I’d be lying if I said I never thought about what it would be like to become a superhero. Now I’m not a mutant, I wasn’t born on Krypton, and I’ve never been exposed to gamma rays. But neither was Batman, and he does all right for himself. In my darker moments, I thought about what it would take to be Rorschach, who is closer to my size and doesn’t need the $2.8 million apparently required to maintain the Dark Knight. And since we’re being honest, it’s a safe bet that as a reader of PopMythology.com, thoughts like these have probably crossed your mind too.
The good news for both of us is that we’re not that unusual. Not only do lots of people fantasize about becoming real-life superheroes (RLSH—which is what they call themselves in both singular and plural), quite a few actually do it. Tea Krulos tells their story in Heroes in the Night: Inside the Real Life Superhero Movement. Krulos combines solid journalism with colorful storytelling to shed light on this bizarre and utterly human subculture. He takes a novelist’s approach to nonfiction, frequently dropping the reader in medias res into a wild situation and then filling in the factual gaps later.
This approach is best evidenced by the introduction. Before we even find out what an RLSH is, we’re in the midst of a crime-fighting situation gone wrong as Krulos gets punched in the face observing “Phoenix Jones” attempt to break up a brawl in Seattle. I occasionally found myself wanting a more straightforward narrative, but more often felt drawn into tantalizing situations that I couldn’t wait to have explained.
Another strength of the book is Krulos’ willingness to forgo journalistic distance to show how he fits in the story. He doesn’t quite go “Gonzo,” but his first-person narration illuminates the challenges of getting in contact with RLSH and the craziness of riding along with them. Though the RLSH might bravely stalk the mean streets, Krulos is more than happy to admit his perfectly-reasonable fear in the face of gangbangers, street-fighters and drug-dealers.
The RLSH are presented as sympathetically odd. Krulos displays a good sense of humor without stooping to ridicule his subjects. I laughed out loud when Krulos deadpans that the “Great Lakes Alliance” were meeting at the Mary Tyler Moore statue in Minneapolis, especially since the punch line is not the RLSH but the city of Minneapolis for having such a statute to begin with. He is far more likely to make light of himself than his subjects, who, for all of their eccentricities, just want to do some good in their communities.
As Heroes in the Night makes clear, there is as much diversity in motives for RLSH as there are different costumes. Some RLSH adopt personae solely to aid in charitable activities. Others are a more colorful version of the neighborhood watch, assisting police and stepping out of the way when professional expertise is required. Still others are full-fledged vigilantes. Krulos has a hard time confirming the exploits of this latter group, who might display more imagination than heroism.
Heroes in the Night is a great example of the promise of creative non-fiction. Tea Krulos lays a solid foundation of fact and then builds an entertaining story on top of it. He is a necessary character in this story, but he never allows himself to overshadow the real-life superheroes who are the real stars. He gives them the chance to explain themselves and deftly mixes humor and compassion in his treatment of his subjects. This is an entertaining book that sheds light on the strange but timely, understandable and relevant subculture that is the RLSH movement. [subscribe2]