They can’t run faster than speeding bullets or leap tall buildings in single bounds.
They’re less powerful than locomotives and they’re not mistaken for birds or planes, but they’re superheroes no less.
Phoenix Jones, the Crimson Fist, Midnight Jack, Thanatos, Tothian, Master Legend, Mr. Extreme, Red Falcon… the modern pantheon—gods among us.
Where it all started
April 18, 1938 (75 years ago today), the world was introduced to superheroes for the first time.
Superman arrived in style, dressed in bright primary colors, with a long cape flowing in the wind and a steel-bodied sedan lifted high above his head. He could run, he could fly, he could lift mountains and he was the sum of everything humanity could be both inside and out.
He was an international sensation and an inspiration to children everywhere.
For years, Superman remained the quintessential superhero, the embodiment of truth, justice and the American way, even after hundreds of other costumed crimefighters showed up in the DC and Marvel Universes.
Superman gave birth to the idea of superheroics: a man with powers and abilities far beyond normal men who uses a secret identity and an outlandish costume to save lives and fight villains regular police never could.
This concept resonated with readers.
It connected on an emotional level and offered an ideal to strive toward.
The superhero genre was quickly embraced beyond the confines of comic readers and thrived as a staple of international pop culture, one that’s only grown as time’s progressed.
Superheroes have become so adored, in fact, that three of the top five highest grossing box office opening weekends of all time were superhero movies (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Dark Knight) with an additional 15 in the top 100.
Despite that enormous popularity and prominence in the public consciousness, superheroes for decades remained flat, two-dimensional characters.
Traditional comic book fans have always been content with the simplicity of graphic storytelling. A typical comic book of the 50s, 60s and 70s contained a beginning, middle and end in 26 pages and with little to no moral grey areas. Superman is always good; Lex Luthor is always bad.
But when comics began to hit the mainstream, that had to change.
This new audience was made up of people who had grown used to the deeper stories offered in literature, film and TV, and while they wanted that unique brand of superhero action, the comic book tales lacked satisfying longevity.
In the 1980s, all that changed.
Comic book storytelling shifted focus dramatically from single-issue complete stories to long-running series and story arcs. These gave readers and writers both multiple issues, often 12 spread out over a year, in which to explore and invest in the characters.
Series like X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (1982), The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Watchmen (1987) told stories that tore apart their heroes and showed what made them tick.
The 1980s told us who Batman really was, why he does the things he does, and what his beliefs mean for those around him.
Watchmen went so far as to redefine superheroes themselves, giving serious credence to the non-powered, “masked adventurer” as a superhero. The story’s one superpowered hero, in fact, is shown to be the most helpless of the group—the one who is not only unable to stop catastrophe, but the inadvertent cause of it.
Watchmen even transcended simple comic book status when its collected form was later listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923.
When comic books redefine superheroes, however, without the need for special powers, the characters are no longer confined to pages and panels.
The real world
Enter the real life superhero or RLSH, as they’ve come to call themselves.
These are real men and women, clad in comic-inspired uniforms of spandex and body armor and armed with the latest in civilian crimefighting gear: handcuffs, zipties, duct tape, batons, mace, tazers, binoculars, flashlights and anything else that may be of use.
They follow the laws, perform citizens’ arrests, help the homeless, track stolen property, organize community improvement projects and protect innocent civilians.
A few decades ago, people would have been admitted to asylums for dressing that way and trying to stop criminals.
Today, the paradigm shift of that 75-year-old superhero archetype allows RLSH to patrol the streets fearlessly and to be accepted as true superheroes in modern society.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with two such individuals, Phoenix Jones, leader of the Seattle-based Rain City Superhero Movement team and outspoken advocate for superheroism, and the Crimson Fist, a superhero protecting the streets of downtown Atlanta, GA.
We spoke not only about what makes a superhero a superhero, but also, in true modern comic book fashion, deconstructed their own characters in terms of why they do what they do and what drove them to this life.
According to Jones, what he does is possible because not only have superheroes been redefined, but so has the essence of a superpower.
“The world’s scope of what a superhero was has changed,” he said.
“At one point in time if you said there was a human being who glides with huge wings, you were looked at like you were crazy. But now, we have guys who have squirrel suits. A squirrel suit is essentially the same as Batman’s.
“When science caught up with the minds of the 1960s comic book creators, all of a sudden, superpowers were attainable for everyone. And that’s sort of the world we’re in. We’re not even in the world of no superpowers or humans with extraordinary abilities; we’re in the world of superpowers being legitimately real.”
He added that a superhero was defined by his character, not his ability.
“Now it comes down to: if powers were no question, what kind of man would you be?”
The Crimson Fist gave myself and Tropolitan guest photographer Abrayon Britton the opportunity to join him on one of his night-time patrols.
We walked for four hours around downtown Atlanta, watching him interact with the homeless and local business owners, searching areas he knew were prone to break-ins, violent crime, street fights and drug sales.
It was a quiet night, but the relative inactivity gave us the chance to talk freely with him about superheroes and about himself.
“A superhero is anybody who becomes a symbol of what they believe in,” he said, talking about the commonality between comic book heroes and RLSH.
“Superman, Batman are very different characters, but at the core, they’re the embodiment of an ideal: doing the right thing and not doing it for yourself.”
Deconstruction of RLSH
One of the many conventions of the superhero genre is the origin story, a typically tragic event serving as the impetus for a crime-fighting alter ego.
Superman is the sole survivor of a dead planet, Batman’s parents were killed in front of him, Spiderman accidentally caused his beloved uncle’s death and the Punisher witnessed his wife and son’s murder only because he wouldn’t be a crooked cop.
What makes real people assume secret identities?
The reasons are more inspiring than heartbreaking.
The Crimson Fist said he chose the superhero life because he wanted to repay years of delinquency.
He said he abused drugs, ran with the wrong crowd and was a drain on his friends and community, and after he had quit and realized the error of his ways, he wanted to give back and fight the growing problem he saw in his neighborhood.
“I started realizing I’m the problem,” he said.
“I started realizing I kind of owed it to the community around me to make up for the terrible person that I was to it.”
He said that he began to patrol the streets at night in street clothes when he was 19 years old.
It was about a year into it that he chose a name for himself, however.
He told the story of how he found a young man, about his age, who was breaking into cars and looting them. He chased the boy down, beat him repeatedly and broke his nose, before telling him never to cause trouble in his city again.
He later looked down to see his hands covered in the young man’s blood and knew he’d gone too far. He donned the name and uniform of the Crimson Fist as a reminder to himself never to cross the line again.
“It keeps me grounded. It reminds me of who I’m supposed to be,” he said.
“This superhero thing,” he said, “is not just for the rest of the world. It’s for me, too. It makes me have to be accountable.”
Jones began his costumed crusade because he was tired of apathy and people unwilling to act out against crime.
“I’m also the kind of person that when I see something wrong, I fix it,” he said.
“You know, I have a flat tire, I go out and change the tire. Well, when my car got broken into and my son got hurt in the process, when I called the police, the police really didn’t do anything. I thought to myself I’d treat it just like I’d treat a spare tire and I’m gonna fix this problem.”
He said the transition from average man to superhero was a natural one.
“I guess it was a switch that flipped,” he said, “but the switch wasn’t that hard to flip for me. It was already 90% turned.
“I was always the guy at a club or a party I would walk up and stop somebody from hurting people. If somebody was being abusive, I was always the guy that would step up and say, ‘hey, man, that’s not cool, don’t do that.’”
Jones, who runs a day care for autistic children and fights MMA when not patrolling as Phoenix, also started young.
“When I was 16, I started the business of driving my brother’s drunk friends to and from the bar. And in the meantime… I’d just walk around stopping bar fights.”
When he adopted the Phoenix Jones identity, however, he said it wasn’t as glamorous as comics make it seem.
“My first suit wasn’t cool,” he said.
“I was out there dressed up in a bunch of spandex with my underwear on the outside and a sock tied over my face and a Blues Brothers hat and I was like, ‘yeah, this is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.’”
While his wife was on board with the idea (she’s also a superhero by the name of Purple Reign), others in his life were less enthusiastic.
“My mom was a hard sell,” he said with a laugh.
“I took out a line of credit to buy a car, but ended up using it to buy bullet-proofing. I think she was a little disappointed. The police department was a really, really hard sell. They arrested me, I think, close to 30 times my first year out.”
Why become superheroes?
Both had simple answers.
“I guess it just comes down to I made a choice,” Jones said. “I took a stance and said I wasn’t gonna put up with this kind of criminal crap. I dedicated my life to doing that and I accept all the consequences that come with it. I made a promise and I’m going to keep it. That’s it.”
The Crimson Fist said a superhero identity allowed him to empower others, and that was what he’s all about.
“A superhero is that step above good,” he said. “I don’t care who you are, everyone is inspired by superheroes.
“I don’t want to inspire people to go out and fight crime. I do it to inspire people to do good things.”