"For a guy who's not bulletproof and doesn't have any superpowers, his heart is totally in what he does. He's a 110-percent type of person," adds Ecliptico, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, masked man with whom the Wall Creeper has spent hours on the phone brainstorming about helmet designs and crime patterns.

But becoming the Wall Creeper, patrolling in full battle armor several times a week, was taking a toll. Thanks to his long nights, he was struggling to stay awake in class. He began having panic attacks, feeling like something revolting was crawling over his skin. He became obsessed with crime blotters, poring over the injustices he'd failed to stop. "Not doing my job well enough," he wrote in his journal. "Never enough."

It was as if he was turning into Rorschach, his favorite character in Watchmen, the 1980s graphic novel idolized by many Heroes Network members for its cast of complex, real-life superheroes. The Wall Creeper had always shared a kinship with the story's loner detective Rorschach, since both wore their ornate insignias on their masks. But lately there was another, more disturbing similarity between the two. Rorschach was so disgusted and victimized by the world he pledged to protect that he'd become numb to reality, going so far as to consider his ghastly mask his true visage. And now the Wall Creeper started feeling that way, too — as if the creature dressed in the all-black battle suit was his real, dominant personality and the young man in civilian clothes just the alter ego.

As he wrote in his journal one day, "The mask truly is like my face."

The explosion rips through downtown Denver. Deep within a secret, subterranean lab beneath the State Capitol, something has gone terribly wrong. Down there, far from the population's prying eyes, a diabolical corporation has developed a horrible new nerve gas — a gas that, thanks to a freak detonation, has now been released. The thick, noxious fumes spread through the sewers and up into the streets, lacing the city with its nefarious tentacles. Many die immediately, littering sidewalks with a gruesome tableau. The rest suffer a worse fate: Devolving into zombie-like maniacs, they roam the streets thirsty for blood and destruction.

There's only one hope: the Knightmen. Ensconced in a downtown safe house, this vigilant league of crime fighters leaps into action. To end the chaos, they must avoid the zombie hordes, infiltrate the underground lab, find an antidote and inoculate the surviving, half-mad population. Along the way, they might as well take out the mind-controlled lizard men guarding the laboratory.

So goes the fictional training exercise the Wall Creeper recently devised for the Knightmen, a renegade new super-secret offshoot of the Heroes Network. The word-based scenario plays out online, with members messaging back and forth over strategies and plans. The narrative is admittedly over the top, but the Wall Creeper, who transferred to a metro-area college this past fall, designed it to hone his colleagues' battle tactics in case they ever face a large-scale crisis. Of course, the Knightmen believe they already have one crisis on their hands — one involving the Heroes Network.

The troubles started this past December, when Tothian, satisfied with what he'd accomplished in the Heroes Network, stepped down as president and members voted to replace him with Zimmer, an Austin-based superhero with binary-code 1s and 0s emblazoned on his chest. Taking a page from Barack Obama's playbook, Zimmer posted a dramatic video acceptance speech on his MySpace page promising a new superhero era. "By the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe," he proclaimed. "We are here because the world is in bad shape. We have a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it in. But who the hell do you think we are? We are the goddamn Heroes Network, and I am honored to be your president."

But these lofty claims soon led to online bickering and accusations, with universal truth and justice taking a back seat to petty recriminations and political infighting. Some were upset over a surge of new recruits admitted in under Zimmer's watch, heroes with dubious missions like the Michigan-based Blue Lightning, who crusades against secondhand smoke. Others were up in arms about the new president's plan to send out press packets to media outlets all over the country. It didn't make sense, they argued, for folks with secret identities and unsanctioned weaponry like homemade pepper-spray bazookas and Taser gauntlets to be parading all over the nightly news.

The central argument was over what superheroes are supposed to do with themselves. Zimmer and his colleagues held that social activism should play a key role in the Heroes Network, with costumed superheroes volunteering at local charities and the organization taking steps to become an official nonprofit. That didn't sit well with those who'd rather be cleaning the streets of scum than running toy drives. "You think you're a superhero because you show up at a charity once or twice? That's a smack in the face to people who do it every day," fumes Ecliptico now. "If you are not risking your life, you are not doing anything heroic. Who is out saving the girl from being brutalized while you're handing out Barbie Dolls?"

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