Photo by Peter Tangen

Since life imitates art, it shouldn’t be hard to believe that the current popularity of superheroes in movies and television has led to a rise in everyday citizens putting on costumes and fighting crime. At least that’s the view of Toronto-based journalist Peter Nowak in his new book, The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes.

Nowak, who specializes in pop culture, delves into the real-life superhero subculture, interviewing costumed heroes from across North America and even as far away as New Zealand and Africa, and looks at the history of what he argues is a growing phenomenon.

While superheroes have been present in pop culture since Superman and Batman entered the pages of Action Comics and Detective Comics in the 1930s, Nowak notes their popularity is at an all-time high, with Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest-grossing film of all time in 2019.

The number of real-life heroes has also been on the rise, he says.

But while Batman, Captain America and Iron Man save the world and their cities from psychopaths and alien invasions, the likes of Nyghtengale, Fallen Boy and Crimson Canuck seem to keep their heroics to handing out socks and sandwiches to the homeless.

Nowak points to social justice groups such as the Black Panthers and the Guardian Angels as early examples of real-life superheroes. The Black Panthers were founded in Oakland, Calif. in the 1960s to protect African Americans from police brutality, while the Guardian Angels got their start in 1979, fighting the growing violence in New York’s subway system.

Many of the characters he introduces are as colourful as their costumes, and we even get to meet some Avengers- or X-Men-reminiscent teams, like San Diego’s Xtreme Justice League and downtown Toronto’s Trillium Guard.

And while they may not have superpowers, Nowak says most of these costumed crusaders are more than basement-dwelling fanboys (and girls) that frequent comic conventions. Many have families and careers, but most don’t keep their identities secret.

Nowak notes there is a certain amount of narcissism common among real-life superheroes, many of whom thrive on local media coverage. He even explores the idea that Superman — who fought for “truth, justice and the American way” — may not be altruistic.

“He is indeed governed by Ma and Pa Kent’s morality, but there’s something in it for him. He needs to be accepted by his adopted planet,” Nowak writes.

I agree to the Terms and Conditions, Cookie and Privacy Policies, and CASL agreement.

So, hometown heroes like the Urban Avenger, Grim (oddly not named after Fantastic 4 character Ben Grimm) and Master Legend may do a lot of good in their community, but Nowak does question why many of them do it.

Nowak says the movement really exploded after the release of the 2011 HBO documentary Superheroes and the Mark Millar comic book and 2010 Matthew Vaughn film Kick-Ass, which tells the story of an average teenager who decides to don a costume and fight crime like his heroes.

But while those works were a lot of fun, Nowak seems to take the subject matter a little too seriously at times. A collection of stories from people who wear costumes and try to make the world a better place, in their own strange way, should probably have a bit more levity to it.

Still, it is clear that he has a lot of respect for these characters, many of whom could be easily laughed off.

“Superheroes remind us of the good we’re capable of,” he writes.