Superheroes spreading to Sacramento from Bay Area
Two drunk women, dressed too flimsily for the February cold, sit slumped against a Midtown Sacramento office building, oblivious to the witching change of Saturday into Sunday. A barked question knifes through their bow-headed stupor:
“Excuse me, ladies, do you need help?”
“Nah, s’all right,” one of them mumbles into her glowing cellphone. “We’ve got a ride coming.”
Then she looks up.
“Holy shit, what kind of jacket is that!” she exclaims.
It’s no jacket, miss. It’s the bulletproof vest of one Motor Mouth, a 31-year-old masked crime fighter from Oakland—and he’s in town to make you believe in a world with supermen.
Maybe you’ve heard of them, this unapologetically eccentric fraternity that has come to be known somewhat facetiously as “real life superheroes,” or RLSH. Maybe you’ve seen them in their homemade duds, sitting across from a smirking anchor at the tail end of a local news broadcast. Maybe you’ve watched them profiled in an HBO documentary or dramatized on a recent episode of NCIS (we missed it, too). Maybe you heard about that retired soldier hired in Brazil to crack down on crime … as Batman.
Or maybe you haven’t.
“I didn’t even really know about this movement until I got your email,” says Jason Dube, a local comic-book publisher. “Amazing.”
“It’s funny. I’m in the eye of the hurricane here,” adds Mark Yeager, an instructor at the Sacramento Art Institute and comic-book creator. “I’m here, plugging away, drawing my stuff, and I’m not even aware they’re out there.”
Oh, but they’re not—the superheroes are here.
“These guys are average Joes just like me,” Motor Mouth says of his costumed brethren, most of whom won’t reveal their secret identities. “We’re just tired of watching our world fall apart.”
Born of injustice, inspired by comic-book culture and enabled by social media, hundreds of men and women (and kids!) around the world are performing good deeds in self-styled superhero outfits. They attend to the homeless, break up street fights, sabotage polluters and, most of all, combat society’s growing inability to care.
“They don’t do this with the hopes that others will put on costumes. They do this with the hopes that they will reject an apathetic existence,” says Peter Tangen, a Hollywood photographer who documents these costumed activists through his website, The Real Life Super Hero Project.
Motor Mouth’s NorCal Protectorate squad expects to start walking Sacramento’s downtown beat once a month as the group cements its presence here and in nearby cities like Chico, where teammate Pikey is located. Motor Mouth’s even looking for young and able-bodied locals to join his team of superfriends, one of dozens scattered across the continental United States. “Serious inquiries only,” he stresses, can email him at email@example.com.
But let’s back up.
Origin of the species
Like so many religions, it started with a book.
Sitting in the special-collections department of the Michigan State University library is a slender manifesto credited to an evaporated adventurer named The Night Rider. The 52-page booklet, How to Be a Super-Hero, is the only known remaining copy of its kind; so the only way to get a look at it without heading for the Great Lakes State in the middle of winter is to ask a superhero to send you a PDF file.
Though published in 1980, New York’s Zimmer Barnes (actual name) and Minnesota’s Geist tracked down the how-to manual during the current costume boom that began less than a decade ago. It’s a quaint piece of self-publishing, with a hand-drawn cover, homemade illustrations and chapters on powers (there are none), costumes (function over fashion) and weapons (nonlethal trick arrows are preferred to firearms). The book has been widely distributed through the superhero community in its current footnoted electronic form, but Barnes and others downplay its influence on today’s costumed activist.
However, the book does contain what many believe is the first coinage of the term “real-life superhero,” a misleading and redundant term the media has adopted, likely without knowing its origin.
“Cops don’t call themselves ‘real-life cops.’ They just call themselves ‘cops,’” Barnes points out. “No one else does that.”
Besides, Barnes notes, increasingly preferred terms like “costumed activist” or “extreme altruist” could rewrite the history of this fledgling movement.
“No one before 1938 could be a real-life superhero,” Barnes says of the year Action Comics No. 1 came out and introduced the world to the modern superhero archetype. “Joan of Arc didn’t aspire to be Superman. Superman didn’t exist yet.”
But rebrand the community as “costumed activists,” and suddenly you’re tied in to a rich legacy of DIY heroism that spans centuries, from the 1880s, when a nonracially motivated militia like the mask-wearing Bald Knobbers meted out vigilante justice in lawless Missouri communities, to the 1970s, when an openly gay Pentecostal minister and his team of “Lavender Panthers” patrolled the streets of San Francisco looking to trounce gay bashers. Then there’s that other famous act of costumed activism.
“Maybe it’s logical to say that those who did the Boston Tea Party are real-life superheroes, too. And if you say that then, crap, there’s a whole lot more people,” Barnes asserts. “The further back you go, the more you have to define what a superhero is.”
When patrolling the wintry streets of Sacramento with a pair of costumed crime fighters, it’s important to wear your thickest skin. After all, things can get mighty cold hoofing block after Midtown block in search of evil—especially if evil is fraternizing with dickish ambivalence.
Motor Mouth and his compatriot, Mutinous Angel, are conducting their team’s first official foot patrol in the capital city, and it ends up being like the Marvel Comics version of Waiting for Godot—as in, not much happens.
Motor Mouth warns me that’s a possibility during an atypically brief phone conversation before our rendezvous. He says he’s been checking www.crimereports.com to see what hot spots to hit during our patrol; I gulp and tell myself to give the heroes a wide berth during any gangland confrontations.
The heroes, my photographer “Merle” (don’t ask) and I spend the next two hours navigating the peopled streets and ripe alleyways of Midtown Sacramento. Our tour disembarks from the deserted Sixth Street side of the Westfield Downtown Plaza and makes its way to J Street, which we take past a curious crowd in front of the Torch Club. Motor Mouth and Mutinous Angel perk their ears like German shepherds at the clatter of raised voices, but it’s just the yelps of tipsy bar hoppers. We hook left on 16th through the J Street and K Street alley, where some faceless maniac ambushes us. Or so we momentarily think. It ends up being just a waiter dumping out the trash.
“Sorry,” the waiter smiles before slipping back through the side entrance. The jumpy adventurers giggle at our hair-trigger nerves.
Past the bars of R Street, Motor Mouth pauses briefly to make sure a homeless man folded in the doorway of McMartin Realty is just sleeping. We loop around through the Lavender District, past Faces and Headhunters, where the costumed partners look slightly less out of place. We walk around like this until about 1 a.m., and then the superheroes kindly escort us to our car at the parking garage on K and 10th streets. We part ways before the bars let out.
All in all, it’s a much quieter visit than the team’s recent trip to San Jose, where the crime fighters broke up a scrap in which two aggro bros in Tapout apparel slammed a smaller man’s head into the cement. Motor Mouth hopes the next morning’s paper doesn’t bring news of a missed opportunity.
“When you read about it the next day, it’s kind of a shock,” he says.
But we’re lucky. Sunday’s police log shows one lone assault occurring during our patrol. Police responded, arresting the 23-year-old man who reportedly struck another with a bottle at 17th Street and Capitol Avenue.
Dress to excess
Motor Mouth and Mutinous Angel are a study in contrasts. Motor Mouth is short and barrel-shaped with stout, burly arms. He wears a black neoprene face mask that reveals only his eyes, gray cargo pants and a military-issue bulletproof vest over a short-sleeved hoodie. His costume is assembled from a patchwork of practical sources: the fingerless gloves are vintage, and his bulky kneepads were designed for volleyball hardwood. He buys most of his gear online late at night and is always talking about a new piece of equipment he’s coveting, like forearm bracers or a riot helmet. He recently spotted a slightly used stealth boat the U.S. government was trying to unload for $80,000.
“This is why I wish I had funding!” he enthuses.
Living up to his name, Motor Mouth chatters tirelessly about any number of subjects, from economic and social ills (“Our politicians don’t give a crap. And police for the most part don’t give a crap. Sometimes you need an extreme weirdo in a mask.”) to operating within the law (“In the state of California, I can legally wear a bulletproof vest in public and shit. And I can legally wear a mask in public as long as I’m not committing a crime, and as long I have not performed any misdemeanors or felonies in my past—and I have not.”), even M-theory (“Who’s to say there isn’t a parallel reality out there somewhere?”). He’s gregarious, excited and resolute: He absolutely loves being a superhero.
Mutinous Angel, on the other hand, is quieter. He’s lanky, with the dark, sleepy features of David Blaine, and his costume evokes the subdued flare of a street magician. He has with him a full face mask with purple goggles, but only dons it once, when we skulk down the alley. He says the costume can be more of a hindrance than an edge when walking among people.
Depending on whom you ask, costumes protect the wearers from the scrutiny of disapproving employers, inspire the average Joe, strike fear in criminals or simply look really bitching.
“I say we’re like the Guardian Angels, just a lot more pretty,” Motor Mouth laughs.
“At least a tiny part of it is wish fulfillment,” admits Barnes, who actually favors a nondescript uniform that draws little to no attention.
The openly gay Barnes doesn’t wear a mask. He has said the idea of a disguise felt to him like just another closet.
But for those who do dress more extravagantly, there’s something “really powerful in taking on a totem,” says Matthew J. Smith, Ph.D., who teaches comic books as culture at Wittenberg University in Ohio. “Left to their civilian clothing, they wouldn’t be acknowledged by anyone outside the norm.”
Exactly, say Barnes and Tangen. People volunteer at soup kitchens and work at homeless shelters every day, they note, yet who pays attention?
“But throw a $5 cape on them or spandex or a mask, and they’re on CNN,” Barnes deadpans.
Tangen, who served as consulting producer on the HBO documentary Superheroes, puts it another way: “If they weren’t wearing costumes, would you be talking to them?”
There are all sorts in this turnover-prone community: active and ex-military, teachers, parents, politicians, even (gulp) journalists. Motor Mouth is a substitute special-education teacher; he’s engaged to be married, has a 4-year-old daughter and says he has Asperger’s syndrome. Unlike his teammate, Mutinous Angel hasn’t told his family or friends about his double life, partially out of embarrassment. He dreams of going into law enforcement, and worries his extracurricular activities might be frowned upon by the crime and courts establishment. He recently moved to Tracy after banks foreclosed on his home and isn’t currently working; he devotes much of his time to conducting driving patrols through his neighborhood.
Not all heroes are so resilient.
Sacramento’s only known superhero isn’t returning my Facebook messages.
Since October 2011, I’ve been pleading with the crimson-haired avenger who calls herself Minerva of Pearl to grant me an interview. I’ve written her multiple times, solicited her fellow superheroes to make requests on my behalf and even asked my girlfriend to flirt with one of Minerva’s male teammates on the off chance that’d grant me an audience with the elusive heroine.
But alas, her pimped-out affections were to no avail. Minerva—named after the Roman goddess of poetry, medicine, wisdom and magic (though not, curiously, pearls)—was nothing if not consistent in her unresponsiveness. After about my bajillionth request, one of her NorCal Protectorate teammates told me it wasn’t going to happen.
“She basically said she has no interest in participating with your article,” the hero told me off the record. “I’m sorry, dude.”
The Minerva of Pearl persona seems to have been born around March or April of last year, according to her Facebook page. Her first wall post took place just after her inaugural costumed patrol in Oakland, on April 11, 2011, around 2 a.m.:
“The rush of last night washed over me early today, rather than right after,” she gushed. “But we all know what follows a rush, exhaustion. Ha. Though I am refreshed now, and ready for more outings with Motor Mouth and our local protectorate. :) Good luck to all out there who are making a difference.”
Seven months later, the ride appeared to be over. Minerva relocated from Oakland to Sacramento in early November. She moved to the state capital for a new job and a stab at independence, and initially intended to continue her alter-ego activities. “Looks like they could use the help around here too,” she wrote on her wall November 10, 2011.
Then the mysterious woman in the motorcycle jacket, black bandit’s mask, pink gloves and candy apple-red hair evaporated. Poof.
There was an early warning sign. On August 31, 2011, around 2 a.m., Minerva posted the following to her public Facebook wall:
“Sometimes I wonder how much time I really have to be Minerva of Pearl, separately from my civilian life. … How much personal sacrifice is enough?”
A few minutes later, she replied to her own post: “I may risk my life, but I’m not risking my life, does anyone know what i mean?”
Barnes does. A New York transplant who began his career busting up bar fights in Austin, Texas, Barnes has been studying the movement for six years. He believes there are “hundreds for sure, probably thousands” in the RLSH community, including those too embarrassed to self-identify.
“So many people are turned off by the spandex,” he says.
Milwaukee journalist Tea Krulos, who has followed the RLSH community since 2009, pegs the figure somewhere between 300 to 400 costumed adventurers.
Most live in the United States, some are in Canada and a few dozen others—like Liberia’s Lion Heart, who donned the mask to educate villagers about boiling water and avoiding sex traffickers, and Mexico’s Supergay, who crusaded for homosexual equality—are scattered around the world.
The door is constantly revolving and attrition is rapid.
“A lot of people come in for a short period of time and then fade out,” Barnes says. He never even heard of Minerva of Pearl.
Activism over action
A month after that first Sacramento patrol, an unmasked Motor Mouth is ripping down I Street in broad daylight toward the frantic shrieks of a homeless woman.
“That’s my card! That’s my card!” the green-jacketed woman cries, jogging and tugging a rickety pushcart behind her.
A cop car lazily drifts in the opposite direction, ignoring the drama. Motor Mouth’s partner Black Dawg, approaching slowly from the opposite side of the street, offers a slight shake of the head. Motor Mouth bounds past the woman and is galloping after the accused thief when a homeless man gets the sprinting hero’s attention. He says the woman is chasing her young son, replaying a weird family dispute that has already gotten them tossed out of the Sacramento library.
“You saw me stop. I kind of have to take that guy’s word for it,” Motor Mouth explains after the commotion subsides.
“You don’t want to be a victim,” offers his partner, crouched and smoking a grape-scented swisher.
“Or make someone a victim,” Motor Mouth adds.
“We’re not here to start drama. We’re here to peace people out,” the easygoing Black Dawg drawls.
Black Dawg, a 41-year-old music promoter with a weedy, salt-flecked goatee, recently returned from Sumatra, Indonesia, where he advocated on behalf of persecuted punk rockers. He met Motor Mouth about a dozen years ago when both were working door security at a Bay Area rock club. Black Dawg is the one who gave Motor Mouth the nickname that became his superhero alias.
“He’s the one who called me ‘Jabberjaw,’” Motor Mouth says.
“He likes to talk, as you may have noticed,” Black Dawg chuckles.
Moments later, we’re standing under the statue of Cesar Chavez in the plaza that bears his name. A few of the park’s denizens ask about the foot chase, and Motor Mouth replies courteously, irrespective of whether our interrogators are homeless, inebriated, trying to sell us weed, all or none of the above. He snaps his last two bucks out of a Velcro Avengers wallet for a gentleman who says he’s trying to get something to eat.
Motor Mouth estimates he’s spent north of $3,000 of his own money in the four years he’s been a superhero on supplies for the homeless. His father, he says, is his biggest benefactor.
Unsexy social causes like homeless outreach, gay rights and environmental activism make up the majority of superhero labor, according to Tangen.
“Eighty percent of what these people do is homeless outreach, and that’s not what the police do. They’re not solely crime fighters,” Tangen explains. “They’re not crossing the line and breaking the law.”
Well, for the most part.
Prosecutors in Seattle recently dropped assault charges against Phoenix Jones (a.k.a. 23-year-old Benjamin Fodor), who scrapped with some young drunks under a parking viaduct last October. Motor Mouth’s ex-teammate the Ray was arrested during an Occupy Oakland protest some weeks back, while Motor Mouth himself was detained by Oakland police during city riots two years ago.
But perhaps the clearest example of heroes operating outside the law is the bizarre case of Richard McCaslin, a former Marine who adopted a series of alter egos in the hopes of breaking into the stuntman game like his hero, The Human Fly. That never happened, but in 2002 McCaslin gained a different kind of notoriety as the blue-fatigued Phantom Avenger. Wearing a rubber skeleton mask and armed to the teeth, McCaslin attempted a one-man siege of the Bohemian Club’s Monte Rio compound in Sonoma County. Instead, McCaslin lost his way in the thicket of redwoods engulfing the 2,700-acre grove. The next morning, he tried to burn down the camp’s mess hall when the cops arrived.
“Oddly, he went there during their off season,” Motor Mouth tells me.
McCaslin did a six-year prison stint and just recently completed his parole. Last month, McCaslin, now in his late 40s and living in Las Vegas, visited the Bohemian’s headquarters in San Francisco to shoot a YouTube video reasserting his belief that the private men’s club is actually a secret society of the rich and powerful who indulge gross perversions like necrophilia and human sacrifices.
McCaslin is flanked in the video by a fully costumed Motor Mouth and an unmasked Mutinous Angel, sporting aviator shades and concealing the lower half of his face with a sign that reads: “The Bohemian Club Murders Children Every July 23.”
McCaslin now takes his anti-Bohemian Club, anti-sex slave, anti-New World Order message across the country under the guise of his latest alter ego, Thoughtcrime. Aside from Motor Mouth and Mutinous Angel, he’s been unable to get other costumed heroes to join his cause.
“Due to my Phantom Patriot past, it’s understandable that many of them would be very leery to associate with me,” he tells SN&R.
I ask Motor Mouth for his take on McCaslin’s armed assault.
“His intent was nothing but pure and just,” Motor Mouth says thoughtfully. “He may be a little delusional, but I believe he’s sane.”
Thus far, the cops in Sacramento haven’t paid the costumed activists in their midst any mind. I ask Sacramento police Sgt. Andrew Pettit what his department’s reaction would be to a couple of wandering superheroes.
“It depends on the time, location and the officer’s personal experience,” Pettit answers, before pointing out: “We just recently had the ‘Evil Clown’ masked robber.”
Barnes says the future of this community rests in the growing proliferation of teams and networks.
“Teams help people last in this a little longer,” asserts Barnes, who is the technology advisor for the New York Initiative. Similar justice leagues are scattered across the country. Snaking up the Western seaboard is Pacific Protectorate, of which Motor Mouth’s team is a sub-entity. Two nonprofits have already sprouted and there are plans for more, Barnes says.
The notion strikes me as counterintuitive, like picturing Superman traveling by Razor scooter. For such an anti-establishment group of individuals, doesn’t 501(c)(3) status smack of The Man?
“There’s a huge risk of that,” Barnes admits. “Instead of all the energies going toward addressing problems, it goes toward maintaining the organization and managing the bureaucracy.”
I, for one, hope these costumed activists don’t trade their masks in for designer suits and Blackberries. After all, as professor Smith and photographer Tangen note, we’ve got enough fake champions. Politicians deceive us, celebrities disappoint us, sports stars get enough worship from themselves and our parents can’t even make their own marriages work. A guy with an airsoft mask and Batman fixation handing out bottled water to the homeless looks pretty damn heroic by comparison.
They may not be able to outrun speeding bullets or leap tall buildings in a single bound, and not all of them may be certifiably sane, but they give a damn—with all their hearts and without a shred of detached, too-cool-for-school irony. Hell, that has to be a super power in itself.
“Here’s the thing about the RLSH community,” Motor Mouth sums up. “There’s a ton of people who are good-hearted, well-intentioned, smart and not crazy. But on the flipside, there are a bunch of people who have good intentions and stuff, but are batshit insane. You have to be careful about picking your people. And sometimes it’s hard.”
Harder than living in a world without superheroes? I think not.