If you had asked a past version of myself to imagine a real life superhero, I would probably have conjured up a person dressed as Batman or Wonder Woman posing for pictures with tourists. Now I know better. The mantle of real life superheroism is, in fact, far more expansive than mere modern-day cosplay – featuring costumed do-gooders inspired by comic books, yes, but also a rich history of vigilantes, luchadores, and eco-saboteurs.
In his third book, The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes: And the Fall of Everything Else, Toronto author Peter Nowak looks at the small but growing phenomena of everyday people who don costumes and masks and try to make their cities a little better – more often than not, inhabiting personas of their own invention, with secret identities to match. In some cases, these real life superheroes do indeed fight crime, patrolling rowdy nightlife districts in groups, looking for signs of simmering violence they can prevent from boiling over – peacefully, without an actual fight (or exceptional comic book powers). But the majority of real life superheroing actually resembles homeless outreach and social work, arguably a more effective and impactful way to save lives. Sometimes, these self-identified superheroes don’t wear costumes at all.
Nowak does more than just highlight some of the scene’s more notable characters and exploits; he examines why these people – who, not coincidentally, are mostly American – feel called to take society’s problems into their own hands, and why they think real life superheroism is the most effective way they can create change. I met Nowak from a socially acceptable distance, where we discussed his approach to writing, research, and reporting – and how, in a year of widespread protests against racial injustice, superheroes view their relationship with police.
You’re not the first to take an interest in real life superheroes. Where did you see an opportunity to do something new?
Other books written on this topic document what’s happening – “we hung out with these people, this is what they do,” which in and of itself is quite surprising and to some extent newsworthy – but I don’t think they really went into the whole cultural and social significance, and explained why this is happening. That’s where I saw the opening, the void, the area that I could inhabit.
How did your understanding of who these heroes are and why they do what they do change while writing the book?
The first guy I came across was probably Phoenix Jones in Seattle. You look at the photos of him, and he’s the quintessential real life superhero. He’s got body armour and a costume with colour. I think that was my first assumption of what these people were – people in costumes and masks that had personas, and had basically created characters for themselves. It expanded after that. Probably the greatest example is the California Initiative in San Francisco. They generally don’t wear costumes, but they go out and do needle pickups and self-defence seminars. But they still go under that umbrella label of real-life superheroes.
This is a phenomena that is not very old or very widely studied. Where did your research start?
I started with the easiest – the local guys, the guys who were closest to me, to Toronto. I don’t want to say it’s like a secret society, but it is. It’s a very insular group. So you gain this person’s trust, and they’ll put you in touch with this person, and so on and so on. There are the people that you really want to interview, and it’s kind of like – you know those charts that you see in cop movies? Where it’s like, low level street dealer, then middle man, and you want the boss? The boss was Phoenix Jones, but I never got to the boss, because ironically, he ended up [being charged for selling drugs]. [Laughs] So you work your way up that mafia chart.
Past coverage has been skeptical of real life superheroes and their motivations, and many are wary of speaking to the press. How did you gain their trust?
I tried to show them that I was not looking to make fun of them, because I think they get mocked a lot. It was basically showing them a genuine love of comic books – and an understanding of the source material, so to speak – and then trying to reassure them that I’m not trying to sensationalize or make fun of them.
You spent time on patrol with real life heroes in multiple cities, including San Diego and Chicago. What do you gain by being there in person that you can’t get over the phone?
It’s infinitely better, because you get to see them for real. There are a lot of accusations of fake heroes – people who pretend to be real life superheroes but don’t actually go out and do anything, whether it’s “fighting crime” or helping homeless people. People who just put on costumes and take pictures of themselves and put it on Facebook. Seeing these people actually doing stuff...the Xtreme Justice League in San Diego was probably the best example of it. I spent two nights with them, talking to cops on the street – they know them, they’ve seen them before – and shop owners who are like, “These guys are great!” You can’t get that stuff when you’re just talking to them on the phone. Interviewing anybody in person is always better.
What makes a good character? How do you decide who to put front and centre?
It was those people who I found to be legitimate and genuine and honest. There were some that I could tell were putting on airs, were so-called fake heroes. The ones that get more time in the book are the ones that I found to be the most believable.
How do you decide how much history to get into? How do you know when you’re too in the weeds?
Are you trying to say that it was too in the weeds? [Laughs.] It was worse. I had to cut back on that stuff. It’s fascinating to me how many comic books were sold in 1943, but probably to nobody else. The [comics industry history] chapter is the best example of what we’re talking about. I had to, almost on a sentence by sentence basis, read it and think, is this relevant to the larger story? And if it isn’t, it goes. The editors helped with that too.
Police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have fuelled calls to defund and abolish police. How do real life superheroes view the nature of their work – which can sometimes resemble policing – and their relationship with police?
The Grim recently announced that he was leaving the Xtreme Justice League. He’s Black, and one of things he said was, I do this whole superhero thing because I want to prevent getting the cops involved. Because when the cops are involved, [stuff] goes sideways a lot. And have we ever seen that this year. But then you’re doing this real life superhero gig, you are in a lot of ways, acknowledging if not promoting the status quo. Especially those guys who are on the crime fighting side of things. It’s like when Batman is working with Commissioner Gordon, right? He’s an agent of the state, essentially. So now the Grim is gravitating toward doing more activism with Black Lives Matter, as opposed to real life superheroing with the Xtreme Justice League. We’re at an inflection point. Do we want to be agents of the status quo, or do we want to be agents of progressive change? And I think that’s where we’re at now. Regardless of everything else that’s going on in the world, in this tiny little microcosm of real life superheroes, I think there’s a kind of a soul searching going there.
As you were writing, did you take any inspiration from the tone or structure found in the comics you love?
The general populace still treats comic books like kids stuff, but I didn’t approach this as kids stuff, I approached it as a serious subject. So I didn’t want to go too cheesy. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be purely academic, so it was trying to find a medium ground between taking it seriously, but also not hiding my love of the subject matter.
Last question: You describe Batdance – the Prince song from the 1989 Batman soundtrack – as “god-awful.” What do you have against Batdance?!
I love Prince! That was a flippant reference. It comes from love, because I love Prince so much. But what were you thinking Prince? That said, it came on satellite radio a couple of weeks ago. And I was like, yeah, I know every single word!
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