In response to challenges like climate change, economic distress, and racial polarization, our government is gridlocked; even its once respected organizations, like the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control, are being challenged by deep state conspiracies coming from within. For citizens, the result is cynicism: lost faith in institutions, even an urge to take matters into our own hands. Beyond protests to make leaders listen: are there more immediate ways of effecting good?
This week, we’re super excited to learn about the rise of everyday citizens taking to the streets in costume to battle injustice. These citizen superheroes have embraced an “if not me, then who” attitude that we can only admire. But are they making a difference?—that’s what we want to know.
Meet Peter Nowak, author of The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes, a fascinating new project reviewed by Peter Dabbene in the September/October pages of Foreword Reviews. With the help of Douglas & McIntyre, we got the two Petes together to talk about these a little-bit-crazy activists.
Gentlemen, we’re on the edge of our seats.
Your book deals with real people who take on superhero personas. Though some of them are trained for hand-to-hand combat, they obviously lack comic-book style “superpowers” like flying, super strength, et cetera. Ever heard of anyone who did something dangerous or questionable—exposure to radioactivity, for example—in order to acquire superhuman powers?
I haven’t heard of that in the traditional sense of superpowers, but it does happen almost every day in terms of people volunteering for scientific experiments or medical treatments, usually in relation to a health issue or even military research, some of which I covered in my first book, Sex, Bombs and Burgers.
The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has performed, and is performing, all kinds of research into everything from super accelerated healing to neurologically controlled cybernetic limbs. You have to imagine DARPA is far from alone in that regard. And then of course there are those people who tried curing COVID-19 by drinking bleach. Not superpowers, just super dumb!
What would you describe as the single biggest success story of a real-life superhero? The single biggest failure?
I’d probably say Mr. Xtreme in San Diego is the most successful real-life superhero. If you watched the 2011 HBO documentary Superheroes, you saw him as this hapless, almost kind of hopeless loser. But he stuck with it and, prior to the pandemic, he had managed to assemble a relatively large, functional team that had some level of acceptance from local police and the public. It’s quite the accomplishment.
Some would say that Phoenix Jones in Seattle was the most successful real-life superhero given the relative level of fame he achieved (he was actually mentioned on Saturday Night Live). But I consider him to be the phenomenon’s biggest failure, given the disdain many of his peers have for him but especially because of his arrest earlier this year for selling drugs. That’s incredibly disappointing, hypocritical, and the opposite of heroism.
For those who haven’t read the book yet, what does the Fall of Everything Else in the subtitle refer to?
I tried very hard to get into why this phenomenon exists and why it exists where it does, which is globally but mainly in the United States. The answer is ultimately complex, but it involves declining trust in public institutions such as government and law enforcement, coupled with a culture that glorifies individuality and celebrity.
Countries that have well-functioning and trusted institutions tend to not have a lot of these superhero types. They exist in places where institutions are failing, or falling, as per the title. The US has been the most obvious example of that, but we’ve seen threats of this happening just about everywhere, especially in recent years.
With more dangerous weapons on the streets than ever, the practice of civilians—costumed or otherwise—fighting back against crime carries increasingly deadly risks. Has researching and writing this book spoiled the idea that an ordinary person could fight crime? Or has it enhanced that idea?
It really depends on what level of crime we’re talking about. I don’t think anyone in the real world (in their right mind) should wander into a gang area and try to smash heads, no matter how well equipped they may be with flak jackets, pepper spray, and so on. I don’t think any real-life superheroes do that (some might say they do, but they’re probably lying if they do).
That said, the Guardian Angels community patrol group pioneered the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, which involves cleaning up the neighborhood by picking up needles and litter, removing graffiti, and so on. The idea there is that cared-for areas are less likely to become home to escalating levels of crime. How effective this theory is has been debated, but it’s certainly something that anyone—costumed or otherwise—can do.
You may be interested to know that the original title of the book was “Waiting for Batman,” because I point out that no one has yet put together the necessary resources, gear, physical acumen, and planning to become something like the Dark Knight in the real world. The military and police have, to some extent, but so far no enterprising individual has. Maybe that’s a good thing? We went with the existing title to avoid any potential legal issues with DC Comics, by the way.
Recent troubles in America have resulted in many police departments stepping back from active enforcement of the law. Has there been any response from the real-life superhero community? Does this create an opportunity for them to show their value to society, or is the situation too muddled and unclear?
I think many real-life superheroes are reevaluating their activities and roles in the wake of COVID and Black Lives Matter. There is a school of thought that suggests they—as well as fictional superheroes—are merely agents of the status quo who work to enforce existing laws, as opposed to being proponents of change. Some are definitely thinking about that.
On the other hand, the pandemic has really driven home just how badly some US institutions are failing Americans. Given that, I can only expect a continued rise in do-it-yourselfism in the many forms that can take, which includes the real-life superhero phenomenon.
Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it: if you were to create a superhero persona for yourself, what would be your name, costume, and gimmick?
Not since I was a kid, although I do often tell my wife that I’m an X-Men-style mutant with a solar-powered healing power. Whenever I go out into the sunshine, my various aches and pains seem to quickly heal. I’m only half joking when I tell her that.