Comics are great….except when they aren’t

158160 600 Comics are great....except when they arent
It’s a brand new year, and everyone is looking back on all the great comics that came out and all the great things coming up, and sales are up and things are going great. But there are some clouds on the horizon. On New Year’s Eve everyone on Facebook and elsewhere was posting their year end thoughts, and…well there was a lot of struggle.

I actually noticed this a few months ago with a few big picture, where am I going posts from folks. Dustin Harbin, a fellow who had worn many hats in comics, responded to a question on Tumblr asking about his larger aspirations as a cartoonist, his three year dream plan. I hope he doesn’t mind my posting much of his answer because I’m sure most creative people, hell most PEOPLE, have pondered these very things:

…I’ve spent a lot of time hopping from project to project, paycheck to paycheck, and was surprised to realize I don’t have a long-distance plan for my comics or drawing or whatever. Or at least, not one that’s in any way coherent or.. actionable?

A lot of what I have done and continue to do—for instance those diary comics—is based around a continuing process of.. maybe therapy? Thinking? Whatever it is, it’s a continuing process, and so I’ve focused more on that process than in any end result. I admit, it feels a lot like flailing around in the dark. 

I think what I’d prefer most of all, as a goal, is to work for someone again, say for a show, or a book publisher, or something where a fussy guy who’s good at figuring things out could excel. Something with health insurance and that pays enough that I can afford to stop worrying about money, maybe get on anti-depressants, etc. I’d like very much to return to think about “art” or whatever, at least in terms of making art that is important to me, as something entirely separate from earning an income. I’m not saying it’s bad to think of art and income at the same time—in fact, in some cases it can be the force that drives an artist to excel, push themselves, etc. But for me, and the way I’m constructed, I feel like I’m best and most comfortable earning a paycheck as opposed to chasing one.


Around the same time, Evan Dorkin, certainly a creator who has achieved much in his career, pondered completing his final Eltingville story (the cover is at the top of this post.)

This is why it feels so weird to me to finally — after 20 years or so —  be finishing up The Eltingville Club. After making comics professionally for about 27 years or so, this is the first project of my own that I’m finishing up on my own terms, something most creators do much earlier in their career, something many creators have done many times over by my age. It was never the way I worked, or the way things worked out, until now, so, this is a new experience for me, heaped on top of the mixed feelings I get finishing up any extended gig of importance (to me). I’m not trying to make more of it than it is, I’m not hating on myself but I’d be the first to say (and here I go) that this isn’t the end of a big deal comic from a big deal creator, and these aren’t big deal characters making big-deal money that most folks want around forever (certainly not me, brother). But they’ve had a run, better than most small press things, and they had a solid shot at a cartoon series, and they made some folks laugh, and some other folks angry, my little monster children. Who I’m going to put out of their miserableness. So, yeah, it’s a strange feeling.


But, ever a pragmatist, only a few days later, Dorkin wrote about finally getting on the platform du jour, Tumblr, after someone else posting one of his pieces gave him a reach he hadn’t considered himself:

What made me decide to do the Tumblr thing was that someone posted a Beasts of Burden short story on there a few weeks ago and it ran up almost 60,000 notes, which even if you halve that number to account for people both liking and reblogging the post, means almost thirty thousand people read it. And it’s still getting tossed around and read. A small percentage of these folks ordered the book and a lot of people commented on the material and gave the series some very positive word-of-mouth. This is the biggest burst of activity generated by the book since, well…maybe ever. It got more readers than anything we’ve published, and at a time when the series is in hibernation, to boot, so we can certainly use the attention. Anyway, I figured it couldn’t hurt to post my stuff to Tumblr and see if anything happens. Even a few folks seeing it is better than nothing. There’s only so much you can do, especially when you don’t have time to do much, and every little thing helps. So, yeah, I’m on Tumblr. Big news, I know.


Moving forward, making plans, joining Tumblr.

Elsewhere, as the year closed, a lot of people noted that 2013 had “kicked their ass”, as Liz Prince did. While confronting a lot of personal problems, Prince managed to dig in and complete a full graphic novel, something we have to look forward to this year. But it wasn’t easy.

Kevin Colden was even more blunt in a piece called - Yes, 2013, That Is My Foot Your Ass As You Walk Away, and that wonderful thing called money comes up again:

In the interest of perspective, I’m going to break taboo on talking about money (if I haven’t already, and fuck taboos anyway) and say that I gross a little less than the median income for where I live. My wife grosses half that. We live pretty nicely, but we are nowhere near what would be considered middle class in NYC. Like I said, we usually manage really well, but while my financials were back on track, circumstances left my wife with her income being halved in the last half of the year. We’re still not entirely back in track yet, but things are looking okay going into 2014. We chose this lifestyle, and know what the risks are. The real frustration comes from having too many actual adult responsibilities to be able to draw comics as a side gig or hobby – if it don’t pay, it don’t play. I’m pretty damn fast, but when you’re the primary caregiver for a 3yo and working 15 hour days at the same time just to not go bankrupt, drawing a personal project isn’t super feasible. In fact, mixing a cocktail and firing up Netflix is usually even stretching the mental capacity at the end of the day. There was much serious talk of retirement this time – putting down the pens and going on sabbatical at the very least.


The comics life is a hard one. Throw in a kid and it’s brutal.

There was more—my notes for this post got lost in my computer meltdown, and I’m reconstructing it as I remember. One multi-award winning cartoonist announced he was giving up on comics in a friends-locked FB post. You’d have to throw in the end of PictureBox as part of the whole process.

A lot of these people aren’t household names, even in households with rooms full of comics shelf porn, but they love comics and have followings.

And a lot of it comes down to the fact that comics STILL isn’t an industry with a lot of money trickling down. Most cartoonists—and even many publishers—still run things on a basis the IRS would view as a hobby. It’s bootstrings and shoestraps and late nights and a monastic lifestyle for many people in this business.

It’s no secret that we’re becoming a feudal society, where peasants live down in the valley, in their cozy, tiny cottages toiling away for some new putty to regrout the tub, wearing the sigils of their liege lords Nike and CitiBank. Comics are strictly a 99% business, and too many cartoonists (and comics support staff) are living the life Jamie McKelvie once wrote of, “a constant low level money anxiety.” It saps one’s enthusiasm.

A few months ago Molly Crabapple wrote a piece on Vice called

 

Filthy Lucre where she confronted income inequality and the money myths of the artist

Meritocracy is America’s foundational myth. If you work hard, society tells us, you’ll earn your place in the middle class. But any strawberry picker knows hard work alone is a fast road to nowhere. Similarly, we place our faith in education. Study, and the upper-middle class will be yours. Except the average student graduates $35,000 in debt.

Artists too have their myths. The lies told to artists mirror the lies told to women. Be good enough, be pretty enough, and that guy or gallery will sweep you off your feet, to the picket-fenced land of generous collectors and two and a half kids. But, make the first move, seize your destiny, and you’re a whore.

But neither hard work nor talent nor education are passports to success. At best, they’re small bits of the puzzle.


A lot of people in comics having been living marginally for a while. My Facebook feed has also been filled of late with people proudly announcing taht thanks to Obamacare, after sometimes a decade or more, they have health insurance. These post are inevitably greatly liked. This is a world where people cheer when someone gets health insurance.

As I said, I’d been putting together my notes for this post for a while, and now I’ve been slammed by a computer crash and what will be a costly and temporary fix. I’m typing this on an eight year old computer that won’t support the software to run any of the programs we take for granted. (Twitter and Gmail won’t even load.) I invested in a top of the line Mac Book Pro two years ago thinking this was a great investment and trusting Apple. Now it’s a hunk of junk and making the repairs is going to postpone all the other plans I had for the beginning of the year. (Don’t even talk about getting a new computer.)

This isn’t a doom and gloom post. The comics industry has gotten to a great place and everyone has big plans. The paychecks don’t often support those plans however. And not everyone goes the distance. There are always going to be people who drop out for good reasons. But I think the fretting and worrying is going to become a lot more public in the coming months, partly as a reflection of the general economic situation, and partly because while the comics pie got bigger so did every other one. And you can do what you love for a long time without the money ever following.

It’s as easy as ever to get into comics, but the paychecks are getting smaller and smaller at the bottom of the pyhramid. The balloon has been rising and rising and getting bigger and bigger, but there aren’t any more atoms inside than there ever were. And people are beginning to notice.

No one every said this would be easy.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the round-up of end of year comics, Heidi! Strange how some years end up being tough for folks across the board.
    I drew my own end-of-year comic last week, talking about the double-sucker-punch of trying to survive the year as both a cartoonist and an adjunct professor–two famously reliable & steady sources of income :) Here’s a link, if anybody’d like to see: http://pigeonbits.tumblr.com/post/71650976951/my-one-big-goal-for-2014-incidentally-is-to-kick

  2. Marguerite D says:

    Comics are in a very strange middle ground where I’ve seen this dramatic improvement in standing in the eyes of the general public from ten (or even five) years ago, but they still aren’t “there.” I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who feels that way. I have every faith that our little niche in the world will reach a much more sustainable point, but it’s slow-going and, yes, it is extremely tiring. Throwing all of this into the money pit that is New York City (or, I guess, any larger city where us cartoonists tend to flock) and it makes the whole experience extra interesting.
    Still working and rooting for a hopefully-forthcoming time when the work we do really is sustainable. I know that every cartoonist certainly works hard enough.

  3. Johnny Memeonic says:

    I like to do financial research for fun so I whipped up a quick estimate recently to see if creator owned comics were as viable a living in 2013 as a lot of people were saying.

    Unfortunately, the conclusion I’ve come to is that only three high profile creators (and yes, that includes Robert Kirkman) are making enough money for it to be their day job alone.

  4. Great, thoughtful post, Heidi. Thanks for pulling all these varied perspectives together and adding in your own two pesos.

  5. Tom Spurgeon says:

    if you liked this post and all the others like it —

    http://bit.ly/19gjSGY

  6. Great article, Heidi. Really, really great. :)

  7. I’ve always had a day-job that had little or nothing to do with comics and as I was trying to finish my latest book, I got all fired up about making a plan for quitting my job and drawing full-time. I started talking to everyone I could and reading everything I could find from people who lived off comics. The end result was I started re-thinking that decision. It could just be my own fear of leaping into the unknown, but there are big advantages for my work as a cartoonist of not having the pressure of depending on drawing to keep a roof over my head and feed my kids. Mostly, I can go at my own pace and explore any silly idea I want. Of course, the downside is I spend the majority of my day doing something that isn’t drawing which is a big part of the reason it took me 10 years to finish my latest.

  8. MBunge says:

    I just finished reading some Airboys from First Comics back in the day and read a lot of Cat Yronwoode editorials. I wonder if folks like her had been less worried about an ideology of creator ownership and more focused on just making money, if some of those smaller publishers might have survived. Probably not, given the scope of the 90s implosion. I do hope a lot of the people who’ve railed against work-for-hire as a concept, not just the horrible practices of the industry in the past, look around and see how bad things could really be.

    Mike

  9. The only companies from than that are still around are Fantagraphics, NBM and Dark Horse, and they were all pretty much founded on the same ideals. To emerge from the shadows, comics HAD to grow up creatively and that movement was part of it.

  10. Johnny, care to share your research? I’m very interested.

  11. Tanya Horie says:

    Great post Heidi. You are absolutely correct that we have a 99% 1% income inequality problem in this industry.

    In this business we’re all taught that we shouldn’t talk about rates. I think over time that has hurt all of us a great deal. We are for the most part afraid of backlash if we say the wrong thing and that it could affect our ability to get work. I worry about this too of course because we aren’t making ends meet these days so work is precious.

    On the flip side of that, I don’t even know that the people in charge of setting the rates clearly understand some rates that are out there are not a living wage after the overhead costs we bear individually as artists. You would have to know what it costs to say “be a colorist” in 2014 for that to make sense. No one has ever asked to the best of my knowledge and what it would cost a company to buy the same rig and run it would be much less then it would cost you or I to buy the same thing. I’d prefer for now to give the benefit of the doubt or naively think that publishers don’t know and that information isn’t filtering back to them.

    I don’t know the answers to these problems and believe me I’ve been losing plenty of sleep over them.

    As this industry grows and molds itself into the digital version of itself as all media is now doing the old comics business model of past generations will have to adjust and change or there will be no more artists to sustain it. People have to be able to afford to stay in this business and to create the comics they love.

  12. Tanya Horie says:

    Sorry for my bad grammer. It should have said “you or me” oops. It’s late and I’m very tired tonight.

  13. There are more than three creative people making a good living off creator-owned work right now. It’s still a difficult route, but there’s a resurgence going on.

  14. Nice article. For the longest time I made my erratic living creating graphic designs and illustrations for clients. Killed my desire to draw (until recently). Recently I took on a permanent part time job that has nothing to do with art. It’s been great and allowed me to take a step back and look at my chosen profession. Namely that I don’t really like doing the kind of work that I was doing for clients because I had to. Having this job means I can now draw my for me and see where that goes. The goal is to get a full time job that has nothing to do with art so that I can devote my off hours to my own work. Oddly, I see it as a vacation.

  15. MBunge says:

    “The only companies from than that are still around are Fantagraphics, NBM and Dark Horse, and they were all pretty much founded on the same ideals.”

    According to their website, NBM is publishing a total of 8 books from February through July and only 5 of those appear to be OGNs. Fantagraphics had to turn to Kickstarter for its 2014 publishing slate and, again, a good chunk of those are reprints or not OGNs. And the idea that creator ownership has been a significant factor in Dark Horse sticking around is kind of silly. If DH hadn’t gotten a piece of the surprising number of DH movies that have come out, where would the company be?

    You can certainly point to a lot of creative advances and improvements that can be traced to the activist ideology of the 70s and 80s, but I think the movement’s negative or negligible business/economic impact is just as clear.

  16. Very good article … but I get the feeling that being an illustrator is not what many comix artists either wish to do or actually can do. I do comix on the side, in between illustration jobs, and it works out pretty good for me.

    Why are so many comix artists not illustrating? I’m baffled by this phenomenon.

    And that Crabapple quote … ” …neither hard work nor talent nor education are passports to success.” I have to strenuously disagree with that. Yes, luck is a factor but in the long run, it’s not that important.

    Drawing is the god of art, master it thoroughly and you can move from comix to illustration and back again, as your finances dictate.

  17. A very truthful and earnest article, Heidi, if not downright depressing. As an aspiring penciler, I think I’m going to go hang myself now. ;’(

  18. Hellboy and the various Frank Miller projects, all creator-owned, have been pretty important to Dark Horse. And I think NBM publishes more than that when you count in Papercutz.

  19. >> And the idea that creator ownership has been a significant factor in Dark Horse sticking around is kind of silly. If DH hadn’t gotten a piece of the surprising number of DH movies that have come out, where would the company be?>>

    That doesn’t really track. That “surprising number of DH movies that have come out” includes movies based on creator-owned books that have been a significant factor in Dark Horse sticking around.

    If Dark Horse didn’t publish creator-owned stuff, they might not have so much movie-arena success. The concepts have got to come from somewhere. Dark Horse has licensed stuff, developed company-owned stuff and supported creator-owned stuff, and have seen success in all those areas because they’ve worked at it smartly. Dropping the creator-owned stuff because Eclipse didn’t survive wouldn’t have put them in better straits — Eclipse also did company-owned stuff and licensed stuff, after all. They didn’t close their doors because of the crippling effect of creator-owned books, but because they weren’t making enough money to survive the financial setbacks they encountered doing ANY of it.

    Plus, if we look at the companies that have arisen since then, it looks like the creator-owned model at Image has done better than the company-owned model of Valiant (which seems to be doing well now in its third incarnation), and the licensed/creator-owned model of IDW seems to be keeping that going, as is the creator-owned focus of Oni.

    Company ownership of new creations doesn’t seem to be a robust model for the future — if nothing else, when there’s competition for the talent’s services, and some of that competition is offering a better deal than “No ownership and not much ancillary rights,” the talent will bring new creations to the places with the better deals.

    kdb

  20. >> Dark Horse has licensed stuff, developed company-owned stuff and supported creator-owned stuff, and have seen success in all those areas because they’ve worked at it smartly.>>

    And I should add: They’ve probably had the _least_ success in the company-owned areas. They’ve had some, but when you think of their big successes, it’s creator-owned or licensed.

    kdb

  21. Tanya Horie says:

    “Company ownership of new creations doesn’t seem to be a robust model for the future — if nothing else, when there’s competition for the talent’s services, and some of that competition is offering a better deal than “No ownership and not much ancillary rights,” the talent will bring new creations to the places with the better deals.”

    While this is true the other parts of the team that put together these books are not always being paid a living wage and no one is talking about that or they don’t understand it. This is a general statement and not pointing at any specific company. They may or may not know who they are. The colorists, letterers and inkers do.

  22. >> While this is true the other parts of the team that put together these books are not always being paid a living wage and no one is talking about that or they don’t understand it.>>

    This is true, and quite likely true regardless of ownership status of the overall work.

  23. Tanya Horie says:

    Absolutely right Kurt.

    The pay for these jobs have been going in the wrong direction for too long and has now reached the point in some instances where the rate is low enough that if broken down with taxes and overhead is actually paying the colorist, letterer or sometimes inker below minimum wage to do the job.

    I have wondered if anyone even realizes it’s come to this? I realize it may be naive to give the benefit if the doubt.

    Very few people actually sit down and calculate what it costs them to stay above water. I’ve had a young colorist new to the business brag about the $$ page rate he was getting. I asked him if he knew how much was left over after he paid his taxes, internet, backups, depreciated his computer, paid his software lease and so on. He got very quite and told me he hadn’t thought of it that way.

    I love what I do and this business but I’m worried.

  24. Tanya Horie says:

    I really did mean, quiet. The not so wonderful word replacements on iOS. Ugh.

  25. MBunge says:

    Does Stephen King’s publisher get a cut of his TV or movie money? Is Image getting any of Kirkman’s Walking Dead Cash? Did any of his publisher’s get a sniff of Dave Stevens’ Hollywood check for The Rocketeer? Unless I’m mistaken, Dark Horse did receive some coin from the creator-owned concepts they published and then made it to the screen.

    As for the health of the comic biz, I just finished reading some Power Man & Iron Fist’s I got at an auction. One was #66, 2nd appearance of Sabretooth (Yay!). It had the statement of ownership in it and the average monthly sales of the book was 124,315 a month. When you factor in that it’s 50 cent cover price adjusts to $1.41 today, that means that C-list title generated about $175,000 in today’s revenue. At 4 bucks a pop, a modern comic must sell about 43,000 copies a month to do the same. Only 33 titles made it over the line in the last top 300 list. 8 of them cost less than $4 but some that cost more just barely fell short. Now, digital sales will make things look better but people who make a living at comics also get paid better than in 1980.

    So, we can say with some reason that the vast majority of comics today not only have fewer readers but make less money than a low-selling, third-string Marvel book did more than 30 years ago.

    Is that an entirely fair comparison? Of course not. But I do think it can provide some perspective. And let me be clear, I think creator-ownership is great. But the anti-work-for-hire ideology that used to be white-hot and is still deeply engrained in today’s comic culture is, in my idiot opinion, at least slightly to blame for the poor state of affairs being highlighted here.

    Mike

  26. >> Does Stephen King’s publisher get a cut of his TV or movie money? >>

    I don’t know. It’s standard, or at least used to be back in the early days of his career, for publishers to try to get that in the contracts, and equally standard for agents to argue against it. I don’t know who prevailed.

    >> Is Image getting any of Kirkman’s Walking Dead Cash? >>

    No. Image doesn’t do that, by policy.

    >> Did any of his publisher’s get a sniff of Dave Stevens’ Hollywood check for The Rocketeer?>>

    I don’t know.

    >> Unless I’m mistaken, Dark Horse did receive some coin from the creator-owned concepts they published and then made it to the screen.>>

    Yes. Publishers do receive coin from creator-owned concepts they publish. And if those creator-owned concepts make it to the screen, there are times when publishers are the ones to have made a deal to be included in the spoils, and times when the deals happens because the publisher’s the one who put them together, as is very often the case with Dark Horse and Oni movie projects.

    There are times publishers don’t get involved, and times when they do. Deals vary widely. But getting movie money from successful creator-owned work is not an argument against the value of publishing creator-owned work. It’s an argument for it.

    >> When you factor in that it’s 50 cent cover price adjusts to $1.41 today, that means that C-list title generated about $175,000 in today’s revenue. At 4 bucks a pop, a modern comic must sell about 43,000 copies a month to do the same.>>

    Gross isn’t really directly comparable from a largely-newsstand-returnable system to a largely-direct-sales system. But yes, when the newsstand was a lot healthier, the comics grossed more. Creator-owned books are not, however, what made newsstand sales dwindle to virtually nothing.

    Heck, you could just as easily make the argument that newsstand sales in 1965 were much much better than newsstand sales when that issue of PM/IF came out, so clearly, something that happened in between was a bad idea. But you can’t simply pick one thing — the sale of DC to Kinney Services, for instance — and declare that’s it, or even that it was a factor. “Post hoc, ergo proper hoc” is a fallacy.

    >> So, we can say with some reason that the vast majority of comics today not only have fewer readers but make less money than a low-selling, third-string Marvel book did more than 30 years ago.>>

    No, you really can’t, since you’re comparing only one revenue stream, and comparing gross income (not profits) on that one stream.

    Both Marvel and DC are more profitable today than they were when that PM/IF issue came out, as it happens. So even if an individual release, in single-copy print sales, is grossing less than an individual release back then, neither company would choose to go back to those days.

    >> Is that an entirely fair comparison? Of course not. But I do think it can provide some perspective. And let me be clear, I think creator-ownership is great. But the anti-work-for-hire ideology that used to be white-hot and is still deeply engrained in today’s comic culture is, in my idiot opinion, at least slightly to blame for the poor state of affairs being highlighted here.>>

    I think you’re entirely mistaken. You observe a sales decline and assign blame for it without actually drawing any causal connection.

    You could just as easily argue that royalties on work-for-hire books arose and sales are lower now, so it must be the fault, at least slightly, of royalties, as if it’s just plain unsporting of freelancers to share in the success of what they do. If only they wee paid like they were in 1972, sales would be like they were in 1972.

    That’s completely illogical, but it’s the same logic as arguing that wanting to own what we do is a negative thing. If creators got the same kind of deals they used to get, comics wouldn’t be doing better, because the sales decline you’re talking about started in the late 1940s, and was happening steadily even during the times you’re holding up as better. It had much more to do with suburban spread, distributor inefficiency, competition for newsstand space and other factors than it did on whether SUPERMAN was owned by DC or TARZAN was owned by the creator’s estate.

    If creators still got shitty contracts, then instead of popular talent leaving the company-owned vineyards for better deals, they’d be leaving comics entirely for the better deals offered in other media. Some of that’s happening anyway, because creators like to be creative in more than one medium, and they like to get paid competitively for what they do.

    Marvel and DC aren’t struggling to staff their company-owned books, but it’s hard to imagine how things would be better if HELLBOY or CRIMINAL or LOCKE & KEY or FABLES was company-owned rather than creator-owned. More likely, what you’d get from that is more generic versions of those books, as they had creators rotated in and out to make the schedule and extend the brand, and some of those books would die early, some would be extended longer than was good for their reputation, and none of them would be as distinctive and memorable as they are now.

    kdb

  27. Tanya Horie says:

    Mike, I’d like to also address another of your comments ” Now, digital sales will make things look better but people who make a living at comics also get paid better than in 1980.” Not really.

    You would think people who make a living at comics get paid better and truly I can’t speak for quite that far back but I can tell you that color rates have not gone up since the early 90!s. They have in fact dropped dramatically. I’m not speaking about rates during the 90’s boom either when they were higher for a handful of people.

    Except for very rare instances colorists do not receive royalties. Royalties are reserved for writers, pencilers and inkers. Colorists and letterers are left out unless they are lucky enough to be an owner in the project or working on one of the rare projects that offers them.

  28. >> You would think people who make a living at comics get paid better and truly I can’t speak for quite that far back but I can tell you that color rates have not gone up since the early 90!s. They have in fact dropped dramatically.>>

    I think that comics pay rates at the Big Two have been largely stagnant or (in some cases, as you note) regressing since around 1990. But they’re still quite a bit better than they were in 1980.

    This does not have to do with creator-owned books — if creators didn’t have viable alternatives, Marvel and DC could actually cut rates harder, because the talent wouldn’t have options.

    >> Except for very rare instances colorists do not receive royalties.>>

    As I understand it, Marvel instituted colorist royalties a year or two back. DC has not followed suit, or at least not yet.

    And again, another advantage to creator-owned books — I don’t have to follow publisher policy on books I own or co-own, so letterers and colorists get royalties on ASTRO CITY, SHOCKROCKETS and more.

    kdb

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