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His transformation into Vancouver's dark knight begins in the shadows, after a long day's work and when his 12-year-old daughter is asleep.

First he puts on the knee pads and protective vest; last is the skeleton mask. Before stepping out the door, he grabs a bag of marbles to trip a foe in hot pursuit. "Old martial-arts trick," he says.

Clad in all black, cape billowing as he prowls the streets looking for trouble, he is no longer a 60-year-old father and husband who fought in Vietnam before becoming a delivery man with a college degree.

He is Thanatos: sworn enemy of drug dealers, gangsters and thieves, and one of a growing number of real-life superheroes.

"We are out there for the people to do good," he says. "And we're real."

A year ago, Thanatos donned his mask for the first time and joined a network of crusaders patrolling their towns and cities across Canada and the United States. He posted his photo on MySpace and introduced himself: "I am fighting a war for good against evil," he wrote. Soon he was on regular nighttime reconnaissance missions, he says, tailing bad guys, gathering evidence and passing tidbits on to police.

Like most real-life superheroes, Thanatos keeps his true identity a secret. What he will say: "I'm not a fat kid in his mom's basement or some geek living out a fantasy."

Hundreds more similarly caped crusaders are listed on the World Superhero Registry, a roster assembled about five years ago that includes the names of more than 200 crime fighters from Hong Kong to Michigan, even Nunavut.

This new breed of superheroes adore graphic novels, can't wait for Watchmen to hit theatres and are mostly men. Among them are friends of the homeless (Shadow Hare), animal activists (Black Arrow), sworn enemies of Osama bin Laden (Tohian) and one who shovels the front walks of Nunavut's seniors (Polar Man).

Most patrol the streets alone, but they have vibrant social lives on the Internet. On website forums such as the Heroes Network, they swap tactics on uniforms (should I wear ballistic protection?), patrolling tips (how should I respond to a casual drug user?) and what to wear. "I don't wear spandex, for a variety of reasons," says Chaim Lazaros, 24, a superhero called Life from New York.

They are united in a mission to fight criminals and make the world a better place. The growing community is divided, however, over how that mission should be accomplished.

Some want to fight bad guys vigilante-style, remaining in the shadows and adding a caped wing to their city's law-enforcement ranks. "I'm prepared to make citizen's arrests if necessary," writes Geist, a superhero from Minnesota, on his Web page. But others advocate a high-profile existence, helping the less fortunate through established non-profit organizations.

The difference in philosophies often results in heated arguments, says Phantom Zero - also known as a 32-year-old call-centre worker from Lindenhurst, N.Y.

"There are people who hate me online. Because they pretty much think they're psychic. Or they have superpowers. They think they're hard-core vigilantes and they don't like people who do charitable acts."

Thanatos has seen arguments erupt over whether real-life superheroes should carry weapons, which he is against. "This is not the movies," Thanatos says. "You can't leave the guy tied up on the police's doorstep like Batman. That will not hold up in court."

When Phantom Zero first went out on patrol, he kept an open mind. Inspired by what he had read about the superhero movement online, he donned a black outfit, a hood and white mask, then set out looking for trouble. He wasn't prepared to "punch someone in the face," he says, but had his cellphone ready to take pictures or call police.

"I never came across crimes worse than public drunkenness and urination," he says. It got worse when he took a job in the peaceful suburbs.

Phantom Zero concluded that "vigilantism is moot." After that he connected with a group of superheroes who focus on things such as helping the homeless and raising money for children's hospitals.

One of the more high-profile proponents of this type of work is Mr. Lazaros, co-founder of a group called Superheroes Anonymous. Their coming-out moment happened in October, 2007, when he summoned a group to New York. Decked out in masks and capes, they picked up trash in Times Square and handed out crime-prevention literature. "It was awesome," he said.

Last year, his league of heroes took a road trip to New Orleans to participate in a Habitat for Humanity project, hammering away in their costumes. Mr. Lazaros plans to make Superheroes Anonymous a registered charity.

Thanatos says he falls somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. He raises money for groups such as the Easter Seals, and every month distributes care packages stuffed with flashlights, food and plastic sheeting to homeless people, which makes his daughter proud.

But he also wants to bring "wrongdoers" to justice by acting as an extra set of eyes and ears for police. Using tools in his "crime kit," he picks up evidence with tweezers and stores it in sterilized plastic containers. His wife, who goes by the name Lady Catacomb, trails behind with a video camera to document any scuffles (there haven't been any to date).

Staff Sgt. Ruben Sorge, who heads up the division that covers the downtown Eastside where Thanatos often patrols, says he's never heard of the superhero. But any citizen who's willing to dole out food and supplies to the homeless is welcome on his beat, he said. And he encourages reports of violence or crime, "no matter what the person's wearing."

Real-life superheroes are often asked why they don't just do good deeds without the costume or masks, and each has his own answer.

Phantom Zero says anyone can help the homeless, but in a costume you attract attention.

Mr. Lazaros agrees, adding it makes him feel more responsible. "It's like, okay, now I'm a superhero," he says. "Now I have to embody these ideals."

For Thanatos, his identity should be irrelevant. "What I do is much more important than who I am."

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