wertham was at his peak, Lee certainly was outspoken about his distaste for Wertham’s attitudes, as were most comic book publishers. Lee actually wrote a scathing indictment on Wertham in a 1953 issue of Suspense. Check it out (with art by Joe Manneely)…





So it was not like Lee was some Johnny-come-lately when it came to denouncing Wertham. He was all over the guy during Wertham’s peak. However, Lee did not testify in front of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and never actually publicly interacted with Fredric Wertham. Like I noted, Lee and Timely were not exactly at the top of the comic book food chain back in 1953, so it is understandable that Lee would not be more of a public face on the issue (unlike William Gaines, whose EC Comics were a much bigger deal at the time and definitely DID become the face of the issue). So it is perfectly normal for Lee and Wertham not to interact with each other during the 1950s. But it is worth pointing out that they did not actually interact.

Hope that helps, Greg!

On the next page, was there a Conan comic book years before Marvel’s Conan adaptation?

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You can see the seeds of Stan’s ’60s persona in that story. “You’d look miserable too if you were a zombie!”

Neat job of researching the Stan Lee story. Once again I recommend The Ten Cent Plague to anyone who wants a good look at the anti-comics attitudes of the Wertham era.

I seem to recall Murray Boltinoff or Mort Weisinger made a similar claim about arguing with Weisinger (“He said 90 percent of juvenile delinquents read comics. I replied that 90 percent played baseball and ate hot dogs.” or something to that effect). Though I believe it was one-on-one in the recounting, not a formal debate.

Stan Lee? Making up a self-serving anecdote about his role in comics history? The hell you say!

The documentary Comic Book Confidential has clips of Bill Gaines in front of Congress and he was doing fine for a bit; then, when he had to defend some of his covers, he faltered. Gaines has been quoted as saying he was taking diet pills (essentially amphetamines) and they were wearing off when it came time to defend the covers. Whether that part is true or not, one thing is: Gaines was just about the only publisher to take the Wertham crowd on in a direct fight. Of course, he was the most heavily targeted. The rest, apart from Dell, caved under pressure and the Comics Code was born. Martin Goodman wasn’t about to stick his or his company’s neck out (especially after he ran afoul of the government over reprints in his pulps), nor was Stan likely to without Goodman’s blessing, beyond within the safe realm of parody inside one of their comics. As much as I have enjoyed Stan’s stories and he is an entertaining speaker, you have to wear hip-waders when he tells stories.

I second reading The Ten Cent Plague for a fascinating look at that era. I did a little research into it, myself, when I wrote a history paper in college (using comic books as a reflection of the changes in society). While compiling information at the library, I came across a book with some transcripts of some local court actions, relating to comics. It made for some intriguing and horrifying reading. The library did have a copy of Seduction of the Innocent, but you couldn’t check it out (too valuable) and I could only make limited use of it (it was cited enough elsewhere in references that I could check out). That was the only paper I wrote, in my college days, that was actually fun. I had to edit it down to the prescribed length, as there was just so many great stories I could use.

It’s been a while since I read through the backlog of legends here; have you covered the story that Alex Toth (or possibly Gil Kane, or another artist) held a DC editor (have heard Julie Schwartz or Robert Kanigher) out a window when they tried to withhold his check, as a show of power? I believe it’s been pretty much debunked, though there were elements of the story that were true (like the editors playing power games with their subordinates).

What is Bêlit wearing in that first picture? Is that nipple armor?

that elephant man/creature in these Dr. Strange pages is originally from a Conan story! Coincedence? i think not…..

I’m hardly a Wertham apologist, but I’ve long wondered if some of his worries about comics might’ve been shaped by his having to deal with Albert Fish.

You mean Yag-Kosha, from “The Tower of the Elephant”?

I don’t know whether he was named as such in the Dr. Strange story. It might have been Chaugnar Faugn (a fictional creation of Frank Belknap Long) or even Hindu deity Ganesha as well.

Both Yag-Kosha and Chaugnar Faugn are parts of the Cthulhu Mythos, and it is not all that rare for Stephen to fight Cthulhu concepts.


Wertham is THE SHAM! He made psychology SILLY!

One funny thing I have involving Gershom Legman is a book he did (pretty big volume) called The Rationale of the Dirty Joke. Also have around here a book he did which was a collection of raunchy limericks.

Guy certainly WAS obsessed with sex, it seems :).

Fred Patten wrote a fanzine piece about “La Reina de la Costa Negra”, some time in the late 1960’s. I made sure to see a couple of his copies when I visited him in Los Angeles in the Spring of 1967. I don’t remember how -he- had found out about it, but he had found a source.

I recently read a comic where it was obvious that the letterer accidentally used the same script for two separate pages–one where it made sense, and one where it very much didn’t–but damned if I can remember what it was. Probably a comic from the last few years, though.

Wertham was actually fairly well respected in his time. That doesn’t stop him from making a fatal mistake in his research, which was expanding his sample of comic book readers beyond those involved in criminal behavior or other maladjustments. It is far too common for researchers to pick facts and evidence that support their thesis, rather than shape their thesis around the available facts and evidence, and revisit the thesis as new evidence comes to light.

I think part of the problem was that too many publishers were afraid that if they fought back, they would expose their business to greater scrutiny and have to justify some of their business practices, rather than just their editorial content. By most accounts, Gaines had nothing to hide; but, Martin Goodman and Jack Liebowitz & Harry Donenfeld did. Otherwise, it was a First Ammendment issue and the publishers likely could have attracted book and magazine publishers and the American Library Association to their side, not to mention other psychologists who might point to absent parents (war deaths and other causes) and increased urbanization as possible underlying causes for juvenile delinquency.

I’ve found the debate Stan Lee Hilde Mosse on google (very easy)
few things I learned:
1) finally, how to properly pronounce Submariner
2) I noticed that Lee chose the Socrathic method during debate. Very clever.
3) it’s ridiculous how the times “then” and “now” are similar. only tools changed. but people are all the same.
reading it, I felt like I was reading a script of debate done yesterday, instead of almost 50 years ago (!!).

Brian from Canada

January 3, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Lee’s story is clearly incorrect, as Wertham never went after animal books. He went after books that were, quite frankly, easy to target for more adult-oriented content. But what’s telling for me is how sacrosanct Wertham is in the tale years later — it’s almost as if knocking over the nest wasn’t acceptable until multiple generations had come to look at Wertham as the figurehead of lunacy. Either that, or Stan saw some logic in Wertham and didn’t want to give an inch.

Gaines is the only one willing to defend his entire line and might have had he not been so poor a witness… then again, he was a comics man and not a professional witness like Wertham had been.

As Jeff points out, a lot of Wertham’s work in other fields was good stuff. But yeah, he fell into a whole mess of fallacious reasoning when he got to comics. Did you know that if you read comics a lot, you’ll lose the ability to appreciate Good Literature?
I’ve read Seduction of the Innocent and to borrow a line from a British humorist it’s “the most unbelievable … pile of …. facts ever seen.”

Looking at the Mexican version of Conan I can’t help but notice that is much close to the original interpretation from Margaret Brundage on the covers of Weird Tales which represent the character while Robert E Howard was alive which show him as what might nowadays be described as a fey male model, the overmuscular version now common came later, don’t know precisely who first portrayed him this way.

I will third the Ten Cent Plague recommendation. I read it for a second time this past Fall. Parts of it are upsetting because of how unjust and unreasonable some people behaved

As for Wertham’s research and targets… his research was basically all anecdotal; he noticed that most all of the troubled children that came to his clinic read comics. Of course he had set up his office in Harlem to help the underprivileged so that is who he got. He never looked at any other groups or did any formal research.

While he may not have targeted funny animal books, he did go after Batman and Robin, which at the time were not far from funny animal books.

Travis Stephens

January 3, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I think Stan Lee confused or misremembered some debate he had in the more liberal ’70’s after he published some Spider-Man comics without the CC’s approval. Idiot Vampires, moronic werewolves, miserable zombies are all the rage these days. The foaming-mouth guy would have a stroke.

@ Buttler

Not sure if this is the one you’re thinking of, but there is duplicated lettering on the War Machine story in “Tales of the Marvel Universe”, pages 37 and 38 (Feb 1997).

First off I tried to read Seduction of the Innocent and couldn’t get past 80 pages of Wertham’s psyco-babble.

Second off Stan lee, as usual, is trying to take credit for something he didn’t do. The man does not have a bad memory, he is an all-out hack writing liar!!
And its a sin he has out lived the true greats of the industry!!

Well, to be fair to Wertham, it’s not that great a stretch to look at Batman and Robin and see something unhealthy there. Read Wonder Woman of the 40s and you really start asking questions! It doesn’t take much to see homosexual or pedophilic undertones (from a 50s’ viewpoint); or, at least, enough ambiguity that you can shoehorn those ideas in. At the same time, some of those crime and horror comics are pretty grisly. What got ignored by the attackers is that those books tended to appeal to an older audience. The kids they were trying to protect probably didn’t have access to too much of that material. On the flip side, the maladjusted kids might be inclined to seek it out, rather than be exposed to it and be warped. It’s the same argument with pornography; does it create sexual deviants or are the deviants just more likely to respond to it? Looking back, the better attack on Batman would not so much be the relationship between a single man and a boy but the fact that the adult male is constantly exposing the boy to danger. The violence gets far more of a pass than the alleged prurient nature of the relationship, except maybe in the crime comics of the era. Also, you have elitist ideas that no rational adult might be reading something like a comic book, since illustration is a medium for children (ignoring vast adult readership of newspaper comics). Had that been acknowledged, the attacks might have morphed into something more like a rating system to exclude children from more adult material, as materialized in the 80s.

Some of Wertham’s criticisms were somewhat warranted, as publishers often used provocative imagery to sell their books, rather than the quality of the story. Fiction House produced enough pin-up material to match any Robert Harris men’s magazine, and the crime and horror books could match the pulps for shock value. If these images are sitting on the newsstand, right next to a Dell Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, it’s not exactly a healthy display. If it is segregated with other adult material, then the argument has no basis.

Leaving aside the comic attacks, if you look at the time period, you can understand how the hysteria grew. The country has just come out of a period of war, with much loss of life and deprivation (though with far less direct effect here than in Europe or Asia) and there became a strong movement to reinforce conservative values. Europe underwent tremendous change, as it’s governments began enacting social programs designed to help take care of a devastated society, which scared many elements here, who wanted to maintain unrestrained capitalism and minimal government intrusion. The war had necessitated much government involvement but the corporate world wanted a swift end to that. Meanwhile, they could point fingers at the hedonistic culture of the 20s as bringing about the Depression and the war; and, thus, launch attacks on anything they saw as feeding into that, like comics or rock and roll. You can see where it wasn’t hard to convince large segments of the community that they needed to protect their children from forces that (in their eyes) led to the previous war. In the words of Helen Lovejoy, “Think of the children! Won’t someone, please, think of the children!” The 80s saw much of that same environment, with the Meese Commission, the Moral Majority, and a push to enact ratings for comics Comics got a lot of attention for its mature material, but not all of the attention was positive, as can be seen in development of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, in light of raids on comic shops that happened in the late 80s and early 90s.

Brian from Canada

January 3, 2014 at 3:25 pm

@Jeff Nettleton:

Kids did have access to the material in those days, as all comics shared the same racks. Had there been a differentiation between kids products and adult products, things might have been different — but, as it stands, there wasn’t.

Period makes Batman and Robin’s homosexual overtones more important than kids in violence. One thing I found inexcusable in Ten Cent Plague was the omission of the Senate’s parallel examination into homosexuality as a root threat against American society. Gay heroes were more of a threat than violent ones.

Salaciousness of violence also makes more sense when you realize that Hollywood’s response to both the lack of colour chemicals due to the war effort and the European influx was film noir. Noir emphasized crime and passion. Comics took it one step further, but America was definitely interested in crime and would continue to be through to the next decade — as witness by the success of The Untouchables in the 60s.

But, really, it’s the association of comics with children that becomes the biggest problem. Ten Cent Plague also fails to mention those same PTAs vilifying comics were also pushing the US government to make advertising of the same product on kids television illegal: sponsorship remains for a decade, but it stops being blatant with the characters as a result.

It’s a stigma comics STILL have to deal with today. It’s not kids spending money on DVDs and midnight screenings or going to conventions and buying expensive statues and clothes, but listening to people like Joe Quesada you’d think that the only audience that matters is ten year old boys.

“but listening to people like Joe Quesada you’d think that the only audience that matters is ten year old boys.”

The sad thing is that both companies abandoned the pre-teen audience years ago, and girls even earlier than that. DC has done better than Marvel in that realm, but both still depend way too much on a very narrow audience. I think a lack of variety in material hasn’t helped much. When I was a kid, in the Bronze Age, you had superheroes, western, war, sci-fi, horror, romance, Archie, Harvey, cartoon characters, etc… By the time I was a teenager, you were pretty much left with superheroes. College had me hopeful, as the rise of the direct market had brought back some variety, but those hopes were pretty much dashed by the mid-90s. Jeff Smith found a much bigger audience for Bone via Scholastic and bookstores than he ever did in the direct market (and he was pretty successful there). DC and Marvel could really stand to look at Scholastic and the manga world to see a huge audience they are missing.

Travis Stephens

January 3, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Good points Jeff & Brian. People forget that there was censorship of literary works as well during this period as conservative norms were tried to be emplaced on society. Comics were deemed to be distractive for youth as well promoting of poor values. The main problem was that there were new issues every month that could not be reviewed beforehand. To those like Wertham that was the threat. Also people are largely unaware of the role big publishing houses like Houghton-Mifflin, BRM, and Rand had behind the scenes.

Can you imagine what they’d say about today’s video games?

OMG those Doctor Strange pages are so good!!!!!! I think Dave Lanphear was letterer. I’d love to hear about the experience from him.

Jeff: I think you’re overlooking a key point of why Wertham’s whole hypothesis was such bunk–the fact that he was working with juvenile delinquents at the time and noticed they read a lot of comic books. Wertham INCORRECTLY theorized that it was comics that led to juvenile delinquency rather than the fact juvenile delinquents (like most other kids of the time) read comics. Wertham did NOT–ever–do a single reputable study of a wide range of kids and ask them about their comic book reading habits. He didn’t go to schools and talk with kids who never got in trouble, either with school officials or the police, and ask them about the comics they read. He never talked to the kids about the type of relationship they had with family and school and church (being the 50s, that would’ve only been expected). No. His entire thesis was founded on a flimsy premise and he made sure that his “research” supported that thesis while ignoring anything that didn’t.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of Seduction of the Innocent at my university late last year, and honestly, it was so biased and one-sided that I found it hard to finish. And I simply couldn’t take it seriously after Wertham said something about how because Superman has superpowers, he represents the Nietzsche superman and is therefore evil.

On that Doctor Strange legend, does Doctor Strange calling those guys punks sound incredibly out-of-character to anyone else?

Jeff, putting the comic attacks aside, I don’t like explanations of the Second Red Scare like the one you put forth because the absolve the Left of all responsibility. A large section of the Left WAS in bed with Stalin, and thus complicit with an evil only akin to Nazism. The Soviets DID have many agents in FDR’s government, because he foolishly neglected to expand the background checks when he expanded government to meet the needs of the Depression of War. What’s tragic is that instead of a reasoned exploration of why so many on the Left became subservient to a monster, we got attacks on universal health care and rock and roll and George Marshall.

I honestly don’t buy the idea of Batman and Robin as pedophilic. It always seemed to me very clearly a father/son relationship, though a rather idealized one.
Michael, while some left-wingers did support Stalin, that really had nothing to do with the Red scare which was way, way out of proportion to any actual Communist influence. McCarthy, for example, had no idea how many spies were in the government or if any were, and many of his arguments they existed were backwards. Mao took over China; McCarthy claimed we couldn’t possibly have “lost” China through error, but only through a deliberate subversive attempt.
Similarly, there were communists in the civil rights movement (the Communist Party supported civil rights when neither Dems nor Repubs did) but the insistence the movement was controlled by Moscow to subvert America had more to do with bigotry than anything the movement or the CP can be blamed for.

Brian from Canada

January 4, 2014 at 6:15 pm

Joseph: Wertham’s hypothesis about the relationship between juvenile delinquency and comics may have been founded on flimsy research, but the criticisms of comics succeeded because the publishers recognized that – in many cases – he was right. There WERE publishers celebrating morbid crimes and cruel behaviours. There WERE obvious homosexual overtones to Batman & Robin’s relationship, and to Wonder Woman’s fetish for bondage.

Drax: when it comes to Superman and the Nietzsche sense of superiority, you need to keep in mind that the Eisenhower era’s interest was in the nuclear family ideal and that anything else — communism, juvenile delinquency, homosexuality and pornography — was considered a threat. To have someone exhibiting difference in any way, or promoting European idealism, was too much for some people.

This isn’t a defense of Wertham’s work, but a reminder that we have to take it in the context of the time. America was screaming for credible witnesses against things it felt were a danger to its way of life. This is the same country that, two decades earlier, had challenged what was acceptable on film and, three decades after, had rock music on trial for inciting suicide and was pushing to have warning labels on CDs to warn of improper lyrics. Two decades later, live television was under fire for what it showed live on the news. Every generation has its issues; it’s just that, in the 50s, it was far more devastating to a particular industry because that industry worked against — not with — the agents standing against it.

Television went in with the PTAs and got legislation passed that kept it acceptable to children. Comics shut down or challenged the Senate: they got black marked until the Comic Code Authority, which worked with the government instead.

Brian from Canada

January 4, 2014 at 6:22 pm


Today, it’s a clear father/son relationship. Then, Bruce Wayne didn’t seek women to complete him, preferring to stay home in his dressing gown with his young ward. The inference was clear if you could read the signs, and the signs were being used by cinema and other fiction easily enough — which is why DC went actively into creating Kathy Kane as Batwoman, a sidekick Batgirl, and introduced Aunt Harriet into the lifestyle of Bruce and Dick.

My favorite part about La Reina de la Costa Negra is that I can still read Spanish. I may not be able to comprehend spoken Spanish, but I can still read at my own pace. Thanks, high school! I retained something, at least!

Hey, Brian from Canada – the best support for your claims is to look at what Weisinger did to the Superman books as he took over and they became connnected to the ultra-popular TV show: he created the Superman FAMILY. Superman couldn’t marry Lois, but all of a sudden there was a whole family of supporting characters, and his girlfriend got her own starring book. Of course, this also happened after they’d driven Captain Marvel and his supporting cast family off the newsstands, but there can be multiple causes for any effect…

Actually Batman was shown dating frequently through the 1940s, starting with Julie Madison (and of course, his frequent interest in Catwoman). So it’s not like he didn’t seek women, but since he could never play anything but a jaded playboy, they usually lost interest.

By the way, am I the only one who read Raving Maniac and thought the twist would be that the complainer was a monster (“Darn it, I’m tired of these one-dimensional portrayals of me and my undead friends.”) himself?

I can’t believe we live in a world where comic fans will take any opportunity to attack Stan Lee & defend Fredric Wertham.

Chakal, if you have a link to that transcript, please post it, because I did that Google search and couldn’t find anything.

James W: “I can’t believe we live in a world where comic fans will take any opportunity to attack Stan Lee & defend Fredric Wertham.”

You, sir, are so correct. Stan Lee’s bad memory has been legendary since long before he was famous enough for it to get him into trouble, which is well documented in early Marvel comics where he refers to characters as “Peter Palmer” and “Bob Banner” (as well as multiple other such slips). This idea that the guy who created (or co-created, if you must) Spider-Man, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, Nick Fury, the Black Panther, and on and on, needs to bolster his public image by claiming to win a debate against a person who is well-known among comic fans to have the logical acuity of an inbred Chia pet (which is evident not in any second-hand account, but by reading Wertham’s own words), is just ridiculous. My five-year-old niece could beat Fredric Wertham in a debate, why would we be impressed if Stan Lee could do it too?

This is a guy whose lifelong career has been to create fantastic stories of heroes triumphing over evil; if his notoriously bad memory allows him to “remember” that he had a face-to-face debate with Wertham, it’s probably just that fertile imagination providing a wish-fulfillment fantasy about how we would all kinda like to give that moron a little piece of our minds. It’s OBVIOUSLY not some grand conspiracy to “make up a self-serving anecdote about his role in comics history.” He doesn’t need to make up his role in comics history; it’s all there in the pages of every Marvel comic for over a decade, and he doesn’t need to make up such minor anecdotes to make comic fans like him or think he’s a genius, because all the comic fans with an ounce of sense already do.

For more information on the early Mexican Conan comics, here is an online version of a recent in-depth article I wrote on the subject recently. This is a topic I have researching for several years. Enjoy!


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