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The Legend of Master Legend

With his trusty sidekick, the Ace, he fights to vanquish crime and defend the helpless – if he doesn't get evicted first. Behind the mask of the Real Life Superheroes

December 17, 2008 9:00 AM ET
master legend
Master Legend
Joshuah Bearman

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 superheroes, 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

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