Apr 12 2009

Are you better-suited to write a superhero novel or a comic book?

Many authors here aren’t really sure whether they want to write a superhero novel or a comic book.  Here are a list of factors you should consider when deciding which one will work better for you.

Time vs. Money: What You Need to Succeed

1.  Novels take more time, because they’re drastically longer.  Unless you’re writing a novel for young adults or kids, your novel manuscript should probably be at least 70,000 words or so.  In contrast, a 24-page comic book script will probably range between 5000 and 7500 words (including the panel descriptions and other details that won’t make the page).  Realistically, you can do a comic book script in a few months and, as you get experienced, you should be able to get it down to a matter of weeks.  In contrast, a novel takes at least one year and usually longer.

2.  Comic books take more startup money, probably $400 or more. If you’re an unpublished writer, most comic book publishers will only consider your proposal if it includes around five illustrated sample pages.  Because those pages are so important to whether your proposal looks professional, competent and interesting, you should hire someone that’s genuinely good.  (Also, this artist should be the same person that you’ll actually be working with later on; it would be seriously unprofessional to do your sample with one artist and then later try to switch to another artist without asking the publisher’s permission).   Five colored pages will probably cost you at least $400.

Manuscript/Script Specifications

1.  A first-time novelist has to complete his novel manuscript before he can sell it to publishers.  In contrast, most comic book publishers will consider a first-time author that has completed merely a single issue.  If there are additional issues, it’s usually acceptable to describe those in the synopsis without providing a full script for them.

2.  For both novelists and comic book writers, it’s easiest to get in the door with a standalone work that can be expanded later.  When you start throwing words like “trilogy of novels” or “ongoing series” around, it suggests that you will be expensive to work with.  It also raises questions about your ability to pace a story.  Publishers generally want proof that your work will actually sell before they make a long-term financial commitment to you.  If you’re a new author, you probably don’t have that proof yet.

3.  A comic book needs a cliffhanger at the end of each issue, something to keep readers interested.  You need your readers to want to come back for more.  You need them to agree that your story is worth another $4.  A novelist benefits from cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, but it’s not life-and-death.  When someone finishes chapter 9, you don’t need to convince them to spend more money to pick up chapter 10.

Readers/Demographics

1.  Generally, the readership for comic books is pretty narrow.  Most comic book readers are males between 15-30, particularly between 18-25.  If your comic book’s target audience is very different from that, you will really have to work to reassure publishers that there actually is a market for your work.  In contrast, novels have a substantially broader readership and are substantially more woman-friendly.

2.  Comic books are mostly sold in specialty stores like Dreamland Comics; novels are mostly sold in general-interest bookstores like Barnes and Nobles.  This is a problem if you’d like to sell a comic book to an unusual demographic; your prospective readers are literally not even in the store.

3.  It’s a bit easier to sell digital comic books than it is to sell e-books.  Right now, e-books are just absolutely a non-factor.

4.  It’s much easier to find an audience for a fantasy or sci-fi novel than it is to find one for a fantasy or sci-fi comic book.

Publishers and Agents

1.  There are more novel publishers, and they’re generally a bit more accessible.  By impressing the right agent, you might be able to publish your first novel at an A-list publisher.  In contrast, there is virtually no chance that Marvel or DC Comics will even consider an unpublished comic book writer.  None.

2.  I highly recommend that a novelist consider sending off queries to literary agents.  That will make it much easier to get published.  In contrast, comic book writers don’t need an agent and I am not aware of any agents that deal mainly with comic books.

Strengths of the Medium

1.  For a variety of reasons, but mostly length and the presence of pictures, comic books handle action much better than novels.  They also tend to focus more on one-liner comedy and quips.  In contrast, novels tend to rely more on deeper plots, more complex characters and drawn-out dialogue.

2.  There are exceptions, but successful comic books are usually set in the modern real-world.  If you’d like to work with a fantasy or a sci-fi setting, I highly recommend writing a novel instead.

Visual Responsibilities

1.  A novelist has very little artistic work.  Your publisher will present you with a cover and you will have very little control over it.  In contrast, a comic book writer usually has to lay out the panels and has a great deal of influence on the cover.  Being able to tell a story with sequential pictures is the defining skill of a comic book writer.  Novelists also benefit from the ability to help readers see the story, but it’s much more important for a comic book writer than a novelist.

2. If you’re a first-time comic book writer, you will probably have to identify and hire a competent artist.

46 responses so far

46 Responses to “Are you better-suited to write a superhero novel or a comic book?”

  1. ikarus619xon 12 Apr 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Working with an artist is quite a challenge. As a novelist you have complete control. But if your comic’s artist gets a detail wrong, that could be frustrating.

  2. Dforceon 12 Apr 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Hehe. If you’re writing a comic-book script, I don’t think the sequential job should be considered a completely solo job (unless you are working alone– as both artist and writer).

    The way I see it (idealy; not realistically), writers and artists should be a solid team; bouncing ideas, concepts, and layout off of each other– with construtive input and criticism. Of course, in real life, egos tend to get in the way, from what I’ve read.

    Ikarus619x, are you speaking from experience? Lol. I say talk it out if things get skewed out of the way they were supposed to be. Nothing wrong with exchanging ideas, I think.

    Nice number, by the way. (A Rey fan or are you from San Diego; or am I completely off mark?).

  3. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 12 Apr 2009 at 11:23 pm

    If someone became both a novelist and a comic book writer, imagine all the skills they’d pick up. That’s the main reason I want to write both a novel and a manga; there’s so much to learn.

  4. B. Macon 13 Apr 2009 at 4:28 am

    Dforce said: “The way I see it (ideally; not realistically), writers and artists should be a solid team; bouncing ideas, concepts, and layout off of each other– with constructive input and criticism. Of course, in real life, egos tend to get in the way, from what I’ve read.”

    I think that the typical writer needs time to develop a close working relationship with their first artist. When you’re laying out the first five pages, I expect that the writer will probably do a lot more than a freelance artist will for a few reasons.

    1. The freelance artist will probably charge more if he has to do more work. Limiting your costs at this stage is critical.

    2. You probably haven’t worked much with this artist and aren’t sure how good he is at breaking a page into panels on his own.

    3. The writer has much more riding on the art being awesomely smooth than the artist does. Whether the art is less than stellar or not, the artist will probably still get his $400 for the art. The only thing he loses is the prospect of future work. If the art is less than stellar, the writer gets no money from a publisher and loses $400 to the artist. Ick.

    After getting published, there is more money to go around and you’ll be more confident in your artist. So you’ll have more opportunity to let the artist lay out pages. (“At the start of this page, Agent Black gets punched and drops his gun. Black and the bad guy fight for the gun, but the criminal comes up with it. At the end of this page, the criminal is pointing the gun at Agent Black. Feel free to fill in the details however you’d like”).

  5. C.R.on 13 Apr 2009 at 4:08 pm

    In contrast, comic book writers don’t need an agent and I am not aware of any agents that deal with comic books.

    http://www.fineprintlit.com/about/colleen_lindsay.php

    Says that she is interested in Graphic Novels, amongst many other genres. I know nothing about her but have seen her mentioned in Spec Fic trade magazines. Fine Print Lit is a bona fide agency, so she’s apparently legit.

  6. B. Macon 13 Apr 2009 at 4:59 pm

    I don’t get the impression that Colleen Lindsay does much work with graphic novels. I notice she places graphic novels last on the list of works she represents.

  7. ikarus619xon 13 Apr 2009 at 8:38 pm

    I am from San Diego, nice catch. As far as writer-artist teams go, being close is quite important. With my team, we both consider it our comic. This is great because we are both passionate and therefore work harder. This is bad because we both want control. Imagine two parents arguing over what their child wears and such. If it works out you end up like Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, if not you end up broke and friendless.

  8. Stefan the Exploding Manon 14 Apr 2009 at 3:44 am

    Hmm. Would conceiving the entire comic book along with the artist help the writer and the artist to work better than if the writer were to hire the artist after completing the script? It seems like that would be better because the artist could give feedback based on his experience of what he can and can’t draw or of what would work in a comic book visually.

  9. C.R.on 14 Apr 2009 at 5:11 am

    @B.Mac
    It’s curious that she says graphic novels but not comics. I don’t know much about comics, but I read where they (Joe Quesada, for one) claim they don’t make anything, even at four bucks an issue. It’s licensing where they rake in the moolah. Maybe graphic novels is another area where they do make money and it pays an agent to be in the mix. Since most g.n.’s are collections of comics you must already be published, so she’s got limited interest in first timers. My guess without asking her.

  10. B. Macon 14 Apr 2009 at 7:17 am

    According to CBG, comic books sold $435 million worth of comic books to North American stores in 2008. That’s a lot of money, but it’s probably not a market large enough to sustain a Fortune 500 company (even when you factor in graphic novels). For example, The Dark Knight generated at least half a billion dollars in ticket sales. I’d almost agree with the assessment that major publishers mainly print comics to create an audience for movies (and other licensing opportunities, like toys and TV shows and the like).

    Likewise, the main function of this website is to create an audience (and content) for a book about how to write superhero stories. I can operate the website at a loss and still come out ahead on the book deal. (Probably much farther ahead than if I were to try selling the book without an established audience and platform).

  11. B. Macon 14 Apr 2009 at 8:12 am

    Stefan said: “Would conceiving the entire comic book along with the artist help the writer and the artist work better than if the writer were to hire the artist after completing the script? It seems like that would be better because the artist could give feedback based on his experience of what he can and can’t draw or of what would work in a comic book visually.”

    I think it’d be easier to find an artist to fit your story than to write the story to fit your artist. When you have a story that excites you, I’d recommend finding an artist that is also excited by it. Otherwise, you might box yourself into a situation where your artist is ill-equipped to illustrate the story that you want to write. To some extent, you could get around that by writing a story that you aren’t excited about, but it seems like a very unhappy arrangement.

    The good news is that it’s fairly easy to incorporate some artistic latitude into your script. “Jacob turns into a nightmarish monster in this scene. That could be a demon out of hell, a horrifying squid beast or whatever else you would prefer.” However, if your artist comes back and says “actually, I don’t know how to do any horror,” then you’re pretty much screwed. You will either need to do major rewrites, get a new artist, or accept art that will probably be unpublishably bad.

  12. ikarus619xon 14 Apr 2009 at 6:41 pm

    I write my scenes like that, letting the artist have panel control. If they have comic experience, then they know what they’re doing. The only time I’m really specific is if I’m using symbolism, or need a really cool image that readers will talk about for weeks. For instance, Captain America wind-surfing on an F-22.

  13. B. Macon 14 Apr 2009 at 7:01 pm

    I’d recommend mentioning explicitly in the script anything that you need to have for plot reasons. Unless it’s in the script, you can’t count on it appearing. For example, if it’s important later on that a character has a limp, make sure you mention that early on so that your artist doesn’t forget. Otherwise, it will appear that the character suddenly develops a limp for no apparent reason. (“But he was walking normally last page…”)

    Also, cultural differences might lead a writer to include too little detail. For example, I scripted a page where the President walks in a room. I didn’t describe what the other people in the room were doing. I had mistakenly assumed that my artist would understand how Americans (particularly government employees) stand up when the President enters the room. My mistake! In the art’s first draft, the two main characters (both federal employees) were continuing their conversation as the President entered the conference room. Eww. That’s a bad way to make a first impression on your boss.

  14. illustaron 15 Apr 2009 at 10:06 pm

    Hi, I’m new here. I’m writing (and illustrating, both) my own superhero comic, and I’ve been browsing your posts to see if your tips can help me. At the very least, my visit here so far has been very entertaining! I especially enjoyed the Superhero Questionnaire. 😛

    Anyway, this post reminded me of a lot of good information that I read in a book – “The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics,” by Dennis O’Neil. It has a lot of examples taken from DC scripts, and how the artist interpreted the writer’s instructions. From an artist’s perspective, unless you know for sure that you and your artist are on the same wavelength, please include in your description everything you particularly want included in the scene/panel. The artist can’t read your mind, and is only drawing on his own experience to fill the panel. Like B. Mac’s example about the President, we all think differently. If it’s important, better to be repetitive in the instructions than to have it done wrong.

  15. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 16 Apr 2009 at 1:55 am

    Welcome, Illustar! As you may have noticed, a lot of people here have review forums, where we post little bits of our work and get feedback from others. If you want one, ask B. Mac and he’ll set one up for you.

  16. Ragged Boyon 16 Apr 2009 at 3:37 am

    I definitely think I’m more suited for writing comic books, because of my artistic background. However, I definitely want to write a novel too.

  17. Gurion Omegaon 16 Apr 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Recently, I’ve lost my art mojo. Worry not! I regained about 89% of my artistic skills!

    The project I’m working on, since I’ve considered the setting, themes,concepts, characters and plot development, has thoroughly convinced me to do a full-length novel.

    On a more irrelevant note, I haven’t developed the patience for a comic book (but I definitely have some ideas for graphic novels and comic books).

  18. B. Macon 16 Apr 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Gurion said: “The project I’m working on, since I’ve considered the setting, themes,concepts, characters and plot development, has thoroughly convinced me to do a full-length novel.

    On a more irrelevant note, I haven’t developed the patience for a comic book (but I definitely have some ideas for graphic novels and comic-books).”

    Hmm. If you haven’t developed the patience for a comic book, I think completing a novel will be very difficult. A novel manuscript is about ten times as long as the script of a comic book.

  19. bretton 31 Mar 2010 at 3:04 am

    b.mac, I disagree about the trilogy thing. Authors like Brent Weeks and Jim Butcher got published because they had more than one book in their series.

  20. B. Macon 31 Mar 2010 at 5:14 am

    I’m having trouble envisioning the circumstances under which an editor would be willing to take more than one book from an author if the first book wasn’t good enough to take on its own. I’m interested to learn more about the circumstances behind the Weeks and Butcher dealing. Would you happen to have any sources on those?

  21. Holliequon 31 Mar 2010 at 8:06 am

    I would also point out that Jim Butcher’s Storm Front’ is a complete story on its own. Which reminds me, I must read that other one that I bought…

  22. bretton 31 Mar 2010 at 10:41 am

    B.mac- jim butcher’s official dsite and various interviews with Brent weeks although I can pinpoint one it might be on his website as well. Jim butcher.com
    Brentweeks.com

  23. Lighting Manon 31 Mar 2010 at 12:36 pm

    I always found that title terribly troublesome. I get what he is going for, but couldn’t he have checked and made sure it wasn’t taken…By like a freaking White Supremacist group? I’ve never read the book and I never will, I’m too scared of what the FBI agents that watch my internet purchases. I know this is irrelevant to everything, but when would it be relevant?

  24. B. Macon 31 Mar 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Relevant to getting published? Any remotely competent editor* would certainly give you the benefit of the doubt on a generic phrase like Storm Front. From time to time, editors do get manuscripts from REAL nut-jobs, and they can tell the difference.

    *Seriously, if there is any editor anywhere that would reject a manuscript because he assumes that “Storm Front” is a reference to white supremacism, he is so incompetent that you would not want to work with him anyway.



    If the title has some unfortunate double-meaning, that can be resolved after getting published. For example, if a cancer survivor writes a memoir called “My Fight” or “My Struggle,” it’d be easy enough to fix the title if that were the only issue.



    As for the FBI, I can’t speak for what they are or are not looking at, but there are billions of dollars of online purchases every year and I would imagine they’re more concerned about the people that are buying up tons of fertilizer or actual hate literature. There are too many actual crimes going on to waste time on urban fantasy named after innocent meteorological terms. (Also, I assume that any police interviews with friends or family or casual acquaintances would quickly exonerate you).

  25. Lighting Manon 31 Mar 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Heh, I was trying to be funny, sorry. I really need better material, and to start using emoticons to indicate my intentions.

    Mostly the material thing, but yeah. Emoticons. 😛

  26. B. Macon 31 Mar 2010 at 5:15 pm

    Oh, okay. My mistake. 🙂

  27. Amyon 19 Jul 2010 at 5:55 pm

    sci-fi and/or fantasy of all sorts work great in some italian, spanish, french or japanese comics/graphic novels, instead of feeding the market to what it`s used to, maybe it would take a change well.
    if your gene pool doesn`t get fresh blood, it will reproduce itself to extinction.

  28. B. Macon 19 Jul 2010 at 6:40 pm

    “if your gene pool doesn’t get fresh blood, it will reproduce itself to extinction.”

    I’m a fan of the comic book industry diversifying beyond superheroes. For better or worse, I think it’ll only happen if the money is there.

    The fantasy comics that have been tried have not sold very well, nor has Hollywood shown much interest in the concept. In contrast, there is a manifestly vast audience for superhero movies. This is sort of an unfair comparison, but the best-selling Spiderman comic will sell maybe a few hundred thousand comics at $5 each and a Spiderman movie makes $600 million, easy.

    I just don’t see anything approaching that level of appeal coming out the world of fantasy comics.

  29. Wingson 19 Jul 2010 at 7:21 pm

    Call me what you will, but I am fond of Amerimangas.

    Now that the resounding shouts of “OTAKU!” have died down, I shall attempt to explain why.

    First, I like that Amerimanga has the possibility to blend the best traits of two similar yet different mediums.

    Secondly, I almost prefer the style of manga to that of most graphic novels, although it depends on the story the author is trying to tell.

    …And no, I am not saying this because I one of my older concepts is best suited for one. Parallel just happens to be the kind of story that would do well in that setting.

    – Wings

  30. JTheGreaton 14 Jul 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Hello again :).

    I have a concept and basic plot for a story I’m very passionate about. I’m not interested in making money, just the thrill of completing an amazing artistic work in full. I’m not sure if I’d like to draw a comic or write a story, though.

    My story has many visual elements such as a rich setting (very steampunk, in addition to being influenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender). I always thought I could do a “novel with occasional pictures” thing going on, like with Leviathan by Scott Westerfield. But, for some reason I feel very lazy when it comes to writing this story, probably because I am so hesitant about POV, etc. But I’m ALWAYS eager to draw.

    The problem with drawing is that I don’t have a tablet, and don’t plan spending the money on one any time soon (Hello, lower middle-class teenage girl here!). I have GIMP, and have found that when I ink pictures with my manga pens, I can color them on the program, but with moderate difficulty.

    Considering this information, which medium would be the most worthwhile (NOT lucrative) for me?

  31. JTheGreaton 14 Jul 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Also, if I were to go the webcomic route, would I want to draw each frame on an individual piece of paper and put it together digitally, or draw a panel-layout?

  32. B. Macon 15 Jul 2011 at 1:17 am

    “But, for some reason I feel very lazy when it comes to writing this story, probably because I am so hesitant about POV, etc. But I’m ALWAYS eager to draw.” If so, I imagine a comic or a prose work with occasional pictures worked in would probably work best. While a tablet is a nice thing to have, I think it’s possible to do professional-grade art by scanning art done by hand. It might help to do your coloring with Photoshop, though. Maybe your school offers PS at a computer lab?

    PS: I’m not an artistic expert by any means, but one advantage of doing each panel separately (and later shrinking and compiling them) is that the details will look finer.

  33. JTheGreaton 15 Jul 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Thank you for the help! I’ve started reading again. which gives me some creative boost to start writing! I love this site :)!

  34. B. Macon 15 Jul 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Sure thing, JTG. Good luck with your upcoming project, whatever it turns out to be. 😀 Please let me know if you have any other questions.

  35. Don 26 Jul 2011 at 4:10 pm

    i’m doing a anthology comic book which will have 45 to 50 pages per issue with about 10 stories in it and i plain to route between 10 heroes and release an issue every three months does any one have any advice

  36. Indigoon 02 Oct 2011 at 11:32 pm

    @Whovian
    I’m new here and I have to say that of all the comic writing advice sites, this one has been the most helpful-and entertaining!-website that I have found. Like you, I am also interested in writing novels and comic books, not to mention I also do my own artwork, it’s a lot of fun working with so many avenues 🙂

  37. Comicbookguy117on 14 May 2012 at 10:53 am

    Hey guys, a few quick questions. Ok so 1 comic book is called an issue. But what does and volume and more importantly an arc consist of? Please be as detailed as possible, I need this information. Thank you.

  38. B. McKenzieon 14 May 2012 at 2:00 pm

    It depends on the series, but I think 4-6 issues is usually pretty standard for an arc (a coherent storyline, frequently centered around a particular antagonist or villainous plot). A trade paperback is a volume usually compiling all of the issues in a story arc. (More rarely, several short arcs could be combined into one volume or a particularly long arc might be done in multiple volumes, but those are uncommon).

    Here are a few volumes from different companies.

    MARVEL
    –Avengers: Volume 1 combines the first 6 issues of the 2010 series into a single 112-page paperback.
    –Invincible Iron Man: Volume 1 combines the first 7 issues (184 pages).
    –Each volume for Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane covers 5 issues (120 pages for volume 1).

    DC
    –Justice League International: Volume 1 combines 7 issues from Giffen and DeMatteis’s Justice League (Justice League 1-6 and Justice League International 7). 192 pages.
    –Batman & Robin: Volume 1 combines 6 issues for 168 pages.

    DARK HORSE
    –Hellboy: Volume 1 (Seed of Destruction) combines 4 issues into a single 128-page paperback.
    –Umbrella Academy’s volumes each cover a particular arc (6 issues for Apocalypse Suite).

    IMAGE*
    –Invincible: Volume 1 compiles 4 issues (120 pages). Most of the volumes are 4-5 issues but some of the more recent ones have been 6-7.
    –Savage Dragon, Volume 1 is 160 pages. I think that’s 5 issues.

    *Image also does Ultimate Collections and Archives spanning many arcs, but those probably wouldn’t matter much to you unless you had already published 25+ issues.



    When you’re pitching, I would recommend leading with a one-shot which offers a satisfying conclusion but could be followed by an arc, particularly if you haven’t been published before. One-shots entail less financial commitment and risk for a publisher. If you’re dead-set on starting with an arc/limited series, I’d recommend keeping the arc as short as possible. And praying. Publishers are wary of committing (say) $50,000+* in labor and costs to a creative team which has not yet proven it can handle tough deadlines and attract readers.

    *For example, let’s take The Taxman Must Die. If the writer (me), the penciler/inker (Rebecca) and the colorist (Emily) each got paid a ridiculously low $75/page, a six-issue arc would run $32,400 JUST in creative labor. That doesn’t include distribution/logistics, printing, marketing/sales/promotional support, editorial labor, or anything else.

  39. Comicbookguy117on 14 May 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Wow, gotta keep that in mind. Ok, thanks B.Mac. So about 4-6 issues to explore the aftermath of the incident at Jade Hill Prison? Sounds good to me. By the way I have decided to re-write the first issue and have begun the planning process. So wish me luck.

  40. B. Macon 14 May 2012 at 4:52 pm

    “So about 4-6 issues to explore the aftermath of the incident at Jade Hill Prison?” If your [creative] team’s new, I suspect publishers might be more receptive to a smaller commitment. If you had to go with an arc off the bat, 3-4 might be easier to sell.

  41. Comicbookguy117on 15 May 2012 at 7:57 am

    I am going to write a team story. But not yet. Force will have his own adventures before becoming part of the team, same as the other five. So yeah, got my work cut out for me.

  42. B. McKenzieon 15 May 2012 at 8:58 am

    When I said “if your team’s new,” I meant your creative team (the writer and any artists). Publishers will cut you more slack if your team has experience–the project will be less risky if you have a track-record of meeting deadlines and generating at-least-decent sales.

  43. Glamtronon 16 Dec 2013 at 3:24 am

    Uhh…i just finished reading this article About the whole thing.. If you’re the writer/artist of your comic book, i dunno but the writing part is quite tiring(especially if its a one-shot comic) writing it before the drawing part is kinda hetic/tiring.. I dunno if it happens to anyone else

  44. Glamtronon 16 Dec 2013 at 3:25 am

    Or is it me just being lazy

  45. Loud N.on 16 Apr 2014 at 6:32 pm

    I’ve pretty much solved any problems I have with an artist because I work with my best friend to make the comic.

  46. Jedon 19 Dec 2014 at 9:50 am

    Alright, so my story is about superheroes, but it isn’t quite like your standard superhero world. It’s like superheroes meet urban fantasy. Each heroes’ powers and abilities all come from either legends or figures in various mythologies, like one has the powers and abilities of Thor, while one has powers like an angel, while another is a Gryphon. Would this be more suitable for a novel or would it be better for a comic book?

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