“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.