Monday, March 31, 2008

Black Panther: First Appearances! Avengers #52

Avengers 52-Thomas-Buscema
Avengers #52 (1968) T'Challa Battles the Grim Reaper!

Doug: One comment on reading late Silver Age Marvels -- man, there're a lot of words! It actually takes around 15 minutes to read a book, rather than the 3-4 it takes to read a modern yarn!

As to the story itself... This was basically a Panther solo adventure. Thomas' dialogue is what we'd expect, and Buscema's art was solid. I did notice, however, that Big John's faces weren't so hot. I'm not sure if it was a deficiency on his part, or the influence of Vinny Colletta's inks. Anyway, I thought T'Challa's face in a couple of instances, but definitely the Grim Reaper's eyes were weird-looking.

Interesting in reading the FF story and this one back-to-back that T'Challa is put through his paces by the Avengers' defense systems the way he put the FF through theirs with the Wakandan technology! I have not read Cap #100, but thought that Cap put an awful lot of trust in T'Challa so early on. Do either of you know (I could look it up later) how many appearances the Panther had had prior to this story? I would think not more than 1/2 dozen at the most.

I have always hated the Reaper's original outfit. His later black one is MUCH cooler! This one's just odd. The scythe is a cool weapon -- sort of like the Swordsman's hopped-up blade as provided by the Mandarin in Annual #1 (G-S #5). Again, he's not a villain who should have taken down the Avengers so easily -- even this depowered group. Are you, like me, constantly amazed at how bull-headed Hank Pym is in this era? For one of the allegedly brightest bulbs in the Marvel Universe, he's a little dense when it comes to fighting -- just charging headlong into a fight with no plan. Hawkeye has some good lines, as usual. Jan's pretty much useless. I'm sure glad they amped up her personality as well as her usefulness in the 1980's.

The Panther's nobility shines through, almost to a fault. However, I detected a bit of an edge on him toward the end of the story -- maybe it's just the way Big John drew the last few panels. What did you think of the partial-reveal mask? I prefer the full-face version. I think he wore this partial one in the Cap mag, though. Interesting, too, given the time in which this story saw print, that there was no racial angle on the murder charge, arrest, etc.

And what the heck was Jasper Sitwell doing in this story? He just showed up, then disappeared as quickly!

Karen: I just finished reading Avengers 52. This was certainly not as interesting a story as the two FF issues we read. I also felt the art to be lacking, but mainly due to the notorious Colletta inking. I don't like the half-mask on the Panther; the full-face mask seems to give him an aura of mystery, which seems appropriate. I agree with Doug: the Reaper's costume is just terrible. It looks like he went to the super-villain garage sale and did a mix and match job. The issue does succeed in showing us how capable the Panther is, and that he is a suitable replacement for Cap. I found it odd that we see shots of past Avengers, all mourning their supposedly-dead comrades, but none of them actually does anything about it! I also noticed Marvel Sixties Subtle Sexism with Natasha's comment about 'forgive me for being such a woman'! All in all, this issue was sort of middling; it serves its purpose, to bring the Panther into the fold, and little more.

Sharon: I re-read Avengers #52. I did not read it when it was first published. Back then (in '68), my introduction to T'Challa was the next issue, Avengers #53 --I'd missed several issues of Avengers due to spotty distribution in my neighborhood. When I read #53, I remember thinking BP was a conventional, and somewhat bland character. The succeeding issues did nothing to change my opinion of him; he was always well-spoken and somewhat deferential to Hank, Jan and Hawkeye. (When the Vision joined, then you had two well-spoken, polite characters on the team..., which made T'Challa superfluous.) During his original stint with the Avengers, I never got the impression he was arrogant or a monarch or anything--he always seemed willing to listen to Cap,Hank, anyone really. He was never really a leader on the team (except for the couple of issues in which he was acting chairman, or in the issues he returned to Wakanda). In the Avengers, the Panther was effectively "neutered." Roy Thomas just didn't know what to do with him (apart from the Sons of Serpent story, or as mentioned when T'Challa returned home or related a story about his background.) The Panther's uniqueness was never really used back then...he always faded into the background. His nobility and intelligence were not really explored...he was used in a very understated way.

Anyway, back to Avengers #52 specifically: as both of you have said, the issue serves chiefly as a showcase for T'Challa and allowed him to prove his worthiness as an Avenger. Nothing spectacular, story-wise. Doug, interesting comment about the lack of a racial angle (as part of the murder investigation/arrest, etc.)...I get the feeling Roy and Stan were handling T'Challa with kid gloves in do anything else this early on may have been too inflammatory (tragically, in the month after this issue saw print, King would be assassinated...a terrible, confusing time for the US). On to some other points you each have raised:

Grim Reaper's costume:
I agree with both of you, this was a mess (a miscue courtesy of Johnny B). The later, sleeker, darker costume worked much better for the Reaper. Colletta inks: I am in the minority but I like Vinnie's inks on Big John. Now, VC is not my favorite inker on John--I prefer Adkins, Sal, Palmer and especially George Klein--to me the definitive Buscema inker--but I think Colletta did a nice job here (though I concede that sometimes Colletta's eyes are a little off, as Karen mentioned). I also liked the Buscema-Colletta team on Avengers #44 and #46. Klein would show up in a few issues and he has always been my favorite Buscema inker. When I think of Buscema, the first thing that comes to mind is his Klein-inked Avengers work.

T'Challa's partial face mask:
Not sure why this was done. I've heard rumors it was due to Marvel trying to make him look like Batman, but it was never Marvel's style to copy DC. And anyway, it made him look more like B-character Wildcat and not Batman. Another theory I've read is that Marvel opted for a partial mask because they were worried people might accuse Marvel of racism because they were "hiding" the Panther's face (with the full face mask). The full-face mask was much more effective so I'm glad they brought it back quickly. With a partial mask T'Challa looked too much like an "ordinary", generic superhero. I prefer the Panther costume without the little cape – it looks much sleeker. You can tell John B. really loved drawing T'Challa in all his acrobatic poses here and in subsequent issues. I think a cape would have just hampered John's handling of an athletic body.

Glad to see her here but it was strange that she was so formal with Sitwell; she addressed him as "Mr. Sitwell", yet he was there (in #38) when SHIELD recruited Natasha for the Bamboo Curtain assignment. And he calls her "Miss"...why not Natasha, surely he knows her?? Was he just being ultra-polite? (Doug, I assume Sitwell was there at the Mansion's crime scene because he'd been assigned to Tony Stark in some Suspense stories...Jasper was always hanging around...) Surely Jasper knew all about Natasha's work with Fury and SHIELD. I always wonder why Natasha was essentially dropped as a character after #44...she made only sporadic appearances after that issue (such as here in #52). This was well before she was given her own feature (in Amazing Adventures, in 1970). Why did Roy just drop her, after such a big build-up (Avengers #29-#44)? I know she returned to her costumed identity in #57, but I just don't understand the editorial thinking behind her hiatus.

Panther's prior appearances:
Doug, you asked about the Panther's appearances prior to this story. Apart from the Cap story arc you mentioned (#97-#100 Suspense/Cap), he'd only appeared in the FF: #52-#54 (1966) and then in FF Special #5 (1967). The Inhumans are also featured in that FF Special, and T'Challa is – again – deferential to someone else...this time Black Bolt. Now, when I checked the Cap-Panther stories I realized something I had not realized before: the stories were contemporaneous with when Wanda and Pietro were coerced into joining Magneto (around Avengers #49). So this shows me that once W and P joined Mags, Roy had no intention of bringing them back (once the Mags story ended)... because over in the Cap issues, T'Challa was obviously being put through a "trial run" as a Cap replacement. Storylines and changes like this are planned months in advance, so this had to have been coordinated between Stan and Roy. My question is, why have T'Challa join (essentially non-powered) and not, say, the Black Widow (also non-powered)? I can only chalk it up to Marvel wanting to feature a black character on a regular basis in a prominent book (admirable), even if that character was basically non-powered.

A couple of other things I omitted in my previous post--the Panther had a full face mask throughout the Cap stories, so the partial mask was used for the first time in Avengers #52. It was mercifully short-lived (by #56 he was back to the full face mask). IIRC, there were some letters from fans stating the preference for the original full face mask, as it was more "mysterious." In #52, the part time Avengers (Thor, Cap, etc.) didn't feel a need to do anything about the reported deaths because the "murderer" (Panther) was captured and in custody. But I agree, Karen- -Thor, Cap and company certainly seemed passive about the whole thing! Previously I mentioned my fondness for Colletta's inks in #52; upon a second inspection, #51 (inked by Tuska) and #52 seem awfully muddy in my Essentials. I don't know if it's just the book's print or what, but check out Vinnie's work in #44 and #46 (actual issues, if you have them)...much better examples of his inks over Buscema's pencils.

Karen: After reading this set of stories, it bothers me even more that recent writers have gone back and retconned T'Challa's reason for joining the Avengers (i.e. to spy on them). I don't think the way you make the Panther a top-tier character is to turn him into the paranoid version of Batman. While I am glad to see him having a more prominent role in the MU, I don't particularly like the changes to his personality.

I had assumed that the reason for the half mask was to show he was actually black. I don't know why, but that's what I've always assumed. Or perhaps it was felt a full mask seemed menacing?
During the time Roy was writing him, Hank does seem to always come across as kind of a hyper-aggressive lunkhead. Side effects of the Pym Particles?

Doug: Can either of you confirm -- when Joe Casey put T'Challa in a Harlem classroom in EMH2, was that a retcon? If so, I much enjoyed it, and certainly more so than whatever it is they are doing with the Panther today. It seemed much more along the lines of T'Challa's benevolent personality that I'd known growing up.

The open-face mask was a downer for me, as I said. Sharon, I liked your likening of it to Wildcat. I think the shorter ears make that a very fair comparison. Karen, I also agree with you that perhaps Stan was leaving no doubt that this was a Black super-hero.

Sharon, I will research the inkers you cite. I recall that you're a big George Klein fan, and in prior reading I have appreciated his work. I will get the DVD-ROM loaded up sometime soon and do some comparisons. I must take friendly exception to Dan Adkins however -- citing only his work over JB on the Silver Surfer, I just found him to be too heavy. Not overpowering like Sinnott, but with a heavy line. Again, I'll try to refresh my memory, as I've not read those Surfer stories in a couple of years.

I also agree that solo Cap is kind of a milksop at times -- lots of "woe is me" angst. In the Avengers those moments were fleeting; but if you think of it, angst was often supplied by the Vison, Quicksilver, or Hank.

I think in these Avengers issues in the #50's-60's is when we might begin to see Jan emerge from Hank's shadow. That it corresponds to his mental descent -- is that a coincidence? As we've criticized Roy here and elsewhere, do you get the impression that his run as writer was not as rosy as we sometimes wax about? There's no question that his tenure was a creative zenith for the title, with the introduction of the Vision, Ultron, Jarvis as a major player, the Kree-Skrull War, etc., etc. But as an in-story writer there seem to be warts that are easy to find.

So to compare/contrast these two Panther stories -- the FF story serves as a nice intro. to that team, albeit with questionable motives/behavior on the part of T'Challa. The origin of Klaw is fairly well done, and sets up future storylines. I enjoyed Roy's remarks in Stan Lee's Amazing Marvel Universe that Klaw was likened to Captain Ahab from Moby Dick. Not sure if that was Stan or Jack shining through, but a nice literary comparison that I'd not previously come to. Perhaps the major, lasting effect of FF #52-53 is the introduction of Wakandan technology and the existence of vibranium. As we've said, the Panther at times will be used as a run-of-the-mill super-hero; but Wakanda and its resources will always remain special. Concerning his appearance in Avengers #52, the story mainly serves to get him on the roster. Despite the many flaws we've cited it is a decent tale. I think it's weight comes from what will come after -- the Grim Reaper as an ongoing major villain (particularly in the Shooter/Perez tale in #160), and the Panther's ongoing relationship with the team.

From a sales standpoint, the cover to FF #52, as well as the camera angle on the splash page, was far superior to the counterparts in Avengers #52. But I will say that despite the Reaper's garish costume, Buscema makes even that fashion train wreck look dynamic.

Joe Casey:

T'Challa's teaching acreer was not a retcon or a Joe Casey invention for EMH2. Remember, in Avengers #57, T'Challa muses he wants to do something more to help...he meets Monica Lynne in #73-#74, which makes him think along those same lines...then in #77, he reveals he has taken a job as a teacher, and is shown teaching (I suspect John Buscema used Lloyd Haynes, a handsome actor who played a teacher in the TV series Room 222, as a facial model for T'Challa). So T'Challa's teaching career was definitely not a retcon. This is about the time he adopts his "Luke Charles" identity. Also, a few of issues later, when the Avengers can't agree on which menace to fight (and so split up to fight various foes), T'Challa chooses to stay and fight at "home" and also to continue his teaching (instead of joining a battle against the Zodiac). If you'll recall, this splintering of the Avengers is when Wanda decides to join Clint and Vision and assist Red Wolf...leading to Avengers #81, which is for all intents and purposes the first time we see Wanda paired with the Vision...and the rest is history! Anyway, T'Challa's very real teaching career is another reason why the later retcon of him "spying" on the Avengers (which Karen mentioned) leaves such a bad taste in my mouth. Back then, he was shown to be consistently above board, noble, ethical and kind. I simply cannot reconcile these retconned devious motives/acts that are ascribed to him with the dignified Panther I grew up with.

I agree that Marvel wanted to show he was black...hence the partial mask. This is what I meant when I said Marvel didn't want to be accused of racism- -because they were hiding his face (and so his race) --with the full-face mask. So they erred on the side of caution when T'Challa joined the Avengers and gave him a partial mask. As mentioned, it was not a success with fans so the full-face mask soon returned.

Doug, I remember well that we've spoken of his inking Buscema before and I know you're not a fan. I recall in particular you mentioning you didn't like his "heavy" inks on the early Silver Surfer issues. I can understand your point of view, but for me, Adkins' inking retains some of Buscema's "savagery" but it also adds some needed slickness to it, which I think enhances Buscema (I don't like Buscema inking his own work; it's too uneven for my taste). If you have some of the early Sub-Mariner stories (when he got his own book after Astonish), check out some of those. I think Adkins inked the Thing-Namor battle, the one with Betty Dean in it (I know we've discussed that issue before). I love that artwork.

I think I've read that Klaw as Ahab was Kirby's intention/idea.

To me, Jan does not emerge as a solo personality during this time--if anything, she becomes more useless after she marries Hank and after he adopts the YJ identity (in #63). Previously, with a larger cast (Cap, Clint, Hank, Wanda, Pietro, Natasha, Herc), she at least showed some humor and had a lively personality and was quite different from the other two females. IMO, her unique character dies out during this time (when the core team was Hank, Jan, T'Challa, Clint and later the Vision); she really loses any spark of individuality and becomes the generic female. By the time she left in #75 she'd become utterly inconsequential.

The FF stories were a fair example of a new character introduction, replete with Kirby technology--and good point about the vibranium, Doug. The Avengers story not only showcased T'Challa but introduced an important, enduring villain. If I have to choose, I’d have to give the edge to the FF stories here, because of Kirby's imaginative art, and because of the importance of the Panther's debut. But both stories were good reads, though dialogue-wise they have not aged well. Cap's personality in his own feature is puzzling to me because he always seems so together in the later Avengers books.

In #77, it seemed to me that T'Challa implied he'd already been teaching for a while, at least for a short time(unbeknownst to the others). So Casey moved it up a bit, yes... but I think the teaching actually started prior to #77, it probably started soon as after T'Challa's cryptic thought in #57, when he thinks something like "something in that youth's voice" may be the answer he's seeking...(paraphrasing). I remarked that Buscema's T'Challa reminded me of Lloyd Haynes, but Haynes never had those cheekbones Buscema lavished upon his males, though. T'Challa, Hank, Steve Rogers, Vision, Arkon...all of JB's males had those beautifully shaped faces.

Karen: Lloyd Haynes: that comment took me back! I remember we always watched Room 222. There were some great Black role models back in they late 60s/early 70s. Either of you recall the show Julia with Diahann Carroll? Or even I Spy with a very young Bill Cosby? Panther may be the first true black superhero, but because he is African, and a king, I guess I've always thought of the Falcon as more of a true superhero. Falcon was certainly the first African -American superhero, and he dealt with the realities of being black in America in a way the Panther couldn't. I do like the way the Falcon has seemingly moved out of Cap's shadow (and that's a damn big shadow).

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Black Panther -- 1st Appearances! Fantastic Four #52-53

Fantastic Four 52- Jack Kirby Stan Lee
Fantastic Four #52 (1966) Black Panther's Debut

Doug: Just a few preliminary thoughts on FF #52-53, which I read last night from Essential FF Volume 3 (perhaps THE Essential FF volume to own!) --

Significance of this story:
1. Introduction/origin of the Black Panther, Marvel's first black super-hero

2. Introduction of the African kingdom of Wakanda and its technology

3. Introduction of vibranium

4. Introduction/origin of Klaw (although not in costume)

Overall, a good yarn spun by Stan, Jack, and Joe. One of the more interesting scenes was T'Challa removing the Panther mask and lighting up a smoke! Wyatt Wingfoot has some major screentime, and the Inhumans' plight of being encased in the "negative zone" dome is dealt with. Interestingly, there is some Crystal/Johnny angst that I didn't include in my essay on the same subject.

FF #52
Sharon: The first thing that struck me (upon re-reading for this assignment...and I'm using the Essentials) was that the Kirby-Sinnott art did not seem as cohesive as it would become later on.  There are several panels in #52 where Joe's inks look pretty heavy-handed to me; that is, not as "fine" or "pretty" as we've come to expect from Sinnott.  One example is #52's college scene--Johnny in particular looks strange (facially) in a few panels.

I'm not crazy about the overused notion of hero fighting other heroes to prove himself, and the ending--Wyatt saving the day because he's a non-powered human--was clichéd. Wyatt had just been introduced (in #50), so it was interesting that he took such an active role so quickly!

The inclusion of the Inhumans in #52 was pretty superfluous, but this is exactly what was going on back then--Stan made sure the Inhumans were shown every couple of issues, to keep them in the readers' minds. They were such a smash hit, they almost functioned as co-stars. So while I view this particular inclusion as unnecessary, I admit it added texture to the story.
But I always found it a bit confusing as to why the Inhumans (the royal family and the Inhuman population in general) were so upset about being stuck behind a barrier --when they were introduced, they acted like they wanted nothing to do with humans, they were upset that Medusa (amnesiac) had left their sheltered land, and they wanted to be left alone in their land and among their people. I would think the barrier would fit in with their isolationist stance (obviously I'm not referring to Crystal but to the others; they presented themselves a very closed society when they first appeared).

I found Crystal's remark about wanting to feel Johnny's arms around her again puzzling, because as far as I know they hadn't embraced at all in any of the preceding issues. (Well, we saw their heads in a panel toward the end of #47, before Medusa pulled Crystal away with her hair; maybe the lovebirds were hugging but we just could not see it? I guess I should not take comic characters' statements so literally--and I understand she was spouting romantic longings--but her statement just struck me as inaccurate.)

Okay, the big deal about #52 is the introduction of the Panther. I don't know if the Panther was Stan or Jack's idea, but Marvel deserves credit for introducing such a strong black character back in the days of race riots/civil rights unrest. (I know Gabe Jones was around, but he was clearly a supporting player--Marvel obviously had bigger things in store for T'Challa).

Great character; he's presented very well (Ben's lack of couth is hilarious when he's talking to T'Challa) and in a flattering light, and #52's story served as a showcase for him...but IMO, the action was a bit pedestrian because it played out as expected.

FF #53Much better and less clichéd, plotwise (but Stan's dialogue does not age well, though, does it?). The art is beautiful throughout, and is what I expect of Kirby-Sinnott from that period. I really wish I had these issues in color! The story flows better, IMO, than #52's did.

I'd forgotten the ending, that it was the FF who convinced T'Challa to remain the Panther; I'm sure this has been retconned, has it not? I liked the last few panels showing Klaw diving into his sound transformer...his metamorphosis would not be revealed until a few issues later, so this was a nice teaser.
Fantastic Four 53-Black Panther
Fantastic Four #53 - Black Panther's Origin

Karen: Let me say that I originally read FF 53 long before I read FF 52. My uncle had 53 in his collection so that's what I saw first, and then it passed on to me. I finally purchased 52 about 5 years ago. So 52 is "fresher" to me.

First, a couple of purely aesthetic comments. One, I really like the Panther's original costume. It's very Kirbyesque, combining the skintight suit with the interesting short cape and chest band deal. Much more unique than just the plain skintight suit we generally saw later on. I also like the black coloring with gray highlights, as opposed to blue.

My second aesthetic remark is that (and I know you are looking at B&W, so forgive me Sharon) Marvel used a really strange color for the Wakandan's skin tone. Sort of a purple-gray color, that makes them look unhealthy. I much prefer the more natural brown tones used later on.

I thought overall this story was a weaker effort. The idea that the Panther would secretly bring the FF to Wakanda so he could test himself is pretty lame. The FF seemed beaten far too easily. The Thing in particular was portrayed as rather dim-witted (drinking the water in his enemy's lair?). The rescue by Wingfoot was so clichéd.

On the positive side, the introduction of the Panther was certainly a milestone. His technological prowess is clearly on display, seemingly putting him on par with Reed himself. (I must admit I found it amusing when Reed referred to T'Challa's high-tech stereo set-up, "complete with tape recorder!") Although some of the references to Wakandan culture seem to imply that they are primitive, I think Stan was really trying to make a point of culture clash, more than anything else. If anything it seemed like Stan was always trying to make it clear that he (and by extension, the Marvel Universe) believed all men truly were equal. The Panther may seem slightly arrogant but he also is tragic and heroic.

Some more nitpicky items: I noticed the unbreakable barrier around the Inhuman's Great Refuge is referred to as a 'negative zone'. I think this comic came out before the FF's first trip to the real Negative Zone, so I guess it's a case of Stan recycling terms. I also noticed during the fight, it's stated that Sue must turn visible to use her force field. That was a surprise. Can either of you recall any other times this was mentioned?

Sharon: Don't worry about me reading the Essentials and the coloring issue--I have a copy of #54, so I can see what you mean by the Wakandans' skin tone. It is weird! I think the colorists just didn't know how to "mix the palette" for black peoples' skin. (I'm sure we've all read or seen that in Gabe Jones' first appearance, he was colored fleshy pink just like the other Commandos!)

Originally, Stan uses the term Negative Zone to describe the barrier (back in #48).

The Negative Zone as we know it was featured in #51, the famous "This Man, This Monster!" (I think you have mentioned reading it before, right?)...but Stan calls it "sub space" or something! So in its original incarnation, what we normally think of as the Negative Zone is not called the Negative Zone.

So, you'll see Stan mostly use the term Negative Zone for the barrier and then (I think) in #62, when Reed gets stuck, all of a sudden "sub space" is referred to as the Negative Zone. One of Stan's famous memory lapses!

Originally Sue's only power was to turn herself invisible. Stan amped up her powers in an issue in the 20s, I believe (I don't have the exact issue number handy) she could also project force fields and turn other people/objects invisible. But there was a catch: she could only use one power at a time. She had to be visible to use her force field, for example. She could also turn other people or things invisible but had to be visible to do so. This persisted for many years, and was frequently stated in the exposition-heavy Silver Age FF comics ("Oh no, I've got to turn visible so I can use my force field!"). In fact, this is still the way I think of Sue (i.e., in her Silver Age incarnation) ...though from what I gather, this was changed at some point (so that she can use several powers at once, correct?) and she has since became infinitely more powerful than I remember her.

Doug: My feelings on these issues pretty much mirror what's been said. I thought, as I'd mentioned earlier, that the "divide and conquer" plot was tired. I also right from the get-go found it odd that Reed would just pack up the team and head off to Africa. He admitted that he didn't know T'Challa, and the Wakandan emissary who served as their guide was their only prior contact. If you've seen the second "Ultimate Avengers" animated movie, the Panther origin in that story hearkens back to this tale.

Like both of you, I still think Reed's tape recorder comment has a charm that kids today would find just stupid.

Karen, it's funny that you said you liked the little cape -- I have never liked that look, nor the modern depictions of T'Challa with claws, gold ornaments, etc. I don't mind that look (including cape) for ceremonial purposes, but I do like just the plain ol' body suit for Panthering about!
I agree about Sue's powers at this time. As I think I said, I don't understand why she just didn't put a force-bubble around T'Challa's head and drop him. Oh well. The sexism of the day, I guess.

Ben was a little overbearing to say the least -- but classic nonetheless.

Johnny was a minor player, as you've said -- overshadowed by Wyatt.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

And Lo, There Shall Be A Beginning!

Just getting started here. Soon we'll have some commentary on various well-known Silver and Bronze Age storylines.
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