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The Legend of Master Legend

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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."

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