Out of all the real-life superheroes patrolling the globe, none have captured the populace’s attention quite like Seattle’s Phoenix Jones, a twentysomething crime-stopper who brazenly hangs out on drug pushers’ turfs and defends the Emerald City’s neighborhoods with a maniac optimism.
Jones owes his high profile in part to journalist Jon Ronson, who covered Phoenix and the Seattle superhero scene in last August’s issue of GQ. Since reporting on Phoenix’s unique brand of crime-fighting, Ronson — who penned The Men Who Stare at Goats and investigated UFOs with pop star Robbie Williams — has become Jones’ Lois Lane. The author developed a rapport with the photogenic superhero and has since expanded his GQ piece into a new eBook about the real-life superhero movement. Ronson spoke to io9 about his experiences with the Evergreen State’s foremost masked man.
How did you first hook up with Phoenix for these adventures?
I noticed him when first got famous in a piece on CNN. He felt like one of my people, he felt like somebody that I was destined to meet. He was funny, odd, and kind of in this shadow world. All of the other real-life superheroes seemed to be a bit kind of stagnant, and among the community, here was this guy rising up among them. I wondered what that would be like for the psychology of the community. So I contacted Peter Tangen — who is this superhero emissary — he’s the guy who hooked me with Phoenix. At the same time, I was talking to the New York [superhero] initiatives and they said, “You don’t want to meet Phoenix Jones! You just want to meet us!”
No kidding. What’s the difference between Phoenix and the New York superheroes?
Phoenix and the New York guys, their motives are very similar. What’s difference really is their attitude and presentation. But — I want to try to say this without sounding insulting to the New York guys — the New York guys seemed very frightening and menacing, and it became obvious to me why Phoenix had captured the public imagination. We want our superheroes to be like the Adam West Batman, not The Dark Knight.
I recently talked with him on Skype. I can’t imagine they’re not going to press charges. I don’t believe the story that he jumped out of nowhere and pepper-sprayed someone. I think he’s just going to keep going undaunted. But the thing that worries me about him is that he’s so addicted to doing good, that he’s going to get himself hurt or killed. In my 25 years of journalism, patrolling with Phoenix has been one of the two or three riskiest situations I’ve ever been in. I’ve almost died when I was [patrolling] in the Belltown neighborhood. He’s almost dying for it. [Ed’s Note: This interview occurred before the city announced that Jones wouldn’t be charged for the incident.]
Has he ever mentioned his protégé Nightstick to you?
No, he hasn’t mentioned that to me. But he has a new girlfriend now and she’s a superhero. Her name is Purple Reign.
Now that Phoenix has attracted so much media attention, do you see Seattle as becoming the epicenter of the real-life superhero movement?
I think it’s definitely the center of the movement. He’s a genuinely inspirational and charismatic person. There aren’t many people like that around. I could definitely see him becoming like a folk hero. My prediction is that he subsumes the world of superheroes. That is, more people become interested in him and less people become interested in the superheroes as a whole. That’s my guess anyway.
The real-life superheroes seem like a very fashion-conscious bunch. What’s been your experience with that?
When I was with [Phoenix and his friends] and they were staring down drug dealers, they were whispering to each other. And what they were whispering was fashion tips! Stuff I like, “I like that color on you. It really pops!” There’s something kind of sweet about that, it’s kind of metrosexual. I find the minutiae of the world very funny. The superheroes all started out using grappling hooks, but they stopped using them because they’re impractical. Falling on your grappling hook is a great way to pierce your stomach. The book is good advice to a rookie superhero.
The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones, And The Less Amazing Adventures of Some Other Real-Life Superheroes is available now on eBook from Riverhead Books.