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Deep Dive: 'Grafity's Wall' and the undeniable reality of art

Comic Books

Deep Dive: ‘Grafity’s Wall’ and the undeniable reality of art

Four kids. One city. A myriad of dreams.

Deep Dive is a closer look at some of the more interesting works we come across and what it is exactly they’re doing. Today, we look at the newly released Dark Horse deluxe edition Grafity’s Wall by Ram V, Anand Radhakrishnan, Aditya Bidikar, and Jason Wordie, with Irma Knivila, Girish Malap and Lizzie Kaye (Editor).

I’ve never read a comic like this. I’ll say that upfront. In fact, the reading experience I had with this comic was so unusual that after 10 pages, I had to step away and take a walk. After I crossed 50, I had to go lay in bed and take a nap, as the whole thing consistently ran like a process in the back of my mind. It was, I found, strangely overwhelming. What an odd little comic.

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A bit of context here: Grafity’s Wall is about four kids in the streets of Mumbai. That’s it. There is no grander pitch than that. It’s not a comic you come to for big plot hooks; there are plenty of other books doing that. This is just a slice-of-life comic about people in a real place.

It’s a comic that hits me in a way I never quite expected and is wholly bizarre. It’s a bit like loving dishes from two different cuisines and then eating a dish that somehow bridges both. You love both, but there’s this separation you have in your mind. And then that separation is shattered and you’re kinda taken back. What?! What in the name of Horus is this combination?! It’s like having your brain re-wired for a hot second, as you process what this thing you just experienced is.

It bridges two things I’m intimately familiar with: American comics and Indian culture. And it does it in a way that’s like eating some sort of strange hybrid of cuisines. It’s a bizarre sensation, to experience this strange little thing (rather like an American chop suey). And so here I am, writing about it, not necessarily to even try and decode what Grafity’s Wall is, that feels like a pointless exercise. No, we’ll discuss instead what it does, because what matters isn’t what Grafity’s Wall is, but how it feels.

Grafity's Wall

Dark Horse Comics

Fundamentally, this is a book about a place. And by that I do not mean it’s out to give you Hickman-esque data pages of a setting, with maps, charts, and other manner of infographics. No, this is a book about profound feeling, it’s about how a place feels. It’s not trying to decode what Mumbai is, but it is trying to convey what it feels like. It’s sensation over summary.

Kieron Gillen, in his lovely introduction, says, “It is also very Mumbai. I’m presuming that. I’ve never been there, but with the life in these pages, I can only assume that this is what it feels like, because if it wasn’t speaking to some truth, it wouldn’t hit as hard or be as vibrant as it is.” He’s absolutely correct, but I don’t think he’s aware of just how correct he is. I don’t know that I can convey the sheer extent of veracity within this book to those unfamiliar with its setting.

For most, I suspect, it’s a first glimpse or a distant look at that which is far, far away. It’s a place they’ve never been, never known. They can only interpret it as displayed here, lacking that familiarity. But if you have visited the place, walked its streets, smelled its air, eaten its food, experienced the nature of it, you know what this book is. You know just how right this book is. You understand.

There’s a lot in here, like the above, that is almost inevitably going to go over the heads of a great many readers due to a lack of familiarity. There are all these little things, tiny details that feel absolutely normal to the locale, that will seem bizarrely alien and outlandishly new to some. The book also has Hindi being spoken, but never translates it, instead mixing Hindi and English, which should make for a blend wherein folks will miss pieces no matter what unless they actually know the language. And they’ll never know just how true to life it sounds and rings, how reading the mixture of Hindi and English, you can pretty much hear that said and what that actually sounds like.

Most will not have the instant connection of one of the lead characters’ name being literally just ‘Glasses’ in Hindi, written Chasma (or perhaps more accurately “Chashma”, to account for pronunciation), as the book doesn’t try to filter things out. There’s an unrestrained purity here, but doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable — it’s just real and honest and proud to be so, in a way so many things rarely are.

Grafity's Wall

Dark Horse Comics

In a sense, I suppose that’s what took me aback about the book. It is unflinchingly honest. It does not need to do a 100% clear translation of all that is being spoken in Hindi to help its readers understand every detail. It doesn’t need to explain every bit that may make them go “What?!”. It doesn’t need to explain itself. It just, simply is. It’s a portrait of something, saying something, that proudly displays it. “This is my truth”, it seems to say. It is a work that’s aware that not every detail or bit will be fully understood by a large part of its audience, but that doesn’t matter. It aims for sincerity and honesty over anything else. And it does so with a place and culture that is pretty much never seen in American comics.

So reading this story of a bunch of Indian artists, in my favorite medium, in a setting I really knew, I had to stop. I had to go take a walk. I had to take a nap. It was like being struck by lightning. And you know what? It felt bloody great. I wish more comics made me feel this way, which feels deeply selfish to say on some level, but is certainly true. It felt like a book for me or at least, in a way, it felt like a book for people like me, people who understood. People who knew.

Ram V, the writer, is obviously a bigger name now than he was when this hit. He now writes DC and Marvel books, amidst a ton of cool indie stuff. And his agreed-upon opus to date, the book that got him the most attention, is of course These Savage Shores. It’s a beautiful, brilliant and horrifying book. It’s an incredibly formal book, built on the 9-Panel Grid. It’s an intricate work of detail, full of wonderful allusions, done with a great deal of research and observation into the ancient historical period it’s set in. It is certainly Ram’s best work and it also features terrific work by Aditya Bidikar (who letters both Grafity and TSS and is a regular collaborator).

TSS moved me a great deal. Its effect was massive, as I’d never read a tale of, again, myths I knew, details I understood, and the past I’d learned about played with and depicted in this lovely medium. It was the first Indian story by an-almost all-Indian creative team that I’d read in American comics. It was a book that made me think “is this what everyone feels like all the time when seeing themselves or those who look like them on the page? Is this what it regularly feels like for so many white comic readers? If so, what a feeling.” It was a powerful, well-told story that felt like the jolt of representation I’d never experienced. “Our stories matter, we’re here.” it seemed to say, loudly.

All of which is why when I read Grafity’s Wall, I certainly didn’t expect to like it more than These Savage Shores. After all, how could I? That was powerful first contact, and the impact was insane. You can’t match that. You can’t top that! Turns out, however, you can. These Savage Shores may be Ram and Aditya’s masterpiece, but I certainly love Grafity’s Wall more.

The best way of putting it is perhaps through Greta Gerwig and her work. She’s a brilliant filmmaker, delivering devastatingly touching stories via both Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019). Little Women is, of course, her opus to date. Her best work up to this point. It’s certainly the work with the broadest appeal, set in a sort of distant historical setting that feels far away for many to start, wherein you’re just transported and you experience something. It’s a hell of a movie. It’s a masterclass in film-making, from its use of color to convey mood and tone, to the more complicated structure, it’s a creator who’s really confident in their voice making something huge, something that is deeply personal, to be sure, but can also be understood by a massive, wide audience.

Deep Dive: 'Grafity's Wall' and the undeniable reality of art

But Lady Bird? It isn’t quite that. It is a powerful, universal story, to be sure and it is a brilliant film. But it didn’t draw in the audience Little Women did and it isn’t quite as populist, in a sense. Lady Bird is a creator at a different point and stage, doing something else. It’s not Gerwig doing this massive, ambitious thing set in a vision of a past. She’s not there yet. Instead, it’s Gerwig doing something seen a lot in early work by creators. She’s telling a story not set in the ancient past or the far future, but in the now. She’s telling, in essence, her story. She’s talking about what it’s like to grow up, what it’s like to have these relationships and conveying her experience. It is the story she had to tell, needed to tell, above all.

That’s what Grafity’s Wall feels like to me. It’s Ram and Aditya’s Lady Bird. It’s not their Little Women, which may technically be the bigger and more beloved work. But I like it a hell of a lot more. It feels raw. It feels personal. It feels like a ritual of exorcism, of expelling out this thing you have within you, that’s always been within you. It’s like a “I need to get this off my chest first” before anything else.

It feels not like the book aware it is a big, key thing, but like a book that’s just being made by a bunch of friends, for themselves and their friends. There’s an “even if just 10 people see this, cool” vibe here, which I don’t think exists with TSS. This feels like a crazy passionate labor of love (not to even imply the other isn’t) that needed doing because there was such a personal stake in this for all involved. And learning the story that the book emerged from a 3 am conversation at a bar between friends did not surprise me. It made sense. This is a book that feels like it’s just brimming with a raw, unfiltered, untamed, unrestrained spirit of “why not? Let’s just do it, dude!”

Grafity's Wall

Dark Horse Comics

And it is such a treat, with everything from pop-art moments to psychedelic title cards (like above) to all kinds of others. Bidikar’s lettering is utterly striking on this book, as each issue opens on distinctive title credits, placed for maximum flair and impact, in a really stylish manner, never the same as the last one. Anand RK is, of course, the key player here we haven’t yet touched on and this is very much his comics debut.  This is a book about a place and so it has to reflect that place, it has to be about feeling, it has to be about the experience, the sensation over the details, the subjective, not the objective. And RK brings that with his art, which isn’t strictly real, despite me describing the work as real. Its reality is in its expression of how things feel, not what they are. And it’s not done because the most accurate, detailed anatomical vision of something cannot be pulled off. RK can easily do it. Take one look at his upcoming work, Blue In Green, with Ram V and Aditya Bidikar:

Blue In Green

Image Comics

RK’s a terrific illustrator, as the above page shows. So what the approach in Grafity’s Wall is is a choice, a very deliberate choice to go loose, rough, to achieve evocation. Blue In Green ostensibly seems to take that notion to the next level with almost a Bill Sienkiewicz-approach, but within the confines of Grafity’s Wall, RK very much opts for less a gorgeous painting-aesthetic and a surreal vibe on the whole, and steeps it more in a dirty, bright and poppy vibe, a bit like Mumbai. Mumbai is rough, it’s messy, it’s like jagged edges, broken glass and a cacophony of noises and smells. And RK reflects that. That the entire thing was drawn on a book with a gel pen was a surprise bit of behind-the-scenes info to learn, but the reasoning, once expressed, made total sense. “I want people to see it, to see all the little things, even the tweaks and the messes,” because that is Mumbai, yeah? That is what this place is. RK brings an unmatched veracity to the text with his lovely cartooning.

Frank Miller, throughout his work, has written about his home of New York and done it in a number of ways to date. Daredevil, particularly The Man Without Fear, is a really good example, wherein Miller, as ever, mythologizes NYC and gives it a grand operatic quality. Ram V’s certainly written about Mumbai a bit, but this is sort of the opposite of that Miller approach. This is not that. Miller is operatic, grandiose, mythic, on an elevated scale. Everything feels bigger, bulkier, heavier, and more primal and powerful. This isn’t operatic. This is honest. This is reality as lived, in all the small moments, both tender and terrifying. This is life as experienced, not explained or defined, far too much to be fully captured and held in a comic, so all you get are those moments. This is about standing in a bulk of rubble, gazing at the stars, wondering what the hell your future’s going to be like. And there is no grand narrative, no larger meaning, no greater design — it just…is. That’s life. That’s Mumbai. That’s Grafity’s Wall. And that’s what RK’s work illustrates, wonderfully.

But what’s also extraordinary is just how well and how much Bidikar’s work blends together with RK’s. Gillen comments in his intro that he assumed RK lettered the book himself, which is very understandable when you read the book, given how much of a key component the lettering is in the telling of the story and how closely it bleeds together with the imagery. Here’s a good example:

Grafity's Wall

Notice how the balloon bleeding into the gutter picks up the reader’s eye right from that OOF! carrying them into the next panel.
Dark Horse Comics

That “OOF!” the way it’s done is an interesting choice. It’s not merely SFX accompanying a moment — it becomes the moment itself. It is actually doing the storytelling here, to convey what just happened. Take that “OOF!” out and it’s just the boy behind the man and then the art gear in the air. You could understand what just happened by the time you read the third panel in the tier below, but there isn’t that pure clarity, nothing to delineate “this is what happened” in that second beat. The lettering does that. And keep in mind, “OOF!” isn’t a sound effect here. That’s not the sound made when you crash into someone. “OOF!” is instead the state, the feeling, of what just happened. The reaction, the response. The work is actively putting you in the state and feeling of the character and of the place he inhabits. And the OOF! rather than being just text, is a graphic element, one with the art.

There are a lot of moments where you could cut the SFX and while the “sound” is gone, with only silence, you still know what happens. The lettering isn’t as integral to the storytelling. This isn’t such a moment. Bidikar and RK work really well in unison. And it is, as should be clear, a labor of love. It’s a painstakingly hand-lettered book and it shows. We talked about roughness, messiness and the lettering is a good fit for that. It goes with a Mixed Case, rather than the traditional comics UPPER CASE or the opposite lower case. And that makes sense to me, for this story, for a place like Mumbai, this messy mix of things, not just rigidly one thing. And doing it by hand, not digital, where it’s much cleaner or assembled, gives it the same touch that RK’s choice to draw this in a book with a gel pen does.

Another good example of the lettering here:

Grafity's Wall

Dark Horse Comics

There are so many potential ways to letter this that would alter and re-shape the tone and mood of the scene. Bidikar’s choice when considered makes a terrible amount of sense and rings the best for me. Prior to this, the two boys in the panel have been in a police station. There’s a constant air of tension, a pressure, like a weight pressing down and crushing the characters, even as they try to breathe through it. So once they run off, make it out, get free and are liberated at last, the explosion of heavy laughter, in those big blocky white words that feel like an expulsion of the weight up into the air, looking upon the sky? Like it’s almost evaporating off them? Spot on. Hard to punctuate that moment better and convey what it is. Take that out and, say, replace it with red-cursive “HAHAHAHA” and you’d get something else entirely. From the slithering, steamy “HISS” of street food to the rough “RATTLE” of cans shaking on a bicycle, Bidikar’s lettering captures not only the setting in question, but also situates the reader within it, transporting them with the mere power of sound.

So much about this book feels authentic and there are so, so many buried details, like words, titles, and other things in the background that scream “no one but someone there could do this.” This is the only book where you see the absolute hybrid monster that is the Indian-Chinese cuisine with insane (if accurate) menus full of all kinds of wacky dishes, as the menu itself seems to have stains of colored water, conveyed on the page. This thing is lived-in, this thing is textured and perhaps that’s the big thing, that’s the big reason I love it more than These Savage Shores.

TSS is a brilliant, masterful work, but one built on research and tracing back to a time long past, one of myth and mystery, painted together from the perspectives of those who came before us. It is an exceedingly personal vision and expression, but it’s not as specific to Ram and Aditya as this. This isn’t set in the ancient past, this is set in the realm of very real experience, the now. This isn’t pulling from research, this is pulling from memory, from the days gone by, from the times lived, from the mistakes made, from the dreams had. And that, that’s work no one else could ever, ever even come close to replicating. That flavor of specificity, that raw purity, that is yours, now and forever. It’s what makes this book for me.

Grafity's Wall

Dark Horse Comics

But as I say that, I also have to praise the colorwork of Jason Wordie here, who brings the world of Mumbai to life here. Wordie’s  Canadian and certainly does not have the lived-in experience with Mumbai that others on the team do, but he manages to capture this world perfectly. He presents this vision of a city that’s swelteringly hot and yet also cool as an unknowable, uncaring monster when he needs to. Working off of just reference from others, he certainly manages to capture the spirit of the whole enterprise. His work leaps to match RK’s loose work consistently, providing a vision of Mumbai that feels just right for the book.

And yet, even as I discuss the various creators involved and the obvious intent in play, the work isn’t that. The work isn’t the intention or the select people behind it, the work is the work. It goes beyond its roots and transcends. It’s not one mind or even two, it’s the weird process of what happens when various minds come together to create something. It’s the bizarre union, or The Third Mind, as Burroughs put it. It’s not Ram, Anand, Aditya or Jason, it’s what happens when you put them together, along with their editor Lizzie Kaye and a bunch of others. And it’s what happens only in that specific context, at that point in time, nowhere else, never again. I doubt some of my readings or comparisons were intended at all and that’s the beautiful, wonderful, and scary thing about art. The reality of it is the fact that it can transcend past whatever the intention, and speak to people in a plethora of ways, now and in the far future, endlessly waiting to be interpreted and reinterpreted. And that’s also where the art of criticism comes into play. That is its purpose, to present a perspective unseen.

I’ve touched on Frank Miller here already, so let’s go a bit deeper into that comparison and idea here. If Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons/John Higgins are known for their 9-panel grids via Watchmen, Uncle Frank is known for his 16-Panel Grids with Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson. The Dark Knight Returns was a text built on that and made extensive usage of it. And it’s worth discussing what Miller does, who Miller is, and how that grid plays there.

Miller was a creator who walked in to shatter the ideas of what had been before. He wanted to change things, take comics in a different direction. And he doesn’t draw pretty, he doesn’t draw “realistic,” — he draws operatic, he draws evocative and he wants you to feel something, even if you don’t necessarily like what it is you’re feeling, even if what you see isn’t pretty or terribly “real”. It’s also why his work being labeled “grounded” has often felt like a shallow observer’s notion. Miller isn’t grounded, he’s operatic. He’s an old man rising above his limits, taking out everyone, riding horses and battling armies, leading legions, until he finally faces a sun god against the backdrop of nuclear apocalypse. There’s far more Richard Wagner in Miller than there is some obsession with being grounded.

Now, the 16-panel grid. Miller, especially in the early period, can be summed up with a statement of his own:

I came in wanting to make comics more cinematic. – Frank Miller

And that’s reflected in The Dark Knight Returns, which is like the epic Hollywood ’80s Martin Scorsese Batman dystopian tale of morality and politics. But the analogies aside, let’s take a look at what his grid is actually doing here:

The Dark Knight Returns vs. Grafity's Wall

DC Comics | Dark Horse Comics

Miller’s using the grid to do something cinema can easily do: slow things down. The same moment drawn or captured in multiple frames, scenes of slow-motion, these are key aspects of filmmaking and animation. It’s a very cinematic way of doing comics here. “What can comics steal from cinema?” is a question very clearly asked here.

Which is to say Miller isn’t necessarily doing or aiming for what many comics these days now do, which is making comics as almost movie pitches or specs. (Although it is worth noting that the aforementioned Man Without Fear originally started out as a movie script, which was adapted into the comics form, re-interpreted through the mind of John Romita Jr.) Instead, it was asking “How can we improve comics? What can we borrow and highlight and pull off? How can we push ahead?” So that comics-as-cinema notion is worth keeping in mind, as we get into the second half of the image above, the Grafity’s Wall 16-panel grid.

If Miller’s iconic 16-panel grid is cinematic comics, Grafity’s coming at the whole enterprise totally differently. It’s not comics-as-cinema. It’s comics-as-music. It’s using the natural “rhythm” of the comics form, as each panel is a single “beat” and what you’re getting, in the end, is a rap scene, with the music converted to/for the page. Now, this comics-as-music tradition is HUGE among certain creatives. Chief among them, of course, is Grant Morrison.

Grant Morrison

DC Comics

I’ve always thought of comics as music on paper and you can kind of structure your stories like songs. And it’s the idea of always ending on the same chord or the same key, so you find an image you can repeat throughout the whole issue. Particularly recently in the Batman thing with Kathy Kane, the entire story was written as a song. So you have a Verse and you have a Chorus, then you have a Middle Eight, which is done in the style of Alberto Breccia, the Argentinian artist. Then you go back to the Chorus and there’s a final Verse and then the story’s over. So all of these things, it’s always been in my head, I’m always listening to music when I’m writing. I’m feeling the beat when I’m writing those stories and the voices are going along to that beat, they’re kinda rappin’ along. – Grant Morrison

Morrison was a musician, part of a band and his music can be found easily. And so his own interest and obsession with comics as music makes sense. It’s how he thinks and it’s visible across his work, from his treatment and handling of all of DC mythology, the entire Multiverse, the Omniverse, as just one gigantic cosmic song, made up of vibrations. It’s there in everything from The Invisibles‘ meditation on John Lennon to Klaus or Superman singing their problems away or doing it to summon things.

Kieron Gillen, the man of our intro, is also a big proponent of this school of thought, given his own background in and with music. Gillen used to be a music journalist and critic and his obsessions with music can be found most vividly in The Phonogram, a book about loving music, and The Wicked + The Divine, a book about a fan who loves and a critic who’s skeptical becoming artists, creators, themselves. And rhythm, the importance of rhythm and structure, as within music, can be seen in his work, as shown in the above page. The 1-2-3-4 rhythm is vital to the entire book, so that musical approach is built-in.

All of which is to say, musical comics have lot of big proponents, among whom is also Kelly Sue DeConnick, who does not necessarily think in terms of “visuals,” but does as follows :

“I think in terms of sound, so I think of the tone of my books in terms of music. So Pretty Deadly is Ennio Morricone, and Captain Marvel was Tom Petty. Aquaman is Zeppelin. – Kelly Sue DeConnick

So Grafity’s Wall‘s approach here with the 16-Panel Grid? It has a lot of precedence. It makes sense and is a good way of thinking about it. And given Ram V, Anand RK and Aditya Bidikar’s next work, Blue In Green, is literally a comic about a musician, this bit is encouraging and it’s also why it felt necessary to discuss the music-comics tradition to this extent. But the music part aside, let’s move onto the key thing all of these point to: art and artists.

Grafity's Wall

Dark Horse Comics

‘You can’t unsee it’ says Grafity or Suresh Naik, the figure of the book, and this is fascinating to me. If These Savage Shores was a book tackling monsters and men, Grafity’s Wall is a work dealing with young artists, or more accurately, aspiring young artists. And done in the specific cultural context of Mumbai, as a new rap culture seemed to be taking off just a few years back. There are artists of all kinds in this: a graffiti artist, the titular Grafity, a rapper, a writer and an actress. All of them practice their art, all of them have great big dreams and all of them are trying so hard.

As we’ve established, there is no key narrative in play here. It’s just four short stories, centered around these four figures, interlinked loosely and given a coda by the end. But it’s not about the big, epic things. It’s about those little moments that you held onto, the memories you treasured or were haunted by, the little rejections, discouragement, and the tiny pats on the back that brought you comfort. It’s about how they felt. And it’s laid out across the canvas of this city that seems to be ready to eat you, if you let it.

Grafity's Wall

Dark Horse Comics

Art is hard, art is rejection, art is discouragement, art is being told “no”, “you can’t”, “forget it”, “give up”, “do something else” and doing it anyway. It’s a book where the designs of your dreams fall away into the waters of heartbreak, where the aspirations of the poor seem impossible in a world determined to serve the rich and privileged. It’s a book about what it feels like to dream, the grace and beauty of dreams, and how they shape us and drive us. It’s a book where you stand amidst the broken remnants of the dreams that were torn down, in the abyss of pain and suffering, and you create anyway.

Grafity’s Wall is both the title of the work and a place in it, this singular wall amidst the rubble of broken-down homes of the poor. It’s the rubble of broken hearts, dreams, hopes, and a symbol of poverty.

But you know what? It’s also the empty canvas upon which Grafity makes his beautiful, stirring art. It’s where he creates. It’s the broken wreckage, a graveyard of all that was, a nightmarish abyss, but it’s also a place where art can be made. It’s where imagination and creation are possible, despite how bad it gets, no matter how much it hurts. Grafity’s Wall isn’t just a literal place in the work, it’s an idea. It’s every wall, it’s every empty thing, every wreckage, every broken thing, every blank space that just needs the right spark of Promethean fire.

It’s everything around you, just waiting for you to stand up and envision your dreams. That’s all it takes. And no matter how bad it is, that can help. Your heart may be broken a million times, your spirit may die a billion times, but your art can help and keep you going. Out of the abyss we rise through our art, like a phoenix, forever reborn. An end doesn’t have to be the end, it can also be a new beginning. The wreckage of your dreams, the broken mess you’re surrounded by, the pain you feel now, they need not stop you from dreaming. They need not bar you from creating. Your circumstances do not make you any less worthy, any less valuable. You have every right to dream, to feel, to create, the way so many others do.

So stand up, take a look at the rubble you’re in and pursue that passion. It may take a year, five years, a decade, but art is worth it. In the end, that’s what Grafity’s Wall is. It’s a book of dreams and dreamers, of poor, struggling people hoping for a better tomorrow, of daring to dream, because why shouldn’t they? And practicing art, no matter what art it is, because that’s who they are. Reality is harsh, it hurts you terribly and you may be in your own terrible abyss, but never let that stop you from dreaming. Think not just of what is, but what could be. See not the world just as is, but as it perhaps could be. Imagine forward, as difficult as it is, as trying as it is.

It’s not foolish to dream. Dare to dream, no matter what, because that’s the one thing they can never take away from you. It’s the one great power you have and have always had.

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