It’s a tough job being Portland’s only superhero.
Once a week for the past 18 months, Zetaman has donned his costume and patrolled downtown Portland, seeking out the needy with gifts of food and clothing.
He goes armed with an extendable steel baton, pepper spray, and a Taser that delivers 30,000 volts—enough to put a man on the ground. Those tools of the trade are to defend himself or people in trouble. But he doesn’t pick fights, and so far he hasn’t been forced to draw his weapons or apprehend anybody.
Like the men under the Burnside Bridge one recent Saturday night when temperatures fell into the low 40s, most of the people Zetaman encounters are grateful for the help.
But they also fail to ask the obvious question: What possesses a stocky 29-year-old to put on a homemade costume and prowl the city streets in the dead of night?
The answers lie both in Zetaman’s own past and on the Web, where in recent years hundreds of other self-styled “real-life superheroes” have sprung into existence around the country.
Zetaman was hesitant to reveal his secrets when contacted by WW. But in the end he agreed to be interviewed and allow a reporter to spend two nights on patrol with him, in hopes that the publicity will inspire more people to become costumed heroes.
“This is not about me,” he insists. “Anyone could do this. I’m nothing special.” He doesn’t even like the term “superhero,” preferring to call himself a “man of mystery.”
But he admits being a costumed avenger is addictive after the first taste of parading in public with a “Z” on your chest.
“I couldn’t stop after that,” he says. “I feel great about myself. I’m staying active in the community. And I like comic books, I like great and noble ideas—like He-Man and Spider-Man. And they all have this thing about noble responsibility.”
On the pages of MySpace.com and in Internet chat rooms, the superheroes plan missions and exchange tips on fighting crime. That is, when they’re not sniping at each other, forming rival superteams, or weathering real-life attacks from mysterious supervillains. But more on the rivalries later.
Most heroes say they’re in the business to make a positive impact. Or just to have a good time.
“People will tell you they had a calling or a vision,” says “Superhero,” a 39-year-old former pro wrestler from Clearwater, Fla., who patrols his hometown in a souped-up ’75 Corvette. “I used to tell people I was trying to be a symbol. Then I realized it was a bunch of crap, and I do it ’cause it’s hella fun.”
In a world where sci-fi has come true and flip phones are as commonplace as pencils, the Eye, a 49-year-old superhero in Mountain View, Calif., says there’s nothing left to stop people from living out their comic-book fantasies.
“Every citizen should do something of that nature,” says the Eye, who says he uses his skills as a former private eye to solve crimes. “I just use the persona to protect the identity and do it with a little style, I suppose.”
It’s easy for the casual observer to wonder what the hell Zetaman or any superhero is accomplishing when the country is dealing with serious issues like the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq or the threat of a recession. And it’s just as easy to laugh at any superhero’s MySpace page, Zetaman’s included.
If you went online right now and accused him of being a supergeek, you certainly wouldn’t be the first.
But consider this: If our life is basically a quest for identity and purpose, real-life superheroes have a huge advantage on ordinary mortals. And for that, they credit the Internet—a world where users can instantly create new personas and seek out others with the same interests.
Dr. Gordon Nagayama Hall, a University of Oregon psychology professor, says real-life superheroes probably have an inflated sense of self-worth, even as they help the innocent.
“Some of us might do those things without the costume,” he says. “The sort of bizarre nature of it suggests to me they might be looking for some kind of recognition that might stem from some narcissistic process.”
The Web merely feeds that impulse, he says. “These Internet groups create this support that actually emboldens people to go out there and act out their fantasy.”
Or as Zetaman puts it, in less academic terms: “It’s a pretty easy club to join. All you need is a costume and a MySpace page.”