Milwaukee writer Tea Krulos unmasks the “real-life superhero” movement with Heroes In The Night
“I wanted to show that some of them are pretty crazy, but many are just normal people with a very unusual hobby.”
When local writer (and occasional A.V. Club contributor) Tea Krulos stumbled across a “News Of The Weird” item about the growing number of ostensibly normal people donning masks and tights and hitting the streets as self-styled superheroes, he wondered whether Milwaukee had its own costumed crusaders, and if they’d be open to being interviewed for a magazine article. As it turned out, we did, namely the black-and-crimson clad Watchman, who was surprisingly happy to have the journalist tag along on one of his nighttime patrols of Riverwest. Krulos soon realized, however, that the secretive world he had worked his way into was too complex and certainly too quirky to be done justice with just a few hundred words, and the project quickly snowballed into a book: the colorful new page-turner Heroes In The Night: Inside The Real Life Superhero Movement. In advance of his visit to Boswell Book Company on Friday, October 11, we caught up with Krulos to ask a few burning questions.
The A.V. Club: You’ve interviewed hundreds of RLSH, or Real Life Superheroes, from around the country. What motivates someone to put on a cape and cowl and try to make their cities safer?
Tea Krulos: I think most are motivated by a frustration with society. They think something is broken in our justice system that’s supposed to be helping people out. A lot of them have a very unselfish mindset. They really just want to help people, and this comic book motif is what speaks to them and allows them to do that. The common ground with all of them is the power of this superhero imagery, but the interpretation of it varies quite a bit.
AVC: Some of the heroes profiled in the book are almost like mascots for charitable causes, but others are basically vigilantes, existing in a moral gray area. Where do most RLSH draw the line?
TK: A couple of these guys have really pushed it. A few have been arrested trying to intervene in crimes. I think many of them have an approach that’s just fine, doing a sort of costumed neighborhood watch, and I don’t see them running into some tense situation and making it even crazier. But some of them have a real gung-ho approach that could easily get themselves, or someone else, in trouble, hurt, or worse. It’s a big topic and it’s one that RLSH debate a lot amongst themselves. There are a lot of arguments about philosophy and what they should be doing, which is kind of fascinating to see, because they happen on their own forums and on Facebook, where their avatars are them in costume with their superhero names. It gets kind of surreal.
AVC: You trace the history of Real Life Superheroes to the 1970s and even earlier, but the Internet seems to have solidified it into a movement. What role did technology play?
TK: It was definitely key. It all started with some guys chatting on a forum, wondering, “Hey, why doesn’t anyone do this?” and somebody saying, “Well, a guy in the ’70s actually did do it,” and finally people claiming, “I am doing this.” Within a year the number of Real Life Superheroes actively talking online had gone from a couple people to a couple hundred people.
AVC: So can we expect to see more and more superheroes roaming the streets?
TK: It’s really hard to tell. It’s difficult to keep track of because of the mysterious nature of it. People start doing it and then disappear all the time, but on the other hand, I see new people online all the time, too. Just this week I got a Facebook friend request from a dude who calls himself The Badger. He’s from Los Angeles, and found out about a new team of German Real Life Superheroes. So there’s a lot of turnover, which makes it hard to say how much it’s growing.
AVC: With secret identities at stake, was it hard to find people willing to talk? Your approach feels somewhat humorous but ultimately respectful.
TK: Some were very open right off the bat and some did not want to talk to me. Many just enjoy the fact that people don’t know about their activities, but another reason is that they’ve gotten some harsh media attention, and once you get trashed a couple times, it’s easy to think they’re just going to call you an idiot. Personally, I thought that if I just made fun of them it would get old really quick, so I looked for the serious stories. But at the same time I didn’t want to give people the illusion that it’s flawless, because they’ve really fucked up at times. I wanted to show that some of them are pretty crazy, but many are just normal people with a very unusual hobby.