Saturday, September 12, 2009

CFP: Margins of Print: Ephemera, Print Culture, and Lost Histories of the Newspaper (U of Nottingham: Oct 31; Feb. 15)

Call for Papers
Margins of Print:
Ephemera, Print Culture,
and Lost Histories of the Newspaper

University of Nottingham
School of History
Friday 15th January 2010

This one-day conference/symposium will address the significance of transitory, elusive texts in Britain, Europe and America, including textual artifacts that have eluded traditional categories of print, or have been dismissed as short-lived, disposable, or valueless. To this end, the conference seeks to establish the value of a wide range of ephemera, from pamphlets and pulps, agony columns or matrimonial advertisements to pictorial matter, cards, cartoons, competitions, display advertising and personal ads. Recent decades have witnessed a shift in scholarly interest toward this formerly overlooked print tradition. New digital resources in particular are bringing into view a wide range of printed materials once hidden from the sight of researchers. Some questions raised by this material include: What are the appropriate methods of interpretation for working with ephemeral texts? What do these unique texts tell us about our cultural, social, or technological histories? How do transitory materials document the history of the nation in different ways from other sources? By asking such questions, this event aims to tell the untold stories of ephemera.

Selected papers from the event will be included in a special issue of Media Studies.

We welcome papers on any aspect of ephemera and print culture. Please send proposals of c.500-1000 words to Dr Harry Cocks ( and Dr Matt Rubery ( by 31 October 2009.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tales from the Green Scrapbook #2: Stan Lee - Man Behind a Marvel

Hi, Heroes! Hang on to your hats - this episode of Tales from the Green Scrapbook spotlights the first newspaper article about Stan Lee I ever read. Sure, I'd read his essays in Origins of Marvel Comics, and I'd devoured all the comics reference books in my local library; but here was actual attention to my favorite comics writer in the daily newspaper. I couldn't grab the paper from my Dad's hands fast enough.

What a disappointment. It's here I learned an important lesson: Never believe everything you read. Even at age eleven or so, I knew enough to recognize that the article was full of mistakes, from simple typos to downright errors of fact. And the accompanying illustration was wildly, laughably, and infuriatingly inaccurate. As a true-blue Marvelite, I was incensed!

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I imagine that whoever had to write this (unsigned) piece knew next to nothing about the topic, if not less. I can't really fault the reporter: It's impossible for newspaper writers to be experts on everything they write, especially feature writers. How could they be? And there's only so much time for research, especially on deadline. But isn't an editor's job to make sure that the reporter gets the facts right? Or at least find a proofreader?

Maybe it's asking too much for complete accuracy in what was obviously considered a fluff piece. Thirty-some years ago (the approximate date of this article) the mainstream media's awareness of all matters comics was significantly lower than it is today. Furthermore, Lee's own public profile as the face and founding father of Marvel Comics (some would call that "inaccurate self-mythologizing") was still developing.

Still, my disappointment was palpable. I must have archived this article as a reminder that even I, at age eleven, was smart enough to recognize ignorance when I saw it.

So here we go: A picky, petty, unabashedly fanboy-ish deconstruction of the article's most glaring failings. For the maximum impact, imagine a serious young fan yelling out loud when he originally ran across each of the following passages.

This is The Geek Stuff.

1: And artist, plotter, and arguably co-writer Jack Kirby was who? (In all fairless to Stan, the reporter doesn't give this as a quotation. He's long said that he'd always talked about the artists with reporters, but that they often left that part out. I believe Lee, especially given that he does gush about artists like Kirby and Steve Ditko throughout Origins of Marvel Comics.)

2: Who? OK, They mean Marvel's Captain Marvel (actually Mar-vell, a Kree-born warrior - don't ask), not the Big Red Cheese who shouts "SHAZAM!" The character allowed Marvel to claim and trademark the character-name, a decade after Fawcett Comics lost a lawsuit to DC and had to cease publication of the original Captain Marvel. Stan did write the first appearance of Marvel's Marvel, but Roy Thomas took over the scripting duties with the next issue. I wouldn't be surprised if it was all Thomas' idea, with Lee there just to lend the first appearance more "authenticity." So: "The Second"? Not only did Stan probably not create the character, as the article implies, but that nomenclature is just wrong, wrong, wrong! (Remember, you were warned that there would be some picky fanboy stuff...)

3: Captain America: Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. In 1940. Can you "beget" something that was already begat nearly a quarter-century beforehand? No.

4: No, Xom was "The Menace from Outer Space!" We have archaeological evidence to confirm this:
Thank you thank you thank you, Monsterblog!
5: Thomgarr did not exist, as far as my research has been able to determine, and therefore was not an alien, anti-social or otherwise.

(I imagine that either Lee or the reporter weren't striving for accuracy here; they most likely just dreamed up these titles because they sounded right enough. But still.)

6: Reed was the only scientist. Ben was a test pilot, Sue was "the girlfriend," and Johnny was "the girlfriend's little brother." (Really, Ben should have been the only one qualified to fly in that rocket. Maybe Reed as well, since he designed it, but it's doubtful that his scrawny frame would have survived training. But Sue? Johnny? Really? Although I hardly gave questions like those more than a passing consideration back then...)

7: His whole body, dangit!

8: Who?

9: It's not The Thing who's the stupid one here. (He's not always the smartest tool in the shed, granted, but an "incredibly stupid" test-pilot wouldn't last long, would he?)

10: I suppose we can give this one a pass. I'm not sure if he's actually the first of these characters, but Prince Namor, the Sub Mariner, who first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 (Nov. 1939), does fit the description. Although Stan had nothing do to with creating the character.

And "anti-hero" would have saved a whole line of type.

11. Not by anyone involved with this article...

12. Not-exactly.

13. Is he not... Galactus?!!
I thought so.

14: Marvelite. Or True Believer. Or Marvel Zombie. Marvelophile just sounds stupid.

OK, that's the worst of the text. Now let's check out the accompanying illustration. It's a collage purporting to represent "Some of Stan Lee's comic characters." There's no wonder why the illustrator didn't take any credit, or that there are no copyrights listed.

Hommina hommina hommina WHA?

I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now. The only thing I can imagine is a scenario involving dialog like this:
"We've got space to fill on that funnybook article. I think it's about superheroes or something? Hey, you! Designated office flunky! Head to the comic book clip-art file and throw something together. With your eyes closed. And be sure to use at least one image from the 'Amateur Renderings' box. STAT!"
What else could result in a collage where arguably 70% of the content should not be there? Let's break it down, with visual emphasis or de-emphasis as necessary:

A) Spider-Man: Check. Co-created with Steve Ditko. (Yes, there are arguments that Kirby should receive credit. And Jonathan Ross got Stan to admit that, deep down, he feels that Spider-Man is his creation alone.) Even given those controversies, I'll say "full credit"; at least Lee wrote the character from the very beginning: 20%

B) Captain America: See #3 above. However, Stan did write the character for quite a long time, and along with Kirby he re-introduced Cap in Avengers #4. So half-credit: 10%

C) Green Lantern:
Published by DC Comics, not Marvel. Stan had absolutely nothing to do with this character. At all. Ever. (This book does not count, fanboys.) 0%

D) Green Arrow:
Published by DC Comics, not Marvel. Stan had absolutely nothing to do with this character. At all. Ever. 0%

E) The SHAZAM! Captain Marvel:
By this time, SHAZAM! was owned and published by DC. Stan had absolutely nothing to do with this character. At all. Ever. (This book does not count, fanboys.) I'd almost be tempted to give this one 5%, just because of the possible confusion noted in #2 above. But not with a horrendous drawing like that; no freakin' way. 0%

And now, the whole thing:

OK, that's far more than enough on this one. But thanks for indulging me; my inner eleven-year-old has been waiting 30 years to get this off his chest.

There. Now I feel cleansed.

Be sure to join us next time on
Tales from the Green Scrapbook, when we spotlight America's war on terrorists - thirty years ago...

More from The Green Scrapbook: Part 0: Intro || Part 1: Howard the Duck

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Tales from the Green Scrapbook: Howard the Duck

Let's begin our tour of The Green Scrapbook with its very first entry:

Please, please, PLEASE forget the monstrosity that was the 1986 "film"; the original Howard the Duck comics were little gems of science fiction, social satire, and sincerely twisted humor. In other words, they made perfect sense in the cultural mindscape of the latter 1970s.

I didn't record the date of this article from The Milwaukee Journal; but it must have appeared sometime after June 6, 1977. That's the start date for Howard's short-lived newspaper comic strip (based on the comic book), which, as the story noted then, "is syndicated in close to 70 daily newspapers." The article covers ground now familiar to Howardians, from rumors surrounding the spotty availability of the book's first issue to Howard's 1976 presidential campaign (see a "TV news report" here).

It takes but a click to embiggen the image...

I vividly recall buying one issue in particular: Number 16 (September 1977), "Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing." It's quite possible that the newspaper article might have piqued my interest. But more than that: How could an already-enthralled eleven-year-old comics collector resist the cover-blurb "Special Once in a Lifetime Album Issue!"?

I hadn't read any Howard comics until that time, and this one definitely wasn't the best introduction one might hope for. The book's story content wasn't available at press time, so writer Steve Gerber substituted a lengthy, head-trippy meta-essay in which he and Howard discuss storytelling in general, comic books in particular, and pretty much everything else during a cross-country trip. (Readers are reassured on page 1, though, that the previous issue's story -- featuring a last-page appearance by the villainous Dr. Bong -- would resume in the next issue.)

The book is laid out in two-page spreads, each with a "chapter" of text and an illustration by one of a number of artists. Example the first -- a meditation on the Grand Canyon:

And example the second -- The "obligatory comic book fight scene":

I had no idea what to make of all this.

But I held onto the book -- somehow I knew that there was more there than I was able to grok at the time.

Sadly, Steve Gerber passed away only a couple of months ago. (For a sense of how valued Gerber's work has become, see Tom Spurgeon's overwhelming list of tributes.) New of his death prompted me to re-read his run on the Duck as collected in The Essential Howard the Duck. Holy cow, this stuff was fantastic! Fun, bizarre, messed-up, ridiculous, and, yeah, thoughtful, at least in funny animal genre-busting, assembly-line, mainstream comic book kind of way. Are there embarrassments along the way? Of course. But overall the satire bites more often than it merely gums. And issue 16? By far, the best "full-in" issue of any comic book, ever. Hardly filler, it's chock-full of intellectual vitamins, emotional minerals, and all-natural visual flavorings.

There's so much more to say -- I haven't even begun to explore the bravura artwork by stalwarts like Gene Colan, Val Mayerik, Frank Brunner, and even Carmine Infantino. Or the non-Gerber revivals. Or the lawsuits. Or Gerber's return to Howard. Perhaps another time...


I hope you enjoyed this first installment of Tales from the Green Scrapbook. Next time: A prose portrait of The Man, with an illustration that angered me so much I threw the newspaper across the room before I ran to grab the scissors...

Cover images from the Grand Comics Database.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Tales from the Green Scrapbook #0: Here Beginneth the Chronicle... began simply, a decade or so ago: it was a web page listing the comics reference books I owned at the time. It included a few dozen titles, maybe more. I'd hoped eventually to track down all such books published in America, a goal which at that point wasn't entirely out of reach.

Ahh, how times change.

But some things don't change, like my passion for amassing everything about comics I can find. While I'm not sure when I first started reading comic books, I can't remember ever not reading comic strips. The words-and-pictures format fascinated me; and comic books, once I discovered them, held me in a grip that only true junkies can understand. The research / hoarding bug bit me around age ten, when I first discovered that there were occasional stories about comic books published in The Milwaukee Journal, our local afternoon newspaper. Soon thereafter, live-action super hero TV shows began appearing, so TV Guide became another source for my collection. Even Weekly Reader Senior cover-featured Spider-Man in 1977.

I'd dutifully clip out whatever I found and tape these treasures into a well-used green notebook. There weren't many pages left, so I economized on space, often to ridiculous measures. I'd cut out stories as carefully as possible, usually reducing the margins around text to practically nil. I'd also trim columns of newspaper text to exactly the length of the notebook pages, and assemble smaller bits into longer columns. In this way I usually could fit complete stories onto a single page. It wasn't until years later that I realized (1) margins help readability; (2) recording the dates of publication would have been a nice idea; and (3) clippings that stretch to the very edges of the page usually get crinkled, ragged, or just plain ol' destroyed.

Sadly for adult me, this particular bout of collecting mania was short-lived, lasting only a couple of years or so. I've got no idea why, apart perhaps from sloth; after all, I'd only filled half of the notebook's pages.

But I did manage to keep the notebook -- and more amazingly, I've recently found it. It now occupies a place of honor on one of my research bookshelves. For whatever reason, I've decided to archive the contents here, in a series of posts entitled Tales from the Green Scrapbook. Consider it a quaint and curious archaeological exhibit.

So watch this space, beginning later today, for our first thrilling installment. Here's a clue: Much like its subject, the article is now trapped in a world it never made...

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Graphic Short Story Prize Winners Announced

The winners of the Observer's Graphic Short Story Prize were announced today. (See our earlier post on the contest.) Congratulations to first-place winner Catherine Brighton, second-place finisher Stuart Kolakovic, and the third-place team of Finn Dean and Sam Green. For more information on the contest and the winners, see the Observer's story by Robert McCrum and Rachel Cooke.

Update (10/16/07): You can download PDFs of all three prize-winning stories near the bottom of another column by Robert McCrum. I think all three stories are very well-done, with the pieces by Brighton and Kolakovic holding their own with some of the best very short pieces I've read in some time. Brighton's two-pager, "Away in a Manger" (warning: 4MB pdf!), manages the hat-trick of being simultaneously cute, mysterious, and wistful, with artwork reminiscent of a ligne-claire Maurice Sendak. Kolakovic's tale of innocence and necessary deception, "The Box," benefits from its subdued pallet and its elegant visual metaphor - a real treat. I can see how Dean and Green's "The Waitress" "provoked so much debate among the judges" - it's more than a bit elliptical, but it still reveals nice artistic chops as well as the ability to convey a good bit of character within a two-page, often mute, tale. I'd certainly like to see more of these contests - and, of course, more new-talent winners.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Hartford Courant on Lisa's Death in "Funky Winkerbean" - with Commentary

Regular newspaper-comics readers are likely aware that Lisa, a character in Tom Batiuk's popular and long-running strip Funky Winkerbean, died this week from a relapse of cancer - today, in fact. Unsurprisingly, the story has garnered lots of media attention. Apart from the regrettable (although expected) litanies of "This is just horrible, my funnies should be funny" reactions from many readers, the majority of these stories have wisely focused on Batiuk's decision to use the storyline - and subsequent publication - to raise money for cancer research with the establishment of Lisa's Legacy Fund. (Click here for more information on the fund.)

Today's issue of the Hartford Courant features a very good, somewhat longer-than-usual article on the event. Courant reporter (and longtime phone-pal) Bill Weir contacted me yesterday for my opinions, and I'm happy that Jesse Leavenworth, the article's writer, found some of my comments useful.

You can read the article, "A Comic Strip for a Cause," along with a PDF of today's installment of the strip, here. And in case you've missed the strip, you can always read the last 30 days of it courtesy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

This image comes from today's Courant story.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"The Sleeker Superhero"

How much muscle does it take to look manly? But there’s a trickier follow-up: How much is too much?

The comic-book fantasy of humongous muscles "wore off when fitness gained widespread appeal, [Christopher] Hart says, "because, seriously, who wants to look like that?"
That's the central idea behind "The Sleeker Superhero," an article posted at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette website on Monday. In it, writer Ron Wolfe interviews Christopher Hart, the author of many "how-to-draw" books, about his latest, Simplified Anatomy for the Comic Book Artist.

For background information, Wolfe compares the popular conception of the über-muscled superhero with another comic-book mainstay, bodybuilder Charles Atlas, whose advertisements for the "dynamic tension" exercise program appeared for decades. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the article quotes "The Ad that Made an Icon Out of Mac!," my essay that appears at the Hogan's Alley website. It's always encouraging to see your writing put to use.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Graphic Short Story Prize (U.K.: 3 September 2007)

Received from Random House UK: A great opportunity for cartoonists who reside in the UK or the Republic of Ireland, offering a chance at publication and prizes. The Graphic Short Story Prize is sponsored by The Observer, Jonathan Cape, and the Comica Festival. The judges are first-rate, so the results should be well-worth the attention of cartooning fans. Here's the official announcement:
Are you an aspiring graphic novelist? Do you have an imaginative and original story to tell?

Take this opportunity to get your work read by industry experts. The judges are:
Nick Hornby
Posy Simmonds
Rachel Cooke (The Observer)
Dan Franklin (Publisher, Jonathan Cape)
Paul Gravett (Comica Festival Director)
Suzanne Dean (Random House Creative Director)
The overall winner will receive a prize of £1000 and their graphic short story will be printed across a whole page of The Observer

The runner-up will receive £250

Deadline for entries: Monday 3rd September 2007

The winner will be printed in The Observer on 14th October and the prize will be awarded at Comica Festival at the ICA in London on 20th October
Click here for the official website; click here for the entry form (31KB PDF file).

[Note that an alternate version of the entry form includes a slightly different wording for section (e) of the Entry Specifications: "printed on no larger than A4-sized sheets and submitted as flat work (i.e. not as a booklet) with a view to printing in a newspaper/publishing online and displaying at Comica."]

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Friday, October 13, 2006

"See You in the Funny Papers": New York Times on "Masters" Exhibit

Thanks to The Queen of Everything for letting me know about "See You in the Funnypapers," a review of the current "Masters of American Comics" exhibits currently running at the Jewish Museum in New York City and the Newark Museum in New Jersey. The article was written by Michael Kimmelman and published in today's New York Times.

Along with the lengthy and positive review, you can also view a slideshow of art from the exhibits, as well as the "Close Reading" of Jack Kirby's work which I wrote about here earlier.

Pictured: The cover to the companion catalog, "Masters of American Comics."

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Dissecting the Crossroads of Infinity

The Sunday Arts section of The New York Times often features a "Close Reading" of artwork currently on display in the city. Today, commemorating the opening of the traveling exhibition "Masters of American Comics," critic George Gene Gustines turns his critical eye toward the work of Jack Kirby - specifically, images from the landmark comic book Fantastic Four #51, cover-dated June, 1966. The column is reproduced as an interactive slideshow at the Times' website (link also currently available off this page).

Gustines does a fine job of highlighting some of "King" Kirby's techniques and quirks in this brief overview, from the cartoonist's fondness for collage (never reproduced adequately in the original comic books) to his fantastic machinery designs. (If only he'd been able to cover some Kirby Krackle, as well!)

Since you can read Gustines' comments at the link, I thought I'd take the opportunity to showcase a few more images from this story. First, for comparison, here's the collage example discussed in the article as it was originally published. When you compare it to the article's recolored version, you can see how 1960s-era comic book publication techniques did Kirby's photo collages no favors:

When it comes to machine design, the article's curiously labeled "Deep Closets" example can't compare to one of my favorite Kirby machines of all time, also conveniently featured in this issue - in fact, it's the machine Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) designs to allow him to travel to the "world of limitless dimensions" above:

And finally, no discussion - however brief - of FF #51 should ignore the issue's iconic splash page, featuring a rain-soaked, silent portrait of Ben Grimm (The Thing). True, there's some of Stan Lee's trademark, over-the-top editorial matter plastered on the page, but in terms of the story itself, the image remains silent. The absence of dialogue or even narration renders the drawing a portrait of isolation - an isolation further enhanced by the nighttime rain shower which pelts the pavement and the morose Grimm alike.

Lee rarely passed up the opportunity for snappy dialogue or "hipper-than-hip" narration, here he wisely allows Kirby's artwork to speak for itself. The somber tone perfectly prepares the reader for the story that follows, a superhero story in which "super powers" are used only twice: once when the impostor-Thing crushes a small metal canister, and once when Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, reluctantly sets his thumb ablaze to satisfy the curiosity of his gawking, fellow college students.

Here's hoping Gustines' article piques the curiosity of Times-readers who might otherwise have passed up the opportunity to visit this show. Masters of American Comics is on display until January 28th, 2007, with half at The Newark Museum (Masters Info) and half (including Kirby) at The Jewish Museum (Masters Info). The latter also is hosting a companion exhibit, Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics. Having missed the "Masters" exhibit's previous stops in Los Angeles and Milwaukee, I hope to visit these soon.

Update: Wow, I can't believe I forgot to mention the monumental exhibit catalog (perhaps because I haven't got a copy yet, myself):
Masters of American Comics. Ed. John Carlin, Paul Karasik, and Brian Walker. Yale University Press, 2005. 328pp.
Image credits: Top, the Times website; the rest are reproduced from the 44 Years of Fantastic Four dvd-rom. As noted on the FF images, they're all ™ and © 2005 Marvel.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

In the News: "Menace to Comic Heroes?"
(LA Times)

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to Michelle Keller, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, on the topic of digital piracy in the comic book field. The result was published in today's (Monday, 29 May) paper: "Menace to Comic Heroes?" (you might need to register in order to read it). Wired magazine ran a simliar but less in-depth piece last month, as well.

The LA Times story covers the topic from many angles, from publishers to comics shop owners to readers both younger and, ahem, older (that would be moi). I'm quoted arguing for a possibly not-so-drastic impact: "The collector mind-set says, 'I need the paper issue.'" And while I do believe that's true, it's also true that younger readers -- heck, younger people in general -- are more accustomed to thinking in terms like instant access and transferred bits than they are mint condition and mylar bags.

Apart from select features like Marvel's "Digital Comics," most traditional US publishing companies don't offer dowloadable digital comic books. Even Marvel's offerings are strictly on-line; you can't download a comic and take it with you, you must read it while connected to the Internet. In a half-way move into the digital realm, though, Marvel has begun offering great slabs of its library on DVD-Rom: you can get 500+ issues each of Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and Uncanny X-Men on shiny media for about $50 per title.

To me, this is a real bargain; and I'd bet if publishers offered legal downloads of back-issues like these at a comparable price to the physical-media digital versions -- that's 10 cents per issue, kids! -- lots of folks would jump at the opportunity. I know I would.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

In the News: "Comic Wars"

Almost missed this one: Last Monday's Hartford Courant ran an article entitled "Comic Wars: Cartoonists Take Potshots at Each Other, But it's All in Fun" (22 May 2006). The article discusses the habit some cartoonists have of mentioning or featuring other cartoonists in their work; in this case, the catalysts were Stephan Pastis ("Pearls Before Swine"), Darby Conley ("Get Fuzzy"), and Rick Stromski ("Soup to Nuts").

The author of the article, Bill Weir, has written a number of comics-related articles for the Courant, and I've been honored to be quoted in a couple of them. This time he e-mailed me about the topic, and I mentioned a few other such cross-over "feuds." Perhaps that's where Bill got the idea to speak with Bill Griffith ("Zippy the Pinhead") concerning Griffith's mutual love-fest with Bil & Jeff Keane's "The Family Circus." In any event, in the illo above I've highighted one instance where the Keanes have slipped a Zippy cameo into (in Weir's wonderful words) their "preternaturally wholesome world." (Hey, Zippy and circuses are a perfect fit - why'd I never think of that before?)

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