Super friends

By TEA KRULOS  |  December 11, 2009

A lifelong superhero fan, Rebelo, 48, is clearly relishing his surreal position as instructor to a class whose students look as if they had stepped out of a stack of his comic books. As he yells out instructions, his colorful combatants block and counter strike, a Roy Lichtenstein–like comic panel of goggles, masks, combat boots, homemade utility belts, and capes come to life.

After training for a few days in the superhero arts, these mortals will return home and watch over their cities — maybe in a neighborhood near you.

Superheroes in real life
The real-life superhero (RLSH) scene is, believe it or not, a growing movement of people who adopt a superhero persona of their own creation, then perform small-scale heroic deeds, such as donating to charities or watching their streets for criminal behavior. Some can acquit themselves admirably in the fighting arena, whereas others make do by carrying pepper spray and Tasers, but most stress that their best weapon is a cell phone to call the police.

If the image of mere mortals walking the streets in homemade costumes is strange, consider that our vicarious culture has increasingly catered to our fantasy lives. We're assuming the lives of rock stars, soldiers, and athletes in video games, and immersing ourselves completely in characters created in World of Warcraft, Second Life, and other online role-playing games. We watch artificial realities on TV, and read celebrity blogs on MySpace and Twitter.

Combine this with the grand American tradition of the superhero comic book, which took its first BAM! and POW! steps into the pop-culture pantheon more than 70 years ago. In the last several years, the Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman franchises, among others, have smashed box-office records like the Hulk on a rampage. Add to that hit TV shows like Heroes and the popularity of graphic novels, and it's easy to see the yearning of your everyday Clark Kent to be something, well, more super.

The spreading of the RLSH philosophy has been as simple as a click of the mouse. Internet chat rooms and YouTube videos connected new superheroes from city to city. Inevitably, regionalized teams formed and events like Superheroes Anonymous were set up so that like-minded heroes could meet, mask to mask.

First-time filmmakers Ben Goldman and Chaim Lazaros founded the annual conference three years ago, to capture heroes uniting to work together in New York City, with additional footage shot the next year in New Orleans. (Their documentary is currently in post-production.) Civitron volunteered to host this year's conference in the "Secret City" of New Bedford. (Not exactly the Fortress of Solitude, but it will do in a pinch.)

Originally a premise to get quirky, compelling footage, Superheroes Anonymous has evolved. Besides the annual conference, it has recently been rethought of as a nonprofit organization, with chapters in New Bedford; New York; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Portland, Oregon.

"We've already met with lawyers to go over nonprofit paperwork," says Civitron. "The funny thing is, they were really disappointed that they wouldn't be representing crazy people who thought they had super powers."

OWL’S WELL New Bedford’s Civitron (right) has some potent super genes — his six-year-old son is also a superhero: Mad Owl.

New England heroes
"New England has a long history of people looking for justice, and I think it's been passed down generation to generation," says Civitron, who was born in Boston and moved to New Bedford in sixth grade. He says the history, and even the East Coast's Gotham City–like architecture, makes New England a great place to hang a superhero shingle.

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