DES MOINES, Iowa -- Metropolis has Superman, Gotham City has Batman and New York has Spider-Man. Now Des Moines has the Red Shadow.
Over the past month, the red-masked, real-life superhero has been operating in the city. His focus is less on fighting crime than on making the city a better place by feeding the homeless and doing other good deeds.
"I just saw all the apathy and indifference," the Red Shadow said of why he put on a mask. "One day I went out and saw a very frail homeless man walking around, asking for help. People acted like he wasn't there, which bothered me. I'd always wanted to see a real-life superhero around Iowa, and I realized if no one else was going to do it, (it) was time to set an example."
Donning a costume, helping the downtrodden and fighting crime like superheroes in the pages of a comic book is an international trend. The Real-Life Superhero movement picked up popularity with release of the 2010 movie "Kick-Ass," but it predates the film. The Red Shadow hopes to start a local version of a group called the Xtreme Justice League, launched in 2006 in San Diego.
He's holding a recruitment drive Saturday at Capes Kafe, a Des Moines comic book shop.
The Red Shadow doesn't have a dramatic origin story. He doesn't have superhuman strength, and he wasn't bitten by a radioactive shadow.
He's 18-year-old Larry Crane, who wears a red mask, black motocross gear and a cape while doing his work.
Crane agreed to reveal his identity and meet for an interview on the porch of his Des Moines home. Like Superman, Crane dons a pair of glasses while in his civilian identity.
Crane said he mostly gets weird looks from people driving by, along with occasional honks and waves. But when he first visits an area he hopes to help, it isn't in costume.
Before starting a local Xtreme Justice League, Crane reached out to the group's founder — a man calling himself Mr. Xtreme, who started safety patrols, homeless outreach and public safety services in San Diego. The group has more than 25 members, with names like Blue Buzzard, Crimson Crow and Shadowstar.
Mr. Xtreme responded to questions from The Register about Crane's efforts through an email listed on the Xtreme Justice League Facebook page.
"I'm really impressed with Red Shadow's initiative, leadership and dedication," Mr. Xtreme said. "His desire to improve and make his community safer is admirable. He has my full support."
The Red Shadow hasn't had any encounters with police. Police Sgt. Jason Halifax said he hasn't heard of the Red Shadow (and hasn't heard of any costumed crimefighters in his 17-year career), but what Crane does isn't breaking any laws.
Still, Halifax wouldn't suggest someone take on a role as a superhero.
"In general, anyone is afforded the right to self-protection against physical harm or death, that kind of thing. I guess you have that option," Halifax said. "Obviously you're taking some self-risk if you do something like that. You need to be really clear with yourself what may or may not happen if you take these roles on. You also open yourself up to litigation if you use force, as well as injury. You have to be smart in what you do. There are a lot of landmines to be wary of, if that's your thing."
Crane carries a stun gun and pepper spray, but stressed they're only for self-defense. He's called police to report gunshots and fights, but has not made any physical interventions himself.
"Picking fights with criminals, that's vigilantism," Crane said. "A lot of real-life superheroes are vigilantes, which makes us look bad. I want to stress that I'm here to help, not pick fights. We do what we can within the limits of the law."
Crane is training to get in shape, but said taking on hardened criminals on his own would be "the equivalent of suicide." With the formation of Des Moines' Extreme Justice League, Crane said he isn't looking for a posse to back him in battles.
The plan is to conduct safety patrols around the city, similar to a neighborhood watch group. The costumes serve as a visible deterrent to crime, and XJL members would call police to report any suspicious activity. Members won't be permitted to carry firearms.
Crane doesn't expect potential superheroes to show up with costumes and fully formed personas. The costumes and identities are secondary to what Crane really wants.
"There's so much apathy in the world that I feel someone should stand up and be a symbol of hope," Crane said. "I feel the attention these costumes draw can be used as a positive. The more people that join up will find it to be a fulfilling thing in its own way. Even if we can't save the world, we could save someone's day or their life. That's pretty satisfying.
"I don't think of myself as a hero or a superhero, I just use that because there's no better term for it," Crane said. "I don't see myself higher than everybody or like a god-like being. I'm just a dork in a costume trying to do the right thing."