On Sunday, September 15, the clouds were grey and there was a light mist of rain. In the afternoon, I had a visitor. I can’t reveal his real name, but he is familiar to many people as the red-cowled “Real Life Superhero” known as the Watchman. It was a great moment when I handed the Watchman a copy of my finished book, Heroes in the Night. On the first page I had written an inscription—“To the Watchman – Thank you for sharing the adventure of your life.”
My introduction to the Real Life Superhero story came in early spring of 2009. I had read a blurb about everyday men and women adopting superhero personas and hitting the streets to help people out or fight crime. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but, as a lifelong comic book fan, I was curious to learn more. After Internet searching, I found the Watchman in Milwaukee and contacted him. We set up a late night meeting at Gordon Park, walked around and talked for more than an hour.
I think I was very lucky. After talking to the Watchman, I didn’t think he was crazy. If the Watchman had been a nutjob, I think my interest in the story would have plummeted pretty quickly. Instead, I found the Watchman and many of his colleagues to be thoughtful, hard-working, concerned citizens. Were they a little quirky? Yes. Were they doing something weird and a bit questionable? Sure. But I’m a big fan of Team Weirdo in whatever form it may take.
Before I interviewed the Watchman, I thought I might just be cranking out a magazine story on the subject, but after my meeting with him, I had that great light bulb moment where I knew I wanted to write a book. Over the next several years I travelled around the country to meet Real Life Superheroes (RLSH) and join them on patrol coast to coast, but a steady bass line of the book takes place right here in Milwaukee and even more specifically, here in Riverwest.
When the Watchman and his quickly growing team of Milwaukee superheroes, the Challengers, expressed an interest in patrolling the streets of Riverwest on a semi-regular basis, I was excited and interested in the results. I have never been mugged or assaulted, but I have heard too many gruesome stories of my friends suffering from crime. It makes me angry and it makes me wish I could save my friends by leaping out of the shadows dressed as Batman to scare the piss out of criminals. So I guess I could kind of see the appeal of the Challengers.
I joined the Challengers on the streets of Riverwest many times, but our patrolling, strangely, didn’t yield much crime. We just didn’t run into it, despite patrolling at peak times. The Challengers still patrol Riverwest – I met up with the Watchman, Blackbird, and Night Vision recently. They haven’t patrolled as much lately because of issues that don’t really bog down their comic book counterparts – hectic work schedules, family issues, college. They sometimes patrol other neighborhoods, too.
But you never know when you might turn a Riverwest corner at night and run into a group of colorfully-clad individuals, a group I’ve gotten to know pretty well and appear several times in my book, the Real Life Superheroes of Milwaukee…the Challengers!
Excerpt From Chapter 10: Challengers, Assemble!
The Watchman’s reputation grew, and he was getting recognized frequently on the street. One night we walked by a club with a burly bouncer standing outside, his arms folded.
“’Sup, Watchman?” he said, nodding, as we passed him. Another night we were standing at a corner when a man in a passing car yelled, “Alright, Watchman! You’re my hero, man!” Other times people yelled random things like “Power Rangers!”
Some friends of mine organized a weekend festival of music and workshops and suggested that the RLSH lead a superhero-themed community walk. About a dozen people created homemade superhero costumes and joined the Watchman and Blackbird in walking around Riverwest for an hour.
My favorite moment of the evening was passing a porch full of kids who were waiting in anticipation to see the superheroes. Their parents had read about the walk online and told the young ones to keep an eye out for a parade of superheroes. They were staring bug-eyed when they realized it wasn’t a joke.
“They’ve been waiting out here all night for y’all to pass by,” their mom said, laughing and telling her kids to wave at the group.
There were other small victories, too. That winter we tried out a different method for the Watchman’s annual Christmas toy drive. We set up the Watchman and Blackbird outside a local business, Fuel Cafe, with a large cardboard box for donations. They had a special guest, Citizen, a RLSH from Chicago, sporting a spandex mask somewhat similar to Spider-Man’s except yellow, with a fedora and a brown leather coat. He looked like a cross between something from Marvel’s Silver Age and a pool hall hustler.
It was freezing cold, but a couple of media mentions brought in a steady stream of people who donated toys and art supplies for two local charities. At one point, a fire truck pulled up. One of the firemen jumped off and stared at the Watchman with a serious look on his face.
“I know you’re the Watchman, but who are these guys?” he said, pointing to Citizen and Blackbird. Two other firemen headed inside to get coffee. He stuffed a twenty-dollar bill in the collection jar, said, “Keep up the good work,” and jumped back onto the fire truck.
Blackbird had another arctic adventure that winter. One morning after a blizzard, I got a call from one of my editors, Jan Christensen of the Riverwest Currents.
“I got a job for your superheroes,” she told me. Another of her writers had been snowshoeing along the Milwaukee River, one of the borders of Riverwest, when she came across a homeless man. He asked her if she had heard any weather forecasts, wondering if the snow was going to let up.
I looked out my window. Giant drifts of snow were piled up, burying cars and blocking off the streets. It was 18 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I knew the Watchman would be stuck in the suburbs, so I decided to call Blackbird.
That night Blackbird picked me up, blasting the electronic beat of Daft Punk in his car. He was wearing his Blackbird outfit, minus his face mask—he had replaced that with something more weather-sensible: a scarf.
We parked on the street near the river valley. We had come up with some items—a hat and gloves, a jacket, wool socks, and a blanket, and stuffed them into an old duffel bag. We waded through waist-high snowdrifts toward the river. Once we got there, we couldn’t find a path so decided to walk on the frozen river. This freaked Blackbird out. “What if we fall in?” he asked, and then we heard a noise in the woods.
“What was that?” he said, and took a pair of night-vision binoculars from his coat pocket. He scanned the coast. It was very quiet – just the breeze and the occasional sound of tree limbs snapping in the cold.
Down the river, we found the camp. Embers were still glowing in the fire pit. A couple of beat-up chairs, a bucket, and a tarp were nearby.
“Maybe he heard us and he’s hiding behind a tree,” Blackbird suggested. He began to scan the trees with his binoculars.
“Hey, man, if you can hear us, we’re not cops or anything! We’re just a couple guys from the neighborhood that want to make sure you’re OK!” I yelled.
No answer. We left the duffel bag near the campfire, and made the long trek back to Blackbird’s car.
Blackbird returned the next day to take a look at things in daylight. When he arrived at the site he discovered not one but three people camping in the woods. They were sitting around the fire pit and he joined them. They told him that this was their base camp; their shelters were buried deeper in the woods. They were thankful for the clothes we had dropped off, but they were proud people. They told Blackbird he was welcome to visit, but that they could fend for themselves.
The camp became a regular stopping point for patrols. Sometimes the RLSH would trek through the woods just to say hi; sometimes they brought supplies like food or insect repellent as a gift.
IF YOU GO
Heroes in the Night Book Launch
Friday, Oct. 11, 7PM
Boswell Book Company
2559 N Downer
Friday, Oct. 11, 9PM
735 E Center St
At Boswell Books, Krulos will read an excerpt, run through a short slideshow, and do a Q and A (along with a surprise guest!)
At Stonefly, there will be a performance by Nineteen Thirteen and DJ Beta, a silent auction of items that will benefit a charity called Project: HOPE, and a Real Life Superhero Costume Contest. You must sign up for the contest by 9:30 and your costume must be an original superhero creation. It will be judged by the Riverwest Current’s own cartoonist David Beyer, Jr., fashion designer Miranda Levy (who was on the current season of Project Runway), and photographer Lacy Landre.