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Masks, capes and spandex: Real-life superheroes save the world!

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Citizen Prime, formally known as Paragon Prime, patrols the highways and avenues of Phoenix. His costume is made from Kevlar and spandex. (Courtesy of Citizen Prime)

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Squeegeeman protects the citizens of New York City. He also does many charity events with Captain Xavier Obvious, a fellow real-life superhero. (Courtesy of Squeegeeman)

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Tothian, a marine reservist and martial arts expert, patrols the dimly lit alleyways of New York and New Jersey. (Courtesy of Tothian)

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Chris Guardian, formally known as Dark Guardian, patrols the sidewalks and alleyways of New York City. (Courtesy of Chris Guardian)

It started out as a normal night. That is, until the bad guy started dancing like the devil in the pale moonlight.

Chris was minding his own business on the streets of Staten Island, N.Y., when he saw a man dash into a convenience store. The man sprinted through the aisles, trashing the place, then broke a glass bottle on the floor and brandished the shards as a makeshift knife.

Chris, coming to the rescue, cornered him in the aisle. While Chris kept the villain at bay, customers called the police.

That night, one of the most dangerous nights in his career, Chris truly earned the right to be called Chris Guardian.

Guardian, 23, who patrols the sidewalks and alleyways of New York City, is one of a small group of people around the world who call themselves real-life superheroes. Some do it for fun, as if Halloween were a yearlong celebration. But others, like Guardian, are dead serious about protecting life.

“I’ve always had something inside of me that made me want to really make a difference and just make the world a better place,” Guardian said recently during a discreet nighttime interview in a park in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. “I always loved comic books and the idea of heroes out there. And I just said, 'What the hell is stopping somebody from doing it?'”

When Guardian, a martial arts teacher who would not give his real name, first began patrolling New York at night, he was known as Dark Guardian. But recently he shed his old costume of a black mask with a painted-on smiley face and changed his name to Chris Guardian. He said the old costume was too weird for some people, while others didn’t pay attention.

“This is New York, so half the people didn’t even look,” said Guardian, who is having a new costume made up with the letters C.G. emblazoned on the front.

Guardian, like most superheroes, acts within the strictest sense of the law. “If I don’t have to put myself in danger, and the police can handle it, let the police handle it,” he said. “You know, I’m not going to do something stupid.”

Citizen Prime, a superhero based in Phoenix and a friend of Guardian, said there were many degrees of what a real-life superhero could do. A few stray into the vigilante role, taking the law into their own hands. But most, in the spirit of truth, justice and the American way, patrol the streets looking to help women and children.

“You don’t want to be standing on top of a building with your grappling hook ready to jump down on crack dealers,” Prime said. “That’s actually against the law.”

Prime, a 40-year-old married man whose first name is Jim, has been protecting the streets of Phoenix for a year. He became a superhero to spread the message that people don’t have to be fearful of crime. “Are you going to sit inside scared that a terrorist might attack your city, or are you going to go out and live your life?” he asked.

But Prime, who patrols once or twice a week in a black, blue and yellow costume, found one chink in his armor. He couldn’t find any crime. “The only crime I’ve ever stopped is when I was actually walking out of a sporting goods store with my wife,” he said. “A shoplifter came running past me, and I managed to throw him to the ground.”

With villains often hard to come by, superheroes fill up their time by dispensing charity as well as justice.

Many superheroes offer food to the homeless, deliver toys to sick children, rescue motorists with flat tires or spend time in their own fortresses of solitude visiting the many online superhero communities.

One such site is the World Superhero Registry, run by Phoenix-based superhero Kevlex, whose name is a combination of Kevlar and spandex.

His Web site supplies information on some of the world’s most famous superheroes: Angle Grinder Man in England, who helps free illegally parked cars from the bonds of immobilization; Terrifica, a female superhero who saves the drunk women of Brooklyn from unseemly masculine advances; and Polar Man, a Canadian superhero who, well, shovels driveways and sidewalks for the elderly.

Kevlex, 47, patrols only once or twice a week, and even less in the summer because the hot Arizona sun makes his costume uncomfortable. (Apparently, being a superhero is both a gift and a curse.)

Kevlex says that when he does go out, disguising his true identity is still necessary, even if he does nothing illegal. When he is in costume, bad guys “can’t tell which areas are protective gear and which areas their bullets would just slide right through,” he said.

Though, to be honest, Kevlex said he has never been in a situation with bullets. “The area that I’m in isn’t that dangerous,” he admitted.

Tothian, 22, a superhero who protects New Jersey and New York, is one of the more active heroes. He uses his skills as a Marine reservist and martial arts expert when patrolling the streets, and has escorted women home at night and broken up fights.

His uniform--he prefers that term to costume--is black combat boots, green cargo pants and a T-shirt. His logo, which is stitched into the middle of the T-shirt with cut-up bandanas, is made from the letters used to spell Tothian.

“That name chose me, I feel,” he said. “I am adding definition through the name, through my actions, my words and everything that I do.”

Tothian doesn’t wear a mask because it blocks his peripheral vision, and says he doesn’t wear a cape “because capes get in the way of actually doing real superhero stuff.”

Tothian says he doesn't want to become a police officer because he doesn’t agree with every law on the book. “I’m not out to punish every single criminal,” he said. For example, he would counsel marijuana smokers, but wouldn’t apprehend them as bad guys.

Tothian said he gets some strange looks when people find out he’s a superhero. But after people realize he’s out to protect them, he says their trepidation eases somewhat.

“Heroes are real, so superheroes are just heroes who are really super at it,” he said. “The world is constantly crying out in need of superheroes, and I’m giving them one.”

E-mail: jvs2107@columbia.edu

SIDEBAR: HOW SECRET ARE THOSE SUPERHERO IDENTITIES?

Real-life superheroes may be secretive about their identity, but they certainly welcome e-mail messages and visits to their MySpace pages. On the Web, many superheroes like Chris Guardian and Tothian show their real faces. Others, like Citizen Prime (myspace.com/paragonprime), wear elaborate masks.

Even so, meeting up with a superhero is challenging.

When setting up a rendezvous, they tend to prefer nighttime visits. You will be given a place to meet, like Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, and told to call a cell phone number at precisely 10:30 p.m. No other details will be given. When you’re waiting for the clock to strike the half hour, you constantly check over your shoulder, knowing that the superhero has already been tracking your every move.

Once 10:30 rolls around, you call your hero, only to get a response like, “I’m walking up to you right now. I’m bald and wearing a leather jacket.”

Other superheroes avoid direct contact with the media. Squeegeeman and Captain Xavier Obvious work through their press person, Peter Magellan, who leaves messages on cell phones in an Australian accent that may or may not be authentic. When Squeegeeman himself leaves a message, the call is from a restricted number, and the superhero talks in a high-pitched voice that sounds, well, like a squeegee.

E-mails are no better. Squeegeeman’s messages are punctuated frequently by a squeegee adjective: “Have a squeegeerific day!!!”