Here are a bunch of grown-ass men and women, wearing costumes, fighting crime, and fucking apathy in the arse with their raging goodwill. They're trying to make a difference by patrolling their local neighborhoods in costume, on the lookout for any douchebags who intend to be detrimental to society. They start projects like this Water For Africa fundraiser and organize huge outreach programs for homeless people to try and help them get back on their feet. So, while it would be incredibly easy to rip on these guys for apparently regressing 30 years, donning Lycra and puffing their chests out, they do far more good every day than I've ever done in my whole life, so no I'm not going to take the piss.
Photographer Peter Tangen gathered all of these costumed crime-fighting civilians together a couple of years ago to shoot their portraits and coined the name The Real Life Super Hero Project to amalgamate everyone into one group. I get the whole wanting to help the community part, but the costume thing still confuses me a little. Peter explained the outfits as a method of recognition, so people in the community could remember who was helping them out and easily find them again if they ever needed to. I believed him, but still thought there were a few comic book fanatics in there who wanted to dress up just as much as they wanted to help people, so I spoke to a few of the real-life superheroes to find out.
VICE: Did you become a superhero of your own accord, or because you heard about The Real Life Super Hero Project and wanted to join in?
Phantom Zero: I've always been a part of geek and counter culture, but I started as a real-life superhero because I was curious about who they were and what they were about. At the time, I was looking for unique ways I could perform good deeds, and before Phantom Zero existed I was a fairly upstanding citizen—I've always been very sympathetic and concerned about people in bad situations—but I've also always had a penchant for costume and the two became one over five years ago. I made my introductions and have learned a great deal since about community service and altruistic endeavors that individuals, costumed or not, can become involved in.
There's a very Victorian, gothic element to your costume. What's that all about?
Well, I'm a fan of the Victorian aesthetics, as well as gothic Victorian literature, and I wanted to keep the color scheme simple, i.e., black. Most of my clothing is black and my costume was pieced together from many pre-existing elements of my wardrobe, like my long wool coat, for example. I had to improvise other elements, like a makeshift cape and hood out of some spare cloth I had, and then I accessorized the costume with a smattering of white and red. My costume's evolved over time, closer to the Victorian aesthetic that I love, but all of the elements were relatively inexpensive because it's improvised faux-Victorian rather than the real deal. None of my masks cost me more than $5.
Speaking of the mask, your costume is definitely one of the more intimidating ones out of the RLSH. Why's that?
Before the comic book genre coalesced into its recognizable form, there were heroes in fiction in the Victorian times with cultivated, truly horrific appearances. I've always had a love of mystery and horror and those genres have played their part in the super-heroic melting pot, so I wanted to create an image that was both theatrical and mysterious. Some real-life superheroes have "dress uniforms" for public appearances and alternate "street" or "mission specific" outfits. I usually wear the former for interviews and photographic sessions and the latter for blood drives, homeless outreach, and low-key missions that require a bit more decorum.
Cool. Superheroes have to dress down for work too—who knew? What does the costume mean to you symbolically?
I think some of the most obvious symbolism resides in my skull mask, which is commonly associated with death but, for me, serves multiple symbolic purposes. A large part of my desire to help others comes from wanting to honor the life of my deceased father, so it's as much a mask of mourning as it is a memento mori, reminding me that I only have one life to live and that I should live each day to the fullest. However, I must admit I also wear it with relish and delight, one most would normally reserve for masquerades and Halloween outings, it's a feeling of elation that I have the luxury of enjoying many times a year. Another important symbolic element was the addition of the color red. Both my fiancée Nyx and I added red to our costumes, adopting similar color themes as a shared symbol of our love for each other, our passion for what we do, and also being symbolic of blood, as we both regularly donate blood, which we equate with life.
VICE: So, how important is your costume to what you do?
Mr. Xtreme: My costume is very important to me for many different reasons. It stands out and draws attention to the causes we feel strongly about, sparks outrage, and gets people fired up. We want more people thinking about what we're striving for out there. I wear the costume because it's highly visible and one of our main objectives is to be a visual deterrent to crime. The idea is the bad guys see us patrolling and they don't commit a crime in our presence, so the costume is a form of proactive protest, in a way. We express our outrage and anger against the world by distinguishing ourselves by how we dress and the costumes let us also be individuals even in a team environment. My costume also offers a good deal of protection too, in case a volatile situation escalates out on the street.
Yeah, you're pretty padded out by the looks of it. Did the costume aspect of what you do appeal to you before you started as well as the prospect of helping people?
Yes, the costume aspect has always appealed to me. As with many others in this scene, I'm very much into comics and fictional superheroes, but I've also been involved in volunteerism and activism ever since I was young—stuff like church groups, citizen's patrol groups, political groups, and random acts of kindness and generosity in my daily life. Serving my community appealed to me even before donning any type of uniform. Even though I'm very active with my current group, the Xtreme Justice League, I still do other types of service outside my RLSH life.
Cool. Did you feel uncomfortable wearing the costume at first?
When I first stated patrolling in costume I was nervous, yeah, and I still get like that sometimes, even today. There's been a lot of positives, but there's also been many negative sides to it as well. We've been contacted numerous times by the police out on patrol, we've been detained, and we've had gang members threatening to attack us, but we accept that stuff like that just comes with the job.
Where did the influences for your costume come from?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, SWAT, and punk and hardcore music.
Awesome. Good answer.
VICE: Hello Geist. So, what was it initially that made you want to don the suit and do your bit?
Geist: I have a number of reasons that made me feel the need to become a real-life superhero and they're all a piece of the puzzle. I was exposed to an unsolved violent crime when I was just a kid: two people I knew were brutally murdered and it seemed so wrong that a double-homicide should go unpunished for years. Finally, when the killer confessed 20 years later, it was someone who I knew quite well who had arbitrarily chosen to murder those victims, while it could have easily been my family instead. He said that he "just wanted to find out what it felt like to kill somebody. It didn't matter who."
Wow, that is a legit reason to become a superhero. What were the other reasons?
Well, I've been poor and hungry and I am familiar with the hopelessness and negativity that it creates and I want to stop that negative spiral and let people know that there is hope. There is a chance that things can get better and there are reasons to believe that and people who care. In 2007, when I heard about a small number of people taking on original personas and behaving as crime fighters, costumed activists, and real-life superheroes, I knew that it was my answer to so many things.
Cool. OK, so fashion. What's going on with your costume? Do I notice a bit of a steampunk vibe in there?
The initial concept in my head was to take cues from some of the pulp detectives who didn't have, or rarely utilized their superpowers, because I obviously don't have any powers myself, so I was thinking along the lines of The Green Hornet, Doc Savage, or The Shadow. I got some money together by selling portions of my substantial comic book collection and went to Minneapolis to shop for a costume. On the way, I came across a Western store that was selling these astoundingly huge, black cowboy hats. I'm not that interested in cowboy movies, but cowboys are iconic figures in American culture so I decided to change my direction to suit the cowboy look and bought a trenchcoat that had enough pockets to fit all of the equipment I envisaged myself carrying. I added some flashy cloth highlights to give it a bit of superhero flair, hand-painted some glasses for my mask, and bought some urban, punk-ish boots. Also, almost every part of the suit is tricked-out and holds a potentially useful device that can't be seen. Everything I carry is legal in my state, but I've had other real-life superheroes impressed by what I've pulled out of it at a moment's notice. Fully-stocked, the coat alone weighs 15 pounds.
Whoa. Does that cowboy aspect of the costume enforce what you're trying to do, do you think?
Yeah, it just says something immediate and you know that there's a set of values with a bit of solitary righteousness behind it. A cowboy is someone who will do the right thing no matter what anyone says or thinks. It's John Wayne or Gary Cooper standing alone against insurmountable forces to protect the innocent when they should really come to their senses and just go home instead. An added twist came by chance when I stored my hat behind my car seat for any possible instant use, and my cowboy hat got squished on one side of the brim and was bent in a weird direction. I was in the process of trying to straighten it when I realized that it looked sort of like a musketeer, so I kept the accidental look.
Good move. I noticed a few of the other RLSH don't wear masks. Is anonymity important to you or did you just want to wear a cool mask?
No, it's crucial that I remain anonymous and never be known as Geist. It could ruin my decades-long professional career. Also, some of the anti-graffiti actions are offensive to several gangs in the areas I work and when you seek out and obliterate a graffiti gang, it's an insult worthy of a lethal response according to gang code. I don't need a drive-by where I live and I don't need my loved ones in any kind of collateral danger either. Also, for what little good I can do to help others, I don't need personal credit. That would, for me, diminish the motivation and purpose of what I do. With my identity disguised, I could be anyone—your neighbor, brother, or mailman. It might be easier for people to imagine themselves doing something good for selfless reasons if Geist is anonymous and not connected to a specific person. This way, I'm a bit more of an icon and not just some guy with a rather complicated but mundane civilian life.