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

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Phoenix Jones has been stabbed, punched and held up at gunpoint. He's been bludgeoned with a baseball bat and lacerated with a key — all in his capacity as self-appointed savior of the Seattle streets. Phoenix is a self-designated superhero and the fascinating subject of Jon Ronson's new e-book, The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones.

Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test, has long been drawn to the extreme and outre. Investigating the superhero subculture, he found these qualities in abundance, as well as a flourishing — if hidden — community.

"There are hundreds of superheroes all across America," Ronson tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "They come from all walks of life, and they dress up in supersuits and go off in the dead of night fighting crime. And it's been going for quite a long time without too much fanfare."

The fanfare might be quiet, but the costumes are decidedly not. Phoenix prefers a black-and-gold outfit and a bulletproof vest — which came in handy when he and Ronson found themselves confronting crack dealers in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle at 4 a.m.

The dealers were trying to clear Phoenix and Ronson off a particular corner — not least because they were irritated by Phoenix's outlandish get-up.

"They were saying, 'If you don't leave, we're gonna kill you,' " Ronson recalls. "And Phoenix was saying, 'Do we stand or do we leave? We stand.' And these guys [began] walking toward Phoenix. It was a moment of incredible bravery."

For all his eccentricities, Phoenix is undeniably brave. The first time Ronson met his subject, Phoenix was in the hospital after being beaten too many times. He was hooked up to IVs and still wearing his superhero mask to protect his identity.

He suffers injuries and indignities with equanimity, saying, "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."

And while superheroes aren't especially intrepid or skilled — most are "happy to hand out sandwiches to the homeless, do little acts of philanthropy," Ronson says — Phoenix is an exception. Despite being regarded by law enforcement as both lunatic and liability, he's a surprisingly effective crime fighter — when he's not being impeded by fans.

"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 criminal has vanished," Ronson says.

Just your typical celebrity superhero occupational hazard.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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