The Watchman didn’t arrive in a Batmobile but drove a tan, four-door Pontiac. He was in costume, of course—a trench coat, motorcycle gloves, army boots, a domino mask, and a red hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with a W logo. Journalist Tea Krulos had spoken to him over the phone but never face-to-mask. By the end of the interview, he wasn’t sure if the Watchman was delightfully eccentric or completely crazy. But he was going to find out.
Heroes in the Night traces Krulos’s journey into the strange subculture of Real Life Superheroes, random citizens who have adopted comic book–style personas and hit the streets to fight injustice. Some concentrate on humanitarian or activist missions—helping the homeless, gathering donations for food banks, or delivering toys to children—while others actively patrol their neighborhoods looking for crime to fight. By day, these modern Clark Kents work as dishwashers, pencil pushers, and executives in Fortune 500 companies. But by night, only the Shadow knows.
Well, the Shadow and Tea Krulos. Through historical research, extensive interviews, and many long hours walking patrol in Brooklyn, Seattle, San Diego, Minneapolis, and Vancouver, British Columbia, Krulos discovered what being a RLSH is all about. He shares not only their shining, triumphant moments but some of their ill-advised, terrifying disasters as well. It’s all part of the life of a superhero. As the Watchman explains, “If everyone made little changes in what they did, gave a little more to charity, watched out for their neighbors, we wouldn’t have the problems that we have.”
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About the Author
Tea Krulos is a freelance journalist and creator of the blog Heroes in the Night.
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Heroes in the night
Inside the Real Life Superhero Movement
By Tea Krulos
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2013 Tea Krulos
All rights reserved.
As I walked around the park with the Watchman that cold evening, he told me that he had first adopted his costumed alter ego in the mid-1990s. At the time, he wasn't aware of anyone else who had explored the Real Life Superhero concept. He would mask up and sweep the streets in his car — known as a "rolling patrol" — all alone. And in 1997, feeling generally burned out on the superhero idea, he hung up his cape and called it a day.
What encouraged him to reenter the arena of real life heroics was the incredible discovery that he wasn't alone in his vision. In fact, he found, a whole superhero movement was quickly developing. He returned to costumed patrols in 2008 after deciding that "Wisconsin needed the Watchman again."
By 2008, the RLSH had grown to at least a couple hundred people. It's a hard group to get a head count on, due to their mysterious nature. Often an RLSH will set up an online profile, interact for a few weeks, then, out of boredom or disappointment or whatever other reasons, disappear, his or her online profile falling dormant. Others "retire" and then return, sometimes switching their superhero personas.
All of this confusion leads to a somewhat shaky current estimate of between two hundred and five hundred active RLSH claiming to hit the streets. The majority of these heroes are Americans, located in most major cities coast to coast — but also some not so major ones like Spearfish, North Dakota, and Mountain View, California. There are a small number of foreign RLSH, too, in locations ranging from London to São Paulo. The biggest RLSH populations are found in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, San Diego, and Salt Lake City. Some RLSH are the sole defenders of their city or even their whole state.
The first reaction many have to RLSH is to assume they are all dorky, squeaky-voiced, white male virgins in ill-fitting spandex, living in their parents' basements. Some people think of the title character of the movie and comic book Kick-Ass, an over-the-top, violent interpretation of the RLSH concept. This description does match up in part with some, but in actuality, RLSH span a very diverse demographic. Most of them look like average, everyday people — the kind who might sit next to you on the bus or stand in line in front of you at the grocery store. They include people from their early teens to early sixties and come from all ethnic backgrounds. There are a rapidly growing number of women, so many that they have developed their own web magazine, STAND (Superheroine Tips and Networking Department).
One of STAND's contributors is a professional bodybuilder who smashes the nerdy white dude stereotype with her ripped biceps. Miss Fit is a Puerto Rican woman who lives in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her mission as an RLSH is to promote health and fitness, and her alter ego has placed in several bodybuilding contests like the Miss Universe and Miss Olympia competitions.
The day jobs RLSH hold run the full gamut of American society. I've met caterers, graphic designers, pencil pushers, mechanics, radio DJs, and security guards. Some were college grads, others high school dropouts. I met RLSH who had former military training and others who had been in jail.
The economic gap varies vastly. The simple-living Catman walks around McMinnville, Tennessee, offering to do good deeds dressed in a samurai-style outfit with cat ears perched on his hood. He worked for a long time as a dishwasher at Waffle House and lived at various times in a tent and in someone's basement. On the other end of the scale, Citizen Prime, who lives in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, has a prominent position with a Fortune 500 company. He built an elaborate supersuit of armor that cost somewhere between five and seven grand.
The religious beliefs of RLSH are also an eclectic mix. I've met quite a few Christian superheroes of all denominations, Protestant and Roman Catholic. There are pagan superheroes, and Jewish superheroes who are careful to observe Shabbat. There are atheists and agnostics and ones who have made up their own beliefs.
The RLSH concept has been interpreted by people of all political stripes, from radical liberals to extreme conservatives. I have had RLSH tell me they are anarchists; others are Tea Party supporters. Many are indifferent to politics and cite a frustration with the two major political parties as a motivation to participate in this new movement in the first place.
Nadra Enzi, who also calls himself Captain Black, of New Orleans, argues that the RLSH are a political party unto themselves. They've tapped into a sentiment shared by conservative and liberal activists alike: the belief that the system is ineffective, that there is too much gridlock and red tape and not enough action.
"America has tea parties and coffee parties offering nonpartisan involvement. RLSH do the same, minus political arguing!" he declared in an impassioned blog entry. "We just suit up and serve the community — simple as that. I offer us as an option for anyone sick and tired of political grandstanding while problems go unchallenged. Those preferring really creative outreach to hot air ought to check this Movement out."
Arguments occur between RLSH online often, about patrolling techniques and media policies and any number of other things. In fact, it is not dangerous criminals but "Internet drama" that is ranked as the number one problem for the RLSH movement to gain serious momentum. Strangely, these arguments rarely gravitate toward their politics, religion, or other factors. In fact, these people collaborate on a lot of things in spite of their differences.
One of these odd couples is Treesong of Carbondale, Illinois, and Crossfire the Crusader of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Crossfire is forty-four, has been married for twenty years, and has two daughters and a granddaughter. He is a rather large, rotund man. He is a Southern Baptist who incorporates religious symbols into his costume. He describes his political beliefs as "very conservative." He works as a clerk at a hotel and in his spare time as a Christian children's entertainer, performing as a clown and puppeteer. His hobbies include model building, writing sci-fi stories, and karaoke.
I would describe Treesong, thirty-three, as a hippie superhero. He is a single, bearded, rail-thin vegetarian, a former vegan. Even before he became an RLSH, he legally changed his name to Treesong. He is a Wiccan high priest. He describes his political views as "social anarchism" but also identifies with the Green Party. He works as a cashier at an organic co-op grocery store and has authored three books: collections of poetry and essays on self-improvement. Tree-song's interests include spending time in the outdoors, role-playing games, and karaoke.
So the two seem to have one thing in common. But besides maybe an encounter at karaoke night, they should want to have absolutely nothing to do with each other, right?
"He shows respect for my beliefs and I do the same for his," Crossfire told me in an e-mail, "and that's how it should be."
These two not only know each other but have collaborated as moderators on an RLSH forum, and Treesong was a guest on Crossfire's Internet radio show, Superhero Academy. Treesong shared tips on the show for simple things people could do to save the environment. Crossfire and Treesong got to meet each other in 2010 to hang out in costume at the annual "Superman Celebration" in the small town of Metropolis, Illinois.
"As long as we stick to talking about concrete ways to help others (and the environment)," Treesong wrote in an e-mail, "we seem to be able to work together just fine regardless of our differences."
As time went on, I slowly learned more details about the Watchman's life. The more I found out, the less crazy he seemed, despite his odd hobby. I found out he had been married for more than ten years. He met his wife while he was still enlisted in the army. The couple now have three young children. They both have jobs, and on top of that the Watchman was going to night school for a while to pursue an interest in graphic design and filmmaking.
The Watchman and his family live in a city outside of Milwaukee (he's asked me not to name it) in a nice, modest home on a quiet suburban street. There's a basketball hoop above the garage door, a grill, and a yard with playground equipment. Inside, the kids have their artwork hanging up on the fridge and the living room has a wraparound couch and a pile of toys — superhero action figures, of course — on the floor.
They are the average American suburban family — except for one thing. Instead of going to sleep or watching the game after work, the Watchman goes down to the "man cave" in his basement and carefully puts on his red rubber cowl, red leather gloves, spandex shirt, utility belt, and trench coat. His dog, known as the Watchdog, sometimes joins him. And while his wife and kids are sound asleep, the Watchman cruises the streets, keeping a watchful eye out for the safety of his neighbors.
Comic Book Fans
Like most RLSH, the Watchman is a fan of his comic book counterparts. He told me that one of his dreams is to someday open his own comic book shop. He told me his personal favorite is DC's powerhouse, Superman.
Superman, in fact, is pretty important to this story. That's because the SH part of RLSH really traces back to the Man of Steel and the birth of that great American art form: the superhero comic book.
Action Comics #1 was published in June 1938, and the cover of the comic book depicted something not quite ever seen before. Superman is lifting a car over his head with ease and smashing it into a rock, his red cape floating behind him. A trio of terrified no-goodniks is trying to make a getaway.
There are other mysterious characters that predate Superman — cowboys and detectives like Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and Green Hornet — but Superman was different. He was an alien, an orphan of a doomed planet, born with incredible superpowers. He was also a huge success and launched what became known as the Golden Age of comics.
Competing companies raced to get as many superhero titles on the market as they could, to ride the wave of Superman's selling power. Soon the shelves were overflowing with comics starring Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, the Spirit, Captain Marvel, and more.
These characters soon became our own American mythology, updated versions of the Greek and Roman gods. These warriors were our hope, our champions. They were rays of light in the darkness. The superheroes became the gods of our pop culture religion.
Comic Book Revisionism
Yet if superheroes are godlike, how did they move from the pulp page heavens to wandering around downtown Cincinnati in real life? That might have something to do with what comics creator Bob Burden calls "comic book revisionism."
When I first heard of the RLSH, one of Burden's creations, the Mystery Men, immediately came to mind. Burden's surrealist superhero, Flaming Carrot, first appeared in 1979 and was an oddball interpretation of the American superhero — he wears scuba flippers and sports a gigantic carrot head with a flame shooting out of the top. His utility belt is equipped with a yo-yo and sneezing powder, and one of his few powers is entering a state of "Zen stupidity." The title became a cult hit in the direct comics market in the 1980s.
Burden introduced the Mystery Men, a team of superheroes with subpar, questionable powers in a 1987 story line. The characters were also a hit, spawning a 1999 film adaptation. Burden says they were another step in devolving the superhero mythos.
"The original superheroes were sort of all powerful and mythical," Burden explained in an interview. "The Marvel superheroes were more middle class, more antiheroes. They were revisionist in that sense. It was a revolution. And when they came along, there was a tremendously big middle class and they appealed to middle class kids."
Burden cited an example. "I remember reading a Spider-Man comic where he couldn't find his costume. Aunt May took it and threw it out, so he had to get a costume quick. He went into a department store and got a Halloween costume, and all during the adventure it was coming loose on him and he had to keep using spiderwebs to pull it back up.
"That's not the type of thing that would happen to Superman, who was kind of an all-powerful character, or Green Lantern. Unthinkable.
"With the Mystery Men, I kind of usurped the Marvel middle class by coming up with a working class, blue collar, rust belt superhero. The Flaming Carrot shops at K Mart, hangs out at a bowling alley, and owns a broken-down Laundromat. He catches the catfish dinner special on Friday nights and hangs out in strip clubs. This was another level down from the middle class superhero."
At the same time Burden was working on his surreal action farce, comic book revisionism was also being plotted as an apocalyptic drama by writer Alan Moore.
The Scriptures of Alan Moore
RLSH list a wide variety of literature that has inspired them, but one book is cited as key to the movement in general: Alan Moore's Watchmen, often regarded as one of the best-written comics of all time.
The original series was created in 1986 and 1987 as a twelve-issue series for DC Comics with illustrator Dave Gibbons. The story line deals with intense, real life issues facing its group of dysfunctional superheroes, while a nuclear clock ticks in the background.
The importance of the book was conveyed to me early on by the Watchman, when I asked if his name was in reference to the book.
"As for my name ... it is not directly inspired by Alan Moore's Watchmen, nor am I a Jehovah's Witness who reads The Watchtower. Those are two things that people seem to wonder about. I am a fan of the book though, as are most Real Life Superheroes. Many have called it 'the RLSH Bible,'" the Watchman said.
The influence of Watchmen is notable among the RLSH. One of the iconic symbols from the book is a smiley-face button with a blood splatter on it, found in the first couple pages by one of the story's protagonists, Rorschach, a psychotic vigilante. Rorschach finds the button in the gutter near the scene of the murder of one of his fellow superheroes, the Comedian.
Several RLSH have included a replica of the crime-scene button pinned to their costumes. Others wear a costume similar to Rorschach's — a trench coat, fedora, and mask. Rorschachisms are also popular on social networking sites and as the signature line of forum profiles, lines such as, "We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we are compelled."
I've always been puzzled and a little freaked out by Rorschach's popularity with the RLSH. Rorschach is portrayed as a psychotic, obsessive vigilante who beats people up and breaks fingers to get criminals to spill information. In one flashback, he captures a child molester and murderer and gives him a choice: he can burn to death in the abandoned house he has been using or saw through his handcuffed arm to escape.
The cast of Watchmen resonate with RLSH as complicated, rebellious characters. As in other of Moore's works, like V for Vendetta, the heroes and antiheroes of Watchmen struggle with the idea that the only way to build a better future is to destroy the present. They lead dangerous, clandestine lives and operate outside the corrupt bureaucracy of the government, and it's likely that such romantic, revolutionary ideas appeal to the RLSH.
Batman: The Ultimate RLSH
I conducted an informal poll on an RLSH forum, asking them to share their favorite comic books. Many of their answers reflected their own style. RLSH who sport domino masks and ties are basing their looks on classic pulp heroes like the Spirit or Green Hornet. Some of the creepier, occult-looking costumes are inspired by characters like Spawn or Ghost Rider.
The RLSH mentioned a lot of favorite heroes — Spider-Man, Green Arrow, Daredevil, superheroes famous and obscure, a list that would make Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons swoon. But there was one name that popped up over and over: Batman.
The character has a lot of appeal — he's a mysterious billionaire ninja, the world's richest, smartest man, the best-trained fighter with the coolest crime-fighting gear. Unlike most of his Justice League colleagues, he has no superpowers. He is a mere mortal, a "real life" person defending the night against the forces of evil.
But he does have a huge advantage over the RLSH — he is a work of fiction.
Batman has unlimited resources and technology and can withstand physical trials beyond reality — he is beaten and stabbed, has his back broken, and bleeds buckets of red ink, but still carries on with his one-man war against crime.
The concept of Batman may lie somewhere within the realm of reality, but the reality is hardly a glamorous or safe one.
Excerpted from Heroes in the night by Tea Krulos. Copyright © 2013 Tea Krulos. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Real Life Superheroes,
1 American Superheroes,
2 Boy Scouts and Batmen,
3 Early Prototypes,
4 Great Lakes Alliance,
5 The Secret City,
6 Coming Out of the Phone Booth,
7 A Tapestry of Evil,
8 The Man in the Green Skull Mask,
9 International Justice Injection,
10 Challengers, Assemble!,
11 Brooklyn's Ex-superheroes,
12 Mr. Jones and Me,
13 People Fighting and Superheroes and Pepper Spray and ... I Don't Know,
14 An Age of Heroes?,
Epilogue Masking Up,