CYOAW II: Real-life superheroes

We’re back to Choose Your Own Adventure Week, wherein I blog the topics about which you want to read! Today’s topic suggestion came from my dear friend Geoff Carter, whose city of Seattle is being defended by a legion of self-styled superheroes — a phenomenon mostly annoying police and making poor use of spandex.

Geoff asked for my take on this. Well … as someone who knows a little something about imagining the perils of attempting real-life superheroics, I suppose I have somewhat of an educated view. But you guys have no idea just how close I came to vigilantism at one insane point in my life, though it was less about fighting crime and more about fighting hypocrisy … as perceived through my emotionally unstable, 18-year-old eyes. I’ve never told this story before to ANYONE, so consider this a warm-up for my inevitable memoirs, and consider yourself awesomely lucky.

When I was 18, prior to being diagnosed as hypoglycemic, I was renting a room in a house with several strangers who were also doing the same. I had graduated high school, but had no plans for college or much else beyond making music, writing poetry and scraping by with my minimum-wage retail job(s). I wasn’t eating much, living mostly off of coffee, cigarettes and teenage angst.

I had become hugely critical of organized religion, not for any specific reason, other than I felt an abnormally close connection to some greater truth/power, and felt most churches bastardized people’s own relationships with God or whatever by imposing all these man-made rules and guidelines upon their worship. As well — and sorry, church-lovers, this stuff is historically inarguable — organized religion has been responsible for most of the world’s worst wars/slaughters/persecutions, and I guess it really bothered me at the time (years later, I’d revisit the topic in an academic setting, penning a sociological study comparing the Northern Ireland conflicts to other religiously based disputes).

By 18, I had moved from making homemade comics to writing short stories and novellas, or at least starting them. One such story (I seem to recall it being named “Christ the Conqueror,” but that can’t be right, can it?) that never went anywhere was about an anonymous crusader calling for the dismantling of “the church” (no specific one), because it was offensive to the true spirit of Christ or something. In the first scene of the story (if I recall correctly), the protagonist breaks into or somehow defaces a church, escaping just as police arrive, leaving behind as his calling card a letter in rhymed structure announcing his mission statement. I don’t recall where the story was supposed to go from there, but I do know this: I tried to play out the story in real life.

The neighborhood in which I lived at the time was (and still is) densely populated with churches. There had to be at least three different houses of God within a four-block radius from my house. One night, probably driven by chemical imbalance due to my undiagnosed hypoglycemia (I was also often depressed and occasionally suicidal at the time, fun topics we can discuss later!), I hatched a plan to start desecrating these churches, leaving behind poems declaring my own anonymous mission statement (pulled verbatim from those stories), hoping to stir up media attention and possibly a guerrilla movement. I wrote out the letter, careful to wear gloves and not use my normal handwriting, donned all-black clothes, hat and utility bag, and set off into the night to find a church for my first covert mission.

I had planned to be dramatic about it, wrapping the note around a rock and launching it through the glass door of the church. But at the last minute — likely as a combination of fear and good sense gripped me — I reneged on the rock idea, settling for taping the note to the door and calmly walking off. I figured at least it’d get someone’s attention, especially if I started doing it to all the churches in the area. But I never went any further. My bout of late-night madness had passed, and all that was left was my unfinished, handwritten story.

You may be wondering what this has to do with Phoenix Jones and his compatriots taking back their communities in Seattle via bulletproof vests and ski masks. Well, I just wanted to convey that I understand. I get the urge to live out your fantasies of standing up for someone or something, dressing up, hiding your identity, and taking action. I can’t fault people for genuinely wanting to step in where they feel the system has failed them (police, the church, whatever). But what Seattle police spokesperson Jeff Kappel said, “There’s nothing wrong with citizens getting involved with the criminal justice process — as long as they follow it all the way through,” is an important point. Acting in the dark, beneath masks, might temporarily interrupt a rape or car theft, but if you can’t testify in court because you’re trying to protect some secret identity, then you’ve only won half the battle. Criminals hide behind masks. Not heroes.

It’s a lesson my comic book creation The Utopian had to learn. It’s a lesson I learned. And it’s a lesson the Rain City Superhero Movement has to learn as well.

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