The Ten Graphic Novels that No Comic Book Fan Should Be Without

Updated on November 28, 2017
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Chris Peruzzi is a comic book superhero historian who is passionate about how today's comic book heroes are the new mythology for America.

Starting a Passion

As with many things, you never forget your first.

My earliest comic book memory came when I was six and my cousin Glenn left me a shoe box full of Marvel Comics. Unlike the collectors of today, no one cared what condition the comics were in. They were read for pure enjoyment. Each of the comics were well used. I remember my cousin had actually cut out the collector stamps from many of the pages that left holes to the fan mail pages and I remember the fantastic art that could only come from the Buscema brothers, John Romita (Sr.), and the immortal Jack Kirby.

Stan Lee was still known as Smilin' Stan.

Upon reflection, it was a treasure trove of fantastic stories. I remember seeing Amazing Spider-Man #120, 121, 122 (The Death of Gwen Stacy and The Death of the original Green Goblin), many of the early X-Men stories, as well as concurrent issues of the "Avengers vs. Defenders War". To this day, I have yet to thank my cousin properly.

People start reading comic books and graphic novels for a variety of reasons. The one common denominator I've found is that they rarely begin without someone introducing them to the medium. In recent years, I've taken the role of indoctrinating many people to this fantastic medium.

It's my way of passing the "human" torch.

Many of these story lines have been assembled in the form of graphic novels. A few of these stories are "one-shots" and stand alone. Here are my recommendations for the graphic novels that no enthusiast should be without.

The Watchmen

This twelve issue Hugo award winning limited series written in 1986-87 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons broke all the rules of the traditional comic book hero. Each of the heroes is flawed one way or another. The story, set in an alternate universe's 1985, deals with an America that has outlawed superheroes (except for the ones sanctioned by the government) and portrays a realistic human depiction of these heroes. While the movie adaptation is probably the closest one ever to an Alan Moore story, it falls short of the exquisite subtlety that Moore is known for. Read the book, then see the movie.

Miller's 1984 Classic, The Dark Knight Returns
Miller's 1984 Classic, The Dark Knight Returns | Source

The Dark Knight Returns

It's one thing to write a good graphic novel with a great story and a well known character. It's quite another when it's your first one and you redefine the character into what it is today. The Dark Knight Returns written in 1986 by Frank Miller (of 300 and Sin City films) takes the character of Batman, who has not been seen in over a decade and brings him out of retirement at the age of 55. Miller's writing is masterful as much of the story returns the character to urban myth and breathes a new mission to an old character. Much of the story is told through the eyes of the media or what we now know as television's "talking heads", each complementing and condemning the protagonist for his apparent actions. The story climaxes in the much needed battle between the Dark Knight and the government law abiding Superman. While many of Miller's compatriots at the time had criticized him for "ruining the character", time has shown that this story has best defined Batman as we now know him.

Amazing Spider-man #121
Amazing Spider-man #121 | Source

The Death of Gwen Stacy

This is one of the series that Marvel wisely collected marketed as one story. The Death of Gwen Stacy (of The Night Gwen Stacy Died ASM #121 and #122)written by Gil Kane and illustrated by John Romita Sr. is still talked about today. Recommended by Walt Flannigan (of Kevin Smith's Comic Book Men) as one of the best Spider-man collectibles, it is truly one of the biggest turning points in the life of Peter Parker. This story written in 1973 still resonates with readers today as the story that not only killed Spider-man's first true love interest but also brought about the death of his greatest opponent, the original Green Goblin (Okay, yeah, I know. He comes back eventually. But he stayed dead for the longest time). True collectors should try to get their hands on the original issues, but read it for the stories as they are told best in the trade paperback.

Trivia Fact: The story of Harry Osborne's drug addiction is one of the first to be told without the Comic Book Seal of Approval.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow, O'Neil and Adams
Green Lantern/Green Arrow, O'Neil and Adams | Source

Green Lantern/Green Arrow Vol 1&2

Written by Denny O'Neil and illustrated by Neal Adams, Green Lantern/Green Arrow trade paperback volumes 1&2 tackled some of the more controversial issues of the day from racism to drug addiction. Most notable among these stories is the addiction and recovery of Green Arrow's sidekick, Roy Harper from heroin abuse. These stories represented a new change in DC Comics that reflected the problems of the time and a break away from the classic comic book hero mold.

The thing that makes this collection magical is that for the first time we see a true bond between heroic friends. While we know that there's a bond between Barry Allen and Hal Jordan and friends, the bond between Ollie and Hal is profound. These are two guys that decided to chuck it all and go on the road to really know the world. While they're on the road, they see the world they've so easily ignored.

Secret Wars Trade Paperback
Secret Wars Trade Paperback | Source

Secret Wars

This 12 part mega comic book epic collectible is a good fun story. It introduces the Beyonder and has given us the Venom symbiote (as well as an introduction to Spider-man's black costume). It was a true Marvel event and a great story with good villains.

Current readers of the Marvel Universe can now see this as a common theme within the Seige and Secret Wars (current) storylines. While the current storylines are much more dynamic than this skirmish back in the eighties, this was the first and it kept fans riveted for a full year of crossover storytelling.

Kingdom Come
Kingdom Come | Source

Kingdom Come

Here we change from typical comic book illustration to prime artwork. This series written by Mark Waid and drawn by the incredible Alex Ross (in watercolors no less) is a story about power and the precarious road it is in the wrong hands. Seen through the eyes of minister, Norman McCay, and guided by The Spectre, Superman with the survivors of some of the original Justice League return to show a new generation of super powered youth that there are repercussions to misusing powers. Met with paranoia from the human front (as well as Batman, Green Arrow, Black Canary, and the Blue Beetle) things come to a head in a final battle that can have only one outcome.

This story is a page turner from every edition that was made from it. I recommend whatever the latest edition is or even getting the Absolute Kingdom Come edition (in larger hardcover) for your own enjoyment.

The Killing Joke by Alan Moore
The Killing Joke by Alan Moore | Source

Batman: The Killing Joke

Once again, this story is not only good but is famous for its repercussions. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke is the story of Joker's origin as he remembers it. I need to stress that as what we are reading may not be the actual fact of his origin. The Joker as a psychopath has almost separated himself from reality. He, himself, says within the novel that he remembers his past one way one day and then remembers it differently the next.. "If I'm going to have a past, it might as well be multiple-choice." The artwork is superb and, as always, Moore's storytelling with the use of overlapping images is pure entertainment. This is a MUST HAVE without any debate.

The 2016 animated rated R feature is based on the Moore novel. It stars Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman and Mark Hamill as the voice of the Joker. I recommend that you not only pick up this book but you should also see this movie.

The Death of Captain Marvel by Jim Starlin (1984)
The Death of Captain Marvel by Jim Starlin (1984) | Source

The Life and Death of Captain Marvel

This is a collection of two graphic novels. I recommend you buy the trade paperback with both.

The first is the Life of Captain Marvel, which is a collection of Jim Starlin's run on the failing Captain Marvel run. This was a turning point. Starlin's illustrations are without peer and this graphic novel is a personal favorite of mine. We watch the character of Mar-Vell go from military warrior to cosmic protector after his transformation by the entity, Eon. Within this collection is one the best-illustrated fight issues made in comic history. Starlin introduces the world to his new villain, Thanos - a worshipper of Death. It is Captain Marvel (and his partner, professional sidekick, Rick Jones) who must stop him.

The second part, also written and illustrated by Jim Starlin, is the Death of Captain Marvel. This heartbreaking story is the first and only comic book story to deal with the issue of cancer. Marvel's death in 1984 was a fantastic and tragic representation of a hero who was able to defeat every enemy he was faced with only to be defeated by his own body.

I had my trade paperback signed by Starlin himself. If you get your hands on a copy, it's worth every penny.

Justice League: Identity Crisis (2004)
Justice League: Identity Crisis (2004) | Source

Justice League: Identity Crisis

I have to say that they got me with the illustrations first. The seven issue storyline was nothing but addicting. This is what happens when the DC Universe villains get organized. So many people die in this story, I don't even want to spoil it with a summary. This story deals with issues of trust as well as the bigger story on how heroes cope with the death of a loved one. It is a pivotal story that affects Batman, Superman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Robin, and, most of all, The Elongated Man - in a story that you'll never forget. Rags Morales' inks are an incredible companion to novelist Brian Meltzer's story.

From a long distance between publication to 2016, the ramifications of this story are still felt. Ray Palmer still is estranged from Jean Loring and the Batman continues to trust no one. Since this story's publishing, not only is Sue Dibney still dead, but now Ralf has joined his love on the other side.


Justice - Illustrated by Alex Ross and written by Jim Krueger
Justice - Illustrated by Alex Ross and written by Jim Krueger | Source


How many of you remember watching The Super Friends as kids? This story is taking that premise and doing it right. This is taking the Justice League and all of the villains that were the Legion of Doom and putting it to a story that is so sophisticated and so masterfully drawn that you will do anything to collect every issue you can get your hands on. I bought the first run of this and then bought the three volume hard cover set. Once again, Alex Ross delivers his extraordinary talent to water colors for a story so captivating you'll ask yourself midway through, "Who are the good guys?"

I loved this story and recommend it to everyone.

The story is dynamic. The plot is ingenious. And the art is just astounding. I originally picked this up issue by issue. Then I picked up the three volume collection and when it's collected in one book I will buy that too. This is a great read from both a superhero appreciation side and from nostalgic view as well.

What did you think?

Do you agree with this list?

See results

Final Words and Honorable Mentions

There are so many really good stories that have been told through graphic novels that it's almost impossible to limit it to ten. In addition to these, without comment, I offer these honorable mentions:

  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
  • The Flash Rebirth by Geoff Johns
  • Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman
  • Zero Hour: Crisis in Time by Dan Jurgens
  • Green Lantern: Rebirth by Geoff Johns
  • Green Lantern: Blackest Night
  • JLA: Earth 2 by Grant Morrison
  • Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb
  • Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb
  • The Death of Superman
  • Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison
  • Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
  • Allstar Superman by Grant Morrison
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore (Vol 1&2)
  • Punisher Born by Darrick Robinson
  • Daredevil Visionaries by Kevin Smith
  • Wolverine by Chris Claremont
  • Wolverine Origin
  • 300 by Frank Miller
  • Sin City by Frank Miller
  • Wolverine: Old Man Logan by Mark Millar
  • Kick Ass by Mark Millar
  • The Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont
  • Invincible by Robert Kirkman Volume 1
  • Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
  • The Walking Dead Omnibus Volume 1 by Robert Kirkman

Please if you don't see something that is glaringly obvious, please mention it within the comments section. If I've never heard of it, I'd love to read it.

© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi


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    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 2 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      The Life and Death of Captain Marvel is Jim Starlin's run on the title plus the Graphic Novel "The Death of Captain Marvel". The former is popular because it is Thanos's first attempt at Godhood prior to The Infinity Gauntlet.

    • Taranwanderer profile image

      Taranwanderer 2 years ago

      Awesome! I have read Red Son maybe 5 times - it is truly a fantastic rendition and one of my favorites. I never knew Captain Marvel that well as a superhero (except for vague remembrances from childhood, and how I often mistook him for Wonder Man for some reason until I turned 10 and could tell the difference). I might have to seriously consider The Life and Death of Captain Marvel now....

      Never read All Star Batman - I might though just to see how bad it is. Justice League: The Nail sounds like a gem - I'd never even heard of it and have now resolved to order it from amazon. With the winter vacation coming up - it's time to get to reading!

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 2 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      I'm glad you like my recommendations. These books have stood the test of time and most of them are still available even at your local Barnes and Nobles.

      The Life and Death of Captain Marvel is rapidly becoming my favorite collection due to 1) its outstanding artwork and 2) the dignity and heartfelt drama dealing with the subject of cancer. I still reread it once a month.

      It's hard to lose with a good Batman story. Although I will say that while I loved Frank Miller's work with both Batman: Year One and Return of the Dark Knight - his later stuff like DK2 and All Star Batman are legendarily bad - they are MST3K bad - So bad that they belong in a septic tank and sealed.

      They're bad.

      The ever expanding list for Superman grows annually - I would recommend "The Death of Superman" collection as well as Superman for all Seasons. You could also go with the Else Worlds story Red Son - Which is a great What If story (What if Superman's rocket landed in cold war Russia?) and Justice League: The Nail (Which goes with the question "What if the Kents didn't find the rocket?" and to the poem "for want of a nail")

      Other commenters have made some excellent suggestions, and most of them I definitely recommend - so you might want to check out the thread on that, too.

      Thanks for reading.

    • Taranwanderer profile image

      Taranwanderer 2 years ago

      As usual, this is one heckuva compilation from cperuzzi. The Dark Knight Returns and Kingdom Come are my absolute favorites so far; now, I have to check out some of the other ones - Justice, Identity Crisis and any others with Superman in it. PErhaps the Killing Joke, as well, since I'm a Batman fan.

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 2 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      This is why I loved writing this article - I get new suggestions like this.

      Yes, Maus is certainly an important work on that genre. Written by Art Spiegelman this series ran from 1980 to 1991. This Eisner and Pulitzer Prize Award winning graphic novel was a poignant commentary on the holocaust represented by mice, cats, and pigs. It is a powerful piece of work and certainly an eye opener.

      While we're on that vein, I would also recommend Howl by Allen Ginsberg and Eric Drooker in graphic novel format.

    • dblyn profile image

      dblyn 2 years ago from Staten Island, NY

      We all completely forgot "Maus". It's not a superhero tale but clearly was one of the most defining books of it's time and still very powerful today.

    • Mike Nolan profile image

      Michael Nolan 2 years ago from Sarasota, FL


    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 2 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      It is nearly impossible to split hairs with Neil Gaiman. His stories involving the Endless are all just wonderful. I had gone to the NY ComicCon back in 2007 and Bill Hader had an entire improv (before introducing Gaiman as the guest speaker) about how reading him was good luck before every audition he ever went on.

      For me, I just look at his work and say the Sandman is all good.

    • Mike Nolan profile image

      Michael Nolan 2 years ago from Sarasota, FL

      If I were to choose one Sandman, I would put Seasons of Mist before Preludes. I would also include Marvels and Days of Future Past.

    • Siclone profile image

      Simon 2 years ago from NSW, Australia

      Some great recommendations. I have read many of them , but there are a few I will have to track down!

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 3 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      I just got the opportunity to read through the comments again. I apologize if I didn't get back to you.

      @ Jayfort - Never has a quarter been spent so well by so many.

      @ NicholasA - I found it interesting as "A Death in the Family" and "Captain Marvell's" peak issues were both written by Jim Starlin. It's good to see writer illustrators that are really talented. It reminds me of meeting Jim Steranko at the last Asbury Park Comicon. He really loves drawing AND drawing from his own personal history as an escape artist (if you've ever read "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay" - rumor has it that Kavalier was based on Steranko).

      But I digress.

      I loved "Prodigal". When the original run had come out, I remember thinking that the story of Grayson filling in for Batman was WAAAY overdue. The fact that the line was drawn from older villains that Grayson knew well (like Mad Hatter and Two Face) to ones he had no experience with (like Killer Croc) reminded the reader how long it was since he had partnered with the original Batman.

      I want to sum up with this - There are so many stories written since 1986 that are just awesome. 1986 marked a renaissance in comic book writing where not only had readership matured but the writers had matured as well. Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, and Alan Grant are just a few artists that really broke the mold at that time. Marvel was churning out great stories and DC was shedding their immaturity after "Crisis on Infinite Earths". While there have been great stories written prior to '86 (mostly by Marvel - I won't pull any punches with DC's Pre-Crisis stories as I still cringe when I read them), the ones I listed, I think, have helped forge the characters into what they are now.

      Moore made the Swamp Thing a true elemental. Miller made Daredevil the Kingpin's official bane (instead of Spider-man) and Batman, the grim and gritty dark knight again. After Crisis, Grant Morrison wrote JLA: Earth 2 - which reintroduced the Crime Syndicate of Amerika. A new team that had no choice to be evil because in that universe evil was what remained dominant. Gaiman gave us The Sandman. Alex Ross gave us artwork that is so stunning that it belongs in a museum.

      The suggestions from the feedback are truly astounding. And they've gotten me reading some of the stories where I collected them outside of graphic novel format.

      So, when I say that these collections are what no collection should be without, I'm not saying that they are the best... I'm saying that you really need to have them.

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 3 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      That's a wild coincidence that I was just reading the beginning of his run today with "Anatomy Lesson".

      It really deserves more credit.

    • profile image

      Mo 3 years ago

      Moore's run on Swamp Thing was amazing get that on the list.

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 3 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      All great graphic novels.

      And, yes, any collection would be richer because of them. I had actually collected each of Miller's Daredevil run when they originally came out and it was truly a turning point within the DD mythos.

      Miller is usually hit or miss. While I loved DK Returns, I hated DK Strikes Again and All Star Batman. However, DK Returns did a lot to focus the impact of who the Batman is and how the death of Jason Todd profoundly affected him.

      Alan Moore's Hugo Award winning Watchmen stands on its own. He created such a fantastic array of imperfect characters that by the end of the book we're wondering how we actually define what a hero actually is.

      With the exception of Secret Wars, all of these novels has stood the test of time. Moore's "Killing Joke" redefined the Joker and gave him more depth. Alex Ross's "Kingdom Come" is a masterpiece of art and story. The GA/GL by O'Neill and Adams is representative of what has been envisioned as the definitive in characterizing the core of both these characters - from Jordan's work with the guardians to Queen's break with Roy Harper after his heroin addiction.

      Captain Marvel - one of the few character to not only lose his life outside of combat (attacking the serious topic of death by cancer), but one of the heroes to actually stay dead.

      And speaking of dead, remember Gwen Stacy? Outside of Uncle Ben's death, the death of Gwen Stacy is one of the few that haunts Spider-man.

    • profile image

      Burrhus 3 years ago

      Nice post. I didn't see:

      Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller. IMO a superior run to Kevin Smith's.

      Daredevil: Born Again- Frank Miller

      Ronin-Frank Miller

      American Flagg(not sure how many are collected)-Howard Chaykin

      WE3- Grant Morrison

      The second trade of 100 Bullets. That first one left me wondering what the fuss was about

      RASL-Jeff Smith

      The Complete Bone-Jeff Smith

      New Frontier-Darwyn Cooke

      Akira-No clue

      TMNT-Laird and Eastman

      I could probably keep writing for a while. I know this is an essentials list and I have a hard time narrowing things down.

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 5 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      Mar-Vell has always been a favorite of mine, but only Jim Starlin could do him justice. The entire "Metamorphosis" story of Eon showing him that he's been on the wrong path until he becomes the protector of the universe against Thanos is nothing short of masterful.

      The Batman mythos has a lot going for it... But recommending all Batman is a bit partial.

    • NicholasA profile image

      NicholasA 5 years ago from Midwest

      Secret Wars was a great read. It took me a couple years to track down all of the issues. I also have a What If? Secret Wars 25 years later. The heroes and villains stopped fighting, some are dead, those who are alive have kids and you know how super powered kids can get into trouble...Peter Parker is dead and the symbiote is still attached to his skeleton. "He" walks, talks, climbs wall, one knows peter is dead though. They show his skeleton when he takes a shot from Klaw.

    • NicholasA profile image

      NicholasA 5 years ago from Midwest

      I read something earlier that Marvel was bring back Mar-Vell...I'm leery and don't have a big budget for comics. I only get 3 or four titles a month. Mar-Vell turned out to be a skrull last time he "returned". Batman: Prodigal is a good book too. Dick fills in for Bruce after "Knights End" and he works out some of his issues throughout the story.

    • profile image

      Jayfort 5 years ago

      That phone poll was the best 25 cents I ever spent. Then DC goes back and resurrected Jason. *sigh*

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 5 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      All good suggestions. The "Death in the Family" is particularly important because of the phone poll to kill Jason Todd.

    • NicholasA profile image

      NicholasA 5 years ago from Midwest

      I would recommend adding Weapon-X, DD Legends Vol 2 (Frank Miller), Batman: Birth, Bride, and Son of the Demon (3 separate books), DD: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue, New Thunderbolts Vol 1-3 ( Death of Genis-Vell), Batman: A Death in the Family, Batman: A lonely place of dying, Batman: Year One and Year Two, and that's all I think of of off the top of my head for some really good stories. Continuity gets reversed so much these days so nothing above really follows current continuity anymore though, just keep that in mind.

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 5 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      I'll need to get my hands on that one to determine if it's a "must have". I'm sure it's good... but required reading...?

      I would have to add one more of my own... ZOT!! by Scott McCloud (speaking of making comics and writing them). If you are a comic aficionado and like something that's really well done, pick up the anthology... I don't think it's too expensive.

    • profile image

      Nicolebresner 5 years ago

      I recommend The Alchemy by David Mack. There are predecessors to it that I intend to read, but it inspired me to start drawing my own comics. It's not for everyone--very philosophical--not a typical action story, but I loved it. I hear the others are amazing.

    • promaine profile image

      promaine 5 years ago from New York

      Great collection! Thanks for the really interesting post. I'm really glad to see Moore's Watchmen, which was really a game-changer. (I think of it as a kind of invasion of British writers who re-invigorated superhero stories.) It's interesting to see Gaiman's first Sandman book on your honorable list, since that first gathered set was the only one of the series to include the old "Sandman" superhero and then to set up a move *away* from superhero conventions for the rest of the series. Do you differentiate graphic novels with superheroes vs. graphic novels with everyday people (I'm thinking non-blockbuster stories like Will Eisner)?

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 5 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      Marvel does a really good job at putting out trade copies of a storyline. This is especially good if you don't necessarily want to collect the individual issues and enjoy the stories. It's also good if you have already bought the issues, bagged, boarded, and boxed the originals and want something to reread.

      If you get a chance, you may wish to pick up the Essentials to any of the superhero titles that are out there. They are the black and white prints of each of the books. I've seen them used on Amazon for $4-$5 each.

      They are great reads.

    • htodd profile image

      htodd 5 years ago from United States

      Well,I loved marvel series ..Thanks for the nice post

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 5 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      The Elseworlds stuff is usually pretty good. The Batman vs Dracula trilogy was spot on. My favorite EW is JLA: The Nail.

      Are they "must haves"? ...Debatable. Are they good stories? Absolutely.

    • profile image

      Jayfort 5 years ago

      I have Red Son, also! Very good story! I also enjoyed Kal (Superman raised in medieval times) and In Darkest Knight (Bruce Wayne receives Abin Sur's Green Lantern ring).

    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 5 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      I have Red Son. It's a great elseworld's story. The end if it is a great twist with the evolution of Lex Luthor to the House of El.

    • profile image

      Domenick Dicce 5 years ago

      Superman Red Son

      Else world title where Superman landed in the Soviet Union instead of America.

    • profile image

      Jayfort 5 years ago

      Awesome Hub! Some favorites on there!

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