Orignially posted: http://www.gaugemagazine.org/_articles/superheroes/super1.html
By Even Allen
Civitron steps out of a blue Honda Civic in the dark parking lot of an old converted factory building in New Bedford. More than six feet tall, he’s wearing a skintight red spandex bodysuit with a blazing orange ‘C’ on his chest. White sunglasses. Combat boots. A utility belt and improvised arm guards—as he strides into the light of a single bulb hanging in front of the door to the factory, the Nike swoosh of a soccer shin guard is visible on his forearm. He is a Real Life Superhero, and the factory—which looks abandoned with its rough bricks and huge murky windows—contains his lair: Rebelo’s Kenpo Karate Studio. Here, surrounded by multi-colored punching dummies, he trains in Northern Style Praying Mantis Kung Fu.
To protect his civilian identity, Civitron will not allow his real name to be used. He is a twenty-nine year old husband and father, and by day, he works at a program for adults with autism. His dark hair is moussed pompadour-style, and he has a wide, easy grin, his front teeth just a little bit crooked. When he’s not fighting for truth and justice, he’s a normal guy—he even irons his superhero suit.
‘Civitron’ means ‘power of the people’—this is also his cause. His superpowers include helping the homeless, raising money for children’s charities, and distributing water bottles to people enjoying the summer sun without proper hydration. He is one of a growing number of people across America creating superhero identities, donning homemade costumes, and going out into the night to do good. “It’s about standing up for what you believe in and taking action,” he says. “It’s actually being the change you want to see in the world, to quote Ghandi.”
A Real Life Superhero starts with a fantasy from childhood. “It’s just a seed that gets planted within a lot of people,” says Civitron. “As you grow up, you lose that fantastic part of it.” But Real Life Superheroes are reclaiming that Saturday morning cartoon world, taking the myth of the superhero and putting it into action in the real world: hyper-altruism decked out in bright colors.
It’s not exactly the Pow!-Kabam!-crime fighting that Batman practiced. “You read comic books, and you see the example that’s there—this violent image of muscle-y guys and girls pounding people and jumping off rooftops—and battling aliens, which you don’t see.” Civitron laughs. “So we kinda had to invent it ourselves.”
There are about 200 Real Life Superheroes in America. Only about fifty are active—meaning that they don’t simply call themselves by a superhero name, but dress up and champion a cause in the real world. Many conduct homeless outreach, distributing food, jackets, and blankets; some focus on environmental cleanup. Terrifica, one of the early superheroes, helped drunk girls leaving the clubs in New York get home safely until her recent retirement. Foxfire in Michigan wears a black leather jacket and fox facemask—her goal is to bring “magic, mystery, wonder, and awe back into the American psyche.” Some superheroes, like Dark Guardian in New York City, patrol the streets fighting crime. “We’re watching over people,” says Civitron. “At least on a small scale.”
Until about three years ago, Real Life Superheroes existed as a loose affiliation of Myspace accounts—people with superhero identities, some of whom actually lived as superheroes, and some of whom just talked about it. But Chaim “Life” Lazaros, 25, and Ben “The Cameraman” Goldman, 23, both of New York City, brought this Internet subculture into the real world with Superheroes Anonymous—a now-annual gathering of superheroes from across America. Today, Lazaros and Goldman are working with Civitron to turn Superheroes Anonymous into a national nonprofit organization, with chapters all over the country.
When Lazaros and Goldman planned the first gathering, they were not superheroes—they were documentary makers, interested in bringing together as many superheroes as they could to interview them. On October 7, 2007, superheroes from as far away as Minnesota converged in Times Square to pick up trash and help the homeless. In the process of documenting their stories, both Lazaros and Goldman became more than just filmmakers: they joined the movement.
Lazaros was a film student at Columbia University when he began organizing the project. “I really devoted my life to [Superheroes Anonymous] for a very, very long time,” he says. “So much so that I stopped going to school, stopped eating, stopped sleeping.” He slowly realized that as he sacrificed more and more of his life and time to the Superheroes, he was becoming one. Two days before the meeting, in a moment of meditation, he saw that he was a “community crusader”—a less flashy superpower, perhaps, than X-Ray vision or flight, but the realization changed his life. “On the day of the meeting,” he says, “I declared myself as ‘Life’ and became a Real Life Superhero.”
Today, as Life, Lazaros does homeless outreach. He goes out onto the streets at least once a week in full costume—a “hipster militarized business suit” consisting of a skinny black tie, a fedora, black S.W.A.T. pants, military boots, a military jacket, and, most importantly, a backpack full of hand-warmers, heating pads, Nutrigrain bars, toothbrushes, and clothing. For Lazaros, as for all superheroes, the costume is important. Not only does it draw attention to their cause, it symbolizes a moral calling. “I believe I feel the same as when a priest puts on his collar or a police officer puts on his badge,” says Lazaros. “He’s now standing for something higher and he has to act that way.”
‘Life’ is his best self—not an alternate self. For many superheroes, the identity is not one that can be shed—It is not pretend, it is not an act. “It’s less of a Clark Kent/Superman kind of transformation, and more of a Punisher kind of thing,” explains Ben Goldman. “He’s kind of always The Punisher.”
More than three years after the first Superheroes Anonymous meet-up, Goldman is still documenting the stories of the superheroes—and they’ve given him his own superhero name: The Cameraman. In addition to making footage for his documentary, Goldman accompanies superheroes when they go out to fight crime. Dark Guardian patrols Washington Square Park in New York City, telling drug dealers to get out, and threatening to call the police. Goldman films these street patrols, both to deter and to record violence.
In one clip, Dark Guardian, who wears a bullet- and stab-proof red and black suit, confronts a man sitting on a picnic table in the park at night, who he believes is selling drugs. “You gotta go!” he yells, and the man stands up—he towers over Dark Guardian. They go back and forth—“Mind your fuckin’ business,” warns the man, shoving his hand in Dark Guardian’s face, thumb cocked and index and middle fingers pointing straight ahead in the shape of a gun. He walks away cursing as Dark Guardian calls the police, and Dark Guardian turns to the camera. “What was that like?” asks Goldman. “A little scary,” says Dark Guardian. “I was waiting for him to move towards me so I could fuckin’ nail him in the throat.” His bravado slips for just a second as his laugh cracks, high and panicky.
Many superheroes avoid crime fighting—Civitron, despite holding an Orange belt in Kung Fu, does not go out on street patrols. “The cops—that’s their job,” says Civitron.
The cops agree. New Bedford Police Leiutenant Jeffrey Silva says that civilian crime fighting actually heightens the danger in any given situation – instead of one victim, police respond to two. “It’s terrible any time there’s a crime victim,” he says. “But it would be particularly sad if someone trying to do a good thing and help others, because they’re identifiable as a crime fighter, got hurt in the process.” And if even if a superhero emerges from a fight unscathed, there is a fine line between making a citizen’s arrest and committing a crime. If a superhero punches and pins a criminal, they could be charged with assault. Advises Silva: “We would respectfully remind [any] superheroes, actual or aspiring, that, as they say in Spider Man: With great power comes great responsibility.”
Superheroes Anonymous officially discourages crime fighting. For many superheroes—including Civitron and Life—crime fighting was something they did when they were first figuring out their superhero identities. “That’s the example, you know?” says Civitron. “In the comic books.” In the early days of his superhero identity, Civitron wore grey and black and patrolled the streets from Beverly to downtown Salem every night, looking for signs of criminals—he never saw any. “I think my mission is a little different,” he says. “Injustice is not always necessarily crime.”
Civitron is a social activist and a family man. His son is six, and has a superhero identity of his own: Mad Owl, protector of woodland creatures. Together, Civitron and Mad Owl raise money for St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital in New York. St. Mary’s is a center for terminally ill children, and the fundraiser was Mad Owl’s idea: after saving $75 in pennies to go to Disney World, Mad Owl decided instead to use the money to buy toys for the children. This is Civitron’s proudest achievement: inspiring his son to join the good fight. “For me—for Civitron… It goes back to that power, that individual power.” The power to change the world—and to look flashy as hell doing it.
“I want everybody to be a superhero,” says Civitron, smiling. He turns to his karate instructor, Joe Rebelo. “Mr. Rebelo is a superhero,” he says. “I know that. Is he actively pursuing the sort of set criteria for being a superhero? No. That’s just his life, that’s who he is. We’re everywhere. That’s what I mean. Everybody has that potential. Everybody can be a superhero.”