What Are Real-Life Superheroes?
For the past 11 years or so, I’ve been involved in something called the Real-Life Superhero movement.
So far, I haven’t published much nonfiction about Real-Life Superheroes (RLSH). My main focus as an author has been fiction and poetry. My main focus as an RLSH has been doing the work, not talking about the ins and outs of being an RLSH. As a result, I’ve hardly written anything about the RLSH movement and my experiences in it.
It’s time to change that.
This is the first in a series of essays about the Real-Life Superhero movement and my involvement in it. This particular essay is geared toward a broad audience that includes both RLSH and non-RLSH readers. Future essays may speak primarily to an RLSH or non-RLSH audience. All of these essays will in some way explore what RLSH are, what pitfalls we should avoid, and what we can aspire to do for our communities and the world.
I hope that these essays spark productive discussion about the ups and downs of the RLSH movement. They may even inspire positive changes in the RLSH movement and communities served by RLSH. If you have any suggestions along those lines, feel free to contact me.
What are Real-Life Superheroes?
A Real-Life Superhero (RLSH) is someone who adopts a superhero persona to do community service work. If you’re entirely new to the concept of RLSH, here are a few resources that offer good introductions to the RLSH movement:
- RLSH.net is a comprehensive online resource for Real-Life Superheroes and anyone else who wants to learn more about RLSH. It features an RLSH Social Network, RLSH News, and an RLSH Wiki that includes many more resources such as an RLSH Directory and RLSH Map.
- My Real-Life Superhero Bookshelf lists all of the commercially-published books about RLSH that I’ve found so far. The RLSH.net Books page has links to additional titles, some of which are available as free downloads rather than commercially-printed books.
- The Initiative Collective is a global grassroots group of volunteers comprised of everyday citizens who have banded together across states and countries to do something heroic each day. Some, but not all, members of the Initiative incorporate superhero personas and costumes into our community service work. Here in Southern Illinois, I’m the founder and current branch leader of the Illinois Initiative.
What do Real-Life Superheroes do?
In comic books, superheroes often use their superpowers to protect their city and the world from various street criminals and costumed supervillains. Unlike our comic book counterparts, Real-Life Superheroes don’t have any superpowers. We also don’t have any costumed supervillains to fight, unless we get creative with our definition of what constitutes a costumed supervillain.
So what do RLSH actually do?
RLSH engage in just about every form of community service imaginable. Any task that involves helping others directly or otherwise serving your community can be turned into a Real-Life Superhero mission.
One of the most popular RLSH missions is neighborhood watch or public safety patrols. These safety patrols are inspired by comic book crime-fighting, but take a more realistic and responsible approach to supporting public safety.
What are RLSH safety patrols like? One or more volunteers trained in some combination of first aid, self-defense, de-escalation, bystander intervention, and other relevant skills pick a particular neighborhood or other location that has been the site of street crime or other public safety concerns. They walk, bike, or drive around at the location looking for signs of conflict or distress. If they encounter conflict, they may de-escalate to avoid violence, intervene if violence has already started, or call first responders to the scene as needed. If they encounter someone experiencing a medical emergency or other health and safety crisis, they provide what assistance they are trained and equipped to respond to, and call in first responders for anything beyond their training.
Unlike comic-book superheroes, RLSH don’t go looking for a fight. They don’t initiate the use of force or otherwise insert themselves into situations that may involve escalating violence or harm to themselves or others. Those types of vigilante behaviors would constitute the exact opposite of promoting public safety. The goal of a public safety patrol should be to promote public safety, not look for “bad guys” to fight.
Another common RLSH mission is homeless outreach. One or more volunteers assess what supplies would help meet the immediate needs of local people who currently have no access to housing, gather the donated or purchased supplies, and head out to places where people without housing access may be gathering or camping. This may involve direct hand-outs on the streets, donating supplies to local agencies that help the homeless and hungry, or both.
I see at least two reasons why safety patrol and homeless outreach are popular RLSH missions.
One reason is that they’re both fairly straightforward missions to meet an obvious and immediate need in the local community. The logistics of large homeless outreach efforts involving numerous volunteers can get complicated, and RLSH working in teams can plan more elaborate and far-reaching safety patrols or other public safety work. But the basic concept behind both safety patrols and homeless outreach is straightforward: take direct action, alone or in small groups, to meet an unmet need in the community.
Another reason why both missions are popular is that they pair well together. They both involve patrolling the streets in an effort to meet immediate needs such as food or safety. Organizing patrols where you’re prepared to offer multiple forms of aid — responding to conflicts, providing first aid, feeding people, doing litter clean-up, etc — helps ensure that most if not all patrols result in some obvious, immediate, concrete benefit to the community. You may not do every community service task on every patrol, but you’ll probably do at least one or two tasks on most patrols.
My own RLSH mission has taken me in a different direction. I’ve done homeless outreach and neighborhood watch patrol, but those haven’t been my primary forms of RLSH involvement.
My main focus as an RLSH is climate justice, environmental justice, and social justice. So far, this mostly involves advocating for climate justice through regular events such as my weekly community radio show and periodic or one-time events such as helping to organize the People’s Climate March of Southern Illinois. I also help promote and support events and programs organized by local nonprofits, especially those focused on climate justice, racial justice, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the peace and justice movement, and other social justice concerns.
So far, this focus on responding to climate, environmental, and social justice concerns is uncommon among RLSH. But it’s not unheard of.
Some RLSH who focus primarily on homeless outreach or safety patrols also do other RLSH work. They may volunteer with local nonprofits, support charities through fundraising events and drives, or support social justice campaigns started by local community organizers. For example, during the Black Lives Matter uprisings in 2020, I was impressed to see many RLSH (but definitely not all) stepping up with various acts of solidarity with local Black Lives Matter organizing. One of my upcoming essays about the RLSH movement will explore how RLSH who mostly focus on safety patrols or homeless outreach can also take action to support social, environmental, and climate justice in their area.
There are also a few examples of superhero-like characters from the early days of RLSH history who took action on issues of environmental and social justice.
Growing up in the Chicago area, I heard stories about an environmental advocate known only as The Fox. His mission was to protect the Fox River from pollution. To this end, he engaged in a series of acts of vandalism and mischief that included stopping pipes from spewing pollution by plugging them with trash and dousing a corporate office with sludge because the company was polluting the river. His law-breaking antics wouldn’t mesh well with the commitment that many RLSH have to acting strictly within the boundaries of the law. But the Fox’s actions held polluters accountable, both through direct confrontation and by creating prominent public discourse in the media and the city about the problems of water pollution and environmental degradation. The Fox wasn’t my main inspiration for becoming an RLSH, but childhood stories of the Fox surely shaped my decision to adopt a superhero persona as part of my environmental protection work.
On the social justice front, El Santo and Superbarrio Gomez are classic examples of the social luchador movement that some RLSH commentators reference as a Mexican social phenomenon related to the RLSH movement. I didn’t hear about Superbarrio or the other social luchadores growing up. But I did read about Superbarrio in my research about RLSH prior to joining the movement. Reading stories about Superbarrio helping people fight unjust tenant evictions and other systemic injustices inspired me to believe that being an RLSH could embrace missions that go beyond fighting street crime, which was the main emphasis of the RLSH movement when I got involved in 2009.
Safety patrol and homeless outreach are still common RLSH missions, but there’s room in the RLSH movement for many different approaches to meeting people’s needs and working for justice. I’m planning to write a full essay about the many different ways RLSH have already sought to work for justice, and the many ways that non-superhero forms of community service and social change work can inform and improve the RLSH movement.
Why do people become Real-Life Superheroes?
People become RLSH for a variety of reasons. The two most common threads I see in RLSH origin stories are an appreciation for superhero fiction (comics, movies, books, etc.) and a desire to help others. Someone enjoys superhero fiction, wishes that something like that would happen in real life, and decides to make it happen.
For people who become RLSH, it’s often very intuitive. It just feels right, like discovering a part of yourself that you never even knew existed.
New RLSH may or may not have a specific strategic reason for incorporating a superhero name and/or costume into their community service work. They may want to use the RLSH gimmick to draw attention to the work and inspire others to take action, or they may just feel inspired by the superhero archetype and want to incorporate it into their work. Either way, for RLSH, there’s just an irresistible appeal to developing and adopting a superhero persona.
My choice to become an RLSH was mostly intuitive. I saw a few stories of other RLSH, and I liked the idea, so I went with it. But in the years since adopting this public superhero persona, I’ve given much thought to why RLSH work is often such a powerful and transformative force in the lives of the people who engage in it.
For me, being a Real-Life Superhero is about storytelling and framing. When we adopt an RLSH persona, we’re telling a creative superhero story that places community service at the center of our identity. We’re telling a story where each of us has something meaningful and transformative to contribute to our communities.
Much of the work that RLSH do addresses very serious problems in their community and world. Homeless outreach addresses the problems of hunger, homelessness, and poverty. Safety patrols address violent crime and other public safety concerns. Social, environmental, and climate justice work addresses downright horrific injustices created by white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, colonialism, and other systemic forms of oppression. Whether they’re dealing with, people doing RLSH work will at some point come face to face with terrible realities of the world we live in that can easily lead to burnout, disillusionment, and a retreat from the work. Some people may find it inappropriate to respond to such serious concerns with something as whimsical as a superhero name or costume.
But the appeal of becoming a Real-Life Superhero is that it allows us to tell a story where we feel empowered to do something about it. The story grants us the power and the courage to actually get out there and do something for the good of others. No matter how bad things get, there’s always something we can do to help. No matter how unjust the world is, we can always work for justice. People become Real-Life Superheroes because we want to believe that we have the power to work for justice in meaningful ways in our communities. Even people who don’t get the appeal of our comic-book names and costumes should at least be able to understand the appeal of a narrative where we the people are called to work in the service of justice.
What are the potential pitfalls of the Real-Life Superhero movement?
As you might imagine, there are many potential pitfalls in the Real-LIfe Superhero movement. I’m working on an entire essay on the subject. In the meantime, I want to provide a quick overview.
What most if not all RLSH pitfalls boil down to is a failure to remain grounded in reality, or a failure to actually help the community in effective and ethical ways, or both.
If you think you have superpowers, you’re going to run into problems. If you’re doing it for fame and money, you’re going to run into problems. If you get caught up in a bunch of made-up conspiracy theories, you’re going to run into problems. If you think you’re literally the real-life equivalent of a grimdark antihero like Rorschach or Punisher, you’re going to run into problems. If you think the people in your community are helpless victims who need a superhero to come and rescue them, you’re going to run into problems.
If instead, you see yourself as an active member of your community, working in solidarity with your neighbors to ensure that everyone’s needs are met, then you’re probably on the right track.
What is the positive potential of the Real-Life Superhero movement?
The positive potential of the Real-Life Superhero movement is virtually limitless.
As it stands now, the RLSH movement is basically a niche volunteerism movement. People adopt superhero personas, go out into their communities, and meet the immediate needs of their neighbors in various ways.
If that’s all that the RLSH movement ever becomes, that’s still so much better than staying home and doing nothing to help your community. RLSH are out in their communities feeding people, handing out toiletries, de-escalating conflicts, cleaning up litter (and more hazardous items like discarded needles), and so on. Those are meaningful real-world achievements, and an impressive feat for a movement based on adopting superhero personas. We’re basically living out fun superhero stories that result in real-life material benefits for people in need in our communities. There’s a certain magic and beauty to that. We’ve taken the idea of superheroes, and in our own small way, we’ve made it real.
But I also see the potential for the RLSH movement to become something greater. The longer we do service work out in our communities, the more experience we’ll gain, and the more opportunities we’ll have to develop a deeper understanding of our communities and the problems that plague them.
What starts as an effort to feed the hungry may evolve into an effort to solve the local, regional, and national problems that lead to hunger. What starts as an effort to provide supplies and first aid to the homeless may evolve into an effort to solve the underlying problems of homelessness and lack of access to medical care. What starts as an effort to do local clean-ups may lead to a greater concern for environmental justice and climate justice. What starts as an effort to stop street crime may evolve into an effort to address the underlying roots of street crime and challenge more white-collar and systemic crimes.
This is what I see as the aspirational work of Real-Life Superheroes. We may start by taking simple and straightforward actions to meet the unmet needs in our communities. But as that work continues and evolves, we may end up working in new, creative, and powerful ways for deeper change in the service of justice.