Superheroes in Real Life

Inspired by comic books, ordinary citizens are putting on masks to fight crime

Geist's breath fogs the winter air as he surveys the frozen Minneapolis skyline, searching for signs of trouble. His long duster flaps in the breeze as his eyes flick behind reflective sunglasses; a wide-brim hat and green iridescent mask shroud his identity from those who might wish him harm.

Should a villain attack, the Emerald Enforcer carries a small arsenal to defend himself: smoke grenades, pepper spray, a slingshot, and a pair of six-inch fighting sticks tucked into sturdy leather boots. Leather guards protect Geist's arms; his signature weapon, an Argentinean cattle-snare called bolos, hangs from a belt-holster.

A mission awaits and time is of the essence, so Geist eases his solid frame, honed from martial arts training, into his trusty patrol vehicle—a salt-covered beige sedan. Unfamiliar with the transportation tangle of downtown, he pulls a MapQuest printout from his pocket, discovering his goal is but a short cruise down Washington Avenue.

"We're basically normal people who just find an unusual way to do something good" says Geist. "Once you get suited up, you're a hero and you've got to act like one."
Nick Vlcek
"We're basically normal people who just find an unusual way to do something good" says Geist. "Once you get suited up, you're a hero and you've got to act like one."

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There's more fun with Real Life Superheroes at the following links:

• Visit our SLIDESHOW GALLERY to see many of the Reals in this story.

• Read EXPANDED WEB CONTENT for this story, which features video and links.

• Cruise the REAL LIFE SUPERHERO MAP via Google Maps.

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Soon Geist faces his first obstacle: parking on the left side of a one-way street. "Usually one of my superpowers is parallel parking," he chuckles as he eases his car into the spot, emerging victorious with a foot and a half between curb and tire. He feeds a gauntleted fistful of quarters into the parking meter, and then pops the trunk on the Geistmobile to retrieve his precious cargo. On the street, he encounters businesspeople on lunch break—some stare openly; others don't even notice his garish attire. "It's easier in winter," Geist says with a laugh. "Winter in Minnesota, everybody's dressed weird."

Finally, his destination is in sight: People Serving People, a local homeless shelter. Geist strides boldly into the lobby—a cramped, noisy room where kids and adults mill about chatting—and heaves his stuffed paper bags onto the counter. "I have some groceries to donate," he tells Dean, the blond-bearded security guard on duty, whose placid expression suggests superheroes pop in on a regular basis. "And I have an hour on the meter if there's anything I can do to help out."

Wendy Darst, the volunteer coordinator, looks taken aback but gladly puts the superhero to work. Soon the Jade Justice finds himself hip-deep in a supply closet, piling books into a red Radio Flyer wagon. He wheels it back to the lobby, entreating the children to select a text. But the kids seem more interested in peppering him with questions. "So are you a cowboy or something?" one boy asks.

Geist kneels down to reply with a camera-ready grin, "Maybe a super-secret, space-cowboy detective!"

Another kid, awed by the uniform, just stares silently. "Hi," Geist says with a smile, holding out his hand in greeting. "I'm a real-life superhero."

The kid grabs Geist's leather-clad mitt and grins back. "I'm four!"

Such is the life of Minnesota's only superhero—a man in his mid-40s who sold off his comic book collection to fund a dream borne of those very pages. Unlike his fictional inspirations, he hasn't yet found any villains to apprehend in Rochester, a sleepy city of 95,000 about 80 miles south of Minneapolis. But that doesn't mean he's wasting his time, he says. "When you put on this costume and you do something for someone, it's like, 'Wow, I am being a hero,' and that is a great feeling."

 

BY MOST OBSERVERS' RECKONING, between 150 and 200 real-life superheroes, or "Reals" as some call themselves, operate in the United States, with another 50 or so donning the cowl internationally. These crusaders range in age from 15 to 50 and patrol cities from Indianapolis to Cambridgeshire, England. They create heroic identities with names like Black Arrow, Green Scorpion, and Mr. Silent, and wear bright Superman spandex or black ninja suits. Almost all share two traits in common: a love of comic books and a desire to improve their communities.

It's rare to find more than a few superheroes operating in the same area, so as with all hobbies, a community has sprung up online. In February, a burly, black-and-green-clad New Jersey-based Real named Tothian started Heroes Network, a website he says functions "like the UN for the real-life superhero community."

The foremost designer of real-life superhero costumes lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. His given name is Michael Brinatte, but he pro wrestles under the name Jack T. Ripper. At 6'2", with bulldog shoulders, he looks more likely to suplex you than shake your hand. It's hard to imagine him behind a sewing machine, carefully splicing together bits of shiny spandex, but when the 39-year-old father of three needed to give his wrestling persona a visual boost, that's just where he found himself, drawing on his only formal tailoring education: seventh-grade home economics. He discovered he had a talent for it, and before long was sewing uniforms and masks for fellow wrestlers, learning techniques to make his work durable enough to withstand the rigors of hand-to-hand combat.

After he posted photos of his masks on the internet, he met his first real-life superhero: Entomo the Insect Man, a crimefighter and "masked detective" based in Naples, Italy. Entomo wanted Brinatte to make him a mask to incorporate into his black-and-olive uniform. A lifelong comic fan, Brinatte took the assignment seriously, and it showed in the stitching. When Entomo showed off his new mask to the community of Reals, Brinatte started getting more orders: a green-and-black bodysuit for Hardwire, a blue-and-white Z-emblazoned uniform for Zetaman. Eventually, Brinatte started a website, www.hero-gear.net, to formalize his business, and now spends 10 to 15 hours each week making superhero uniforms. "They have a good heart and believe in what they're doing, and they're a lot of fun to talk to," Brinatte says.

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