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Clearwater man joins real-life superhero movement

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 11:33 PM

A car was engulfed in flames on the highway so he extinguished it.

Another vehicle veered off the road and into a lake, so he dove into the water to make sure no one was trapped inside.

He gives food to the homeless, toys to needy children and patrols the streets searching for criminal acts to foil.

He does it all in a cape and bright red-and-blue tights. He calls himself Super Hero and yes, he's for real.

His actual, not-so-secret identity is Dale Pople. He wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider, accidently bathed in gamma rays or launched from a dying alien world toward Earth.

He's a just a normal guy who aspires to make a positive impact on the world. And he's not going at it alone.

Pople, 42, is a participant in the Real Life Superhero Movement, a group of about 200 across the nation who commit good deeds in costumed personas inspired by comic books.

While the masked Master Legend dons body armor to patrol parts of Orlando, a martial artist named Dark Guardian confronts drug dealers in New York City and others in major cities organize donation drives for charities, Pople's base of operations is Clearwater.

He's gotten odd looks from passers-by, he said, and people have asked him why he wears a costume to perform charitable acts when so many ordinary volunteers or crime watch members don't.

"You know, back in the day I used to justify it," said Pople, 42, who invented his Super Hero identity 13 years ago after a knee injury derailed his plans of becoming a professional wrestler. "Nowadays I just admit to myself it's a hell of a lot of fun. It's rewarding."

Peter Tangen, a professional photographer from Los Angeles, has taken portraits and produced profiles of dozens of caped crusaders for his website The Real Life Superhero Project. He said the real-world crime fighters he's met use the modern mythos of comic books to be remembered for making positive contributions to society.

"There are millions of people who do good in this world but the media doesn't pay attention to them. This is the marketing of good deeds," said Tangen, who is also the consulting producer of the documentary "Superheroes."

The film premiered on HBO last month and featured Super Hero, Master Legend, Life from New York, Mr. Xtreme from San Diego and others.

"Really, who decides, 'I'm going to put on spandex and save the world?'" Tangen said. "In a world somewhat apathetic, these people are a model for making a different choice."

Ben Goldman, the co-founder of Superheroes Anonymous, a website that advocates the acts and community outreach of real-life heroes, said to think of the costumes as colorful spandex versions of police or firefighter uniforms.

"When you put on a superhero costume, you're expected to live up to an ideal," Goldman said. "You're following in the footsteps of fictional predecessors. If a person sees somebody hand food to a homeless person dressed normally, it's ordinary. In a costume, it's extraordinary."

Goldman's website features blogs and other resources to help fledgling heroes join the movement. Superheroes Anonymous offers tips on creating costumes and posts notices of real-life superhero meetings and conferences.

Tangen said his website showcases the idea that one person can make a difference, that the morals of iconic characters such as Superman and Captain America can be upheld in the real world by those dedicated enough to do so.

"It's a reflection of our times," he said. "It's a rejection of apathy."

The real-life superheroes and those who've documented them say they're not sure when or how the phenomenon started. No one knows for sure who made the first public appearance.

One thing that's agreed on is this: about 10 years ago, a few people in cities separated miles apart felt compelled to avenge some injustice in their communities. Turning to comic books and movies for a code to live by, they seemingly donned masks and costumes around the same time.

"At the time, we knew these superheroes existed," Goldman said. "But they were widely scattered. They communicated only through the Internet."

Pople said that's how he discovered and contacted other heroes—and how they found out about him.

"The first time I did this, I was like, 'Am I the only guy who thinks this is worth doing?'" he said. He created a profile on social networking site MySpace, which he and Goldman credit with spreading the movement, and found out about other heroes across the country.

"They come from different backgrounds," Goldman said. "The Real Life Superhero Movement proves that they could've either wallowed in suffering or become inspiring."

Some toe the line of vigilantism, preferring to thwart violent crimes themselves instead of going through proper channels by calling police to the scene.

"We don't endorse the crime fighting element because it's dangerous," Goldman said. "Being an engaged citizen is fine. Safety patrols are fine. But don't engage in vigilantism."

Elizabeth Watts, spokeswoman for the Clearwater Police Department, said the officers in her agency are familiar with Pople and his alter-ego Super Hero. He's never caused them problems and has obeyed the laws.

"We have cautioned him to not go into certain areas, for safety reasons," Watts said.

Goldman said these days the movement targets "more concrete, realistic goals," such as holiday drives and annual summits where real-life superheroes can meet each other and their fans.

"Almost universally, they're all comic book fans or have an appreciation for the superhero persona," Goldman said.

Pople said he was "sickly, nerdy kid" who grew up on a "steady diet of action movies and comic books." When his pro wrestling career ended prematurely, he decided to keep the superhero persona to "see what would happen if I did this for real."

He's now a member of Team Justice, Inc., an Orlando-based nonprofit of real-life superheroes who donate items and volunteer for central Florida charities.

According to Tangen's website, Mr. Xtreme was attacked by gang members and bullied as a boy. He donned a costume to "protest against indifference in society. People are being victimized and I feel that someone has to take a stand."

Mr. Xtreme, who has not revealed his real name to anyone, has since formed his own group, the Xtreme Justice League, which gives food and supplies to the homeless.

With more widespread attention, the heroes now have found themselves in unfamiliar territory: becoming celebrities and influencing the mediums that influenced them.

The comic book "Kick Ass," about a normal teenager who decided to become the titular, costumed hero, was inspired by the Real Life Superhero Movement, Goldman said. The comic was later adapted into a movie starring Nicholas Cage.

Real-life heroes are now fixtures at Comic-Con International, the world's biggest comic book, science fiction and movie convention held every year in California. They have been featured not only in HBO's "Superheroes," but other documentaries, news programs and numerous YouTube clips.

The movement continues to gain momentum, Goldman said, because the core group of 200 believes that the battle for truth, justice and the Real Life Superhero Movement never ends.

"A superhero's biggest enemy is apathy," Pople said. "I don't expect to change the world, but I think I'm making a dent."


rreyes@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7920

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