It’s 11:06 on a Saturday night and the superheroes are plotting outside the Hall of Justice on Broadway.
“We’ll drive up Golf and meet the foot-patrol at Sixth and Lima,” says a large figure in a French highwayman’s coat, a tricorn cap, and steampunk goggles. Five other costumed characters make statements to the affirmative and peel off Broadway to walk in formation up C Street.
“Some people think we have no idea what we’re doing, like we’re Kick-Ass or something like that, but we’re training all the time,” says a 20-year-old superhero named Light Fist, whose yellow ninja outfit calls to mind Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. “We train Krav Maga together. We spend a lot of time together. I feel like we’re saving the world.”
We come to a red light and The Grim, tonight’s patrol leader, raises a fist to the sky. The group circles up back-to-back and waits for The Grim’s signal to proceed. The Grim wears blue body armor and a skull-faced helmet. When he’s not roaming the streets dressed as a self-styled superhero and second-in-command to Mr. Xtreme, the 35-year-old Navy veteran installs security systems. Next to him stands Violet Valkyrie, homeless outreach coordinator, wearing purple skintight clothing and a neoprene half-mask. Beside her is Zoo, a young woman in a grinning Guy Fawkes mask, and Colonial, a 19-year-old new recruit in a red beret and Air Force boots. Joined by Midnight Highwayman in the support vehicle and about 15 rotating members, the violent-crime prevention team known as the Xtreme Justice League is one of the most prominent remaining factions from the international real-life superhero movement.
While many U.S. chapters have folded (the most recent entry on reallifesuperheroes.com is a profile on Mr. Xtreme from late 2011), Mr. Xtreme told me at Lestat’s Coffee House several weeks prior to the foot-patrol that the justice league has been improving.
“We’ve grown quite a bit over the past five years,” says Mr. Xtreme, whose green helmet, buggy goggles, hodgepodge body armor, and flowing cape lend the appearance of a giant child playing make-believe as a Ninja Turtle. “We’re much more organized. We have a more established patrol schedule. We’re more established in the community. Our outreach program is going well. We recently had volunteers and runners in a run for autism. We’re downtown in the Gaslamp every Friday and Saturday.”
“Basically, that’s where we feel we can do the most good,” says The Grim, who has been patrolling with the League for five years.
“Anytime you have large groups of young men gathering and you have alcohol or drugs, that’s where your problems are going to show up,” adds Midnight Highwayman, a 46-year-old extermination-business owner.
“In the early days of XJL, about ten years ago, we patrolled just about everywhere, all over the city, different days and nights,” says Mr. Xtreme. “So now we’ve got it streamlined down to what we figure are the best nights, Fridays and Saturdays, 11 to 3. That’s when we feel like we can do the most.”
The league will also patrol other neighborhoods at the request of citizens, as was the case when they were asked to watch over the College Area this past Saint Patrick’s Day and North Park during the string of violent sexual assaults in 2014.
“The community, they were so outraged,” recalls Mr. Xtreme, a security guard and groundskeeper by profession. “They were calling us to help. Even though we have limited resources and limited manpower we managed to pull it all together between North Park and downtown patrols at the same time. It was tough but we managed to get it done, and I think we did a good job.”
“Several of our recruits came from that time period,” says Midnight Highwayman, who has about three years with the league. “We were so intense about the neighborhood. The story itself got a lot of news coverage, and that’s how we picked up Fallen Boy, Silver Lining, and a few others. They saw the events happening and said, ‘Wow there are good groups out there.’”
Mr. Xtreme notes that many of the applicants are younger people who have seen Kick-Ass or are inspired by comic books. However, the league requires recruits to be at least 18 years old or have written parental permission if they are 15 to 17. Applicants with criminal records are considered on a case-by-case basis, though those convicted of murder or sex offenses will not be accepted. New members are required to have their superhero persona established and their own means of transportation to at least two hours of patrol per week. The league’s website states that “Smokers, drunks, druggies, bullshitters, e-heroes, drama queens or kings, racists, sexists, homophobes, vigilantes, fake tough guys, stinky mofos, or knuckleheads in general also need not apply.”
“This job attracts a lot of fierce individualists,” says Midnight Highwayman. “They’re people who are willing to rebel against societal norms, and that often ends up being like herding cats. Everyone has their own idea of how to do things, so developing our training and organization has been crucial.”
Another aspect that has improved is the league’s relationship with police. Public statements from the San Diego Police Department have ranged from dismissive (“These people are just private citizens. Even though they wear costumes, they’re not the respected police uniform we wear.”) to, more recently, praise (“The fact that they are choosing to try and get involved, that’s something that we applaud and we appreciate.”)
“In the beginning, I was getting roughed up by the cops,” says Mr. Xtreme. “There were some times I didn’t think we were going to come home from patrols. I thought we were pretty close to getting jumped. Some of the cops in the early days, I thought they were going to come up and shoot us. So it can get hectic out there. I was getting booted out of community meetings. I was getting the cold shoulder...well, we still get the cold shoulder, but not so much. A few years ago I would beg to get a story, but now I even have to turn people down.”
“I don’t get stopped anymore just walking down the street at gunpoint by cops saying, ‘Hey, take off your mask!’” The Grim corroborates. “It used to happen quite often. It doesn’t happen at all anymore, really. And now we’re a nonprofit [since 2014] and there’s a lot of legitimacy that comes with that.”
“The Grim and I had a meeting with the police that went far beyond our hopes and expectations,” says Midnight Highwayman. “We went down there thinking that we were going to explain to them why we’re not crazy and just sort of say, ‘Look, we’re trained and certified in emergency response, we’re wearing body armor, we’re trained in self-defense and deescalation.’ We have all these skills and we thought we were basically going to be on the defensive end, but we walked into that meeting and they pretty much reversed the tables on us and said, ‘I wanna thank you guys for doing the work you’re doing out there, we can’t thank you enough, and feel free to keep doing what you’re doing. Do more than what you’re doing.’ We were sort of gobsmacked.”
Back on the streets of downtown at the City College trolley station, an old man on a bench hollers, “You’re a little early for Comic-Con!”
“Every year for Comic-Con we get about 50 visiting superheroes to help with the homeless outreach,” Violet tells me as her lacrosse armor chest plate glistens in the metal halide streetlight. “And every quarter we go to 17th and Imperial with food, water, and hygiene packs donated from churches.”
The group heads south on Park Boulevard, takes Market to Eighth, zig-zags to Broadway and Seventh, then into the mayhem of nightlife Gaslamp. The barrage begins immediately: screamers, hecklers, howlers, and whiskey-soaked non-sequiturs from every angle.
Boisterous bros assure us that “Comic-Con is in July!”
“We love you, superheroes!” A group of women outside Double Deuce shout. “You helped us last time!”
“V for Vendetta!” “The Purge!” “Ninja Turtles!” “G.I. Joe!” “Is there a protest?” The inebriated ejaculations won’t quit.
One poor sap outside a fried-chicken joint mutters, “They’re all wearing masks…” and then turns to his friend with mouth agape and pleads, “I’m very drunk.”
A woman turns to her date and matter-of-factly explains, “They’re vigilantes.”
On that last point, the league states on their website that they are “Absolutely not!” vigilantes, as they don’t exact punishment on criminals, but perform citizen’s arrests and get physically involved in the altercation as a last resort. Regardless, “vigilante” is just one of many pejoratives that the league is accustomed to hearing.
“I always know when Halloween or Comic-Con is coming,” Mr. Xtreme explained at Lestat’s. “People have attacked us. It didn’t end well for them. If I feel aggression is imminent, I’ll usually take the first move, pepper-spraying or kicking, whatever it is. If they don’t respond to verbal warnings, I take action.”
We stop for a bathroom break at a park across from the Convention Center, where Light Fist and Colonial recount their superhero origins.
“I knew real-life superheroes from YouTube since I was, like, 14,” says Light Fist, a three-year member of the league and a security guard who has trained with the police explorer cadet program. “I contacted the local group when I was 16. I wasn’t old enough to join, so I waited two years. I always grew up loving superheroes. I wanted to change the world. For me, this is the first step. Doing this led me to an interest in law enforcement. I may pursue that someday.”
Colonial, the newest and youngest on tonight’s patrol, has a similar story. “I wanted to join the military, but I didn’t qualify due to a disability, so I contacted Grim online a few months ago. I love superheroes. They’re always helping others.”
“They always do the right thing,” says Light Fist.
“Except for Punisher,” Colonial corrects.
“They almost always do the right thing,” Light Fist concedes. “When people look for hope, they look at superheroes.”
That may sound like do-gooder’s rhetoric, but a few blocks later, the league comes across exactly that: a person looking for hope.
“Do you have a cell phone I can borrow just for one second?” asks a maybe 20-year-old kid in a backwards Agent Orange cap with a lapel pin that reads “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” in bold letters. His name is Bob, and he’s just been thrown out of a hair-metal show for trying to sneak backstage. Bob’s from Tucson, just visiting with friends, and he has no idea where he is, where his friends are, or where the show was. He looks a little glossed over but he seems mostly there, apart from being hopelessly lost.
“I need to call my friends,” he insists. “I think they’re at the Marriott.”
The Grim and his team do some Googling for Bob, who already feels like our pushy little punk brother, and when it is announced that he can walk to a Marriott nearby, Bob digs in his heels and declares, “I have no idea where I am. I’m just going to hang out with you guys until I figure it out.”
So, Violet gives him a bottle of water and Colonial keeps him marching in the middle of the formation. Bob veers around the sidewalk, lighting cigarettes, talking to strangers, and every time he gets loose, Colonial pulls him back into the march.
It dawns on me that I may be watching Bob’s own origin story unfold in front of my eyes: a ragtag punk rocker living a go-nowhere life in Arizona discovers his true calling on the mean streets of San Diego, where, with the help of his new superhero friends, he learns to channel his millennial angst into valiant deeds. He’s no longer Tucson Bob, the stoned kid who gets kicked out of hair-metal concerts for stupid reasons. No. He is Twisted Brother, and he will put your Spandex game to shame while exacting justice on a fallen metropolis with all the bittersweet finality of a power ballad.
Could the rest of the league’s beginnings be just as charmed?
Mr. Xtreme, aka Clark Stark (probably also not his real name), grew up in the College Area before moving around East County and City Heights. School was always rough, with kids bused in from other parts of town and gang violence a common occurrence.
“I myself have been attacked while out. I used to ride the trolley and bus a lot downtown as a teenager. I’ve been attacked, jumped, robbed at gunpoint. Little bit of everything. I also grew up in an abusive household. My father would kick my ass pretty much every week. I think I was the oddball going to school. I didn’t fit in. I was bullied, beat up, ridiculed. I considered joining a gang. I considered joining an anarchist group, or going out and being a vigilante. Those ideas were in my mind. I was looking for acceptance.”
Stark eventually found his place of belonging in the Guardian Angels, the renowned crime prevention patrol founded in response to gang violence in New York City in 1979. The organization currently has more than 130 chapters worldwide.
“Ever since I was young, I had that desire to make a difference. I was fed up with the violent crime, violent victimization, gang violence, a lot of the apathy and indifference that surrounded it. I just wanted to get out there and make a difference. I was kind of heartbroken about how the world turns, why it has to be the way it is. So when I encountered Guardian Angels I felt empowered. This is for me. Ordinary citizens training for self-defense, plus I was very into martial arts back then, and I still am. I said, I could be a police officer or join the military or I could just do something here in the community. Guardian Angels provided the alternative I was looking for. A lot of them are black and Hispanic and come from rough backgrounds, kind of a gang atmosphere, but they’re going out there and doing good. I think that was what I was looking for. So I joined in 1998 and ended up starting my own Guardian Angel chapter in 2001. That was pretty tough, but I worked up to regional director and traveled around the world to Cape Cod, London, throughout the States, linking up with regional chapters.”
After 14 years with the Guardian Angels, training and establishing patrol formation protocols, Stark began to feel disillusioned. “I needed something to spice it up a little bit, plus I had a lot of experience on event security so I said, why don’t I give this a try? I was searching online thinking, what if someone was out there trying to be a superhero? Kind of what they say about the guy in Kick-Ass, but I had those thoughts before the movie came out. When I was a kid, like everybody, I wanted to be Rambo, or G.I. Joe, or a ninja, and of course I was into Batman, Superman, and all that stuff. What if someone went out there and put on a superhero costume and went out and tried to help people? So I found the superhero registry. It showcased all these different real-life superheroes and they all had their MySpace pages. I saw Mr. Silent, Dark Guardian, Green Scorpion, all these different superheroes going out there, patrolling, things like that, and I got intrigued by the idea.”
Stark took up the moniker Mr. Xtreme and dreamed of one day gathering his own team of superheroes that he would call the Xtreme Justice League, a nod to the Justice League of America and the Xtreme Football League.
“I stared doing thing sporadically: patrols, community events, meetings, vigils. I patrolled with Midnight Highwayman and his girlfriend, then I met Vigilante Spider, Shadow Hair came down from Cincinnati. In 2010, I think the XJL really started growing. I acquired more of a core membership. Urban Avenger joined and then soon after came The Grim and Divine Force and the rest is history.”
What do his friends and family think?
“I think they’ve gotten used to it. At first they discouraged me. They thought it was a kid thing. They’re concerned with my safety, but they want to see me have a regular life, have a family and all that. I think eventually I’ll do that. I’m going to commit to another 10 years and then retire. My parents will be getting old. I’ll take care of them and then I do want to settle down eventually. But I have a lot of things I want to get done first. I want to make the XJL the biggest and the strongest and the best.”
The Grim was born in Paradise Hills, grew up all over town, and served in the Navy as a nuclear submariner. He admits the job was “more brains than brawn,” but has always trained in boxing and martial arts.
“I’ve always been into superheroes. I’ve also been kind of an oddball. To boost myself up, I pretend that I’m way better than I am. Ever since I was really little. This guy that I worked with a long time ago picked up a Reader in the attic from a year or so before and he said, hey, San Diego already has a hero! Here’s out there and he gives a damn, and I give a damn, too! I had no idea there was a huge group who followed along, but there was a group by then, so I went on patrol with a suit I’d been working on. At first it was weird. Maybe not for the other guys, but I was like, ‘Ok, its not Halloween and I’m still in my costume.’ But that feeling faded really fast. We’re out here to do a job, we do it, and I’ve never looked back. Most people I tell just say, well, that figures. I was really nervous about telling my dad. He’s a volunteer sheriff, and in the past cops weren’t all that supportive, but he’s actually come and taught some of our deescalation classes.”
Midnight Highwayman grew up around Brawley and learned of the Xtreme Justice League from a newspaper. He’d been watching the group from afar for a year or two before hopping into his French highway robber’s coat to join the fight.
“There’s already a highwayman here in San Diego who drives around and helps stranded motorists, so I became the Midnight Highwayman. I have a really strong anger against injustice. People who are out there stealing from people and beating people up, it absolutely infuriates me. I had a pretty normal upbringing. I got in fights and had stuff stolen from me, but nothing really sticks out as a defining moment. The world is just on a downward slide, and at some point you have to stand up and do something about it.”
The oldest in the group, Midnight Highwayman drives the support vehicle, patrolling outlying parking lots and maintaining radio communication with the foot patrol. He is equipped with water, blankets, snack bars, first aid gear, hefty Maglites, binoculars, and a dash cam. “My days of jumping in the middle of the fight are behind me,” says Midnight Highwayman, who has a background in security and first aid. “I’m a little long in the tooth to be out tackling people, but I can patch up the wounded. There’s not a whole lot of medical response Downtown. They have medic scooters. They’re really good, really fast, but they can only be in one place at once. So having us moving around makes a difference. Many times we’ve saved a life because they were either going to bleed out or die of an overdose. No one else was paying attention or had the training. Paramedics are five or six minutes away and we can be there on scene with a full first aid kit. One time, a guy was going to bleed out. He had punched a window. His arm was torn open from his hand to his elbow. He was out in a parking lot and nobody was paying attention. I don’t know if that guy made it. He was in bad shape, but we were there first.”
Back in the Gaslamp, bars are coming to a close and the League tightens their radius to circle the nightclub district. Passersby howl and toss up high fives. A woman pukes in a garbage can. Bob still doesn’t know what hotel his friends are in, so the League keeps him in the ranks, marching and drinking water to sober up.
“I have no idea where I’m going,” he reiterates. “So that’s my issue.”
At Fourth and Broadway, we round a corner and there’s Mr. Xtreme leaning against a brick wall, an overhead light casting long shadows like a private eye film. After some deliberation, the group agrees the thing to do is #getbobhome2016, as it has come to light that his friends are lodging in Hotel Circle. So Bob and Mr. Xtreme disappear down Broadway and the rest of the League goes out for another lap. By now, Gaslamp is shuddering with idiotic delirium. A few bike cops nod as we enter the fray. “Xtreme Justice League,” one of them greets.
Security guards in reflective jackets eject howling patrons from bars. A man is arrested in the middle of the street, and The Grim remarks that he saw the same guy sucker punch somebody in the same spot last week. Bachelorette parties stagger down the sidewalk. Tourists reel together in the gutter. But the League doesn’t get tangled up in anything. The most action they run into tonight is a group of dudes who are beyond ecstatic to take Snapchats with the superheroes. The herores happily oblige.
It’s safe to say that superheroes are about as archetypal as the founding fathers in America, and the recent rash of DC and Marvel films only affirms that. Despite having such a self-identified fringe fan base, comic books and the characters that have come out of them resonate deep in the recesses of popular culture, so much so that Law and Order: SVU has made an episode inspired by the Xtreme Justice League and Mr. Xtreme has been featured in an HBO documentary, Superheroes.
“I think culturally, things have changed,” Midnight Highwayman explains. “Throughout the 20th century, anything like that was seen as childish. You had to put it away. You had a huge cultural shift in the ‘60s where it becomes OK to like things you liked as a kid when you get older. Now, our culture really embraces that. Through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it became cool to be stupid, and I think we’re just starting to scrape our way out of that. I think that has done some serious damage to youth who embrace that stupid is good.”
“I think being cool is overrated,” Mr. Xtreme adds. “Why would I want to fit in? The cool crowd is a bunch of dicks.”
The dicks are behaving themselves tonight, at least as far as the League is concerned, so we part ways on Broadway and call it a job well done. The Grim writes me a few days later with news that Mr. Xtreme and Bob eventually found his friends at a Motel 6 (the other Marriott).
“On one hand, it’s unfortunate that Saturday was not as eventful as it has been the past few weeks,” The Grim writes. “On the other hand, I’d take calm and boring over chaotic and exciting any day.”
Which makes sense. Even superheroes need to take a load off every once in a while. But who knows? Maybe Twisted Brother is out there at this very moment, slinking through the cover of night, watching from the rooftops, stayin’ hungry, returning the favor, whistling “We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore.”