Interview: Mangaka Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchiby Deb Aoki,
In N. America, superheroes are synonymous with comics; they represent what most Americans think about when they talk about comic books. In Japan, manga is about a lot of things – but Japan too has its share of superheroes. One of its most iconic and long-running superhero series is Ultraman.
Ultraman was originally the creation of Eiji Tsuburaya, the Japanese cinema special effects wizard who worked on the Godzilla movies in the 1950's, then took his talent for live-action sci-fi to the small screen by creating Ultraman, a live-action TV show series about an alien from a destroyed planet who comes to Earth. He ends up saving and sharing a body with a pilot from the Science Special Search Party, who is now able to summon the power of Ultraman, and change from being a human to becoming a 40-meter tall giant who battles alien kaiju (monsters) who threaten the Earth, (although mostly Tokyo).
The Ultraman TV series was a huge hit with kids in the 1960's & 1970's. It has had several incarnations over the past 40 years, and is one of the most familiar and beloved heroes in the Japanese pop culture pantheon. Crunchyroll is airing some of the Ultraman series, including its latest incarnation, Ultraman X.
Related, and yet not related to this new wave of Ultraman stories is the Ultraman manga series by Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi that VIZ Media picked up for publication recently. Created by the team that did Linebarrels of Iron, this new Ultraman is featured in the pages of Hero's Magazine, a monthly manga magazine that features stories about superheroes – not Batman or Spider-man, but Japanese heroes, aimed at comics fans both in Japan and abroad. Hero's is a joint production of Shogakukan Creative Corporation and Fields Corporation, an entertainment company with a thriving pachinko/slots machine business.
Since its debut in the first issue of Hero's in 2011, Ultraman has been one of the magazine's most popular titles. Each new volume of Ultraman manga (there are 6 volumes out in Japan to date) sells about 2 million copies. What makes Shimizu and Shimoguchi's take on Ultraman special is that it's not just a re-telling of events from the TV series, but uses the TV series as a launching point for completely new stories.
In Shimizu and Shimoguchi's Ultraman manga, the original Ultraman, Shin Hayata is now a middle-aged bureaucrat in a government defense agency who initially has no memory of his heroic days as his 40-foot alien-fighting alter-ego. Meanwhile, his young son Shinjiro is starting to show signs that he possesses some extraordinary abilities. Fast-forward 12 years: Shinjiro is a teenager, and even he has noticed that he has strength and abilities that make him… special. But this hasn't gone unnoticed by some of his father's old alien enemies either, and Earth's battle against aliens is about to begin again.
With the arrival of this very Japanese superhero's new stories in English, it seemed only fitting that the creators responsible for a re-imagining of Japan's iconic hero came to the epicenter of American superhero comics and sci-fi, San Diego Comic-Con.
Both Shimoguchi and Shimizu talked with manga editor/translator/agent Akihide Yanagi at their panel discussion, and later with me at the VIZ Media booth. Here are excerpts from both conversations, plus a later conversation with the US and Japan editors of Ultraman, Mike Montesa from VIZ Media and Ai Shimizu from Hero's Magazine.
EARLY BEGINNINGS: FROM TECH SCHOOL TO MANGA ASSISTANT
It's interesting that you've mentioned you've been working together for several years. How did you meet?
Eiichi Shimizu: We've known each other almost 20 years. We met in technical school. By the time we graduated we already knew we wanted to work together.
What were you studying in technical school?
Eiichi Shimizu: Manga. We didn't attend classes much, though.
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: We used to cut class together – I used to go over to Shimizu's house, and I'd crash at his place. We'd stay up late tossing around manga ideas. Then we were like 'Why bother going to school? We should just get started!' There are a lot of mecha-themed series in manga but the mecha are not the main character. There's a main human protagonist and the mecha is kind of the sidekick. We wanted to draw something where the mecha itself was the main character. At that point we didn't see the point of continuing school because we weren't being taught anything new.
So you were self-taught?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Yeah. We've both been drawing for a long time on our own, and Shimizu here is also into design. I guess American fans may not realize this, but manga schools in Japan – they're called technical schools but they aren't really technical schools. They're barely glorified educational institutions. They don't teach you to really draw or anything, you're just going to a classroom. Art school is different, but this is like a manga school. The quickest way to become a legit mangaka is to be an assistant to an existing mangaka.
So did you both work as assistants?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: I worked as an assistant.
Eiichi Shimizu: I worked at a game company.
So which artist were you an assistant for?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. (manga artist and character designer for Neon Genesis Evangelion, and character designer for FLCL and Wolf Children to name just a few of his works)
Your style in Ultraman has some interesting parallels to Sadamoto-sensei's work. You've drawn lots of these details in the mecha that show a real appreciation for the physicality of the metal plates, how they fit together and move against each other. It's an interesting detail that not every artist takes into account.
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: From my time with Sadamoto-sensei, I learned about line placement – where to put lines and where not to put lines, where to connect everything. The one thing I remember Sadamoto-sensei telling me, 'Well, instead of having to pay to maybe learn this, don't you think it's better to receive money and be an assistant? To learn it by doing it and at least earn money for it?'
I have nothing but good things to say about Sadamoto-san. He was very generous and kind, also very focused and professional. I personally was very nervous around him, wanted to make sure I didn't disappoint him, but he was very kind.
How many years did you work for him?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: About 2 and a half years.
How old were you?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: 23.
Do you have assistants of your own now?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Yes.
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Two.
What do you teach them? What does it take to be a good professional mangaka?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: There's still a subtle difference between traditional visual arts and manga, specifically camera angles. You always want to think about how to portray a scene, as if it were a camera, a cinematic angle. Sometimes you have to 'lie' or distort perspective, to the point where you aren't portraying something 100% realistically, but it works out for the scene.
COLLABORATION: WHEN OPPOSITES ATTRACT
So while my initial understanding was that Shimizu-san is the writer, and Shimoguchi-san is the artist, you mentioned earlier that isn't quite as black and white as that.
Eiichi Shimizu: Our work is more collaborative. I do a lot of the initial mecha designs and battle scenes. We also collaborate on writing the stories, and Shimoguchi does the final art work.
How do you work together? Do you work in the same space?
Eiichi Shimizu: Actually, when we first worked on the series, we practically lived together, worked together in the same studio. It's only recently that we use the model where we're not in the same physical space at the same time.
But even when we work remotely, we collaborate via Skype so it's not like "Long time no see!" when we do see each other in person.
So what makes you a good match to work together?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Opposites attract. We have very different personalities, different hobbies. That works out great for us.
(To Shimizu) So what's Shimoguchi's best trait?
Eiichi Shimizu: He's very detail-oriented.
And what about Shimizu's best trait?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: He isn't detail-oriented. (laughs)
So is that his worst trait as well?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Yes. (Everyone laughs)
And what's the most challenging thing about working with Shimoguchi-san?
Eiichi Shimizu: He's too detail-obsessed. He's inflexible, which is good and bad. He stands his ground. One of the things that's great for visual impact but sometimes I get frustrated with it, sometimes even for a single panel he spends an inordinate amount of time working on it. That's why it looks so good, but you're like 'Come on man, we on a deadline.'
So if you fight, who usually wins?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Shimizu usually wins. I tell him, 'Come on, it's good enough'. He's actually able to verbalize why it's not good enough, articulate just why it isn't right, and I end up saying 'Okay, you win.'
Do you hit your deadlines?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Nope! In particular, the days and weeks leading up to San Diego Comic-Con were tough. It's a monthly series, so we have to work ahead in order to take a break, so we had to finish our chapters early in order to make this trip.
Did you get much sleep in the weeks before coming to San Diego?
Eiichi Shimizu: Nope. Definitely not. I'm not sure if it's because we were so busy, or if we were so excited to come to Comic-Con! (laughs)
Had you heard of Comic-con before?
Eiichi Shimizu: A long time ago. I've always wanted to come to Comic-Con!
Has it lived up to your expectations?
Eiichi Shimizu: They have exceeded them!
Fantastic! So you're not totally overwhelmed yet! (laughs)
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Yeah, we are kinda, but not in a bad way. The thing that's amazing to us is how the whole city has been transformed, and if it's day or night, early morning, fans are still excited about Comic-Con. That's amazing to us.
Is this your first time in San Diego? What do you think of the show?
Eiichi Shimizu: It's fun but I'm unable to buy the things I want. Lines are too long, and if we happen to get to the front of the booth, they're sold out!
Are there any movie or TV stars you want to meet, or things you want to see while you're here?
Eiichi Shimizu: Anything Star Wars related.
So did you find anything on the show floor to take home?
Eiichi Shimizu: Funko Pop! We bought a bunch that are not available in Japan. We got some Breaking Bad, some Doctor Who figures.
So do you like American TV shows?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Yes, very much.
Do American TV shows inspire your work?
Eiichi Shimizu: In some cases, like imagery, that might influence our work, but when it comes to social issues, there's a huge culture gap. So in that sense those things don't transfer over. Also, the process, of how films are made in the US, it's so much different than the process in Japan… the creative process isn't something we can transfer into our own work.
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: It's just so different. The way of doing things is different. In terms of the consumer, there are fans of American dramas and shows, and then there are fans of anime and manga, but there's not much overlap in the general public in Japan.
Eiichi Shimizu: So in terms of story, it would be hard to bring over elements of US TV shows into our work, because our work is aimed at a Japanese readership.
You also work on Linebarrels of Iron – in both that series and your Ultraman, there are elements of mecha and human drama. How would you describe the themes of your work?
Eiichi Shimizu: I guess the common theme in both works is that if you take a young man that isn't originally extraordinary, and suddenly give him special powers, what would he do? What would he choose to use his powers for?
So Japan has a long history of this kind of series, what do you bring to the table that's different?
Eiichi Shimizu: So first of all, in terms of the difference between this and an American story, is that in the US you have a lot of heroes who are adults, they're already self-aware, and so they decide to follow the path of justice out of their own awareness, their own will. Whereas in Japan, through these teenage characters, they're still young, they don't just wake up and decide to fight for justice. So what we wanted to do was to show that path, the emotional and psychological path where the character learns about his powers and decides what to do with them. When he does actually step into a role for justice, in terms of what might be different from other works in Japan, certainly as far as we're aware it hasn't been done a lot in manga – there's certainly a lot of anime that deal with these kind of youth mecha themes, but maybe what we bring to the table is that it's a new work that's based in manga.
EARLY IMPRESSIONS OF ULTRAMAN
Every single kid who's now adults in their 30's / 40's now in Japan know Ultraman really well! Do you have any memories of Ultraman from when you were kids?
Eiichi Shimizu: When I was in kindergarten, they'd broadcast the TV series.
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: When I was very young, I don't recall how old, I had a figure of Ultra 7 in my house!
What was Ultraman like then? What was the significance of Ultraman then?
Eiichi Shimizu: As a kid, I was more familiar with the immediate environment around me rather than thinking about overall cultural trends in Japan. When I was in elementary school, it was at the time when they stopped making new Ultraman and Kamen Rider TV shows. So at the time, most of my classmates were into Gundam!
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Eiichi and I are the same age, but we grew up in different areas. Kids our age at the time were more into watching Gundam and anime rather than tokusatsu TV shows.
Ultraman isn't a character you created. How did you get called upon to take this challenge?
Eiichi Shimizu: The publisher of Hero's Magazine approached us to do this. We turned them down initially! There was at first no talk about keeping the characters life-sized, we thought they wanted us to do what they have in the TV series. We thought, 'What's the sense of doing something that was in 3D in 2D (comics) if it's been done already?'
Tomohiro received the offer, and told me he was ready to turn them down. Then I got an email from him later saying he agreed to do it. I was like, 'What?!' (laughs)
Tsuburaya came up with this idea that intrigued us: that they wanted the Ultraman characters in this story to be human-sized (rather than 40-meters tall giants). So I thought, I can see us doing this, so this will be something completely new and exciting to work on.
Why did you choose them?
Ai Shimizu: I was familiar with their previous work, LInebarrels of Iron, and they had digitally published a Kamen Rider-type manga, so originally, we were envisioning something like Kamen Rider, but for various reasons that fell through.
So then further down the line we decided to do Ultraman instead. Part of the appeal was that both Shimizu and Shimoguchi were known entity as a creative team. Their designs were really cool, and their art has a kind of American comics look to it. Their story was very tight and compact – I thought they'd be able to create something kind of new.
Were you given guidelines, like make it modern? Make it cool?
Eiichi Shimizu: So we did get direction from Tsuburaya -- they did want something very modern. They also wanted it to be life-size, rather than gigantic like the original, and they wanted a character that would go through an internal struggle. What we didn't know at the time when we took the assignment was that the higher-ups at the publishing company were really into Spider-man, so they kinda wanted a Spider-man esque take on Ultraman.
I see – so the idea was to create a character that had some internal conflict about being a hero in addition to the fighting monsters thing.
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: We still had the concept of the life-sized battling, so that's in our story. The other directive we originally got was "no kaiju" – but how are we supposed to tie it into the original if there's no kaiju in it? We didn't have the Scientific Special Search Party (SSSP, a.k.a. The Science Patrol) in the story originally either.
At one point, the story was centered around a police detective who interacted with Ultraman. We had to make some drastic changes from our original concept.
Eiichi Shimizu: We started drawing – then they said, "we want it to be a sequel of the original TV series!' And here we are with the story we have today.
Your Ultraman looks very different than the original TV show version. How did the fans react to this change?
Eiichi Shimizu: I believe there are fans on both ends of the spectrum – especially among the core, old school fans. It's something we were aware of. We knew when we took this project there would be negative feedback. We haven't gotten any actual negative fan mail yet, but there must be fans out there who think 'Oh, this is so wrong.' But actually, most of the fan mail we receive is very positive.
What do your readers like about this new Ultraman?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: One of the overall themes we've seen in the fan letters is that the original Ultraman doesn't seem like a mecha-type thing at all, so there are a lot of mecha fans who wrote in saying 'This is really cool!'
When I first saw the poster for this new Ultraman at a bookstore in Japan, I thought, 'wow, is this a bishonen Ultraman?' (laughs) Was that one of the recommendations from your editor? To make a version of this character that would be appealing to female fans too?
Eiichi Shimizu: It wasn't something we consciously thought of. We do want to create characters female fans find appealing, but that wasn't the stated goal. We were never told to do that.
Another interesting difference with your Ultraman manga and the original Ultraman TV series is that the monsters aren't cute – in fact, the monsters in the new Ultraman manga are pretty sinister-looking! Was that intentional?
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: We wanted to portray the main character's internal struggle – like, 'I'm working for the good guys, but is what I'm doing right?' It seems like the obvious choice to fight the monsters to make if we made the monsters cute. But we thought it would be more gripping if the monsters were really grotesque but the character is still conflicted over what he's doing.
It's easy to portray a hero where he's killing something that is "an other" – we wanted to show a hero who had these feelings of doubt even though he's killing inhuman monsters. Shimizu is also a longtime fan of foreign monsters, so that's an influence visually too.
Is it hard to come up with new Ultraman characters?
Eiichi Shimizu: It's actually not that hard for me!
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: Shimizu is great at coming up with characters and stories. So as the artist, I can just sit back and draw without having to worry about anything! (laughs)
How does it feel to be responsible for this new incarnation of Ultraman?
Eiichi Shimizu: We think the appeal is in that the characters is this version are human-sized (not super-sized), so they are easier to relate to.
Personally speaking, I'm very glad to be attached to this, because it got me to Comic-Con! (laughs)
I want American readers to know that there are superheroes in Japan too!
Tomohiro Shimoguchi: We did an autograph session yesterday, and some American Ultraman fans came up to us and said 'YEAH! Thank you for doing this!' This made us really happy.
After speaking with Shimizu and Shimoguchi, the US and Japan editors for the Ultraman manga, Mike Montesa from VIZ Media and Ai Shimizu from Hero's Magazine provided some additional insight into the making of this classic story with a contemporary twist.
So Mike, how would you describe the Ultraman manga?
Mike Montesa: It's a direct sequel to the TV series. It's not exactly a reboot, but it's drawn with a modern sensibility to it. It includes some of the characters from the original TV series, like Shin Hayata and Mitsuhiro Ide from the Science Patrol.
What gives this story a modern twist is that there's a feel of a conspiracy going on, where the Ultraman project is a top secret government project, the existence of the aliens on earth is being kept hush-hush. There are bigger forces working behind the scenes too. One of the main characers is an ex-enemy of Ultraman. It's like in a spy thriller, where an ex-KGB agent is working on our side. Also, the action scenes are very big, very dynamic.
It's what caught my eye when I first encountered this in Hero's Magazine. I was familiar with Ultraman before, then I flipped through, and thought, 'Wait, this isn't Ultraman.' Then I read more, and thought, "Whoah. This is bad-a**!' (laughs)
It's for everyone – old fans, new fans, kids, adults, anyone who's interested in Ultraman!
Tell me a bit about how VIZ opted to pick up this series. I remember seeing the first volume in the bookstores in Japan about three years ago?
Mike Montesa: Hero's is a relatively new magazine. It's basically a seinen magazine, geared to adult men. It's a little different than most seinen manga magazines – it's all about heroes! You won't see slice of life stories or edgy, indy type stories in Hero's Magazine, you just get straight-up heroes kickin' butt, and I like that! (laughs)
Ultraman was in there from the very first issue, and it's still running inHero's today. It's clearly one of their most successful series.
So as I understand it, Shimizu-san, you played a pretty big role in making this project happen. What did you do?
Ai Shimizu: I picked the artists, and negotiated with them in the beginning.
Why did you think this was possible? Did this idea to revamp Ultraman come from you? Or from Tsuburaya?
Ai Shimizu: This was my idea.
What made you think now was a good time to re-invent Ultraman?
Ai Shimizu: Original idea came from Hero's Magazine; we were thinking, 'How can we revive Ultraman?' I thought Shimizu and Shimoguchi would be perfect for this, because they're good at drawing human drama and mainstream hero stories.
They mentioned earlier that they turned you down initially.
Ai Shimizu: The first reason they declined because they love Ultraman so much, so they couldn't think of how they could do something with the story!
How much input does Tsuburaya have here, as far as determining the direction of the story?
Ai Shimizu: Pretty much all the stories and characters as you see them in the manga, that's pretty much Shimizu and Shimoguchi's creations. Tsuburaya is essentially licensing the character to them. Of course it's Ultraman, so they have final say on what's okay or not okay with them.
Was it a difficult process to get to the final incarnation of the story that we're reading today? It sounded like there were some changes from the original concept along the way.
Ai Shimizu: It wasn't that hard. They grew up with Ultraman, so they have a lot of knowledge about the Ultraman characters and stories, so both of them put everything they know into creating this story. It was pretty quick.
What kind of input do you have in this process?
Ai Shimizu: Actually, I didn't put almost any input into the chapters. I trust their storytelling ability and art styles. I only had to make sure, because I didn't grow up with Ultraman, I had to make sure that the story would also be entertaining for someone who isn't deeply familiar with this story and these characters.
Yes, I agree. I'm familiar with Ultraman, but I'm not a super fan who knows it inside and out. I found the manga to be enjoyable and easy to follow, even without deep Ultraman knowledge – so I think you succeeded!
Ai Shimizu: Thank you! That's nice to hear.
Is this an ongoing series, or do they have an ending in mind?
Ai Shimizu: It hasn't been decided at all.
What's your background with Ultraman? What does Ultraman mean to you?
Mike Montesa: Like most people my age, I watched Ultraman on TV in the 1970's. It was a part of my childhood. It was on Captain Cosmic on KTVU in the Bay Area. He'd run a lot of imported shows, like Star Blazers.
I appreciate the genre. I like the type of story that Ultraman is in its current form.
Ai Shimizu: What does Ultraman mean to me? That's difficult to say! Ultraman has a lot of similarities to American superheroes – the story and characters are really good. I guess I agree with both Shimizu and Shimoguchi in that I too would like American fans to realize that Japan has great superheroes too.
From your point of view, how are Japanese superheroes different than US superheroes?
Ai Shimizu: American superheroes like Batman and Superman are very old, classic characters. Over their long history, many artists have drawn, re-interpreted and re-invented these characters and stories. That's a good thing about US superheroes. For Japanese superheroes, there's more of a sense toward keeping the classic superheroes as they are, to continue them as is. Sometimes that's a good thing, but in this case, it was good to have a new image for this classic character.
Was Ultraman kind of stuck in creative rut, because of this desire to retain the traditional look and feel?
Ai Shimizu: Yes, that's true. In Japan, Ultraman is kind of like a god – you can't change it!
Fortunately, it seems like fans are receptive to this manga! Were you worried that hardcore Ultraman fans would be upset about this very different take on this classic Japanese hero?
Ai Shimizu: Shimizu and Shimoguchi weren't worried so much, but I was kind of worried that people wouldn't show up to the signing sessions or panels at Comic-Con.
Mike Montesa: I wasn't worried at all! Sure, Ultraman is 40 years old, but if you're ANY kind of nerd, you know about Ultraman!
With the launch of the manga, are there other plans to expand Ultraman's presence in N. America, beyond the manga? Like bringing more of the Japanese TV shows and merchandise to the US?
Ai Shimizu: Of course, the figure will be available to American fans to buy. If Ultraman fans would support it, then yes, Tsuburaya would love to make more of the TV shows and so on available here.
Mike Montesa: Right now, I haven't heard anything about making a bigger push to promote the classic Ultraman TV shows in N. America. If this manga takes off, then we'll see.
I work at a technology company, so I have people who follow me on Twitter who work in the software industry, they're IT admins – they mostly talk about tech stuff. But when I started posting pics from the Ultraman manga, some of 'em got REALLY excited. We're talking guys who are in their 40's and up who just really responded to this. One of 'em told me, 'I'm totally fascinated by the concept of a middle-aged Ultraman who has middle-aged problems, and a teen-aged son!' (laughs) When you put it that way, it DOES sound really interesting! You don't see many American heroes like this.
Ai Shimizu: That's true. It's the same in Japan. A lot of our readers for the Ultraman manga are 30-to-40-year old adults who grew up watching Ultraman on TV when they were kids. Now they're the same age as Shin Hayata in the manga.
Was that on purpose?
Ai Shimizu: It wasn't something that came from the editor's suggestions, but both Shimizu and Shimoguchi love the Shin Hayata character, so they wanted to include him in this new story somehow. It's kind of like Batman in Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns – when a hero comes out of retirement as a middle-aged man. When Shin Hayata says, "I am Ultraman," it's inspired by that.
At the panel, both Shimizu and Shimoguchi mentioned that they're fans of American pop culture and superhero comics, so are there other American superhero influences in this story?
Ai Shimizu: Nothing on purpose, but from my point of view, unconsciously maybe some elements from American comics found their way into the story. A lot of readers in Japan are telling us that they can see some American comics influences in some of the scenes, like when Ultraman is standing on top of tall buildings or atop Tokyo Tower, and so on.
Can you tell me a little more about Hero's Magazine? How would you describe it?
Ai Shimizu: Most Japanese manga magazines are separated by their target readers, by age and gender – so like shojo, shonen and so on. Hero's Magazine on the other hand is distinct because it's all about focusing on its subject: heroes.
The main readers are male, in their 20's, which is interesting because these readers, they didn't grow up with seeing Ultraman on TV. For some of these readers, reading this Ultraman manga is their first exposure to these characters. They get interested in it, and seek out the classic TV series later.
It's not a like a bestselling magazine, but the Ultraman manga is pretty popular in Japan, so that helps. The manga sells about 2 million copies per volume nowadays. There are six volumes out in Japan to date.
Hero's Magazine is created by Shogakukan Creative, which is a division of Shogakukan publishing (home of Shonen Sunday), but the editorial team is all Hero's.
I notice that there are English chapters on the Hero's website. Is reaching overseas readers one of the goals of Hero's Magazine? Will we eventually see more than just single chapters in English online?
Ai Shimizu: Yes, we'd love to do more of that. We'll see how it goes.
©2012 Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi/TPC Originally published by HERO'S INC.
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