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Corner of Hastings and Gore, the swollen heart of Vancouver’s poor, homeless, and drug-addicted. From a parked van emerges a tall figure, over six feet. His slouch hat is pulled low; the green skull on his black cotton mask hangs slightly askew. In his eyes the thunder of arrival. He opens the van’s rear door, revealing bags of clothes and jackets, blankets, shoes, ponchos, and pillows, and the neighbourhood descends. In eight minutes everything is gone.
Thanatos, as he’s come to call himself, began haunting the dtes three years ago. Each Thursday, he would distribute his charity until a wearied police officer told him to go home—those living in the Downtown Eastside had nothing to look forward to but death.
That struck him as true, and so was born Thanatos (named for the Ancient Greek personification of death). But why the outfit? “I’m trying to get people’s attention. It reminds people, it shows people that death is walking the streets of Vancouver.”
Thanatos, 62, was raised a Christian in the Southern U.S. His father was in the military and his family moved a lot, finally settling in California. As a child he read The Shadow, The Spirit, Batman, old ec horror comics like Tales From the Crypt. He jumped on his bed with his underwear on the outside and a towel around his neck, dreaming of battling evil. “Comic books are often underrated. But for a young growing child they’re a source of inspiration. They teach us morals. They teach us that the good guys win.”
In 1966, as soon as he was eligible, and believing it to be the right thing, he enlisted to fight in Vietnam. For five years he commanded Special Forces medical and resource units. After a “disagreement on right and wrong,” he was honourably discharged a decorated soldier. He became a police constable in Rhodesia, but system-wide racism drove him out after six months. After a year in Europe, “doing nothing,” he followed his mother to Canada, where, the now husband and father started up a community watch, which led to the removal of a crack dealer from his Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. For the past six years, he has been involved in the Association of Neighbourhood Houses of BC and a member of Block Watch.
Thanatos: The Avenger was perhaps inevitable. “I always thought of being a superhero over the years,” he says. “I looked up superheroes online and found out that there are other people that dress up in costumes and go out and help.” The Real Life Superheroes movement began in the ’70s when James “The Fox” Phillips began advocating against the increasing industrial pollution in Chicago. (The Fox’s cv includes capping off smokestacks and dumping industrial waste in the lunchrooms of the companies that created it.) Recently, it has grown into a registry with over 60 heroes around the world. As their motives vary, so do their costumes. New York’s Dark Guardian fights crime with a Kevlar balaclava and pepper spray. Super Gay in Mexico City is a social activist who wears a mask (and pink leotard and rainbow cape) against public persecution of homosexuality. Most rlsh personas and costumes parallel those from the dc or Marvel comic universe—only shaped and pulled by homemade efforts: blue spandex jumpsuits, leather masks, face paint, ski goggles, shin pads, fishnet stockings. For a price, you can order a custom rubber suit from XtremeDesignFX.com, which includes everything from capes to cowls.
Since the superhero registry went online in 2005, 26 have retired, suggesting, for some, a movement in decline. No matter how one approaches charity and right-doing, it involves exhausting levels of commitment and sacrifice. The food Thanatos hands out is from his own pocket; the blankets and pillows come by donation through his Youtube blog. Larger corporate donations are near impossible without a tax number. (Currently, though, he is in talks with Eco-Tech, a linen supplier, for an ongoing blanket donation.)
He understands that his handouts, the product of frustration with the near impenetrable jungle of governmental support for the homeless and ill, are only a temporary fix. But he’s still proud of his accomplishments. “This girl I helped ended up turning around from a $400 a day heroin addict in a space of six months, and she now works down there in a paid position at one of the social agencies. And when she tells the story why she changed she says, ‘Death came and told me I had to change the way I was living. Death saved me.’”