The case of the Phantom Patriot shows that Real Life Super Heroes are not something that we should be encouraging.
I’ve recently been reading the book American Madness, Tea Krulos’ extraordinary study of conspiracy and delusion and will have a lot to say about it in a forthcoming article on that thorny and timely subject. But one thing that struck me as an aside to the main thrust of the text – well, perhaps not an aside as much as an integral part that is nevertheless something of a distraction from the main body when it comes to me discussing the wider theme of “how conspiracy theories hijacked American consciousness” – is the strange phenomena of Real Life Super Heroes.
Krulos’ book is centred around Richard McCaslin, a man who went down the conspiracy rabbit hole and attempted to stage a rescue of non-existent sacrificial victims at Bohemia Grove, the retreat of the rich and powerful that has long been the centre of rumour an accusation from New World Order conspiracists. What makes McCaslin’s story so bizarre is that he did this in the guise of the Phantom Patriot, a costumed superhero straight out of the comic books that he avidly consumed and created. If conspiracy theory is often about allowing fantasy – that is, a belief in an alternative truth that only you and select others are privy to – to become reality, then surely the act of trying to become a superhero is cranking the idea of taking fantasy too seriously up several notches.
I’ve been aware of the whole weird phenomenon of ‘Real Life Super Heroes’ (or RLSH) for a while without ever really thinking about it. I’d read Jon Ronson’s stories or watch his documentaries about characters like Pheonix Jones and looked at it as just more American eccentricity – weird behaviour from oddball people who are ultimately harmless cosplayers. It’s a curious world that Krulos has written an entire book about (Heroes in the Night) that is now on my list of books to track down. But of course, there’s a more sinister side to the whole idea that just someone who has read far too many comic books and never quite gone past that childhood stage of putting on a Batman mask and running around the streets looking for crimes to solve until it’s dinner time and you have to go home.
There is probably a finer line between RLSH and deranged vigilantes than many would like to admit. While the RLSH community seems, on the surface, to be an eccentric collection of people who take comic books and bit too seriously and just want to help their local community and make everyone feel that little bit safer, that motivation isn’t much different from the man who turns up at a pizza restaurant armed to the teeth because he wants to ‘save the children’ – both people think that they are working for the greater good and by the time they decide to deal with the criminals, the corrupt and the monstrous, are probably only on nodding terms with reality. We know only too well that if people think that they are on the side of the angels, then they can and will do anything because the ends justify the means.
I’m sure that, at some point in our childhood, we’ve all regretted that comic book superheroes don’t exist in real life – but of course, can you imagine anything worse than self-appointed, masked vigilantes rampaging through the streets taking down villains who presumably would immediately walk free in court because their capture violated all manner of laws, rules of evidence and civil rights? I remember as a teenager reading Marvel comics and being astounding at how the heroes and villains would not only beat the living crap out of each other but also routinely destroy buildings, cars and street furniture. Whenever characters crashed into buildings knocking huge chunks of brickwork flying loose, I would wonder: what about the people on the street below? The collateral damage of these battles must’ve been awful yet this was rarely addressed. The older I get, the more sympathy I have for the New York authorities wanting to arrest Spider-Man – you really can’t have anonymous figures setting themselves up as judge and jury while provoking fights with supervillains who, in many cases, haven’t even done anything wrong yet (seriously: re-read old superhero comics and see just how many fights start simply because the two characters literally stumble across each other before the villain has even committed a crime). Costumed vigilantes with an unwavering belief in their own righteousness seem to be the sort of thing that we should be discouraging people from trying to emulate – for their own sakes as much as anyone else’s because in real life, none of these people will be bullet or knife proof.
It seems that some RLSH are simply people having fun. Some are those who use the costumes and the personas to raise awareness and help support charitable causes – the ones who hand out food to the homeless and so on. Perhaps there are even those who really do act as a deterrent to criminals, though I can’t imagine knife-wielding gang members or pissed-up thugs being scared of a man in a gaudy costume – if anything, you’re probably just going to make yourself more of a target. But it seems to me that the people who take it very seriously – people like McCaslin – are a danger to themselves and others because if you can somehow fool yourself into believing that you are a superhero, who knows what other delusional ideas you might have? McCaslin entered Bohemian Grove armed to the teeth and it is only because he chose to do so when there was no one actually there that ensured that things didn’t get bloody (and even then, he had what must’ve felt like a very long stand-off with armed cops, gun in hand, before finally surrendering).
I look at superhero comics – or superhero movies – now and, regardless of how entertaining (or not) they might be as entertainment, I can’t help but think that these are not admirable characters. The very fact that so many of them seem motivated by revenge and anger is itself a warning sign of what sort of people we would end up with as superheroes in real life. Patrolling the streets looking for trouble is not the sort of thing that normal people are going to want to do, frankly. In an increasingly fractured world where damaged and desperate people are increasingly clinging to wild and extreme ideas, feeling helpless in the face of what they are absolutely convinced is the ultimate evil that controls every aspect of our lives, we really don’t need vigilantism – not even gaudily-costumed vigilantism – being shown as an acceptable way forward.
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