I've been thinking for a while of doing some reviews of pre-Silver Age features, covering their whole runs or periods within their runs. "Pre-Silver Age Reviews" reviews would be a clumsy title for a thread, so I've titled it "Golden Age Reviews" instead, although I'll be including features from the 50s.

 

I've done a couple of reviews along these lines previously in the "What Comic Books Have You Read Today?" thread, so I'll start by reposting those.

15/05/15 I've changed the title to "Golden Age and Transition Era Feature Reviews", as I've started another thread, here, for issue reviews.

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"Time Skipper", from Space Adventures #1, #3 (Charlton, 1952)

 

The title character of this feature is a young man called Hap Holliday who, as the first instalment opens, has constructed a time machine called the Time-Yacht with the help of the balding and white-bearded Professor Eon Tempus (who “supplied the mathematical formulas that proved it feasible”). Their machine is spherical, but doesn’t otherwise look like Rip Hunter’s Time Sphere and can’t fly: I would guess both devices were modelled after Brick Bradford’s Time Top. Hap and the Professor travel to the far future, and save a local queen, Ula, from a giant land octopus (the seas have partly or wholly dried up, so sea creatures have taken to land). They then use their time machine to help the Ula and her people recapture their city from the reptile people who have occupied it.

The concluding caption promises another story in the next issue, but it didn’t appear until the third. This is the instalment that makes the series worth writing about, as it heads in the direction of zany parody of time travel stories. Hap and the Professor try to take the Queen on a trip to their own time, but overshoot and end up in ancient Rome. The Professor can speak Latin, but this fails to impress the Praetorian Guard, which arrests them (“Everybody speaks our language… or else! We Romans rule the world!”). The Professor, who you’d think would be a staid older guy, scatters the guard with a grenade and gloats over it. (“Lucky I remembered that grenade! Heh! I took them apart!”) The gang roll the chariot their Time-Yacht has been placed on downhill, and it ends up at Cleopatra’s house.

 

Cleopatra believes they’re from the future and asks them what it holds for Julius Caesar. As it happens, it's the day before his death. They tell her, so so she fires her soothsayer, Rapidus, because he’s been saying he’ll live forever. The Professor then gleefully sets about trying to save Caesar. (“Where’s Ula going, Professor?” “To change history, Hap my boy! Take your time with the repair job. We’re staying over tomorrow to see history made my way!”) Ula takes Caesar a message from Cleopatra requesting he visit her instead of going to the Senate the next day. Caesar is planning to comply until Rapidus, seeking to profit by the time travellers' information, turns up and warns him he’ll be killed if he visits the Senate. (“Beware the Ides of March! That’s the 15th, you know…”) Caesar figures if Rapidus is predicting trouble at the Senate it will be the safest place in Rome, and history takes its course. The mob comes for Cleopatra, and the time travellers flee, taking her with them. The concluding caption promises an adventure in the present next, but the GCD doesn’t list a further appearance of the feature.

 

The two instalments look somewhat different. They could be by the same artist with different inkers, but I think the penciller of the second story also places his figures in relation to the camera differently. I could believe the artist of the first instalment also drew the opening "Space Rangers" story from that issue. Currently, the GCD tentatively credits the pencils and inks on the first instalment to Art Cappello.(1) I have no information as to whom the writer/s may have been.

 

(1) The GCD attributes the art on that opening "Space Rangers" story to Lou Morales, but it also attributes the final story from #4 to him, and I think that's clearly by a different artist. I don't know which of the stories, if either, was actually by Morales.


(reposted: altered)
Jon Juan #1 (Toby, 1950)

Adventures of an immortal "superlover". This was the sole issue, and it contains three stories about Jon. They were written by Jerry Siegel, showing the sense of humour that often cropped up in his work, and illustrated by Alex Schomburg in a cartoony but attractive style. (The cover is signed "Al Reid". The inset panels are from the interior art.)

The first story, set around medieval Bagdad, owes a debt to the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad. (There's also an "Am I dreaming?" sequence like the one in La belle Hélène.) When a princess passes in a litter, and the townspeople are ordered to kneel down and hide their faces, Jon takes a forbidden look, and instantly falls in lust. The princess is the captive of the caliph, who keeps her mostly in a state of drugged sleep. Jon saves her from the caliph, but has to give her up as she's been promised since childhood to a neighbouring prince. In this story Jon has a "faithful comrade", Omar Bey.

The second story is an origin tale. This reveals he comes from ancient Atlantis (where he was already called Jon Juan), and fell into a river after been hit on the head by a discus when fleeing a mob of male Atlanteans. Frozen, he spent centuries in suspended animation. Due to his exposure during this period to "a rare sea-weed with strange chemical properties" he was afterwards immortal. In this story the savages who come upon him after he awakens are drawn as a cross between cavemen and black African tribesmen.

The third story is a flashback story set in old-time Spain. The framing sequence has him living in a "strange palace perched at the peak of Tibet's highest mountain!" He commands his servant to bring him "exhibit trophy X23957-B... from my secret archives of love!", which turns out to be a preserved rose. In the flashback following we learn that he saved the woman who gave it to him from the attempts of her brother, after her money, to have her murdered. Although she loved him, she sent him away for a reason that provides the story's twist ending.

I think the feature's premise could've used a bit more work, but on the whole it's a fun issue, with some good lines and moments ("I'll give her 'smile number three'... the one I reserve for emergencies. It never fails!").

(reposted, but greatly expanded)

"Nature Boy", from Nature Boy ##3-5 (Charlton, 1956[?1])

The “Nature Boy” feature was apparently created by Jerry Siegel and John Buscema, who created the stories with the character in the first issue, and another that appeared in the third. I thought the feature had the potential to be decent, but was underdeveloped. For example, there are no regular human supporting characters other than his parents, and they hardly appear outside the origin sequence.

Buscema’s art for the feature was accomplished and detailed, and much more constrained than his later work for Marvel. Only the first issue’s cover was by Buscema. (The somewhat infamous cover for #5 was signed by Dick Giordano and Vince Alascia.)

According to the origin story, when Nature Boy was a baby a private plane his father was piloting crashed in the sea during a storm (this sequence is quite good). He was saved by the gods of nature, who decided to adopt him and grant him “a fragment of control over our mighty powers”. He discovered his powers as a teen. Sometimes Nature Boy exercises the power himself, sometimes the gods aid him. He looks a bit older than Superboy was depicted as being in the period.

Surprisingly, some of the captions in the first issue have a ballyhoo element (“Thrill to smashing tales of awesome never-to-be-forgotten action!”) that I’d assumed only entered Siegel’s later work under the influence of Stan Lee’s 60s Marvel ballyhoo.

The first issue also has a two-pager by Siegel and Buscema starring “Nature Man”. Toonopedia speculates that Nature Man “may have been intended as Nature Boy’s future self” (the GCD's page on the issue has a similar note). My guess - and it’s only a guess - is that the Nature Man story represents an early form of the character, before the decision was taken to make him a boy. Possibly the pages were created for a proposal. In this tale Nature Man is reminiscent of the 50s/60s Superman, only with different powers.

The third issue has a one-pager by Siegel and Buscema starring “Nature Girl”, who has similar nature powers.

The other Nature Boy stories in the second and third issues are credited by the GCD to Joe Gill and Rocco Mastroserio. These have the sloppily-put-together feel I associate with Gill’s work, but there’s a nice sequence in a story in the third issue where Nature Boy can’t get divine aid as the gods have knocked off work early and gone to a party.

Each issue also carried an unrelated comics story. In the first this was a Blue Beetle tale, in the second a retelling by Bob Powell of the Pecos Bill stories, and in the third a humour feature, "Arro - the Caveman".

 

(1) The first issue was #3. The GCD dates it March, 1956, but I take it that’s an indicia date, and might mean it came out in late 1955 or early 1956. Apparently the second issue came out five months later, and the third six months after that.

 

(reposted: altered)

"Rocky X of the Rocketeers", from Boy Comics ##80-100 (Lev Gleason, 1952-1954)

"Rocky X" began as a science fiction feature written, or initially written,(1) by Charles Biro, and drawn by Norman Maurer until #90 or #91. (#91 isn’t signed.) The instalment in #100 still bore a "Rocky X of the Rocketeers" banner, but was a transitional episode into the feature’s later phase as a spy/military adventure series set in Asia. In that form the feature continued until #118, Boy’s second-last issue. The title became "Rocky X" for a bit, "Rocky and Simpy" for one instalment, and then "Rocky". I'll only be covering the feature's SF period here.

The blurb on the splash of the first instalment says the feature was created in response to the results of a questionnaire in #66 that asked readers to choose from a list of different types of stories. "The results, published in issue no.75, voted adventures into space as the heavy favorite". I’ve only seen the results page. Apparently, the questionnaire asked readers to choose and rank three story topics from a list of twenty. "Being a passenger on a rocket ship to the moon" had the most first place placings and the most placings overall. The topic with the next-most first place placings was "accidentally discovering a cure for cancer", and the one with the next-most placings overall was "an air combat mission in Korea".

 

The first "Rocky X" instalment (which is exceptionally wordy, much more so than the series late on) opens with the UN security council considering an American proposal to establish a UN military post on the moon. When the rocket plans are stolen by a spy, a space programme is initiated with the goal of winning the race to the moon. (It seems to be a US rather than a UN programme, but this isn’t spelt out.) The title character is William Rockwell, a young FBI agent who suggests organising an astronaut corps of young men called the Rocketeers, and is made its leader. All the Rocketeers are given code-names: Rockwell’s is Rocky X. After the first instalment Rocky’s membership in the FBI is forgotten until a caption announcing the strip’s change of direction at the end of the instalment in #99.

 

In the second instalment Rocky and his pal Simpy take a rocket on its first test flight. They make several nearly-disastrous mistakes, but their superiors deem the flight a success. At this point I thought the series was going to be all about humanity’s first steps into space, but with the third instalment the Rocketeers, testing the other ships, are ordered to pursue a flying saucer. Rocky is lost in space, and the saucer takes him aboard. In the next instalment he meets its crew, who turn out to be from Pluto and invisible outside its atmosphere. As this storyline develops, the strip becomes a space opera feature.

 

Since the Rocketeers are all fairly young, they’re reminiscent of space cadets, although they’re never called that. The stories are serialised, and most instalments end on cliffhangers. Until the Claw sequence the storyline wanders. Rocky is a lot like a blond Crimebuster, but he isn’t as impressive a hero, perhaps because he drives the action less. A character called Arnold shows up in the second instalment as a Rocketeer jealous of Rocky. He later wrecks his position in the Rocketeers, and embarks on a series of desperate crimes and betrayals. His actions play a big role in the series until the end of the Claw storyline.

 

The end of the instalment in #88 starts a storyline involving an invasion of Earth by an interplanetary armada. With the next instalment this becomes a story about the return of the Claw. That Claw. The "Rocky X" storyline represents him as having been born from a "fiery mass" from the planet Zyrlmarx that crashed in Tibet.(2) After allying himself with the Nazis, he stole a rocket he’d helped them build and returned to Zyrlmarx to build a space armada to destroy Earth civilization. The Rocketeers are unable to stop the armada, and the Claw lands and invades New York, causing great destruction. (Actually, he seems to do most of the damage himself, so one wonders why bothered building the armada and army.) These episodes are tense, violent and exciting. The Claw disappears at the start of the instalment in #92, after the destruction of his armada in the previous episode. This sets up the possibility of his re-return, but this never comes about.

 

The feature’s remaining storylines have further space war elements. One has some nice destructive giant serpents that remind me of the Drashigs from the Doctor Who story "Carnival of Monsters". Another involves the near destruction of Earth by an armada of spaceships that drill into worlds to shatter them.

 

Some elements in the latter instalments suggest a lack of scientific knowledge. In one episode Pluto is described as "on the outter [sic] edge of our universe", and the Rocketeers have to pass through an "atmospheric barrier" in space. In the preceding instalments the terms "stars" and "planets" are used interchangeably. But I don’t know this means Biro was no longer writing, as I noticed a couple of similar problems early on: the Rocketeers have to travel in the Plutonians’ saucer when it tows their rocket to Pluto because "the tremendous speed will cause the metal hulk to become red hot!"; the Earth rocket has no airlocks, but opening the hatch doesn’t cause explosive decompression.

 

At the end of the instalment in #93 some cephalopodic aliens show up. At the start of the next episode, drawn by a different artist, they are immediately dismissed by more human-looking aliens wearing what look like gas masks. This reads as if they were originally going to have the role of those latter aliens, and whoever was in charge didn’t like the design the #93 artist used and replaced it as quickly as possible.

 

Norman Maurer’s art and storytelling are likeable, and I particularly like his splash panels. The GCD attributes the art on the instalment from #93 to Wally Wood, but it might instead be Sid Check. It has a distorted look that reminds me of the Check story I've seen.

 

From #94 a clean, realistic art style was used. The art style is very consistent, but some of the instalments are a bit slicker than the others. The transition episode in #100 is signed "Ralph Mayo", and drawn in an attractive Ogden Whitney-ish style. I could believe the same artist drew the one from #99. The GCD assigns the story from #94 to Mayo and that from #98 to George Tuska. In the final instalments covered here Rocky and Simpy lose their boyish look. In the transition episode they're clearly drawn as men.

 

The first instalment seems to be set in the present or near future. The blurb on the fourth instalment implies the stories are supposed to be set c.2100, but the Claw story refers to him as returning after an absence of fifty years from 1944, which would be in the 1990s. From the transition story I think the tales were simply set in the present.

 

In writing this review I made use of an archive of Rocky X/Rocky X strips at the Digital Comics Museum website (it’s listed with the issues of Boy Comics). My thanks to its creator.

 

(1) Biro's signature stops appearing on the feature after #89. The GCD tentatively attributes the writing on some of the later instalments to Bob Wood, Biro’s creative partner, who later killed a woman. I don't know if this is more than a guess in any of these cases.

(2) Despite the origin here attributed to him, the Claw’s portrayal has "yellow peril" elements: he has yellow skin, long fingernails, and wears a robe, his name appears in the story titles in "Oriental" lettering, he sometimes speaks in what appear to be Chinese characters, and he has a character on the chest part of his robe. The depiction of the Zylmoxorians varies a bit. They’re mostly small and bald, and sometimes shown as orange and wearing what could be Cossack or Russian dress. One speaks in characters at one point, and another has a character on his back. The artist of the final instalment in which they appeared, #92, draws them like Americans, as if he didn’t know they weren’t Earth collaborators.

Vic Torry and his Flying Saucer (Fawcett, 1950)

 

Vic, a test pilot, and Laura, his girlfriend, spot a flying saucer while testing a jet. They trail the saucer and meet its pilot, a dying Mercurian. After he dies, they accidentally trigger automatic systems that take them to Mercury. They find that the Mercurians have been enslaved by a Mercurian called Szzz, who has taken control of their minds and means to wage interplanetary war. The last two Mercurians not under his control befriend them. In the course of the story they are captured and enslaved, and Laura is captured. Vic succeeds in bringing about Szzz's downfall.

 

This is a book-length story, broken into three parts. The art is by Bob Powell. There's something in how he draws people that rubs me the wrong way, but he's a good draftsman and tells the story well. The GCD doesn't have a writer's credit for the tale. Possibly it was Otto Binder, as he had an interest in flying saucers.

 

The issue was published as a one-shot. I don't know if Fawcett intended it as a try out for a series, but the way the story is written, it may have done. (The dying Mercurian tells Vic and Laura that with his saucer they can "probe the universe", and warns them against revealing it to others before they are certain Earth is ready. Vic is a familiar kind of action hero. He and Laura are left with a saucer at the end.) The front and back covers suggest Fawcett saw the flying saucer angle as its selling point. The story itself is an enjoyable space adventure tale.

 

Not that I've seen a whole lot of his work, but I've usually enjoyed Bob Powell's people. Very interesting stuff, Luke. I just don't have a whole lot to add, but I am reading.
Me, too.
Thanks, gents.

Robotmen of the Lost Planet #1 (Avon, 1952)

This is a one-shot with a three-part cover story and a back-up tale.

The cover story begins in a future in which all work is now done by robots, and human beings live lives of pleasure. The robots revolt against humanity and set about wiping it out. Some human beings manage to survive in hiding. The hero impersonates a robot and learns they have changed themselves, to be more like humans, in ways that mean they are now capable of feeling pain. A human army armed with ray weapons that cause pain to the robots defeats their army and captures their city of Industriana. Lacking facilities to build new robots, the robots will now die out.

According to the GCD this was written by Walter Gibson and drawn by Gene Fawcette. I"m sure that's the same Walter Gibson who wrote the bulk of the Shadow stories: he also worked in comics. The art style reminds me of Wally Wood’s in the period.

In the second story an agent of Earth’s immigration bureau uncovers a people smuggling operation smuggling Martians to Earth. According to the GCD this was illustrated by Gerald McCann. The art is in a very accomplished chiaroscuro style, and depicts the future in a way that was old-fashioned by then, but is charming to me. The best comparison I can think of is some of Everett Raymond Kinstler's work (apparently one GCD indexer misattributed to the story to him).

I think the art may have been altered to make the top part of the heroine's costume a bit more modest. The GCD notes that it's not clear whether this story first appeared here or in Space Detective #4.

"Norman Maurer’s art and storytelling are likeable, and I particularly like his splash panels."

 

Perhaps you already knew this, but Norman Maurer was the son-in-law of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.

Apparently he eventually became their manager, and produced, wrote and directed Stooges films. Earlier, he drew Three Stooges comics for St. John in the 40s and 50s. He also drew The Little Stooges for Gold Key in the 70s. He was also involved in the introduction of 3D comics, and worked in TV cartoons.

 

(edited)

“The Purple Claw”, from The Purple Claw ##1-3 (Toby Press, 1952-53).

The title character of this feature is a doctor who was given a magical glove of the same name in Africa by the witch doctor of a tribe he helped out. The glove, which constantly glows, empowers him to fight supernatural menaces. He is secretive about his activities as the Purple Claw: although he doesn’t wear a costume, only the menaces he fights know him by that name. In the first issue the glove has much more of a claw-like look than in the others.

The tales are pre-Code horror stories. They mostly involve the Purple Claw encountering some malignant supernatural being and using the glove to destroy it. The glove protects him against supernatural forces and always proves stronger than them when he manages to come to grips with them.

The first issue contained an account of the Claw’s origin and three Purple Claw stories (the origin segues into the first story). The other issues each had three stories with the character. The art and writing improve noticeably with the second issue, and the art style changes noticeably between the second and third.

The GCD, and Toonopedia's article on the feature, credit the art on all the stories to Ben Brown and David Gantz. Most of the stories are signed with their surnames, but the variation in the art is great enough to make me wonder if other hands were involved.

The worst stories are crude shockers, but the best wouldn’t have been out of place at DC, if DC had done those kinds of pre-Code horror stories. The menaces include an evil doctor who has invented a way of turning corpses into his living dead slaves, a lady mobster witch whose familiar is a gun, the ghost of an evil Spanish viceroy cursed to continue killing down through the centuries, a pair of were-spiders, a snowman hungry for vengeance, a lady were-snake, an undead giant, and a giant killer flower with cephalopodic tentacles. In one story the Purple Claw enters the dream of an alcoholic to help him confront what he most fears, which reminds me of the plot of the first Dr. Strange tale.

The first issue’s cover has a cartoonier look than the issue’s interior art, and gives the Claw a huskier appearance than he has inside. It also doesn’t illustrate any of the issue’s stories. The cover of the second issue illustrates the were-spiders story, and is in the same style as the issue’s tales. The GCD attributes the cover for #1 tentatively to Brown by himself, and #2 to Brown and Gantz. The cover of the third issue is a slightly altered version of the undead giant story's splash panel.

Toby reprinted most of the Purple Claw stories in its anthology title Tales of Horror. For the stories from The Purple Claw #2 I used an e-version of their reprints in Tales of Horror #10. The latter issue’s cover is a collage from the art of the were-snake story. The cover of Tales of Horror #11 is a partly redrawn version of part of the splash panel from the killer flower story in The Purple Claw #3.

The first issue of The Purple Claw also reprinted a two-page filler feature called “Problems of Space Travel”. The third issue had a page with six “Sparks of Life” panels by Chas. Kuhn. (The GCD lists this as a strip reprint. I assume Sparks of Life was a syndicated panel.) A filler item isn't listed on the GCD's page for #2, but neither is the issue's text story, so it may be incomplete. 

 

According to Toonopedia and the GCD, the first issue was dated for Jan. 1953. I've assumed it came out the previous year.

“Lars of Mars”, in Lars of Mars ##10-11 (Ziff-Davis, 1951)

The testing of Earth’s first H-bomb triggers fears on Mars - the inhabitants of which look just like humans - that Earth may follow the path of Venus “millions of years ago”, and become an interplanetary aggressor. (At the time H-bombs were still in development, so that element of Lars’s origin looks ahead.) As a result the Martian Supreme Council sends Lars to Earth as a “peace-seeking agent”. His assignment is to “eliminate the possibility of interplanetary warfare by waging a constant battle against the forces of evil on Earth”. Upon his arrival on Earth, Lars is hired by a pretty TV producer, June Conway, to star in a TV show. She believes his self-presentation as a Martian is a pretence designed to win him the part, but decides to have him continue the masquerade as a publicity gimmick. (“No one will believe it, of course, but it will be sure-fire hokum!”) Lars subsequently leads a double life as the star of a TV show and foe of evil, wearing his Martian costume in both roles.

Lars remains in contact his superiors on Mars, and in several of the stories receives orders from them. His chief weapons are his backpack jet-unit and his versatile gun weapon. Since he also wears a skin-tight red uniform and finned headpiece he somewhat resembles Adam Strange. Lars predates Adam by seven years, but their shared possession of red uniforms could be a coincidence, and the resemblances between them otherwise due to a common debt to Buck Rogers.

According to Toonopedia the writer “hasn't been identified with absolute certainty, but is believed to have been Jerry Siegel”. The art is by Murphy Anderson. (“The Terror Weapon!” from #11 has an un-Andersonish look in places, which makes me wonder if he had help with that one.) The stories are a lot like early Silver Age DC stories in style. Both issues carried four stories - three with Lars and one with “(Captain) Ken Brady Rocket Pilot” - so in #10 the stories are six or seven pages long, and in #11 “The Terror Weapon!” has twelve pages and the other two Lars tales only four. The premise of a man from Mars from pretending he’s a fake gives the series a pleasing goofy element. June treats Lars as her inferior, but her attitude doesn’t bother him.

In two of the stories his opponent is a Communist scientist villain, Professor Rogov. The second of these is “The Terror Weapon!”, in which he travels to Manchuria to thwart Rogov’s plot to equip the Communist Chinese forces with ray weapons that freeze things to absolute zero (for use against United Nations forces, which presumably means in Korea, but this isn’t stated). To get there he nicks up to the top of the atmosphere and exceeds the speed of light. This takes him on a short-cut through “the fourth and fifth dimensions”. The sequence is interesting partly for its imagination - the environment he travels through consists of floating geometric shapes, and he’s attacked by a strange creature on the way - and partly because it recalls Superman’s trick of travelling into the past by exceeding the speed of light, which I think he only began to do later. Later Lars gets information he needs out of Rogov by taking him up into the sky and dropping him to scare him into talking. Siegel had Superman do much the same thing in the Light story in Superman #13 (1941). Rogov is the only recurring villain.

The covers of the two issues are painted, and attributed by the GCD to Allen Anderson. Both seem to be based on a sequence from the issue. In #10 Lars meets June when he intervenes to protect her against what he thinks are three robots, which turn out to be actors in costumes. The cover echoes this scene, except in the issue June is dressed normally, the “robots” have a different design (the ones on the cover are apparently real), and she doesn’t see Lars using his jet-pack. (The conjunction of the image and the blurb also implies the robots are the “Terror from the Sky!”, but in the issue “The Terror from the Sky” is the title of a different story.) The cover of #11 apparently depicts Lars’s interdimensional journey, except in the issue the dimensions he travels through and the creature that attacks him are depicted differently. (The creature in the issue has a serpent body, bat wings, and a beak; it does have tentacles, though.)

According to the GCD the two “(Captain) Ken Brady Rocket Pilot” stories were illustrated by Gene Colan. I’d never have guessed it, but the second is signed and it’s plausible both stories were by the same artist. However, there is a difference between them: either Colan spent more time on the first one, or it’s actually by someone else and in the second story Colan imitated his style. The style used, particularly in the first one, reminds me of Bob Powell’s. Brady and his pal Buzzy Bell work for Transcontinental Transport. Everyone associated with the outfit wears a blue militaristic uniform. The story from #10 involves some space pirates with really goofy costumes. The story in #11 involves a device that projects images of the subjects placed inside it and is carelessly written.

Both issues also have filler pages on scientific or “believe it or not”-type subjects.

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