Sometimes at the beginning of comics, there's a text box that establishes the scene. In this case, it's: Thursday, 11 p.m., North Park, corner of University and 30th. A quiet night.
And then my thought bubble: "A little too quiet."
In a neighborhood that consistently upholds the "Thursdays are the new Fridays" mantra, the quiet feels menacing. It feels like a prelude for action, which I guess is what I was hoping for during my tag-along patrol with the Xtreme Justice League, San Diego's Real Life Superhero (RLSH) group.
RLSH groups are what the name implies: adults dressed as superheroes to fight or, more realistically, prevent crime. They're not vigilantes—they work within the law rather than taking it into their own hands.
RLSH groups aren't a new phenomenon: The XJL has been patrolling the streets of San Diego for eight years, been featured many times in the media (including a recent photo essay in the Guardian). They were also just granted official nonprofit 501(c)3 status, which makes Mr. Xtreme both the founder and CEO of the XJL.
Thought bubble: "There is a CEO named Mr. Xtreme."
Mr. Xtreme greets me with a firm handshake. He's short but built like a football linebacker. He wears a green helmet and body armor accentuated by a yellow XJL flag that flows beautifully, majestically behind him. He looks like if a Ninja Turtle did it with a tank.
He's joined by Light Fist, whose costume resembles Kick-Ass from the movie of the same name, and Violet Valkyrie, who, um, wears purple.
Text box: 11:30 p.m., 32nd and University.
We're talking about origin stories. When Mr. Xtreme speaks, his voice is laced with authoritative command, but he often slips into youthful, vaguely Midwestern enthusiasm. He's eager to talk about the most dangerous situations he's been in or the fights he's broken up. And without trying to sound condescending, his excitement is adorable. He reminds me of my friends and me in high school: a nerd, but one who actually pursues his dream.
"I've always been a fan of superheroes," he says, "action heroes and comic-book characters for as long as I can remember—always been a fan of the good guys that go out to defeat the bad guys."
"As for me, I was actually helping someone on the street in Downtown," Violet Valkyrie says. "I shook him and he wasn't moving, so I kind of slapped him a little bit. He was just really wasted . [The XJL] came up to us as we were helping the person. We exchanged cards."
At an intersection, Mr. Xtreme holds his fist up like I've seen in SWAT movies when it's time for everyone to post up. Without speaking, the three superheroes form an outward-facing triangle and we wait for the walk signal to appear. I take the opportunity to ask Light Fist his reason for joining.
"Justice," he says bluntly.
"And for me, it's extreme justice," says Mr. Xtreme. Then he suggests we keep the noise level down in the residential areas.
Text box: midnight, North Park Community Park. A rocker dude in a leather jacket walks by. "You guys just kicking ass?" he asks. "I'm down with that." He asks for a photograph with the superheroes.
We're talking about identities. I ask what aspects of their personal lives carry over and manifest into their superhero personas.
"Living an extreme lifestyle, having an extreme set of beliefs," Mr. Xtreme says. "Just like when I was a kid going to the soda fountain, I just didn't get one flavor in one cup, I got them all in one cup."
Thought bubble: "Hell yes."
"Some people like Spider-Man, some people like Batman," he continues. "I like them all. That's the thing with Mr. Xtreme: everything is to the extreme."
The conversation dies for a moment, and now in the presence of the superheroes, the quiet seems comforting. Mr. Xtreme and I lead; behind us, Violet Valkyrie and Light Fist quietly talk about video games and anime. They can't be that far out of high school. I think that maybe there's some light flirting going on.
Two guys on bikes ride past and do double takes.
"I think I'm being paranoid—," one of them begins.
"It's just the drugs," his buddy says, before they both ride off.
Text box: 12:15 a.m., 30th and El Cajon.
We're talking about obstacles and adversity. I ask Mr. Xtreme about how being a superhero affects his personal life, and I realize that his answer could be attributed to any artist, writer or musician, me included.
"[I'm] strapped for cash, exhausted, tired. ... I don't have time to spend with my girlfriend."
"At what point in the relationship did you tell your girlfriend that you were a superhero?" I ask.
"After the courtship."
Thought bubble: "Of course!"
"It's kind of more my parents," he continues. "They don't like it; they never have. Up to this day, they're always pressuring me to quit, pressuring me to give it up.
"But the more anyone criticizes, the more I want to do this," he continues. "I have this attitude: Well, fuck you guys. I'm gonna prove you wrong.' That's my attitude to this day—especially with these dickheads that want to talk shit. It doesn't bother me, just adds more fuel to the fire."
He abruptly stops us and, for a second, I think we're about to see some action.
"Puddle! Puddle! Puddle!" he shouts, shining his flashlight on standing water. "I didn't want you to ruin your shoes."
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford