It was an unusually warm night for January, and the sidewalks of East Village bustled with activity – people walking to the corner store, the homeless squatting in front of their tents, rock ‘n’ roll types smoking outside a tattoo shop.
It was also the kind of night that might draw evildoers out of the shadows.
So, armed with a belt full of gadgets (stun gun, pepper spray, handcuffs), Mr. Xtreme did what any superhero would do. He patrolled the streets by the light of the full moon.
He doesn’t scale buildings like Spider-Man or emit beams from his eyes like the X-Men’s Cyclops. But like his comic book counterparts, Mr. Xtreme insists on keeping his identity secret, helped by a camouflage wrestling mask with bug-shaped mesh eyes.
Mr. Xtreme is a Real-Life Superhero, part of an international online community of about 300 comic book fans who spend their free time fighting crime and doing good deeds for mankind behind the anonymity of a mask and cape.
There’s Dark Guardian, who patrols the streets of New York City as part of the superfluously named Justice Society of Justice. He wears a black spandex body suit, black cape and hard-shell mask. And in Utah, Ghost puts the fright into bad guys with his skeleton mask, long white wig and black cape.
Other superheroes hail from Michigan, Florida, Mexico City, Italy and England. San Diego’s only other known superhero goes by the name MidKnight.
They are connected via several online networks, including the World Superhero Registry and MySpace, where they share tips on patrol tactics, costume design and dealing with the police.
“Police automatically label us vigilantes,” said Mr. Xtreme, a 30-something security guard who asked The San Diego Union-Tribune to keep his identity private. The newspaper agreed after conducting a background check on him.
“I say we’re more costumed activists. Vigilantes render punishment onto criminals. We don’t harass people, don’t violate their civil rights. First and foremost, we prevent crime. We do what we are allowed to do legally as citizens.”
Birth of a superhero
Mr. Xtreme, who was raised in San Diego, said a wave of violence in the early 1990s – and the public’s apparent apathy to it – left an impression on him.
“They just want to look the other way and pretend it doesn’t exist,” he said. “I felt I needed to do something.”
Then in 2006, he got to thinking: What if the world had real superheroes? What kind of place would it be?
He joined the online community soon after and created his first persona, The Nag. But the heavyset bachelor was looking for something catchier.
Deciding to combine his love of the comic book superhero team Justice League of America with his passion for the Xtreme Football League, he came up with the Xtreme Justice League.
His costume is still in development. Besides the mask, he wears black tactical pants, boots and a long-sleeved, camouflage shirt under a green Xtreme Justice League T-shirt. His belt bulges with pepper spray, handcuffs, two cell phones, a first aid kid, a Double Trouble stun gun and a long Mag flashlight.
He has designed a sweet new costume in his head for when he can get some money together. “I’m going to have a Kevlar tactical helmet, tactical goggles with custom lenses. Obviously I’m going to have a cape, body armor.”
In March, Mr. Xtreme and superhero associate Shadow Hare of Cincinnati spent an afternoon in Chula Vista handing out fliers about a sexual predator wanted by police. They advertised a reward of $1,000 of their own funds for information leading to an arrest.
Then the gang unit showed up and had a conversation with the masked men. Chula Vista police spokesman Bernard Gonzales said the officers were just doing their due diligence.
“Anyone who goes out and tries to assist law enforcement by handing out fliers and being proactive against the criminals is appreciated,” said Gonzales. “But when you start physically involving yourself in crime fighting, that’s vigilantism.”
‘Every little bit helps’
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin declared Oct. 13 the Day of the Superhero after about 250 superheroes converged on the city to meet and march, but that was a rare display of official recognition.
Most police officers are uncomfortable with anonymous, masked characters walking neighborhoods carrying weapons.
Mr. Xtreme has tried to attend community meetings at the police station in the Mid City Division, but police asked him to leave when he refused to take off his mask, said San Diego police spokeswoman Mónica Muñoz.
“It didn’t work out too well,” Mr. Xtreme admitted.
Police also are concerned that the superheroes are putting themselves at risk.
“What we’re looking for is for the community to be our eyes and ears. If you see a crime, report it. Be a good witness,” said San Diego police Capt. Chris Ball. But “you shouldn’t be carrying weapons and you shouldn’t be confronting people.”
Police have had similar doubts about other citizen patrol groups, such as the Guardian Angels, who seem to have developed an amicable partnership with authorities, and the Sentinels, a Los Angeles group that disbanded in the early 1990s after a member beat an accused drug dealer.
Mr. Xtreme countered the vigilante accusations by saying he has studied the law carefully when it comes to carrying legal self-protection and knows when it is and is not appropriate to make citizen arrests. He said he hasn’t made an arrest as a superhero but has exercised the right in the past.
He plans to reach out to San Diego police in hopes of finding his own Commissioner Gordon, Batman’s sympathetic confidant at the Gotham City Police Department.
Preventing crime, serving the less fortunate and empowering others to take action are at the core of his message.
“When drug dealers see us, they’ll go to the other corner. That carjacker, he’s going to take the night off,” he said.
During a patrol in the Gaslamp Quarter last Saturday night, he drew plenty of gasps, nudges and stares.
A few people stopped to ask what he was all about.
“At first thought, it’s kind of funny,” said Dushaun Fairley, a Chula Vista Realtor who questioned the costume from the patio of Nicky Rotten’s on Fifth Avenue. “But at the end of the day, every little bit helps.”
Staff researcher Michelle Gilchrist contributed to this report.
A long-ago superhero
Mr. Xtreme and MidKnight are not the only superheroes to make a go of protecting San Diegans.
In the 1970s and ’80s, a self-appointed crusader named Captain Sticky squeezed his 350 pounds into blue tights, a gold cape and glittery boots to fight for justice.
The former fiberglass contractor, also known as Richard Pesta, was credited with helping launch statewide investigations into nursing homes and campaigning against rental-car rip-offs and sugary cereal.
He eventually retired the persona but later grabbed headlines when he was investigated by San Diego police for letting his home be used to film an X-rated movie. He testified against the film’s producer in exchange for immunity. He also sold sex tours in Thailand, but the Thai government shut him down.
Sticky, whose name derived from his love of peanut butter and jelly, died in 2004 of complications from heart bypass surgery in Thailand.
Online: For more on Real-Life Superheroes, go to worldsuperheroregistry.com and freewebs.com/heroesnetwork