Crime Media Culture
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Fighting crime, battling injustice:
The world of real-life superheroes
University of Western Sydney, Australia
This article explores the motivations, actions and experiences of real-life superheroes, those
individuals who adopt a superhero persona inspired by both comic books and films, to engage in
a range of activities that involve, amongst others, fighting crime, providing community support
and battling injustice. Drawing on 13 in-depth interviews with individuals from different countries,
as well as an ethnographic content analysis of online material, this innovative research explores
the merging of the fictional and the real, the virtual and the terrestrial in the lives of interviewees.
The article also enriches our understanding of the ‘carnival of crime’ and ‘edgework’ by arguing
that risk, pleasure, excitement and transgression can also be found in a carnival of ‘doing good’
as well as in ‘wrongdoing’.
Superheroes, popular culture and crime, crime prevention, justice, edgework, carnival of crime,
She calls herself Street Hero, says she is a former prostitute, knows martial arts and takes to the
city’s underbelly to protect women who work the streets. Her uniform includes a black eye
mask, a black bustier and black knee-high boots.
A Brooklyn man who calls himself Direction Man prefers helping lost tourists and locals. He
wears a bright orange vest, a pair of thick black goggles and has numerous maps spilling from
Then there is Red Justice, a substitute teacher from Woodside, Queens, who wears red boxer
briefs over jeans, a red cape made from an old T-shirt and a sock with eyeholes to mask his
identity. He strolls the subways encouraging young people to give their seats to those who
need them more. (Lee, 2007)
Elaine Fishwick, 65 Windsor Road, Dulwich Hill, Sydney, New South Wales NSW 2203, Australia.
588410CMC0010.1177/1741659015588410Crime, Media, CultureFishwick and Mak
2 CRIME MEDIA CULTURE
The above extract provides some insight into the lives of a network of individuals who call them-
selves real-life superheroes (RLSHs1). Just like their fictional counterparts, they create a superhero
persona and wear superhero uniforms. Like Superman they are motivated by a belief in truth and
justice but, unlike comic book superheroes who use superpowers to fight super villains, RLSHs do
not possess extra terrestrial traits. Instead, they work within the limits of their human world to
campaign for the good of the community, as virtuous and often colourful citizens. Indeed, in a
case of life imitating art they seek to use the symbols and trappings of the superhero to make the
world a better place by fighting crime and performing good deeds (Real Life Superheroes.org,
2010). This article explores how the lives of RLSHs blur the boundaries between the fictional and
the real (see plate 1), the online and the terrestrial worlds providing hybridised meeting points
between the terrestrial and the ‘internet galaxy’ (Aas, 2007).
It will be proposed that in inhabiting this liminal space, and in voluntarily taking on the risks
and challenges associated with patrolling the streets, and dealing with crime and anti-social
behaviour, RLSHs are engaged in the kinds of experiences that have been described in sociology
and criminology as ‘edgework’ (see Ferrell, 2005; Lois, 2001, 2005; Lyng, 2005a, 2005b).
Edgework encompasses a range of activities, such as skydiving, graffiti writing, direct political
action and rescue work amongst others. According to Lyng (2005a) ‘edgework’ incorporates ele-
ments of voluntary risk taking and involves exciting, emotionally challenging and often dangerous
activities. In addition, Lyng argues that edgework involves ‘a radical escape from the institutional
routines of contemporary life’ but it can also be characterised as being ‘a particularly pure expres-
sion of the central institutional and cultural imperatives of emerging social order’ (2005a: 5).
These ‘edgework’ themes will be addressed in relation to the activities of RLSHs.
The article argues that their engagement with the fictional universe provides RLSHs with the
personal resources to step out into the real world in a different persona. In addition, as is sug-
gested in Presdee’s analysis of the carnival of crime (2000, 2004), the RLSH persona is engaged in
a more colourful, interesting ‘second life’ than that of the ‘first life’ or what RLSHs refer to as the
‘citizen world’. For RLSHs, the adoption of their superhero identity is inextricably intertwined with
aspects of their own personality, but their second life is not marked by the excitement and thrills
that come from law-breaking; rather, it can be interpreted as a carnival of doing good.
Before getting into the heart of the discussion it is important to offer some background infor-
mation about RLSHs as well as a brief overview of the research study on which this article is based.
It is important to stress that this study is one of the first of its kind and therefore there is no pre-
existing academic literature to review. The only other study of RLSHs that the authors are aware
of at the time of writing is one currently being undertaken in Australia.1 This study has looked to
a related literature on comic book superheroes, cultural criminology and sociology of edgework
to provide a framework for analysis.
There is relatively little known about the numbers of RLSHs or when and how they came into
being but, as discussed below, there is no doubt that the RLSH subculture is inextricably inter-
twined with superhero fiction, comic books and films. The first recorded report of the existence
of RLSHs appears to be in 2003 with a story aired about Angle Grinder Man on the BBC.2 However,
RLSHs may well have been active in many guises before this time.
Fishwick and Mak 3
It is not only difficult to pinpoint when RLSHs emerged, but also it is hard to ascertain how
many RLSHs there might be in the world. RLSH discussion forums and directories3 provide one
source of data from which it is possible to estimate the size of the subculture. In addition, based
on the number of registered members or listings, this study found that there were over 1000
However, it is important to note that RLSHs do not all belong to one organised network. Some
RLSHs may be found on multiple networks, while others may prefer not to associate with other
RLSHs and operate independently of the wider RLSH community.
The data for the original study of RLSHs, on which this article is based, came from two principal
sources.4 The first was material gathered from 13 in-depth online interviews with RLSHs in four
different countries. Eleven interviews were conducted using email and two using instant messag-
ing. Interviewees were identified from their online identity and participation in online discussion
forums or through their own webpages or blogs. Email addresses were gathered from the Real
Life Superheroes Wiki, which served as a directory of RLSHs and revealed the names, emails and
cities of individuals who had made their details publicly available. A number of RLSHs had a public
presence on social media, which the researcher used to initiate contact with potential interview-
ees. Invitations to participate were sent out via private messages and new RLSHs were found by
browsing through forum contact lists. Participants were also recruited via the Real Life Superheroes
Forum, with the researcher contacting the administrator of the forum for permission to create
their own account. This proved to be the most effective recruitment method due to the high level
of activity on the forum. A discussion thread was then created to advertise the study, which
attracted a high level of interest from RLSHs. In addition, one RLSH was found after an internet
search led to his website.
The second source of data emerged from an ethnographic content analysis (ECA; Altheide,
1987) of material available on RLSH-related websites. The majority of documents collected existed
as threads on the Real Life Superheroes Forum,5 which were archived and covered a wide range
Plate 1. Walking the line between fantasy and reality. © 2014 Pierre-Elie de Pibrac. Reproduced with
4 CRIME MEDIA CULTURE
of topics relating to RLSHs.6 Other sources included videos on YouTube, MySpace, various online
community platforms, weblogs and personal websites of RLSHs. Websites about the phenomenon
included Real Life Superheroes.org,7 The Real Life Super Hero Project,8 Real Life Superheroes
Wiki,9 Superheroes Anonymous10 and Heroes Network.11
Clearly, the interview sample is relatively small and cannot be seen to be representative of the
entire RLSH community, but together both sources of data provided a rich seam of material on the
lives of individual RLSHs as well as revealing the strength of their online social and commercial
networks. There is not enough room here to discuss the details of engaging in online research and
interviews, but it is safe to say that the research methodology for this thesis raised interesting
questions for the University’s ethics committee in relation to identity, confidentiality and partici-
pant recruitment and consent, especially since participation consent was being sought from the
online RLSH persona. Online research methodologies are constantly evolving and do present chal-
lenges to traditional understandings of research methods and practice (see Israel and Hay, 2011;
Parallels between the physical and fictional world were reflected in the gender balance of the
RLSH community (see plate 2), and the study’s data set. Most RLSHs found online were, like their
fictional counterparts, white, heteronormative men (see Phillips and Strobl, 2008; 2013). Out of
the 13 interviewees only one was female. In her study of rescue workers, Lois (2001, 2005) also
found that far more men participate in edgework than women and her discussion explores the
dynamics of men and women’s gendered experiences. Although gender is not examined in detail
in this article it is an important dynamic of RLSHs that needs further exploration. Like most fictional
superheroes the majority of RLSHs were also based in North America, although there appear to be
increasing numbers in Asia and Europe. This balance was reflected in the interviewee sample, with
10 of the interviewees living in North America, and three in the Asia-Pacific region.
The following discussion encapsulates the key themes found in the data and incorporates
extracts from interviews12 and online sources.
Plate 2. Although fewer in number, women are also real-life superheroes. © 2014 Pierre-Elie de
Pibrac. Reproduced with permission.
Fishwick and Mak 5
Becoming a real-life superhero
All fictional superheroes have an origin story that tells us how or why they came into being. Unlike
their fictional counterparts, however, this study found that RLSHs lack the kinds of fantastic origin
stories featuring cosmic rays, radiation or magic artefacts found in comic books and in film (see
Bainbridge, 2007). Nevertheless, fictional superheroes in many cases had directly or indirectly
inspired their decisions to become RLSHs.
For example, interviewees saw the superheroes of fiction as role models, with many interview-
ees and documents in the ECA drawing on references from comic books. One interviewee felt
that the popularity of the film Kick-Ass,13 which was first released in 2010 and was based on a
comic book by John Millar and John Romit, inspired a significant increase in interest in the RLSH
It’s gotten bigger. More and more people are joining because they are finding out that
people actually ARE dressing up as superheroes and going out and making a difference.
Another interviewee had found out about RLSHs online and became enthralled with the idea:
I was doing research for a piece of fiction about superheroes when I stumbled onto the World
Superhero Registry. I learned about the subculture and became instantly fascinated by the idea
of normal men and women stepping up to make the world a better place in whatever way they
Others stumbled upon the RLSH community by chance. For example, one interviewee was
browsing Wikipedia and came across an article on RLSHs, while another clicked on a YouTube
video on a whim. Interviewees reported that the realisation that real people were ‘actually
going out and trying to be Superheroes’ (SH2) was inspiring. One interviewee had read a
magazine article on RLSHs,14 while another watched a news report, relating that ‘…it was
inspiring, and I thought I could do even better!’ (SH3). Another interviewee became a RLSH
after her partner revealed he was a RLSH and in wanting to support him, she decided to
become one too (SH11).
Interviewees provided accounts about their motivations to become RLSHs, which resonated
strongly with the origin stories of fictional superheroes. For example, one person described how
they had ‘always wanted to be a superhero’ (SH12) and believed that becoming a RLSH was one
means to achieve that dream. Two interviewees stated that they came up with the idea of protect-
ing the community by themselves out of their own sense of moral duty. One of these interviewees
seemed to imply being a RLSH was in fact his destiny. He recounted how he had been patrolling
the streets since he was a child and that protecting people was something he was ‘meant to do’
(SH10). Another interviewee said they had been thinking ‘about my obligation to make the world
a better place’ (SH1) and that the idea of creating a costume and becoming ‘a real, functional
crime fighter’ dropped into their mind as a fully formed idea. Others shared a similar sense of
moral obligation to act. Two respondents talked about being bullied or abused as children and as
adults they wanted to protect others. Another interviewee felt that in helping others he might also
6 CRIME MEDIA CULTURE
I was tired of seeing people suffer, watching it on television, wishing I could do something, and
then realizing I could not. I got sick of it one day, and made my suit. I made the persona, and
while I started off by wanting to help others, you cannot expect to help others before you help
This idea of self-help and self-improvement was echoed by another interviewee, who stated that
they had become a RLSH for health reasons, ‘I knew I had to lose weight and get healthy or I’d
very likely die… So, when I decided to get healthy I decided to do it with the superhero as my
These revelations of personal hardship or childhood abuse have strong parallels with the
stories of fictional superheroes, who are often motivated to act due to a sense of moral obliga-
tion, or need for personal redemption. Superheroes channel their rage and emotional hurt into
acting for the common good in stark contrast to their evil counterparts (Phillips and Strobl,
Like their fictional counterparts, most RLSHs also adopt a persona when they step into their
RLSH role. This is embodied more often than not in a change in appearance and the adoption
of a different mind-set. The following sections explore the key characteristics of these
Dressing the part
For many RLSHs, changing into a different set of clothes or uniform, adopting a name, a symbol
or insignia, and carrying weapons and/or accessories is integral to the transition into their persona.
In so doing, it could be argued that they engage in what has described elsewhere in his discussion
of carnival, as a ‘self-aware performance of getting ready for going out’ (Presdee, 2000: 140).
RLSHs were adamant that the clothes they chose to wear for superhero work were not
costumes but uniforms (see plate 3); costumes were considered to be what ‘people wear on
Halloween’ (SH10). They felt that wearing a uniform indicated to people that they were not just
helpful individuals but also representing a cause.15 In this way the theatricality of the costume
embodied the hero identity and distinctiveness of their character. For some interviewees, RLSH
uniforms needed to be both unique and recognisable. So, for instance, ‘If someone is going to call
themselves a superhero there should be some effort made to be at least a little bit comic bookish
style-wise’ (SH 4). Others considered that it was more important to be practical and prepared than
colourful. SH10 considered the need for protection a priority and therefore donned combat
clothing with various types of armour, including a bulletproof vest. Similarly, SH2 wore tactical riot
armour, while SH12 wore protective bike gear.
Those RLSHs in the interview sample who carried weapons were keenly aware of laws relating
to possession, and only one admitted to doing so. SH5 carried what he called a ‘rescue knife’,
which he explained was a tool that enabled him to be ready to free people from seatbelts. He
emphasised how he stayed within the boundaries of the law, stating, ‘there are size and type
restrictions on knives in [Mid-Atlantic US] and i [sic] make sure my knife i [sic] have on me meets
those limits’ (SH5).
Only one interviewee took a different perspective on the need for uniforms, explaining that he
believed that it was important as a RLSH to blend in to the background, in order to undertake
Fishwick and Mak 7
successful surveillance work, and to garner respect. As SH8 stated, ‘…if something were to
happen, it would greatly damage one’s credibility with law enforcement to be walking around
in spandex looking for crooks’. The same interviewee only wore his uniform when he was doing
Most interviewees felt that names were very important for a superhero identity. As one inter-
viewee explained, ‘I was just looking for a name that looked and sounded cool’ (SH2). Names
were often inspired by popular culture but also, in some instances, geographical location such as
of fictional hero, Captain America.16
The online RLSH network provided advice about uniforms, names and accessories. Two of the
interviewees for the study who were not involved in day-to-day patrolling (see the following sec-
tion) were involved in these kinds of service tasks. SH4 introduced himself as ‘hero support’ and
stated that he made ‘high quality gear and equipment to active RLSH so they can do more, look
better, and be safer’. He received commissions as well as made items of his own design, using
self-taught skills. Similarly, SH7 acted as an advisor and creative consultant, helping other RLSHs
come up with new ideas and costume designs.
Plate 3. Protection and distinctiveness are important factors in uniform design. © 2014 Peter
Tangen. Reproduced with permission.
8 CRIME MEDIA CULTURE
Although the theatricality of the performance of dressing up in a uniform and adopting a name
and insignia were important features of most RLSH personas, dressing the part was not the be all
and end all. For example, changing into an outfit did not carry the same significance or offer the
complete transition that stepping into the ‘magic circle’ offers to those involved in Role Playing
Games (RPGs), where players are expected to cross into an artificial fictional world (see Falk and
Davenport, 2004). In RPGs and Live Action Role Playing (LARP) there is a deliberate separation in
space and time between the everyday and the role-playing life (Copier, 2005; Falk and Davenport,
2004). However, for RLSHs they do not play the characters, they are the characters and transforming
into being a RLSH was, in essence, more often than not considered to be an extension of their
The RLSH persona
For interviewees, although there were rituals of transformation into their public RLSH persona, it
was evident that there was a blurring of the boundaries between their first life, their citizen self
and their RLSH persona. This finding was very similar to those discovered by Aas (2007) in her
study of online gaming. She found that the avatars adopted by respondents in online games bore
a remarkable resemblance to their embodied counterparts where their virtual identities were often
strongly connected to their real selves.
Interviewees were often motivated to become a RLSH due to personal experience. Consequently,
the adoption of their persona was seen to allow a hidden, or unrealised, set of personality char-
acteristics to emerge. According to one website, the RLSH persona allows individuals to express
the ‘hero within’:
A Superheroic persona is the excellent vehicle to release the hidden identity you keep locked in
some departments of your soul since the day of your birth. Once this identity has been revealed
to world, you’re ready to embrace your destiny: you’re stronger, you’re more confident, you
can do everything you want for the sake of those you care for and the values you stand for.17
For interviewees, the degree to which they drew on different aspects of their personality varied.
Some interviewees, such as SH3, felt, ‘taller, bigger, stronger, & braver’ in uniform, while SH12
described his persona as, ‘more hard edge, like a 50s cop or Dirty Harry’. Other interviewees
explained that their persona only changed their actions and behaviour, but not their personality.
For example, SH8 said that his persona was ‘more altruistic and selfless’. However, he also
…I don’t see my superhero personality as that much of a stretch from my normal personality.
My Superhero ID is just a few of my pre-existing personality traits isolated and magnified. (SH8)
Others felt that being a RLSH allowed different sides of their personality to co-exist. For example,
SH1 stated that, ‘Both personalities are interwoven…’, while SH5 stressed that
My costume doesn’t make me what i am. [SH5] is me. I think of it more like a nickname than
a persona. so w[h]ether im in costume or not i will help [sic].
Fishwick and Mak 9
In contrast, SH10 considered that his RLSH persona was his true identity, saying, ‘I rarely ever use
my birth name, and when I do, I feel like I’m lying. When I look in the mirror, all I see is’ [SH10].
SH6 outlined how his persona developed through a process of self-discovery, almost to the
point of accepting that he had a dual personality.
[SH6] is what I want to be. My civilian identity is what I am. One is still a liar, and the other is
the truth. Admittedly, the liar has come far, and now once a lie is told, the other part seeks to
make it true.
The transition from citizen into RLSH was influenced by the narratives found in fiction, where the
fictional superhero’s secret identity is always ready to slip into the uniformed superhero self at a
moment’s notice. However, for some interviewees the reverse was true: their civilian identity was
considered to be the mask and the RLSH persona was the real self. In these circumstances, the
civilian identity was used to handle practical issues, such as interacting with officialdom, paid
employment and other necessities of life. In addition, on occasions, the civilian identity was
disclosed to bystanders, or in response to any official recognition of their actions. However,
whenever interviewees performed what they considered to be a courageous or altruistic act, in
their mind it was attributed to their RLSH persona.
These accounts of the emergence or realisation of the ‘true self’ in a superhero persona provide
striking parallels with other ethnographic studies of ‘edgework’, where the experiences of engag-
ing in risky and dangerous activities were found to provide the space for individuals to express
suppressed aspects of their personalities (see Ferrell, 2005; Lois, 2005; Lyng, 2005a, 2005b).
Fighting crime: fighting apathy
…comic books, particularly those of the superhero genre, are replete with themes of crime and
justice. (Phillips and Strobl, 2013: 2)
In the fictional world of the superhero ‘bringing villains to justice’, ‘cleaning up the streets’ and
battling super villains in dramatic, exciting epic adventures are all part of the day-to-day work of
making the world a better place (Bainbridge, 2007). In contrast, for RLSHs, the desire to help oth-
ers, or to do the right thing or make a difference in the community, was part of their reason for
being, but the reality of working towards this end was very different from the world of their fic-
tional counterparts. It mainly involved community work, charity work, crime prevention and, only
on very rare occasions, fighting crime. As SH5 explains:
When asked what i do i simply say ‘i help people.’ Now if helping someone means stopping
someone from breaking into a [sic] their house or stopping someone from mugging someone,
then of course i’ll stop that crime. But im not the type who goes out looking for criminals to
stop. I go out looking for people to help. (SH5)
A broad conception of justice and moral duty underpinned this sense of obligation towards local
communities and neighbourhoods, and was also found in online profiles and biographies. For
10 CRIME MEDIA CULTURE
example, in one online profile a RLSH described themselves as having, ‘a powerful sense of social
In the same way that superheroes are said to represent the zeitgeist (Fingeroth, 2004), and
society is divided into a battle between good and evil (Phillips and Strobl, 2013), so too RLSHs see
themselves as taking on the role of fighting what they have deemed to be the manifestation of
‘bad’ or ‘evil’ in today’s society. The conflation of crime with evil was so strong that SH1 and SH10
repeatedly used the word ‘evil’ rather than ‘crime’ when discussing their activities.
However, there were differences in attitudes to the source of evil and threat. In fiction it is usu-
ally an outsider who is threatening the social order, but to the RLSH the threat comes from within
society. It is society that is destroying itself:
Society is in a state of slow, steady decline. It is rotting from the inside out like a darkening
piece of fruit. I feel a deepe [sic] personal responsibility to do what I can to try and fix this, and
I think it takes extreme examples to inspire people out of the daze of apathy that allows us to
get through our daily lives. (SH1)
Indeed, part of the impetus behind the RLSH sense of personal moral obligation to act was this
impression of social decline where it was felt that that on the whole community members were
apathetic or indifferent to what was going on in their neighbourhoods. Apathy was believed to
be the cause of many contemporary social ills.19 Interestingly, this concern with apathy often
included an element of nostalgia that society had not always been like this, that there was an
earlier ‘golden age’ of community concern and support:
There used to be a time where if you fell down and got hurt, your neighbours would rush over
to see if you were ok. That doesn’t happen all that much nowadays. (SH11)
These reflections on societal decline are also found to be recurring themes in superhero comics
where superheroes are trying to restore order in a chaotic environment. As Phillips and Strobl
Heroes find themselves nostalgic for a more peaceful past as the world around them falls into
a landscape of dystopian criminality and social disorder. (2013: 19)
Like their fictional counterparts, RLSHs were carriers of social ideals as they sought to re-establish
what they considered to be lost or diminished societal standards of community cohesion and fam-
Interviewees expressed the view that the prevalence of crime was the product of a general
social malaise where individuals failed to take responsibility for what went on in their communi-
ties. As one RLSH explained ‘We want police to handle all crime without citizens having to get
involved’ and further ‘We need to stop this type of deferment of responsibility’ (SH4). RLSHs
expressed the belief that for the most part people do not care about the welfare of others and
would simply walk by or fail to act if they encountered someone in need. Like those criminological
explanations – such as rational choice theory that highlight the loosening of informal social con-
trol as a precursor to the increase in crime (see Phillips and Strobl, 2013, for an overview of crimi-
nological themes in comic books and films) – our sample of RLSHs stated that today criminals face
Fishwick and Mak 11
less surveillance, censure and opposition, which in turn allows crime to flourish. Interviewees also
considered that when people ignore crimes and ‘acts of evil’, criminals and ‘evil doers’ are less
likely to be made to pay for what they have done.
For some interviewees, the symbolism of the superhero was seen to have the potential to act
as a catalyst for waking citizens from their apathy. The high visibility of a unique uniform, espe-
cially one with bright colours, attracts attention and provides a memorable moment for onlookers.
Interviewees felt that RLSH events could raise awareness and had the potential to inspire passive
bystanders to think about their own ability to do good deeds. In addition, RLSHs considered that
such unexpected and unusual events would very likely become a talking point and their message
to the public to act against apathy would be publicised:
A single person in a costume doing something positive sticks in the memory. You’ll look at an
RLSH and first think he’s crazy, but the memory will stay with you and make you think about
the superhero ideal. (SH5)
Thus, the uniform was more than a creative outlet or component of the RLSH persona; it became
a tool in the fight against apathy and acted as
…a symbol and a role model for the purpose of inspiring the common men and women to
stand up and make this world a better place, rather than sitting around complaining or waiting
for other people to take care of it. (SH8)
Another interviewee also felt that the act of one individual might possibly start a chain reaction:
I believe that I can make a difference in someone’s life and therefore create a chain reaction
that inspires and enthrals good in the hearts of everyone. We can be good to one another and
we can live honest lives, I hope to inspire that. I hope to inspire others to help others any way
Plate 4. A real-life superhero on patrol. © 2014 Pierre-Elie de Pibrac. Reproduced with permission.
12 CRIME MEDIA CULTURE
RLSHs believed combating apathy could also be ‘operationalised’ through the activities of ‘patrol-
ling’, community service, volunteer work and fighting crime.
Patrolling the streets
Most interviewees, but not all, participated in patrolling (see plate 4), which they did by foot, car,
public transport or even on a skateboard. The objectives of patrolling varied, with some inter-
viewees focusing solely on crime while others conducted community service and support roles.20
One of the stated purposes of patrolling was to prevent crime by having a presence in places
where crime may occur. Some interviewees made use of crime maps and news reports to identify
crime hotspots. RLSHs talked about the value of maintaining an element of unpredictability so
that criminals would not know when they were on patrol.21 One particular RLSH in a discussion
forum described how he generally lay in ambush near charity bins and collection points preparing
to stop people from stealing the contents.22
Interviewees considered that proper preparation for patrolling was crucial and trained in mar-
tial arts (a popular practice within the community). In online forums, discussion threads on train-
ing were very active and featured exercise, martial arts and dietary advice.23 Knowledge, such as
first aid and languages, were also valued, while others worked on other skills such as observation
techniques. Many interviewees immersed themselves in surveillance:
I completely block out all the events of the day and just focus on the here and now. It’s kind of
like a set of pipes. You shut off all of the unnecessary ones so you have a more concentrated
This focused hyperawareness has also been found in studies of edgework (Ferrell, 2005; Lois,
2005; Lyng, 2005a, 2005b).
Patrolling provided interviewees with direct experiences of the reality of criminal and anti-social
behaviour in their neighbourhoods and not only affected their attitudes to crime and justice but
also informed their other activities as a RLSH.
Crime and criminal justice
Interviewees expressed contradictory and often conflicting ideas about crime and justice. These
views appeared to be a blend of populist understandings of crime, the fictional world, statistical
material and their own experiences. For example, populist ideas about the prevalence of violent
crime and the presence of evil wrongdoers underpin the RLSH study sample beliefs about the
general characteristics of criminal behaviour. Their views not only reflected the tropes of super-
hero fiction but also the dominant narratives about individual responsibility, lack of social and
self-control and the need for retributive justice that are to be found in the tabloid media (Phillips
and Strobl, 2013: 3). Crime and criminals were identified as problems plaguing society and society
itself was considered to be an innocent victim. Interviewees expressed the belief that the
random, risky, dangerous stranger was ever present: ‘You never know when one will decide its a
good idea to just stab me and take all my stuff’ (SH5). Yet these views contrasted with their
experience as crime fighters on the streets. RLSHs recognised that while levels of crime were on
Fishwick and Mak 13
the whole lower than portrayed in the media, they nevertheless considered that high levels of
criminal activity were the norm and that the lack of crime in their area was exceptional. Even in
those circumstances where interviewees were well aware of statistics showing a decline in crime,
they continued to express the view that in reality ‘out there, there is a significant amount of
crime’ (SH4). As SH6 noted, ‘Strangely, the communitis [sic] where I tend to reside are rather
crime free’ (SH6).
Almost all RLSHs interviewed, even those who claimed to live in areas with low crime, men-
tioned specific crimes that they felt were especially problematic in their community. These tended
to be sensational or street crimes, such as gang activity, muggings and drug crime. Interviewees
were able to provide examples of having witnessed these kinds of serious crimes during their RLSH
activities, but on the whole they indicated that they were the exception rather than the rule. For
example, SH11 talked about how she mostly dealt with the results of vandalism and would take
photographs and provide information to the police. She did report, however, that once when she
came upon a heavily vandalised gazebo she also found
…blood on the floor of the Gazebo as well as on one of the pieces of the wood panel… There
were wooden railings and panels covering the ground and a decent amount of blood on the
gazebo floor. Looking at it, you could tell that the person it came from had received a nasty
In another case of property crime, SH8 stopped a theft of coins from a games arcade24 with a
friend of his who was the manager. As he described it:
He [the manager] said, ‘You follow them. I’m going to get security. Don’t lose them’ So I’m
walking through the mall on my cell phone telling my friend where were going. They noticed
me and split into two groups of two. I followed one group and followed them. They knew I
was there, so there was no subtlety. They tried to run, I caught them. They went outside, I fol-
Some interviewees had also encountered drug crimes, or people who appeared to be dealing
drugs. SH8 explained how he identified dealers by painting a profile:
If I walk down an alley and a shady looking guy is always standing at the same corner, too dirty
to have a job but too clean to be homeless, if he displays defensive or concealing body lan-
guage and gives me a defensive facial expression, then after a few nights I’ll call it in [to the
However, SH8 did recognise that this had only happened ‘a couple of times’. Other interviewees
also reported potentially serious incidents, where they had been threatened with violence. SH12
described how he had compromised a drug deal when he was on patrol and was threatened by
the dealers and had his picture taken by them. While SH12 was only threatened, two interviewees
told how they had been attacked. SH1 had experienced three violent encounters, as he explained,
‘I’ve had people push and grab at me, but I easily deflect those problems’ and faced an attacker
who ‘wielded a knife’ but fought him off. S1 also recounted how he had saved a woman from
14 CRIME MEDIA CULTURE
rape by approaching the rapists and scaring them off. As he explained, ‘I stopped them, asked
questions, had them off balance. Basically scared them off. I took their photographs and reported
details to the authorities later, but my first priority was helping the girl’ (SH1).
Yet, interviewees did accept that their encounters with serious crime were rare, and that gen-
erally they came across what could be classified as anti-social behaviour. SH2 told the story of
how, ‘some kids were knocking over newspaper boxes and signs’, but left after he approached
them with his torch. Similarly, SH1 also stopped some youths from ‘hurling litter’ and they cleaned
Other RLSHs seemed to take on the kinds of roles we identify with private investigation work.
For example, SH1 was asked by a landlord to ‘investigate a property where a gang of squatters
has been staying and maliciously damaging’, but did not find them. He was not the only inter-
viewee who conducted commissioned ‘investigations’, with SH10 also reporting that he was
‘checking out a corrupt business’ but did not give details.
Unlike their fictional counterparts, RLSHs do not consider that the criminal justice system is
failing its citizens. Often in films and comic books, superheroes believe they have to act because
the criminal justice system is hopeless and often corrupt (Phillips and Strobl, 2013). Lovell (2002)
also found that in comics superheroes seek a return to the criminal justice systems of years gone
by, when law enforcement was presumably less forgiving and more concerned with punishment
and retribution. Rather than considering that the police were too soft or corrupt, RLSHs felt that
police work to the best of their abilities, but were hindered by inadequate resources. RLSHs saw
themselves as offering extra community support alongside the police rather than as a replacement
for them. As SH7 explained:
They can’t be everywhere at once, so criminals are able to get away with breaking the law…
They patrol randomly and hope to stumble onto crime, or they are contacted after a crime has
already been committed. (SH7)
RLSHs took part in patrolling and surveillance as a way of assisting in crime prevention and their
overriding aim was to support their communities by being model citizens and helping others.
Captain citizens: battling injustice by ‘doing good’
We’re sworn to battle – all injustice (Green Arrow)25
RLSHs in the study sample considered that another way of offering community support could be
achieved by assisting those people whom they deemed to be in need of help. In addition, despite
the fact that often homeless people can be constructed as mythical ‘deviant others’ and stigma-
tised by being ‘portrayed as being in society, but not of it’ (Greer, 2004: 111), both the interview
data and the ECA revealed that many RLSHs actively seek out and help the homeless in numerous
ways. As SH5 stated:
There are programs in [Mid-Atlantic US] to help these people, but they are more geared
towards finding a solution for the problem of homelessness, and that’s fine, but while they are
in their offices doing paper work and dealing with politicians, people are on the streets
Fishwick and Mak 15
freezing or starving to death… Finding a cure for the problem is great and a noble cause, but
until the cure shows up, think of me as life support.
Almost all interviewees, as well as many RLSHs online, reported being involved in, or planning to
become part of, homeless outreach services, usually involving handing out care packages of items
such as food, water, blankets, clothing, toiletries and cigarettes.26 There was also a guide online
about homeless outreach support.27
RLSHs were also engaged in other forms of charity work; for example, SH6 had bought toys for
underprivileged children for the past two Christmases, SH12 cleaned the streets and SH13 shov-
elled snow off sidewalks in areas with a large elderly population. SH11 also provided bottled
water for forgetful skateboarders at her local park and SH10 had been asked on two separate
occasions to walk a stranger home because they had felt unsafe.
RLSHs provided other examples of one-to-one assistance. Some interviewees acted as dispute
mediators, such as SH1 who had settled a financial dispute between homeless people. In addition,
SH1 listened to problems and stories of people who needed his help, which he referred to as ‘life
coaching’. In doing so, he provided details of having helped people with depression and alcohol-
ism. Some interviewees were also involved in serious incident response. SH10 recalled an incident
where, ‘a drunk guy run out into the middle of traffic… we got the guy out of the road and made
sure he didn’t do anything stupid like that again’. SH6 helped a motorcyclist who hit a bus: ‘I get
a few bystanders to help me lift the man into the taxi and we ride to the hospital’. In another
incident recorded online, a RLSH got a person out of a burning building.28
Other interviewees helped people with everyday problems, such as providing directions (SH13)
or informing a lady that her headlight was out (SH11). SH7 also cleared car parks of shopping
trolleys and helped push a broken down van.
For interviewees, crime prevention and helping the community are fundamental to their shared
sense of identity as RLSHs and good citizens. When asked what they thought it meant to be a
RLSH, interviewees provided similar answers. SH4 believed a superhero represents an ‘idealized
human being’ a role model who works for other’s wellbeing. Likewise, SH6 said:
In our own unique ways, we all want better lives for those around us. We see the laws and the
rules, and we see suffering and no answer, and we see that it is not enough. We want more.
We want better lives. We are average, in this respect. What makes us a little different is we put
on a visible mask to do it.
Getting involved in helping others was then a shared vision. Data from the ECA identified a num-
ber of resources, such as ‘Good Deed Cards’, which demonstrated this idea of the RLSH as a Good
Samaritan. The Good Deed Cards (see Figure 1) were business cards that RLSHs could hand out to
inform people that a RLSH had helped them, and which they could then pass on to others to
spread the message.29
SH7 was a proponent of Good Deed Cards and used them to inspire people anonymously. As
I thought that it would be nice to put money in vending machine so that the next person who
came along would get a free soda. Then I was going to put a sticker on the machine that said:
‘Please enjoy a cold drink on me.’ And I was going to attach a Good Deed Card to the sticker.
16 CRIME MEDIA CULTURE
RLSHs were, in essence, engaging in the kind active citizenship that they wanted to see in other
members of the community. This emphasis on low-key social support is one of the aspects of
being a RLSH that sets them apart from their contemporary fictional counterparts, and espe-
cially the kind of vigilante violence that has been seen to emerge in comic books and films in
No vigilantes here
Numerous commentators, such as Vollum and Adkinson (2003), Bainbridge (2007) and Phillips
and Strobl (2013), have documented the transition of superhero films and comics towards a
darker, ‘grittier’ genre since 9/11. Films like The Dark Knight30 and Watchmen31 have focused on
vigilante style characters but, despite this trend, it was very clear that RLSHs have not taken on this
kind of persona nor have they engaged in the kinds of violent, vengeful actions depicted in such
films. Indeed, interviewees were keen to distance themselves from vigilantism and revenge.
Although they admitted a small number of individuals in the RLSH network appear to embrace
violence, they were dismissed as ‘usually big talkers without any proof of their actions’ (SH2).
Vigilantism was frowned upon and interviewees stressed that, ‘We strive to make the world a
better place through legal and pro-social means. We strive to work within the law rather than
taking it into our own hands’ (SH8).
The RLSHs interviewed were not interested in breaking the law, or harming or hurting others
not even evildoers. In this way they were very different from their fictional counterparts.
Carnival and edgework
RLSHs share some of the emotional and creative experiences found in other ethnographic studies
of carnival and edgework, but there are also some distinct characteristics (see plate 5).
In his analysis of the carnival of crime, Presdee argues that carnival is the ‘ritualised mediation
between order and disorder’ and a domain in which individuals are engaged in ‘the pleasure of
Figure 1. Good Deed Card.
Fishwick and Mak 17
playing at the boundaries’ (2000: 32). He highlights how actors become engaged in temporary
deviant transgressions, where individuals challenge the mundanity of their conventional first life
by moving into a second life, which is characterised by excitement, heightened emotion, irration-
ality and often violence (see also Measham, 2004). This second life is lived out as part of ‘a cele-
bration of doing wrong’ (Presdee, 2000: 50).
Ferrell (2004) also suggests that the edgework of being involved in crime and deviance are
reactions against the organised collective boredom of modernity, where escape into leisure has
become over-commodified and too predictable. He argues that both work and entertainment
have become boring and only serve to deny people the opportunity to exercise their skills and
creativity (2004: 291). Consequently, people manufacture unplanned and sporadic moments of
‘edgework’; episodes of transient excitement, which are adrenalin filled, and provide emotional
enjoyment where individuals can be both skilful and creative (2004: 298).
RLSHs are engaged in a planned but unusual performance. They bring to life their fantasies of
superheroism extrapolated from the fictional world, into the here and now. By adopting a super-
hero persona, by putting on their uniform, buckling on accessories and adopting a different
mind-set they move into a second life that is more exciting and challenging than their first life
(see plate 6). Patrolling, occasionally fighting crime, dealing with potentially dangerous situations
and helping people in distress provides emotional highs and a sense of purpose.32 In addition, for
some, being a RLSH also brings a level of celebrity status.
RLSHs’ desire to shake others out of their apathy by engaging in performance could be labelled
as transgressive of the mainstream, in that RLSHs see this as a way of confronting community
passivity and challenging the status quo of not caring. In this way, being a visible hero sets the
RLSH performance apart from the everyday.
Being a RLSH brings with it excitement and an emotional buzz, as SH10 relates: ‘When a patrol
or mission becomes very intense, it heightens your alertness, to the point of where it becomes
harder to sleep for several hours after the patrol’.
Plate 5. Engaging in edgework. © 2014 Pierre-Elie de Pibrac. Reproduced with permission.
18 CRIME MEDIA CULTURE
According to S11, helping people was seen to produce a ‘great feeling’:
There’s a certain satisfaction you get when you know that you have done something good for
people even if they aren’t going to give you credit for it. You just can’t help but smile and hope
that they will return the favour. (SH11)
Others found it to be great fun for different reasons. SH5 explained quite simply:
Its fun! A lot of RLSH may not like to admit it, but if we didn’t think dressing up and playing
superhero was fun, we would do this stuff without the costumes. And what’s wrong with hav-
ing some fun while you do good?
For some interviewees the carnival of being a superhero also offered a measure of personal
redemption, especially for those individuals who had experienced abuse or childhood trauma. By
adopting the RLSH persona, they could then become the protector and helper to anyone in need.
In this way, becoming a RLSH can be seen to be a reaction to the alienation they had experienced
Plate 6. The real-life superhero persona. © 2014 Pierre-Elie de Pibrac. Reproduced with permission.
Fishwick and Mak 19
in the past and that continued to affect them. However, unlike the carnival of crime it is not
destructive but a peaceful and constructive rebellion.
Yet, this study has found that on the whole the activities of RLSHs are not in themselves
transgressive of mainstream values and actions, they are ones that other citizens and community
members or salaried officials are also involved in on a day-to-day level. In this sense, the kinds of
community support and crime prevention work they are engaged in are very similar to the ‘edge-
work’ rescue and service activities described by Lois (2001, 2005). By taking on patrolling, surveil-
lance and crime prevention activities it could also be argued that RLSHs are embodying the
strand of edgework identified by Lyng (2005), where even though they may be escaping some
of the constraints of the everyday in their actions they are also expressing some of the central
concerns of our contemporary social order. RLSH engagement in informal social control activities
exemplify the kinds of techniques of self-governance, that sit at the heart of what Muncie calls
‘neo-liberal responsibilisation’ (2009: 241), where responsibility for managing risk, crime pre-
vention and pre-emption are devolved in part to individuals and communities (Muncie, 2009;
O’Malley, 2010). RLSHs are engaged as individuals in a world of plural, privatised policing
Like most everyday activities, being a superhero guardian of justice can also become routinised
and boring. RLSHs who patrol the streets spent many nights without encountering anything of
significance. In fact, not only did criminals make rare appearances, but people who needed saving
were also hard to find. Consequently, many RLSHs reported that they usually spent a lot of time
being bored whilst on patrol.33 When nothing happens or a RLSH does not plan to do any com-
munity service, all that was left to do was walk down the streets or sit in the car, waiting in case
something did happen. Real-life superheroism, in this instance, was not adventurous or exciting
but monotonous and, in these circumstances, the edgework could be seen to lose its edge. It is a
sweet irony that in order to break the boredom of patrolling and feel excitement, RLSHs needed
to encounter the transgressive behaviour and carnival of criminal and anti-social others.
Conclusion: the amazing everyman
This article is based on an exploratory study and has offered a peek into a fascinating subculture.
The interview and online data provide insights into the world of RLSHs and the ways in which the
adoption of a RLSH persona, uniform and accessories provide the catalyst for individuals to engage
in altruistic activities that are targeted at preventing crime and promoting social justice. The pro-
cess of dressing up and stepping into a superhero persona provides many emotional and psycho-
RLSHs are engaged in social and symbolic activities, which embody their vision of how society
should be. They believe that they are setting an example for active citizenship, which in turn they
hope will challenge individual apathy and promote social cohesion and caring. As a consequence,
it is envisaged that crime rates will fall. In this process RLSHs consider that the performance of
patrolling and charity work is meaning-making and interviewees see themselves as being involved,
as Presdee argues (in a different context) in ‘re-working the streets’ (2000: 51).
RLSHs inhabit a unique space that blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality. According to
Phillips and Strobl there is an increasing convergence of fiction in our everyday lives, which ‘pro-
vides us with a means of working through moral dilemmas’ (2013: 6). This study of RLSHs has
20 CRIME MEDIA CULTURE
demonstrated how this happens for some people. There are strong parallels between the world of
RLSHs and the superhero tales in comic books and films; elements of the fictional universe are
absorbed, reproduced and translated into the real, terrestrial world. Through this hybridisation
RLSHs are active players in adapting and re-producing social understandings of crime and justice.
RLSHs are engaged in everyday activities of idealised citizenship while they are cloaked (some-
times literally) in a superhero guise; in this world doing good is as much a carnival as doing bad.
The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr Robyn Holder and Dr Alyce McGovern for their
comments on earlier drafts of this article, and Eliza Harris for her editorial assistance. Acknowledgements are
due to Pierre-Elie de Pibrac and Peter Tangen for granting permission for the use of their photographs. Thanks
also to the anonymous reviewers of this article and the editorial team for their insights and suggestions.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit
1. Vladislav Iouchkov is a doctoral student at the University of Western Sydney; his thesis is entitled ‘The
Hero with a Thousand Graces: a Sociological Examination of Real-Life Superhero Metamorphoses’.
2. ‘Super hero takes on clampers’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/3112670.stm, accessed
3. For example, Real Life Superheroes – The Forum <http://therlsh.7forum.biz/> has 1015 registered users,
although not all users may be RLSHs. The RLSH Wiki http://rlsh.wikia.com/wiki/Category:RLSH_Profiles
lists profiles for 177 RLSHs (accessed 15 February 2015), while the World Superhero Registry <http://
www.worldsuperheroregistry.com/world_superhero_registry_gallery.htm> lists 34 RLSHs, although it
does not look like it has been updated for some time as some of those RLSHs have since retired.
4. The empirical work formed the basis of Heusen Mak’s honours thesis awarded by the University of New
5. http://www.therlsh.net/. Since the completion of the research www.therlsh.net has now moved to
6. In all online communications forum administrators were contacted and permission granted to use the
information on the forum. The researcher also made their presence known in each forum with an intro-
ductory post about themselves and with details of the study.
10. http://superheroesanonymous.com/. The original research was taken from superheroesanonymous.com
but this page is now a photoblog
12. Interview extracts are quoted verbatim from emails and message boards and have not been corrected.
13. Kick-Ass was directed and produced by Matt Vaughn for Universal Pictures, and with its sequel Kick
Ass 2 released in 2013; both have a cult following. They are superhero action comedies that trace the
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Fishwick and Mak 21
16. Marvel Comics.
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Elaine Fishwick is currently a Research Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of
Western Sydney. The position is jointly funded by the Young and Well Cooperative Research Council followed
by the rest.
Heusen Mak is currently an Australian Commonwealth government public servant. He was awarded a
University Medal and first class honours for his thesis entitled The Amazing Everyman: The World of Real Life