Editor's note: The following essay was published January 28, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Tucson Museum of Art. The essay was written to accompany the exhibit Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction: Dime Novel to Pop Culture, on view October 24, 2015 - February 14, 2016 at the Tucson Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Tucson Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Western Hero in Print

by Christine C. Brindza


This is the West, Sir. When legend becomes fact, print the legend."

- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962


The Tucson Museum of Art's Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction: Dime Novel to Pop Culture exhibition, examines the concept of the "hero" of the American West based on mythic and factual proportions. The exhibition, October 24, 2015 - February 14, 2016, focuses on the portrayal of the Western hero in dime novels, pulp magazine cover art, comic books, graphic novels, and modern and contemporary art. It studies his or her features, personality, and place in popular culture over time. In the exhibition, there is an evident transformation and ultimate deconstruction of the Western hero due to the adaptation of social mores in society. Today, the Western hero is most prevalent in film and television, but well over a century ago the stories featured settings, characters, and plots in print form available to the masses. Print materials still exist and play a large role in defining the Western hero.

The classic hero, often described as a gun wielding, brawny, quick-witted cowboy, is only one of the many versions of a Western figure that has surpassed print material onto television and movie screens across the country. However, the roots of the Western hero, and supporting characters, derive from the early dime novel publications in the latter half of the nineteenth century, long before the stalwart cowboy image became seared into the American psyche. Named for their average price of ten cents, the cheaply printed booklets featured stories of Buffalo Bill, Deadwood Dick, Frank Merriwell, Young Wild West, Kit Carson, Jr., and other "prototype" Western heroes who saved damsels in distress from peril and towns from destruction. These materials were marketed to working class readers and children.

Dime novel heroes conducted death-defying feats and possessed herculean abilities at times. These real or fictional men were often illustrated on the covers of the dime novels in crude renderings printed in black and white, and then in color as print technology improved. The images depicted dynamic scenes described in the stories within to some extent. Commonly, the illustrators and writers hired at these publishing houses did not sign their names to their work for fear that association with these cheaply printed, lowbrow works would prevent them from better employment opportunities in the future. [1]

At present, dime novels are rare due to their fragile nature. They stand as an example of the highly embellished tales about the American frontier that many interpreted as fact, and aided in establishing the myth of the West. Dime novels instituted recognizable characters, such as the lawman, gunfighter, pioneer, fragile woman, Native American, and Mexican, among others. These labels have had lasting effects that continue to this day. The dime novels on display in Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction: Dime Novel to Pop Culture showcase the early development of fictional heroic individuals to emerge in the twentieth century, as well as the iconic sidekick, villain, or love interest.

After dime novels, the next generation of print material that embellished the Western hero was the pulp magazine. Its peak lasted from 1920-1940, when hundreds of pulp magazines circulated the country and the globe. Pulp magazines (named for the pulp paper they were printed on) brought ideas about Western people to new levels in the public eye. Stories were dramatic and violent, with stereotypes being reinforced. The cover art for the pulp magazines attracted buyers at newsstands and the bold colors of red, yellow, and blue were usually employed to grab the attention of potential buyers. The cover art regularly portrayed the hero in action with firing guns hinting at eminent conflict. Unfortunately, today the existing numbers of original pulp cover art is low (1%) in comparison to the estimated 50,000 that were once produced. [2] The cover paintings were destroyed, abandoned, or materials reused because they were no longer needed. Like dime novels, some artists did not sign their name for risk of association with this inexpensive media, and they did not retrieve their paintings after the publisher used them. Those that still exist are in demand among collectors.

Just like in the case of the dime novel illustrators, many artists and writers did not necessarily want to be associated with a working class publication of this type, so they did not sign their work. During this era, pulp artists strove for higher employment at slick magazines such as Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, or Harper's Weekly. "Slick" referred to the glossy paper on which the publication was printed. These magazines were priced higher than the pulp magazines, and frequently paid artists and writers better wages. [3]

The pulp magazine industry faced public scrutiny for its tasteless stories of "crime, sex, money, and booze." [4] Western themed stories were no exception. On countless covers and in stories, depictions of scantily clad women were victims of torture and kidnapping. The more risqué pulps, called "spicy pulps," were full of erotic scenes. These images were thought to be corrupting society, and were toned down in the 1940s. They were a gold mine in profits, but gave in to public enquiry. The "spicy" publications morphed into pinup magazines, eventually aligning with Playboy, Penthouse, and similar magazines. [5]

Between the eras of the dime novel and the pulp magazine, the Western hero transitioned from the Buffalo Bill- type hero -- frontiersman, scout, and adventurer -- to the mythic cowboy. The earliest form of the cowboy as a profession in North America derived from the Mexican vaquero of the mid-nineteenth century. The job entailed attending and herding cattle as well as moving the herds long distances. It was laborious work. The demand for beef in the later 1800s in the United States created a boom in this industry, creating more interest in the cowboy as a character. In pulp magazines the cowboy usually is depicted as a young, strong, brave Euro-American white male. Artists created the typical look of cowboys by including characteristic cowboy hats, boots, chaps, gun belts and holsters, neckerchiefs, and other accessories. At its height, there were about 165 Western pulp publications produced featuring a hero with this or a similar construct.[6]

One can attribute the transformation of the Western hero into the mythic cowboy image to Owen Wister's The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains in 1902 and other publications generated at about the same time. This story spawned the idea of the cowboy persona; his set of values and morals, mannerisms, and physical make up. Pulp magazines magnified the cowboy myth into testosterone-fueled stories with bold magazine cover art. Artists created square jawed, broad-shouldered men in idealized forms, disregarding other body types or intelligence. Villains, too, suffered from this kind of casting as they frequently appeared dirty or disheveled, with scars and bad teeth.

In print, the cowboy hero found himself participating in crude acts of violence, often as cruel as the antagonist. Sometimes cover images of pulp magazines portray the cowboy hero firing his weapon almost casually or uncaringly. Psychological looks into the Western character have been carried into contemporary times, where the hero is not as clean cut and virtuous as he was once presumed to be. Anti-heroes that appear in comic books, film, and television of the latter half of the twentieth century have explored the imperfect Western hero and his flaws, as well as included women and minorities in the iconic roles.

The Second World War signified the end of the pulp era. The shortage of paper and metal supplies impacted the printing industry, making publications more expensive to produce. Public tastes changed as well. American servicemen read more comic books overseas rather than pulps, distributed to them by the government or sent by families to the fighting soldiers.[7] By the 1950s, pulp magazines moved into obscurity, with some of its remnants appearing in comic books, film, and television.

Western comic books were not as popular as the more patriotic Superman and Captain America, who captivated young soldiers and children as a source of entertainment during the Second World War.[8] However, in the post war era, superheroes lost appeal and Westerns prevailed for a time. The Lone Ranger, Red Ryder, and others became household names, and are included in Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction: Dime Novel to Pop Culture.

Comic books, a print media at first aimed for children and young adult audiences, visually played out stories in drawings and dialogue balloons rather than just text. This was found more appealing to the casual young reader seeking action and thrills on the printed page. The images were exaggerated and character qualities were over the top, but it proved to be a success that still continues to this day.

Comic books originated from comic strips of the Sunday Funnies, the newspaper pages with groupings of illustrated panels that told short stories. Publishers adapted the strips into full bound books. The first of these originated in 1933 by the Eastern Color Printing Company and was met with overnight success. [9] At first, in Western themed comic books, the protagonist was usually a cowboy, lawman, or good- hearted renegade. Within a few decades, though, more complex figures and anti-heroes were integrated into these publications.

The Lone Ranger appeared as a comic strip in 1938 and made its way into comic books a year later. Its following was mostly with children. Known for his leather face mask, powder blue Texas Ranger uniform, and brimmed hat, the character charmed his way into homes not only in print materials, but through radio and television as well. The looks of The Lone Ranger and his sidekick Tonto were solidified in comic books by Dell Comics into the 1950s. Though several artists are attributed to the iconic look of The Lone Ranger, one of the best known was Tom Gill, who drew the famous character for 11 years in the 1950s and 1960s. [10]

Red Ryder, another household name, assumed the role as an archetype hero from comic strips to comic books as well, beginning in 1938. In 1940 Hawley Publications generated the comic book focused on the character. Dell Comics soon acquired the publication rights and printed issues until 1957.[11] With his red shirt and furrowed brow, Red Ryder rode with his young sidekick, Little Beaver, in quests for justice in the West. The looks of the famous heroes are attributed to artist Fred Harman who drew them until 1964.

The Western comic book industry was a highly competitive environment, and to attract buyers, the traditional Westerns began to push further away from standards invented by the dime novels and pulps. Instead, tales could portray valiant, humorous, dark, or bizarre heroic or anti-heroic types as well as non-whites and women. One Western hero that did not fit the mold was Red Warrior. Published in 1951 by Atlas Comics (now Marvel Comics) Red Warrior is credited to the artistic skill of Tom Gill as penciler and edited by Stan Lee. One of the few heroes that represented a minority as well as a Native American, Red Warrior lasted six issues (Jan- Dec 1951). [12] He was not a sidekick, as Native Americans are represented in both The Lone Ranger and Red Ryder, but an independent hero.

A few other Western comic book heroes that arose in the last half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries broke conventional boundaries. In 1955, Marvel Comics launched Rawhide Kid, a short-lived comic book series portraying an outlaw gunfighter hero who defended the weak and sought justice. It was revived again in 1960 and lasted this time until 1970.[13] When it was revamped in the early 2000s in Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, Rawhide Kid was strongly implied to be a homosexual character. This challenged the customary representation of Western heroes, confronting a sensitive topic in contemporary culture. In the Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction: Dime Novel to Pop Culture exhibition, there are original drawings from Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, displaying part of the artistic process in creating the comic book.

A hero of a different kind, Jonah Hex, was the epitome of a Western anti-hero when he first appeared in DC Comics' All­Star Western, #10, in 1972, and proved to be one of the most unique comic book characters of the Western genre. A post-Civil War bounty hunter, this severely scarred, emotionally detached figure dressed in a dirty confederate soldier's jacket, tattered hat, and with a disturbing bulging eye, sets the tone for gruesome and violent comic book stories. [14] Jonah Hex is ruthless, and differed from more child-friendly comic books of The Lone Ranger or Red Ryder, who were both traditional "good guys." Jonah Hex brought more attention and shock value to Western comic books with stories relating to horror.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Western hero was predominantly male, but there were a few female heroes in comic books. Apache Kid and Cinnamon are two female protagonists, but they did not receive grand fanfare. Females in comic books were almost guaranteed to have attractive bodies posed in sexually provocative positions in each issue they appeared.[15] In a sense, comic book artists and writers positioned them as Western femme fatales. This evolved from the damsels in distress depicted on countless pulp magazines, featuring buxom women with ruby lips as objects of desire, helpless and delicate.

In contradiction to the stereotype, Marvel Comics' launched Apache Skies #1, 2002, and the character of Apache Kid. Known as Rosa, she was a Chiricahua Apache who took her husband's alias after he was killed. She sometimes worked with Rawhide Kid.[16] Another female hero, this time from DC Comics, was Cinnamon, a gunfighter who first appeared in Weird Western Tales #48, Sept-Oct 1978. Also known as Kate Munser, she occasionally appeared in issues with Jonah Hex. [17] These women did not break out into their own comic books, but were treated as supplements to larger characters.

The popularity boom of the Western comic book ended around the last quarter of the twentieth century. The Cold War influenced young readers to become engaged in science fiction, atomic technology, radioactivity, and aliens, trading in their "six-shooter cap pistols for toy ray guns . . ."[18] Though few Western comic books are produced today, there is still appeal in the characters established. Early editions of Western comic books are highly collected today, demonstrating their lasting attraction. Jonah Hex found his way to the silver screen in 2010, and in 2013 Disney released The Lone Ranger on film. Western television shows have graced homes for decades.

On television, cartoons created humor out of the idealization of the Western hero, particularly in the Warner Bros.' Merrie Melodies character Yosemite Sam. He is a caricatured cowboy with a long, full red mustache, oversized hat, and short stature. The character, who first debuted on television in 1945, was the epitome of the Western parody with a big ego and hair trigger, an antiquated villain that could never succeed. [19] Other Western characters from the Warner Bros. arsenal, Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner, first appeared in 1949. [20] In general, the plots consisted of a maniacal coyote eternally pursuing a quick and clever roadrunner through the desert terrain of Monument Valley.

Though mostly known through television, Warner Bros.' Merrie Melodies also appeared in comic book form, changing personas and traits in order to tell stories in comic book format. Michael Maltese, one of the cartoonists for the early renderings of Merrie Melodies, drew images for Gold Key comic books produced by Warner Bros. Storylines were still simple and in alignment with the cartoon, but became slightly more diverse. Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner, mostly silent on television, spoke in dialogue balloons. Furthermore, the comic books frequently portrayed them outside of their normal Southwest surroundings. [21]

Outwardly, it seems that the writers and artists lessened the "Westernness" and wildness of Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner by putting them in non-Western environments. They became as conventional as other powerhouse characters like Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. In Bugs Bunny, #151, June 1973, "Chess Chump," Wile E. Coyote plays a televised game of chess with the winning prize being a pet roadrunner. There is no desert, rock cliffs, or wide open spaces as seen in the more traditional stories of these characters. In the same issue, the story of "Suit Yourself" includes Yosemite Sam buying a new suit at the tailor.[22] He is literally stripped of his Western wear, except his hat and mustache. Though it can be argued that by taking Yosemite Sam out of his typical environment, it draws more attention to his uniqueness in dress, speech, and physique as a Western figure.

Other cartoons about the West sporadically unveiled on television in the years following Merrie Melodies' establishment. By the 1980s, Filmation Associates launched a short-lived cartoon that crossed into other genres. Bravestarr did not take place in the customary setting of the American frontier. Rather, the story took place in a space frontier called New Texas. Marshall Bravestarr, the main character, was also Native American. A departure from the shenanigans of Yosemite Sam, this was a blend of science fiction and the West. The series lasted two years, 1987-1989, but it did not achieve considerable success. [23] It appeared in comic book form for a short-lived run as Bravestarr 3-D, produced by Blackthorne Publishing in 1987. [24]

While Westerns had their era of prominence on television in the 1960s, a new form of storytelling through graphic novels began to bud. Considered an extension, or the next evolution, in comic books, this media follows the conventional comic book format in terms of drawings and dialogue balloons, but graphic novels are regularly longer in length (comparable to a traditional paperback novel). In addition, most graphic novels are not serialized, but stand alone stories. The definition of this type of media differs for many in the comic book/graphic novel community, but the size and story singularity are two main points in separating a graphic novel from a comic book. [25]

Graphic novels have gained popularity since the term was coined in 1964, discussing the media as an "artistically serious" format. [26] Western graphic novels are included among an array of other genres, comprising of science fiction, mystery, horror, romance, etc. Aimed mostly at adult audiences, the content is commonly of a mature nature, violent, and sometimes sexual. Western graphic novels revitalized the cowboy hero concept in the last few decades of the twentieth century, telling longer, in depth tales of real life legends of people like Cynthia Ann Parker, Juan Seguin, John Wesley Hardin, and Geronimo, interlaced with fictional ones. Examples of Western graphic novels are examined in the Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction: Dime Novel to Pop Culture exhibition.

Several graphic novels by Jack Jackson, or Jaxon, were Western themed. Jackson, a cartoonist, illustrator, and author, is known as one of the originators of the underground comix movement in 1969. During this movement he produced independent runs of socially relevant satirical comic books through his company, Rip Off Press, which differed from mainstream comic books. Yet it was in the following decades the cartoonist dedicated his work to telling history through graphic novel imagery. [27]

In the 1970s, Jackson created several graphic novels related to Texas and its remarkable history. He published Comanche Moon in 1979, telling the tale of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped as a child by Comanche Indians in 1836. As an adult, she became the wife of a warrior and had a son, Quanah, who ultimately became chief of the Comanches. He led them into great battles against white settlers on the Texas plains. Later, Jackson produced Los Tejanos in 1989, an account of Juan Seguin, a hero of the Texas Revolution who fought at the Alamo, but later was labeled a traitor.

Jackson gained accolades for his work, and in 1997, published Lost Cause, a post-Civil War reconstruction tale about those who supported the Confederacy in Texas, with focus on John Wesley Hardin, an outlaw. Jackson did not shy away from depicting the violence and racism from history, which lent a sense of authenticity to the publications. Jackson's work has been republished recently, and a few of his stories have been bound together into collections. Though he passed away in 2006, his work continues to have a strong following among readers. [28]

Other Western graphic novels have emerged over the past few decades utilizing some of the same concepts as Jackson, although with diverse themes. A graphic novel series focused on the West, Desperadoes, reached bookstands in 1997. Components of the supernatural were integrated into the story, blending other genres with the archetypical Western. For over a decade, author Jeff Mariotte worked with several publishers and artists in creating the look and content of the Desperadoes series. The plots did not concentrate on specific historic events, but notable locations, buildings, and real people were referenced in his stories. [29]

The first of the series, A Moment's Sunlight, was illustrated by John Cassaday and published through Homage Comics. It crosses between a tale of horror and a Western, as the setting takes place in New Mexico territory in 1879, where a serial killer is murdering mothers and children in a ritualistic fashion. A later Desperadoes publication, Buffalo Dreams, includes the legendary Native American leader, Geronimo, in an epic quest to save herds of bison from slaughter. Over the next few years, Mariotte's oeuvre was augmented with additional Desperadoes publications, with four different five-issue miniseries and a one-shot (single issue).[30] The series has lasting appeal for readers, and there are plans to re-release the works in digital form in early 2016. [31]

In its early days, comic books comprised of cheaply printed images on newsprint, whose figures were thickly outlined and filled with solid blocks of color. However, because of technological advancements and artistic freedoms, comic book and graphic novel quality has improved. Today, comic books are usually printed on glossy paper and appear as thin booklets or pamphlets. Graphic novels mimic paperback novels on the exterior but often open to glossy pages on the inside.

An author, penciler, letterer, inker, and colorist are among the many employed to make one edition of a comic book or graphic novel. [32] The artists are no longer limited to certain colors, but to blends of four colored inks -- cyan, magenta, yellow, and black -- which when blended create limitless color possibilities. There are some variances in the materials used, as some graphic novels simply print black and white drawings in the interior of the publication, and do not use glossy paper.

The dime novel, with its rudimentary printing, hastened illustrations, unsophisticated stories, and ephemeral quality, reflected popular culture of its time. The same mission applies to its successor a few generations later, the graphic novel, with its upgraded technologies and broader audiences. Since the era of the dime novel, the printing process and product distribution systems have significantly improved. It appears that print media has come full circle in reaching mass audiences to entertain, and in some cases, educate them about the West.

Whether in a dime novel, a pulp magazine, a comic book, or a graphic novel, stereotypes continue to be communicated in some way. For 150 years in the Western genre, heroes and villains have been labeled by their persona, physique, and apparel. The Native American, cowboy, lawman, outlaw, and feeble woman are also classified in written and artistic representations. Over time these characterizations have improved because of change in societal attitudes, as minorities and women have been re-examined and conveyed in much more positive light, but more progress needs to be made.

What comes next for Western print media? Digital technology has taken over mass communications. Materials are made readily available by the click of a mouse or swipe of a computer screen. "Old school" comic books have become regarded more as collector's items than reading material, and illustrators work in computer programs more so than on paper or canvas. Comic book heroes have made their way onto movie screens. Though technology continues to change, the Western hero and his supporting characters carry on as long as there is a desire for the West, its histories, and its myths.


1 Albert Johannsen, The House of Beadle and Adams and its Dime and Nickel Novels. The Story of a Vanished Literature. (Northern Illinois University Libraries, DeKalb, Illinois), Web. 12 Jan 2015.

2 Roger T. Reed, "The Pulps: Their Weaknesses were Their Strengths," Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines. (New York, NY: Gramercy Books, 1997), 8.

3 Walt Reed, "The Pulps and their Illustrators: A Brief Survey," Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines. (New York, NY Gramercy Books, 1997), 50.

4 Peter Haining, The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines. (Chicago Review Press: Chicago, IL, 2000), 45.

5 Haining, 49.

6 John A. Dinan, The Pulp Western: A Popular History of the Western Fiction Magazine in America. (Boalsburg, PA: Bearmanor Media, 2003), v.

7 Tony Goodstone, The Pulps: Fifty Years of American Pop Culture. (New York, New York: Chelsea House, 1970), xv.

8 Robert C. Harvey, The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History. (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 16.

9 David M. Haugen, Comic Books: Examining Pop Culture. (Detriot, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005), 13.

10 Tom Gill, The Misadventures of a Roving Cartoonist: The Lone Ranger's Secret Sidekick. (Chandler, AZ: Five Star Publications, Inc. 2008)

11 Lansing Sexton and Andrea Sexton, "Red Ryder," Cowboy Comic Books?an Overview. Web. 23 Dec 2015.

12 Tom P. Gill." Comicbookdb.com, The Comic Book Database. Web 21 Dec 2015.

13 Donald D. Markstein, "Don Markstein's Toonopedia: The Rawhide Kid." Web. 16 Apr 2015.

14 Comics Through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. M. Keith Booker, Ed. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2014), 652.

15 Haugen, 53.

16 Apache Kid (Rosa)," Marvel Universe Wiki. Marvel, 2015. Web. 23 Dec 2015.

17 Cinnamon," DC Comics Database. DC Comics, 2015. Web. 23 Dec 2015.

18 Roger Sabin, "Quote and Be Damned?" Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art. (Houston, TX: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2003), 11.

19 Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons. (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1989), 159.

20 Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald, 202.

21 Comic Script/Comic Books Box 2 Folder 4, Michael Maltese papers, 1907-1981, Collection Number 07794, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

22 Comic Script/Comic Books Box 2 Folder 4, Michael Maltese papers, 1907-1981, Collection Number 07794, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

23 Bravestarr Episode Guide- Filmation," The Big Cartoon Database, bcdb.com, 1997-2015. Web. 23 Dec 2015.

24 Bravestarr 3-D," Comic Book Realm, comicbookrealm.com, 2004-2015. Web. 23 Dec 2015.

25 Comic Versus Graphic Novel," Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 2015. Web. 23 Dec 2015.

26 Richard Kyle, "The Future," Richard Kyle's Wonderworld 2, (Capa-Alpha, The Comics Amateur Press Association, November 1964), 3, 4. Web. 15 Nov 2015.

27 M. B. Taboada, "Austin cartoonist dies: 'Jaxon' known as first underground cartoonist," Austin American-Statesman, June 10, 2006. Web. 23 Dec 2015.

28 Taboada.

29 Jeff Mariotte, "Desperadoes." Message to the author. Dec 5 2015. E-mail.

30 Mariotte.

31 Mariotte.

32 Ferguson's Career's in Focus: Comic Books and Graphic Novels. (New York, NY: Infobase Learning, 2012), 64.


About the author

Christine Brindza is Glasser Curator, Art of the American West at the Tucson Museum of Art.

Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published January 28, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Tucson Museum of Art. The essay was written to accompany the exhibit Western Heroes of Pulp Fiction: Dime Novel to Pop Culture, on view October 24, 2015 - February 14, 2016 at the Tucson Museum of Art. Permission was granted to TFAO on January 27, 2016.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Christine C. Brindza, Glasser Curator, Art of the American West at the Tucson Museum of Art for her help concerning publishing the essay.

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