Holy masked avengers: Meet the real-life superheroes

Life: Seeks out injustice to right wrongs - though it's more about helping the homeless than fighting bad guys

Originally published: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/holy-masked-avengers-meet-the-reallife-superheroes-1932467.html
Thwack! Pow! Take that, evil agents of the clamping industry! Here’s a toothbrush, my homeless friend! As the wannabe-superhero film ‘Kick-Ass’ hits cinemas this weekend, Johnny Davis catches up with the real-life caped crusaders who are striving to do good on the mean streets of Britain and America, supported by their long-suffering families (and unforgiving spandex…)
Sunday, 4 April 2010
On a Thursday evening in New York City, Chaim “Life” Lazaros is explaining how a 25-year-old film student becomes a Real Life Superhero. “When I’m dressed the way I am, I’m standing for a higher ideal,” he says. Lazaros is wearing a domino mask, fedora and skinny black tie. From the corners of his waistcoat hang the fringes of a tsitsit – a traditional Jewish undergarment. “By becoming a Real Life Superhero, I can no longer fall to the weakness or the laziness Chaim might have. I live for a higher, stronger, ideal. I have to live up to what Life is.”
As is his wont several times a week, Lazaros has returned to his Upper West Side apartment and exchanged the clothes he wears to class for those of his alter ego. He has become Life (the English translation of the Hebrew word chaim). Now there are good deeds to be done, injustices to be fought, wrongs that must be righted. “Being a Real Life Superhero is an extremely individual calling.”
Yet Lazaros is not alone. There are, according to the recently launched World Superhero Registry, more than 200 men and a few women who dress up as comic-book heroes to patrol their city streets in search of… if not supervillains, then petty criminals and those in need of their help. “I help my community to become better,” Life tells me. “I didn’t see people running out of banks with sacks with dollar signs on them; but there is a large homeless population who need things.”
Soon he will walk half a block to the cathedral of St John the Divine, a vast gothic structure where vagrants gather on the steps. “Private property, so the police can’t chuck them off,” he explains. There, Life will hand out bottled water, toothbrushes, vitamins, chocolate and other items he carries around in his backpack. He does this without ulterior motive. “I’m not trying to convert them to Christianity,” he says, referring to other charity workers. “‘Accept Jesus Christ and I’ll give you a sandwich’ – that’s not really a help.”
For the most part, Life avoids tackling criminals. “If there is a situation and I need to intervene, I’ll certainly do it. But guys in Washington Square Park selling weed to New York University kids? It’s not so terrible. If I can show someone who’s down on their luck that somebody cares about them, that’s a lot more effective use of my talent.”
Captain Clean: Teaches the children of Kent with both T-shirts and raps ('Don't drop litter on the street/It looks a mess and sticks to your feet')

Captain Clean: Teaches the children of Kent with both T-shirts and raps ('Don't drop litter on the street/It looks a mess and sticks to your feet')

Elsewhere in the metropolis, a woman named Terrifica has been patrolling bars and parties in a gold mask, Valkyrie bra, red boots and cape, in an effort to protect inebriated women from men looking to take advantage of them. (In her utility belt, she carries pepper spray, a camera to photograph would-be predators, a journal, and Smarties for energy.) In Mexico City, meanwhile, Superbarrio dons red tights and a red-and-yellow wrestling mask, using his eye-catching image to organise labour rallies and protests, and file petitions. In Iqaluit in northern Canada, Polarman shovels snow off pavements by day, and scours the streets for criminals by night. And in Britain, Angle-Grinder Man, a self-proclaimed “wheel-clamp superhero”, uses his power (his angle-grinder) to cut clamps from vehicles in Kent and London.
You might think these people sound silly and look sillier. You’d be right. But that doesn’t mean they’re not sincere. “It takes a certain mindset not just to say, ‘OK, I want to do something good,’ but also, ‘I want to take on an alternate personality and devote myself entirely to doing good with no boundaries,'” says Life. “To put yourself in an uncomfortable situation takes a huge commitment. And a certain amount of crazy.”
Life is not a Man of Steel from the planet Krypton. He isn’t a science whizz lent superhuman powers by the bite of a radioactive spider. He doesn’t live in a Batcave. Like the growing network of caped crusaders emerging across the world, he is just an ordinary person trying to make a difference. “After 9/11, a lot of people felt very confused, that they had lost control over their world,” says Ben Goldman, founder of Superheroes Anonymous, which alongside the World Superheroes Registry and Real Life Superheroes, acts as an online network where members can swap crime- fighting tips, offer encouragement and debate the pros and cons of spandex. “That event caused them to take control of their destinies and adopt a superhero persona.”
“Right now, people need heroes,” adds Life. “Economic collapse, two wars, and a president who was elected on a platform of change – with a message we were to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps from these problems. Real Life Superheroes personify those ideas and those ideals.”
Couldn’t they help another way? Join a charity, perhaps? Do they need to dress up like Zorro at Mardi Gras? “I’m well aware of how silly the situation is,” says Civitron, aka 28-year-old David Civitarese from New Bedford, Massachusetts, who picks up litter and hands out food parcels to the poor, while wearing a red-and-blue one-piece and white shades. “But by dressing up I’m forcing myself to play a role. I have the opportunity to show off the best of me. I can’t go around partying and drinking and being a jerk.” (In his civilian hours, Civitarese works in a care home for adults with autism. His six-year-old son goes by the super-moniker The Mad Owl.)
The movement’s origins might be American, but Britain is catching up. “When I heard about Real Life Superheroes, I thought it was a bunch of crazy comic geeks. The Beano was the only comic I’d ever read,” admits Optimistica from London, whose MySpace profile reverberates to the theme of Wonder Woman. “But I was won over by the amazing positivity and creativity of the superheroes.” Optimistica adds that her mission is to “spread light and fun”. “And wearing my costume on patrol alone does that.”
“People think it’s a stupid idea and want to leave it at comic-book fantasies,” says Bristol-based Red Falcon, so named after “my fave colour and bird”. “But in a world where even the police aren’t doing their jobs, someone has to step in and help.” Norwich’s Chuck Clown was similarly galvanised into action. “I became a Real Life Superhero because petty criminals had attacked people I knew. They escaped unscathed, but people should never have to escape from an attack in the first place.” Clown’s inspirations are “the original comic-book Joker, not the new Heath Ledger one – but without being mad and evil. And Jonathan Creek.”
Naturally, every superhero needs a costume (though they prefer to say “uniform”). And suppliers such as Xtreme Design FX will knock up a custom all-in-one “battle suit”, silk-lined spandex cape and latex mask for around £160 (prosthetic adhesive not included). Other superheroes prefer to handle the design themselves – like Utah’s Citizen Prime, who spent £2,500 employing an armourer to weld a sci-fi suit out of plate metal. Meantime, “master of gadgetry” Professor Widget is a one-stop shop for wrist-mounted paintball launchers or non-lethal telescoping “bo staffs”. Not that such weaponry is everyone’s cup of tea. “A lot of the time, I just keep an eye on stuff, and if anything happens I’ll step in and give someone a bollocking – verbally – or call the police,” says Clown. “A Real Life Superhero’s most important gadget is their mobile.”
Some say the emergence of Real Life Superheroes represents the final evolution of the hero genre. “Oral traditions, legends, comic books, movies – and now Real Life Superheroes bringing it into reality,” says Civitron. Superhero movies spent decades struggling to get up, up and away; now they’re among the biggest box-office draws. And the most successful – The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Watchmen – focus not on characters with otherworldly superpowers, but ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things.
The same can be said of Kick-Ass, the new film by Matthew Vaughn – the producer of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and director of Layer Cake – which opened in cinemas this weekend. Based on the comic book of the same name, it tells the story of Dave Lizewski, an ordinary New York high-school student who fights crime in a costume he has cobbled together out of a diving suit. “How come everybody wants to be Paris Hilton, and no one wants to be Spider-Man?” ponders comics fan Lizewski, played by Aaron “Nowhere Boy” Johnson – a reasonable question, when you put it like that.
It was a comic shop that inspired the inception of Superheroes Anonymous. One afternoon, Ben Goldman spotted what he thought was a notice announcing “a meeting for superheroes”. It turned out to be an advert for drawing lessons. “But the idea stuck with me,” he says. “I decided to investigate whether there were people in the world who called themselves superheroes.” He went online, and found that there were. Thinking he had chanced upon a good subject for a documentary, he called his film-student friend Chaim. Their movie is still an ongoing project, though it’s been hit by issues both logistical (not every Real Lifer wants to be filmed) and financial (they are scattered all over the world). Yet it has already served to galvanise the cause.
Goldman and Lazaros started organising Superheroes Anonymous conferences. First, their reasons were wholly practical – getting these heroes together made them easier to film. But it wasn’t long before gathering so many altruistic people in one place turned the conferences into charity-fests. In New York, they raised $700 in gifts and distributed them to the kids at St Mary’s Children’s Hospital. In New Orleans, they rebuilt homes with Habitat For Humanity, cleaned up a school and marched against youth violence alongside Silence Is Violence. And in New Bedford, a full weekend’s programming saw them host a community food drive, working with the American Red Cross, and putting together care packages for overseas troops. (In between there was time for martial arts workouts, early-morning runs and evening meetings at the local tapas bar – in full costume, naturally.)
Superheroes Anonymous even provided Lazaros with his new identity. “Entomo the Insect-Man, an Italian Real Life Superhero, defined all the different types of hero,” he explains. “One category was ‘community crusader’; someone who furthers the goal of Real Life Superheroes.” The Insect-Man reasoned that, by “putting his all” into promoting Superheroes Anonymous, Lazaros had “become a superhero” himself. “The day I read that, I put on the mask for the first time.” Life was born.
Today, we are sat on the stoop outside Life’s apartment block. He has been joined by an acquaintance, Dayo Omotoso. Omotoso is a Real Life Superhero in training, and Life is showing him the ropes. He has got as far as his name: The Black Light. “If you want to be a hero, your name can’t be Dracula,” Life reasons. “Your name can’t be Captain Chaos.” Omotoso is still thinking about a costume.
“We gotta go,” Life announces, suddenly.
Camera Man aka Ben Goldman, who is making a documentary with Chaim Lazaros: 'We don't encourage people to look for violent criminals'Together, we walk down to the cathedral of St John the Divine. Life tells us to hang back, and goes off to distribute his waters and vitamins among the homeless. As we watch him work, I find out more about The Black Light. He was born in Nigeria, and came to New York a few years ago. In doing so, he seems to have taken Superman’s edict about “truth, justice and the American way” on board. “In 20 years in Lagos I never called [the local equivalent of the American emergency services] 911 once,” he says. “You’re not inclined to, psychologically. I’ve been under a regime where my president passes away – it was Viagra overdoses and prostitutes [the alleged transgressions of Sani Abacha, de facto Nigerian president between 1993 and 1998]. When I came here, the Monica Lewinsky thing was still going on. My angle was, ‘Did he rape her? Did he put money into a bank account for her?’ No, he just got a blowjob. If any guy in the world deserves a blowjob, it’s Clinton.”
America sounded like somewhere he could make a difference, he said. “I’ve seen Tom Cruise, I’ve seen the Governator, I’ve seen Chuck Norris. I grew up reading The Punisher. When it comes to saving the human race, I would love a black guy to play that role.”
As anyone with a passing knowledge of Spider-Man knows, being a superhero requires great personal sacrifice. The path will be rocky, the way forward strewn with obstacles. Not everyone will make it. Take Mister Invisible from Los Angeles. He hung up his grey one-piece after the costume proved too effective – a tramp urinated on him in an alley. Another LA operative, Black Owl, suffered the ignominy of being collected from a psychiatric ward by his teenage daughter. “Dad forgot for a moment, when faced with police, that he did not have real superpowers,” she told doctors. “He could not just fly away.”
Then there are relationships. Apparently, women find it hard to relate to the higher calling. Interviewed by Rolling Stone, Master Legend – a Florida-based superhero who drives “The Battle Truck”, a 1986 Nissan pick-up with his initials spray-painted on the bonnet, the better to announce the arrival of himself plus his young crime-fighting sidekick Ace Gauge – conceded that his love life had taken a battering. His marriage had ended in divorce, while his latest girlfriend had walked out on him. “She left because she wanted to sit around on the couch and hold hands,” he explained. “Well, that’s not on the cards for Master Legend.”
Finally, there is the issue of the authorities. “I’ve been told by the police that any sort of uniformed presence is a deterrent to crime. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing the uniform of a police officer or a superhero,” explains Life. In America, even attempting a citizen’s arrest itself carries the risk of being liable for false imprisonment, or being charged with kidnapping. And that’s if you don’t get punched in the face first. (As seen in Kick-Ass, when the eponymous ‘ hero’s first criminal intervention does not go too well.) “We don’t live in a city called Gotham,” notes Goldman. “We don’t encourage people to go out and look for violent criminals.” (A spokesperson for the UK police service declined to comment on the Real Life movement here, save to say that “vigilantism is not something we encourage”.)
But perhaps the most cautionary tale of all is that of Dark Guardian. He had to resort to first a change of name, then emblazoning his initials on the front of his costume, as he had failed to make much of an impact on anyone. “This is New York,” explained the newly monikered Chris Guardian. “So half the people didn’t even look.”
Failing to make an impression is not a problem faced by Maidstone’s Captain Clean. But then, his target audience is seven years old. He is employed by Maidstone Borough Council to spread the word about littering. It is the morning-time in Ms Tanner’s class at Harrietsham primary school in Kent, but Ms Tanner is taking a back seat while Alison Sollis, education officer for the council, mans the projector. Behind her hangs a poster
of Captain Clean, who wears a purple mask and a high-visibility jacket. “Keep it Clean!” it advises, “Or I Get Mean!” Sollis kicks off the lesson by asking the children to guess how long various bits of litter (banana skins, soft-drink cans) take to decompose, and explains how the British Hedgehog Preservation Society got McDonald’s to shrink the size of its McFlurry lids; the original containers could trap the critters. Then she holds up a plastic ring holder from a four-pack.
“What do you put in here?” she asks.
“Beer!” says one boy.
“Well, cans,” confirms Sollis.
Soon it is time to meet Captain Clean. “Let’s see who’s outside,” Sollis says. In bounds Captain Clean, aka bodybuilder Tai Tokes Ayoola who speaks with an American twang and seems on a completely different scale to the classroom. The children are stunned. “I think I shocked you all!” he beams. Captain Clean asks everyone to join in with his anti-littering campaign, leads them through a rap (“Don’t drop litter on the street/It looks a mess and sticks to your feet…”) and hands out his “Keep it Clean” T-shirts. Everyone applauds.
Over coffee in the staffroom afterwards, Annika Fraser, marketing officer for Maidstone council, explains Captain Clean’s secret origin. One of her colleagues had been the original Captain Clean. “But he wasn’t muscly or anything, so I had to go out and buy a costume with muscles.” It didn’t really work. “After a year, it got quite smelly.”
“The kids were rugby-tackling him,” Ayoola chimes in. “Wearing that puffed-up old thing.”
So Ayoola was recruited. Originally from Maryland, he had a history of volunteer work – notably dressing up as a superhero to take young burns survivors on summer camp. For his troubles, he had even been invited to the White House. Anyway, he had proven a much more suitable Captain Clean. “I get a lot of questions,” Ayoola says. “Particularly ‘What’s under the mask?’ But I have never had anyone be mean to me. Kids are, like, ‘OK, I don’t want to be on Captain Clean’s bad side.’ I wouldn’t say it’s an element of fear. But you do have that element of ‘OK, he’s doing this – he’s cool.'”
Ayoola is proud to be doing good work, and is up to speed with the Real Life movement. “When people see a Real Life Superhero, they get excited and follow through with the message,” he says. He has two more classes to visit this morning, so I leave him to it. “You keep it clean!” he booms after me.
Back to New York, where Life has finished his rounds of the homeless. The Dark Light is suitably impressed; give it another month, he figures, and he’ll be active himself. Meanwhile, Life says he has big hopes for the global movement. Recruitment is on the up, and MTV has been developing a series based on their work. “I think it will become very big,” Life says. “I hope there’ll be a Real Life Superhero in every city, someone everyone knows. ‘Hey, there’s someone here who can help me.’ I’m not talking about police, fire, ambulance. But people who are standing for this higher level of altruism.”
Their next step is to get Superheroes Anonymous recognised as a non-profit organisation and a registered charity. To make it more formal. Life explains that it is part of the reason his costume is on the sober side. “I’m trying to sit down with government officials, business people, lawyers; trying to make these meetings happen. I need to look at them with a straight face and say, ‘Listen, I want to bring a whole bunch of Real Life Superheroes together in your property,’ and not get laughed out of the room.”
“You do get the occasional snigger,” he concedes. “But that’s through misunderstanding. Once you explain what you stand for, there is never a negative reaction. People are always, like, ‘Wow. That’s cool. How can I get involved?'”
Or as Kick-Ass himself puts it, “Is everyday life really so exciting? Are schools and offices so thrilling that I’m the only one who ever fantasised about this? Come on – be honest with yourself. At some point in our lives, we all wanted to be a superhero.” And what’s so funny about that?
‘Kick-Ass’ (15) is on general release

The Legend of Master Legend

Everyone has the opportunity to awaken and become who they always wanted to be.
—Green Scorpion
Master Legend races out the door of his secret hide-out, fires up the Battle Truck and summons his trusty sidekick. “Come on, Ace!” he yells. “Time to head into the shadows!”
The Ace appears wearing his flame-accented mask and leather vest; Master Legend is costumed in his signature silver and black regalia. “This is puncture-resistant rubber,” Master Legend says proudly, pointing at his homemade breastplate. His arms are covered with soccer shinguards that have been painted silver to match his mask. “It won’t stop a bullet,” he says, “but it will deflect knives.”
“Not that any villain’s knives have ever gotten that close!” the Ace chimes in.
When Master Legend bursts into a sprint, as he often does, his long, unruly hair flows behind him. His mane is also in motion when he’s behind the wheel of the Battle Truck, a 1986 Nissan pickup with a missing rear window and “ML” spray-painted on the hood. He and the Ace head off to patrol their neighborhood on the outskirts of Orlando, scanning the street for evildoers. “I don’t go looking for trouble,” Master Legend shouts above the engine. “But if you want some, you’ll get it!”
Then he hands me his business card, which says:
Master Legend
Real Life Super Hero
“At Your Service”
Like other real life super-heroes, Master Legend is not an orphan from a distant dying sun or the mutated product of a gamma-ray experiment gone awry. He is not an eccentric billionaire moonlighting as a crime fighter. He is, as he puts it, “just a man hellbent on battling evil.” Although Master Legend was one of the first to call himself a Real Life Superhero, in recent years a growing network of similarly homespun caped crusaders has emerged across the country. Some were inspired by 9/11. If malevolent individuals can threaten the world, the argument goes, why can’t other individuals step up to save it? “What is Osama bin Laden if not a supervillain, off in his cave, scheming to destroy us?” asks Green Scorpion, a masked avenger in Arizona. True to comic-book tradition, each superhero has his own aesthetic. Green Scorpion’s name is derived from his desert home, from which he recently issued a proclamation to “the criminals of Arizona and beyond,” warning that to continue illegal activities is to risk the “Sting of the Green Scorpion!” The Eye takes his cue from the primordial era of Detective Comics, prowling Mountain View, California, in a trench coat, goggles and a black fedora featuring a self-designed logo: the “all-seeing” Eye of Horus. Superhero — his full name — is a former wrestler from Clearwater, Florida, who wears red and blue spandex and a burgundy helicopter helmet, and drives a 1975 Corvette Stingray customized with license plates that read SUPRHRO.
Most Real Life Superheroes are listed on the World Superhero Registry, a recently assembled online roster. (“I can’t say if I will ever fight an army of giant robots or a criminal mastermind,” an Indianapolis superhero called Mr. Silent notes in his entry. “I just don’t know.”) Some superheroes have joined forces in local crime-fighting syndicates: the Black Monday Society in Salt Lake City, the Artemis National Consortium in San Diego and the tautologically titled Justice Society of Justice in Indianapolis. Attempting to unite all the superheroes under one banner are groups like the World Heroes Organization and Heroes Network, which hosts an online forum where more than 200 crime fighters trade tactics (should I wear a mask?), patrolling tips (how do I identify a street gang?) and advice/feedback (can you get bulletproof vests on eBay?).
The Justice Force is Master Legend’s own crime-fighting syndicate, a rotating cast of ad hoc superheroes that seems to include everyone he knows. There’s the Disabler, Genius Jim, the Black Panther and a duo named Fire and Brimstone. At his right hand is the Ace, so named because he always needs “an ace up my sleeve!” The Ace lives with Master Legend at the team’s secret hide-out, a dilapidated clapboard house in a seedy neighborhood outside Orlando. In the back is Master Legend’s workshop, a converted garage where he develops various weapons, like the Master Blaster: a six-foot-long silver cannon fueled by cans of Right Guard that can shoot “a variety of projectiles,” including stun pellets made from plastic Easter eggs filled with cayenne pepper and rock salt. As the superheroes see it, the fact that they can’t project energy bolts or summon force fields only adds to the purity of their commitment. Their heroism, in a sense, derives from their lack of powers. What they have instead is the power to craft themselves anew. “This whole movement is more than just fat guys in spandex,” insists Superhero, himself a brawny guy in head-to-toe spandex.
Once you take on a secret identity, there’s the problem of maintaining it. Many Real Life Superheroes shun press. Some are difficult to reach even by phone. Others allow interviews, but will meet only in costume and in public. The first time I meet Master Legend face-to-mask, for example, it is carefully choreographed by him to occur on the neutral turf of a restaurant in downtown Orlando. “I can’t show you my face,” he says as we meet in front of Gino’s Pizza and Brew, which he has designated as a safe zone. “And there are only a couple places that will let me in with my uniform and mask on. But here they know all about me!”
Why all the secrecy? Compromised methods, safety of loved ones — the “usual issues,” according to Master Legend, that are confronted by superheroes. Don’t forget, he warns, that the public can be ambivalent toward masked avengers. Consider lovable Spider-Man, constantly facing exposure by his own boss, the irascible J. Jonah Jameson. Real Life Superheroes were alarmed by the sad case of Captain Jackson, a “police-sanctioned” hero in Jackson, Michigan — until his DUI arrest and the resulting Jackson Citizen Patriot headline: “Crime Fighter Busted for Drunken Driving.” The article went on to unmask Jackson and his sidekicks, the Queen of Hearts and CrimeFighter Girl. Superheroes nationwide were aghast that a town would turn on its heroes like that, and the incident drove skittish superheroes deeper underground. “You can see why I have to be careful,” says Master Legend.
Behind the counter, the cashier giggles as Master Legend orders a beer. “Master Legend thanks you,” he says, reaching out a gauntleted hand for the beer. When we go upstairs to the small dining room, the young couple at a nearby table stop eating and eye us nervously. Master Legend gestures wildly as he shows me the scar from the time he was shot while saving an old lady being mugged. “They got me here,” he says. “But it was small-caliber. Not enough to take down a superhero!” This is how Master Legend recounts his life, always punctuated with exclamation points, as if every moment is a high-stakes ordeal that ends with some deserving offender getting an “all-night tour of Fist City!” or the business end of his “trusty ol’ Steel Toes!”
If there existed a Master Legend Issue 1, it would flash back 26 years to his origin story in New Orleans, where the teenage hero’s identity was forged in poverty and abuse. “My momma and daddy were not good people,” he says. “Through them, I saw how cruel the world can be.” At age 15, Master Legend began looking after his grandma, a caring Creole woman from the bayou who showed him “the goodness of things.” When Master Legend found some comics in a neighbor’s trash, they became his blueprint. As early as third grade, he used a T-shirt, a magic marker and some old shoelaces to fashion a rudimentary costume, which he donned while protecting classmates from the school bully. He also found a mentor named Master Ray, from whom he learned “kindness and kung fu.”
Master Legend was 16 when fate whispered in his ear. One day he was playing guitar in Jackson Square — “just jamming, you know, picking up some change” — when a purse snatcher appeared. Master Legend instinctively tore after him through the alleys of the French Quarter, where he retrieved the purse. Later that night, he was recognized by the criminal and fought him off again. “That’s when I knew I had to wear a mask,” he says. Being in New Orleans made it easier: “I would dress up in a costume and walk the streets, and no one would notice. I fit right in.” The next day, Master Legend’s grandma ran across a story on the news: “Masked Man Saves Woman.” “The Legend,” he says, “was born.”
At Gino’s, after a few more beers, Master Legend announces that he must attend to some business back at the secret hide-out. After paying, we cross the street. It is early evening. The sun has dipped below Florida’s afternoon cloud cover, and Master Legend’s silver uniform reflects the warm glow of the horizon. He turns and strikes an inadvertently dramatic pose. A passing taxi stops, and the driver cranes his neck to see the spectacle of Master Legend shining at sunset. Then the driver leans out of the window and yells, “Master Legend! How you doing? Say hello to the Ace!”
The next day, I persuade Master Legend to let me visit his secret hide-out. He gives me directions. Or rather, he gives me directions to a nearby liquor store, and in one last step of cloak-and-dagger maneuvering, he pilots me the final few blocks in the Battle Truck, its rear window destroyed during an attack by a hammer-wielding enemy.
When we arrive, the Ace walks out to greet us. Compared to the Fortress of Solitude with its alien zoo or the Batcave’s techno-enhanced crime lab, theirs is a modestly appointed superheadquarters. The pleasant tropical afternoon can’t quite conceal the state of the neighborhood, with its crumbling houses on the verge of being reclaimed by swampland. Inside the hide-out, a TV is propped up in the corner on cinder blocks. Master Legend’s mattress is on the floor. The wall is bare other than a Halloween decoration of a skull. Against one wall is a folding card table covered with a pile of papers and some ninja stars. I pick one up, inciting a gleeful demonstration. “Just a snap of the wrist!” Master Legend says, sending one flying straight into the far wall. “Catch this!” yells the Ace, joining in. “Takedown!” Master Legend says with a clap when I land one successfully. Eventually, Master Legend announces that “ninja time is over,” but not before he freestyles a final behind-the-back throw, nailing the skull on the wall right between the eyes.
Most Real Life Superheroes compensate for their lack of Adamantium skeletons or solar-fueled extraterrestrial strength by claiming extensive martial-arts abilities. Master Legend’s own personal fighting style is called “The Way of the Diamond Spirit,” which he says represents “an evolution of hand-to-hand combat.” As if to demonstrate, he sends a few jabs into the air. “One place you don’t want to be,” he says, tightening his gloved hand into a clenched fist, “is on the receiving end of the No Mercy Punch!”
The No Mercy Punch makes many appearances in the annals of Justice Force history. There was the time Master Legend and the Ace shut down a crack den; the drug kingpin they put out of business; the money Master Legend forcibly retrieved from a thief who stole from a handicapped Vietnam vet; and the recent mission when the Justice Force had to “put the stomp on a child molester and his gang of crackheads.” They had a plan, but things went awry when Master Legend’s brother was captured in the thick of battle by the child molester, whom they call Tree Man Roy. “That’s when we went into chaos mode,” Master Legend says. But they got his brother free and “cut that big ol’ Tree down.”
Master Legend has many more florid tales of adventure, some plausible, like retrieving a friend’s stolen money, others quite outlandish, like the child molester and his gang of crackheads. (For starters, doesn’t it seem like you would have to be one charismatic child molester to attract an entire gang of crackheads to do your bidding?) On the folding table in the hide-out, I notice a police report. It documents the incident with the hammer and the Battle Truck. Sure enough, it describes how two men were taken into custody for attacking the inhabitants of the house at this address. Master Legend provided a statement, below which the officer wrote, “The hammer was placed into evidence.”
Real Life Superheroes have a conflicted relationship with law enforcement. The hardcore types have a somewhat dated, Death Wish-era worldview, as if the cities are overrun by chain-saw-wielding clown gangs and the cops just can’t control the streets anymore. The more civic-minded superheroes imagine themselves as informal police adjuncts, a secret society of costumed McGruffs. One of Master Legend’s most prized possessions is a framed certificate of commendation from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, for the time he and the Disabler snapped into action after Hurricane Charley, helping to clear the roads and rescue people from the wreckage. “We were on the news and everything,” Master Legend says. “The police recognized what we did.”
Since then, Master Legend claims that he has developed a police contact on the inside, his “very own Commissioner Gordon.” To prove it, he gives me a phone number. I immediately call and leave a message; I’ve tried to confirm tales from other superheroes, only to discover that the police have never heard of them.
“I have friends in high places,” Master Legend promises. “When they see the silver and black, they know who’s coming.”
As a means of establishing a superhero identity, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the costume. Real Life Superheroes devote much of their time to researching, procuring, making, comparing, fine-tuning and otherwise fetishizing their looks. The costume itself is the radioactive-spider bite, the source of their abilities. Without a costume, after all, you’re just another do-gooder schmuck. “Anyone can have this power,” Superhero says. “All you need to do is tie a towel around your neck and put a sock over your head and run out the door.”
Master Legend often apologizes for the state of his own uniform. It’s getting worn, the mask peeling in places, and feels unpresentable, like someone getting married in shorts. He tells me that he’s ordered new outfits from Hero Gear, a custom supplier in Minneapolis, but high demand is causing a delay. “If only they were here,” Master Legend says with regret. “You’d see a whole new upgrade for the Justice Force!”
Such upgrading can get expensive. Citizen Prime, a superhero based in Utah, spent $4,000 hiring an armorer to forge a sci-fi suit out of plate mail (with canary-yellow accents). Green Scorpion has a tailored mask from Professor Widget, an ultraclandestine supplier of custom equipment who mysteriously appeared online not too long ago. “No one knows who Professor Widget is, where he lives or how he operates,” says Green Scorpion, whose mask is supposedly formed from a ballistic alloy that Widget pioneered called Mongreltanium. (It is advertised as bulletproof, which is why Green Scorpion paid so much for it, although he would like to do his own “ballistics testing” before official deployment.)
Professor Widget also provides pricey tailored gear, like the steel cane with modular nonlethal attachments that Green Scorpion purchased with last year’s tax rebate. Slightly cheaper are catalogs, which Superhero has used to turn himself into a mail-order Batman; his utility belt bristles with pellet guns, bear mace, a tactical baton and the Arma 100, a nitrogen-powered, 37mm personal cannon.
“A lot of those guys have quite the arsenal,” Master Legend says in admiration as he gives me a tour of his own weapons lab, housed in a converted garage out back. This is where Master Legend tinkers with do-it-yourself creations, like the Master Blaster and the Iron Fist, a nasty-looking metal truncheon he made to fit over his hand and deliver “the good old throat slam.” These days, budgetary constraints limit him to more basic gear: a staff, a sword, a good old-fashioned chain and whatever else he can buy cheaply and modify.
I notice some thick sheaves of foam on the wall of the lab. “Soundproofing,” Master Legend says. “For keeping down the volume.”
“During practice,” says the Ace.
“What kind of practice?” I ask.
The Ace smiles and pantomimes air guitar.
The weapons lab doubles as the practice room for Master Legend’s band, which is also called the Justice Force. “The Ace plays the drums,” says Master Legend. “I play guitar and sing.” The drums are in storage at the moment, but the Ace assures me that the Justice Force has a tight set.
“This guy’s wicked on the strings,” he says, pointing at Master Legend. “There’s not a Steely Dan song that me and him can’t play.”
The Justice Force perform originals, too — more than 100 songs, all written by Master Legend. They recorded a single, with their friend, another associate known as the Pain. It’s called “Epic of the Sunrise.” “Want to hear it?” Master Legend asks.
Back at his computer, Master Legend plays the song and takes me through the verses — a Manichaean tale of near-apocalypse wherein Master Legend is an agent of redemption. “I put how I feel into music,” he says, bobbing along with the riffs he composed to accompany the grand opera of his life. “There is a good world out there, and it’s waiting to be restored. That’s what I’m all about. I really hope I can save the world.”
Saving the world, of course,requires personal sacrifice. Few Real Life Superheroes have families. And those with women in their lives often find that their higher calling can cause rifts. Master Legend has seen a lot of relationships go sour, starting with his wife, who divorced him 10 years ago. “She never believed in what I did,” he says. Then there was his last girlfriend. “She left because she wanted to sit around on the couch and hold hands. Well, that’s not in the cards for Master Legend.”
Another casualty of the superhero lifestyle is career advancement. Unlike Peter Parker, Master Legend has no cover job. He can’t hold down a nine-to-five, he says, because a life on the precipice of action means always being available to answer the call. “I’ll walk right out the door if someone needs me,” he says with a laugh. Three years of trade school exposed Master Legend to electronics, welding and other “skills” he drew on while dabbling in odd jobs over the years: shrimp fishing, tree trimming, roofing, salvage work. Lately, he’s been working as an assistant to elderly people. Here again, Master Legend finds himself locked in a battle between good and evil. “All these people are waiting to kick out the old folks, put them in the old-folks’ home,” he says, working himself up with indignation. “But as long as I’m there, they can’t! And they hate me for that.” For Master Legend, it’s all just another type of superheroing. “These are the two sides of my life, which is really one side,” he says, “and that’s the side of making things right.”
The Ace tells me about his conversion to the cause one night as we fetch some Chinese takeout to bring back to the secret hide-out. (Master Legend can’t come with us, because he still won’t remove his mask in my presence.) “I met Master Legend a long time ago,” the Ace says. They hit it off at a party, bonding over music, and discovered that they had a lot of mutual friends. “Before that,” the Ace says, “I was married. Had a good job.” The Ace made good money setting up stage shows — Nickelodeon events, Blue Man Group, that sort of thing. The Ace used to be a performer himself. In a surprising digression, he tells me he once led a “dance revue” called Male Factor. “This was before Chippendales,” he reminds me. “Not like they do now, with just bump and grind, and no imagination. We had choreographers, like in Vegas. In fact, we even did Vegas! Movies, too. Ever heard of Spring Fever? 1982. Starring Susan Anton. Check it out.”
But that was years ago, before the divorce. And the brief stint in jail last year. I didn’t ask exactly how bad things got for the Ace, but eventually his wife’s boss moved into his house, and he moved in with Master Legend. “That’s when I got sucked into the whole Justice Force thing,” says the Ace. He’d helped Master Legend before, but at a distance and never in costume. “I was getting more and more involved. Then M.L. got me a mask and convinced me to put it on. And that’s when I saw the light. It’s a powerful thing.”
Late last year, when the Ace made his first public appearance, he worried what other people might think. But in the protective warmth of the costume, he says, the fear is quickly overcome. “There’s the flawed you and the good you,” he says, striking a philosophical note. “And this” — he holds up the mask — “gives us the chance to make up for our flaws.”
The windows are rolled down, letting in the sound of cicadas from the dark stand of trees across the empty parking lot. “I know it sounds silly,” he says. “But once you change someone else’s life, even in a small way, it makes you realize you can change things in your own life.”
Back at the secret hide-out, as we lay out the Chinese feast on the table, a friend stops by for a quick conversation with Master Legend. It is dusk, and I watch two silhouettes against the twilight out on the porch, conferring quietly.
“That was the Black Panther,” Master Legend says when the friend leaves. The Black Panther “doesn’t want to get caught up with the press,” so Master Legend didn’t introduce him to me, but make no mistake: Black Panther is a Justice Force fellow traveler. Besides sometimes jamming with the band — Black Panther is known to introduce a “reggae vibe” — he helps out on missions. Not too long ago, Black Panther told Master Legend about a local family that was having financial trouble and was in danger of being evicted. So Master Legend helped raise money to cover their rent. “Sometimes that’s all people need,” he says. “A little boost.”
One day last year, Fire alerted Master Legend to a controversial freeway extension up near Apopka, where the state was clashing with activists over the plight of the gopher tortoises living on the site. “I couldn’t believe it,” Master Legend says. “These are beautiful prehistoric creatures, and they wanted to bury them alive with cement. It’s crazy, but that’s the way of the world. That’s why the world needs us.” The Justice Force joined the protest, costumes and all, and the state was forced to relocate the tortoises. “That was a great mission,” Master Legend says. “Those tortoises are the nicest little guys you’d ever want to meet. They look like living cartoons, just eating their lettuce. They’re adorable.”
But nothing is more satisfying to Master Legend than helping those who are less fortunate. On their last big Christmas mission, he and the Ace filled the Battle Truck with supplies they bought, having pooled funds from the Justice Force, and headed to skid row. When they arrived, they were mobbed. Master Legend reckons that they gave something to every single homeless person in Orlando: toothbrushes, razors, soap, blankets, canned goods, cigarettes, candy. When the bags were empty, he and the Ace headed back to the secret hide-out to celebrate with a few beers.
“We aren’t that much better off than the people we’re helping,” the Ace notes, gesturing to the squalor of the hide-out. Neither Master Legend nor the Ace received any Christmas gifts themselves, but neither of them is complaining. “A lot of people talk about doing right by other people,” says the Ace. “But what are they really doing?”
Despite their successes, things have been hard for the Justice Force lately. “These are bad times,” Master Legend says, opening a few “thirst quenchers” after dinner. I’ve already noticed there are always a few empty twelvers laying around the secret hide-out. Outside the front door, a mountainous pile of crushed cans suggests that Busch is the Justice Force brand of choice.
“This is our one vice,” Master Legend says, “the ol’ brewski.”
“That’s right,” adds the Ace.
“With all our aches and pains from fighting off so many criminals, we gotta have our beers,” Master Legend says.
“Hear, hear!” The Ace hoists his can.
With that, Master Legend unloads about his troubles. It’s tough being a superhero, he says, because your whole life must be lived to a certain standard. Looking out for everyone in the Justice Force involves a lot of thankless work. And then there’s the wider superhero community, which has succumbed to rival factions and bitter accusations over who the real superheroes are and who should lead them to greatness. A superhero named Tothian, who lives with his parents in an undisclosed part of New Jersey, serves as president of the Heroes Network — the self-proclaimed “United Nations of Superheroes.” Tothian has tried to excommunicate several members, including his former partner, Chris Guardian, who then co-founded the Worldwide Heroes Organization. More than a few Real Life Superheroes seem like they’re just one splash of acid in the face away from tormented supervillainy. Several superheroes once suggested kidnapping foreign leaders to make a statement on Darfur. Others pointed out that this was (a) illegal and (b) dangerously unheroic. As a universally respected veteran, Master Legend often plays a diplomatic role, moderating between sides. “I don’t need any more problems from the superheroes out there,” he says. “I have plenty right here.”
Case in point is the secret hide-out. “I mean, look at this place!” Master Legend complains, acknowledging the disarray. “It’s a disaster!” The reason, Master Legend confides, is that he’s being evicted. This is the dominant battle in his life at the moment, one he didn’t choose to fight. The secret hide-out, it turns out, is a rental. The state Department of Transportation has invoked eminent domain to widen the freeway, causing a protracted battle. This is why the place is empty. “They’re gonna tear down the secret headquarters!” Master Legend says, pounding his beer can on the table. “We have to be ready to leave in a moment’s notice.”
Master Legend notes the irony: Having defended the gopher tortoises against a freeway, Master Legend must now fight the very same cunning villain again, this time in his own backyard. “It’s like they’re getting back at me,” he says. “And believe me, they’re coming full force. I’d rather face a dozen men with chains in an alley than deal with the bureaucracy of the state of Florida.” It’s a sobering thing, he says, for a superhero to be constrained by the demands of real life. “I want to be out there taking care of criminals, not packing my stuff in boxes.”
It’s the first time I’ve seen Master Legend dispirited. He’s hardly eaten. But he brightens when talking about the new secret hide-out he just lined up. It’s a house right on the next block. The Ace will move with him. They have to wait to get their displacement check from the state, and pay back some people for storage, and then move their stuff in, but if all goes well, they’ll be up and running soon.
Master Legend decides we should take a tour of the new secret hide-out. When we get there, the place is empty except for a single ninja star Master Legend placed in the center of the floor as a good-luck talisman. We see the bedrooms, the hallway trapdoor (handy in case the duo are surrounded by “an enemy attack”) and the garage that will be transformed into the new weapons workshop and band-practice room. “I know this is a shabby, old place,” he says. “But there is a lot of potential here.” He’s already got big plans for a van outfitted to allow Master Legend to emerge from the back on a motorcycle — the Legend Cycle — while the van is moving, like Knight Rider. Genius Jim, the mechanic, is already scouring his contacts for the van and the Enduro two-stroke that he will turn into the Legend Cycle.
“Can you imagine what that will be like?” Master Legend says. “If everything works out as planned, there will be no stopping us.” Together, he and the Ace admire the empty house with satisfaction. Then we go back to their current empty house, where the Ace offers a toast. And we all drink to the new secret hide-out.
I‘ve forgotten all about Master Legend’s police contact by the time he returns my call, several weeks after my message. “This is the Sergeant,” he says, asking that his name not be revealed. “I was fishing down in the Keys. What do you want to know about Master Legend?”
The Sergeant tells me that one of his patrol officers came across Master Legend running through the bushes in costume one night. The encounter wound up in a report, and that report wound up on the Sergeant’s desk. The officer recorded Master Legend’s describing how he “fights evil” in the streets, and the Sergeant, who’s in charge of vice investigations, took a chance and tracked Master Legend down. Based on the neighborhood, he figured, Master Legend might be a good local contact. “And sure enough,” the Sergeant tells me, “I start getting calls from Master Legend with information. And it checks out. Master Legend has helped put away a few criminals.”
I call Master Legend to tell him I reached the Sergeant. He’s not surprised. “I knew he would come through,” Master Legend says. “He’s a good guy. I’m in the process of gathering evidence against someone else for him. Master Legend does the recon, and the police strike! Just how it ought to be!”
When I ask how things are going otherwise, Master Legend drops some bad news: The Ace moved out. He just wasn’t pulling his weight anymore. “He was depressed because of his personal stuff,” Master Legend says. “I wanted him to start pitching in. That’s part of getting back to normal. It would be good for him. But he was doing less and less, just hanging around all day.”
The situation worsened when the Ace didn’t show up for a few Justice Force missions. Suddenly, he wasn’t fulfilling his duties as a roommate or as a sidekick. “I wasn’t mad,” Master Legend says. “I just tried to talk to him. We all did. The Third Eye gave me good advice about how to approach the situation. But we wound up getting in a fight, and the Ace up and moved out. Just like that. Being here was helping for a while, but I guess he just needs to sort things out by himself.”
The Ace took his drums, technically disbanding the sonic wing of the Justice Force, but Master Legend has already found some new music partners. Among them is Ace Gauge, the new sidekick who has assumed the role of the Ace. The old Justice Force band, Master Legend says, turned out to be “more of a studio project,” whereas this new venture will mean performing again.
“There is just too much going on,” Master Legend says, “to worry about the past.” The costume upgrades finally showed up, for one thing, and the two-tone bodysuit, improved mask and World War II helmet come together strangely well. Master Legend also found a suitable van and located a motorcycle. In preparation for deployment, he had a magnet made for the van door that says Justice Force Special Operations Unit. On the world-saving front, the team is preparing to mount a new type of mission, a public-relations campaign to raise awareness about a strain of staph infection that’s spreading among the homeless in the Orlando area. “It will be like the gopher-tortoise mission,” Master Legend says, “but bigger!” The van will be pressed into service, and Superhero might come in from Clearwater with his Corvette.
This may be the real reason Master Legend inhabits a never-ending comic book in his mind, assigning everyone a character in the grand narrative. His roommate turns into the Ace, his mechanic into Genius Jim, and a friend with some recording equipment into the Pain. And so the reality of Master Legend, a guy who has no job and lives in a run-down house in a crummy neighborhood in Orlando, is transmuted via secret decoder ring into an everlasting tale of heroic outsiders, overcoming the odds and vanquishing enemies.
To the outside world, this makes Master Legend seem like a lunatic. But to the people around him, he is the charismatic center of an inviting universe. “It sounds a little silly,” Superhero says, “but we all want to be part of a better tomorrow.” Or, for that matter, a better today. Being a Real Life Superhero means that Master Legend can get in his Nissan pickup and call it the Battle Truck. He can tape together a potato gun and call it the Master Blaster. He can stand in the porch light of a disintegrating clapboard house, a beer in his hand, and behold a glorious clandestine citadel. And who are we to tell him otherwise?