i am facebook friends with Flat Man, our local superhero.
Flatman's identity is unknown to everybody except his mother, Flat Mum, and his sidekick, Quake Kid. He has a fairly standard superhero costume. He began his superhero career shortly after the earthquake here, specialising in turning up unannounced at student flats where students were known to be in need of extra food and a fun visit. He wanted to support students who had elected to stay in Christchurch after the quakes, but who were struggling. For a long time he paid for his food parcels entirely out of his own pocket. His brief gradually extended to include schools and shopping malls and the university campus, where he distributed food and just plain lifted spirits. He became world famous in Christchurch. After a while he found the load too heavy and confided in a friend, who became his loyal side kick Quake Kid. He attracted some sponsorship, and now has the use of his own 'Flatmobile', a yellow 1970 Chevy Camaro.
Here is what Flat Man says about his role:
'People can relate to Flat Man. The mask is there to show that Flat Man can be any one of us. Anything good happening for the people of Christchurch always gets a lot of focus as there's still so many people in this town who need continuing help. And that's what I'm trying to do - to show New Zealand and the world that even though it's been a couple of years since the first quake, people still need all the support they can get. Even if it's in the form of two masked and lycra dressed men.'*
Flat Man is a pretty cuddly superhero. There is no brooding Dark Knight Rises stuff and no post traumatic back story. Flat Man is mostly apolitical; he supports local causes but is seldom controversial (except for the time the university campus bar refused to serve him alcohol because he couldn't produce ID - a true event that raised the ire of every student in town and every young person who has ever been in a bar with a dodgy ID.) But here's the really cool bit - when he says 'The mask is there to show that Flat Man can be any one of us'.
i haven't had much to do with superheroes apart from watching the Avengers movie over and over, partly because it is made by the wonderful Joss Whedon who in our household Can Do No Wrong.**
But i notice one inevitable dynamic tension - between being special and being anonymous. Of course Flat Man is a bit special and would quite like his own action figure. Mostly if we're special we aren't anonymous - what would be the point? But anonymity is awesome because we can do things anonymously that we can't do otherwise no matter how special we might be. Not only can we risk making dicks of ourselves, but we can shine. When we are masked or heavily costumed, we can show ourselves and hide at the same time. Maybe that is why masks and costumes have such a long assocation with activism and the disruption of social norms.
i noticed masks first when looking at Picasso's African period and his interest in Wobe masks. How elaborate and fine, and how bloody scary. i imagined wearing one and being transformed. Mask work in drama improv does this; the mask takes over. i am not myself - and so i can be more fully myself.
i was once a part of a short lived but luminous group called Women for Peace and Justice. We did mostly anti nuclear protests (boy does that date it!), and we specialised in small scale events that straddled art and politics. One day we performed an event where we paraded through the main street pushing sinister old fashioned prams done up like coffins. One of us was dressed as Death. i could not have done it without the props and the costumes. And thus we make carnival, and masque, where we can misbehave, where peasants can be royalty for the day, where the social order can be overturned, where we can wake up the next morning and, if we have to, deny that it was us. #
The most obvious recent example of mass mask work is the use of V for Vendetta masks by Anonymous during protests. 'We are Anonymous', they say, 'Expect us'. We could be anyone. We could be your chauffeur, your waitress, your nanny. As Tyler Durdon says, we watch you while you're sleeping. It's both celebration and incipient threat. Like everything to do with masks.
i can tell you about the V for Vendetta masks though, you sweat something awful after a mile or two of marching. And it is sort of ironic that they are mass produced and you buy them in joke shops. Flat Man wears two masks because he was once briefly unmasked by a toddler in a bouncy castle. He must get pretty hot.
There is a way more political and edgy antecedant for Flat Man, and his name is Superbarrio. Would you believe, there is another post earthquake superhero among us. After the earthquake in Mexico, he came forward to engage in protest and non violent civil disobedience against the government's ill treatment of the poor. He has become an inspiration. His is the culture of the Luchadores, the masked wrestlers in Mexico. i don't get this Lucha Libre stuff much, but it seems the masks are taken very seriously. One of the most famous wrestlers was buried in his mask, and unmasking a wrestling opponent is a grest insult. The masks often reference folk culture and local myth. They are reminders of Mexican identity and history. Superbarrio's mask is recognisably in that tradition, and so it is easy for him to take the lead in protest. Flat Man would agree. 'People identify with Flat Man'. People trust him and understand his role. Superbarrio takes a similar view to Flat Man in that he sees his character as Everyperson. He is nobody, he is everybody, he is us. He speaks for the barrio, the poor neighbourhood, the students, the quake damaged. Because he is anonymous, he can say what we mean. Both Flat Man and Superbarrio are humble, remarkable, ordinary, extraordinary Superguys.
*Canterbury Magazine, Summer 2012
* And because i briefly had a sort of Robert Downey Jnr thing going on, but it's OK i'm over it now.
# i also collect for SAFE, Save Animals from Exploitation, in costume and accompanied by my little dog Tigger. Last time i was in full body costume as an owl. i stood for hours (hours i tell you!) in the blazing heat with this heavy owl head on, and all people noticed was the little dog. What a cute little dog they said, can I pat him. Of course i said, and clink goes the money in the bucket. God damn it i am dressed as a fricken OWL! It's forty degrees in here! i'm just as cute and i'm SUFFERING here!