Comicscape - June 23, 2004 -


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Comicscape - June 23, 2004

Eight Rules to make FANTASTIC FOUR a Ten

By Tony Whitt     June 23, 2004

© 2001 Marvel Comics


I'm not entirely sure why, but I got neither death threats nor a lot of positive feedback on last week's musings about Captain America. I hope that doesn't mean no one cares about the old man anymore... My thanks, though, to the two(!) readers who did write in about it, and out of fairness their comments follow below. If you wish to skip them, click hereto start the main article but I think you'll find they have some interesting things to say...

Barry V. Evans, for instance, writes, "The issue that I think a lot of writers and readers forget about Captain America is that the good Captain is a man not of this age.


I too think the notion of Cap spending his time moaning about the US PATRIOT act and trying to understand the terrorists just doesn't fit the character. On the latter, the fact of the matter is someone like Cap would understand the terrorists already. He would understand that they hate us and our way of life and that nothing less than a loss of American power in the world and the destruction of the nation of Israel would ever begin to satisfy them. Even then, just the loss of power for the USA would probably not be enough. They'd probably want to make sure they took us out completely, 'just to be sure.' Then, emboldened, their sights would be set on Europe and the rest of the free world. That's what a taste of power and success does to someone obsessed. They want more.

"Captain America, who was fighting Hitler before the rest of us in the USA, would understand such a concept better than most. He fights for American ideals and American freedom, and when those ideals are threatened, is he going to be the one questioning whether or not we ought to fight back? Of course not. He's Captain America. He's been a soldier fighting for this country longer than probably anyone who comments on this story has been alive. That's not to say he wouldn't question his government over some policies, but this is a man who grew up believing that freedom is worth fighting for and those who oppose freedom should be taken down, and when it's time to do the job, he does it better than anyone.

Is it so hard for us to imagine Gaddafi, Saddam, Arafat, the late Ayatollah Khomeni or, yes, even Osama bin Laden on the receiving end of that punch on the cover of CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1? I don't see why it would be. These are men who have threatened our way of life to one extent or another, men who kill innocents and say they have just cause and the man who has fought for not just this country but its values as well, for so long is not going to be at the back of the line to take the fight to the ones that started it. He will stand and fight as he always has.

"Cap is not a child of the sixties, seventies, eighties or nineties. He heard Churchill and Roosevelt speak out against evil and believed it, as did essentially all Americans of his day. He isn't just a soldier. He isn't just a flag-waver. He's what they used to call a 'man's man' (and, yes, also a soldier and a flag-waver). That's why the Ultimate version of Cap has been so popular. I admit, reading ULTIMATES, it was kind of distressing to see Cap act so unfeeling and cold, but he's a soldier. Sometimes they have to turn off their emotions. Cap was a little too flawed in ULTIMATES (as was the whole team; the 'soap opera' element was off the charts), but he was genuinely likeable because you knew where he stood and you knew he'd get the job done, no matter the odds. Add a little idealism and a lot more virtue to him and you get the classic Captain, what Captain America should be, not 'Ultimate,' not always conflicted, but 'God and country,' 'Mom and apple pie,' Uncle Sam with a shield and a steel jaw and a 'can-do' attitude that knows without a doubt that American values are a good thing. Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and JFK all stuffed into a chain mail package of muscles and virtues: the flag that fights back.

"Whether you agree with this view of America or not, a man who dropped out of the world fighting for America in WW II would. He is a man out of time, not in the 'Oh, how can I adjust to this new world?' kind of way but more in the 'These young guys need to learn what America really means, and I'm just the one to teach 'em' vein. Captain America is not just a man who reflects America; he's a man who believes in America. Anything less just doesn't do the old adamantium and vibranium shield justice. Thanks for listening and God bless (Captain) America!" And thank you for writing in, Barry! You make an excellent point about the parallel between the terrorists that constantly plague our country and Hitler's approach to world domination to borrow an image from C.S. Lewis about a completely different subject, it's like peeling an onion: such people keep trying to achieve some unattainable goal, but they don't recognize it as unattainable. That's part of what lends their efforts such an uncanny ferocity and what ultimately makes them look so totally insane to the rest of us. Cap's just the man to fight that insanity, as you point out.

John Fultz writes, "You ask the question: should Cap change? My answer is: Why should he not? Any character, superhero or regular joe, has to experience change over time in order to be a believable entity. One of the traditional problems with comics in that past has been that characters were locked into unchanging personality and behavior patterns. Meanwhile, the kids who were reading them grew up and changed dramatically. Once you get to a certain age, fist-fights and power-battles aren't enough anymore to keep you reading comics. There has to be some substance in the story. These days we're getting more 'substance' in comics than ever, and that's a good thing. It brings comics closer to literary respectability, and farther away from being a children's-entertainment-only medium. (Besides, let's face it, most kids don't even read comics anymore.)

"As for Cap himself, I'm a big fan of Kirby's version from the 60s and 70s. To me, Kirby's

Dave Johnson's cover to CAPTAIN AMERICA #21.

Captain America will always be the definitive version. That said, I really enjoyed the introspective turn Cap took after 9-11. At a time when level-headedness was being overpowered by a 'seek and destroy/revenge/retaliation' attitude, Cap was questioning what had happened and asking himself if the U.S. powers were handling things in the right way. I appreciated this, and it made the character compelling to me for the first time in years. The real Captain America doesn't accept the dictates of his government blindly (like so many 'patriots' are doing today) - he questions authority, he demands responsibility from his leaders, and he tries to avoid bloodshed whenever possible. These are qualities that we need in America. These are fundamentally American qualities. To follow your government without question is the most un-American thing you can do. This country was founded on the principle that government must be first and foremost by the people and for the people. Cap never forgets this, and he reminds us of it every time he stands up against modern nationalism.

"The John Cassaday issues of the new Cap book gave it new life and were excellent. However, over time the book did get mired a bit, for whatever reasons. Now, however, I'm excited about Kirkman and Eaton coming on for another 'revamp,' and getting the character back to his more action-oriented, less political roots. After all, this is an action/adventure hero we're talking about, not simply a personification of America. Cap is a myth. We don't need to have him fighting Al Qaeda when we've got Hydra and the Serpent Society. They're all mythic representations of the same thing: evil.

"Should Cap change? Yes - if you want to read interesting stories; if you want a hero that reflects the best in American nature; if you want an enduring myth that applies to each new generation and its unique set of issues. We may not be able to find Bin Laden or eliminate every last terrorist, but by God, Captain America can kick some Hydra ass! And we can enjoy the ride as we wish for a better world, and maybe come away from Cap's latest comic exploits with the thrill of inspiration...and hope."

Thanks for the thoughts, John! You sign off your letter with "Kirby lives!" but upon agreeing with you I'll remind you that Mark Waid went us both one better in a recent FANTASTIC FOUR issue: Kirby is God. And (to use the most forced segue ever) speaking of the FF...

The Eight Rules That'll Make the FANTASTIC FOUR movie a Ten

Last weekend, I rewatched the unreleased 1994 FANTASTIC FOUR movie directed by Oley Sasone and produced by Roger Corman. (Oh, don't ask me why and don't ask me how to get a copy, either. You can buy a bootleg copy off eBay or download it from the Internet just as easily as I can...) It was probably prompted by all the news bubbling forth about the upcoming movie directed by Tim Story (at least, that's what I heard last) which is due to start production in August. I wondered just what exactly made the previous movie so gosh-darn awful apart from being rushed into production and being made on the cheap, that is and what the new movie would have to do to make itself as gigantic a blockbuster as X-MEN or SPIDER-MAN (or at least to avoid the errors made by HULK and both versions of THE PUNISHER).

To my surprise, I enjoyed it far more than I remembered doing the first time. Sure, there are some downright wince-inducing moments (Mrs. Storm taking a moment before the team flies off into space to dub them "the Fantastic Four!" is all too self-indulgent, for instance...and as for that subplot (for lack of a better term) with the Jeweler... But overall, it's not quite the abomination that many would have us believe. It's just not that great a movie, that's all and it's certainly not the kind of movie we would have wanted to represent Marvel's First Family. I'm well aware that directors and producers in Hollywood generally know a great deal more about what will make a successful comic book movie than I do well, all of them except Don Murphy, that is but I thought I'd give producers Chris Columbus and Bernd Eichinger (who served as a producer on the first movie and who should already know these things) a list of eight rules to follow when they start making this movie:

1. Music is important.

One of the strengths the first FF movie has going for it at least, a goodly part of the time is a strong musical score composed by brothers David and Eric Wurst. The opening music promises a far more exciting movie than we actually get. It's only when there are intentionally comical scenes necessitating intentionally comical music, or when the completely superfluous character the Jeweler appears on screen with a tinkly music box-like accompaniment that the score goes overboard. Danny Elfman might have a bit too bombastic an approach for this one, but get someone like X-MEN 2's John Ottman and everything should work out just fine. He knows how to avoid using "funny" music cues, for one thing. And speaking of humorous elements...

2. Keep the humor in its place.

One thing the first FF movie does not do well is humor. There are a few genuinely funny moments, mind you

The first issue of 4, the new Fantastic Four comic book series.

at one point, Doom leaves the team to be killed by his minions, which they promptly thrash and escape from, and when he returns, already in gloating mode, his reaction to the empty room is priceless. Other bits of comedy, however, such as the scenes with the doctor who attempts to perform physical tests on each member of the team, are...not so priceless. The pre-transformed Ben Grimm's sense of humor is more goofy than grumpy, and with Reed's extended waving arm being the last image you see in the movie, it's no wonder that those who have seen it have little good to say about it. Back when Doug Petrie was reported to be the screenwriter on the new movie, he described it as a "family sitcom" and fans went berserk. If they saw the first movie, they had good reason. The humor should come naturally from the team's interactions with each other particularly between Ben and Johnny, who barely interact in the first movie at all not from a "isn't this really just the silliest thing?" approach to the material. It's heartening to hear that Tim Story has already said he won't be following the "sitcom" approach, but as we all know, stupid humor can creep in anywhere. (Heck, just look at the comics listing below for proof of that!)

3. Don't go all Tim Burton with it.

Now that Tim Story's on the payroll, I somehow doubt this will happen, but after watching the first movie, I couldn't help thinking that Tim Burton has a lot to answer for in terms of how some directors have approached superhero-themed movies in the last fourteen years. FANTASTIC FOUR is no exception. It's not nearly as dark as anything Burton produced for the first BATMAN movie, mind you, but there are moments that have Burton written all over them. They're reminiscent of Sam Raimi's "comic booky" approach to DARKMAN (itself deeply influenced by Burton's movies) more than Raimi's much less hysterical approach to SPIDER-MAN. (Well, apart from that over-the-top scene with Aunt May saying her prayers and being attacked by the Green Goblin, anyway.) The subplot involving the Jeweler and his underground army of homeless admirers who kidnap Alicia Masters and then befriend the self-exiled Thing wouldn't have been too terribly out of place in BATMAN RETURNS. To put it bluntly, the whole subplot is strangeness for strangeness' sake, which is what I always felt about those weirdoes the Penguin hung out with in the second Batman movie. At least in the Penguin's case there was a stab at explaining what they were doing in the movie the Jeweler and company have no such rationale. That leads me directly to my next point...

4. Observe the "one villain" rule.

The Jeweler, oddly enough, comes across as a secondary villain in much the same way that the latter Batman movies tended to have two villains when one was more than sufficient. BATMAN RETURNS would have been a much better movies with Catwoman alone, just as the next two movies would have worked better with only the Riddler and Poison Ivy. This isn't going to be much of a temptation with the new FF movie, since Doom is really the only villain worth putting on-screen in the first outing but if the screenwriters begin thinking a subplot involving the Mole Man could give them more narrative scope, they should look back at what the Jeweler does for (or rather to) the first movie and think again.

5.Cast wisely and well.

Joseph Culp makes a marvelous Doom in the first movie, and though she gets a lot of flak from fans for sewing


some really piss-poor costumes and getting all gushy over Reed all the time, soap opera actress Rebecca Staab isn't at all bad as Sue. Alex Hyde-White as Reed, though, is a problem: he's too old for the college-aged Reed and too young for the white-templed scientist who leads the team into space. And while it's hard to look at current pictures of Michael Bailey Smith and say this, his Ben Grimm is just a touch too fratboy-ish even when the character is supposed to be out of college. This rule might also have been called the "Don't let Jay Underwood anywhere near this production" rule Johnny Storm is supposed to be young, hot-headed, and obnoxious, but not this obnoxious, and not so uncontrollably emotional that he's almost spastic. But the casting directors have a problem when it comes to this team despite such diverse names as Michael Chilkis, Kate Bosworth, Christina Milian, Tim Robbins, and Paul Walker being bandied around for months now (though not all for the same role, of course!), there hasn't been anyone that fans could immediately point to and agree that that person is Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, or Ben Grimm in the same way they could as, say, Patrick Stewart for Professor X. It's the sort of problem that leads people like Alex Hyde-White and Jay Underwood to be cast in the first place. But there's a way around it, and that's to look at the characters as they've been established for the past forty-odd years. Surely there are actors that fit those descriptions, and fit them better than anyone in the first movie, even Joseph Culp, did?

6.Stay true to the story but not too true.

There are early reports that the new movie will take more from the Ultimate version of the Fantastic Four than the original. While I have every bit of respect for Brian Michael Bendis' version of the events that made these folks superheroes, I'm a bit worried about going too far off the "canon," as it were. The first movie changes those well-known events, but only slightly, and it does so in a way that actually brings the main plot together rather well. At the beginning of the movie, we find out that the young Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom are working together to capture the power of Colossus, a mysterious celestial body moving toward Earth. Their efforts to harness its power fail catastrophically, resulting in Victor's apparent death. Several years later,

Barry Windsor Smith's cover for FANTASTIC FOUR #50.

Reed attempts to try again by taking a rocket into space and capturing the Colossus energy directly by using a gigantic diamond. What he and his three co-pilots don't know is that the diamond is a fake - the real one's been taken by the Jeweler, but believe me, you don't want to know why. It's only important that Dr. Doom, who of course survived the earlier accident and who wants revenge on his old comrade, had planned to do this first. When Reed and company attempt to capture the Colossus' power, they're irradiated with it instead, and their ship crash-lands on Earth. You know what comes next. Then Doom captures the team, the better to have his revenge in person, and attempts to use the real diamond to destroy New York with a Colossus-powered beam. He fails, naturally.

It's a variation on the old beloved story that works, without being the sort of "end of the world" scenario which several commentators have said has plagued the draft scripts of the new movie. It brings the twin plot threads of Doom's origin and the team's origin together seamlessly and, all ridiculous subplots aside, it remains faithful to the spirit of the original story. If a bad movie can get this right, why shouldn't a good movie do at least the same?

7.Avoid weird pseudo-explanations.

Something that works less well in the first movie is the explanation given for the team's various powers. As Reed explains, Sue is shy around Reed, and therefore her power manifests itself as invisibility. (How the ability to create force fields has anything to do with shyness isn't explained, though maybe she wants to build a wall around herself to protect herself from the rest of the world?) Johnny has a "fiery" temper, so his power manifests as flame. Ben always "relies too much on brute strength, when [his] intelligence would have sufficed." Reed overextends himself, figuratively "stretching" himself thin trying to take care of everybody and everything, and thus...well, you get the idea. The power, as Reed puts it, "Colossus has touched our has made us feel that our worst character defects are in fact our greatest strengths."


Artist Mike Wieringo's cover from FANTASTIC FOUR #509.

I don't recall the series ever trying to come up with a reason why Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny have the precise powers they do but if it did, I'm sure it would be less cloyingly sentimental and less pseudo-scientific than this. The idea that the Colossus energy alters their DNA is a good one but the idea that it touches their psyche conjures up suggestive jokes about whether it was a good touch or a bad touch. Simply put, there's no need for us to know why our heroes get the powers they do but if the production team on the new movie feel the need to do so, they should avoid tripe like this to do it.

And finally...

8.Spend, spend, SPEND on the special effects.

The effects work in the first movie isn't...well, it isn't so bad, given the limited resources the production team had to work with. Reed's stretching is fairly limited and none too exciting when we see it. Sue's invisibility is not that difficult to achieve, though there are times when it looks like she's got the power of intangibility, as well and what's with that force wall she throws up in the final battle? Johnny's power mostly manifests when he sneezes or throws fireballs, or when he sets his hand aflame we only see him in full "Flame On!" mode towards the end, and then it's as a CGI model that is state-of-the-art for the time but which now looks too much like the sort of cheap animation we see in late-night commercials for computer software training programs or accident lawyers. The only truly impressive effect work is the Thing costume, and even that looks a bit dated now.

As is obvious from the first seven rules here, the way to solve most problems is not to throw money at

Cover art to CAPTAIN AMERICA #15.

them but if the FF is going to be at all impressive, then money's going to have to be spent. The CGI Thing that has been rumored about sounds like a good bet, since the technology's been improving in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and a more contemporary CGI Human Torch wouldn't go amiss. We're going to need to see more of Reed stretching than just his arms, too now, now, don't even go there and we need to see Sue's force field abilities to a larger extent. But above all, these effects need to be as fantastic as the team itself and yeah, that'll cost money.

So, Chris, Bernd, and Tim think you can deliver on all that?

I'm sure I've missed out on some important point or made a factual error or two (as usual), so feel free to send your ideas about the new FF movie to me via the web site contact address here or to me directly. And remember, if you should happen to make reference to a title of a comic series please use CAPS when giving the title. I do the HTML coding on this column every week, and having the titles in caps already makes my life much easier. Finally, as always, don't forget our discussion boards! Next week, we'll look at what one comics commentator has called "the Revolving Door of Death" and how such events as the return of Hal Jordan to the DCU cheapens the effect of the recent deaths of Jean Grey and that character who died in IDENTITY CRISIS whom I'm not revealing to you. Now, here's what you can look forward to on the shelves...


For the kids this week, DC provides BATMAN ADVENTURES #15, which features Mr. Freeze's attempt to kill a romantic rival; CARTOON CARTOONS #31, which features no killing at all, no, sir; and POWERPUFF GIRLS #51, which features only mild humiliation of Fuzzy Lumpkin and Mojo Jojo. Hardly death, in any real sense of the word.

Things may not be so benign for the kiddies in MARVEL AGE: SPIDER-MAN #6, however, as the Vulture returns to take his revenge! That's only important, of course, if they actually read the first Vulture story, which was...what...three issues ago or something?

I'm a bit surprised at myself for looking forward to this one, but...Fantagraphics is this week releasing a collection of Jim Goad and Jim Blanchard's howlingly funny (and often morbidly disturbing) TRUCKER FAGS IN DENIAL, about a couple of intensely homophobic truck drivers who slip into a...well, calling it a "relationship" would be using too normal a word.'s not for kids, and it's only for adults who have $4.95. Call it "The Guilty Pleasure of the Week" if you need to justify buying it. Hell, I'm sure those two truckers do... You can also find LUBA #8, if your tastes run that way instead.

Meanwhile AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #509 sees the introduction of new regular artist Mike Deodato Jr. and two new characters which Marvel's telling us nothing about yet, as is their wont; while in VENOM #16, Spidey must deal with not one but two Venom creatures. Sheesh, wasn't having one in the Marvel Universe bad enough?

Remember how Bruce got his back broken by Bane (try saying that five times fast) and how some French dude took over and tried to change the costume into something that made the Electric Blue Superman look like a good idea? No? Then the BATMAN: KNIGHTFALL - PART 1: BROKEN BAT trade paperback ($14.95) should remind you. Otherwise, you can pick up the special standalone issue of CATWOMAN #32, featuring artwork by Sean Phillips and Stefano Gaudiano; or you can see whether Tim Drake's finally come to his sense and taken his costume back from that...that girl in ROBIN #127.

Oni Press is releasing QUEEN & COUNTRY #25 this week at the special price of $5.99 to celebrate the return of artist Steve Rolston and to celebrate getting to issue 25, naturally. Was there ever any doubt?

There's no disassembly required (yet) in AVENGERS #84, unless you count the Avengers trying to disassemble the new Invaders. Lord, between the Invaders, X-Statix, and the JLA a few months ago, you'd think it was the Avengers' sole job to go around and get into fights with other superhero teams...

Nightwing makes a guest appearance in FLASH #211 as Wally tries to decide whether to demolish the Flash Museum or not. Unless Central City has an IMAX theater, I'd advise him not to. Missouri can't be the most happening tourist attraction without one of those...

Isaiah Bradley finally shows up in CAPTAIN AMERICA #28 as Cap faces a villain from the future; while in CAPTAIN AMERICA & THE FALCON #4, Cap has to bring another rouge Super-Soldier who has almost killed Sam to justice. Seems to be a lot of them about lately, doesn't there?

Dark Horse provides a trifecta's worth of excitement this week with Kurt Busiek's CONAN #5, Peter David's SPYBOY: FINAL EXAM #2 (Of 4), and...well, some other person's ULTRAMAN: TIGA #10 (Of 10). Hey, it's Ultraman, so who cares who's doing it?

It's an expensive week to be a Wildstorm fan as AUTHORITY: MORE KEV #2 (Of 4) is the cheapest thing out today. Otherwise, you can pick up the PLANETARY: ALL OVER THE WORLD AND OTHER STORIES trade paperback for $14.95; or you can pick up either the

SLEEPER VOL 1: OUT IN THE COLD trade paperback or the SLEEPER VOL 2: ALL FALSE MOVES trade paperback, each for $17.95. Oh, hell, just get them both, already. You don't need to eat when you're reading comic books! (Trust me, I know...)

Someone's cashing in on mutants (and for once it's not just Marvel) in MYSTIQUE #16. And if you haven't experienced this surprising series yet, pick up the collected first six issues in the MYSTIQUE VOL 1: DEAD DROP GORGEOUS trade paperback for $14.99. The cover alone should be worth that, what with her perky little breasts and all...Heavens!

Two books from DC Focus this time, including FRACTION #3, in which a mysterious man (and there always is one, isn't there?) trying to get the battle suit back, and KINETIC #4, in which the formerly disabled Tom comes to the realization that it's not just his right arm that's working properly again. Wait, that came out wrong...

Image presents three titles this week, including GRAY AREA #1 (Of 3, for $5.95) in which a rogue cop killed execution-style finds himself fighting evil for a police force in the afterlife (seriously!); the SAMMY:VERY SAMMY DAY ONE SHOT for $5.95, in which we finally learn the origin of the world's unluckiest cat burglar; and WANTED #4 (Of 6), which is such an unimportant little series I'm sure no one really wants to hear about it, right? (No hate mail, please.)

A new story arc begins for the vastly un-Keanu-like John Constantine in HELLBLAZER #197; the LOSERS get sent to the Middle East in #13 but not to crack the heads of Iraqi insurgents, as you might expect; and three hot witches join forces in the appropriately titled THE WITCHING #1. Think Hermione Granger all grown up, times three. Then again, don't.

Norrin Radd's concerned that rescuing a little girl named Ellie Waters might speed up the impending destruction of the Earth in SILVER SURFER #10. Yeah, that boy's gotten seriously weird lately...

Speaking of characters acting rather differently, SUPERMAN #206 features the Man of Steel still trying to figure out who the good guys are in the civil war he's found himself in the middle of. I'd make a joke about North vs South and all that, but they take that sort of thing rather seriously here in New Orleans...

Three hot witches join forces, really, it's a completely different WITCHES #2, to find a dark and disturbing tome whose secrets could destroy the world! No, not the Clinton autobiography...

That's surely not the Joker on the cover of WONDER WOMAN #205? Whoo boy... Bad enough Diana has to deal with the God of War from time to time, but now she has to deal with the God of Lunacy...

On the X-end of the alphabet, those of you who really want comics to contain "extras" the same way a DVD does can pick up the ASTONISHING X-MEN #:1 DIRECTOR'S CUT for $3.99 to see never-before-seen character designs and cover sketches. No writer's commentary, sadly. Otherwise, you can just pick up ASTONISHING X-MEN #2 to see how the news of a "cure" for the mutant gene affects the team. (I get the feeling they're not going to take that well.) Meanwhile, Professor X continues to rebuild Genosha in EXCALIBUR #2, and we find out yet another secret lurking in Logan's past in WEAPON X #25. (Lord, this is worse than the Clinton autobiography...) And finally, if you can't remember what happened a few months ago in UNCANNY X-MEN #s 435, 436, 442, and 443 or in NEW X-MEN #s 155 and 156, then the UNCANNY X-MEN VOL 6: BRIGHT NEW MOURNING trade paperback for $14.99 should remind you. Or you could just save yourself fifteen bucks and go back and reread them provided you bought them in the first place.

Flame off. (No, no, that wasn't directed at you...!)

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