On being ... a (super)hero

By Ingrid Sapona

A headline on the bottom of the front page of the Insight section of last Saturday’s Toronto Star read: “Meet Thanatos, Polarman and Dark Guardian”. I suspect the headline caught my eye because of the word Thanatos, which is a word I’m familiar with from the Greek Orthodox Church’s Easter service -- it means death. So seeing that word combined with Polarman (whatever that is) and Dark Guardian (whatever that is), definitely intrigued me.

The article proved even more interesting than the title. It was about people who consider themselves real life superheroes. They create identities -- often complete with costumes and face masks or at least face paint -- and they patrol neighbourhoods to fight crime and other evils.

Initially, I found the idea creepy (if a bit absurd). They sound like vigilantes, which I have always found worrisome. From the photos accompanying the article it was clear the costumes are meant to look scary, if not intimidating. Oh Great, I thought, nut-jobs bent on meting out their own version of justice. Just what we need…

Apparently there are more superheroes among us than you might expect. The article talked about a documentary that came out last summer that featured 50 self-styled superheroes. And of course, the Internet has helped bring many of them together. There are web sites where people (sorry, superheroes) exchange ideas. And, of course, what would a movement be without a support group of some sort. You guessed it -- there’s an organization called Superheroes Anonymous; it holds workshops and conferences to help people develop their superhero persona.

But, just as I noticed my stomach churning from my fear, trepidation, and general uneasiness about these real life caped and masked crusaders, the story went on to describe the specific activities of the characters (er, superheroes) named in the article’s headline. Thanatos, who wears a green and black mask, black trench coat, and wide-brimmed black hat, has been “patrolling” Vancouver streets for four years, handing out water and blankets to the homeless.

Dark Guardian lurks in New York City parks looking for drug dealers. When he comes across any he shines a flash light on them and yells “This is a drug-free park” in an effort to scare them and get them to move on. And Polarman -- perhaps the most uniquely Canadian superhero -- patrols streets in Iqaluit (the capital of the territory of Nunavut, which is near the arctic circle) keeping an eye out for vandals and shovelling city sidewalks.

Ok, perhaps the causes these “superheroes” are championing -- and the way they’re going about things -- isn’t that scary. In fact, according to the article, “few of the masked men and women out there actually fight crime. … they mostly do community work, such as helping the homeless and patrolling troubled areas, handing out flyers.”

By the end of the article, I didn’t really know what to make of these folks. Part of my lack of understanding comes from the fact that the whole concept of superheroes is foreign to me. Growing up I never read comic books (nor did my sisters, as far as I know). In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago when someone asked me what “superpower” I would most like to have that I even realized that what distinguishes a superhero from, well, I guess any other type of hero, is the specific superpower. Somehow I knew if I said something like “the ability to bake anything”, the guy who asked me the question wouldn’t have gotten the joke. So, I just told the truth, which is that I’ve never given it a moment’s thought.

Though the idea of adults donning masks and costumes and pretending to be superheroes seems crazy, if not comic and a bit creepy, the article made me think about why superheroes capture peoples’ imagination in the first place. I guess the reason people fantasize about them is because there is injustice and danger in the world and they want to believe that something -- someone -- can make things better.

I have the same hope and dream about people taking action to make the world better -- but I don’t think that only folks with superpowers can change the world. I think each of us has the power within us to make the world better -- we just have to take action. Ironically, I think that’s really what each of the folks featured in the article believe too -- it’s just that for some reason they feel better trying to change things while dressed in a costume.

I don’t believe in superheroes, but I do think that we can all be super heroes. And, with the holidays around the corner, it’s the perfect time to let the hero within spring into action. If you don’t know what to do or how to begin -- just pick a charity. There are plenty that can use your help, and most don’t require you to wear a costume. (If, on the other hand, you’re into that kind of thing, I’ll bet at this time of year you can even find a charity that can lend you a spiffy red velvet suit with white fur trim to wear.)

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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