The Real Mr. Incredible: Self-Styled 'Superheroes' In The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones, Jon Ronson explores the subculture of ordinary individuals who adopt superhero identities (and costumes) to patrol the streets.
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The Real Mr. Incredible: Self-Styled 'Superheroes'

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The Real Mr. Incredible: Self-Styled 'Superheroes'

The Real Mr. Incredible: Self-Styled 'Superheroes'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

A few months ago, listeners to the NPR program TELL ME MORE heard this self-styled, eccentric crime fighter from Seattle who calls himself Phoenix Jones.

PHOENIX JONES: I've been stabbed once. I've had my nose broken. I recently got punched with a key. I've been hit with a baseball bat. I've been held at gunpoint. And you know what happened during all those incidences? The citizen who didn't come out there wearing a bulletproof vest and wearing armor didn't get hurt. So if I have to take a little bit of punishment to make sure that my citizens don't get hurt, I guess I have to.

SIEGEL: Phoenix Jones is a pseudonym. He and others like him are the subjects of Jon Ronson's "The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones." After reading about them, I still can only barely believe them, probably because Jon Ronson specializes in nonfiction that strains credulity. He wrote "Men Who Stare at Goats," about the Pentagon's efforts at extrasensory warfare, and he joins us from London to talk about Phoenix Jones, Mr. Xtreme, Urban Avenger and others. Welcome to the program.

JON RONSON: Thanks. It's nice to be here again.

SIEGEL: And what is a real-life superhero?

RONSON: OK. There's hundreds of them all across America, and they come from all walks of life, and they dress up in super suits and go off in the dead of night fighting crime. And they've been going for quite a long time without too much fanfare.

SIEGEL: Phoenix Jones, which is not his real name - and in your e-book, we learn what his real name is at the end - he goes out into the streets, dressed up as if he were some cross between Batman or some other crime-fighting superhero.

RONSON: Yeah. It's a black-and-gold outfit, bulletproof vest, which was handy because we ended up confronting some crack dealers in Belltown, Seattle, at 4 o'clock in the morning. So his bulletproof vest was presumably a good idea.

SIEGEL: Are these people really courageous or, for that matter, skilled crime fighters?

RONSON: Most of them aren't. Most of them actually don't try to be. Most of them will go off and be happy to just hand out sandwiches to the homeless, do little acts of philanthropy. There's only a few groups that will actually get into genuinely, dangerous life-threatening situations. And one is a group in New York. It's called the New York Initiative. And then you got Phoenix, his gang in Seattle, who will leap into genuinely threatening situations. The first time I met Phoenix, it was about 5 o'clock in the morning.

I've just got off the plane, and I was expecting to go back to the hotel and get some sleep. But instead, I had to go straight to the emergency room where he'd been rushed there because he'd been beaten up too many times in just two weeks. And the first time I saw him, he was strapped to IVs, still wearing his super mask because, at that point, nobody had ever seen his secret identity.

SIEGEL: Has he ever actually thwarted a crime?

RONSON: Yeah. I think he thwarts crimes frequently. There's a couple of problems. One is that if he's on his way to thwart a crime and somebody recognizes him from YouTube, he'll quite often stop and have his picture taken, and by which time, the crime has vanished.

I was with him at 4 a.m. in Belltown on one occasion where he refused to leave the corner where a bunch of crack dealers were standing even though they were saying, if you don't leave, we're going to kill you. And Phoenix was saying, do we stand, or do we leave? We stand. And these guys were walking towards Phoenix, and it was a moment of kind of incredible bravery.

SIEGEL: I guess you were not sharing in this brave confidence that...

RONSON: No. In fact, there was this verbal confrontation just beforehand where the crack dealers were saying, you know, you can't come here in your stupid outfit. You know, this is real life to us. This is, you know, this isn't fun and games. This is real life. And I found myself nodding ostentatiously with everything the crack dealers were saying. Just in case the shooting started, I thought maybe they'd remember my nodding and, you know, think to shoot around me.

But Phoenix and his gang were. And sure enough, the crack dealers said to them, you're so stupid to be standing here. You know, people die here. We could kill you now. But I guess if you're not going to leave, we're just going to have to go home.

SIEGEL: Typically, what do the police make of these real-life superheroes? They look - people who are helping them or as loony pains in the neck? What do they say?

RONSON: See them as loony pains in the neck. They really don't like Phoenix. They see him as a liability. There's a bit of a war going on, really, between Phoenix and the police. You know, Phoenix will say, you know, when you're patrolling Seattle at 2 a.m. and you see people getting beaten up, Phoenix will say, well, I'm going to break this up because where are the police? As he rushes in, he will try and get somebody to phone 911, so he doesn't want to take the place of the police, but the police see him as just an annoyance.

SIEGEL: Well, Jon Ronson, thanks a lot for talking with us about your e-book, e-article. What's the genre here?

RONSON: I guess it's a sort of mini-book.

SIEGEL: Mini-book.



SIEGEL: It's called "The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones." Thanks a lot.

RONSON: Thanks, Robert.

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