Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | Sustainable content farming

"...That name again is Super-Plow"

Sadly, this power set later caused the Legion to reject Plow King

I talked about it last week, but there’s a lot to unpack in the recent Williams-and-Blackman-leave-Batwoman imbroglio. Part of it is DC Comics’ apparent need to keep characters relatively unchanged, which these days includes being young and unmarried. Co-Publisher Dan DiDio has already explained this in terms of heroic sacrifice, so I suppose that’s as close as we may get to official company policy on the matter.

However, before DiDio made his comments, I was wondering whether DC didn’t want the non-costumed half of Batwoman’s main couple to remain single and uncomplicated. After all, Maggie Sawyer goes back further than Kate Kane, and has appeared in both the animated Superman series and in Smallville. Thus, a certain part of the TV-watching public probably associates Maggie Sawyer more with Superman than with Batwoman; and DC might not want to have her tied permanently to the Bat-office.

This, in turn, brings up the issue of DC as a “content farm,” providing material for future adaptations. Obviously the publisher has almost 80 years’ worth of characters and stories ready to provide inspiration. Indeed, over the decades, that inspiration has gone both ways. However, more recently it seems like the adaptations have been influencing the comics to a greater degree than the comics have been influencing the adaptations, and in the long run that’s not good for either side.

* * *

Before we get too much further, let’s go back to Maggie Sawyer. Created by John Byrne as part of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman relaunch, she first appeared in April 1987′s Superman Vol. 2, Issue 4. Often paired with Dan “Terrible” Turpin (a Golden Age character created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby as part of the Boy Commandos, and revisited as an adult in Kirby’s New Gods), Maggie was the commander of Metropolis’ Special Crimes Unit, which dealt with super-criminals. She was also the divorced mother of a young daughter, and her girlfriend Toby Raines worked for Metropolis’ other newspaper, the Daily Star. She quickly became a staple of the Superman titles, and starred in the 1998 spinoff miniseries Metropolis S.C.U. At some point between January 2001′s Action Comics #773 and January 2002′s Detective Comics #764, she transferred to the Gotham City Police Department, where she headed up the Major Crimes Unit.  Consequently, she became a recurring character in the 2003-06 series Gotham Central, and met Kate Kane in November 2011′s Batwoman #1.

Accordingly, while she’s spent most of the past twelve years in the Bat-office, it’s entirely possible that she could return to Metropolis — say, if the character crops up in the Man of Steel sequel, and DC doesn’t want to confuse those elusive new readers by having her in a Bat-book. (Just ignore the fact that the movie will feature at least one other fairly prominent Bat-character.) While supporting characters have a little more flexibility in their personal lives, sometimes the pressure is almost as great to leave them inviolate.

Probably the quintessential supporting-cast change (and subsequent reversal) involved Alfred Pennyworth’s death, in June 1964′s Detective #328. As it happens, this too was pretty early in a relaunch, specifically the “New Look” that had begun in the previous issue of ’Tec. It seemed like a good opportunity to break up Wayne Manor’s all-male atmosphere, so Alfred was replaced with Dick Grayson’s aunt Harriet Cooper. However, Alfred’s involvement in the Batman TV series prompted DC to revive the character in the comics, and after two and a half years he returned to duty in October 1966′s Detective #356.

More recently, Suicide Squad boss Amanda Waller received a significant makeover for the New 52, which happened to follow her own appearances in other media. Created by John Ostrander and John Byrne, and debuting in November 1986′s Legends #1, she also appeared in animated form (in Justice League Unlimited) and on Smallville, as well as on the big screen in Green Lantern. Those live-action adaptations weren’t as full-figured as the comics’ original, but neither were they as svelte as the current New 52 version.

Now, Waller’s weight loss in the New 52 may just be coincidental, and not a result of her increased exposure — but adaptations have influenced the comics for decades. Jimmy Olsen debuted on the Adventures of Superman radio show, so it’s only fitting that he was paired up with Smallville’s Chloe Sullivan when she finally made it to print. Speaking of body image, the 1940s Batman movie serials gave the comics a slimmer Alfred (as well as an early version of the Batcave). The aforementioned Superman relaunch of the mid-‘80s took many cues from the Christopher Reeve movies, and if you like Lois calling Clark “Smallville,” you can thank Dana Delany’s animated version.

There’s tons more, from Lynda Carter’s spinning costume changes to Super Friends eradicating Aquaman’s street cred; but you probably know ‘em all anyway. What I find interesting are the extracurricular examples that don’t affect the comics. DC seems content to let its corporate siblings dig deep into the back issues for all kinds of content, and fans are (understandably) happy when shows like Batman: The Brave and the Bold throw out such Easter eggs. However, B&B’s popular “Outrageous!” portrayal of Aquaman still hasn’t made a dent in his comics characterization.

To me this highlights the extent to which DC Comics has become less of a content farm and more of a content mine. Because (almost by definition) there are fewer DC movie and TV adaptations than there are comics, the former won’t run out of material from the latter for a very long time. While the direct-to-video animated features often adapt comics stories, DC’s most successful adaptations have drawn directly from the comics only on very rare occasions. The live-action Batman TV show did, of course (with DC collecting some of the original stories early next year), and so did the Batman, Superman and Justice League animated series, which each adapted a handful of comics stories. Batman: The Brave and the Bold even adapted a Batman manga.

However, none of the Reeve movies used specific plots from the comics, and neither did any of the seven modern Batman movies. Even Batman Begins’ homages to “Year One” and The Long Halloween were incorporated into a new plot. The same held true for television: Whether it was the 1970s’ Wonder Woman series, the 1980s’ Superboy, or the 1990s’ Lois & Clark, only the characters and the settings made it to the small screen. Indeed, while comics writers Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore were story editors on the 1990-91 Flash series, it largely went its own way, and put its own spin on characters like Iris West, Captain Cold, the Mirror Master and the Trickster. Smallville eventually developed into the Archer-Daniels-Midland of content farming, adapting dozens of DC characters for television; but for the most part it left unseen their stories from the comics.

Therefore, we have two basic dynamics: a show like Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which traded heavily in Easter eggs and other familiar elements; and the first Christopher Reeve movie, which had little in common with most of the then-recent Superman comics, but which set the tone of Superman stories for decades to come. Even if we picture them as opposite points on a continuum, clearly these works had vastly different creative goals. With the kid-friendly B&B, the point much of the time was to celebrate everything goofily weird about DC’s superheroes; whereas 1978′s Superman was a general-purpose blockbuster for an audience accustomed to disaster movies and Star Wars. No doubt DC hopes every adaptation will increase the audience for its comics, but over the years that seems to be less and less of a priority. The new head of Warner Bros. didn’t even mention the comics in his DC-movie cheerleading.

Accordingly, if the movies (and the video games, with which I am almost totally unfamiliar) start driving the content of the comics, that necessarily limits the comics’ creative options. More to the point, if DC Entertainment sees a strong correlation between the video-game audience (for example) and the comics audience, it may well impose a grittier, scarier, more “realistic” aesthetic not just on the comics characters featured in the games (like Harley Quinn) but across the board. After all, why alienate a crop of potential new readers with an array of storytelling styles, when you could just make everything look like Arkham City?

While I don’t think DC is quite there yet, line-wide impositions of tone like “Villains Month” show how easily the superhero line can be homogenized. Honestly, for the most part this has been a September to forget. I’ve liked about half of the villain spotlights so far, and I’m hoping the rest read better in the context of their respective ongoing storylines. A half-dozen books a week filled with horrible people doing horrible things to equally horrible people tends to have an effect, and it’s not one which makes me want more villain-heavy comics. Now I’m waiting for October — gray, rainy, cold October — to lighten the mood.

It’s doubly frustrating because DC is happy to share the lighter, wackier stuff with the kids’ line and with Cartoon Network. The Super Best Friends Forever! animated shorts probably reached 10 times as many people as the latest issues of Supergirl and Batgirl combined, and Warner Bros. wouldn’t be planning a Blu-ray release of Brave and the Bold if the show hadn’t been successful, but precious little of that spirit seems to have found its way back to the comics themselves. Therefore, I have to ask: What does DC think the fanboys of 2033 will find nostalgic? What will spark their imaginations, and encourage them to revisit the comics of the New 52?

To be fair, it may be something like Batman, The Flash, Batwoman or Wonder Woman, each of which is a fairly well-done series from a stable creative team. However, as the stable creative teams disappear, so do the well-done series; and if editorial demands that everything look and sound the same anyway, the distinctiveness that facilitates nostalgia disappears as well.

Look, I know there were a lot of clunkers in the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age and whatever Age you call this one. Regardless, there were enough memorable moments to inspire future pros and readers to give DC’s superhero line a chance. That kind of invention is what comics does best. I bet you don’t see a robot dinosaur in Ben Affleck’s Batcave, a golden key pointing the way to Henry Cavill’s Fortress of Solitude, or a Flash costume popping out of Grant Gustin’s ring. The adaptations can never be as inventive as the comics — and when the comics start limiting themselves to what the adaptations deem acceptable, the content farm stops growing.*

So let Maggie Sawyer marry Kate Kane. Let Amanda Waller have an extra sandwich. Let the comics draw inspiration from the adaptations — but let the comics do what they want.** The radio gave us Jimmy Olsen, but the comics made him a legend. Now the comics are taking old TV adaptations in new directions, greatly expanding the worlds of ‘60s Batman, Smallville Superman, and Batman Beyond. (I hesitate to call that the “recycling” component of the content farm.)

Those comics are doing what the shows couldn’t, because comics can do anything — from cosmic restructuring to promoting a diverse array of characters. Recognizing that limitless potential, and giving creative teams the freedom to act on that potential, are the foundations of a truly sustainable content farm. Otherwise, DC will become merely a warehouse of aging, musty ideas, propped up by the narrow tastes of a dying demographic.

+++++++++

* [I have already argued that the rate of growth has slowed.]

** [This doesn’t mean letting Alfred stay dead. Even without the TV show, someone would have brought him back sooner or later.]

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Comments

18 Comments

I really wanted to like this essay, as I’m already sympathetic to the idea of DC Comics being a content farm (or mine, depending on your perspective) but I’m not really convinced the conclusion you make is supported by the logic of the piece as a whole. Still, you remain one of the most cogent writers on comics. Thanks for this

I think DC these days has a pretty clear strategy when it comes to synergy among the various media in which it’s characters appear. Mass televised animation is largely (though not exclusively) geared towards a pre-teen audience, introducing the characters to children in a welcoming, benign, non-threatening way (and sometimes throwing in easter eggs or slightly complex storylines to rope in a few older viewers). As most of that audience grows out of cartoons, I imagine that DC hopes that they are eager to see familiar characters in more mature stories, and that many of them will discover the comics and other ancillary media such as the direct-to-DVD movies. These forms of media, which require a bit of pocket change to consume, are clearly geared towards teenagers and older audiences. From there, lifelong familiarity and fondness for these characters creates a reliable customer base for more lucrative media geared primarily towards adults with real money to spend, such as prime-time television and feature films.

In this sense, the comics have a very specific role to play and a very specific audience that they’re meant to attract and maintain. Marvel has largely pursued the same strategy: kid-friendly televised animation, comics geared towards teens and older, and television/film endeavors that tap into adult fan’s deeper pockets.

Granted, I have no corporate memos or other such evidence to back this up. I can only say that as a guy in his 30s, this is the strategy that worked on me. Characters in the DC and Marvel Universes were introduced to me via the Superfriends and Spider-man and His Amazing Friends. As a teenager I couldn’t get enough of these characters in darker, more complex storylines of the comics. Though I still buy comics, I don’t nearly read as much as I did back then, but I will see Man of Steel in the theater a couple times with the intention to buy it on BluRay later.

@wilyjeff

The problem is, now comics is the hobby that requires the deeper pockets compared to movies. Think about it, you can go see or rent a movie for around 7-9 bucks, while a complete storyline, even in paperback, is going to set you back at least 15, closer to 20 dollars, and even then that “complete” storyline will probably require you to pick up several more trades to really tie up all of the loose ends (with Bendis’ work, you’re looking at at least a hundred dollar investment). Buying the DVD may end up costing 20 bucks at most, and it’s still a complete experience.

A tv show season may end up costing around 30 bucks on average in DVD form, but you’re getting several more hours of entertainment than the movie, and while you may need the rest of the seasons ultimately, you don’t have the meddlesome tie-ins to keep track of and even a lone season of, say, Breaking Bad still has some pay-offs throughout the season. Meanwhile, to get any kind of actual pay-off from a comic requires you to sit through at lest two crossovers (four if Bendis is involved).

I agree with your conclusion, Tom. I think the reason that comics were adapted in the first place is that they were telling stories that could not be told in any other medium, and so brought in a slew of fresh ideas. However, as new as these ideas may have seemed to, say, a movie audience (“You will believe a man can fly !”) they were ideas and characters that had been developed over a long period of time without any interference from creators/businessmen involved in other media.

That’s why there has been so much to choose from when it comes to DCs trinity and even their second (and third and fourth) tier characters. Comics creators threw a million ideas at the (Source) wall to see what worked in terms of storytelling, popularity with the audience and continuity. Should DC and Marvel continue their trend of allowing their comics to be limited to what works in other mediums as you have argued they are (and let’s face it, the evidence could not be more clear with Marvel; just look at Spidey’s organic web-shooters, Nick Fury Jr and Agent Coulson) then there will be none of this risk-taking to see what crazy new idea will work and no new ideas for comics to bring to other media in ten or twenty years time.

What has frustrated me more than anything else about DCs New 52 is that nothing truly NEW is going on ! With few exceptions (eg The Court of Owls storyline in Batman) what we are seeing is a “gritty” recycling of previous characters and concepts. Come on DC ! Give me something new and exciting – I would rather see a new take on Batgirl rather than Babs being reset to the place she was at in the 1970s !!!

Hmmm, not sure that argument stayed on point, so here’s the skinny:
Comics need to keep doing what ONLY comics can do – play with time and space, show epic storylines while focussing on characters, showcasing outrageous ideas and characters and costumes so that it continues to be the trailblazer when it comes to storytelling techniques for media. In the next ten years I want to see new characters step into the space currently filled with Batman et al appearing in TV and movies !

@Saul Goode
Comics don’t necessarily cost more to enjoy than films, particularly for fans who are impatient for the content. It’s difficult to compare because aside from libraries, there are no ways to enjoy comics aside from purchasing them outright, in which case the fan can reread the story again and again. A night out at the movies these days, including tickets and refreshments, can easily surpass $20 per person, or about the cost of a five-issue run of monthly issues, or one hardcover. However, whereas seeing a movie in a theater or renting it basically offers a single viewing, a comic purchased can be reread in perpetuity. If you add up the the “lifetime” revenues generated by a single fan for a well-made genre film (including repeat viewings in the theater, and later purchase on DVD/BluRay), that far exceeds the cost of buying a 5-6 issue run that typically makes up a story compilable for a hardcover or trade. Moreover, given the franchise nature of most genre films, movies may not necessarily offer an experience that is any more “complete” than one volume of an ongoing comic series. Even by just going to the theater once for each and then eventually purchasing the DVDs, I definitely spent more money enjoying the Dark Knight trilogy than I spent to purchase my three favorite Batman TPBs.

Also, when I refer to the “adult fan’s deeper pockets” that media companies target, I’m not referring just to the direct cost of buying a movie ticket or dvd. Television programming still generates a large fraction of its revenue from advertising, and 18-49 age group is most coveted by producers and advertisers because these are the people with the most disposable income. For genre films, aside from ticket sales are all the ancillary merchandising that accompany it, which again usually targets adults (who are often parents) with deeper pockets.

I’m with you on Villain’s Month. It’s so homogenized that it makes even the good stories seem dull. You’re right about stable creative teams also. I’m hoping Soule or someone like him gets an extended run at a DC title because the musical chairs approach has generated forgettable comics for the most part.

This is a cool and informative twist on a lot of the current (and valid) DC criticism. While I’ve lamented the lack of tonal diversity in the line, I hadn’t quite thought of it in the way that you present here, that comics are limiting themselves to movies and other media that end up not following them anyway.

A friend and I were discussing the ridiculousness of DC revamping 99% of their costumes, and then using new ones in Injustice and old ones in most tie-in media. Why bring everything in line with what you think the non-comic reader can palate if you’re not going to use those representations anyway?

Marvel’s definitely guilty of the same in some senses (Agent Coulson, Hawkeye’s new look and attitude), but we’re still getting books like Wolverine and the X-Men, Captain America going to a different dimension, and crazy cosmic Avengers with obscure characters, so they somehow seem capable of mirroring elements without creating a homogenous line of cookie-cutter “realistic” books.

I totally kinda agree with this guy. ^

Dana Delany was NOT the first version of Lois to call Clark “Smallville”. The first was Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman which preceded the animated series by a few years.

Actually, Lois calling Clark “Smallville” was first introduced in the comics by John Byrne in his Man of Steel reboot mini, which preceded the Lois and Clark TV show by at least half a decade.

“Otherwise, DC will become merely a warehouse of aging, musty ideas, propped up by the narrow tastes of a dying demographic.”

Which is as apt a description of the past decade-plus of mainstream comics across the board (not just DC) as I’ve ever read. The reality is that mainstream superhero comics in general have been “content farming” (or, as I prefer, strip mining) ever since the speculator boom of the late 80s, early 90s, back when sustained big budget Hollywood success was still mostly a pipe dream. How is the idea that the success of the Arkham City video game “may well impose a grittier, scarier, more “realistic” aesthetic” on the comics any different than having the same aesthetic imposed on comics for much of the past 20 years, thanks to the success of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns? In both cases, success breeds imitation and conformity.

The only real difference is that now, thanks to Hollywood, there’s actual money to be made (as opposed to simply trying to desperately hold onto the status quo of dwindling book sales), so the suits in the corner offices have actually taken notice of the comic divisions’ existence and taken an active hand in managing what has now become a valuable business asset.

To learn more about these and other canon immigrants, visit my database at jorellisisland.blogspot.com

And feel free to fill me in on any ones I’m missing!

/shill

@Saul

Where the hell are you going to see a movie for 7 bucks??

@Bull,

I only pay $6.50 to watch first run movies, like the Dark Knight Returns, or Avengers. All the theaters in my geographic area (northern California) offer “matinee” prices. Some have even “early bird” prices like $4.50 if you come for 11:00 AM showings, though I’m seeing that less and less. Possibly this is a geographic thing, and might not exist anymore some areas of the country.

I guess your mileage may vary… :)

@ Bull

I’ve lived in both Atlanta and Pittsburgh and, in both cities, have seen many first-run movies for $5 before noon, or $7 in the afternoon, on Saturdays and Sundays.

Now, Comics are just the Lab for new characters and tales. Big money its on Movies, Toys and Video Games

Brian from Canada

September 22, 2013 at 1:57 pm

This is one article I totally disagree with. It bears a total lack of understanding of the relationship between comic and movies.

Cartoons and serials were often based on generic or recycled plots modified by television writers to suit the characters being laid on top. This is really evident in the 30s, when Batman and Captain America acted more like non-comic heroes than the ones on the page. And it is really evident in the 1970s, as Superfriends either replicated or aped the plots of other series at the same time.

Batman’s 1966 show is the exception — but that goes specifically to the producers, who were trying very hard to match the childlike enjoyment of the source material. Writers who were hired from other adventure shows at the time didn’t know exactly what that meant and had to go into the comics for inspiration.

Then came 1989.

Tim Burton’s Batman made the point of emphasizing its accurate reflection of the comics. Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy went one step further and limited itself to the same eight-colour pallette of the newspaper strip. And when kids began to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on television soon after, older kids were quick to point out they were cartoonish compared to the source material.

But more importantly: Batman MADE MONEY. It was a windfall for WB, who raked it in on many associated products.

Marvel fired Bob Harras because the X-Men didn’t get that treatment with its comics. Joe Quesada’s reign has about making those connections for sale, based on the way the Ultimate line influenced the movies. Quesada’s promotion was all about unifying the comics and movies — and with Bendis overseeing both, the similarity in tone if not adventure became a key step to its success.

And that’s what’s made WB take notice. DC characters sell, but not anywhere at the level Marvel is getting. So it’s trying various experiments to mimic parts of that success. New 52 is REALLY about the modernizing of properties that seem dated: Superman Returns was too rooted in the 70s, and Superman himself was a 90s concept (thanks to Smallville’s ignoring the cape). In fact, most of the characters were trapped in the 70s.

But it’s not a perfect union. The only major impacts in the New 52 have been Batman’s military-style machinery (thanks to Dark Knight) and Green Arrow’s new emphasis on the island being more impacting (thanks to Arrow). And it will continue not to be as DC tries to balance a universe that cannot be homogenized as dark or zany like Marvel.

If you’re thinking cosmetics, like Amanda Waller, then that’s a different criticism with a notable twist as well: making the body type a bit more general brings in the possibility of more actors/actresses you can get young. She is the ONLY character I can think of who changed so dramatically, but it’s more of a reflection of the fact that, on film, she’d already been presented as someone who is much thinner. (How many overweight black women do you see in Hollywood to play that role?)

At Marvel, you have a darker, serious X-Men and lighter, friendlier Avengers. At DC, Superman is light where Batman is dark, and it’s a much wider spectrum required to allow for characters like Animal Man, Madame Xanadu or the Earth 2 heroes.

Which doesn’t reflect the Batman situation at all.

Maggie Sawyer’s marriage to Kate Kane was stopped because DC recognizes a major problem in the marriage of characters NO ONE is willing to speak about when it comes to the JHWilliams/Blackman situation: it’s MUCH harder to use the marriage as a starting point or midpoint for a series.

Don’t believe me? Go look at the movies that have been adapted so far. How many of them start with the romance established? Better yet: go look at the television series on now and ask yourself how many of them remained interesting and high in the ratings after romantic tension was defused with marriage? Factor in complaints about marriage from writers who are trying to present the character of their childhood rather than their modern forms (*cough* Spider-Man *cough*) and it becomes even harder for marriage to be presented on panel.

And it’s not as if the marriage satisfies any long-term narrative of the characters. Clark and Lois married after decades of flirting that had gone long past stale. Same with OIlie and Dinah. All while Barry & Linda and Wally & Linda had established how he could be a hero and a family man without having the family take over the adventures. But Maggie and Kate? Maggie was HUNTING Kate in previous stories.

Didio complicated matters by saying Bat characters are too damaged for happy endings. It’s a poor choice of words but a logical sentiment: with the exception of Batgirl and Batwoman, all of the Bats wear the costume because of a traumatic event in their lives they want to prevent from repetition. Batgirl, though, comes from a broken home with an often absent father and wants to be like him while still honouring her attraction to Batman. In all those cases, the happy life runs in complete conflict.

Batwoman has a much different origin, being kicked out of the military for being gay and being angry about it. But that anger doesn’t go away simply because you found a partner to share your sheets. It doesn’t fit the logic of the character — and it makes it much harder to sell her for adaptation later on.

Because you just KNOW that pro-gay Hollywood will eventually see Batwoman as a positive role model for young gay people in the way that they are starting with other role models on TV. (It’s that or Northstar… the list ain’t big.) Showing a Batwoman starting off angry because of what happened and seeing a happily married one in the comics helping to raise her stepdaughter is going to cause problems.

(Though I really have to say I don’t like the idea of Maggie being in Gotham either. Maggie was always the Metropolis equivalent to Gordon in the way they are there on the perimeter of every case, and it made little sense for her to leave that.)

I like seeing how the comic books get translated to live action or animation. It is interesting to see how a sprawling storyline gets boiled down to either 120 or 90 minutes.

Right now, I’m hooked on the Batman ’66 book. Yes, it celebrates the campy, cheesy Batman. But in the latest issue, Jeff Parker has introduced Arkham Institute, Dr. Quinn and The Red Hood. The Bronze and Modern ages have given us some great things, like STAR Labs, Arkham, The HIVE and Intergang; cool things that weren’t around to adapt to live action in the Golden or Silver Ages. I can’t wait to see Cesar Romero’s comic book Joker accompanied by Harley Quinn. Just as it would be cool to see characters like Clayface, Two-Face, The Scarecrow, Killer Croc, The Ventriloquist and Poison Ivy show up alongside Shame, Bookworm and King Tut.

The only The New 52 book I’m sticking with is Aquaman. The particulars of his relationship with Mera will have to work themselves out. I tend to maintain the Bronze Age approach, that showed up in the Justice 12-issue series. Arthur and Mera are married. They have a child. So they are married, parents and super-heroes.

Because, what are they fighting undersea crime for?

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