During the golden age of comics, superheroes emerged as a blend of the many noble qualities Americans hoped to see in themselves. Superman — the most iconic of them all — was an amalgamation of our own founding ideals: Morality, strength, perseverance, and an eagerness to fight for the weak. To remix a Mark Twain line, Superman wasn’t just an American, he was the American.
A more recent comic book hallmark is the hero who lives long enough that they will see themselves branded a villain. No one is better at illustrating the thin line between “good guy” and “bad guy” than modern superheroes and their enemies. As all of us discover sooner or later, the virtuous path is tough to navigate — surrounded by a churning sea of gray. In the Daredevil Netflix series, The Punisher, a man who dispenses justice at the end of a gun barrel, says to the titular character, “You’re one bad day away from being me.” It’s all too true, and yet we inevitably wake up each morning presented with the opportunity to fight the good fight.
Clark Stark, 40, takes this challenge very seriously. By day, he’s a security supervisor. By night, the San Diego native transforms into Mr. Xtreme — patrolling the streets in costume, foiling thugs, and protecting the downtrodden. But like so many comic book superheroes before him, Clark’s method of community involvement creates some serious questions: Is the risk to civilians worth it? Aren’t masked crusaders just getting in the way? Is it possible that these crime fighters cause more problems than they’re worth?
Ever since he was a boy, Clark Stark dreamed of being the sort of superhero he read about in his favorite comics. At age 22, he inched closer to that goal when he joined the Guardian Angels — the famous community protection brigade, launched in New York City back in city’s rough and rowdy 1970s. For eight years, Stark donned the Guardian Angels’ trademark red beret, performing at least 20 citizen’s arrests. But there was something missing, despite the fact that he was helping people. He longed for more independence, more self-expression, more flair. In short, he still wanted to be Superman.
“My childhood was a little rough,” Stark explains. “I had issues growing up. I was kind of like the oddball. I’ve had my experiences with abuse and bullying — if I hadn’t, I’d probably be kind of like everybody else.”
Clark is open about the fact that, like many a masked man before him, he wavered on the razor’s edge between hero and villain. He explains that when he found himself at the intersection of good and evil, he made a choice to follow the road toward righteousness.
“The real-life superhero community kind of put the light into the dark,” he says. “At one point, I was looking into joining a gang, or joining some type of extreme political group, or even thinking about becoming a vigilante myself.”
Instead, in 2006, Stark founded the Xtreme Justice League (XJL) in his home city of San Diego. The idea for the crime-fighting group is drenched in comic book lore: Crusaders (sometimes caped) fighting for truth, justice, and peace, striving to create better lives for those around them.
“Our purpose is to pretty much go out there, protect the streets, inspire, and just kind of bring people together,” he says.
It wasn’t just Stark’s tough childhood that led to the Xtreme Justice League. Years of watching crime go unpunished felt like a personal call to action. The apathy and indifference of the populace created a knot in his stomach, which could only be unwound by helping to make his community safer.
“Violent crime, that was my main reason,” he notes. “When we’re on patrol, we’re not interested in victimless crimes. We don’t deal with prostitution. We don’t deal with drugs. Our job is to protect people and to make sure everyone can go home safe.”
Just like in the comics, costumes are an integral part of what Mr. Xtreme and the 25 or so members of the XJL do. It’s their calling card, announcing their agenda with loud colors and bold design flourishes. Stark calls his first costume “primitive” — he donned an XJL t-shirt, cargo pants, and a Mexican luchador mask. Over time, his look evolved. He eschewed the all black clothes with black masks that he saw on other real superheroes around the country and went for bright colors and bug-eyed goggles.
“I just decided to put all of these different things together,” he states, “a little green, a little bit of yellow, maybe a helmet… Of course I had to keep protection in mind. I wanted to make sure I had a functional patrol costume that could give me some degree of protection against threats.”
Without superpowers to call upon, fighting crime requires a lot more than a flashy costume. Stark also carries a combination stun gun/flashlight called the Cobra Stun Gun. Depending on the situation, he might wield the Cobra, pepper spray, or a taser. He also carries a safety whistle, a first-aid kit, handcuffs, and a radio.
Knowing that crime fighters with weapons, but no training are a liability at best and a menace at worst, Clark and the other members of the Xtreme Justice League also train with the Krav Maga Academy in San Diego and take part in de-escalation, first aid, and CPR training run by trained law-enforcement officers. Patch-wearing members of the XJL also have to go through extensive self-defense training, which comes in handy when situations threaten to turn violent. Stark shares stories of facing down 10 men at a time, and freely admits how scary that can be.
“I think the most freaky thing — besides dealing with a gang attack — is when they’re trying to intimidate us,” he says. “Say we’re going into an area that’s known for gangs, known for shootings, and they start trying to size us up. Maybe they’ll get into a car with tinted windows and they’re just constantly circling around the block. You just never know if they’re going to turn the corner and try to make the jump on you. Sometimes there are fights that might involve like a dozen people, and it’s moving to different locations and more people join in. That can get pretty crazy, pretty chaotic.”
When pressed for the number of serious incidents that Stark and his team have been involved in, he pauses before answering. “I’ve lost count over the years… but I would say dozens.”
Stark is quick to assert that the Xtreme Justice League isn’t just about meeting violence with violence, though. It’s a multi-faceted organization with members reaching out to local communities in a variety of ways. From social programs, to patrols, charity, and even marketing — the group functions like a small business. Stark is both the chapter leader and the XJL president. Beneath him is The Grim, the director of operations and senior patrol leader. The two men delegate responsibilities like scheduling, recruiting, and training. Members are forced to grind through krav maga classes, with another XJL member, Knight, serving as the fitness coordinator. There are various patrol leaders depending on the day of the week (all with cool names). Knight runs the Friday night patrols with Fallen Boy, while Midnight Highway Man heads the vehicle patrols and handles public relations. Violet Valkyrie and Emerald take care of the homeless outreach and charity initiatives.
The Problem Is Just Too Big
Not surprisingly, the types of people who line up for this sort of work have certain core similarities that make them good candidates for the XJL — from personality types, to disposable time (because this is nothing if not a time-intensive pursuit).
“In general, [prospective superheroes] have to have that desire to want to go out there and protect, help, and inspire,” Stark says. “And then they have to be committed and follow through. They’re going to have to spend the time learning how to patrol, how to defend themselves. They’re going to have to learn communication, and first aid. And then, after that, they’re going to have to come up with a plan: where are they going to operate, how many days a week, how many hours? And then, they’re going to have to come up with a costume, something they can patrol in, something that kind of means something to them, that symbolizes their personality.”
Over the phone, Stark’s voice is a jovial, youthful organ clipping along at a fast rate, but he slows down when asked about the problem of crime in San Diego.
“I feel that the problems in the community are beyond police,” he says. “It goes beyond local and state governments. I think everyone needs to pitch in and help, it’s everybody’s community. If we just rely on the local governments and public officials and law enforcement… the problem is just way too big.”
Stark hopes to help the police — even though his masked crusaders were often mistaken for bad guys by the cops during the XJL’s early days.
“It was rough,” Stark says. “They would constantly stop and frisk us, look for reasons to arrest us, detain us. They’ve pulled guns on us, and they’ve given us some tongue lashings. Not so much nowadays, but in the beginning, it was a lot rougher.”
Some of this “who are these guys?” confusion could probably be eliminated with standard uniforms — like the red berets worn by The Guardian Angels — but that’s not in the cards for the Xtreme Justice League. The capes and masks are core to their identity.
The Grim (he refused to give his real name) — a 35-year-old security specialist and Navy veteran who is Mr. Xtreme’s second-in-command — explains:
“Really, all I’m doing is trying to help the community, but I do it in a costume. There’s a bunch of reasons. Fun… For my personal protection… Because you wouldn’t be asking me this if I didn’t wear a costume.”
Crafting a superhero identity is alluring, but wouldn’t it be a problem if XJL members put the costume before the crime-fighting?
“I 100% do think that there are people in the XJL or the real superhero community, on the whole, that do it specifically for the pageantry,” Grim says. “It’s not that I would say that I condone it, but I don’t care really about your reasons as long as you’re doing something to help. If it’s the most self-indulgent thing you have ever done, but you help one person — say someone who’s passed out drunk on the street, or someone who’s getting beat up on the street — I don’t care how self-indulgent you are, you’ve actually done good.”
When Stark is asked the same question, he responds, “It’s all about the costume.” But he’s quick to walk those words back. “Well… Going out there volunteering my time and protecting the community is first and foremost, but I want to have some fun doing it.”
Is The Xtreme Justice League Really Helping?
Sure, but is fighting crime outside the scope of law enforcement beneficial? Citizens pay tax dollars towards professionals who are trained rigorously to prevent crime — are these caped crusaders just getting in the way of the pros?
“We don’t do the same things,” Grim insists. “I’m not into law enforcement. I don’t agree with laws — many of them. The end result is going to jail, which is essentially slavery, which, me being a black person, I’m not really down for that. I’d rather people go home than get my numbers up for arrests or anything else. We’re there to protect people and not enforce laws.”
“I was too busy with the Guardian Angels to be a cop,” Stark adds. “After that I decided I got tired of wearing a uniform. I just needed something a little more eccentric. You know, you’ll never see a cop running around with a cape or a soldier running around with a pair of tights.”
Still, the desire to work outside the system does create an undeniable degree of danger — not only for these regular citizens donning outfits and fighting crime, but for bystanders who might accidentally find themselves involved in altercations. In comic books, Bruce Banner, a.k.a. The Hulk, is a hero who loathes his alter ego because the monster he becomes can inflict real harm on people undeserving of it. The Grim can relate to this. One night, while attempting to subdue an aggressive individual, he accidentally pepper-sprayed a bystander.
“They were pissed,” he says. “Like, very pissed, which I totally understand. But the health of my team, the health of the woman that was on the ground… they were all very much in peril. So, I mean, yeah, it sucks. They were like, ‘These guys are assholes and quacks and they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.’ Honestly, that’s like my biggest regret.”
That level of collateral damage begs one final, straightforward question: Is the Xtreme Justice League really helping?
“If you’re asking for statistics and numbers, we don’t really keep track of that stuff,” Stark says. “But as far as us going out there, I think we definitely made a difference at least in the areas we patrol. I can tell you for a fact a lot of these situations that we’ve intervened indefinitely would have ended for the worse. There’ve been some situations that we weren’t able to get to and somebody ended up losing their life.”
The San Diego Police Department, on the other hand, does feel comfortable giving an answer as to whether the XJL is actually helping.
“The fact that they are choosing to try and get involved, that’s something that we applaud and we appreciate. I would thank them for taking the effort to be involved in their communities,” says Officer Travis Easter, a media relations coordinator for the SDPD.
Just a few years after a shooting by an overzealous neighborhood watch member shook the nation, this comes as a shock. Shouldn’t the SDPD try dissuading these wannabe superheroes from inserting themselves into dangerous situations? They don’t want or need help in apprehending criminals, right?
“We think public safety is a shared responsibility: if you see something, hear something, or know something, say something,” Officer Easter says. “That’s goes for everybody. So, for the XJL, they’re trying to do their part. We are the officers. We’ve gone through the training. We are equipped for situations. That’s what we’re here for. So, it’s not necessarily saying, ‘Don’t get involved,’ but it’s about being a good witness.”
The SDPD’s stance catches Stark off guard.
“I’m surprised, because officially they’ve never endorsed us,” the XJL’s leader says. “I guess the response has gotten better over time. We’ve been here for awhile now. It just takes a little bit longer for the police to warm up to us. We’ve earned a little bit of their respect. The hard part now is going out there and keeping it.”
Maintaining a good reputation is indeed tough, but Mr. Xtreme and his crew seem up to the challenge. After all, no one ever said being a superhero was easy.