Webs of Significance: The Real-Life Superhero Movement as a Model for Reality

The real-life superhero movement represents a profound way in which the “model for” aspect of superhero mythology has manifested, and suggests new areas of study in the field of religion and popular culture.

During the summer of 2011, HBO aired Superheroes, a documentary about the so-called “real-life superhero movement.”1 Director Michael Barnett followed individuals across North America who identify as superheroes, donning costumes and going forth to help the needy or fight crime as vigilantes. Some heroes restricted their activities to charity work, while others, such as a group called the New York Initiative, set up “sting” operations in which they attempted to lure out violent criminals and arrest them by force. Several local news stations have also run human-interest pieces interviewing local superheroes. In October, a man from Seattle known as “Phoenix Jones” was arrested for using pepper spray on a group of suspected criminals. Jones had prepared for his role as a vigilante with martial arts training. In addition to his mask, he patrolled the street with a Dragon Skin bulletproof vest, stab-proof plating, tear gas, and a stun baton. He wore his mask to his trial, removing it only when asked by the judge and donning it again before leaving the courtroom. Jones was acquitted and continues to fight crime, against the advice of the Seattle police department.

Scholars of religion and popular culture have written much about comic book superheroes, noting that superheroes draw from such material as Greek heroes and demi-gods, biblical judges and prophets, and European folklore.2 It is now axiomatic that superheroes represent a “modern mythology.”3 However, the real-life superhero movement indicates a previously unconsidered dimension to this mythology. It also suggests that scholarly analysis in this field has focused too narrowly on the text (comic books and movies) while ignoring the culture(s) that turn to these narratives for meaning.4 Clifford Geertz claimed that religion (defined as a system of symbols) is not only a “model of,” but also a “model for” reality. Along this line of thought, if superheroes are religious symbols they should be not only appealing, but prescriptive: part of the way that a culture makes sense of the world around it. The real-life superhero movement represents a profound way in which the “model for” aspect of superhero mythology has manifested, and suggests new areas of study in the field of religion and popular culture.

The Phenomenon

Contemporary fans of superhero media are not passive consumers. For decades, comic books have regularly published letters from fans, allowing them to participate in constructing the meaning of superhero stories.5 Fans also celebrate the superhero through numerous online communities, role-playing games, and conventions where they dress as comic book characters. Director Michael Barnett commented on how he distinguished real-life superheroes from other forms of fan culture. He explained, “Our criteria was they had to go out and do something.”

The first real-life superhero to “go out and do something” may have been Richard Pesta of Los Angeles, better known as “Captain Sticky.” Pesta weighed 350 pounds and went forth in a blue jumpsuit, mask, and gold cape. In 1974, he campaigned against abuses of the elderly in nursing homes and advertising campaigns that he claimed were harmful to people’s self-esteem. The Captain Sticky persona allowed Pesta to appear on numerous television and radio shows and to sell official merchandise to fund his campaigns.6

Another early superhero was Willie J. Perry of Birmingham, Alabama. Perry was known as “the Birmingham Batman” for his habit of cruising the city to help stranded motorists, take the elderly to appointments, and offer free rides to the inebriated. Perry did all this in a customized 1971 Ford Thunderbird dubbed, “The Batmobile Rescue Ship.” He also wore a white jumpsuit and a helmet inscribed with a bat logo. Sadly, Perry died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1985 when the garage door closed while he was working on his super-car.

Like Perry, other early real-life superheroes offered an unusual form of community service disguised as self-deprecating humor or satire. In 1997, CNN reported on a man in Mexico named “Superbarrio,” who worked as a community organizer while wearing a Mexican wrestling mask. He stated, “I can’t stop a plane or a train single-handed, but I can keep a family from being evicted.” In his own neighborhood (barrio), Superbarrio truly was a hero and his followers honored him with a statue.7

In 2003, a number of individuals in the United Kingdom imitated superheroes to protest what they perceived as government injustices. In London, “Angle-Grinder Man” wore a costume and used power tools to illegally remove parking boots. He maintained a hotline where parking violators could call for his assistance. The same year, two men from the group “Fathers 4 Justice” climbed onto the roof of the Royal Courts of Justice dressed as Batman and Robin to protest for the rights of fathers in family courts. Fathers 4 Justice continues to organize protests in which members scale government buildings dressed as superheroes.

Today, the real-life superhero movement is flourishing across the globe, with heroes in Australia, Europe, South America, and Africa. The movement has grown alongside a series of films about ordinary people who attempt to become superheroes, including Mystery Men (1999), Special (2006), Defendor (2009), and Kick-Ass (2010).8 In 2006 and 2007, the Sci-Fi channel aired a reality show hosted by comic book writer Stan Lee called “Who Wants to be a Super-Hero?” Contestants designed costumes and attempted to complete physical challenges (without any special training or powers). Lee also devised numerous tests to assess contestants’ character and ethics.

There seems to be a synergetic relationship between the real-life superhero movement and media depiction of “everyday superheroes.” It does not appear that real-life superheroes are simply imitating what they see on television. Indeed, most films about real-life superheroes are dark comedies in which the hero is a sort of tragic fool. The hero of Special is mentally ill and the hero of Defendor is mentally disabled. Rather, this seems to be a case of popular culture influencing “plausibility structures.”9 Watching the moderate success of the naïve heroes in these films invites thought on what a real-life superhero could actually accomplish.

Real-life superheroes have also grown darker alongside their fictional counterparts. In the 1980s the so-called “comics code,” which prevented the depiction of violence in comic books, was relaxed, opening the door for more angry and violent superheroes.10 The eighties also produced two groundbreaking comics that presented both a more plausible and a more cynical take on the superhero: Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-1987).11 These comics presented superheroes as ordinary people who were in a sense, damaged. Batman and all but one of the Watchmen had no super-powers, but were able to draw from their own existential pain to do incredible things. This darker take on the superhero seems to have resonated with readers who were attempting to make sense of their own feelings of anger and isolation.

Many of the crime-fighting heroes interviewed for Superheroes sported monikers such as Dark Guardian, Dark Wolf, Devil’s Knight, and Thanatos, and equip themselves with tasers, stun-guns, and other weaponry. They recounted tales of childhood trauma and violence that led them to their identity as dark crime-fighters. Barnett commented, “Most of why these guys do this stems from something traumatic in their lives and it manifests itself in some way where they try to overcompensate for it. It’s a really personal reason for a lot of them…by and large, it’s quite sad.” This suggests that superhero media is not simply popular because of its similarities to world mythology. Rather, for some individuals the superhero is a kind of cultural grammar through which they are able to order their lives and make sense of deeply existential questions.

Archetypes and Their Limits

As early as 1968, Mircea Eliade noted the similarities between superheroes and classical sacred stories, describing Superman as a modern myth.12 In 1972, Umberto Eco’s famous essay, “The Myth of Superman,” connected Superman to ancient mythology. Ever since, the language of archetypes has become the primary lens through which scholars have thought about superheroes and religion. Although Joseph Campbell did not seem particularly interested in comic books, he was repeatedly asked to comment on Superman in various published interviews.13 Campbell’s theory of the monomyth is now invariably cited in scholarship on superheroes and religion. Even the comic industry itself has begun to cite Campbell. Grant Morrison of DC and Shirrel Rhoades of Marvel have both published books citing the influence of the monomyth.14

There are, of course, fruitful and interesting comparisons to be made between the symbols and narrative motifs associated with superheroes and those of classic sacred stories. However, this narrow focus on the text and its symbols can become an impediment to understanding the religious dimension of superheroes. Religion, as it is normally understood, entails far more than simply reading and re-reading sacred stories.  Eliade (who drew our attention to superheroes in the first place) claimed that humanity is possessed of an “ontological thirst,” a need to continually reenact and recreate the sacred within the profane. Humanity, he argued, has “a desire to live in a pure and holy cosmos, as it was in the beginning, when it came fresh from the Creator’s hands.”15

Following Eliade, if there truly is a culture for which superheroes are modern gods, it would be very strange for such a culture to limit their interaction with the sacred to reading comic books and watching movies. If fans truly were such passive consumers, this would seriously undermine any claim that superheroes represent “sacred stories” as opposed to the more obvious conclusion that comic book writers have simply borrowed from known fantastic narratives to produce entertaining fiction. Fortunately for scholars of religion and popular culture, fans do enact these stories, using a variety of means to bring our profane world closer to the ideal world of the superhero.

Conventions such as Comic Con in San Diego are attended by thousands of fans, many of whom engage in “cosplay” or dressing as superheroes and villains. Christopher Knowles refers to this fan culture as “the cult of the superhero,” noting its resemblance to ancient Pagan festivals where worshippers would assume the persona of their gods.16 Knowles’ observation neatly matches Eliade’s model of a human impulse to recreate sacred stories through ritual. There have also been far more unusual ways in which fans have attempted give comic books a reality beyond the text. Alvin Schwartz, who wrote Superman and Batman in the 1940s and 1950s, published an autobiography entitled An Unlikely Prophet in which he claimed that Superman is, in a sense, a real person. Citing Tibetan Tantric tradition, Schwartz argued that Superman has become a tulpa, a being with a real existence created from thought.17 For people such as Takashita and Schwartz, comic book superheroes really have taken on an ontological status more akin to religious figures than fictional characters. The existence of these characters is presumed almost as a matter of faith. However, to see these connections between superheroes and religion it is necessary to look beyond superhero narratives to the culture that consumes them.

“Model For”: Thinking With Superheroes

In a metaphor reminiscent of Spiderman, Clifford Geertz stated, “Believing with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of a law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”18 If we apply Geertz’s model of culture to superheroes, we should cease the attempt to explain superheroes in terms of Campbell’s monomyth, archetypes, or similar “laws” of culture. Instead, we should study how the consumers of this media use it to spin their own webs of significance.

Geertz famously defined religion as a system of symbols that serve as both “models of” and “models for” reality. Thus far, scholarship on religion and superheroes has thoroughly interrogated superheroes as “models of,” analyzing the various qualities, virtues, powers, and narrative motifs of superheroes. The function of superheroes as “models for” has been largely neglected. The brief reconnaissance of the real-life superhero community offered here suggests a number of ways in which this community uses superhero media to make sense of their world. For real-life superheroes, superhero mythology is used to think about problems of ethics, justice and authority, and personal suffering – all problems for which religion has traditionally served as a resource.

Umberto Eco argued that the myth of Superman serves to instill a civic mindedness based in capitalism. He noted that while Superman has the power to solve any social problem on Earth, he primarily works to foil bank robbers and thieves. Similarly, although Superman can crush coal into diamonds, he spends his time doing charity fundraisers. Eco concluded that in the pedagogy of Superman, the highest evil is the violation of private property and the greatest good is personal charity.19 Many of the superheroes in Barnett’s film give goods directly to the poor and homeless in lieu of crime fighting. Most heroes appear to simply roam the streets in their costumes, looking for poor people to whom they can give supplies. One hero creates kits called “Zeta-packs” that contain toiletries and other essentials needed by homeless people. This equation of direct charity with heroism suggests that the “pedagogy of Superman,” as described by Eco, has, in fact, shaped the way these people see the world.  In translating superheroes from comic books to the real world, they are drawn to giving material aid directly to people they encounter rather than systematic reform. So, in assuming the role of superheroes, these individuals are enacting a form of ethics based in comic books.

However, real-life superheroes can also be prophetic. Scholars of religion have noted that superheroes frequently have an uneasy relationship with law authorities.20 Many real-life superheroes invoke the superhero as an alternative form of justice and authority with which to critique the government. Captain Sticky remarked that his persona “apparently seems more credible to the American public than its own elected officials.”21 Angle-Grinder Man said he was motivated to break the law by “the arrogant contempt that politicians hold for the people who put them in power.” Master Legend, a hero featured in Superheroes, pointed to a courthouse in Orlando, Florida, and stated, “That courthouse there is actually a place of evil.” This suggests that superhero media is not simply propaganda, as implied by Eco, but can also serve as a radical and transcendent source of authority – a social influence that has traditionally been wielded by prophets.22

Finally, many real-life superheroes appear to have constructed their personal narratives in light of the origin stories of superheroes. Master Legend recounts how his father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan who forced him to fight other children. Members of the New York Initiative describe their lives before they became superheroes as ones in which they dealt drugs, hurt people, and (in one case) attempted suicide.  Robin S. Rosenberg, a psychologist interviewed in the film, remarked, “They may have experienced significant adversity or trauma that left them with a sense of mission and purpose. Often the answer that they end up finding is: This happened to me for a reason and it is so that I can do good.” This suggests that the mythology of superheroes is actually a resource from which real-life superheroes make sense of their lives and the problem of human suffering. This is a potent example of the “model for” function of superheroes as religious symbols.

Conclusions

It is easy for scholars of popular culture to become overly reliant on texts. It takes significantly more effort and ingenuity to study the cultures that consume these texts, and this work is necessary to unlock their cultural significance. Trying to answer questions of meaning by relying solely on the text renders scholarship overly reliant on the experience of the individual – more specifically, the experience of the individual while they are sitting in a movie theater or reading a comic book.23 In the case of religion and fictional narratives, this reliance has translated into a fixation on archetypes. But symbols cannot be understood in a vacuum. Scholarship on superheroes invariably connects the rise of comic book superheroes to World War II and the current resurgence of superhero movies to post 9/11 anxiety.24 While these historical considerations are an important step towards contextualizing superheroes, there remain far more localized and nuanced layers of meaning behind these symbols. To uncover them, scholars of popular culture will have to think more like anthropologists. Like Geertz, we must attempt to read superhero narratives “over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong.”25 The most important religious dimension of superheroes lies not in their connection to “man-god” myths of the classical world, but in the “webs of significance” being constructed everyday in comic conventions, urban alleyways, and suburban living rooms. This is where the sacred world of the superheroes is invoked into our profane reality.


  1. Superheroes, directed by Michael Barnett (New York, NY: Home Box Office, 2011). []
  2. Greg Garrett, Holy Superheroes!: Exploring Faith & Spirituality in Comic Books (Colorado: Piñon Press, 2005), 28. []
  3. Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1994). []
  4. Clifford Geertz famously described culture as “an ensemble of texts” that the anthropologist struggles to read.  My argument is that analysis of religion and superhero media has focused only on “texts” in the most literal sense, ignoring their connections to other “texts” that constitute a culture of superhero media. See Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 452. []
  5. Jean-Paul Gabilliet, “Cultural and Mythical Aspects of a Superhero: The Silver Surfer 1968-1970,” The Journal of Popular Culture 28, no. 2 (1994): 204. []
  6. Associated Press, “It’s a Bird? It’s a Plane? No, It’s ‘Captain Sticky!’,” Daytona Beach Morning Journal (November 9, 1974), 10B. []
  7. For a comparison of Mexican wrestling or lucha libre with superheroes and classic mythology, see Gabrielle Murray, “El Santo: Wrestler, Saint, and Superhero,” in Super/Heroes: From Hercules to Superman, eds. Wendy Haslem, Angela Ndalianis, and C. J. Mackie (Washington, DC: New Academia Pub, 2007), 51-64. []
  8. At the British premiere of Kick-Ass in Sutton, a local real-life superhero, hoping to get a ticket, was allowed in after donning his costume and arriving as his persona, SOS. []
  9. Christopher Partridge, “Alternative Spiritualities, New Religions, and the Re-Enchantment of the West,” in The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, ed. James R. Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 56. Similarly, Anthony Giddens also remarks on the connection between increasingly diverse forms of mass media and a growing array of lifestyle choices; see Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (California: Stanford University Press, 1991), 84. []
  10. Reynolds, Superheroes: A Modern Mythology, 9; Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 277. []
  11. For analysis of Watchmen from the perspective of ethics and theology see Jonathan Shofer, “Ethics and Vulnerability in Watchmen,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 37: no. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2009) [online] and Kevin Boyd, “Is Anyone Really Watching Watchmen?” Sightings (March 26, 2009) [online]. []
  12. Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 185. Similarly, the edited volume Waiting for the Dawn contains photos of Eliade responding to a question by Mike Bell concerning comic book super-heroes based on Norse mythology; see Mircea Eliade, David Carrasco, and Jane Marie Law, Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Colorado: Westview Press, 1985), 66-67. []
  13. Joseph Campbell and Phil Cousineau, The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work (California: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 189; Joseph Campbell and Eugene C. Kennedy, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (California: New World Library, 2001), 170. []
  14. Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011), 410; Shirrel Rhoades, Comic Books: How the Industry Works (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 99-114. []
  15. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (California: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1987), 65. []
  16. Christopher Knowles, Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes (California: Weiser Books, 2007)16-18. []
  17. Jeffrey J. Kripal, Mutants & Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 240-241. []
  18. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 5. []
  19. Umberto Eco, “The Myth of Superman,” trans. Natalie Chilton, Diacritics 2, no. 1 (1972): 14-22. []
  20. B.J. Oropeza, “Introduction,” in The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Pop Culture, ed. B. J. Oropeza (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), 5. []
  21. “It’s a Bird? It’s a Plane? No, It’s ‘Captain Sticky!’” []
  22. For an analysis of the emergence of transcendent authority during the Axial Age and its influence of social order, see Adam B. Seligman, Modernity’s Wager: Authority, the Self, and Transcendence (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000). []
  23. Scott W. Poole also notes this problem in his critique of scholarship on horror films. He argues that focusing entirely on the films themselves has led scholarship to emphasize the psychological significance of horror films while ignoring their historical and cultural contexts. See Scott W. Poole, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (Texas: Baylor University Press, 2011), 13. []
  24. Knowles, 1-4. []
  25. Geertz, 452. []
Photograph Courtesy of HBO 2011.

Discussion and Comments

  1. An interesting, insightful, and well written paper! Comic book heroes are central to popular culture.

  2. The Real Life Superhero Community is NOT a Movement. We’re too diverse individually for that. But that’s a good thing.

    Anyway, there is a forum for Real Life Superheroes known as the Heroes Network. Here is the link to the forum: http://heroesnetwork.forumotion.net/portal

    Here’s a link to our Twitter page: http://twitter.com/HeroesNetwork

    Here’s a link to our Facebook page: http://facebook.com/HeroesNetwork

    And here are a few blog posts that talk about it a bit further:

    http://www.tothian.blogspot.com/2012/01/heroes-network_09.html

    and

    http://tothian.tumblr.com/post/15975044852/heroes-network

    and

    https://tothian.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/heroes-network/

    A place for Real Life Superheroes, Crime Fighters, Detectives, Warriors, Protectors, Medics, Saviors, Hero Support, Heroes in Training, etc. If you are one of us, then join us!

    -Tothian, President; Founder of the Heroes Network

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