Hero Complex

July 2009- FHM Magazine
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Photography by Tim Knox
Written by Josh Woodfin
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Sort of: It’s FHM’s Josh Woodfin, who joined New York’s real-life superheroes to battle street crime. While dressed a bit like a parrot…
May 2009, 10 pm, in New York’s Washington Square Pare. A 6ft 8in, 20st drug dealer steams towards me bellowing, “Mess up my world and I will FUCK! UP! YOURS!” As I spin on my heels, I hear a tearing sound. I’ve split my purple cat suit, the final indignity. The 15-strong group of hollering dealers continue to bear down on me. Then: salvation. At my flank, back-up appears in the form of three real-life superheroes: ‘Dark Guardian’, ‘Z’ and ‘Deaths Head Moth’. They swooped down to face and enemy with superior numbers and probably firepower.
Unbowed, unashamed and unafraid, the heroes advance. Now stood behind my vantage point- a low brush- I see Dark Guardian, in all honesty, a not-very-tall man, standing motionless in front of the behemoth shaking his head. Whatever the beast is saying, Dark Guardian disagrees. The air is thick with the possibility of violence. But is this a battle the heroes can win? And, move importantly, can everyone see the shape of my cock though these tights?
I can’t remember the exact point I lost faith in humanity, but I can certainly narrow it down. When I was 15, I got dumped on Valentines Day. I was so shocked I vomited on my own shoes. Then there was the time I saw a main in a park kick his dog so hard it died. Now, perhaps because of both incidents, I look at events such as the G20 protest and think, “Why bother? There’s nothing we can do…”
Then a certain You Tube video caught my eye. It was a US news report about a real-life masked 210year-old superhero called ‘Shadow Hare’, who walks the streets of Cincinnati handing out food, fighting crime and bringing justice while wearing a sort-of Mexican wrestling mask. Something about these altruistic acts nagged at me. Why was he doing this? I had to find out more.
A quick Google search revealed a huge internet community of “Reals” or Real-Life Superheroes all dedicated to the cause. Reallifesuperheroes.org lists over 30 active heroes, most of whom are located in America.
I copy in all the heroes’ e-mail addresses and attempted to make contact. The response is overwhelming, and bizarre. “I WOULD LOVE TO BE SQUEEGEEINTERVIEWED!!!!!!!” replies ‘Squeegeeman’, “HAVE A SQUEEGEETASTIC DAY!!!!!!!”
Then ‘Dark Guardian’ (or, by day, Chris Pollak) e-mails, saying that , although he’s been burnt before, he’d be happy to get us in touch with a good group of Real in New York, “This isn’t a comic book or movie, though,” he warns. “We’ve had guns flashed at us. So I won’t go on patrol without another hero, ‘Deaths Head Moth’,” That may just be a collection of nouns, but it still sounds badass. I need a costume. I plan to choose something in the aristocratic mould of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman or The Shadow, says, from a nearby fancy dress shop. I end up leaving a deposit for a flamboyant uniform that makes me look like I’ve collapsed into a gay pride flag. I make the final arrangements to meet Dark Guardian, board the plane to New York and prepare to fight with them side-by-side, cape-to-cape.
Fortress of solitude
I join my mentors for the mission in a blustery car part in Staten Island, the least populated of New York’s five boroughs. Dark Guardian is an unassuming, softly spoken young man of 25, with gel-spiked hair, a pronounced nose and a wiry build from hours of training. We’re convened at Constanzo’s Marital Arts, a gym where he’s an instructor in all kinds of fighting styles, from kickboxing to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Standing slightly behind Dark Guardian is a short, barrel-chested man in a NY Yankees hat, a grey T-shirt tucked into his heavy cargo trousers and big, steel-toe capped boots. I offer him my hand and say with a falter in my voice, “Deaths Head Moth?”
Nice to meet you,” he replies. I’m not offered another name. Behind him stands a taller, harder looking man sporting a grown-out Mohawk and arms dotted with tattoos. This is ‘Z’, a hero I wasn’t expecting.
“Okay…” interrupts Dark Guardian. “Shall we train?” They visibly perk up.
Disturbing backstories
Five minutes later we’re getting suited up. Dark Guardian sports red and black biker leathers and Asics trainers. Practical, not showy, but with an air of authority. He’s been a superhero for six years, doing everything from neighborhood patrols to working with the homeless. Deaths Head Moth, on the other hand, is more tech. He sports a one-piece black suit that zips over his head, his logo emblazed on his chest – a white skull with tow baseball bats crossed like swords underneath. Under his suit he also wears a set of butcher’s chain mail, (“It’s light and will stop most blades”). I ask what’s in his utility belt. “Everything,” he smiles. :” A knife, bear mace and these…” He deftly swivels tow batons. AS they spin, I spot something else.
“They’re mothrangs,” You mean ninja stars? “Essentially, yes. I had them custom made.” Deaths Head Moth estimates he’s spent over $5,000 on his equipment. He hands a moth rang over; it’s razor sharp. I ask if they’re legal. “They are in Virginia, not in New York.”
But it’s Z’s mask that disturbs me most. A tight black hood, with large eyeholes held together by safety pins, it’s scary/. “It’s meant to be. Some of the things I do- hunting pedophiles and rapist – it’s not strictly legal. Incidentally, you want to see something coo? These are my blast knuckles. “He holds up what looks like a set of plastic knuckledusters. He grips hard as a spark cracks into life. “Hit someone with these, and you give’em a 950-000-volt shock. It floods their body with lactic acid. That’ll put most people down”
Once I’m dressed and looking like a particularly fey parrot, the true difference between the heroes become apparent. Dark Guardian is disciplined, methodical and a skilled fighter. Deaths Head Moth looks like one of those tough little doges you see on council estates; loyal and definitely not to be fucked with. Z, however, is and old school brawler. “I grew up around bikers, “He says, “So you fought with whatever you had to hand. Chairs, pool cues…”
Z also tells me that he wants to “make a difference”, like the rest of the heroes, but I can’t help but think he’s partly motivated by vengeance. “I started after my suicide attempt.” he admits. “I was angry, running round the city tearing shit up. Then I realized that I could do some good. It sounds stupid but I am Z now. The mask gives me an excuse to be strong. If you can walk through the streets like this, you can do anything,”
The heroes then begin to undress, I assume because they don’t want to travel in their uniforms. Then I realize tit’s for another reason. “You wearing your vest?” ask Z. “There’s just three of us tonight, of course I am,” replies Dark Guardian. I watch in silence as they strap on bulletproof vest, then I look down at the gold tassels and purple spandex of my uniform, a single hair poking though the material at my belly. Never mind a bullet, I can’t even stop a hair…
Evil nemeses
As we all pile into Dark Guardian’s Mazda, the atmosphere is dark. The only talk is of the game plan for tonight. I ask if they’d run if someone pulled a gun and I’m shocked by Dark Guardian’s answer. “Yeah I’d run. But they they’d be a marked man. I’d know they were a physical offender, so I’d know they were a physical offender, so I’d go back. And fuck them up.”
What do the police thing of you?
“I actually got taken down to the precinct on the last patrol. They wanted to talk. It was weird, everyone there knows who I was and they were really supportive. They were concerned for my safety. But I’m not going to stop. I can’t stop.”
As we near Washington Square Park where the patrol will take place, the car falls silent. The air is heavy with the expectation of violence and the fug of too many grown men wearing skintight synthetic fabrics. Dark Guardian flicks though the radio. Stations after station of overblown American rock music. Then, the next station is playing Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles, “This’ll work,” says Deaths Head Moth through his mask. He hums along.
For a moment, my fear of getting shot abates and I suffer from that old familiar felling of physical embarrassment. I’m about to get out of the care and I look like a hernia.  But the gun fear returns. I point out a sign saying ‘No Stopping’. “Not a problem,” says Dark Guardian – he has a Secret Service badge he got from a friend to put in the cr.
As we walk along, we’re barely noticed, apart from one courier who nearly rides into a parked Fed Ex truck. Entering though the North East corner of the park we walk past an annoying, but technically law-abiding, samba band. Then a series of loud whistles echo through the part; it’s the dealers signaling like sportswear-clad meerkats that something is amiss. They’ve had dealings with these heroes before. Two weeks ago Dark Guardian, Deaths Head Moth and a host of others successfully, if only temporarily, booted them from the park.
When we reach the South West corner, however, were clearly outnumbered. The dealers perched on part benches like crows. I’m scared. I feel massively out of my element and far from my comfortable existence back in London. AS I walk past one dealer, he mutters, “You better have a badge if you’re gonna come up in here.” I have no idea what to do, so I just say “sorry”/ I then stand at the back behind Dark Guardian, Z perching on the top rail of a fence with Deaths Heads Moth stood to the side. They’re in attack formation when a gigantic drug dealer – I call him ‘Gigantor’ in my nightmares – comes streaming over. “Who the fuck are you! Why you gotta fuck up my world?” Dark Guardian replies coolly: “You have to leave. This part isn’t for you.” More dealers approach and I’m really shitting it. Bu the heroes stand their ground. It’s a surreal sight, three men, essentially in fancy dress, facing down at least 15 very scary drug dealers.
I’m also ashamed to say I was backing away at this point. The photographer and I liter at the edge of the part, where I quickly discover it’s hard to be inconspicuous when you’re wearing a scarlet cape. A group of the dealers start hollering at Deaths Head Moth. “Take your mask off! If you’re so brave, take your mask off.”
Deaths Head Moth unzips his mask and reveals his face.
“Woah, put it back on!” shots one of the dealers; and unfair end to a brave act. It’s getting pretty heavy. NO one’s made a move but the dealers are getting agitated – we’re costing them money. And anyone will tell you that’s a bad idea. Like pushing down on the very tip of a cat’s tail while it’s trying to cat, only loads more dangerous.
One of the dealers flashes something at Dark Guardian and he visibly tenses, then leans in to talk to the guy. Dark Guardian signals to Deaths Head Moth and Z. They start walking backwards towards me, not showing their backs to the dealers.
“You ain’t no fuckin’ heroes, man, “ shouts one dealer, causing Dark Guardian to stop in his tracks for a moment. I watch his knuckles bunch. If the light was better I’m sure I’d see them turning white, but he keeps walking.
“We have to go,” Dark Guardian stays without meeting my eyes. We start walking down the street and some of the dealers follow.
“Walk up front,“ says Z, and me and the photographer skitter off like little girls. I catch a passing lady glancing at my mammal toe (male camel toe), before looking away quickly, unimpressed. The same dealer that spoke to Dark Guardian before we started retreating comes out of nowhere. I prepare myself to use the photographers as a human shield.
But we’re safe, the dealer is an undercover cop. “I appreciated what you guys are trying to do,” he says breathlessly. “But you can’t fuck around with these guys.”
“We’re not fucking around,” says Z.
The cop looks tired for a moment then says, “Just be safe,” before running off.
It wasn’t said in a school safety lecture way, it was said with respect.
A new hero is born
As we climb back into the car, the mood is charged with frustration. Dark Guardian’s soft American accent has been replaced with a pissed-off New York Accent.
“That mudderfucker. I’m gonna get that big mudderfucker. I had my torch ready to smack him in the fucking throat if he made a move.”
I tentatively ask why he had to leave.
There was too many of them,” snaps the Dark Guardian. “We’re not stupid. We nailed them last time, and this time they were ready.”
I’m beginning to feel their frustration. They don’t want much, just to make their small corner of the world a little better. Suddenly it feels like the wrong time to tell them that my cape is caught in the door and I’m worried about losing my deposit.
When relaying what their ultimate goal is, Dark Guardian gets s even more animated.” We’re gonna fight back. I’m going to train more heroes up and we’re going to reclaim the part. We’re not better than the cops but…” Z interrupts “We can do things that people caught up in the red tape can’t.”
The car falls silent as we race though Times Square just as a thunder storm breaks over the city. I ask what everyone is thinking about. “I’m thinking about how we’re going to get them next time,” says Dark Guardian ominously.
“I’m thinking I need a piss,” says Z.
As they drop me at my hotel, we shake hands and I press again about what will happen next. Dark Guardian has calmed down a little. “We lost that battle, but this is a war and we will win it.” I asked Deaths Head Moth why he took his masked off. “I wanted to show them I wasn’t afraid,” he says, looking at his mask for a moment. “In hindsight, that was when I lost the psychological advantage.”
After our goodbyes, I sit on the edge of my hotel bed, unwilling to take off my uniform. Dark Guardian has a vision that can only be good; whether he achieves it is irrelevant. I’m just glad he’s trying. Deaths Head Moth and Z are on more personal journeys – I worry a day will come with they can’t separate themselves from their characters.
Z, though, has the potential to become something truly great, if he can just hold it together. But I’m concerned it will end badly for him, whether that means prison for going to heavy on someone, or worse – death. I walk over to my 11th-floor window, still in my uniform and open it wide to listen to the city. “Be safe,” I whisper to the night. “Be safe.” It’s at that point that I spot a young boy staring at me open mouth from the opposite window. I wink, flash him a thumbs up and disappear out of sight. ‘The Bird of Paradise’ has taken flight. FHM
Holding out for hero?
Some of the hero community’s more ‘colorful’ members…
The Eye
Crime fighter
Identity: Semi-Public
Region: California
He says: “I have over the years developed two of my own fighting styles. One is my own ‘Jeet Kune Do’ of sorts, called ‘Jade Mantis’, the other being a street wise, basic self-defense method called ‘Leaf Hand’. The quest for justice is an eternal path.”
Crime fighter
Identity: Secret
Region: Ohio/Pennsylvania
He says: “We live in a world full of hatred, pain and suffering. Truth, Justice and the American Way are for sale to the highest bidder. Corruption and incompetence affect every aspect of our lives. Some call me a crimefighter. Some call me delusional and misguided. Some call me a real-life superhero. Some call me a menace to society. Some call me a ninja.”
Master Legend
Crime fighter
Identity: Secret
Region: Florida
He says: “I am a real-life superhero. I am a trained battle-fighting machine. I am a master of martial and metaphysical arts. I put my life on the line like its worthless… maybe it is but I will destroy evil forever. I will help all those I can to the best of my abilities but we warned: I am resentful and a superhero of vengeance. Don’t tread on me!”
Red Arrow
Identity: Secret
Region: Hong Kong
He says: “I try to bring happiness to people and become the salt and light of the world.”