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The Legend of Master Legend

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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?

This story is from the December 25, 2008 - January 8, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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