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Superhero Fights Crime in the Hood : Activism: The deaths of two friends spurred an artist to combat inner-city violence by creating a comic book character whose experiences are similar to his own.


CRENSHAW — Until last year, Stephen Townsend said he was just another urban dweller for whom violent crime was deplorable, but an abstraction; it was something that happened to other, less fortunate people.

But after two high school friends were slain, Townsend decided it was time to fight back. His weapon of choice: a comic book series featuring an ordinary-Joe-turned-crimefighter named The Hood.

"I've always read comic books, and I especially loved Spider Man because he was a regular guy," said Townsend, a recent art graduate from UCLA. "I wanted my hero to be human like that. A good guy, but with dark qualities we can all identify with."

In May, the Crenshaw native launched the first issue of "The Hood," the first product of his new venture, South Central Comics. The story, titled "A Change From Within," resembles Townsend's own tale of transformation through tragedy.

When the 19-year-old protagonist, Anton Peters, loses his beloved older brother to a gang shootout at a liquor store, he begins to seriously question the world around him and his own direction in life. After being held up at gunpoint and badly beaten, Anton emerges from the hospital with a newfound conviction to stop crime in its tracks.

Townsend's own story, though not quite as dramatic, is as sobering. Early last year, a close friend was killed during an altercation with several trespassers on his front lawn. Then, another good friend and fellow UCLA student was killed in a carjacking. Devastated, Townsend made a vow to finish a comic book project begun in 1991 and infuse it with a passionate, hard-hitting message against crime.

The result was "The Hood," a 30-page comic book with a blazing blue and yellow cover that depicts a glowering thug facing off against the masked hero.

"It wasn't supposed to be so grim, but things happened in my life," said Townsend. "It was hard to get past the fact that I lost two people who had no control over what had happened to them. I wanted to somehow change that powerlessness."

Townsend said he found a new power in his determination to complete the project: He saved enough money--$2,600--to cover printing costs for 3,000 issues, lined up deals with three comic book distributors, and burned plenty of midnight oil finishing the book between regular class assignments. "It got down to living off cans of pennies and nickels," he said, "but I really wanted to get this done."

Townsend sold 2,000 of his issues to distributors and gave the rest to local organizations such as the Brotherhood Crusade and First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Buoyed by the modest success of his first venture--he almost broke even financially and got his product on shelves in New York, Baltimore and other cities besides Los Angeles--Townsend has scripted three more "Hood" stories. With plans to publish the second issue within the next two months, he is now focusing on recruiting artists to illustrate the stories.

"I want to concentrate on the writing," he said. "Illustrating is hard, long work. There are so many ideas I want to convey in comic book form, the visuals have to be effective."

Indeed, "The Hood" touches on many volatile issues in the black community, including negative portrayals by the media, police brutality and the shooting of Latasha Harlins by Korean grocer Soon Ja Du. But in the same world, there is a friendly cop who gives Anton words of advice, young men who attend college and close-knit neighbors who support one another as if they were a family.

"One of the main things I want to show is that not everything is one way," Townsend said. "The easiest thing to do is write off people as being bad or evil, especially if you've had an experience like mine. I wanted to show there's more to the situation than that."

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