More than any other fictional comic book character, Batman proves that you don’t need superpowers to be a hero, just strict discipline, unswaying moral certitude, mental and physical training. Of course, millions of dollars in the bank also help.
While 30-year-old Staten Island resident Chris Pollak may not have the money, he does have the training, dedication and the costume. At night, he dons a red-and-blue hoodie and becomes Dark Guardian, an everyman superhero who patrols neighborhoods and fights crime with other like-minded individuals. This month, he launched the Hero program, a self-defense and martial arts class that teaches children, between 3 and 12 years old, lessons derived from comic book heroes.
Pollak’s origin story does not involve alien planets, super serums or radioactive spiders like his DC and Marvel comic counterparts. He started training in mixed martial arts when he was 16. Now, as an instructor at LaSalle Mixed Martial Arts in Staten Island, he is experienced in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Kempo karate, Muay Thai kickboxing and other hand-to-hand combat techniques. He had always been a huge fan of comic books and was inspired by Superman. “He always upholds certain ideals no matter what,” he said.
At 18, Pollak decided to adopt similar ideals and make some positive changes in both his life and that of others. He discovered people on the Internet who shared his passion for justice and they started foot patrols in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx. He eventually created an alter ego to call attention to problems in the community and to their work.
Twelve years later, Pollak’s costume has evolved and so has his company of crime fighters. He now patrols alongside heroes named Spectre, Spider and Dusk to name a few. They are all part of the New York Hero Initiative, a citizen watch group that launched a year ago to target crime and gather information for the police while staying within the law. They also help the homeless with care packages of food, water and essential supplies. On more than one occasion, Pollak, who wears a bulletproof vest on his beat, has dealt with drug dealers and gang members. Perhaps the most threatened he ever felt was when a pimp flashed a gun at the group on a patrol through Harlem River Park. They promptly reported him to the police and he was arrested for possession of drugs and a concealed weapon.
Despite the danger, he believes in standing up for what is right. And that’s what the Hero program is all about. Amid kicks and punches, roundhouses and hooks, Pollak sits on the rubber mat at LaSalle and ten children huddle around him. “What do you think is Superman’s greatest power?” he asks. Hands go up as the children eagerly vie to answer. “He’s strong”…“He can fly” …“He can jump over buildings”…“He fires lasers from his eyes.”
All good answers, Pollak says, but “his greatest strength is that he always does the right thing.” The class involves basic fighting technique but also tutorials in confidence, body language and how to stand up to bullying, to never throw the first punch but also to never back down when a punch is thrown.
While the children love the idea that they can emulate their favorite costumed characters, parents are more than pleased with the results.
“It’s not about high-flying antics. It teaches them respect,” says Mike Schneider whose four-year-old son Philip is obsessed with superheroes. “And It’s not about learning to fight, it’s about learning to listen,” adds the proud father.
Richard Young had enrolled his son Raffaele, 5, at LaSalle long before the Hero program began. “(The program) made it better, “ he said. “The kids can relate to it. One of the important things is that they talk about discouraging bullying. Chris is very engaging and he cares about the children. He’s not just killing time with them.”
As the class ended, the children were rewarded with high-fives and stickers on their belts. As they bowed to their sensei and scampered away to their parents, Pollak left them with one last piece of advice.
“Remember! There’s a hero in everybody and every little action makes a difference.”
The Guardian Angels have been patrolling the streets since 1979. They are an organized neighborhood watch that work closely with the police department and educational institutions. Dennis "Super-stretch" Torres, director of their Community Service Center in Washington Heights said he admires Pollak's efforts, if not all his methods.
"We don't dress up because that can be dangerous," he said. "He has to be careful when he goes out patrolling. You're always in a delicate situation and we've had six fallen angels over the years. He should also be working with the police department. That's what we do. We always make sure to notify them. Otherwise he'll be considered a vigilante. I do agree with what he's doing in the class. You have to catch them young these days. If he's teaching them to help others, that's great. As long as he keeps fantasy out of it. It keeps their minds busy and their spirits pure. There aren't too many people doing what he's doing."