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 Hundreds of people have invented their own super­hero personas and actively try to make their communities a better place. Photo: Peter Tangen
Hundreds of people have invented their own super­hero personas and actively try to make their communities a better place. Photo: Peter Tangen


Real life superheroes

Being a superhero isn’t easy. But somebody’s got to do it. Meet these real life superheroes.

Superheroes have never been more popular. Every summer, Hollywood smashes the box office with the adventures of colorfully clad heroes saving the day. The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and the Fantastic Four are all recent examples, with dozens more comic book adaptations heading to TV and film in the near future. But there’s a unique subculture of people walking among us.

They call themselves Real-Life Superheroes, or RLSH for short.

They call themselves Real Life Superheroes. Above, a Wisconsin group, the Challengers, is out patrolling the streets of Madison.

Hundreds of people have invented their own super­hero personas and actively try to make their communities a better place. You may spot them out on patrol in cities around the United States and in small groups around the world, from Sweden to Australia.

Dates back to the 70s

The concept can be traced to “early prototypes” that date back to at least the 1970s. Richard Pesta (Captain Sticky) was a heavyset, flamboyant man from San Diego who used his sparkly, sequined costume to draw attention to consumer rights issues in the early to mid 1970s. Captain Sticky picketed outside a nursing home that he found was abusing elderly patients, yelled through a bullhorn, and attracted media attention that rallied citizens to demand changes.

‘We volunteer in weekly outreach events, used-needle pickup patrols, and ongoing crime prevention’

Terrifica, another prototype from the late 1990s, patrolled bars in Manhattan looking for inebriated women. She would offer to call a taxi for them, walk them home, and talk to them about making rational decisions about whom to go home with.

These people would randomly appear and cause a brief sensation, but the modern movement really moved into high gear right around 2005. That year, discussions on a forum about why superheroes didn’t exist in real life quickly escalated and a small chat room of Real-Life Superheroes was born. The viral nature of the Internet, a new online forum, and a couple of early media reports quickly took the RLSH population from a handful to a dozen.


Category: Public Service, Social Activist
Location: Portland, USA
Identity: Illya King
Status: Retired
Faction: The Alternates

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That number doubled and tripled, and within a few years well over 100 Real-Life Superheroes had appeared. Illya King (Zetaman) was one of the first on the scene. His inspiration came from the My Space profiles of early RLSH figures Mr. Silent and Dark Guardian. 

“I thought it seemed like a cool little niche thing I wanted to be part of,” King recalls.

Soon, Zetaman was patrolling the streets of Portland, Oregon, with his team, The Alternates. Other teams started up in New York City, San Diego, and Salt Lake City. However, the mission of the new superheroes was open to some debate.

Pushing back against the cruel and corrupt 

A common image of a Real-Life Super­hero is a scrawny kid who gets badly beat up by criminals in his homemade costume, a fate they all hope to avoid. Their take on superheroics is different: charity and humanitarian efforts.

The RLSH philosophy is about being a force pushing back against the cruel and corrupt elements in the world. 
“You know, 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,” says “The Watchman”.
“That’s really what we are trying to accomplish.”

These superheroes aren’t out to get supervillains  – unless you consider homelessness to be one. But they do want to change to world.Every year during the San Diego Comic-Con, Razor­hawk from Minneapolis organizes a huge event called HOPE during which the superheroes come together and hand out food and supplies to the city’s homeless population.

That’s a similar mission for the Hero Initiative, a group with branches in several cities around the world.

“We’re a grassroots group of volunteers who have banded together across states and countries to help empower people in their communities by any creative means necessary,” says Rock N Roll, who leads the California Hero Initiative with her husband, Night Bug, in San Francisco.

“We are trained in CPR, de-escalation, self-­defense, and various forms of crisis management,” she says. “We volunteer in weekly outreach events, used-needle pickup patrols, free self-defense classes, and ongoing crime prevention.”

‘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’

Being a real-life superhero isn’t easy. It can be taxing on many different levels. There are the actual missions, the real-life superheroes’ real-life jobs, their real-life spouses, and, well, real life.
Taking an accurate census of active Real-Life Super­heroes is a unique challenge because of the secretive attitude of the individuals involved. Many try the idea for a few months and then drop out because it wasn’t what they expected or because loved ones have talked them out of the lifestyle.
“[The RLSH drama] would start bothering me and my fiancée told me that whatever I did was going to be compared to the actions of the other Real-Life Superheroes, good or bad,” Zetaman says. “Another thing she said was, ‘Illya, what’s so wrong with just being a human being?’ ”
He hung up his cape in retirement and went back to enjoying life as Illya King, human being.

Phoenix Jones

Category: Crime fighter
Place Seattle, USA
Identity: Benjamin Fodor
Status: Active
Faction: Rain City Superhero Movement

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Not like in the comic books

Others are clearly in it for the long haul.
Despite the mostly sensible approach, some Real-Life Superheroes have their Batman fantasies of appearing in a dark alleyway at the exact right moment to save someone in peril. It doesn’t usually go down the way it does in the comic books.

In October 2011, Phoenix Jones and his team, the Rain City Superhero Movement, were patrolling the streets of Seattle when they came across a group of people punching and kicking one another outside a bar. Phoenix immediately dashed into the group and pepper-sprayed the combatants. This act angered and confused the participants, and when the police showed up at the chaotic scene they were not at all happy to see Phoenix Jones, who was arrested for assault. The assault charge was dropped, but he did get a stern warning from the Seattle city attorney.

Despite his run-in with the law, Phoenix Jones was back on the street patrolling the very next night and has continued to patrol (with mixed results) and recruit a crew of anonymous Seattle residents to join him in his efforts.

And there you have it, one of the thrilling facets of the Real-Life Superhero movement: The people standing in front of you waiting for coffee or sitting next to you on the plane looking out the window? They could secretly be superheroes, daydreaming about flying through the air to save the day. 

Or, maybe one of them is you. 


Text: Tea Krulos 


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