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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Phoenix Jones

Superman. Batman. Spider-Man. Robin. Batgirl. The Avengers. The Justice League.

And now, Phoenix Jones.

Phoenix Jones is an indelibly controversial figure in Seattle culture. He is equally controversial in the real-life superhero (RLSH) subculture. He is easily the most famous "superhero" of Seattle's superhero team, the Rain City Superhero Movement (RCSM), of which he is the founder and leader. He is also without a doubt the most famous real-life superhero in the United States, or at least the one with the most media coverage. What makes him controversial is not his propensity for self promotion via the apparently equally bemused and amused mainstream media, though that is worthy of concern, but his decidedly direct and not mainstream crime fighting methods. In any case, Phoenix Jones has more than his fair share of both fans and detractors, to the point where he is the only superhero I've ever heard of to have an actual, dedicated "supervillain" to oppose him.

The man who later adopted the alias of Phoenix Jones, MMA fighter Ben Fodor, has, like all superheroes, a not-so-secret origin story. Fodor has detailed in multiple interviews how his young son was injured by the broken glass of a car window, and how he asked a bystander for help. To Fodor's astonishment, the bystander declined on the basis that it would ruin his YouTube video. Fodor, a lifelong comic book reader, was thus inspired to patrol the streets of Seattle, namely bars, and do things such as break up fights. However, he soon realized that his activities were drawing undue attention, which led him to don a (admittedly silly looking) costume, and take on the moniker of Phoenix Jones. The ski-mask he originally wore with his costume was, according to Fodor, the same one filled with rocks which broke the glass car window which injured his son.

After a series of misadventures, Phoenix Jones formed his own superhero group, the Rain City Superhero Movement, which includes his wife, Purple Reign (now separated); ex-con Midnight Jack; El Caballero; Evocatus; Pitch Black; Ghost, and a host of others who have come and gone over the years. Such aforementioned misadventures include an occasion where Jones/Fodor was arrested after attempting to break up a brawl, though the charges were dropped. He has been covered extensively by the media, usually portrayed in a positive light. However, he is not universally loved, as a large number of fellow RLSH and crimefighters can attest (there is a difference). The New York Initiative, for example, has taken a dim view of him for what they see as reckless tactics and seeming glory hound nature.

Jones has been criticized for his publicity-friendly approach and his direct, hands-on crimefighting methods. He is different from RLSH in that he doesn't just do homeless outreach and what not. No, this man and the RCSM actively patrol bad neighborhoods such as Belltown and Pioneer Square, looking to stop crime. This mostly amounts to getting medical attention to people who have overdosed on drugs, breaking up fights, or stopping other petty crime, but they have had their share of big cases. They once stopped apprehended a stabber, and later helped to quell acts of vandalism by members of the Anarchist Black bloc on May Day 2012. These are commendable acts which deserve recognition.

It doesn't stop there, however. A "supervillain" named Rex Velvet has taken to the internet with a website and as series of videos with remarkably high production values which criticize Jones in a sinisterly exaggerated manner. As Jeremy Jahns has noted, most "real-life supervillains" are little more than "internet trolls with cameras and makeup." This guy, however, put some real effort into his videos, and is actually kind of funny. What's even funnier though, is that he calls himself a supervillain, but at the same time believes that he's advocating for law and order. I wonder if that makes him Lawful Evil or Chaotic Good?

Now, there are a lot of things about Phoenix Jones that get people edgy, but the most flagrant misnomer about him is that he's a "vigilante." Vigilantism is defined by the Legal Dictionary as "Taking the law into one's own hands and attempting to effect justice according to one's own understanding of right and wrong... [...]." At first blush, that seems to describe Jones perfectly. However, nothing could be further than the truth. Jones and his compatriots have clearly demonstrated that they don't routinely break the law in their activities, as some fictional superheroes have been known to do. Rather, they set out to patrol the streets, deter crime, and when they are forced to confront lawbreakers, they always call the police first and act as good witnesses. Jones and his crew have repeatedly attested to this fact, saying that they aren't out to violate anyone's "civil rights." In sum, Phoenix Jones and the RCSM are little more than a glorified neighborhood watch group, a concept which I discussed in an Op-Ed that I submitted to the Seattle Times some time ago (it never got picked up, but can be found in the Notes section of my Facebook page).

Many people may wonder exactly what Jones hopes to accomplish in his activities. Even with all of his allies in play, and his efforts at branching off into a world-spanning movement called "the Jones Army," Phoenix Jones doesn't hope to end all crime all by himself. Thankfully, his stated goals aren't quite than ambitious, but he does have high ideals. His stated mission is to combat "apathy." To paraphrase the man himself, he has said that, "If everyone reported crime, there would be no crime." He and his sidekicks hope to inspire people to stand up to the violence and crime in their communities, to actually call the police, report crime, be good, cooperative witnesses, help people in need, and to generally be good citizens. That's what Phoenix Jones is all about, and that's something that I find quite appealing, even admirable.

In the end, Phoenix Jones may be a little reckless when it comes to the publicity, and his rocky relationship with the Seattle Police Department may be the end of him, but he has a good heart. He is determined to do what he can to keep the city safe, and he will endure mockery, danger, and outright threats against his life in his mission. This is not to say that he's infallible, for no man is but Christ. It may be one day that he will suffer some disgrace. But if the selfless actions of him and his crew on May Day 2012 are anything to go by, and indeed, they were selfless (what kind of glory hound disguises his identity?), I reckon that we've got ourselves a new hero. The social media saturation may be a bit much, but that's his way of doing things. Here's hoping that he doesn't go and get himself killed in really dumb way.

Image courtesy

Want to read more about Real Life Superheroes? Check out my review of the documentary Superheroes. You also might want to take a look at Heroes in the Night, the blog of journalist and author Tea Krulos.