Secret Origins #3: Captain Marvel

Ryan Daly and guests Paul Scavitto and Nathaniel Wayne review issue #3 of Secret Origins, which retells the classic story of Captain Marvel.

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Sample pages from Secret Origins #3, written by Roy Thomas with art by Jerry Bingham and Steve Mitchell.

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“Premonition” (Theme for Secret Origins Podcast) by Neil Daly.

Additional music this episode: “The Word” by The Beatles.

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18 thoughts on “Secret Origins #3: Captain Marvel

  1. Secret Admirers! I love it!

    This was my first issue of Secret Origins proper. I’d skipped the first, and never found the second (then skipped the fourth, but from the fifth I strove to collect them all).

    My own first (and still best remembered) contact with the Shazam franchise was the 1981-82 cartoon show, a segment in “The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam!” (the other segment was Hero High). Whenever Billy calls on the lightning, I still hear that version, with Billy and Mary shouting Shazam in tandem, followed by Junior shouting Captainnnnn Marvelllll!

    Cap didn’t thrive right away after Crisis, but I loved Ordway’s Power of Shazam. Then, everything all ages that came out after that (Jeff Smith, DCKids), and the recent Coherence series was TOTALLY AWESOME AND GORGEOUS, but everything else has been about destroying the Shazam property, at least for me.

    As for the Secret Origins story, it’s up there with Superman’s in the number of times I’ve read it in different comics. Not only is it the same as the original, it was also retold after Legends, again without a lot of variation (at least in the train/Shazam part). The difference is, both these later origins had darker, more realistic art than the origin, which I think kills the tone. Captain Marvel’s bane, I think, is creators who are somehow ashamed of the property’s light-heartedness and fantasy elements. For extra credit, discuss how JK Rowling stole from this origin for Harry Potter’s.

    While I’ll agree that Roy Thomas is much too verbose and old-fashioned, as a teenage reader when this came, I’ve got to say, a large number of comics were like that back then. Have you read Claremont’s X-Men?! We had not yet transitioned to Miller-style captions (which have now become a ridiculous crutch the same way Thomas’ omniscient narrator used to be). So I can confirm for Paul and Nathaniel that this IS typical of its era, though the style was on its way out.

    As for the Big Red Cheese’s relevance, I think that comparing him to Superman is the completely wrong thing to do. The similarities are superficial – the look, the basic powers (he doesn’t have the whole Kryptonian suite) – but Cap is its own Archetype: the wish fulfillment hero, the reader who turns into a superhero. He’s Dial H for Hero. He’s the original Ninjak. He’s Prime. He’s Marvel’s Captain Marvel in the Rick Jones era. And focusing on THAT and a vibe more akin to Harry Potter or Narnia and so on, that’s what makes Shazam Shazam. Treating him as just another flying brick in long-johns robs the character of his specificity and relevance.

    Did you mix in a little thunder every time you said the word Shazam, Ryan? Or was that out my window? Haha, nice touch!

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    1. Siskoid, would you be willing to elaborate on what you mean by the phrase “everything else has been about destroying the Shazam property.” That phrase has been rotating in my mind since I first heard it. I don’t want to interject my own thoughts to much into the discussion but I’m interested in hearing more because I’ve been grappling with the idea that there is an embarrassment of the character manifest in DC (save for the Thunderworld and Convergence titles) and that makes me gravitate to what (I think) you may be communicating in that phrasing.


      1. Well, it’s like DC has decided that Kingdom Come should be a template for Captain Marvel stories, i.e. always about the loss of innocence, because Cap is seen as an innocent character. And so we get Mary Marvel going “dark”, and Black Adam being more of a protagonist than Cap, and Billy the jerk delinquent in the New52… All of it misses the point.


  2. Interesting take on this issue!

    It seems like I loved this issue more than any of you. I tended to forgive much of these ‘homage’ issues as simply trying to honor the stories they were based on. So a lot of the clunkiness was tossed aside for me.

    I always thought that radios going out would be a massive deal back then since radio was basically that times internet. Robbing the US of its main way of communicating news quickly? Seems like a big deal.

    All that said, I think the biggest reason why I like this issue so much is the Jerry Bingham art. I know its quality is mentioned throughout the podcast but man … it is soooooooo beautiful. It is so slick that I can look right past some of the rougher parts of the story. Between this and ‘Son of the Demon’, he’ll always rank for me.

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  3. Captain Marvel is one of my all-time favorite characters, and I absolutely love this issue. Very interesting to hear a take that is completely different from my own on the issue, many of the hangouts for some of you were to me some of the strongest points of the story. I very much love that the Secret Origins issue was still set in that classic era, and served as a final send off to the Captain Marvel of Fawcett Publishing that would never exist again. To me that is one of the greatest pieces of charm of the Secret Origins comic series. So much of the series focuses on characters that were either drastically changed or completely erased by the consequences of Crisis, and so the series served as a final, proper send off and farewell to those characters. I totally agree with the analysis that Billy Batson becoming Earth’s Mightest Mortal is a true, timeless American Fairy Tale and a piece of American Innoncence, and when you think about it, kind of sad commentary that for something was culturally such a big phenomenon 70 some years ago, is completely lost today. What percentage of kids today know who Captain Marvel & Billy Batson are? I think Roy could see the writing on the wall here, and that DC had made up it’s mind to turn it’s back on that type of storytelling, that tone of storytelling, and the characters associated with it, and so Secret Origins served as the final farewell to many characters conceived in the Golden Age, not just Captain Marvel from his Fawcett days.

    The two hardest hit teams or casts of characters changed by the Crisis are the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Golden Age characters (such as the JSA, Freedom Fighters, and then the Fawcett characters by association from the past decade and a half of DC’s publishing). The comment was made that Roy indulged himself and wrote it the way he wanted instead of what readers may have wanted, and I have to disagree with the idea that those concepts are mutually exclusive. To me that is the appeal of the issue, the Crisis wiped away a lot, especially Roy’s fantastic work at DC in the first half of the 1980’s, so if you saw Captain Marvel written by Roy Thomas on the cover sitting on the newsstand, I think you would be disappointed if you got anything but the way this issue was written. To put a more modern context on it, that would be like me walking into my local comic shop and seeing a brand new issue of my all-time favorite character, Superman, by my all-time favorite John Byrne, and the cover looked like his Man of Steel era Superman, and then opening up and finding that it was set in the New 52 and it’s that version of the character that I absolutely detest. Do you want Byrne doing New 52 Superman? Hell no, you want Byrne revisiting his classic iconic version of the character. Same thing here, do you want Roy Thomas, the master of the Golden Age, doing a new fangled darker DC take on Captain Marvel, no you want Roy to do a classic take on a classic character. At least that’s what I want from him as a writer. Not every book is aimed at everyone, in this case I would say that the issue hits the target audience (fans with a fondness of the Golden Age) right in the perfect feel goods where it should as is.

    Really when it boils down to it, aside from the issue serving as that last final farewell to Golden Age Captain Marvel, DC couldn’t have done any other Secret Origins take on the character, because how DC was going to incorporate Captain Marvel into the DCU hadn’t been decided yet, all the new was that they were going to. It’s important to keep in mind the publishing context of when this issue went on sale, which was March 13th 1986. Even though Crisis #12 had already hit, DC was still in this weird flux stage in between the conclusion of Crisis and the beginning of when the actual changes brought on by it went into effect. For instance, the Superman comics being published were still Pre-Crisis Superman. Secret Origins #3 went on sale 3 months before the “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” story by Alan Moore (and a story I detest, but that’s a tale for another time) which went on sale in June 1986. There was no Man of Steel mini-series yet, no Perez re-imagining of Wonder Woman yet. Crisis had wrapped but it would be months before the changes it caused would be implemented. DC had no clue what they were going to do with Captain Marvel and his supporting cast of characters at this point, there were rumblings that John Byrne may tackle the Big Red Cheese, there was the possibility that Alan Moore would be tackling it (after all he did write the British derivative version of Captain Marvel for Eclipse in the early 80’s). At this point there was no other story to tell other than give the Golden Age Captain Marvel a proper farewell and retell his classic origin really for the first time (other than the Famous First Edition treasury reprint of Whiz Comics #2) since DC began publishing Captain Marvel stories in 1972. In the end, Byrne walked away from tackling Captain Marvel because DC wouldn’t cave on his one term that it be set in a separate universe away from the rest of the DCU. Alan Moore’s concept for the series has been released before online and looking at that those notes, it’s a good thing is plan was never published, DC dodged a bullet on that one.

    Ultimately what would end up happening would be Roy Thomas and Tom Mandrake would be tapped to introduce Captain Marvel into the DCU Proper 10 months later with the Shazam: The New Beginning mini-series. I really enjoy that series but it apparently didn’t resonate well enough with audiences to warrant a new ongoing series. So aside from appearances in the Action Comics Weekly anthology comic, the Big Red Cheese sat idle for some time until Jerry Ordway, fresh off something like a 7 year long run on Superman brought Captain Marvel back into the spotlight with his 1994 Power of Shazam Hardcover Graphic Novel, where he tackled both art and writing duties, and then the subsequent Power of Shazam ongoing series that ran for 4 years and Ordway wrote and did covers for while Peter Krause pencilled.

    The suggestion that this Captain Marvel would fit better in the Marvel Universe, where he would have no other analog or character similar to him is an interesting one, and Marvel actually tried that in the 1970’s with their own Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell), which not so coincidentitally was also written by Roy Thomas. Due to a run in with the super-villain Nitro (yes the same Nitro that caused the explosion that kicked off the God-awful Marvel Civil War) Mar-Vell had to wear Nega-Bands to slow the cancer growing inside of him. As a consequence of that, he occupied the Negative Zone, and could only be released when teenager (and all-around Superhero groupie) Rick Jones (yes that Rick “I made Bruce Banner become the Hulk” Jones) who wears a matching set of Nega-Bands strikes them together resulting in him switching places in the Negative Zone with Captain Marvel. And because of their partnership he can somewhat influence Mar-Vell or share his thoughts, they kind of have a shared conscious despite being 2 different beings, it kind of plays fast, loose, and ambigious with the they are 2 separate characters or parts of the same whole dynamic. Mar-Vell was an alien come to earth, so he was kind of that Fawcett Captain Marvel kid to superhero, imposed on a super-powered being from the stars, so a sci-fi character instead of magical or whimsical. So there you go Fawcett Captain Marvel mixed with Superman. While there are enjoyable points in that run, it overall didn’t resonate too well. I blame that on it being a dynamic shoe-horned onto 2 pre-existing characters in the Marvel Universe, instead of an organic dynamic used on a new character from the word go.

    Great episode, I really enjoyed this one. Nice touch Ryan on the editing and putting in a Thunder Clap everytime the word Shazam is said. Good stuff.

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    1. Okay Kyle, you have some stuff mixed up here, in regards to Mar-Vell. The Nitro story came well after Mar-Vell wore the Nega-Bands and exchanged places with Rick Jones. Nitro didn’t appear until Captain Marvel #34, written and drawn by Jim Starlin, after the Thanos saga. Roy Thomas wrote Captain Marvel well before that. In issue #16, by Archie Goodwin, CM is hit by radiation that sends him into the Negative Zone. Roy Thomas took over with the next issue and has the Kree Supreme Intelligence allow Mar-Vell to telepathically contact Rick Jones and lead him to a Kree base and a set of Nega-Bands, which when he strikes them together, causes the pair to switch places. Thomas continued this, adding other touches of the Fawcett CM, including a Professor Savannah and a Dr Mynde. So, yes, Thomas turned Mar-Vell into a pseudo-Big Red and Blue Cheese,; but, he didn’t create Nitro or the cancer. That was Jim Starlin and the cancer was retroactively created in the graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel.

      Meanwhile, the Alan Moore proposal you seem to be alluding to, Twilight, wasn’t just a Captain Marvel storyline. It was a cross-company epic involving all the big guns, who are split into various “houses,” including the House of Marvel, the House of Steel and the House of Mystery. Captain Marvel was to be at the center of it and some of the ideas seemed to reflect Captain Mantra, from Robert Mayer’s novel, Super Folks, which bore great similarity to “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”; or, at least, elements of it. Both storylines actually diverge greatly.

      I agree with you that Byrne on a Captain Marvel in it’s own universe would have been great and I wish DC would have recognized what the powers that be recognized in 1972: Captain Marvel needs to exist in his own little world, where he can have his adventures and everything can have its own logic. When you try to turn him into a generic superhero, he fails miserably. He needs that innocence and simplicity that made the Fawcett stories so great. you can still do serious stories and stories with depth; but, you can’t do them like you would Superman, though Mort Weisinger certainly swiped enough from the character, in the Silver Age. They need to be more allegorical. Captain Marvel is that kind of hero. You just can’t do a maniacal worm who manipulates the world’s most evil villains in a world that also includes a dark vigilante, like Batman. That’s part of why I always felt DC should have left the parallel Earths alone. It ruined the JSA and it did Captain Marvel no favors (or Plastic Man, really).


      1. Ah thank you for the clarification on the timeline there on the Nega Bands implementation. It’s been years since I have re-read the pre-Starlin issues of Captain Marvel, because frankly I didn’t find them all that great. That was a series and character they were really struggling to find something to latch onto and work, so it seemed like they were throwing stuff at the wall in hopes something would stick.

        It’s a bit of oddity that 2 of Starlin’s most memorable character runs are Captain Marvel & Warlock, and both Roy Thomas & Gil Kane worked on both characters as well. Kane & Thomas had (in my opinion) a great run on Warlock, but their work on Mar-Vell was nothing special.


    1. I think you have it absolutely right, Kyle. If we take the issue in context, and not forgetting it’s only 2 months after Roy Thomas DID THIS EXACT THING on Superman, this was what Secret Origins was (initially) about. A salute to DC’s long history.

      Get your finger off the Taunt button, Ryan. We’re running on aggro here.

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  4. Great comments from everybody so far, guys! I had a feeling this episode would stir up more reaction from listeners who are vastly more familiar with Captain Marvel than me or my guests were, and it sounds like it’s provoking the desired reaction.

    I’ll address a lot of these comments in the listener feedback section of episode 4!


  5. Fun episode. It was interesting to hear from some folks who were less familiar with the publishing material and more “cold” on Captain Marvel, to get their gut reaction. I see where they are coming from in their criticism of Thomas being too slavish to the actual Golden Age script by Parker. I brought up the same concerns with the Superman origin. Thomas will soon loosen up a bit, and balance out covering the GA events, with the addition of some more modern storytelling techniques. I think ultimately, the book is better for it. But as Kyle said, this was the last hurrah for the GA Captain Marvel. You have to assume this story took place on Earth S, as DC lore has it that Cap and company’s GA adventures took place as published, and they were in suspend animation for decades before thawing out in the 70s.

    I like Jerry Bingham’s artwork…but it may have been to gritty for this story. I feel the same way about Tom Mandrake on the New Beginning mini-series. I think Bingham was basing the Captain’s look on actor Tom Tyler who played him in the movie serial. That’s a nice touch, but overall, it just seems a bit off for the source material.

    The notion of Captain Marvel existing at…Marvel is mind-blowing. Had that ever happened, the company would have had no need for The Sentry as their Superman surrogate. I do agree the character works better in his own universe. Other than Ordway’s Power of Shazam, he’s floundered since being on the main DCU Earth of the week.

    Looking forward to Michael Bradley stopping by to stop Firestorm! Glad you didn’t get that other guy…



  6. I love the idea of stories of the Captains Marvel from other eras. Why has that never been a thing? Otherwise, three episodes in, and the show is knocking it out of the park. Great job, Ryan (and guests). Keep up the good work.

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  7. I didn’t feel a lot of enthusiasm for the material from any of this podcast’s participants, including myself as the listener. I didn’t bother to talk to Roy Thomas when he was in Houston last year, but Avengers 2 got me thinking about how he was a classic Marvel writer, so why did I view him so unfavorably? Oh yeah– the part where his talents crawled up the super-myopically-tight bunghole of the Golden Age of Comics to die in the fecund wastes of its colon. It makes me angry that Thomas would xerox a nearly fifty year old script and waste Jerry Bingham’s time redrawing it, especially since Bingham is a wholly inappropriate choice for the character and the material. Ever since DC released the first “speculator” comic with the 1970s Shazam! revival, they’ve shown their lack of understanding in how to handle the character in the modern era, and this issue did nothing to refute that. Also, the cover sucked and so did the Ordway & Jeff Smith series. Yeah, I said it! I’ll break a beer bottle over this here bar and take you all on! Bring it!


    1. Frank’s opinion on the Ordway Captain Marvel is invalid. Simply because around the time that series was being published, his favorite character was Bloodwynd and he loved Bloodlines. His DC Qualitymeter was uncalibrated and performing poorly in those years, and so his thoughts should be ignored. 😛

      Frank, I know you, especially at the time, preferred serious or more mature takes on comics. But I’m curious if now you wouldn’t find that Ordway Power of Shazam series more enjoyable. You’ve said now that recent dark DC landscape has made you retroactively enjoy Kingdom Come less, because it seems that set the “target” for DC steer its universe towards. I would think with the dark & gritty fatigue of the current DC, that would make a more classic take on characters, such as Ordway’s Shazam work, would be a pleasant read and break from the dark norm. But I guess that hinges on you having an affinity for the character in the first place. If you don’t, you don’t. But I’d recommend giving it another shot.

      Between your dislike of Jurgens artwork and disdain for Ordway’s Captain Marvel work, you and I have very different takes on DC’s 90’s offerings. It seems while we are in a lot of agreement on other eras, 90’s DC we diverge in our opinions quite a bit.


  8. I first encountered Captain Marvel in Shazam #10, a comic my mother bought for me while I was sick, with bronchitis, and was picking up medicine at a drug store (way back in the early 70s). That comic featured Aunt Minerva trying to force Captain Marvel to marry her. The inside featured that story, an odd one with alien vegetables, and a Mary Marvel story. I knew Superman and Batman, mostly from the Filmation cartoons; but, this was way cooler. It was totally off the wall and fun. I fell in love. I was able to get a few more issues here and there, plus read some issues from a friend’s collection. The best stories always turned out to be reprints of old Fawcett stories. DC never really seemed to get a handle on the character, though E. Nelson Bridwell tried (and came far closer than most).
    I watched the Filmation live action series, though felt it was really bland, without any of the colorful villains. They did a much better job with the later animated series (with Hero High, in the Kid Super Power Hour). Apart from a very short-lived stint from Don Newton (at the end of the original Shazam run and in World’s Finest), Captain Marvel just kind of faded, until Crisis. Post-Crisis, DC really struggled with the character. It didn’t fit into their universe and they eliminated the alternative world. He floundered. This was a nice intro to his origin and caps off the original character; but, I don’t think Thomas’ Shazam: A New Beginning worked very well. It tried; but kind of fell flat. It was missing the whimsical touch. Again, DC mostly let the character lie, except in Justice League, where he fit in a little better, as it was played lighter, though his stay was brief. That would stand until Jerry Ordway and The Power of Shazam.
    Ordway really tried and had a decent balance of the whimsy of the original and the more serious modern stuff. It worked better than most of DC’s previous attempts; but, it always felt restrained. I supported it completely and enjoyed what Ordway did; but, it could have been more. After that, not much, other than a decent role in Kingdom Come (which was Alex Ross’ story, more than Waid’s, so you guys kind of gloss over his storytelling role) and in the Paul Dini/Alex Ross Shazam: The Power of Hope. Nothing much of note afterwards, apart from Billy Batson and the Power of Shazam, which did more than most to try to return that sense of innocence and fun to the character, as well as the Jeff Smith Monster Society of Evil. Don’t get me started on Trials of Shazam or any of the rest.
    Meanwhile, as for the podcast, it seems a bit odd that no one really seems to be a fan of Captain Marvel or very familiar with him. It’s different and reflects much of the modern audience; but, given this is devoted to a book that explored history, you have a panel that seems ignorant of that history.
    To add to some of that history, captain Billy’s Whiz Bang was noted for rather salacious jokes, which is why it is a source of concern, in the Music Man. The costume was designed to invoke the military uniforms of Europe, especially the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which would influence opera, the Prisoner of Zenda, and Flash Gordon. The cape was based on the pelise, a sort of jacket worn draped over one shoulder, like a cape. The “flowers” are supposed to be gold braid, a common feature of those uniforms. That is also why Captain Marvel has that flap on his tunic. It was drawn that way in Whiz #2, but changed to a more standard tunic in subsequent stories, until Jerry Ordway returned it. Jerry Bingham drew it here, as this retells that first story. The costume appears that way in the excellent Republic Studios serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel.
    Captain Marvel was an innocent, whimsical character and book, which Thomas tries to capture, in an era where that was “old fashioned.” For me, the problem is that he can’t seem to decide on the right tone and tries to both sound classical and modern. If he went whole hog into whimsical, it could have been really great, with tongue firmly planed in cheek. I think your panel just can’t get past their modern cynicism, though I suspect that Thomas’ bipolar tone doesn’t help. Meanwhile, you guys missed the in-joke of the newspaper customer name Mr Binder. many of the classic Captain Marvel stories were written by Otto Binder. I do agree that Thomas could be self-indulgent in his comics at DC; but, there were plenty of us Bronze Agers who were still around and enjoyed Thomas’ books, especially things like All-Star Squadron and Secret Origins. Where it didn’t work is on books set in the modern era, like Infinity, Inc, where he spent more time relating some old All-Star Comics story, than dealing with his story of the present. It killed the momentum of the book, which was pretty good for the first two years. In that, I can understand why your inexperienced panel had trouble getting into this. I do think that if your panel had read the original Bill Parker and CC Beck story, they would have enjoyed it much more. Here, I think he was a bit too slavish to the original story, rather than retelling the events, in his own voice.
    Dr. Sivana was the real arch enemy of Captain Marvel and had your panel read those stories, they would have gotten the character more. However, he’s not quite as arch here as he was in the later stories. His next appearance would fit more into the classical mold.
    I like the story; and thought Bingham did a decent, if not polished job. However, I really wish it had been done by Don Newton, who, sadly had passed away two years earlier. Newton was a massive Captain Marvel fan and had drawn some nice stories in the 70s and had co-created a proposed African-American addition to the Marvel Family, to be called Captain Thunder Newton would have gone to town on this and his moody style would have really given it life.
    If it sounds like I am overly critical or nitpicking, it’s probably due to a great love of the character. I just didn’t get that same feeling from the panel, which kind of colors the podcast for me. there are some interesting points, as they are coming from neophytes and this issue isn’t really a great intro for neophytes. At the same time, there was nothing this issue could lead a new fan to, as there wasn’t an ongoing series. It was more a love letter to where it started.
    On a final note, I really can’t see Captain Marvel ever working at Marvel. Their style would have lost much of what made the Big Red Cheese great,e specially since he would have to exist with everyone else. Thor stole heavily from it (weak person magically transforms to god/hero), but CM wouldn’t coexist well. He would be somewhat unique there; but, that type of character doesn’t lend itself well to heroes with feet of clay.


  9. I remember enjoying this issue loads; I didn’t want Roy Thomas making up new stuff to put in there – let the new stuff go in the new stories, I wanted to experience these tales as did the original kids.

    And ‘please God no!’to putting Captain Marvel in the Marvel Universe – he wasn’t created to be a team character, to be a straight man to someone else’s joke – he’s meant to be the number one character in his own world, and there he gets to have a sense of humour. Definitely take him out of the DCU, but stick him back on Earth S or whatever we’re calling it.

    And guest-wise, Ryan, I think the show works best when your co-hosts are big fans of the character concerned. You can still have everyone on eventually, but they’ll be in the right spots.


  10. My first exposure to Captain Marvel was the old 1970s TV show. I remember liking him quite a bit but have no memory of watching the show itself. I really liked the 1980s revival of the character and read his story arc in Action Comics Weekly. I stopped following him at the time The Power of Shazam! came out but my love of the character never waned.

    Had you not mentioned the technical problems at the top of the show, I never would have noticed. Great job!

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