A judge of characters

Times Staff Writer

It’s a dark and stormy Tuesday morning in Hollywood, just the kind that draws villains -- purse snatchers, hobgoblins -- from their shadowy lairs to terrorize the gentle citizenry of this vast metropolis. Rain splatters the cavernous soundstages at Sunset Gower Studios and streams off the rooftops, turning sidewalks into rivers.

On the street, a green van sputters and turns but won’t start. And slowly, quietly, masked and caped men and women arrive. And though they’re armed -- the usual stuff: guns, knives, musical instruments, bananas -- it’s easy to see from their smiling and handshaking that these are friendly heroes. Angelenos are safe -- for now.

Anonymous crime fighting is so passe. It’s high time, these superheroes say, that they got theirs. Fame, that is. Money. Sex appeal. So when comic book god Stan Lee announced last June that he would hold tryouts for his new reality show, “Who Wants to Be a Superhero,” set to air in July on the Sci-Fi Channel, word spread almost instantaneously through Internet message boards, comic book conventions and clubs. All told, about 300 superheroes would brave the rain and muck to demonstrate their powers to Lee.

Big Pappa arrives nearly two hours before auditions are set to begin and stands outside, unbothered by the rain. He looks a little like a pimp, with a giant gold “BP” on a chain around his neck, a garish "$$$" ring and a black cape. “My walking stick moves so fast that it can stop bullets,” Pappa explains in a gentle voice. “It can also smash steel, and it emits a laser beam from the bottom. My pocket watch freezes everyone in time, but I can only use it once a day. Most important, I have the power to enchant the ladies.” By day, Pappa is Bob Carey, 37, and he teaches test prep courses at Kaplan.


“Two years ago, my wife started calling me Big Pappa,” he says. “And I started calling her Baby. I constructed all this to irritate her.”

Only 11 contestants will be chosen next week to inhabit a secret lair and compete on various missions and shenanigans, with Lee as judge. But the final prize is enough to make any superhero quiver in her tights: an original comic book about the winner, by none other than Lee himself, and a movie version for the Sci-Fi Channel.

“I’ll probably be the next Donald Trump,” Lee says. “Instead of saying, ‘You’re fired,’ I’ll have to come up with another line. Maybe, ‘Take off your costume!’ I’ll be the ultimate judge. It’s a great responsibility, and I take it very seriously. It’s a great weight on my shoulders and I just hope that I will be up to this test. Because the eyes of the world will be upon us.”

Eventually, the team of producers with clipboards takes pity on the masked masses -- rain is not good for costume makeup -- and invite them into a bare soundstage where lights flicker appropriately. When a superhero whose power is craziness screams gibberish and claims that his straitjacket can fly, a shirtless man in a corner changing into spandex tenses and says, “I think somebody let in a villain!” But that’s not the case, and all remains good and right.

Dominic Pace, a.k.a. the Server, draws his power from professional ire. In his secret identity, he’s a 30-year-old waiter at the Geisha House, see, but by night, “I extort money from the cheap tippers and bad customers,” he explains. He carries a bulletproof silver serving tray, which doubles as a shield and a projectile, and he uses a pepper mill -- which he wears at his hip in a holster -- to “spray pepper like shotgun pellets.” He carries a calculator in an arm holster so that “when I catch the bad guys, I can tally up how much they owe.”

Nearby, Ice Bitch struts her stuff. She’s in a skimpy outfit of see-through fishnet stockings, boots, a black bustier and platinum wig. “I’ve been Ice Bitch for at least 20 years,” says the 42-year-old freelance art director. “It’s all about the eyes, they freeze the bad guys. I am a defender of the environment. I go after litterers, poachers. I teach those who are teachable, and punish those who are not teachable.”

Most of these heroes are giddy about the chance to meet Lee, who arrives at 11:30 a.m. to shake each and every hand. Conventional powers such as flight and invisibility are OK, says Lee, but “we’re not going to ask anybody to fly or leap tall buildings with a single bound. We can’t test that. But what we can test is this: Every superhero has certain qualities and characteristics on the inside, characteristics like courage, character, honesty, integrity, self-sacrifice, compassion, resourcefulness. We can test that stuff.”

However, few superheroes seem interested in showing off their sensitivity and intelligence. One man dressed conventionally in a brown suit and spats uses a motorized pump to blow up a giant balloon and tries to climb into it without the air escaping -- to a resounding “pop!” “Sometimes that happens,” Buster Balloon explains afterward. “But the world needs a vaudeville crime fighter.”


POW! BAM! A woman in white and a man in black begin a vigorous hula-hoop duel in the middle of the room. An accordion player in whiteface wearing a fedora belts out a ballad at the top of his lungs: “Stan Lee, Stan Lee, he’ll make a superhero out of me....” Monkey Woman polishes one of nearly a dozen bananas strapped to her garter belt and fur underwear.

And Man-Fey, probably the oddest of the admittedly odd bunch, turns and dances until the flesh of his behind, barely covered by spandex, shivers. Superheroes gather around to stare and offer queasy congratulations.

“I stand for the freedom to party down when you want to without the man telling you not to,” says Damen Evans, a 24-year-old art student from Laguna Beach. “This costume started out as a bad joke,” he says. “But now I’ve been doing this for five years.”