Real Life Superheroes in Action
Given the chance to choose my own superhero nickname, I’d pick something like “Super Jew,” or simply “The Rabbi.” Imagine “The Thing,” but with a kippah.
“Comic Book Rabbi” is a humble nickname I came by honestly, after writing Up Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero. Yet sometimes I fantasize about doing more than just writing and talking about superheroes. Like millions of ordinary people, I wonder what it would be like to pull on Spandex and hit the mean streets to kick some villainous tuchas.
No wonder the new movie Kick-Ass is getting so much buzz. The film, based on the 2008 graphic novel by Mark Millar, tells the story of teenage dweeb Dave Lizewski, who sets out to become a real-life superhero.
Like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and the other members of the tribe who created “Golden Age” superheroes like Superman, Dave Lizewski is a bit of a nerd, invisible to girls and the “cool” kids. So he creates his own superhero costume, dubs himself “Kick-Ass,” and searches out bad guys to beat up.
He quickly learns that it takes more than just a costume to be a superhero. After failing at his first attempt to fight crime, Dave discovers that, unlike the fights he’s seen in the movies and read about in comic books, real fisticuffs can actually be pretty painful.
But fame is not far off for Dave. After bystanders with cell phones record him in action, Dave/Kick-Ass becomes an Internet phenomenon that inspires a whole legion of copycat costumed crime fighters. Meanwhile, Dave sets up a Kick-Ass website and is soon overwhelmed by requests for help from total strangers.
Before you dismiss Kick-Ass as ridiculous fiction, consider my (real-life) friend, former yeshiva student turned crime-fighter, Chaim Lazaros. A bit like Spiderman’s Peter Parker, Lazaros is a student at Columbia University by day and a superhero by night, going by the name of “Life” (the Hebrew translation of his name). Dressed all in black—complete with an eye patch—Lazaros goes out looking for trouble on the streets of New York. But it’s not what you think: He’s dedicated to helping out the sick and the homeless.
Lazaros is the co-founder of Superheroes Anonymous, men and women dedicated to performing good deeds without self-aggrandizement or remuneration. They take it upon themselves to clean litter off the streets or hand out crime prevention literature.
Believe it or not, Lazaros is just one of a surprising number of people all over the world living out the Kick-Ass fantasy.
The mission statement of another group, Real Life Superheroes, declares, “Our main objective is to inspire others. We hope through our actions we can inspire others to go out and do good, help others, and stand up for what they believe in. There is a hero in everyone and we need to bring it out to help make this world a little more super.”
Their group includes a 61-year-old man who calls himself “Thanatos.” In the wee hours of the morning, Thanatos visits the roughest area of the city, tending to the addicts and prostitutes he finds there. “Offering comfort and necessary supplies,” his online biography explains, he leaves each person he serves with a card simply stamped, “FRIEND.”
Lazaros, Thanatos, and their partners in crime-fighting feel more empowered to help others when they put on a literal mask. It seems bizarre, but if you think about it, we all wear masks. We hide behind forced smiles, make-up, or even Botox. Sometimes we “try on” a new personality, especially when we’re young and just learning about ourselves and the world. In fact, the word “personality” comes from “persona,” the Latin word meaning “mask.” We might have one “persona” at work, another around friends, and yet another around members of the opposite sex we’re trying to impress. Sometimes we forsake our real selves in acting out an archetype we think society wants us to portray.
Paradoxically, putting on the literal mask of the superhero lets real-life superheroes throw off the shackles of society’s expectations and pursue more noble, transcendent pursuits. However, as Spider-Man says in the rueful, resigned tone that suggests he’d rather be an ordinary mortal, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Whether or not we don the mask of a superhero, we all have responsibilities. We can’t hang them up like a cape when we’re too tired to deal with them. The secret is to stop thinking we either have to be a superhero or a nobody. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is just be ourselves.
Simcha Weinstein is an internationally known, best-selling author. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at the renowned New York art school, Pratt Institute. His latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century, is out now.