• Image about Jones
Sy Bean

Everyday citizens are taking to fighting crime as self-proclaimed superheroes. So who are the Bruce Waynes behind these Batmen — and how much are they really helping?

Their rendezvous point is beneath an awning of the American Apparel store in Seattle’s University District, a stretch of bars and retail shops that rarely sees crime more serious than public drunkenness. But these superheroes are mindful of their mortality and the fact that costumes and martial arts and even a nightstick that doubles as a stun gun aren’t enough mettle to patrol the city’s real hot spots; to do battle with real gangsters packing real heat.

“That,” says the Rain City Superhero Movement’s ringleader, Phoenix Jones, “would be suicide.”

Flanking Jones on this chilly night are two sidekicks, Troop and Buster Doe, the latter so named because he once refused to identify himself as anything other than “Buster” while being questioned by police. They are not nearly as well equipped as their captain, the founder of this movement and the rare “real-life superhero” who actually considers himself a crime fighter. Most of the dozens if not hundreds of caped crusaders who have sprung up around the country in recent years, à la the flick Kick-Ass, are really just good Samaritans who take comic books a little more seriously than the rest of us. For most RLSH — the clumsy acronym with which Real Life Superheroes routinely describe themselves — crime fighting only happens if they witness something untoward while on patrols that consist mostly of volunteer work, from toy drives to feeding the homeless.

“The public and the media assign to them this component of being crime fighters, when in reality that accounts for less than 10 percent of their collective actions,” says Peter Tangen, who works as something of a spokesperson for superheroes across the country. “We don’t want to wander into territory that might be described as vigilantism. Most are like the guardian angels. There’s a lot of cruise control boredom, not much going on.”

Phoenix Jones (not his real name) isn’t content with “passing out sandwiches,” as he derisively refers to such efforts. He got into the crime-fighting business after some punks broke into his car in the parking lot of an amusement park in the nearby town of Federal Way a couple of years back. Jones recalls his child falling and getting cut by glass from the busted-out window. Instead of calling for help, Jones says bitterly, a crowd of bystanders did nothing but stare as he tended to the wound. One man held up a cellphone and recorded a video.

“I’m gonna put this on YouTube,” the man said to Jones.

And a superhero was born.