A new breed of superhero is springing up among us. These guys don’t have super strength, they can’t turn themselves invisible at will, and as far as I can make out, none of them can fly. But they do have the outfits. And they have one thing in common: they care about people.
It’s a swelteringly hot day in East London, and I’m interviewing a gradually melting Phoenix Jones and his partner (in crimefighting and in life) Purple Reign about who they are and why they do what they do.
So firstly, what was the motivation to become superheroes? You mentioned earlier that you wanted to fight crime, but why be a superhero specifically?
Phoenix: It was actually by accident. I started out by fighting crime, stepping in when people were being hurt, and then people started to recognise me around, like “Oh, there’s that guy who fights crime.” So I decided to conceal myself a bit, and started wearing a ski mask, but then I was just this black guy in a ski mask, you know? I needed to go the whole way. So I got myself a suit, and then I got stabbed, so I found a stabproof one, then I got shot, so I added bulletproof material, then my nose got broken, so I added the nose shield…
And Purple, what about you?
Well I was already an advocate for victims of domestic violence, helping people and raising awareness in schools and stuff. Then I met Phoenix, and thought what he was doing was really cool, so I took on my Purple Reign persona when I met him.
So how did it all start? What was the first thing you ever did?
Phoenix: It started one day when I was with my son at a water park. My son fell over, he cut himself really badly and he was bleeding everywhere. I saw a man holding his phone up so I asked if I could borrow it to dial 911, and he said “No, it’ll cut through my YouTube footage.” So he was just there, filming my son bleeding on the ground. I grabbed his phone and called 911 anyway, and my son was OK. Then I discovered that he’d actually cut himself because someone had thrown a rock wrapped in a ski mask through my car window, and there was glass everywhere. That’s what he’d fallen on. So for the three weekends after that, I went back to the same water park and waited for the person to come back. On the first two weekends nothing happened, but on the third I saw this creepy-looking guy going up to a car and raising a brick to throw through the windscreen. So I pulled on the ski mask and ran out to confront him. And ever since then it’s just been something I do.
How did you each choose your names?
Phoenix: Well this one time, my friends and I were outside this club, we’d been breakdancing and we came back out. My cell phone was in my glove compartment along with the ski mask from the first time, and when I came outside I saw that my friend’s face was all cut up, blood gushing down the side of his cheek, and the guy who did it was running away. So I went to get the cell phone to call 911, and when I opened the glove compartment the little light inside lit up the ski mask, and I was like… OK, this is happening. So I ripped my shirt off, because whenever you’re about to do something stupid you have to take your shirt off, and then I pulled the ski mask on and I put on a hat from the backseat to disguise my hair. I ran after the guy and held him until the cops got there. They were going to arrest me, but it turned out one of them had served in Iraq with my brother, so he said he’d let me off if I just made up a name for the sheet and walked away. So I went with Jones – I knew it was the most popular name in Seattle from a school report I’d done – and Phoenix, which is my son’s middle name. And then I just stuck with that.
Purple: Purple is a colour used in a lot of domestic violence awareness campaigns. And I wanted the idea that I was reigning over my life, that other people could reign over their lives, take back control. So, yeah, Purple Reign.
What do you think of other people who want to become superheroes? Would you encourage them? Discourage them? Why?
Phoenix: Definitely, if someone’s got a passion, I’d encourage them to follow it. But it takes years to get to this state. Like, if I’d started training when I was 19, I wouldn’t have been a superhero until I was in my thirties. I’ve done years of martial arts and stuff to help keep me safe out there. But I’d say anything can be a superpower, people should be encouraged in their own skills and abilities. Do what you can do. Use your natural talent.
How do the police react to you?
Initially they were apprehensive, they thought we were vigilantes or whatever. But we work closely with lawyers, we know what we’re doing within the law and we actually work with the cops now, provide evidence, testify in court. There are a lot of parallels between being in the police and being a superhero. Of course there are one or two who think we’re idiots…
So why not just be a cop?
Phoenix: There’s one story I always tell to answer this question. There was this cop in Seattle, getting out of his car, and he saw a wood carver sitting on the street, using a small knife to carve wood. The knife was under three inches long, well within the legal carrying restrictions, and the carver was deaf. So the cop goes “Stop!” and the wood carver sees movement and turns towards it to try to communicate, and the cop just unloads his gun into the carver guy, shoots him dead in the street. Later it came out that this guy was known to the cops, he was totally fine, the knife was within legal limits and whatever, but the cop wasn’t punished because technically he’d done nothing illegal. His defence was that he didn’t have his taser with him, so he didn’t have a secondary weapon, so he had to shoot the guy. Because in Seattle, every cop has to have their taser serviced yearly, and if they don’t they’re not licensed anymore. But they way they do that, right, is they take the cop into a room, make him hold the end of two tasers, and then electrocute him. And if it works, the thing’s serviced. Now obviously all the cops just stop showing up to this after about two years, so they can’t legally carry their taser, which means that their back-up is a lethal weapon. I don’t want to work somewhere like that.
Wow, yeah, that’s quite a story. Moving on to other types of crime fighting, how do you feel about internet vigilantes like Anonymous?
I think the thing that’s really important is that we’re not vigilantes. We always work within the law, we work with lawyers and with the police. As soon as you break the code, break the law, you’re a criminal. Vigilantism is outside the law, and that’s something we don’t want to get involved in.
It’s been great talking to you; one final question. Who’s your favourite superhero?
Purple: That’d have to be Batgirl. But the New 52 one.
Real Life Superheroes, Phoenix Jones and Purple Reign were in the UK to launch the world’s fastest smartphone, Huawei Ascend P2.