Monday, September 22, 2014

My Characters: The Ace!

The Ace, drawn by Howard Chaykin
Time for me to enthrall you once again (well, at least I hope you find it somewhat interesting) the history and other information on a superhero character I created in the past which I'd hoped to one day see published, but as it doesn't appear it's going to ever happen, I figure I may as well use it for blog fodder!

In other words, here's The Ace!

The Ace is, in reality, Mark Marvo. Mark was a stage magician, from a long line of stage magicians. His parents were a fairly popular husband-and-wife team that played in Vegas and elsewhere, until they one day chose to retire and live the good life, passing on their act to Mark while they took the time to enjoy traveling around the world. They'd traveled the world before while touring, but never purely for pleasure, and this was going to give them the opportunity to actually see some of the places they'd performed at, but never got to really see other than hotel rooms and stages. They purchased a boat for this purpose, feeling that Mark (who'd grown up participating in their act) well-prepared to keep up the family's reputation.

As it turned out, Mark wasn't quite able to do that. While his act was good, for whatever reason, his solo career wasn't panning out. He went through a succession of assistants who either quit on him or were fired (Mark tended to be rather exacting in his standards), so he ended up performing strictly solo. The highlight of his act involved throwing ordinary playing cards at targets, something other magicians were already doing, but his act also included other feats, although some of them proved impossible to do when his last assistant quit on him, and no replacement was to be found.

Mark found himself working strictly small-time jobs, and had hit rock bottom, or so he thought. He was performing at a nightclub in Tacoma, Washington as part of an attempt to revive the glory days of vaudeville, but all the customers really wanted to see were the dancing girls and stand-up comics. After one performance where he was booed off the stage, the manager decided to let him go.

Dejected, Mark packed his things and started lugging the trunks into his second-hand van, which was miraculously still running even though he'd not been able to properly maintain it, when he was approached by a man who offered him a different type of job. Since Mark didn't have any other job offerings available, he decided to go along with the man to see what he had to say.

The job was, indeed, very different: He was to take on the role of a costumed crimefighter, calling himself the Ace. He would be provided with equipment, a costume, and directions to where crimes were being committed, and foil them. At first Mark was leery of the idea, but the money promised (along with the assurance that the whole thing was being paid for by a council of concerned citizens) seemed to good to pass up, at least until he got back on his feet as a magician again.

Mark was brought to a warehouse that had been converted to be his headquarters and living space. Inside, he was presented with his costume, a customized motorcycle, and a belt with four compartments, each labeled with one of the suits of cards. Each compartment held 52 aces of that suit, each with a different effect or attribute:

Diamonds had razor-sharp corners to them, sharp enough to puncture a tire or cut through a rope.

Spades were weighted and balanced. Throwing them at a target's head would knock them out.

Clubs were impregnated with a chemical compound, activated by contact with body temperature to burst into smoke seconds later.

Hearts had a similar chemical compound that would explode.

The compartments with the chemical-impregnated cards were specially insulated to prevent accidental activation.

The motorcycle was a modified Yamaha with a special muffler that eliminated almost all engine noise, as well as special puncture-proof tires and gyroscope stabilizers. This came with a helmet fitted with a faceshield that, in combination with a special headlight, would allow him to see in the dark without using a standard headlight.

Mark practiced with his equipment, while also training with a martial arts instructor in case he got into hand-to-hand combat situations, and learning the layout of the city of Tacoma and its surrounding area. His instructions were, while operating in his masked identity, to avoid contact with the police to keep his identity safe. Any stolen items recovered from criminals captured would be brought back to the headquarters, where his employers would turn them over to the police anonymously.

Mark wasn't quite sure about all this, but decided to see how things went.

His first several missions went better than he could have possibly expected. The use of his special cards gave him the element of surprise, which he was able to exploit well. The Ace foiled several bank robberies, a few jewel robberies, and even an attempted museum robbery. Mark was confident that he'd be able to continue in this role for as long as his employers were willing to pay him, and used his spare time developing ideas for a new stage act.

He should've been paying more attention to the news. Instead of the stolen goods being returned to the police, they were kept. All the robberies were committed by criminals hired by Mark's real employer, a crime boss named Hugo Prince. He planned the robberies, thus allowing him to tell the Ace where he was needed. The captured criminals were all eventually released by the police, as there wasn't sufficient evidence to hold them over for trial -- and of course, the lack of items that were stolen didn't help matters, either.

Detective John Walker of the Tacoma Police Department had enough by this point. He'd been assigned to lead the investigation into the Ace, and he gathered up what few clues there were to be had relentlessly. He really wasn't happy when Diana Trammel (who billed herself as a "Huntress for Hire") offered her services to capture the Ace. Diana had originally been a successful bounty hunter, and became somewhat of a celebrity as a result. Becoming bored with bounty hunting, she started actively seeking out criminals wanted by the police for the reward money. Walker didn't like the idea of civilians getting involved with police investigations, but she had her PI license, and he couldn't do much to stop her.

The next time the Ace went out to stop a crime in progress, he was spotted by an unmarked patrol car, who called the sighting in. Suddenly, the Ace found himself being chased by the police -- and they weren't being nice about it, either! Fleeing his police pursuers, the Ace took advantage of his motorcycle's ability to get through spaces patrol cars couldn't fit into, and was able to elude capture.

Thinking he was free and clear, the Ace wasn't paying enough attention to the road ahead of him until, almost too late, he spotted a blind man crossing the street. With a split-second to think about it, the Ace violently twisted the wheel of the cycle, avoiding hitting the man, but sending his cycle out of control, crashing it into a dumpster and disabling the engine. Scraped up and bleeding from the crash, the Ace felt he had no choice but to find some place to hide until he could make his way back to the warehouse.

In great pain, he managed to climb over a fence into someone's back yard just before a patrol car arrived at the site of his crash. He hobbled towards the house, which appeared to be deserted, found the back door unlocked, and made his way inside.

It was the Ace's bad luck that this house happened to be the home of Diana Trammel. She'd been studying what she could dig up on the Ace in her basement office when the silent alarm system notified her that her back door had been opened. Taking a pistol with her, she went up to her kitchen and found her quarry laying on the tiled floor, hurt.

Diana was all set to handcuff the Ace and call the police in when he asked her to wait. Something in his voice -- she wasn't sure what -- made her hold off. She promised to give him ten minutes to talk, and then she would call the police.

Mark told her the whole story, including the sudden pursuit by the police, and wondered what the hell was going on. Diana couldn't believe that anyone could be so naive as to get into this kind of situation ("Wait, you mean you believed them when they said they'd give the police the loot, without verifying it?!?"). For some reason, she believed Mark, and helped him bandage up his wounds. After a night's rest, she provided Mark with some clothes (she'd found it helpful to have some men's clothes in her size for some situations -- normally she tended to dress rather stylish and enhancing her appearance, but her fame made it difficult to catch her targets unaware of who she was), and they headed to the warehouse the following morning.

To Mark's shock, the warehouse was empty. Once the word had gone out that the police had recovered the Ace's motorcycle, Prince had the warehouse cleared out. Fortunately for Mark, Diana was able to find a few clues that backed up his story (some tell-tale tire tracks from the motorcycle, among other details). Diana believed him, but she couldn't help him any more than she already had -- it would be bad for her image if it was learned that she'd helped someone she had publicly said she would be pursuing.

Mark was on his own. He figured at least he still had his apartment and his van (which had been parked there before he started his training, not needing it there), but the van had been towed away, and his apartment's rent hadn't been paid in months, so he'd been evicted and his possessions sold to pay some of his overdue rent.

If he'd thought he hit rock bottom before, he now had to readjust his ideas of what rock-bottom really was.

A drawing I did, possibly intending it as a trade paperback cover for collecting the
entire origin story?
Fortunately for him (although it didn't seem like it at the time), the crimefighter Nightfighter, although based in Seattle, had heard about the Ace and his being wanted by the police. In his other personality of Buck Wilkes, Nightfighter had seen Mark perform his act, and although he wasn't impressed, the memory of that helped connect Mark and the Ace in Nightfighter's mind (Detective Walker just assumed that the Ace had already been a crook who was using the gadgets to be a more formidable crook, although he had looked into Mark Marvo because of the card-throwing thing. When he learned the apartment had been abandoned and everything left behind, he assumed that Mark had left town or otherwise disappeared).

It took Nightfighter one full night to track down Mark Marvo, who had been reduced to staying in a homeless camp. None of the other homeless people knew who he was, nor did they care to learn (for his part, Mark wasn't going to admit anything). He confronted Mark the following night (since Nightfighter was still limited to operating on the night of the full moon, he had to get back to Seattle before the end of the night, when the Buck Wilkes personality re-established itself the night before), and once again, Mark had to spill out his story. The two went back to the warehouse, but finding no further clues there, went to Diana Trammel's home -- a risk, but one that they felt they needed to take. Computer access was needed, and the Ace knew Diana had one. As it turned out, Diana wasn't quite satisfied with where she left things with the Ace and the mystery of who had used him, and had done some investigating of her own.

The police had no luck tracing the motorcycle at all -- it had evidently been constructed using pieces from a number of different cycles, with identifying features removed. Diana dug further, and checked out a number of motorcycle shops operating without benefit of business license that made modifications to cycles for motorcycle gangs, and had found the one that made the Ace's cycle, paid for with cash. Knowing when this transaction took place, Diana went to other businesses in the immediate area, bribing the owners to allow her access to their security camera footage from that same day (that's the nice thing about everything being digital these days -- no storage of video tapes meant that nothing got erased as quickly as it used to be) and was able to get a make, model, and license plate for the vehicle used to pick up the motorcycle.

A contact at the DMV provided her with the owner of this vehicle, and that's as far as she'd gotten when the Ace and Nightfighter showed up. The three of them went to the home of the owner of this vehicle, and found the owner there. Confronted with this imposing trio, he sang like a bird -- telling them that it was Hugo Prince who'd hired him to hire someone to build the motorcycle. Knowing that Prince was in charge of the whole thing put the missing puzzle piece in place. Prince had long been suspected of being responsible for a number of criminal activities, but there had never been enough evidence to arrest him -- and he never personally involved himself with anything dirty, choosing to work through a series of middlemen to keep things from being traced back to him (and using fear of reprisal to keep anyone from spilling their guts -- although not enough fear to overcome the combined fear of dealing with Nightfighter, the Ace, and Diana Trammel!).

Diana's previous investigations had determined the abandoned warehouse was owned by a real estate company that was itself owned by a different company in another part of the state... each of these companies was tiny (and in fact, only did enough legitimate business to make for a decent front), and sometimes the connections were tenuous, but using her laptop, Diana was able to make a connection eventually to Hugo Prince (although it was a twisted road). This was enough proof for Diana to bring her findings to the police, but Mark was concerned about making sure he could clear his name as well.

Prince's reputation was such that Diana didn't feel comfortable going with the Ace and Nightfighter to confront Prince in his home, but she did promise to give them up to a certain time to deal with Prince themselves before she turned over her info to the police.

By this point, daylight would be approaching shortly, and Nightfighter had to return back to Seattle before changing personalities, and he made arrangements to meet with the Ace the following night. Diana offered the Ace some cash to pay for a hotel room, so he could get cleaned up, and let him borrow one of her two cars (although she swore that if it got one scratch on it, she'd turn him in to the police herself and toss the Prince evidence away).

The following night, Nightfighter met up with the Ace, and the two of them went to Hugo Prince's palatial estate in Diana's car. They survey the area, spotting surveillance cameras and the like (mostly Nightfighter finding them, as he's more familiar with this sort of thing) and plan their approach. It begins with the Ace using his remaining clubs cards to provide a smoke screen, and they move through the smoke quickly. A further distraction is provided with the last of the exploding hearts cards, thrown a fair distance away from them. These explosions send the armed guards away from them to investigate, leaving a clear path for them to get to the house.

Nightfighter leaves the Ace to search the house for evidence of the plot against the Ace, while Nightfighter deals with the guards himself. As it's a pretty big house, it takes a while for the Ace to even start looking, although he naturally skips searching bedrooms, bathrooms, the kitchen, and so forth, looking instead for an office or any locked room (his escape artist skills, mostly unused in his costumed career, come in handy for picking locks). He discovers that not all of the guards were distracted by the smoke and explosions, but is able to deal with them, although at the cost of losing his weighted spades quickly. He finally finds Hugo Prince's personal office... but Prince is in there himself, waiting. He'd half-expected the Ace to come after him sooner or later, assuming he ever put the pieces together, although it was surprising that it happened this quickly. Prince has a gun pointed right at the Ace, and there'd be no way for the Ace to dodge the shot.

Suddenly, the window to the office shatters, and Nightfighter bursts in. This distraction is enough for the Ace to use his last spade ace to knock the gun from Prince's hand. Prince is knocked out by Nightfighter, and together the heroes search for evidence once Prince is tied up. Not only do they find some evidence of the plot, but Nightfighter tells the Ace that an additional supply of his throwing cards had been found stored in the estate's garage.

Prince regains consciousness, and threatens to reveal who the Ace really is to the police if he's arrested -- at the very least, the Ace will be arrested for his role, unwilling as it might have been, in the crimes. However, the Ace still has one "ace" up his sleeve... Diana Trammel.

Part of the plans that were made prior to the attack involved Diana working with Detective Walker. She was to convince him to keep the Ace's identity a secret, presuming that he could be proved innocent, in order to bring in the bigger "fish" of Hugo Prince. Enough evidence of Hugo's involvement with other crimes has turned up in the office that Prince should be able to be sent to prison for the rest of his life.

The police arrive at the scene, discovering the confusion caused by Nightfighter and the Ace's attack. Walker is leading them (Diana with him), and he notes that just the weapons carried by the guards discovered should provide quite a bit of jail time in and of itself. Nightfighter slips away unnoticed by the police, as he wishes his involvement kept unknown, and the Ace presents Walker with the evidence that has been recovered. Walker figures that they're clear to use this evidence to prosecute Prince and his men, and between what he sees and what Diana's already told him, it seems clear to him that the Ace is innocent.

As Prince and his men are led into police cars and taken away, Diana asks the Ace what his plans are from this point. The Ace isn't sure... he'd actually enjoyed being the Ace, but on the other hand, he's now homeless and has no income at all. Diana suggests that perhaps he could join her, as sort of an unofficial partner of sorts, staying in an extra room of her house until he can figure a more permanent solution out. Hesitantly, he accepts. A story is concocted for the public in which the Ace is presented as a role played by an undercover policeman (identity secret, of course) who had been planted within Hugo Prince's organization. With Diana's help, Mark is able to provide "evidence" that he was out of state during the past few months. Walker doesn't like the subterfuge, but agrees that it's either that, or get Mark into Witness Protection, and Mark doesn't care for that option.

From this point on, the Ace's adventures start getting a bit more proactive. Under Diana's tutelage, he becomes a more effective crimefighter in general, especially after his motorcycle is returned to him (well, it's sold at auction after Prince's trial, and Diana buys it for the Ace). Mark also works at getting his magic act put back together again, although dropping the whole card throwing schtick from it to keep his two identities distinct. With Detective Walker knowing his identity, he's even got a good contact on the police force. Sharing the reward money from working with Diana, he's able to get his own place again, even buying himself a newer van (which he keeps his motorcycle, dubbed the "Acycle" by Diana, in when not in use). The Ace even begins making some public appearances to help improve his image at charitable events.

At some time, Diana surprises the Ace with the news that she's going to be leaving Tacoma -- she's just too well-known there, and there aren't any new challenges for her. She plans on relocating to Los Angeles, and asks the Ace to join her and continue their partnership. However, Tacoma has become home to Mark, and he turns her down. During their partnership, there were always hints that perhaps the two of them could become more than just friends, but it never progressed beyond that. When Diana is gone, each wonders if they should have pursued things more. Diana had helped him figure out how to replenish his throwing cards, having discovered the chemical formulas and processes when Prince was arrested.

The Ace has occasional team-ups with Nightfighter, as I noted back in his entry, and the two of them become friends in a fashion, although their styles tend to clash, the Ace developing a more theatrical style of crimefighting that runs counter to Nightfighter's more serious approach.

Shortly after the formation of the Guardians of Justice, the Ace is recruited to join the team. Membership has its privileges, and it's not long before he gets an "upgraded" Acycle, which is more of hoverbike. This new Acycle has the ability to "shoot" the throwing cards, giving him more offensive capabilities. His costume gets an upgrade as well -- although it still looks the same, this new costume is made of a special protective fiber, and the mask has lenses that automatically adjust to light (one of the standard features of Guardian masks -- nobody's going to temporarily blind them with a flash of light).

Working with the Guardians helps boost Mark's confidence to new heights, despite his lack of superpowers. While he considers trying to revive his magician career, he decides instead to open a magic shop, and offer training for other aspiring magicians. This doesn't sit well with his parents when they finally return from their world cruise, but after talking with him and learning how he's using a lot of his training as the Ace, they realize that he's just taken a different direction from them.

As you've noticed, the Ace's real identity is known to quite a few people -- Diana Trammel, Lt. Walker, Nightfighter, as well as Mark's parents... and of course, Hugo Prince. Even though Prince is in prison, there's always the possibility that he could hire someone to go after Mark and get revenge. This is always a big concern of Mark's, even though it appeared that all of Hugo's men had been imprisoned at the same time (as well as incarcerated at different facilities, as much as possible). Hugo's carefully monitored in prison (having been sentenced to enough sentences that it appears he'd have to live to be 500 to serve them all, including a few Federal crimes), but instead of getting immediate revenge, Hugo waits patiently, waiting until he believes he's been forgotten... and then getting revenge.

I came up with the initial ideas for the Ace back around the summer of 1978, the same summer I came up with Nightfighter. Since then, I've continued to develop the concept, adding more details here and there. Of course, as you may have noticed, the idea of a comic book character throwing cards as a weapon isn't as new an idea as it was then (the Joker's done that bit a few times), although usually it's just razor-sharp cards, used lethally.

I see the Ace as being a very humorous character... many of his adventures would have an oddball flavor to them, especially once he starts encountering costumed villains. One such villain is named Jackknife, a villain who uses a variety of knives in his crimes; another is Chainsaw, whose story is that he used to be a lumberjack until an accident cut his hand off, and it was replaced with a chainsaw (by the way, that story is complete crap, his hand is inside the chainsaw "prosthetic," and the story concocted to cover up the real reason he's attacking the logging industry). His villains tend to be on the gimmick side.

Another aspect of the Ace's career is that, no matter how safe his Acycle is supposed to be, he has a tendency to crash it into garbage cans and the like, as he did once in his origin story. When this happens, he sighs and says, "Not again." Fortunately, he's rarely injured when this happens (it pays to wear a helmet, kids!).

He makes friends easily with his fellow Guardians, especially those members who are involved in entertainment somehow in their secret identities, as they tend to have more outgoing personalities. Still, his greatest friendship is with Nightfighter, and he's instrumental in helping to get Nightfighter the psychological help he needs to overcome his multiple personality disorder and become whole and unified.

An enhanced version of the Chaykin drawing. Don't ask me why the Ace's
hair got colored green here!
My initial plan for publishing both the Ace and Nightfighter was to introduce them in a flip book, officially called Nightfighter and the Ace, but with the covers designed as if they were two separate books. At some point in the publishing run, I figured I'd split the books up into separate titles (although I think I'd retain the numbering for both books).

I have one story, I think I've told this before, that goes with the picture you saw above done by Howard Chaykin. The one San Diego Comiccon I've been to (so far, anyway), one of my main goals was to get professional comic book artists to do drawings of my characters. I tried to pick the artists who were doing drawings appropriately, and I thought that Chaykin, given his work on Dominic Fortune, would be great for a swashbuckling hero type like the Ace. When I approached him and asked him to do this drawing of the Ace (providing him with a sketch of the costume), his reaction was, "You want me to draw that?!?"

Now, for all I know, Chaykin had been having a bad day or something... or maybe he'd expected that anyone wanting a sketch would be asking for sketches of characters he'd worked on, at least. Still, he accepted my money and did the drawing.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel disappointed with the result. The other drawings I paid for at that SDCC were much more finished than Chaykin's (as you've seen in previous installments of this series), plus Chaykin charged more than anyone else I approached. Despite this, I do still treasure the drawing, although I hope some day to have a new drawing done by a different artist of the Ace.

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