I. 12:20am, The Cemetery
Just after midnight on December 30th, with the temperature lingering at a few degrees below freezing, I found myself waiting for Death in one of Vancouver’s oldest cemeteries. As I finished the last drag of my cigarette, I heard the tread of boots on the pathway. A silhouette emerged from the darkness between the graves and gradually a tall, broad-shouldered man came into view. He looked like this:
Raising two fingers to the brim of his hat, he just barely tipped it and said, “Well, good evening.”
A few months back, I had came across a news story about “Real Life Superheroes” operating in various cities throughout North America (see this video for something of an introduction, and this official site for more detail). That story spoke of people dressing up in spandex and body armour, capes and masks, and going out and doing things like chasing drug dealers out of parks in New York City or assisting families of less-legal Hispanic migrants in Miama, and so on. At that time I sort of chuckled and didn’t think too much else about it, until my younger brother sent me an email asking if I had encountered a fellow in Vancouver’s downtown eastside (the DTES) who goes by the name of Thanatos, The Dark Avenger.
After doing a bit of research (see the bio to which I linked, but see also the youtube and myspace pages that Thanatos maintains), I decided that I wanted to try and meet this fellow. I was sold after reading this:
“I have taken on the persona of death,” Thanatos explains, “because I was told by a police officer that all the people living on the street had nothing better to look forward to than death. So if that’s the case, maybe death ought to start taking care of these people.”
However, I had some more critical questions I wanted to pose both about the work he does in the DTES and the Real Life Superhero movement more broadly. Over the years, I’ve seen enough wannabe saviours who engage in tokenistic acts of charity and then brag to their friends about how heroic they are and how touching they find their homeless “friends” (i.e. people they met once). Enough charity is performed as little more than insignificant actions done to boost the ego of the one doing the charity, and I was wondering if this was what was going on with Thanatos. Plus, what’s with the videos and photos he posts of homeless people? I thought that they could be exploitative and, hey, although he might want to come into the ‘hood that I love and claim to be a guardian, maybe the people I know (having lived and worked in that community for the last six years) need to be protected from him. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen?
Consequently, I contacted Thanatos via one of his websites and asked if I could interview him for this blog. He graciously granted my request and that was how I found myself in a cemetery on a cold December night waiting for a man called Death.
Based upon my research, I knew that Thanatos had begun working in character at street level around Halloween 2008. After we completed our introductions, I asked him what factors had inspired him to take that step. I was curious about two things: (a) what makes a grown man decide that he will become a superhero; and (b) what makes a person pursue change by this means instead of the other available means (social or civil services, religious groups, or more anarchic communities of protest and resistance, depending upon one’s proclivities).
Thanatos replied by sharing some of his personal history. He spoke of spending a number of years living and moving in poor neighbourhoods and amongst marginalised people in Vancouver. He watched as communities were divided between those who had homes and those who did not, and he saw how quickly those who had little or nothing became invisible to those who had more. Thus, even years before he donned a mask he was seeking to “keep somebody alive for at least one more day” and “win of each the battles, even if the war itself cannot be won.” He also spoke of being a self-described “geek” who loved comics, and when that is coupled with his past military experience (US Special Forces) and some police experience (for a brief amount of time in an African nation), as well as the belief that social services, non-profits, and organised religions, like government, have become the means of maintaining the status quo, and one can see how a superhero might emerge.
I asked him if the “Real Life Super Hero Project” had inspired him to make the transition from imagining a character to becoming a character, but he said it did not. Apparently, many of those now involved in that movement began independently and only became aware of others later. I find this to be an interesting cultural phenomenon (in this regard, it is worth observing that many of these people were operating for several years before the movie “Kickass” was released in 2010… although the comic of the same name began its run in February of 2008).
I pressed Thanatos on the matter of social services or non-profits versus living the life of a superhero. He responded with three main criticisms of the services and non-profits coupled with two major advantages of the costumed persona. In terms of criticism, he first argued that the social services and non-profits have themselves basically become either the tools of Big Business or they have transformed into Big Business themselves. Thus, he mentioned agencies where the vast majority of the money raised goes to the bureaucracy and doesn’t trickle down into the hands of those who access their services (with the children’s Make-A-Wish Foundation, he stated that 8% of money raised goes to those who access the service, and the stat he provided for the Salvation Army was 35%). Secondly, he argued that social services and non-profits place far too many restrictions upon those who are in need and create far too many barriers to service (this, I should note, is especially true in Vancouver). Essentially, these parties are trying to force round pegs into square holes, and making a moral judgment against those who aren’t square enough to fit. The result of this is that a good many of those who are homeless and poor are not permitted to access the (little) help that is available. Finally, Thanatos argued that the services and non-profits are not aggressive enough in that work that they do. Instead of going to seek out those who are vulnerable or in need, these parties tend to wait passively for people to come to them. However, people may be afraid to access services based upon their experiences here or elsewhere. For example, Thanatos mentioned an Hispanic couple he has gotten to know who had walked to Canada from Chile. They left because he had the fingers of his left hand cut off by the police and the she had her face scarred and both her breasts cut off. Naturally, this couple is suspicious of the police and of other service providers, but they were now developing a trust relationship with him. A further reason why people might not access services is ignorance of what is available or how to interact with the system. Finally, Thanatos also spoke of those who lacked the degree of self-esteem needed to seek out help. He spoke of those who believed they deserved to be treated like shit and die on the street. Thus, he was adamant that more people need to be involved in seeking out these people and offering them whatever help they can.
This, then, leads to the advantage of the superhero identity. By donning a memorable costume, Thanatos is able to accomplish two significant things. First, when interacting with street-involved people — which sometimes means interacting with people who are quite high or in psychosis and so on — he is able to to create a memorable persona. In this way, people remember him (as opposed to others who go hand out care packages in the DTES and who tend to be forgotten within a week) and this accelerates his ability to build trusting and caring relationships with those whom he encounters. Secondly, Thanatos is also able to manipulate this persona in order to bring media (and other) attention to what really matters — the poverty, homelessness, crime and exploitation that exist in Vancouver’s DTES.
In this regard, he was able to put to rest my concerns about his alter-ego being little more than an ego-trip. Thanatos wears a mask not to bring attention to himself (after all, nobody knows who he really is) but to bring attention to the fact that people are needlessly suffering and dying in our own backyard. And this is what came through more strongly than anything else in our interview: the deep love that Thanatos has for his fellow human beings. A love so deep that it inspired him to go to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and volunteer to help take care of the bodies of those who died (“Even dead bodies deserve love. This is somebody’s father. This is somebody’s child”). A love so deep that it inspires him to put on a mask and hit the streets at four in the morning to go and visit his friends.
With Thanatos this “friendship” language isn’t bullshit. He has developed personal relationships with many of those on the street (and he always asks for their permission to take pictures and respects the boundaries they establish). He has been there for some of them when they needed somebody to help them get clean, and he has been there for others of them when they died. He has seen the gamut of love, brokenness, laughter and violence — the whole swirl of everything that is best and everything that is worst about people that one discovers in poor communities. Thus, some of his stories are quite funny (he spoke of waking people up who were strung out on drugs and accidentally scaring the bejeezus out of them because they thought he actually was Death coming to take them away… and he spoke about how some of these people actually got clean after that experience!), some of his stories are quite poignant (he spoke about meeting with a young drug dealer and showing him the difference between the Hollywood picture versus the lived reality of dealing, and he told of how this young man disappeared and how he saw him five months later working a straight job at a restaurant out of the city), and some of his stories are tragic (he spoke of a 17 year old pregnant girl who was buried in the cemetery where we were talking, and he estimates that he has known around 40 who have died prematurely since he started fighting his battles).
When I asked him about what he would identify as the single greatest barrier to positive change, he talked about awareness. However, he inserted an important proviso: not only do we need public awareness around what is really going on in matters related to poverty and oppression, we also need those who are oppressed to come to awareness of their oppressed state and recognize that this is not something they must accept (in this regard, he actually reminded my a lot of Paulo Freire’s theory of conscientisation). It is this awareness that Thanatos sees as fundamental to the development of community, and it is community that he sees as a crucial element of human flourishing.
Therefore, when I asked him what he might say to those who are concerned about issues of poverty but who might be scared of the DTES or the people there, he continued with this emphasis upon community. If you are too scared to go to the DTES (and you do want to be smart about how you do that — even though I [Dan] remain convinced that fears about that neighbourhood are far overrated), then Thanatos wants people to get to know their own neighbourhoods and their own communities. You don’t have to go downtown to discover brokenness… or crime. There are people in need everywhere and the drug dealers own property and grow-ops all over the city. Just start where you are, and you might be surprised at what you discover and what you can do.
I asked him if he sometimes gets overwhelmed by the systemic or structural nature of the evil that confronts us. After all, you don’t have to spend too many years at street level before you realise that things are the way they are because broader structures are in place that perpetuate things like poverty, crime, and oppression. Sometimes, I said, it gets to be almost more than I can bear and I feel like I’m burning out or blowing up. He responded by speaking of the importance that being Thanatos has for him. Superheroes, he said, never give up. They fight against impossible odds. They don’t quit or walk away. Therefore, although there might be an ego boost that comes with wearing a mask, that boost provides him with the strength to keep going. He also spoke of the importance that his religious faith plays in this vocation (I had observed that a seemingly disproportionate number of those involved in the Real Life Super Hero Project appeared to be motivated by a Christian faith, and he verified my observation). When all is said and done, becoming Death is something accomplished in the service of the God of Life.
In the end, Thanatos concluded by telling a story about man who finds a boy on the beach. The tide had washed thousands of starfish onto the sand and the boy was picking them up, one by one, and throwing them back into the ocean. “What are you doing?” asked the man. “I am saving the starfish,” the boy replied. “Are you crazy?” the man said. “This beach is completely covered with starfish. You can’t make a difference!” The boy stoops and picks up another creature, holds him by an arm and says, “I can make a difference for this one,” and throws it back into the sea.
It was refreshing to encounter somebody who really “gets” what is going on in Vancouver. I felt like I was talking with an old friend, and there were a good many other topics I discussed with Thanatos. We chatted for about two hours and by the time I left there were icicles in my moustache.
For example, I pressed him on the issue of “fighting crime” as he appeared to talk about that a fair bit when he first embraced his identity but most of his videos were focused upon charity work. To my surprise, he gave some very interesting and satisfying answers about how that side of his project has developed but I don’t want to post that part of our conversation on-line. He also spoke about some future projects he has planned but I won’t spoil the surprise.
In conclusion, I asked Thanatos about this passage on his bio at the Real Life Super Hero Project site:
an unusual metamorphosis has taken place, leading to the blurring of the line between the man he was born, and the Real Life Superhero he’s become. In his words, “I find that the ‘me’ is starting to become more of a mask I wear, and Thanatos is more and more of what I truly am.”
He explained that what he means by this is that, the more he does this work, the more he realises that he is fulfilling a part of himself that always existed. Thanatos is not a character he created, Thanatos was always there inside of him. He hopes that the same is true of others. He emphasised that you don’t need a Special Forces background to become a Superhero. You just need to be play to your strengths, recognise that something needs to be done, and accept that you might be the person who is capable of doing it (and Thanatos is is in early 60s at this point). “If one person can do this, we can get ten more, then we get ten more, and so forth. We can make a real and lasting difference in a bad part of town. I do what I can, and hope it inspires other people to say ‘I can do something, too.’”
Thank you, Thanatos, for your willingness to do this interview and for the work that you do.