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Monday, June 01, 2015 

The secret politics in the Ultimate Marvel line

NY's Vulture section wrote all about the history of Marvel's Ultimate line, launched 15 years ago, but not giving many worthy answers why it's an artistic failure:
A reboot is a delicate thing. When a once-profitable franchise of characters becomes stale, outdated, or overly complex, there will always be voices calling for the slate to be wiped clean: to take the characters back to their basics, retell their origin stories, make them contemporary. But all too often, those rebooting efforts are laughable, pandering failures. Ultimate Marvel was the rare exception. It was a compendium of stories that saved the company that launched it, revolutionized the comics medium, and became the foundation of the multi-billion-dollar Marvel cinematic empire.
And why do they think the MCU became stale? Because of crossovers taking up space ever since the original Secret Wars, and a shift away from coherent characterization and consistent storytelling. There's also the increasingly padded stories - maxxed out for the sake of trade paperbacks - that's hurt many comics of all sorts. And there's also the shift away from newsstand/bookstore sales to consider. If they wanted to, I'm sure they could've paid what was needed to keep selling there, but they had to go the cheapskate route and rely only on specialty stores for many years, drastically reducing visibility in the wider public.

As for the Ultimate line, it may have served as a wellspring for the movies, but did it really "revolutionize" the medium? The simple answer is "no".
It began as a Hail Mary maneuver. Ultimate Marvel was a publishing experiment launched by Marvel Comics — the superhero-comics company that had invented the Avengers, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and countless other icons — during its darkest hour. The idea was simple: Launch various comics series where all the famous Marvel characters are young again and just starting their superhero careers in the modern day. Give the series flashy titles like Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men and make sure no reader will have to go back and read decades’ worth of comics to understand what’s going on. Return to core principles. Make these icons fresh again.
Say what? Do they mean the older stories aren't worth reading? Maybe that wasn't the intention, but on a subtle level, it sure comes across sounding like it. Those older products make far better reading than what we've been seeing since the mid 1990s, and I'm proud to own several Marvel Masterworks paperbacks giving me stories that make for much better escapism. What's the big idea suggesting newer readers shouldn't be trying those better items and judging for themselves?

And there was no return to core principles. Certainly not to core beliefs and values that made the older tales click.
There were many reasons the initiative could have failed, but it instead succeeded beyond its creators' wildest dreams. Indeed, the world of Marvel movie adaptations — including this summer's megahit Avengers sequel and upcoming Fantastic Four — owe more to the Ultimate imprint than any other single Marvel Comics initiative. And yet, 15 years after the Ultimate line’s birth, Marvel just killed it. Last week, a five-issue miniseries called Ultimate End debuted, and when it's done, there will be no more Ultimate Marvel. There is little mourning, even among die-hard comics fans who once loved the imprint.

What happened? Why dispose of something so successful? To find the answers, we must look at the secret history of Ultimate Marvel. It's a story of desperate ambition, shocking triumph, and fevered imagination. But it's also a cautionary tale: one about pushing limits too far, holding on too long, and learning to accept the forces of entropy. Here, then, is the tale of Ultimate Marvel, one of entertainment's greatest reboots — but also living proof that all reboots can become victims of their own success.
More comedic news coverage in motion, I see. If all the buzz died down years ago, as it did, why should it be any wonder nobody is around to mourn the end of the Ultimate line? A line that, contrary to initial advertising, wasn't so entry level at all. In fact, I vaguely remember one sugary article from 2000 asking if anybody wanted to see Magneto "rip the gold fillings" from the president's mouth in Ultimate X-Men! That should give anybody not well versed in the Ultimate line an idea of just how unsuited for children or family audiences this new universe really was. Mark Millar really took both that and The Ultimates to extremes, regurgitating some controversial stories for no good reason.
“When I got hired, I literally thought I was going to be writing one of the last — if not the last — Marvel comics,” says now-legendary comics writer Brian Michael Bendis, who wrote the first comic of the Ultimate line and will be writing the final one, too. When he wrote that first issue in 2000, the once-venerable Marvel was in chaos. “It's so the opposite now, that people don't even know.”
Indeed it is! You have many comics sinking fast in sales, and the Ultimate line was no different.
Here’s some context to understand the red-alert disaster the comics industry had become by the eve of the Ultimate experiment. In 1993, annual combined comics sales across all publishers had been close to a billion dollars; in 1999, that same number was a microscopic $270 million. In 1989, Batman was the most-talked-about movie in America; by 1999, the disastrous Batman & Robin had squirted a stink on the very idea of a cinematic comic-book adaptation. Marvel especially was feeling the burn: It went through a humiliating Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the late '90s, saw wave after wave of layoffs, and executive leadership was shuffled every few weeks. In 1999, after years of comics-publishing dominance, the company lost its top spot in industry market share and watched its rival, DC Comics, take the throne.
Despite what they say, Marvel never really lost top spots to DC, which did little on their part to earn a top spot honestly (remember Emerald Twilight!). Interesting how no mention comes up here for the speculator market, which spelled doom for the medium.
Enter Bill Jemas. He was a relative outsider to the comics world (he’d gotten his law degree from Harvard before spending most of his career in the collectible-trading-card industry) who was put in charge of Marvel’s editorial direction in 2000. He hated what Marvel had become: a place that was “publishing stories that were all but impossible for teens to read — and unaffordable, to boot,” as he put it to me. But Jemas had an idea, born of a suggestion he says the CEO of Wizard, a comics-industry magazine, gave to him: “turn our middle-aging heroes back into teens.” In other words, he wanted to launch a reboot.

Of course, that could have been a suicidally horrible idea if executed poorly. (Imagine some 55-year-old veteran comics writer penning a Spider-Man title where Peter Parker wears a backwards baseball cap and yells “Bodacious!” after hitting Green Goblin with a skateboard.) The company needed fresh and relatively young talent writing such stories. Luckily, Marvel had a charming, freshly minted editor-in-chief with great respect in the indie-comics world: Joe Quesada, who quickly sought out writers from outside the Marvel family. Quesada (who could not be reached for an interview) also had the virtue of being a devoted company man: Jemas recalled that Quesada would’ve preferred to “tell stories about new heroes, e.g., Peter Parker’s nephew,” rather than do a reboot, but went along with the Jemas plan nonetheless.
They sugarcoated Jemas and Quesada too, I see. Look where prices are now at 4 dollars and climbing, and Marvel did nothing to seek alternatives to that. If they wanted to, they would've tried to shift more to Original Graphic Novel and prestige format publishing to ensure they'd maintain recognizability in bookstores. And they'd promote the older stories just as much as the newer ones so that people could get an understanding of the heroes' origins from the older material. Could the origins use updates? I'm sure they could, but the older ones still have merit and importance, and they shouldn't act like nobody should check those out and decide for themselves. That's the problem with today's management - they have no respect for older efforts.

And Quesada's choices for scriptwriting weren't very good either. J. Michael Stracznski was a pretty poor excuse, and Kevin Smith was too, recalling his disastrous Black Cat miniseries. I wouldn't put too much value on their claim Quesada had respect in the indie world. And what's this about "middle-aged" heroes? Many of them were still stuck firmly in their teens, 20s and 30s and they call them old geezers? If nobody complains about Dick Tracy's age bracket, why should they make such a fuss about the Marvel heroes either? Many of these pulp creations are famous for featuring characters who don't age, so the claim is laughable.
While Quesada was headhunting, Jemas struggled to find the right way to conceptualize his new initiative (at that time tentatively titled “Ground Zero,” a name that fortuitously was abandoned). Comics companies had tried to jettison decades of storytelling before, and it usually ended in failure. Do you create a story where some cosmic event resets the clock on 60 years of continuity? DC had done that with its “Zero Hour” event in 1994, and it only ended up making everything more confusing for readers. Would you send your best heroes into another dimension, where they were somehow rejuvenated? Marvel did that with its “Heroes Reborn” event in 1996, which drained the company's finances, received abysmal reviews, and soured relations between editors and creators.
Naturally, they're oblivious to a onetime approach at Marvel, which was to update some origins individually, title-by-title, which DC largely failed to try on their part, relying 95 percent of the time on crossovers to justify retcons. And the House of M crossover was similar to Zero Hour in some ways, as Marvel's management used that as an excuse to get rid of many mutants, and espouse a lot of nonsense along the way. But when exactly did the companies - and it was really only DC/Marvel who were trying to do this - try to get rid of decades worth of continuity? Only by the 1990s, and the reason it ended in failure was because they relied far too much on shock tactics, which was just part of the problem with Zero Hour.

When they get around to examining the sales receipts for the Ultimate line, they start getting awfully comical:
Finally, in December, the buzz paid off and Ultimate Marvel hit the top of the comics sales charts. But it wasn’t with Ultimate Spider-Man. The first megahit Ultimate comic was the first issue of Ultimate X-Men, which sold a staggering 117,085 copies that month. It was set in the same universe as Ultimate Spider-Man, and had been long delayed because Jemas and Quesada couldn’t decide on a writer. They tore their hair out during the search, even rejecting their beloved Bendis’s spec script for the series. The person they finally picked was a newcomer to Marvel with an extremely controversial reputation for his work at other publishers. He was a Scotsman named Mark Millar, and the work he created at Ultimate Marvel changed superhero fiction forever — for better or worse.
I'm falling out of my chair laughing. That is far below a million copies, yet they act like it's spectacularly significant. If this had been music discs or novels, they'd never declare it a victory, and would have to admit it's dismal. But because this is a marginalized medium we're talking about, they just have to laud the figures as a celebration. It's not good when sales figures are kept hidden, yet when they are acknowledged honestly, they still only manage to make themselves look silly.
The history of Ultimate Marvel is, in a way, a story about warring approaches to a reboot: Bendis’s and Millar’s. Bendis wanted to polish the old archetypes; Millar wanted to aggressively critique them. Bendis sought timeless stories; Millar craved biting contemporary political critique. Bendis was looking to inspire; Millar aimed to disquiet. As Bendis put it: “I’m writing about hope and he’s writing about nihilism, and I know he doesn’t always think he is, but he is. Constantly.”
They may be right that Millar wanted to critique (yet still managed to be awful anyway), but Bendis wanted to inspire? I don't think so. Nor did he want to write about hope, as he proved when he took over the Avengers in 2004. If he did, he'd never have misused Scarlet Witch so badly, nor would he be misusing the X-Men as he has recently.
Millar is one of the most divisive — and successful — names in the history of comics, and he had already begun his meteoric ascent when Quesada and Jemas snatched him up. At DC, he’d written jaw-droppingly violent and provocative stories on a series called The Authority. One Authority story was even about the titular superteam fighting an army of horrific pastiches of Marvel superheroes, including a rapist Captain America, a baby-murdering Iron Man, and white-supremacist X-Men. But he’d gone too far and left DC after they told him he couldn’t enact some of his more wild ideas (including George W. Bush authorizing the deployment of a government-created pedophile supervillain). As envelope-pushing as he was, Millar was also a brilliant crafter of action-story structure and — perhaps to a fault — knew how to grab attention unlike anyone else in the business. Jemas never shirked from controversy, and relished making this high-profile hire.
As a matter of fact, even after dropping Millar from the Authority, DC still courted controversy when they published Identity Crisis as part of the mainstream superhero line a few years later. But Millar a "brilliant" crafter? I don't think so. Even Warren Ellis never crafted quite as much controversy as he did. However, this article does give an idea what Millar really thinks of superheroes he never created.
Millar’s initial stories for Ultimate X-Men may have sold like gangbusters in 2001, but they weren’t especially groundbreaking (other than the awful goatees that artist Adam Kubert gave to Wolverine and Cyclops). His greatest achievement was brewing in the background. Jemas and Quesada had asked him to team up with superstar artist Bryan Hitch for the launch of Ultimate Marvel’s take on Marvel Comics’ premier superteam, the Avengers. Hitch had drawn for The Authority (though his run didn’t overlap with Millar’s), where he earned a reputation for drawing comics that looked like movies: full of photorealistic figures and enormous action sequences. The Ultimate-universe Avengers series would be called The Ultimates, and Marvel wanted it to be the imprint’s biggest series yet.
Since they brought up Adam Kubert, it's my dreary duty to say this, but unlike his father Joe, there's very little in the junior Kubert's career I consider worth reading, even if he's competent. Some of the X-Men stories he drew in the 1990s were a pure waste of talent. I wonder if he knows this?

At least they bring up what a horrorfest Millar cooked up at both companies. Even if the Authority was aimed at adults, the ideas he injected were degrading, and an awful example for the sci-fi genre in general. And they seem to admit it:
...what made that success all the more remarkable was how outspokenly political and deconstructionist Millar’s story was. He knew there were unhealthy ideas at the core of the Avengers' archetypes, and he was unafraid to prove it.
Pardon me? How did he "know"? What did he prove? Only that he was somebody coming from a generation - and maybe a culture - that had no ability to appreciate escapist fantasy, let alone storytelling with a heart.
All of these Ultimate versions of the Avengers were, to put it bluntly, complete assholes. They were also all very specifically post-9/11 characters. Hawkeye and Black Widow were unfeeling government murderers, Iron Man was a gleeful war profiteer, and Captain America … well, Ultimate Captain America was just about the most blunt satire of War on Terror neoconservatism that popular culture had seen up until that point. He was a cold, stern prick in World War II, and when he was reawakened in 2002, he immediately felt an affinity for President Bush’s crusaderlike worldview. Indeed, the third issue literally concluded with Cap saluting President Bush. Later, in one of modern superhero comics' most infamous moments, an alien invader tells Cap to surrender and he responds, “Surrender? SURRENDER??!!” and, pointing to his helmet's giant A, “You think this letter on my head stands for France?”
As noted once, despite any appearances to the contrary, Millar's story was more like a left-wing attack on the superheroes, and this was no way to show he really liked the creations he was working on.
If you were a comics fan in 2002 and 2003, The Ultimates was all you and your friends could talk about. It was a panoramic action story that was thrilling in a way nothing else in comics was. And in retrospect, it’s astounding how leftist The Ultimates was, during a period when American action movies were either pro-war or purely escapist. [...]
I didn't find it appealing, so why should I talk about it, save for discussing how atrocious it was? But at least they admit it: Ultimates was ultra-leftist.
“It really saved the industry at that time,” longtime comics journalist Heidi MacDonald said. “Ultimate [Marvel] reignited interest among Marvel fans and got new readers.” To bring some shine and excitement to its non-Ultimate universe, Marvel put Bendis and Millar in charge of mainstream Marvel titles like The Avengers and Wolverine as well. Marvel regained the top spot in market share, and Ultimate Marvel was the engine that drove it there. As Ultimate Fantastic Four writer Mike Carey put it, if you were an Ultimate writer, artist, or editor, you were in the “cool kids’ club.”
Correction: you were in the small circle of "friends" at Marvel's closed shop. But I don't buy what they're saying about the book "saving" the industry so much as buying it some more time with a short-term strategy.
But there were cracks in the foundation, and they were widening. Jemas was ousted in 2004 after a string of high-publicity publishing flops — some related to Ultimate Marvel, some tied to mainstream Marvel. The second volume of The Ultimates began in 2005 and was perpetually delayed due to Hitch’s agonizingly slow artistic process, infuriating fans and retailers. Aging sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card wrote a reviled Ultimate Iron Man miniseries. On top of all that, Marvel was simply running out of characters to Ultimize. To keep this massive reboot effort relevant, Quesada needed something big to get readers excited again, so he and longtime superhero writer Jeph Loeb concocted a major story to shake up the Ultimate line. What they created was one of the biggest creative disasters in comics history, one from which Ultimate Marvel never quite recovered.
Now what does that tell? That the whole line only existed for Ultimizing already existing superheroes and co-stars. There were few originals, if at all. Doesn't that additionally defeat the whole purpose of the line, and limit creativity? As for that part about Card, I'm sure there was hostility to him at the time because of his politics on LGBT issues, but something tells me the above line was still very deliberate, and not written because the Ultimate take on IM was really bad from an artistic perspective.
Millar left the Ultimate line after Ultimates 2, but Quesada and Loeb opted to take Millar’s sexed-up, ultraviolent, transgressive techniques and amplify them. Loeb launched Ultimates 3 in 2007, and in the very first panel, the Ultimates are watching a sex tape of Iron Man and Black Widow. A few pages later, brother-and-sister heroes Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are caught in an incestuous tryst — and just a few pages after that, Scarlet Witch is brutally murdered in broad daylight. That kind of random sex and violence was rampant throughout the third Ultimates outing, without the political relevance or epic pacing of the first two volumes. Sales were good, but reviews were terrible.

As it turned out, it was all just a prologue for Ultimatum, a 2008 miniseries that would irreparably damage the Ultimate universe. When artist David Finch was recruited to draw for it, Marvel gave him a very simple description of the story’s mission. “I was told it was a way to basically kill everyone in the Ultimate universe,” Finch told me. “And that’s pretty much what it turned out to be.”
Well at least they admit in a way that this was the true purpose of the line - shock value. And it was done around the time the 616 Scarlet Witch was being set up to serve as a cliche of a crazy woman scapegoat. Even before that, the Ultimate X-Men featured a story where Wolverine took advantage of an underage Marvel Girl. And I wonder how they can say it was ever a true success from the beginning when there were shock tactics early on? Especially if, again, sales were well below 100,000 copies.
But just as the Ultimate comics reboot was faltering, the ideas it had spawned in the pre-Ultimatum years were succeeding elsewhere — specifically, on the big screen. In 2005, Marvel announced plans to start producing its own movies (hits like Spider-Man and X-Men had been produced by Sony and Fox, respectively), and its first offering was going to be an Iron Man film. Millar and Bendis were brought on as consultants, but even without their help, the filmmakers had decided to have Robert Downey, Jr. play the Ultimate take on Tony Stark: a skeezy, boozed-up prick whom you still couldn’t help rooting for. But the coup de grâce was the much-talked-about post-credits scene, co-written by Bendis, in which Tony meets Nick Fury … as played by Samuel L. Jackson. It wasn’t even Bendis or Millar’s idea to bring Jackson-as-Fury to the big screen — producer Kevin Feige had loved Ultimate Nick Fury so much that he had reached out to Bendis. The movie was a smash, and a major vindication for the Ultimate Marvel experiment.
This news does not make me happy. Millar and Bendis are not reliable, and their ideas are awful, even if the movie's screenplay didn't fully reflect what they led to. No less galling was how their visions led to a dumbed-down 616 universe:
And in the world of comics, even though Ultimate sales were dropping throughout the late '00s, Marvel’s mainstream titles were doing quite well — largely because they had adopted many of the hallmarks of the Ultimate brand: a more realistic tone (well, as realistic as you can get in a world with telepaths and gods), sleek visual modernism, and a willingness to shake the status quo with operatic action. Mainstream Marvel heroes rarely pranced around in pastel leotards anymore, and they certainly didn’t have clunky internal monologues in thought bubbles: They looked and sounded more and more like their Ultimate-universe counterparts from the pre-Ultimatum years.

As an imprint, however, Ultimate Marvel simply couldn’t get back on track. Millar was brought back for a long run on Ultimates, but readers found the stories half-baked and dull. Up-and-coming writer Jonathan Hickman penned a major story about Ultimate Mr. Fantastic turning evil and destroying half of Europe — but simultaneously, DC Comics did a linewide relaunch that was, in essence, its own attempt to “Ultimize” its characters. (The DC push was an initiative called “The New 52,” in which the publisher canceled all its existing comics titles and rebooted its characters in stories where they were younger and freed from old continuity.) DC's reboot (which is still ongoing) was a smash hit and drew attention away from Marvel’s Ultimate tales. Sales simply couldn’t perk up. What’s more, Millar became a reviled figure among progressive comics fans, known for his creator-owned Millarworld comics, in which grisly murder and obscene rape were regularly on tap. Superhero fans would joke about classic Ultimates scenes like Cap's anti-France rant, dismissing them as cynical relics of a bygone era.
Are they saying thought balloons were a bad thing? That's ridiculous, mainly because the narrative they took to using made it difficult to make room for the viewpoints of co-stars. And I guess they think the costumes were junk too? This is just what's wrong with today's faux-realistic approach - it rejects a lot of the surreal elements of yesteryear for the sake of a watered-down vision that can even see superpowers as a bad thing. If that's how they're going to work, then even the sci-fi genre as a whole can only fail. But if Millar's come to be viewed as a bad omen, that's good. People like him only brought about the downfall of mainstream superhero comics.

When they get around to talking about Bendis' diversity offering in Miles Morales as a new Spider-Man, they say:
Miles was also an enormous hit immediately after his August 2011 debut. Sales for the series spiked, but more important, Miles was a publicity sensation, drawing attention in mainstream media outlets and among fans who had long ago grown bored with Spider-Man. Just a few months into his existence, long before Marvel had made any Miles merchandise, fans were constructing their own Miles costumes (his uniform has a slightly different color scheme than Peter’s) and wearing them to conventions. Marvel knew it had a hit on its hands, and has recently started cranking out Miles costumes, Miles toys, and a version of Miles in the hit Saturday-morning Spider-Man cartoon. When Sony announced it was rebooting its Spider-Man movie franchise yet again, there were cries across the internet for the new Spidey to be Miles. [...]
Really? Just what were the sales figures, for the millionth time? If it's not stratospheric, then what's their point? Don't they understand how some of these ideas are only conceived to generate media interest that fades soon after? And why do they think anyone's gotten bored with Spidey? Because of what they omitted: Peter Parker's faustian pact with Mephisto, and obliteration of marriage to Mary Jane Watson. What's come afterwards has been truly awful fanfiction. Which they clearly don't consider newsworthy. At the end, when bringing up the new Secret Wars and what comes after, they say:
All is not lost. Marvel has also made it clear that the new status quo will feature some as-yet-unspecified synthesis of the two universes. We do have confirmation that Miles Morales will join the Avengers, which is a huge victory both for diversity and for the legacy of the Ultimate experiment. [...]
All WAS lost long ago, and they don't have the honesty or sincerity to admit that. The addition of Morales to the Avengers does not guarantee good storytelling, and the crossovers are bound to continue for as long as Marvel publishes comics under Quesada's influence. This is just another article written by suckups with no devotion or dedication to what made Marvel great years before, that makes no argument whether what they're doing is being fair to Stan Lee's own hard work and creations.

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I remember a time when heroes actually acted like heroes, dialogue was cut down to a more manageable size, and how stories flowed (mostly) smoothly from one page to another. Your problem is that you've spent so much time playing politics you've forgotten what real entertainment is like, not something to be dismantled and put on display like a grotesque carving, but something to enjoy and relax by.

Miles sales were well below the numbers when Peter was in the book, that is what Marvel calls success.
Marvel continues to shed loyal fans at the expense of short term sales.

This part I found most amusing:

"The history of Ultimate Marvel is, in a way, a story about warring approaches to a reboot: Bendis’s and Millar’s. Bendis wanted to polish the old archetypes; Millar wanted to aggressively critique them. Bendis sought timeless stories; Millar craved biting contemporary political critique. Bendis was looking to inspire; Millar aimed to disquiet. As Bendis put it: “I’m writing about hope and he’s writing about nihilism, and I know he doesn’t always think he is, but he is. Constantly.”"

Agreed about Millar, but Bendis as hopeful? All he writes is deconstruction and shows his love toward favorite characters by crushing them mercilessly (to say nothing about characters he hates, like poor Scarlet Witch), but, no, he doesn't quite have the extra sting that Millar has with his stories, but that's not much of a consolation.

At least, the article admitted, "yeah, the Ultimates line was hard-left," which might be its only saving grace.

And no, having Miles as an Avenger isn't going to make the group instantly better, anymore than it was when Peter was/is one. But then, given how Marvel is going for broke with Secret Wars 2015, I guess it's all "throw pasta at the wall, and see if it sticks."

Quick question: how do you feel about Tunisia?

So, in other news it's been a typical week for leftist comic book writer's tweets. Busiek thinks Jesus was a hippy liberal, G. Willow Wilson is complaining that anti-Muslim bigotry is preventing parents from inviting her kids to parties, Ron Marz, Kurt Busiek, Gail Simone, Mark Waid and Gerry Duggan are berating Mike Huckabee for associating with the Duggar family despite the fact that Obama and Hillary associate with self-admitted child molester Lena Dunham, Gail Simone and Ron Marz are championing Bruce Jenner's mental illness, Ron Marz and Mark Waid are berating the people who held the second "Draw Muhammad" contest in Phoenix, Gerry Conway slanders Ted Cruz, and Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, Ron Marz, Gail Simone, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Gerry Duggan all lauded Ireland's catastrophic vote to legalize same-sex marriage.

Here's hoping you can cover some of it.

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