Mark Millar’s The Authority and the Polemic over Iraq

For some reason, as I think of the polemic over Iraq (as I often do these days), I keep thinking about The Authority. Perhaps this is because I’ve considered The Authority in some depth, presenting on it at a scholarly conference in early 2003, as the debate over Iraq was entering its final pre-war stages.

The first panel of Authority #13.

In retrospect, the tale Mark Millar crafted of a super-team’s unilateral intervention against the wishes of the world’s governments seems remarkably parallel to the Bush administration’s fairly unilateral invasion of Iraq. Millar’s story caused fantastic controversy (both in the comic and in fandom), while the debate over Bush’s newest war has often been ferocious, spurring strongly divided political rhetoric and protests the world over.

The problem with this parallel, to the degree that one finds it (and it’s fairly obvious despite the fact that no one’s written about it, to my knowledge), is not only one’s stance on Iraq but also on The Authority.

Unilateral Interventionists

In Mark Millar’s The Authority, super-heroes stop merely fighting the super-villain of the month. To be sure, they still do this, but the whole of Millar’s work on the title was defined by the team’s role in real-world affairs.

His very first issue begins with the team invading a nation and killing its political leadership which prospered while the citizens starved and were killed for wanting democratic reforms. As I covered on this site, the original sequence that was censored by DC Comics explicitly referred to Jakarta’s President Habibe, known for his unprosecuted crimes against humanity — taking the “real-world” aspect of the Authority’s interventionism much further than the published version.

Real-world preemption in Authority #13.

Issue #17, the first chapter of Millar’s second storyline, “Earth Inferno,” showed the Authority getting the Russians to withdraw from Chechnia and referred to them having already gotten the Chinese to withdraw from Tibet. Attacked for these unilateral actions, the Authority defended themselves in interviews, as seen in Millar’s very first issue, as only doing what any decent human being would do if he had the power to change these situations.

From The Authority #13

The Authority explains why it's hypocritical to stop super-baddies and not genocide. From The Authority #13.

We do not see the Authority intervening to create an autonomous Palestinian state (nor stop Palestinian suicide bombers), nor depose North Korea’s dictatorship that (like the dictators the Authority is shown targeting) prospered while millions starved, nor depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq. We did not see these particular interventions, but we could easily imagine them. We did not get a creative depiction of the fall, over a single day, of Saddam Hussein’s regime at the hands of super-powered individuals, but we could easily imagine it.

And I’m willing to bet, we would have cheered.

Make no mistake, whatever one thinks about the war, Saddam Hussein would have fit right in. Millar would have had his characters issue snippy commentary about how Hussein gassed the Kurds, routinely killed political adversaries or those suspected of disloyalty, and generally instituted a state where videotaping someone’s daughter’s rape to give to the father or cutting the throat of the wife in front of her husband were viewed as legitimate mechanisms of the state to coerce and control its population. That’s just the kind of description Millar — or Ellis before him (though Ellis avoided real-life foes) — would have loved.

Of course, the main villains of Millar’s The Authority include the United States. Authority leader Jack Hawksmoor puts President Clinton in his place in Millar’s very first issue. The villains of that first storyline are super-powered products of a covert U.S. operation. The magical character the Doctor makes Al Gore and George W. Bush embrace and kiss during a 2000 Presidential debate. And in the final storyline, the G7 nations, led by President George W. Bush (censored in appearance in these final issues), apparently have the Authority killed (only humiliated, we later discover) and replaced.

Jack Hawksmoor denounces the status quo. From Authority #13.

Yet despite Millar making the U.S. government the villains, the Authority’s tactics now fairly directly parallel those of the U.S.

In other words, when we were all reading and cheering Millar’s Authority, we were cheering a far more unilateral form of interventionism than that in which the U.S. is presently engaged.

It’s just that the Authority have capes, and those brightly-colored capes tend to obliterate any moral greys.

How we resolve this quandary, which exists at this fascinating intersection of art and politics, depends on our own opinion of the war and of the Authority. In fact, we can describe these options in terms of a decision matrix, with our opinion of the war on one axis and our opinion of the Authority on the other.

Love the Authority, Love the War

Perhaps the most obvious option is to approve of both the Authority’s actions and the war. In this case, the unilateralism (or lack thereof) tends to become morally irrelevant, compared to the moral question of whether or not to depose dictatorships or occupations when one has the power to do so.

Whatever past wrongs the United States has committed, including in Iraq, would thus become irrelevant to the considerations. So forget complaints that the U.S. once supported Hussein (or for that matter bin Laden); it’s the moral move now that counts.

After all, in a world without super-heroes, the closest thing is the United States, the last remaining Super Power. As Jenny Sparks used to say, there’s no one else left to change the world.

The big downside of this parallel is that the United States lacks the super-heroic precision evident in a few-page comic-book sequence in which the Authority can change a government. The U.S. is bound to make mistakes.

Then again, so does the Authority: it’s content to gun down anyone associated with the “bad” regime. And we have no idea what followed the Authority’s actions: the team is quite content to allow mob violence (and even revels in it), leaving us little notion that the team has planned for any post-dictator recovery period. Even in Millar’s real-world politics, super-heroes don’t get bogged down in that kind of stuff.

In the real world, it’s also a lot easier to see some manner of self-interest, such as U.S. fears of Iraqi sponsorship of terrorism or possession of weapons of mass destruction (both now hotly debated, ex post facto, yet rarely disputed before — at least within the U.S.). But that shouldn’t surprise us. The Authority has no apparent need for money or for political alliances. The U.S. is not so fortunate.

Of course, all of this is already overthinking things: in the Authority’s own formulation, the only consideration is helping people when one has the power to do so, as the Authority so splendidly put it. With getting rid of dictators the prime example.

So it’s pretty hard to buy that reasoning in Millar’s Authority and oppose the war in Iraq. Supporting both, unsurprisingly, is a pretty consistent position.

Hate the Authority, Hate the War

Of course, one can take the opposite, easily consistent position and disapprove both of the Authority’s actions and of the current U.S. war effort.

Though I don’t know his position on the war, Warren Ellis (the writer who created the Authority) has publicly stated that the Authority are the “bad guys” of their own story. His reasoning was precisely that the team represented, like Judge Dredd, totalitarian or unilateral solutions to problems.

Granted, Ellis didn’t say this publicly until after 9/11, when The Authority was experiencing a widespread backlash, particularly for its violence. (Interestingly, Ellis said he was glad he’s put a few Dredd-like lines into The Authority, which implies that he wasn’t conceiving of the team as the bad guys at the time he was writing them. And after 9/11, he was smart enough to see the parallel and feel grateful he had written those lines.)

Others publicly joined this backlash. Grant Morrison, for one, claimed that he’d already progressed (towards the end of The Invisibles) beyond depicting violence as a solution in his plots.

If we are inclined to feel similarly, we may easily condemn the war in Iraq along parallel grounds. By such reasoning, the cause in question doesn’t matter, whether regime change in Iraq, stopping super-villains or extra-terrestrials from another dimension (as the Authority did during Ellis’s tenure), or stopping vicious dictators and political occupations (as the Authority did during Millar’s tenure). The violence and unilateralism of the methods themselves render the protagonist in the wrong.

This argument is akin to believing that war is wrong no matter the circumstances, although it need not go so far. Strictly speaking, the argument need only condemn unilateral intervention, which is dangerous because of its very nature. But such a focus on methods over consequences could easily slide into a blanket condemnation of violence.

Of course, Ellis, Morrison, and Millar himself are British. To most Americans, the idea that Judge Dredd is the bad guy just doesn’t compute. He’s the hero of the strip, after all. And he stops worse guys, like Judge Death. Similarly, it’s very hard for the American mentality to see the Authority as the bad guys. It’s a huge generalization, but Americans aren’t all that keen on considering methods. Americans like results. It’s in love with success. It loves movies where the good guys take the law into their own hands, reenacting the myth of frontier justice. Meanwhile, the rest of the world marvels how this could be true in a nation that constitutionally guarantees rights, including freedom from torture (cruel and unusual punishment) or unilateral police action (illegal search and seizure).

See No Evil: Reject the Parallel

It’s worth considering another apparently consistent position: one can fail to see a parallel between the Authority and the current U.S. government. This seems to be the position most comics fans have taken, if their silence serves as any indication.

Keep telling yourself "It's just a comic. It's just a comic."

Yet it is difficult to respect such a position intellectually, given the obvious parallels between the liberation of Iraq, despite a world screaming in protest, and the Authority’s unilateral ousting of dictators and occupiers.

To be sure, the parallel is not perfect: the Authority is not a nation-state, nor are any two actions or sets thereof equal in all respects, including their relative level of unilateralism or altruism. But while U.S. motives are clearly open to doubt (as the Authority’s would be, were they not presented to us in a fictional narrative), even the few allies of U.S. action make it less unilateral than the Authority, whose name says it all.

Failing to see a parallel can also be a convenience, permitting one the luxury of holding inconsistent views. We can thus thrill at the movie vigilante, yet detest the same in real life, where we’re more likely to rely upon police officers and the mechanisms of the state, seeing the result as the proper, more ordered course of events. I strongly contend that many have avoided seeing the Authority / Iraq parallel precisely because of its uncomfortable and difficult implications.

As we continue into possibilities in which one’s attitude towards the Authority and the war in Iraq differ, it’ll become clear how failure to find a parallel (or an undue emphasis upon the differences between the two) might help justify one’s position.

Enjoy the Authority but Disagree with the War in Iraq

Let’s consider the position of the reader who likes the Authority’s actions but disapproves of the U.S.’s in Iraq. Given Millar’s popularity, this is likely the position of many liberal comics readers.

To sustain this position, one would have to reject the parallel in favor of the Authority. For example, one could believe that the U.S. is not as altruistic regarding Iraq as the Authority clearly were regarding other brutal dictators. One could claim that the U.S.’s real interest was oil. One could also hold a very strong belief in the principle of consistency, thus faulting the U.S. for failure to act in North Korea or in many African nations wherein genocide or mass murders have occurred with little more than verbal responses.

But these rejections of parallelism largely don’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, Iraq’s oil, already controlled by the U.N., could more easily be obtained through leveraging Hussein than through invasion, and oil companies strongly prefer regional stability and typically don’t care whether the people living a mile from the oil wells are shot. And the concern for consistency across the board could be applied to the Authority, who intervened in Jakarta but not, for example, in North Korea — of even in Iraq.

Of course, the key complaint about U.S. invasion of Iraq has been its unilateralism, and it’s here that it becomes impossible to complain about the Authority, relative to the U.S. Even if one regards U.S. attempts to influence the U.N. over several months as a sham (or at least irrelevant to the final U.S. decision), the Authority didn’t bother to go through that charade. And even if it was ultimately a charade, the U.S. government apparently thought it an important one, because it continued doing so despite that conditions for invasion were deteriorating as worse weather approached. And even if most U.S. allies around the world were bullied or have offered no or minimal troops, European allies such as Britain certainly count for something, and the Authority didn’t have any of this. More importantly, the Authority intervened in apparently sovereign nations with which it had no history, whereas Iraq had its sovereignty compromised U.N. mandates, following the first Gulf War, which it often flagrantly defied, shooting at aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone imposed on the nation and manipulating the Oil for Food program to the regime’s advantage.

Disapprove of the Authority but Support the War in Iraq

It’s also theoretically possible to disapprove of the Authority’s actions and support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This position might rely upon the belief that the world’s (legitimate) governments alone hold the right to take such actions (a view not out of line with the naturally nation-centric U.N.) and that a band of super-powered individuals do not have such a right.

Such a position is complicated by theories of nationhood and their arbitrariness or legitimacy, which are certainly subjective elements. Worse, it would require that no one but a nation-state be able to act against another nation-state. So for example, no free-thinking civilian (or even a soldier, without orders to do so) could shoot Hitler, nor take any actions designed to topple a corrupt or evil government. This is untenable on its face.

What Fiction Reveals

All of this has hopefully demonstrated that the parallels between the Authority and the invasion of Iraq are strong enough that it’s hard to sustain a position that doesn’t approve or disapprove of one without also approving or disapproving of the other. It’s not too much to say that The Authority closes off these other critical possibilities, forcing us into a difficult moral position in which we have to examine ourselves and our own thinking.

It also forces us to examine our own enjoyment of art — and particularly the violence and vigilantism which The Authority takes to such extremes. It’s not surprising, in this context, that most don’t want to see, much less explore, any parallels between the Authority and the Iraq invasion. We rarely address the many contradictions between what we find moral in the real world and what we enjoy in art. Most readers and viewers have vicariously had affairs and committed crimes — and for that matter, saved the planet and felt important — through identifying with characters.

And because in fiction, the villains are usually punished, we get to have this vicarious enjoyment only to feel self-righteous that we haven’t “acted out” in the same way — and which was ultimately punished. Fiction often titillates and thrills, then wraps all the reasons it appeals to its audience in a big, fat moral bow to prevent actually disturbing the reader.

But not The Authority. If Ellis is to be believed, it gets you to like the bad guys. And it’s only after an event like 9/11 that you (and arguably Ellis himself) even realize you’ve been doing this.

How much we enjoy The Authority can get in the way of our ability to appreciate its deeper issues.

Because more than enjoying, we also routinely approve of actions characters take that we would condemn in real life. The music swells, and every instinct in our body demands the father of a murdered child exact a bloody revenge upon his child’s killer. We root for the sexy bank robbers of Ocean’s 11, for the murderous mobsters of Goodfellas and The Sopranos, little thinking how we might feel to encounter such monsters in real life.

Equally, it’s hard not to enjoy Jack Hawksmoor telling off the President. Or making a finer world.

But let us not pretend that this discrepancy does not bespeak something deeper: that we would ourselves like to be vigilantes, to yell when the car repairman rips us off, to have someone who risks all to rescue the missing child whom the police cannot find.

And there’s a totalitarian impulse at work here: we long to be Superman, but we also long to have a Superman watching over us. We long for a synergy of power and moral discipline that we rarely see in this flawed world of quotidian details. For an authority that’s always in the right, or at least trying its damnedest. The way God’s supposed to. Or Mommy and Daddy, before we learned they weren’t up to the task. An authority that really does go after the bad guys and make a finer world.

Supporters of the invasion generally believe that the U.S. is that authority — or at least the closest we’re likely to find in this world. That’s hopeful and optimistic. In a very real way, whatever one thinks of specific politicians, believers in the invasion want to make a finer world and aren’t inclined to apologize for getting rid of murderous dictators. It’s hard to argue with that.

It’s hard to see the Authority as the bad guys. And they’re not because they’re right. They stop much worse baddies, and though they make mistakes, we know them and like them; their hearts are in the right place.

But that’s the problem. We might trust ourselves with vigilantism but not trust random strangers. We trust movie heroes because we are shown their interior lives, enough to trust them like ourselves. Ultimately, we have to make a decision to trust or not to trust governments too. This is especially true when state secrets are involved; essentially, the government says “trust us,” leaving us to make the call.

I certainly don’t mean to demean this view by suggesting it stems from a totalitarian impulse. That impulse is fairly universal, as visible in liberal conspiracy theorists as in conservative ones. Moreover, while it carries obvious dangers, it’s not always bad. An administration might demonstrate itself worthy of trust and have perfectly good reasons to keep state secrets.

I certainly don’t think anyone’s losing much sleep over Saddam Hussein, any more than the dictators the Authority opposed. But the Authority didn’t have to deal with all the details of national reconstruction, as the U.S. is presently beginning in Iraq. And in The Authority, there are no news reports counting the dead killed in the team’s interventions, relaying video of wounded survivors around the world. Equally, we must weigh such rightly tear-producing reports with the horrors caused by those being vanquished, which are not inconsiderable.

Arguably, for those who oppose the U.S. intervention in Iraq, this is exactly the problem: The Authority offers a consequence-free space in which dictators can be deposed and people displaced without all the messy, real-world complications. Millar showed us how the supposedly realistic super-heroes of the past were only playing at realism, but Millar himself was only one step closer. One brave, bold step, absolutely, but still not at the destination.

Appendix: The Authority in France

As I write this, I am in France, now most famous not for being the cradle of so much of the world’s literature, art, architecture, and philosophy but for opposing the U.S.-led efforts to win the United Nations, an opposition so strong that French President Jacques Chirac promised to veto the abortive second resolution, which would have explicitly authorized force, leading the U.S. in turn to never officially propose it after months of diplomatic work. Along the way, Americans poured French wine in the gutters (ignoring that this helped the French economy), American senators threatened to boycott French cheese (but couldn’t because of international agreements), and many American restaurants changed the French fries on their menu to “Freedom fries” (despite that French fries were invented in Belgium and the link, or lack thereof, between France and freedom is less than clear by this elision of a nation’s name from the menu). So too did France share U.S. intelligence with Iraq (according to some reports ), the nation for which France had built a nuclear reactor (despite knowing that its nuclear materials could be used to fabricate an atomic bomb) and the nation that owed the French government untold billions. In the French streets, a few cases of anti-Americanism have emerged, including the beating of one student while the police did nothing (again, according to some reports) and some limited hassling of Americans abroad.

While Bush’s rhetoric has felt unilateral to many, Eastern Europe (ravaged by the Soviets half a century earlier) endorsed the war, prompting Chirac to call this endorsement unconscionable and mal élevé (meaning bad behavior, but carrying the literal meaning of having been poorly brought up), adding that Eastern Europe missed a good chance to shut up. In polls, the French support Chirac’s stance against the U.S. war effort as strongly as the Americans support that effort.

The two nations have a grand history together, both champion liberty and equality (albeit with different cultural notions of the two), and can both be more than a bit arrogant, especially after a traumatic terrorist attack (in the case of the U.S.) or a crisis of identity (in the case of France, formerly home of the lingua franca but now one of many states in the European Union).

The first volume of Semic's French translation of The Authority.

As I write this, I am holding in my hands a copy of the French edition of “The Nativity,” the first arc of Mark Millar’s The Authority. It’s probably the storyline most evidencing the Authority’s unilateral intervention in sovereign nations. Published in April 2003 (the second volume is slated for publication in August) by Semic Books, known as probably the major adaptor of American material for the French, one might think that the Iraq issue would be important to negotiate for this American volume of unilateral interventionism unleashed upon the unsuspecting French public at precisely this time.

And indeed it does. The back cover’s able guide to the first year of the series (prior to Mark Millar’s taking over as writer) and to the present volume describes the Authority as anarchistes opposing and guiding the world’s governments. The language of interventionism is conveniently absent, and positioning the Authority as anarchists makes them seem more parallel to the French position over Iraq than the U.S. one.

Inside, on the title page, Jack Hawksmoor’s speech to President Clinton (from The Authority #13, the first chapter of “The Nativity”) is extracted to excite readers. But it also positions the characters, and it’s conveniently chosen. As quoted, it begins, “Authority est un groupe multiculturel sans affiliation nationale” (“The Authority is a multicultural group without national affiliation”), thus avoiding the tag of being American.

Though the rest of the speech does include some arguably interventionist language about “des violations des droits de l’homme” (“violations of the human rights”), it concludes on a decidedly different note, in the only portion of the speech given a separate paragraph: “Vous n’êtes pas en position de défenir notre juridiction, monsieur le président” (“You are not in a position to define our jurisdiction, Mister President”).

In the last pages, after the conclusion of the story, one final quote is given in the margin of the cover to #14: in it, responding to Clinton, Hawksmoor says “Je pourrais vous dire le même chose, M. le président” (“I could tell you the same thing, Mister President”).

Clearly, these quotes in which the Authority explicitly and forcefully puts the American President in his place are considered especially seductive to the reader.

For that matter, the biographies of Millar and Quitely each volunteer their Britishness in their first sentences — and while Britain (seen in general as repressed by the French but nonetheless a part of Europe) not only endorsed the war but sent troops, British sentiment was far more conflicted than that in America.

More subtly, the extracts used at the front and rear of the book may be seen as an interpretive guide for the reader. They constitute the reader’s first and last impressions of the story. And while Hawksmoor telling off the President was certainly an emotional high point to the story (one I recounted to others at the time in arguing for The Authority‘s revolutionary nature), I would think that other quotes more adequately defined Millar’s The Authority. For example, quotes that position the Authority as preemptive, contrary to status quo super-heroics, and as having not a right but a responsibility to be active in world affairs. Such strains can be found in Hawksmoor’s speech on the title page (“Nous ne sommes pas des super-héros de bande dessinée qui combattent des super-méchants tous les mois juste pour préserver le statu quo“) and in the final quote given before the story commences (“Voudriez-vous que nous sauvions le monde des invasions extra-terrestres, mais que nous détournions le regard quand les dictateurs bien terrestres commettent des génocides?“) But this volume seems to privilege more strongly the passages in which Hawksmoor tells off the American President, and we can only imagine regret that the President in question was Clinton (in 2000) and not Bush (who would be censored by DC editorial from appearing in Millar’s final issues).

Let us examine how these quotations actually function with regards to the text in the present political climate. The quotes telling off the American President were indeed meant, as they originally appeared, to distance the Authority from the U.S. government. But they were meant to distance an inactive administration playing politics instead of intervening against dictators. They were hardly a critique of interventionist U.S. military actions, especially against dictators. Yet in the interim between their original publication in the U.S. and their publication in France, the U.S. has changed its position towards preemptive military action. The text remains the same, but the U.S. is a moving rhetorical target: semantically, it has assumed a position closer to that of the Authority than of the U.S. in “The Nativity.” Yet this is lost on most readers, and the emphasis of the extracted quotations against the American President seems to be a more general criticism of the U.S., rather than a criticism of specific policies, such as inaction in the wake of oppressive regimes.

In real life, many would argue, the roles have been reversed. Is it the Iraq-invading U.S. in 2003 that of the inactive, careless U.S. of The Authority — or does France better fit that bill? And doesn’t the Authority, de facto rulers of the world by force now using that world power to openly oppose and to oust brutal dictators, better represent the U.S. in 2003? The characters have stayed the same, but what they represent may have changed.

Now, it is not my intention to argue that the 2003 French publication of Millar’s The Authority explicitly plays upon anti-Americanism. While I find French governmental policies problematic in many respects, I can say the same for American governmental policies. No, there has been too much French-bashing as of late. Even discussing the war in Iraq with the French, I have not had any problems as an American here, even in the current political climate — though I do not parade myself drunkenly and loudly about the streets in the wee hours of morning.

My point is not about the French, but about the way Millar’s work on The Authority intersects with this present, extremely charged, political climate. And I cannot imagine that whomever was in charge of selecting the quotations that decorate the book’s non-story pages and that describe the book imagined that quotations in which the book’s protagonists tell off the President of the United States would not fly in the present political climate.

It’s worth noting, finally, that Millar’s first storyline features, in its final issue (#16) a sequence in which the U.S.-created swarms of super-villains who attack the capitals of the world’s nations. In Paris, a gang of flying super-villains strafe and kill civilians, then deny that such things as French civilians exist, since to be a civilian one must be civilized. The French, they point out, eat horses. One super-villain thug talks of being promised Chirac’s skull once he raises the French government. These super-villains’ deaths are given to the Authority’s leader, Jack Hawksmoor, whose power innovatively relies on speaking to cities and getting them to do things. Thus, as Hawksmoor makes clear, Paris herself kills these bastards.

One can easily imagine the special venom readers may hold for such foes — and the special affinity the Authority would seem to have with France, when one reads this sequence in the French context. Yet while the Authority is right to stop such racist thugs (whose racism explicitly in their dialogue is not limited to the French), again the appearance may seem to be that of the Authority defending French identity in particular, all the while defying the United States’s government. One could almost forget, in the present polemic political climate, that the Authority saving Paris would probably have equally intervened to help the people of Iraq from its government.

These are the accidents of history: the people who save you, whether from super-villains or Nazis, can someday disagree with you along the same lines as their reasoning for saving you, at least as they perceive it. The end result is to obscure the very difficult and challenging political overtones of the original, allowing it to be read quite differently than it would be in the states.

The second volume of Semic's French translation of The Authority.

I can only imagine the glee, and perhaps the fear if he thought deeply enough, that some editor felt at Semic Books as he carried this edition through translation and publication here, at this time.

What a strange time in which to live. What a strange place in which to be reading a translation of The Authority. And what a strange example of the intersection of revolutionary comic books and politics, as well as the politics of translation.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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