Speech balloon

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The four most common speech balloons, top to bottom: speech, whisper, thought, scream. Comic balloons 4 types 1x4.svg
The four most common speech balloons, top to bottom: speech, whisper, thought, scream.

Speech balloons (also speech bubbles, dialogue balloons or word balloons) are a graphic convention used most commonly in comic books, comics and cartoons to allow words (and much less often, pictures) to be understood as representing the speech or thoughts of a given character in the comic. There is often a formal distinction between the balloon that indicates thoughts and the one that indicates words spoken aloud: the balloon that conveys thoughts is often referred to as a thought bubble.

Comic book publication of comics art

A comic book or comicbook, also called comic magazine or simply comic, is a publication that consists of comic art in the form of sequential juxtaposed panels that represent individual scenes. Panels are often accompanied by brief descriptive prose and written narrative, usually, dialog contained in word balloons emblematic of the comics art form. Although comics has some origins in 18th century Japan, comic books were first popularized in the United States and the United Kingdom during the 1930s. The first modern comic book, Famous Funnies, was released in the U.S. in 1933 and was a reprinting of earlier newspaper humor comic strips, which had established many of the story-telling devices used in comics. The term comic book derives from American comic books once being a compilation of comic strips of a humorous tone; however, this practice was replaced by featuring stories of all genres, usually not humorous in tone.

Cartoon Form of two-dimensional illustrated visual art

A cartoon is a type of illustration, possibly animated, typically in a non-realistic or semi-realistic style. The specific meaning has evolved over time, but the modern usage usually refers to either: an image or series of images intended for satire, caricature, or humor; or a motion picture that relies on a sequence of illustrations for its animation. Someone who creates cartoons in the first sense is called a cartoonist, and in the second sense they are usually called an animator.



Before the 20th century,
speech was depicted using bands, flags, scrolls, or sheets of paper. Strigel 1506-detail.jpg
Before the 20th century, speech was depicted using bands, flags, scrolls, or sheets of paper.
1775 cartoon printed in Boston Boston1775.jpg
1775 cartoon printed in Boston
1783 James Gillray cartoon A-Block-for-the-Wigs-Gillray.jpeg
1783 James Gillray cartoon
In this 1807 political cartoon opposing Jefferson's Embargo, the form and function of speech balloons is already similar to their modern use. Ograbme.jpg
In this 1807 political cartoon opposing Jefferson's Embargo, the form and function of speech balloons is already similar to their modern use.

One of the earliest antecedents to the modern speech bubble were the "speech scrolls", wispy lines that connected first-person speech to the mouths of the speakers in Mesoamerican art between 600 and 900 AD. [2] Earlier, paintings, depicting stories in subsequent frames, using descriptive text resembling bubbles-text, were used in murals, one such example witten in Greek, dating to the 2nd century, found in Capitolias, today in Jordan [3] .

Speech scroll illustrative device denoting speech in art, used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Medieval Europe

In art history, speech scroll is an illustrative device denoting speech, song, or, in rarer cases, other types of sound.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

2nd century Century

The 2nd century is the period from 101 to 200 in accordance with the Julian calendar in the Common Era. It is considered part of the Classical era, epoch, or historical period.

In Western graphic art, labels that reveal what a pictured figure is saying have appeared since at least the 13th century. These were in common European use by the early 16th century. Word balloons (also known as "banderoles") began appearing in 18th-century printed broadsides, and political cartoons from the American Revolution (including some published by Benjamin Franklin) often used them - as did cartoonist James Gillray on the other side of the Atlantic. [4] [5] They later fell out of fashion, but by 1904 had regained their popularity, although they were still considered novel enough to require explanation. [6] With the development of the comics industry in the 20th century, the appearance of speech balloons has become increasingly standardized, though the formal conventions that have evolved in different cultures (USA as opposed to Japan, for example), can be quite distinct.

American Revolution Colonial revolt in which the Thirteen Colonies won independence from Great Britain

The American Revolution was a colonial revolt which occurred between 1765 and 1783. The American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies defeated the British in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) with the assistance of France, winning independence from Great Britain and establishing the United States of America.

Benjamin Franklin American polymath and a Founding Father of the United States

Benjamin Franklin was an American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, Freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions. He founded many civic organizations, including the Library Company, Philadelphia's first fire department and the University of Pennsylvania.

James Gillray English caricaturist and printmaker

James Gillray was a British caricaturist and printmaker famous for his etched political and social satires, mainly published between 1792 and 1810. Many of his works are held at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Richard F. Outcault's Yellow Kid is generally credited as the first American comic strip character. His words initially appeared on his yellow shirt, but word balloons very much like those in use today were added almost immediately, as early as 1896. By the start of the 20th century, word balloons were ubiquitous; since that time, few American comic strips and comic books have relied on captions, notably Hal Foster's Prince Valiant and the early Tarzan comic strip in the 1930s. In Europe, where text comics were more common, speech balloons slowly caught on, with well-known examples being Alain Saint-Ogan's Zig et Puce (1925), Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin (1929) and Rob-Vel's Spirou (1938).

Richard F. Outcault American cartoonist

Richard Felton Outcault was an American cartoonist. He was the creator of the series The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown, and is considered a key pioneer of the modern comic strip.

Hal Foster Canadian-American illustrator

Harold Rudolf Foster, better known as Hal Foster, was a Canadian-American comic strip artist and writer best known as the creator of the comic strip Prince Valiant. His drawing style is noted for its high level of draftsmanship and attention to detail.

<i>Prince Valiant</i> 1937 comic strip by Hal Foster

Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, or simply Prince Valiant, is an American comic strip created by Hal Foster in 1937. It is an epic adventure that has told a continuous story during its entire history, and the full stretch of that story now totals more than 4000 Sunday strips. Currently, the strip appears weekly in more than 300 American newspapers, according to its distributor, King Features Syndicate.

Speech bubbles

The most common is the speech bubble. It comes in two forms for two circumstances: an in-panel character and an off-panel character. An in-panel character (one who is fully or mostly visible in the panel of the strip of comic that the reader is viewing) uses a bubble with a pointer, called a tail, directed towards the speaker.

When one character has multiple balloons within a panel, often only the balloon nearest to the speaker's head has a tail, and the others are connected to it in sequence by narrow bands. This style is often used in Mad Magazine, due to its "call-and-response" dialogue-based humor.

An off-panel character (the comic book equivalent of being "off screen") has several options, some of them rather unconventional. The first is a standard speech bubble with a tail pointing toward the speaker's position. The second option, which originated in manga, has the tail pointing into the bubble, instead of out. (This tail is still pointing towards the speaker.) The third option replaces the tail with a sort of bottleneck that connects with the side of the panel. It can be seen in the works of Marjane Satrapi (author of Persepolis ).

Manga Comics or graphic novels created in Japan

Manga are comics or graphic novels created in Japan or by creators in the Japanese language, conforming to a style developed in Japan in the late 19th century. They have a long and complex pre-history in earlier Japanese art.

Marjane Satrapi Iranian-French graphic novelist, cartoonist, illustrator, film director, and childrens book author

Marjane Satrapi is an Iranian-born French graphic novelist, cartoonist, illustrator, film director, and children's book author.

In American comics, a bubble without a tail means that the speaker is not merely outside the reader's field of view but invisible to the viewpoint character, often as an unspecified member of a crowd.

Characters distant (in space or time) from the scene of the panel can still speak, in squared bubbles without a tail; this usage, equivalent to voice-over in film, is not uncommon in American comics for dramatic contrast. In contrast to captions, the corners of such balloons never coincide with those of the panel; for further distinction they often have a double outline, a different background color, or quotation marks.

Thought bubbles

Thought bubbles come in two forms: the chain thought bubble and the "fuzzy" bubble.

The chain thought bubble is the almost universal symbol for thinking in cartoons. It consists of a large, cloud-like bubble containing the text of the thought, with a chain of increasingly smaller circular bubbles leading to the character. Some artists use an elliptical bubble instead of a cloud-shaped one.

Often animal characters like Snoopy and Garfield "talk" using thought bubbles. Thought bubbles may also be used in circumstances when a character is gagged or otherwise unable to speak.

Another, less conventional thought bubble has emerged: the "fuzzy" thought bubble. Used in manga (by such artists as Ken Akamatsu), the fuzzy bubble is roughly circular in shape (generally), but the edge of the bubble is not a line but a collection of spikes close to each other, creating the impression of fuzziness. Fuzzy thought bubbles do not use tails, and are placed near the character who is thinking. This has the advantage of reflecting the TV equivalent effect: something said with an echo.

Writers and artists can refuse to use thought bubbles, expressing the action through spoken dialogue and drawing; they are sometimes seen as an inefficient method of expressing thought because they are attached directly to the head of the thinker, unlike methods such as caption boxes, which can be used both as an expression of thought and narration while existing in an entirely different panel from the character thinking. However, they are restricted to the current viewpoint character. An example is Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta , wherein during one chapter, a monologue expressed in captions serves not only to express the thoughts of a character but also the mood, status and actions of three others.

Other forms

The shape of a speech balloon can be used to convey further information. Common ones include the following:


Captions are generally used for narration purposes, such as showing location and time, or conveying editorial commentary. They are generally rectangular and positioned near the edge of the panel. Often they are also colored to indicate the difference between themselves and the word balloons used by the characters, which are almost always white. Increasingly in modern comics, captions are frequently used to convey an internal monologue or typical speech. [7]

Artist-specific variations

Yellow Kid's words appear on his shirt YellowKid.jpeg
Yellow Kid's words appear on his shirt

Some characters and strips use highly unconventional methods of communication. Perhaps the most notable is the Yellow Kid, an early American comic strip. His (but not the other characters') words would appear on his large, smock-like shirt. A short-run American animated TV series of the early 1980s used this same concept, but with changing phrases on the "T-shirts" worn by the animal-based characters, depending on the characters' thoughts.

Also noteworthy are the many variations on the form created by Dave Sim for his comic Cerebus the Aardvark . Depending on the shape, size, and position of the bubble, as well as the texture and shape of the letters within it, Sim could convey large amounts of information about the speaker. This included separate bubbles for different states of mind (drunkenness, etc.), for echoes, and a special class of bubbles for one single floating apparition.

An early pioneer in experimenting with many different types of speech balloons and lettering for different types of speech was Walt Kelly, in his Pogo strip. Deacon Mushrat speaks in blackletter, P.T. Bridgeport speaks in circus posters, Sarcophagus MacAbre speaks in condolence cards, "Mr. Pig" (a take on Nikita Khrushchev) speaks in faux Cyrillic, etc.

In the famous French comic series Asterix , Goscinny and Uderzo use bubbles without tails to indicate a distant or unseen speaker. They have also experimented with using different types of lettering for characters of different nationalities to indicate they speak a different language that Asterix may not understand; Goths speak in blackletter, Greeks in angular lettering (though always understood by the Gaulish main characters, so it is more of an accent than a language), Norse with "Nørdic åccents", Egyptians in faux hieroglyphs (depictive illustrations and rebuses), etc. Another experiment with speech bubbles was exclusive to one book, Asterix and the Roman Agent . The agent in question is a vile manipulator who creates discord in a group of people with a single innocent-sounding comment. His victims start quarreling and ultimately fighting each other while speaking in green-colored speech bubbles.

Font variation is a common tactic in comics. The Sandman series, written by Neil Gaiman and lettered by Todd Klein, features many characters whose speech bubbles are written with a font that is exclusive to them. For examples, the main character, the gloomy Dream, speaks in wavy-edged bubbles, completely black, with similarly wavy white lettering. His sister, the scatterbrained and whimsical Delirium speaks in bubbles in a many-colored explosive background with uneven lettering, and the irreverent raven Matthew speaks in a shaky angular kind of bubble with scratchy lettering. Other characters, such as John Dee, have special shapes of bubbles for their own. [8]

In Mad's recurring Monroe comic strip, certain words are written larger or in unusual fonts for emphasis.

In manga, there is a tendency to include the speech necessary for the storyline in balloons, while small scribbles outside the balloons add side comments, often used for irony or to show that they're said in a much smaller voice. Satsuki Yotsuba in the manga series Negima is notable because she speaks almost entirely in side scribble.

Graphic symbols

Speech bubbles are used not only to include a character's words, but also emotions, voice inflections and unspecified language.

Punctuation marks

One of the universal emblems of the art of comics is the use of a single punctuation mark to depict a character's emotions, much more efficiently than any possible sentence. A speech bubble with a single big question mark (?) (often drawn by hand, not counted as part of the lettering) denotes confusion or ignorance. An exclamation mark (!) indicates surprise or terror. This device is broadly used in the European comic tradition, the Belgian artist Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin series being a good example. Sometimes, the punctuation marks stand alone above the character's head, with no bubble needed.

In manga, the ellipsis (i.e. three dots) is also used to express silence in a much more significant way than the mere absence of bubbles. This is specially seen when a character is supposed to say something, to indicate a stunned silence or when a sarcastic comment is expected by the reader. The ellipsis, along with the big drop of sweat on the character's temple—usually depicting shame, confusion, or embarrassment caused by other people's actions—is one of the Japanese graphic symbols that have taken root in comics all around the world, although they are still rare in Western tradition. Japanese even has a sound effect for "deafening silence", shiin(シーン).

Foreign languages

In many comic books, words that would be foreign to the narration but are displayed in translation for the reader are surrounded by angle brackets or chevrons like this.

Gilbert Hernandez's series about Palomar is written in English, but supposed to take place mainly in a Hispanic country. Thus, what is supposed to be representations of Spanish speech is written without brackets, but occasional actual English speech is written within brackets, to indicate that it is unintelligible to the main Hispanophone characters in the series.

Some comics will have the actual foreign language in the speech balloon, with the translation as a footnote; this is done with Latin aphorisms in Asterix. In the webcomic Stand Still, Stay Silent , in which characters may speak up to five different languages in the same scene, most dialogue is unmarked (languages mostly being inferred by who is speaking and to whom), but miniature flags indicate the language being spoken where this is relevant.

Another convention is to put the foreign speech in a distinctive lettering style; for example, Asterix's Goths speak in blackletter.

Since the Japanese language uses two writing directionalities (vertical, which is the traditional direction; and horizontal, as most other languages), manga has a convention of representing translated foreign speech as horizontal text.

The big Z

It is a convention in American comics that the sound of a snore is represented as a series of Z's, dating back at least to Rudolph Dirks' early 20th-century strip The Katzenjammer Kids . [9] This practice has even been reduced to a single letter Z, so that a speech bubble with this letter standing all alone (again, drawn by hand rather than a font type) means the character is sleeping in most humorous comics. This can be seen, for instance, in Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strips.

Originally, the resemblance between the 'z' sound and that of a snore seemed exclusive to the English language, but the spread of American comics has made it a frequent feature in other countries. An exception to this is in Japanese manga, where the usual symbol for sleep is a large bubble coming out of the character's nose. [10] [ not in citation given ]

Drawings within the speech bubble

Singing characters usually have musical notes drawn into their word balloons. Archie Comics' Melody Valentine, a character in their Josie and the Pussycats comic, has musical notes drawn into her word balloons at all times, to convey that she speaks in a sing-song voice.

The above-mentioned Albert Uderzo in the Asterix series decorates speech bubbles with beautiful flowers depicting an extremely soft, sweet voice (usually preceding a violent outburst by the same character).

A stormy cloud with a rough lightning sticking out of it, either in a bubble or just floating above the character's head as a modified 'cloudy' thought bubble, depicts anger, not always verbally expressed.

Light bulbs are sometimes used when the character comes up with an idea or solution to a problem.

In the Western world, it is common to replace profanity with a string of nonsense symbols (&%$@*$#), sometimes called grawlixes. In comics that are usually addressed to children or teenagers, bad language is censored by replacing it with more or less elaborate drawings and expressionistic symbols. For example, instead of calling someone a swine, a pig is drawn in the speech bubble.

One example is the Spanish Mortadelo series, created by Francisco Ibáñez. Although not specifically addressed to children, Mortadelo was born during Francisco Franco's dictatorship, when censorship was the order of the day and the slightest attempt of rough language was prohibited. When Ibáñez's characters are angry, donkey heads, lightning, lavatories, billy goats and even faux Japanese characters are often seen in their bubbles.

When Mortadelo was portrayed on film by Spanish director Javier Fesser in 2003, one of the critiques made to his otherwise successful adaptation was the character's use of words that never appeared in the comics. Fesser claimed: "When you see a bubble speech containing a lightning falling on a pig, what do you imagine the character's saying?"


In order for comic strip and graphic novel dialogue to make sense, it has to be read in order. Thus, conventions have evolved in the order in which the communication bubbles are read. The individual bubbles are read in the order of the language. For example, in English, the bubbles are read from left to right in a panel, while in Japanese, it is the other way around. Sometimes the bubbles are "stacked", with two characters having multiple bubbles, one above the other. Such stacks are read from the top down. Poor use of speech balloons can unintentionally make the proper reading order ambiguous, confusing the reader.


Traditionally, a cartoonist or occupational letterer would draw in all the individual letters in the balloons and sound effects by hand. A modern alternative, used by most comics today and universal in English-translated manga, is to letter with computer programs. The fonts used usually emulate the style of hand-lettering.

Traditionally, most mainstream comic books are lettered entirely in upper-case, with a few exceptions:

When hand-lettering, upper-case lettering saves time and effort because it requires drawing only three guidelines, while mixed-case lettering requires five. [11]

In a few comics, uppercase and lowercase are used as in ordinary writing. Since the mid-1980s, mixed case lettering has gradually become more widely used in mainstream books. Some comics, such as Pearls Before Swine , also use lowercase speech to mark a distinctive accent (in this case, the male crocodiles’ accented speech, opposed to all other characters who use standard uppercase speech).

From 2002 to 2004, Marvel Comics experimented with mixed-case lettering in all its books. [11] Most mainstream titles have since returned to traditional all upper-case lettering.

In many comics, although the lettering is entirely in capital letters, serif versions of "I" are used exclusively where a capital I would appear in normal print text, and a sanserif (i.e., a simple vertical line) is used in all other places. This reduces confusion with the number one, and also serves to indicate when the personal pronoun "I" is meant. This lettering convention can be seen in computer fonts such as Blambot's "DigitalStrip.ttf" and "AnimeAce.ttf" fonts, which make no other distinction between lower- and uppercase letters.

Substance of balloons

In several occasions, comics artists have used balloons (or similar narrative devices) as if they have true substance, usually for humorous meta-like purposes. In Peanuts , for example, the notes played by Schroeder occasionally take substance and are used in various ways, including Christmas decorations or perches for birds. Sometimes balloons can be influenced by the strip's environment: in the Italian strip Sturmtruppen they freeze and crack when the temperature is very low, or an Archie comic strip where two men from Alaska remarked on how cold it was, by saying the speech balloons froze as they said them, and the words had to be thawed out to be heard.

In the Flemish Suske en Wiske series, on one occasion a thought bubble full of mathematical formulas is cut open with scissors and its contents emptied in a bag, to be saved for later (in a manner not unlike the pensieve in the Harry Potter series). In the same series, speech balloons are occasionally even held and blown up to function as actual balloons or the words of the speech bubble are occasionally shown coming out the side of the speech bubble, to signify that the speaker is moving so fast that their words can't keep up with them, i.e. at supersonic speed.

In the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? , the last words of a murdered Toon (cartoon character) are found under his body in the form of a speech balloon.

Computer-generated speech balloons

Many digital artists generate speech balloons with general-purpose illustration software. Products like Comic Book Creator for Microsoft Windows, Comic Life for Mac OS X and Windows target the non-professional end of the market.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Asterix or The Adventures of Asterix is a series of French comics. The series first appeared in the Franco-Belgian comics magazine Pilote on 29 October 1959. It was written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo until the death of Goscinny in 1977. Uderzo then took over the writing until 2009, when he sold the rights to publishing company Hachette. In 2013, a new team consisting of Jean-Yves Ferri (script) and Didier Conrad (artwork) took over. As of 2017, 37 volumes have been released, with a 38th forthcoming 2019.

Comics Creative work in which pictures and text convey information such as narratives

Comics is a medium used to express ideas through images, often combined with text or other visual information. Frequently, comics takes the form of sequences of panels of images. Often textual devices such as speech balloons, captions, and onomatopoeia indicate dialogue, narration, sound effects, or other information. The size and arrangement of panels contribute to narrative pacing. Cartooning and similar forms of illustration are the most common image-making means in comics; fumetti is a form which uses photographic images. Common forms include comic strips, editorial and gag cartoons, and comic books. Since the late 20th century, bound volumes such as graphic novels, comic albums, and tankōbon have become increasingly common, while online webcomics have proliferated in the 21st century with the advent of the internet.

Quebec comics

Quebec comics are French language comics produced primarily in the Canadian province of Quebec, and read both within and outside Canada, particularly in French-speaking Europe.

A letterer is a member of a team of comic book creators responsible for drawing the comic book's text. The letterer's use of typefaces, calligraphy, letter size, and layout all contribute to the impact of the comic. The letterer crafts the comic's "display lettering": the story title lettering and other special captions and credits that usually appear on a story's first page. The letterer also writes the letters in the word balloons and draws in sound effects. Many letterers also design logos for the comic book company's various titles.

Gustave Verbeek Dutch-American illustrator and cartoonist

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Eye dialect is the use of nonstandard spelling for speech to draw attention to pronunciation. The term was coined by George Philip Krapp to refer to the literary technique of using nonstandard spelling that implies a pronunciation of the given word that is actually standard, such as wimmin for women; the spelling indicates that the character's speech overall is dialectal, foreign, or uneducated. This form of nonstandard spelling differs from others in that a difference in spelling does not indicate a difference in pronunciation of a word. That is, it is dialect to the eye rather than to the ear. It suggests that a character "would use a vulgar pronunciation if there were one" and "is at the level of ignorance where one misspells in this fashion, hence mispronounces as well".

A daily strip is a newspaper comic strip format, appearing on weekdays, Monday through Saturday, as contrasted with a Sunday strip, which typically only appears on Sundays.

German comics

German comics are comics written in the German language or by German-speaking creators, for the major comic markets in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, with spill-overs into the neighboring, but lesser, comic markets of Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and German-Belgium.

A script is a document describing the narrative and dialogue of a comic book in detail. It is the comic book equivalent of a television program teleplay or a film screenplay.

Subtitle textual representation of events and speech in motion imagery

Subtitles are text derived from either a transcript or screenplay of the dialog or commentary in films, television programs, video games, and the like, usually displayed at the bottom of the screen, but can also be at the top of the screen if there is already text at the bottom of the screen. They can either be a form of written translation of a dialog in a foreign language, or a written rendering of the dialog in the same language, with or without added information to help viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing to follow the dialog, or people who cannot understand the spoken dialogue or who have accent recognition problems.

Manga iconography

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<i>Out Our Way</i>

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The history of comics has followed different paths in different parts of the world. It can be traced back to early precursors such as Trajan's Column, in Rome, Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Bayeux Tapestry.

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