Conversation with Greg Rucka (part I of 5)

Having already found acclaim as a novelist with his tales of professional bodyguard Atticus Kodiak, Greg Rucka made his mark on the sequential art scene in a big way with 1998’s Eisner-nominated Whiteout from Oni Press (coming soon to a cineplex near you). He followed shortly thereafter with the ongoing espionage thriller Queen and Country, and celebrated runs on Gotham Central, Elektra, Adventures of Superman, Wonder Woman, and others.

He’s also responsible for one of the best stories involving the Question ever printed, Batman/Huntress: Cry For Blood, and is currently redeveloping the Question with former Gotham City police detective Renee Montoya wearing the faceless mask. Greg kindly agreed to a multi-part interview with, and after tucking his children in for the night (with the help of wife Jen Van Meter, author of the 100% awesome Hopeless Savages, among other things), talked to us through the magic of instant messaging about his early days as a comic reader and his appreciation for the Denny O’Neil / Denys Cowan series of the late 1980s.

Eric Newsom: Let’s start with a giant question on your reading background: How and when did you start reading comics?

Greg Rucka: Ooof. That’s not an easy one, actually, if I’m honest.

EN: I’ve read that Daredevil: Born Again was your first foray.

GR: That was the first “moment.” But not the first “contact” if that makes sense.

EN: It does, certainly. I read a few bad X-Men comics when I was a kid, but that wasn’t what…hooked me, I guess you’d say.

GR: I think my first connection to comics was quite young, maybe 7 or 8. Picking up those little Archie digests in the supermarket, or the Hulk reprints of the Ditko/Lee stories (I think it was Ditko).

My older sister has Down’s Syndrome, and she was in love with The Incredible Hulk tv show. When I was about 10 I found a comic shop and bought an issue of the Hulk magazine, and that was I think the first real “comic” I got. My sister had no interest in it, but I spent hours pouring over that issue. It wasn’t until I was 12 or so that I fell in with some Marvel Zombies, and that led to X-Men, which, in turn, led to me discovering — on my own — Miller’s Daredevil.

So the DD stuff was significant because it was stuff I found on my own, and also, because it was so damn good. That sort of showed me the potential of the stories, if that makes sense. I suppose that was the start of my downfall.

EN: I’ve read a number of authors and illustrators and fans whose gateway drug was that run of Daredevil. It seems to be part of the beginning of that period around 1986 when comics seemed to have a growth spurt.

GR: Yeah, I think the Miller/Mazzuchelli stuff was what really brought me in. And then there was Dark Knight, Batman: Year One…just runs from there. Those were the books that carried me into college. And it was in college that I found Denny’s Question, actually, and that was — again — like discovering the Miller stuff. Had a very similar impact on me, frankly.

EN: So you started reading the Question in college? Was it at the very beginning of Denny’s run?

GR: Yeah, I remember falling in love with that brilliant Sienkiewicz poster, and then the first issue, which still to this day is one of the best first issues of any series I’ve read ever. And my best friend — Nunzio DeFilippis, another writer actually — was a Psych major, and he sussed the Szasz [Thomas Szasz, a Hungarian philosopher who shares a last name with Charles Victor “Vic Sage” Szasz] connection immediately. As soon as he pointed that out to me, I was in all the way.

EN: What was your major at the time?

GR: Oh lord…I entered Vassar with intent to be a Drama Major. In the course of four years I went from Drama to Medieval/Ren Lit, to Religion, to English. Left with a degree in English and a minor in Religion. Off to grad school after that, MFA time.

EN: Did your studies in those majors intersect with your reading of the Question at all? I don’t know which religion you studied, but I’ve heard a number of people who got into Zen/Eastern sorts of studies (martial arts as well) through the series….

GR: The studies intersected, but didn’t really influence. I was specifically pursuing Judaic studies, actually. Though I was pretty fervent about following Denny’s recommended reading list.

EN: I have to admit that I haven’t gotten through all of them myself, but I enjoyed seeing, on a recent re-reading, that I independently sought out some of the books Denny had suggested. Though I’m not sure if it was the influence of the Question, or aspects of myself that drew me to the book in the first place.

GR: Yeah, well, that’s the Question, isn’t it?

EN: Touché! So that first issue. What did you find so appealing, aside from that gorgeous Sienkiewicz cover?

GR: I think, from a writing standpoint, it does everything a first issue needs to do. It absolutely hooks you into the character(s) and the world. It establishes the core conflict of the series. The ticking clock in the issue, as well, was brilliantly used.

I mean, think about it. First issue of an ongoing series, and the book ends with the lead character dead. Absolutely HAD to pick up issue 2.

EN: And starts by telling the reader that he’s going to die!

GR: Exactly. I’m a huge fan of Denny’s, and have been for a very long time, but I maintain that the best writing he did was on that series. And I think it shows, and I’m not sure he’d disagree, actually. He put his heart and soul into every issue, and there’s a lot of him to be found on every page, and that’s one of the reasons the series sings.

EN: He was doing some new things there, for sure, that you hadn’t seen in his writing previously.

GR: I think — and I believe he’s said as much — that it’s his most introspective work, and consequently his most personal. That he managed that while also managing to tell just solid good entertaining stories is the most wonderful thing.

EN: Obviously there’s something in the character of Vic that appeals to you — you’ve gone on to write the character twice, or really, counting the lost Detective story, 2.5 times. What do you think set him apart from the other DC characters of his time?

GR: I think what I responded to the most was that he was almost “anti” superhero. I mean, his costume was a featureless face. One of the things that spoke to me — and I think made the idea of Charlie–>Renee work — was that he was always inevitably, wonderfully human. There was nothing mystical in him; he was a man who had experienced something profound, something that had changed his view of himself in the world. If there was a superpower, it was his curiosity. And I really responded to that, and I responded to the humanist instinct in him.

EN: And yet, speaking of his changes, I think his humanity showed in the issues where he…to use a good old Baptist term…backslid from Dragon’s teachings. The day-to-day task of living in Hub City breaks him down, and Lady Shiva’s disappointed when she sees him again.

GR: But that’s so very human, isn’t it? I mean the conclusion of the series is heartbreaking, not solely because of what’s happened to Charlie, but because of his realization — he has to leave. That he leaves Myra makes it all the more poignant, of course. And there’s irony in that, because Hub City is, in many ways, what saved Myra.

EN: Exactly!

GR: In any other story, any other DC character, that ending would have been inconceivable. Batman running away from Gotham? Superman abandoning Metropolis? Never gonna happen. But for Charlie, his journey, his character, leaving was inevitable.

And I still think — though I suppose this is just me — that the ultimate reason for being in Hub was in front of him the whole time. He never found his mother, but the more I think about it, I really think Tot was his dad.

EN: Actual dad, or figurative dad? Or does it matter?

GR: Well, it’s funny…I used to think it was entirely figurative. Then I was writing 52, the issues around Christmas, when the cancer had spread to Charlie’s brain, and he was hallucinating. And I reread all of the series in one sitting, not including the Quarterlies, but with the annuals. And when I hit, I think, the last issue, when Myra and Izzy and Richard bring Charlie home to Tot…and Tot’s first line — hold on, let me check! — The line is: “Is he all right? Charlie…Son–are you all right?” And it hit me like a brick.

EN: Wow. I’d never noticed that. But it does make sense.

GR: All I could think was that Tot was REALLY his dad. Now, that may be the liberal arts trained English Major in me…but I wouldn’t have put it past Denny to have known all along that Tot was his father.

And if you look at the panel that follows it, y’know…Charlie’s first line in pages…”Mother?” So he responds to the line responding to a parent, but the wrong one. Denny and I don’t communicate much these days, so I’ve never asked him point-blank.

EN: It would especially make sense in light of the second Annual. I always thought that Vic as Tot’s former student was a shaky reason for him to seek him out.

GR: Yeah, rang false to me, too.

EN: But as a method for father to reunite with son, it makes much more sense!

GR: It’s interesting, too, because in light of that, and in light of the connection with Szasz…the whole series is about very human conflicts…right up to Charlie’s conflict about killing.

EN: There’s a whole lit. journal’s worth of articles to be written on Denny’s run. One day, I’m going to get around to it.

GR: Oh hell yeah. You could write 200 pages on 14-15, I think.

EN: I love that we can use terms like “the conclusion” and “the ending” with the Question, because those 36 issues are such a cohesive storyline. A graphic “novel” in the strictest sense of the term, I think.

GR: Very much so. It’s one of the reasons that I think the Quarterlies don’t quite work. I enjoy them, but they never had the same resonance for me.

EN: I think so too. They, and the single issue stories that followed in the years after, are sort of like reunion specials for old TV shows. Though I really enjoyed the Showcase story “Homecoming,” especially because of the Burchett artwork.

GR: Heh. Exactly! Well, Rick Burchett can literally make paint drying work, in my opinion. I think he is amazing.

EN: Speaking of the lit journal, one of the first articles I’d want to do would be about the female roles in the Question. You’re known for your strong female characters like Carrie Stetko, Tara Chace, Elektra and Renee Montoya…what did you think of Myra and Shiva in the story?

GR: I loved them. I think Shiva has been pretty diluted and, frankly, somewhat perverted since those issues. I loved the idea of Shiva as a character as driven by an ethos as Charlie or Richard…that they all embodied these variations of the warrior ethic and spirit.

As for Myra…it goes back to what I was saying appealed to me about Charlie. She was so wonderfully believable. Everything she was struggling with, everything that drove her, entirely believable.

The thing about Shiva is that she was genderless for the most part. It’s only really in that first issue where the issue of her gender ever comes up. And she has that wonderful response — god, I used to quote the line — about breaking the arm in three places so it would dangle like a dead fish for the rest of his life. And you contrast her with Myra, who is entirely defined by being a woman in this vicious, sexist world of Hub City. From the start she’s dealing with what it means to be a woman, what it means to be defined entirely by her gender and her sexuality.

EN: My favorite Shiva moment is when she takes the short, chubby, middle-aged demolition expert out to breakfast after he blows up Vic’s old neighborhood….

GR: I’m blanking on that moment, actually! Now I’m embarrassed! Which issue was that?

EN: [After giving the wrong issue number and searching again] Number 31. Page 22.

GR: See, they’ve lost that about her. They’ve turned Shiva into a death-fetishist. And she was always the bad-ass ronin, seeking only to test herself.

But Myra…I mean, look at the whole of her story. She goes from being the Pretty Face who Vic bangs to becoming, really, Hub City’s savior. And again, no powers, nothing like that. Just will and integrity and strength of character. Because, really, Vic — and I differentiate between Vic and Charlie, here — does not treat her well.

Look at the scene in issue 1…pages 11 and 12. I mean, what a dick. And her self-worth is such that she’s putting up with it. We talk a lot about the series as Charlie’s story, y’know, but in many ways, it’s far more about Myra, I think. The woman she becomes — as much as the man Charlie becomes — that growth is a rare thing in comics, where most characters aren’t allowed the luxury of actual, substantive growth.

EN: And all of the really hard changes are Myra’s to go through, I think. Vic’s are mostly internal, but she deals with both an internal struggle and that public backlash…you know…getting shot by her ex-husband.

GR: And there’s Jackie. And there’s so much guilt, for her — and I can’t remember ever really seeing Charlie deal with guilt, at least not as a driving force.

EN: What a choice she has to face at the end. By that point, it’s almost easy for him to walk away, but….

GR: But we’re privy to Myra’s nightmares, to all the things that haunt her, in ways that we never actually get inside Charlie’s head after he comes home. I always felt a little cheated by what happened to Jackie, actually, as a result.

EN: That’s true. I can think of at least two or three nightmares that Myra had. All we get from Vic are abstract hallucinations!

GR: And — again — at least one of those nightmares is entirely gender-based; the whole “take it off, show us your tits” nightmare. It was an interesting narrative choice that Denny made, as well, you know. We never had thought bubbles, to my memory. We never had first-person captions. We never were allowed inside Charlie’s head.

And frankly, for a book about a guy called Question, he rarely asked questions aloud. Like so many other things, they were internalized.

EN: That choice that we keep talking about in the end seems dramatic, but it’s also very real. Women choosing between their job, which gives them self-worth, and their children.

GR: I hadn’t considered that, and you’re absolutely right. And it’s yet another choice that is subjected to some very vicious critiquing by the society.

EN: I think that makes one of the things that makes the series such an involved read though. When characters think in thought bubbles, there’s less deduction for the reader to do. By not letting us in, we’re sort of forced to internalize the same things our hero is.

GR: Oh, absolutely. But, y’know, we’re in an era now where thought bubbles are barely used. I mean, it’s become such an issue that it’s “news” when Bendis decides he’s being daring by using them again. But in 1988, you know, that wasn’t something people were used to — you had to work at the book to figure out what was going on. And I think that’s another thing that made it so wonderful — there was a depth to the series that, as soon as you discovered it, compelled you to look deeper and deeper.

Or, to put it another way, to ask more questions.

EN: Which is why the letters page has become so famous, because it was a place where people were sharing these questions and discoveries with each other.

GR: It really was a rare thing, that series. I don’t think that can ever be recaptured. Which is probably for the best, frankly.

EN: Izzy’s a character we haven’t talked about yet, but like the others, he’s a well-rounded character that undertakes that journey of self-inspection and change.

GR: And a change driven by a question that he asks himself. He’s also, specifically, one of those characters in literature that I have a personal affinity for, because his whole conflict is a nature versus nurture one, and that’s an issue I find myself coming back to again and again, almost pathologically, frankly, in my own writing.

EN: The book was populated with such great characters. Nobody was a cardboard cutout standing in the background.

GR: No, no one was ever cheap, no one was ever lazy. Every person had a history, and it showed.

EN: I’m running the whole cast through my head. The lady on the bench in the snow, Maurice, the make-up guy. Some of them venture into the gothic a little (I always wondered if Denny had an affinity for Flannery O’Connor), but for the most part, I wouldn’t have a hard time believing them as real people.

GR: Flannery O’Connor. O. Henry. He did a beautiful job of drawing people quickly, too.

You remember the suicide? “He’s changed his mind.” That broke me. I stared at the page, it felt like I’d been slugged in the gut.

EN: That’s such a great issue, jam-packed with good writing. Right after that is Izzy’s life-changing moment, standing over that body. That issue, more than the others, always struck me as being inspired by Will Eisner.

GR: Yeah, I can see that, now that you mention it. I don’t know what Denny’s relationship to Will was; they must have known each other.

EN: Denny told me in an e-mail interview years ago that Eisner was the biggest influence on the Question, and the more I read it, the more I can see it.

GR: There’s a lot of The Spirit floating over the series. But talking about the series, y’know, as a piece of comics literature, the craftsmanship in it is amazing. Just speaking as a writer, though — look at the efficiency with which Denny writes.

EN: In re-readings, how much has your opinion of the series changed since your first go-through?

GR: I think it holds up as well, if not better, than it did when I first encountered it. I think the series sags a bit in the second year, but I suspect that had more to do with numbers and sales than anything else. Those first 18 issues or so I think are solid gold.

EN: I’m glad to see them being collected. I’m going to buy copies for a few people I know.

GR: That’s probably the biggest triumph of 52, and I’m going to claim a part of that. The irony in Charlie dying is that all the people who never really knew who he was will finally get to see what made him so fantastic.

EN: It’s interesting to look back, in the age of…what are they called? Deflated? De-something comics…how much story you got for your buck.

GR: Decompressed. Something I get accused of a lot, actually, or so I’m told.

EN: That’s it!

GR: But if you look at the issues, you’ll see some other things that have changed. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an artist who’s willing to go to the number of panels-per-page that Cowan was. There are reasons that’s changed — paper size has changed, actually, it’s gotten smaller. But most artists hate pages with more than 5 panels on them, and most of the pages you’ll see in Question are 8 panel, sometimes more. That is a significant change.

EN: Being two writerly types, we haven’t discussed Cowan much. How much of the success of the series do you think is owed to the tone his art set?

GR: It was enormous, obviously. But it’s funny. I read an interview with him — might’ve been on the site? — where he talked about wanting to make it “kick-ass action” etc. And the thing that had always struck me about the art was that it was almost antithetical to that. The fights, in particular, were so very visceral. They weren’t superhero-pounds-through-wall bullshit at all. You could believe people actually fought like that.

EN: And everyone walked away with realistic looking wounds!

GR: But, y’know, Cowan did a brilliant job just in the choices he made. And it was consistent. Everything was — again — believable. Hub City changed. The weather changed. Charlie’s clothes changed, for God’s sake.

Here, take a look at issue 8….look at page 5. Six panel page. I can think of maybe 3 artists who could pull that off the same way today. Only 3. And you look at the storytelling choice, here, on panels 2 and 3. Cowan goes in tight. And god, but don’t you hate him? You’re looking at this man gorging, and then panel 5 with the plate…then panel 6. The cigarette pack under the sleeve. The sweat on the brow.

EN: I’m already eagerly turning the page to see him get flayed.

GR: Yeah. You can SMELL him. So we have Denny giving us the story, here, but it’s Cowan who’s kicking that into overdrive. And I’m sure that Denny’s script wasn’t so tight that he was controlling every beat; he was scripting panel to panel, I suspect, but Cowan was picking the moments, the angles. It’s something that we’ve lost, I think, just in terms of storytelling. There’re guys — Steve Lieber, Rick Burchett — who would take a page like that and devour it.

EN: And I love how the facial expressions go from subtlety to grotesque caricatures, and 99% of the time, it fits the scene perfectly.

GR: Again, that’s the acting, and that’s all Cowan. You can call for expressions to look however you like in the script, but you don’t get many artists who can actually deliver.

“Five unrelated cards and a switchblade.” Brilliant.

EN: The Question got his own book after Watchmen. Do you think that the popularity of Rorschach and the public’s knowledge of the inspiration has helped or hurt the Question?

GR: I suspect it helped to launch the book. But remember, also, that comics development is such that Denny may have been writing the series while Watchmen was being made, as well — it may have been synchronicity as much as anything else. Thing is, Rorschach worked for Watchmen. But he was as broken a character as they make, y’know? And anyone confusing the two, anyone who picked up Question looking for Rorschach, they were going to be sadly disappointed.

I honestly think that the JLU animated has done more to confuse the character than anything else.

EN: What’s your opinion of the JLU portrayal?

GR: I like him, but that’s a very different iteration of the character than the one I’m interested in. And, speaking entirely selfishly, it’s made my job a lot harder, especially given the death of Charlie and the transition to Renee. I think a lot of the naysayers were people who had no idea who Charlie was in the comics, but who knew the character from the animated. And that just isn’t the same guy. It’s just not. The JLU version is far closer to the Ditko original, I think you’d agree.

But, y’know, the guy who sees conspiracies in everything, that’s been done, too. Sneakers. Conspiracy Theory. The X-Files. The thing that the JLU version lacks, in my opinion, and that both Denny and Ditko provided, was a philosophy for the character. There was, for lack of a better phrase, an internalized reason.

EN: I agree! It’s a fun character, but more shallow than any version of him than has been seen before.

GR: That’s exactly the word — he’s fun. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but, y’know, that’s not my Question.

EN: I need to find this actual quote to send to you, but I read a review of B/H:CFB once that accused you of using Vic as a stand-in for yourself, because the character wasn’t as nutty as the JLU version. And I thought that was hilarious, because as we’ll talk about next time, I thought it was such a seamless carryover from Denny’s series.

GR: That kind of shit drives me nuts, frankly, not because I take it personally, but because it’s so patently ignorant.

EN: It’s like saying Shakespeare got Romeo and Juliet wrong because they weren’t in the Jets and Sharks.

GR: That’s a perfect analogue!

EN: So you brought up Ditko. Have you read the original Charlton stories?

GR: I have. I actually had Mark Waid help me find the original issues to read.

EN: What did you think of them?

GR: I’m not a Rand fan, y’know. So I found the objectivism (objectivist?) take kind of distasteful. The Ditko stuff…I honestly found it very raw. Because — and I suppose this is somewhat universal — that wasn’t the way I’d come to the character. He seemed…how to put this? He was a cool character, but I didn’t actually like him, if that makes sense.

And Denny, y’know…Charlie was not just cool, but I really liked him. He was somebody I thought I could have a drink with and talk to and learn from.

EN: Any thoughts on Denny’s decision to “kill” the Question, to separate from the Ditko version, in light of the fan wringer you’ve just been through?

GR: Eh…you know, it’s a different thing, what Denny did to launch the series and what we did in 52. Part of what we were doing in 52 was talking about death in the DCU, as much as we were talking about legacy.

In all honesty — and I’m sure this’ll warrant some comments — but, to my memory, at least, we started 52 knowing that Charlie was going to die, but we hadn’t actually committed to handing the mantle to Renee. It was a logical story, and I maintain it is a good and valid story, but that was something we approached quite cautiously.

EN: It won’t only warrant comments, it’ll warrant future interview questions!

GR: And I think it was DiDio who pointed out that, if we were going to remove the Question, we had to replace him with another, and as soon as he said it, it became a no-brainer, because he was right.

But yeah, those questions, I suppose, are for next time.

I will say that…I mean, everyone thinks that the process, that these decisions, they’re made in some smoke-filled backroom.

EN: The room from Citizen Kane. That’s what I always imagine the DC offices like.

GR: And they’re not. There’s so much that goes into the process at every stage, and we really do try to consider — yeah, that’s the room, right next to the one marked “The Man” — everything we do, and we try to consider it very carefully. I’m not saying that’s always the case for every title, but for 52, at least, we were very considered in everything we did.

We never approached the characters lightly. And it’s funny, because everyone said “Oh, they’re using B-List characters,” but none of us — not Grant, not Mark, not Geoff, not Steve, not Keith, not Mike, and not me — not ever for a minute looked at the characters like that. We love these characters, and we always wanted to do right by them, to serve them well. That’s the job, and frankly, it’s an honor, and it’s the least the characters deserve.

I’m not saying we were always successful, but it does burn me when I hear people saying that we were shooting from the hip. No, we weren’t. We were always behind the optics. We may have missed on occasion, but we never shot from the hip.

EN: Don’t worry. The question of “How, exactly, did you go about planning the murder of the most awesomest comic character of all time, you stinking murderer you?” will come up later.

GR: [Laughing] I’m looking forward to it.

EN: We’ll try to make it as painless as possible. Like a shot to the head. Unlike something like…you know…lung cancer!

GR: OUCH! Can’t…breathe….

But the last note…one of the things I think is worth considering is that the Question, possibly more than just about any other character, is a character defined by ideas. And in that, it allows for the concept of reinvention in a way that no other character really does.

Something to consider, at any rate.

EN: That sums up in a nutshell why I love the character through his multi-faceted history.

GR: I think that’s also why Renee will work. Anyway, I should call it for the night.

EN: Get back to some paying work. I’ll do my best to make sure Crime Bible sells out.

GR: I appreciate it. You have a good night. Get some sleep!

EN: Good luck writing. Don’t wake up the kids. G’night!

GR: G’night!

 Continue reading pt. II!

6 Responses to “Conversation with Greg Rucka (part I of 5)”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Oct. 2, 2007: Use common sense and be clear on the facts says:

    […] Eric Newsom talks to writer Greg Rucka about his reinvention of classic Steve Ditko character The […]

  2. Blog@Newsarama » Creator Q&A: Greg Rucka says:

    […], Eric Newsom kicks off the first installment of a five-part interview with Greg Rucka about The Question. The first leg focuses on the Denny […]

  3. Parkerspace » Back among U.S. Americans says:

    […] around the web back at home now, I see our noisesome Eric Newsom has an interview with Greg Rucka up over at the Vic Sage site, so I’m going to read that before I start working. Good to see America is still running […]

  4. Rob S. says:

    I was sixteen when the O’Neil/Cowan Question debuted, and I know that Rorschach had nothing to do with getting me to pick up the book. I’m not sure the Charlton/Watchmenconnection was common knowledge back then; I was an avid comics reader and I don’t think I heard about it until years later. (Although, come to think of it, Vic’s Rorschach dream came as no surprise, so I must’ve been clued in by then.) In hindsight it’s obvious, but the characters were so well-realized that they didn’t drive me to look to other comics for their inspiration; they simply were.

    At any rate, Watchmen didn’t get me to try The Question; Sienkiewicz’s stunning cover and DC’s great track record at the time did that trick.

  5. The Question | Vic Sage | Renee Montoya » news » Just posted: new discussion with Greg Rucka says:

    […] those who missed them the first time, here are part one and part two. Spread the good word: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers […]

  6. Scott Mateo says:

    If anything, I took a liking to the Question because of his appearence in Len Wein and Jean-Marc Lofficier’s BLUE BEETLE series. Little did I know that this was the “pre-Crisis Question” and i was in store for an entirely diffrent animal.

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