Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Masters, Legends

In the current Rolling Stone, there's an article (not online yet) about Orlando-based real life superhero Master Legend. ML is one of what the article calls "a growing network of similarly homespun caped crusaders emerg[ing] across the country," a tiny group of men and women who, taking inspiration from Golden- and Silver-Age comic books, dress up in bright colors to fight evildoers. I am not intimately familiar with this movement, despite being a devoted comics reader, but I feel that the article does these guys a disservice. Author Joshuah (nice spelling, bro) Bearman takes the easy way out, writing the profile in a tone that vacillates between mild derision and charmed amusement. According to Bearman, it's nice that these losers want to help people, but not terribly effective. Master Legend and both of his sidekicks - the Ace, and then his replacement Ace Gauge - are given the usual "fun weirdo" treatment. The article takes it as a given that their do-gooding is cute but ultimately useless, the machinations of men rendered impotent by poverty, abuse, and casual alcoholism.

I found the article's condescending tone tiresome, particularly the following passage:
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 everything we did."

Since then, Master Legend claims that he has developed a police contact on the inside, his "very own Comissioner 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 it turns out, Master Legend's police contact later gets in touch with Bearman and confirms that ML has been helpful to him. I just don't think ML, gentle and slightly deluded dork that he might be, deserves the condescension RS heaps on him. His tasks - protecting endangered gopher tortoises, handing out toiletries and clothing to the homeless during a staph infection epidemic, and the aforementioned hurricane relief work - are pretty fucking honorable. Bearman never gets over the hilarity of the fact that ML and his cohorts take their task so seriously. Little jabs sprinkled throughout the text ( "This whole movement is more than just fat guys in spandex," insists Superhero, himself a brawny guy in head-to-toe spandex, yuk yuk) function as winks to the reader: don't worry, we don't think this stuff is any more valid than you do.

But aside from the general DIY lameness of the Real Life Superhero endeavor, I'm not sure these people deserve our ire. Certainly Master Legend and his ilk are illustrative of how incredibly less cool comics are when brought to life - the whole thing is kind of like a community theatre production of Watchmen Live! - but isn't that kind of awesome, too?

I've often been told - mainly by my male friends - that I'm not a real comic book fan because my life as a comics reader began with a grab-bag of EC Comics, Archie comics, and the aforementioned influx of Slave Labor Graphics titles.

(Cut to 13-year-old me, in the SLG IRC chatroom, talking to Lenore author Roman Dirge: Hi! I found out about Lenore the way most people do...
Roman Dirge: Oh? How's that?
Me: From reading JTHM!!!
Roman Dirge: Great.)

And it's true, I didn't grow up obsessively following most of the standard superhero characters, although I did read long runs of Spiderman and Uncanny X-Men, and collected X-Men trading cards. But I loved and love comic books for their unlimited potential. For me, words and pictures aren't about the possibility of super powers, they're about possibility, period; about the potential for everything from familial reconciliation through literature to out-Lynching David Lynch.

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