Death of a Superhero
Imagine this– your car has run out of gas and you’re sitting stranded on the side of the hot Florida highway. You’re cursing out your bad luck when a corvette pulls up and a man clad in bright red, yellow, and blue spandex jumps out. He has a weightlifter’s physique and a bald head shining in the Florida sun.
He waves and smiles and says “need a hand?!” You stare in disbelief, thinking maybe you’re hallucinating in the heat. But the next thing you know, you’re sitting in the passenger seat of the Supermobile so you can fill a gas can up. He tells you his name is simply “Superhero.” He drops you off and waves cheerfully as he cruises away– all in a day’s work.
Dale Pople, to those who knew him, was “Super Hero,” or as he called himself in later years, “Old Superhero.” He was a well-known member of the Real-Life Superhero (or RLSH) community. He took his life this week at age 52.
He “didn’t grow up in the best of households,” was abused by his parents, and was harassed by bullies, so young Dale found escapism in the worlds of superhero comics and sci-fi. He joined the Navy, went to police academy, attempted a wrestling career, then found a job in television broadcasting. But the biggest part of his life was his adventures as the larger-than-life Superhero.
When I first began working on my book Heroes in the Night: Inside the Real-Life Superhero Movement, Superhero was one of the first people I got in contact with. He was always helpful to me and I found him refreshingly honest and candid in talking about his motivations. He didn’t have some phony Batman origin story or tall tales in his patrol log– he was, he said, simply a guy who liked dressing up as a superhero to drive around and see if he could help the people in his community in Clearwater, Florida. He didn’t need a costume to help old ladies with their groceries or to help change a flat tire, but Superhero was his identity.
I wrote about Superhero in Heroes in the Night in a chapter titled “Early Prototypes,” which talked about my research into RLSH that were active prior to the community developing on message boards around 2005. Superhero had adopted his persona in 1998, though originally it was a wrestling persona. An injury cut his wrestling career short, but he next used the identity as a character in a pilot for a potential TV show, which was to be a fun, campy take similar to one of his favorite shows– the 1960s Batman starring Adam West.
Other interests of Superhero included Godzilla (he had an impressive collection of toys), Star Trek, the film Logan’s Run, wrestling, true crime, and classic comics of the Golden and Silver age. He also loved spending time at the gym, where he met his wife, who would later be dubbed Lady Hero.
When the RLSH community began to develop in the mid-2000s, he was thrilled to find a like-minded group of people. He was incredibly supportive of his fellow RLSH and their endeavors. One of Superhero’s hobbies was to make custom action figures of the RLSH, carefully hand-painting the details. He enthusiastically took on his role in this movement of colorfully clad people by going on patrols, handing out supplies to the homeless, helping organize an annual toy drive, and other charitable work. In 2010, he helped create a milestone– his team of Florida based RLSH, Team Justice, became the first team to get non-profit status.
Superhero was often recommended as a media representative for the RLSH community and it’s easy to see why. With his broadcasting experience he was well spoken, charismatic, and had, as I described in Heroes, a “booming radio announcer voice.” He knew how to work the camera and give the RLSH story a good narrative. He was featured in the HBO documentary Superheroes, as well as The Adventures of Miss Fit, and a wonderful, award winning short documentary that focused on him titled Portrait of a Superhero. I included the video at the end of this post.
I met Superhero in 2011 at the HOPE charity event in 2011 in San Diego. It was a great experience. I joined in and helped RLSH hand out a couple trucks worth of supplies to San Diego’s homeless population. Here’s an excerpt from Heroes in the Night, from the last chapter, “An Age of Heroes?” I described how I was in a truck helping to hand out food as a large group of homeless people gathered around it.
When the action died down for a moment, I stepped outside of the truck to get some air and check out the scene. It was surreal, but moving. Thanatos had his hand on a homeless man’s shoulder. The man had a bushy beard and was missing several teeth. The two of them were laughing and talking about the old Adam West Batman show. DC’s Guardian was in the street. Such a large crowd had showed up that he was worried it was a safety hazard, so he stood in the street, expertly directing traffic. Across the street, Superhero was instructing people to form an orderly assembly while Mr. Xtreme, Vigilante Spider, and Miss Fit helped hand out the backpacks and sleeping bags.
These people could have done anything with their summer vacations. They could have spent their time less than a mile away, where Comic Con was in full swing. But they chose to come here, sweat profusely under their spandex costumes, and work as a team handing out supplies to San Diego’s homeless population.
We did end up stopping by Comic Con later, where I have fond memories of sitting next to Superhero during the premiere of the aforementioned Superheroes documentary at the con and talking to him at the after party. I still remember his infectious laugh filling the room.
But behind that gleaming smile and brightly colored spandex, Superhero was struggling with some dark issues of depression. Be mindful that sometimes people who are so enthusiastic about helping others and making them happy are sometimes deeply suffering on the inside. Superhero wanted to save others, but he couldn’t save himself.
In a short, final Facebook video this past weekend, Superhero referenced following in the footsteps of his childhood hero, George Reeves, who played Superman on TV in the 1950s. Reeves was found dead in 1959, and police ruled that a gunshot to the head was a suicide. It’s a difficult video to see. Dressed in his Superhero costume (or “gimmick” as he called it), he is clearly shaken and overcome by what he knows will happen next.
“You know there was a time when I wasn’t too comfortable being Superhero,” he says to the camera. “But looking back at it, if I could have been somebody that made so many people happy and inspired so many people to do good– then he really wasn’t such a bad guy at the end of the day. He was all I was really good at being anyway,” Superhero says, shaking his head and giving his laugh one last time. “So until next time, it’s Superhero and– you know what to do!” That last sentence was his catchphrase.
In scrolling through my messenger with Superhero, I found I hadn’t talked to him directly recently, but found this message he sent after he had answered my final round of questions while working on Heroes.
“Looking forward to buying (the book)!” He replied to me. “You’ve been working on it for years. Anytime you want a patrol in the Supermobile, lemme know. If you’ll fit….you’re tall.”
That is one ride I would have loved to have taken with him, even if it meant that my knees were squished.
A couple important things I’d like to share:
—You know what to do! RLSH have organized a fundraiser to help with Superhero’s final mission. The fundraiser reads:
In Memorium of our friend Dale Pople, AKA “SUPERHERO”, we continue his final mission in helping the Pinellas Park, FL facility ‘Family Resources’, an agency dedicated to crisis counseling, safe shelter and safe respite for runaway teens, and notably at-risk LGBTQ teens.
Here’s the link, please donate and share: www.gofundme.com/f/old-superhero
–We are living in very challenging times, which only adds to the stress people dealing with depression are feeling. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please talk to someone.
The Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK(8255) and their website is here: suicidepreventionlifeline.org
You can watch Portrait of a Superhero directed by Tony Armer below, and see our friend Superhero in action.
Rest in Peace.
Tea Krulos is the author of Heroes in the Night: Inside the Real-life Superhero Movement and American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness