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They walk among us- accountants, nurses, lawyers, teachers- mild mannered individuals by all accounts, with spouses, children, families, and friends. Few recognize them in the crush of anonymous folks in the crowd. They are our neighbors, our sisters, our brothers, our fathers.  Everyman John and Jane Does, just doing the best they can.

By day they are just another nameless face. Come night, though, they take off their coats and jackets and blouses and skirts, and put on their capes and cowls, and become something else. Some call them misfits. Others refer to them by more pejorative titles.  But they prefer to think of themselves as something more.

They are superheroes.  Real life superheroes, and while they aren’t exactly in the majority, they are vocal, and their presence looms too large to be ignored.

One such individual is Amazonia Alkidike.  It’s not her real name of course- her real identity is a closely guarded secret, as with many of the individuals profiled for this article.  Yet her story, like many who end up taking up the crime fighting cause, is all too common.

“There was an incident in January 2002 that happened right in front of me that prompted me to start this path,” she said in an email interview. “I saw a woman have her purse snatched right in front of me and she slipped on ice and broke her ankle. I did nothing but stand there and watch. I was horrified and angered at the same time.”

She filed a police report, of course. But then she just as quickly forgot about it. At first the Lowell, Massachusetts resident did nothing and went on with her life. She threw herself into work, family, and many other things, like many of her fellows do. Yet as time went on, she became more incensed and angry at the crime.

One day she happened to be sitting at home watching television when one of her favorite shows came on- Batman.  Whether it was the live action or animated series, we’ll never know.  Regardless, a flicker of inspiration flared inside of her.  Almost immediately, she headed into her closet and fished out all her old comics, searching for that right costume or pose to strike an intimidating look in the eyes of the wicked.

But Amazonia had a problem. By her own account, she is a fit, athletic woman, but not enough to fight crime in earnest. So she drew up a to-do list, got a gym membership, and started on the road to becoming Lowell’s first real life superhero. Her transformation happened in earnest months later.

“There had been an uprise in things like that [the January ‘02 mugging].  I knew something had to be done, so I went on my first patrol in May of 2002 and never looked back.”

She’s since been retired from the life. But in her seven years as a superhero, she’s logged literally dozens of nightly patrols, made acquaintances on the local police force, and developed her own contacts within the Real Life SuperHero community, or RLSH for short.  She is a founding member of the Vixens of Valour and has been active in the Heroes Network, an international registry of like-minded superheroes, as well.

But as with many superheroes, she was made and not born.  Nothing came easy for her.

“When I first started I tried to stop a fight between like six guys.  It did not go well and I almost landed [sic] getting raped. But it did not stop me. In fact I learned new techniques from that including just calling the police and watching. But I will jump in when someone’s life or safety is at risk, no matter what the risks are to me.”

As with many RLSHers, Amazonia’s identity and lifestyle was largely her own creation.  But sometimes, it’s the other way around. For Catman Hero, that was especially true.

“Unlike a lot of other RLSH out there, I didn’t choose my name.  It was given to me,” he says. “I was told that’s the way it was supposed to be.”

Even before he was formally inducted into the inner circle of superheroes, of the idea of Catman Hero, or Catman for short, burned in his soul.

“The idea came from a few old friends of mine and me years ago.  But originally I wanted to be a member of the Pa Kua Heroic Council.  Fate deemed otherwise.”

But Catman kept on keeping on. He formally began training in April 2006, studying  martial arts and working hard to better himself not only physically but mentally and emotionally as well.  A year later, he went on his first patrol.  From that first day on, his has never stopped working to improve himself, and as always, the focus has always remained where it has belonged- on the victims and the authorities, and not himself.

“I won’t ever consider what the police and paramedics do less than what I do,” he says. “I personally believe we [real-life superheroes] draw more attention because we do it with our own individual style. Each of us have our own suit, and each suit says a lot about each hero, their area, their environment, and what they do personally. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.”

Even with the general solidarity expressed by Amazonia and Catman, differences exist.  Between gender, location, upbringing,and overall philosophies, sometimes these differences come into conflict.  Not between individuals per se, but whole communities, or sub-cultures.

And sometimes, those things can get in the way of superheroes doing their job.

“My gender has been a hindrance to what I can do,” Amazonia says,  “but I have learned over the years to compensate for that.”

Compensation is one thing. Yet as women such as Amazonia have learned, compensation can only go so far, even within their own community.

“There are one or two men who come on a little strong or chauvinistic and it is really frustrating to try and talk to them. Because they try to put me and other women in the community down, but I just stick to my guns and answer as intelligently and as politely and positively as I can.”

Even without the gender issue, sometimes it can be easy to be misunderstood.

“People tend to be afraid of me,” Catman says,  “but that’s because they don’t understand me.  When they get to know me, they change their mind.  But they have to go past what they see with their eyes.  Of all the things they have to do, teaching people how to break stereotypes and be themselves is one of the hardest, but by being a genuinely nice guy and trying to inspire as many people as I can.”

Part of the mistrust has to do with the ambivalent attitude many Americans have towards vigilantism.  While many real life superheroes are a far cry from Superman or Batman or even gun toting rebels such as The Punisher and Grifter, sometimes they can run afoul of the law, even when they aren’t trying to step on authorities’ toes.  Whether the mistrust stems from a fear that they will “get in the way,” few can say.

What can be said is that the tensions between cops and real life superheroes is an ever present one.  A 2009 article by the UPI press service detailed San Diego Police Department’s frustrations with two would-be superheroes, Mr. Xtreme and MidKnight.  While most superheroes tend to observe and report, Xtreme and MidKnight went one step further- they got physical with subjects, and unlike the real life cops of Metropolis or Gotham, the SDPD did not take too highly to it.

As one cop quoted in the piece suggested, “Anyone who goes out and tries to assist law enforcement by handing out fliers and being proactive against the criminals is appreciated, but when you physically involving yourself in crime fighting, that’s vigilantism.”

The concern with people taking matters into their own hands is a real one, dating back to the Dark Ages, when police forces as we know them today didn’t exist. The mythical character of Robin Hood is based upon real life vigilantes in England. Then there is the Beat Paoli, a medieval secret society based in Sicily which protected wayfarers and commoners from robbery and other crimes. They are said to be the real life inspiration for the Mafia; most Mafioso from the region trace their origins to the medieval sect, a source of pride for gangsters and non-gangsters alike.

The first recorded masked vigilante group to show up on the scene was the Bald Knobbers, a dozen or so Missouri men who took revenge on violent bushwhackers in the aftermath of the American Civil War. You could say they were the first real life superheroes.  Yet regardless of their name or association, all these individuals- Robin Hood, the Beat Paoli, and even the Bald Knobbers- tended to have their own definitions of what did and did not constitute justice, and in a world without rule of law (medieval Europe and post-war Missouri definitely apply), that tends to be whatever the vigilantes and magistrates think it is.

Without an agreed upon body of law, one person’s vigilante is another person’s freedom fighter, and vice versa, making the very definition of crime suspect. Even today, vendetta killings are commonplace, even in places as far flung as the Philippines and Yemen. Absent the modern, Western-style form of restorative justice, retributive justice is the norm, and the violence devolves into a vicious cycle of killings and reprisals.

Even when a society has a rule of law, there is sometimes a double standard.  The series of lynches by the KKK and the “night riders,” contemporaries of the Bald Knobbers during the late 19th Century, is a prominent example. Between 1865 and 1890, nearly 5,000 individuals lost their lives due to extrajudicial violence, mostly African-Americans, but also Jews, adulterers, and homosexuals.  Republicans who opposed Jim Crow were not exempt either.  Anyone who didn’t fit the prescribed profile of the law abiding, peaceful American was a target, and this continued well into the 1960s, moreover these extrajudicial killings went unsolved for many years, meaning that law enforcement and society at large condoned those acts.

When a society decides that vigilante behavior is not in its best interest, in puts programs in place to discourage those behaviors. Police step up their offenses, and round up perpetrators of crime as well as would-be vigilantes, for the safety of the criminal as well as the vigilante himself, and ergo the entire society. Yet individual acts of vigilante justice do go unpunished.  Bernard Goetz, “the subway fugitive” of New York City, is a prime example.

Yet police have yet to figure out how to deal with the real life phenomenon of the vigilante hero in the cape and cowl. It’s a largely new one. According to a survey of Google news searches from 2000-2009, only six stories on real life caped crusaders were published in that ten year period, out of a total of 281 stories. Most are about the latest Hollywood blockbusters or satirical takes on comic book superheroes. The few that do focus RLSH in general tend to be of a comedic, human interest variety.

Further complicating the relationship between RLSHers, the police, and the public is the definition of “real-life superhero.” Few question that firefighters, police officers and paramedics are heroes.  But are their feats of courage enough to make them superheroes?

The media seemed to think so in 2001.  After the Trade Centers collapsed, there were between 1,000 and 1,700 uses of the term between 2002 and 2009.  Of those, a significant majority referred to the actions of the NYFD and NYPD officers on Sept. 11th, as much as they referred to superheroes, real and imagined.

Yet contrast that with the reaction many have to real life caped crusaders, and the picture is stark. Firefighters? Heroes, superheroes even. But superheroes for real? Man-children (or women-children, as it were) fit to be mocked. The fact that adults, at least those in the West, have a pejorative attitude towards these individuals lies in our concept of what it means to be an adult and a child-specifically, the concept of play.

The concept of play was first diagnosed as universal to humans as far back as the 1890s by psychologist G. Stanley Hall as well as Freud, Jung, and William James. Jean Piaget later redefined it to refer to actions performed exclusively by children. Yet in the West, the concept of play or play acting is largely reserved to children alone. Google Jean Piaget and play-acting- there are literally thousands of articles and dissertations on the subject, but very few on (non-sexual) adult role play.

Those websites that do choose to focus on it tend to focus on the subject of cosplay (which RLSH clearly isn’t for a host of reasons), or sexualized role play.  A Google search of “roleplay and adult,” for example, turns up over 2,500,000 hits ranging from adult-oriented RPGs to paraphilic infantilism.  A similar search in Google Scholar turns up 33,000 hits, everything from interpretive reproduction (?) to deviant sexual behaviors to examinations of pure vanilla MMORPGS like Warcraft.

What this says about our society is unclear, yet regardless of the root causes, the perception of dressing up as a something only children or deviant perverts do is not unlikely to change.  Unfortunately for RLSHers, that is a stigma many are going to have to live with, for now.

In the meantime, Amazonia is doing well. She has her own audio blog on Blog Talk Radio, marking her first foray into internet journalism since her retirement. Catman’s not doing too shabby himself, with a Myspace page and his own following of fans.

As the superhero and super-heroine show, being a superhero isn’t without sacrifice, and isn’t for everyone.  But sometimes, good things come to those who wait. Very good things.

–Jack Winn