It’s Friday evening in New York, and I’m sitting in the secret base of the city’s pre-eminent superhero, which looks deceptively like the bottom floor apartment of a multifamily house in a quite section of Staten Island. Then again, who would ever suspect that beneath stately Wayne Manor sites the Bat cave?
Image file from Black Belt magazine:
By Mark Jacobs
From my seat at what appears to be a normal kitchen table, I watch as mild-mannered martial arts instructor Chris Pollak transforms into his nighttime alter ego, the Dark Guardian, donning a Lycra pullover with his trademark “DG” logo and a spiffy black and red motorcycle jacket. Then he fastens on what I can only thing of as his “utility belt” filled with first-aid supplies, pepper spray and a thigh holster container a heavy duty flashlight in preparation for one of his regular nocturnal forays.
Being that this will be a standard safety patrol of some local area in Staten Island, hardly New York’s roughest borough, the Dark Guardian has decided to dispense with this full costume. That comes out only for larger operations, such as the time he and several superhero colleagues invaded Manhattan’s drug infested Washington Square Park, forcing a tense standoff with local dealers until the evildoers finally fled back to their lairs. Thus, he leaves his more eye-catching gear, including a bulletproof vest and matching leather motorcycle pants, at home this night. He says he gave up wearing a mask in public several years ago because it seemed to make him less accessible to people.
“Super-villains hunting me down in my real identity isn’t a big concern,” he admits.
This isn’t fantasy, nor is it the acting out of a disturbed soul. “Real-Life superheroes,” as costumed avengers now preferred to be called, is a growing movement of individuals- anywhere from 50 to 100- scattered across the country, people who dress up in secret identities and take to the streets to combat evil. (Reallifesuperheroes.com)
All right, none of them has super-powers (as far as I know), and most of them spend their time making public appearances and encouraging people to do things like recycle, rather than taking on criminal gangs. But a handful, including the Dark Guardian, carry the RLSH movement to its logical extreme, actually seeking to stop crime. Admittedly, this is something that’s probably best not taken up by the average person in spandex. But the Dark Guardian, or rather Chris Pollak, is a full-time martial arts instructor and amateur kick boxer. He’s also smart enough not to place himself in danger if there’s no need.
“If I don’t have to intervene in something, I try not to,” he says. “I’ll call the police, and they can intervene. My thing is, just don’t look the other way. I want to be a drastic example for people to know they can do little things to make a difference out there.”
In the seminal graphic novel Watchman, the costumed vigilante Rorschach observes: “We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we have to.” While he might have been talking about the need in a degenerating society for superheroes to fight crime, he was also likely speaking about the need certain individuals have to recreate themselves as heroic figures.
Pollak admits to having had a trouble youth in which he had little contact with his father- and even wandered into juvenile delinquency at one point. But as a child hold fascination with the martial arts let him to a local school that taught kenpo and kajukenbo. He says the training turned his life around and made him a better person.
This is not an unusual story. Many get involved with the martial arts out of a desire to develop larger-than life physical powers and improve themselves as individuals. But most stop there. Pollak simply took his youthful fascination with powerful heroes to the next level. Having heard there were some people out there dressing up and performing feats of community activism around the country, he mad et he decision to become one of them eight years ago.
“I started off in plain clothes, doing community patrols and handing out. Food to the homeless- things like that,” he says. “But then I talked with others who were doing the superhero thing or wanted to do it, and I liked the idea of becoming a symbol and being able to reach out to people.
While it might be easy to dismiss the Dark Guardian and his colleagues as random crazies, when you talk to him about the superhero business, he makes it seem not only normal but also noble. He’s quiet and subdue most of the time, particularly as I ride the train across Staten Island with him. We walk the length of the train just checking on things, and, in his less-formal uniform, no one seems to pay him any notice- which appears fine with the Dark Guardian.
“Only one in 10 or 20 patrols will anything actually happen,” he says. And typically, the “action” comes from handing out a blanket to a homeless person or helping someone who’s locked out of his car.
Pollak’s never had to use his martial arts skills in his crime-fighting persona. The tensest moment he’s encountered was the standoff in Washington Square Park, where one of the dealers flashed a gun at the assembled superheroes. Although none of them was bulletproof, the heroes stood their ground until the dealers drifted off.
Sometime after that, on another patrol of the park, the police approached him and took him to the station. At first thinking they were going to harass him, the Dark Guardian was pleasantly surprised to find they just wanted to give him a personal intelligence briefing on whom to watch out for and suggest that if he had trouble, he should call and let them handle it. It wasn’t exactly Commissioner Gordon using the bat signal, but in the world of real-life superheroes, it was close enough.