1025 Superheroes in our midst

The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes, and the Fall of Everything Else
by Peter Nowak

Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2020
$24.95 / 9781771622509

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

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Superheroes in Our Midst: Are we ready for some public-minded vigilante crime fighters? 

The slogan “Defund the Police” became popular in 2020 as thousands of people protested the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans. The outrage included a call for community policing across the United States. For author Peter Nowak, the protests also might have sent a signal to dozens of secret organizations of real-life superheroes, masked men and women with capes flying who are ready to defend society and restore public safety.

Nah! You must be joking. This only happens in the comic books and in Hollywood movies like Superman, Batman or Spiderman. Right? It’s a nice thought having a figure like Wonder Woman or Ironman or even Antman swoop down to save the day. Isn’t it?

Gee willikers, Batman! Don’t look now but a lot of humans are taking over your turf dressed up as superheroes, and they are roaming North America’s crime-ridden urban centres looking to do good. Sometimes it is to battle against violence, but more often than not today’s superheroes fight poverty, homelessness, and other social ills.

I have never run into a real-life costumed superhero and like some of the people Nowak interviewed, I was sceptical. Other than at Halloween, if someone dressed in a Fantastic Four costume came to my door, I’d probably call 911. But Nowak’s research calls for more tolerance of this eccentric behaviour.

There are real-life superheroes all over the world, he informs us, and he helps us understand what motivates such people and what they see as their role in society. “The only thing required to be a real-life superhero is the performance of good deeds,” he writes. “Real-life superheroes endeavour to help people in person, face-to-mask.”

The Trillium Guards of Ontario (TGO)  show off their weatherized gear during a mission in Toronto. L-R: T.O. Ronin, Canadian Justice, Nameless Crusader, and Urban Knight. Photo by Peter Nowak

With the determination of a doctoral candidate, Nowak has searched out such humans, forty-two of them, and shone a sympathetic light on what others may call pathetic individuals. True to his journalistic background and using his investigative skills, he has scoured the world to witness the phenomenon up close.

He tracked three-quarters of them in the US, from Seattle to New Orleans, Florida, and New York. Three were female. Most were young white men. They range in age from 18 to 52 and come from all walks of life. More of them “call San Diego home than any other city in the world.”

Many “consider themselves liberals, but several, including New York’s Dark Guardian and San Diego’s Mr. Xtreme and Urban Avenger, seem more conservative.” Many are labourers, but some are teachers, engineers, or students. Urban Knight is an automation technician from Windsor, Ontario, and LA’s Miss Fit is a porn actress.

The Guardian Angels, a volunteer crime-fighting group and precursor to the real-life superhero phenomenon, patrol the streets of New York in the early 1980s. Curtis Sliwa photo

One of the first groupings of superheroes was New York’s Guardian Angels, a beret wearing, T-shirt clad antidote to the city’s mugging problem. Others invented names and popped up in other crime-infested hot spots. This vigilantism is not new in the U.S. The Ku Klux Klan, with their white hoods, was a grotesque early incarnation. Nowak pegs it to the American Wild West where “regulators” patrolled the region and meted out plains justice.

In the 1960s, the Black Panthers formed in Oakland, CA, to protect African Americans from police brutality. The Lavender Panthers did the same for the gay community of San Francisco. “Americans have historically sympathized with vigilantes,” Nowak says.

New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan, and several Latin American countries have their own versions of real-life superheroes. So does Canada, and Nowak devotes a chapter to explaining the differences between Canada’s version and those in the U.S. Canadians “don’t have military backgrounds and don’t usually wear functional armour,” Nowak says. “They don’t sport F*ck ISIS badges, nor are they even likely to curse in public.”

The Xtreme Justice League (xjl) guards the streets of San Diego’s Gaslamp District. L-R: Grim, Edgerunner, Light Fist, Fallen Boy, Mr. Xtreme, Midnight Highwayman, Brick, and Violet Valkyrie. Peter Nowak photo
Peter Nowak. Photo by Melanie Gillis

Nowak provides a full history of the original comic book heroes of the 1930s and 1940s and traces the roots of the social justice motivations that superheroes derive from the comics. For example, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee and many others were Jewish and depicted comic book superheroes fighting back against geopolitical bullies. Many superheroes, notes Nowak, “never would have existed were it not for widespread anti-Semitism in Europe and especially in the United States in the thirties.”

Psychologists and other expert observers add a sociological or psychological aspect to the book and there is plenty to analyze. “Many real-life superheroes take up their capes as a form of personal therapy.”

Nowak says the goal of superheroes is to have “good triumphing over evil.” Of course, the reverse is always possible as we witnessed on January 6, 2021, when a lot of oddly dressed people wearing masks stormed the U.S. Capitol, resulting in six deaths. And the insurrection might just be starting. There are almost 1,000 hate groups in the U.S. whose members can be incited to don costumes and do public harm.

Nowak acknowledges that things can backfire, but his sympathies are clear: “Superheroes remind us of the good that were capable of.” The problem is that such altruistic ambitions can lead to disastrous real-life results, as he documents.

I admit to reading the book with scepticism. Imagine, coming out of Wonder Woman 84 or the next Batman film to find a masked superhero neutralizing a lawbreaker in your town. But as Nowak has shown, if you do encounter a real-life superhero, he or she is more likely to be handing a pair of socks or some food to a street person. That’s pretty heroic in my book.

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Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by David Laurence Jones, Gary SteevesIan HaysomJohn O’BrianScott StephenChristine HayviceKeith Powell,  Norm Boucher, and Ron Shearer for The Ormsby Review.

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