In Jackson, Michigan, police are turning to a surprising ally in the fight against crime: a trio of spandex-clad crusaders armed with Mace and known as the Crimefighter Corps. The group's de facto leader goes by the name Captain Jackson and keeps his true identity a closely guarded secret. He prefers to call his getup a uniform--picture Batman in yellow gloves and a purple cape--and explains that he's been prowling the streets with his 17-year-old daughter, Crimefighter Girl, since 1999, when he noticed that 'there were no beat cops around.' They were soon joined by Queen of Hearts, an anti-domestic violence activist, and the threesome became regulars at community events, feted by local law enforcement. 'By definition, we're superheroes,' says the Captain.
Nationwide, Captain Jackson and his crew have plenty of company. 'An entire community of real-life superheroes patrols the streets from Los Angeles to Boise, Chicago to Phoenix,' reports Punk Planet (March/April 2007). They gather on MySpace and WorldSuperheroRegistry .com to discuss morals ('Is it ever OK for a superhero to kill?'), gadgets (Jackalope asks for advice on building spring-loaded boots), and defense gear (like arm guards forged from PVC piping). Some attempt to take law enforcement into their own gloved hands, but most just try to make the world worth living in and inspire hope in the rest of us. 'It's all about standing up for what's right,' New York City's Dark Guardian told Punk Planet. 'It's about not throwing garbage on the floor. It's about not walking by homeless people and totally ignoring them.'
These real-life superheroes pursue missions as diverse as the logos flaunted on their chests: In Seattle, reports Rivet (#16), Transit Man rides buses and encourages commuters to ditch their cars. England's Angle-grinder Man made international headlines back in 2003 for helping drivers dismantle wheel clamps on their illegally parked vehicles. And in St. Louis, the 26-year-old art student Glitterous battles the mundane, sticking sparkly magnets onto street signs in an attempt to beautify the city, according to an April Riverfront Times article.
Mediamakers have also latched onto the phenomenon: Last year's The Superman Handbook (Quirk) and Does This Cape Make Me Look Fat? (Chronicle) offer advice on leaping between tall buildings and overcoming your personal kryptonite; the Sci Fi channel's reality show Who Wants to Be a Superhero? enters its second season this summer; and four new superhero-themed blockbusters (one spoofing the genre) will be released next year.
During the Cold War, Americans sought solace in Westerns, in which the cowboys always whupped the 'red' Indians. Today, with diabolical masterminds plotting terrorist attacks from caves and underground bunkers (while weenie politicians wring their hands), the appeal of superpowerful and superethical saviors is strong. Take 22-year-old Tothian, who launched the online Heroes Network and scours the New York/New Jersey area in combat boots, a homemade supershirt, and sometimes a cape (he ditched his mask because it posed 'tactical disadvantages') searching for thieves, rapists, and muggers. Tothian graduated from military school at 16 and now serves in the Marine Corps. He says being a superhero is not much different: 'I'm pretty much fighting the bad guys, saving the world, that kind of stuff.'
When it comes to actually fighting crime, however, most real-life superheroes are more pfftzzz than kraack. Captain Jackson has brandished the Mace tucked into his utility belt only twice, both times against dogs. He and his fearsome trio typically make sure business doors are locked after hours and alert cops to teen vandals. 'In reality, what we are is pretty much neighborhood watch,' says Jackson. Still, police in the town rely on the Corps for backup when they're short-staffed, Jackson says, and he's a
regular at local chamber of commerce meetings. Even after Jackson was nailed in 2005 by a real-life cop for drunken driving, he only hung up his cape for 12 days before 'bigwig officials' begged him not to quit, he says.
Thirty-nine-year-old Kevlex, named for the supermaterials Kevlar and spandex, runs the online World Superhero Registry from his home in Arizona, and he occasionally patrols Flagstaff. He has yet to foil a felon, though he once attempted to nab a shoplifter who was chucking groceries into a bush. 'Any one cop is probably a hundred times more effective than anyone in our group,' he says. 'Real-life superheroes are law enforcement hobbyists, at best.'
Instead, the superhero community, which is dominated by white males in their teens and 20s--nerdy sci-fi fans and former military types--see themselves as symbols of hope in a world where terrorists hijack planes and genocide is overlooked. They're trying to prove that anyone can provoke change, as Kevlex puts it, by 'taking a stand for your version of the world, and doing it in a very public way.'
But that's not to underestimate the sheer glee of prancing down the sidewalk in a mask and a leotard. 'Walking around in a cape with the wind blowing through it is just really cool,' Kevlex says. 'It's kind of an ego boost.' Pilgrims travel thousands of miles to shake hands with the Crimefighter Corps in Michigan. 'People all over the globe utterly go nuts over the opportunity to meet us,' the trio's Queen of Hearts says. 'It's a positive endorphin high. Not even sex can touch the high you get off this.'