SALT LAKE CITY — By his own admission, Dave Montgomery was a functioning drunk who hated himself. Not that many years ago he might guzzle 30 Rolling Rocks to mask the memory of a hit-and-run life that included two divorces and a daughter who died in childbirth.
After he quit boozing, his very existence bored him. Then one night in 2006 the suburban tattoo artist typed into a computer search the words he now says have made all the difference: "real-life superheroes."
Since then, he's joined a world of masked crusaders, morphing from flawed human to a fantastic creation straight out of his imagination. At least one night a month, he dons a black leather outfit that suggests pure urban menace, inserts blue contact lenses that give his eyes an eerie glow and steps into industrial boots that rise nearly to his knees.
And then comes the piece de resistance: a blood-red wrap-around mask in the shape of a cross with no nose or mouth.
"It's like reapplying a very old skin you forgot you had, finding out all over again what you really look like," he says of his costume. "It just feels natural."
He calls himself Nihilist, a thing without rules, and he's the founder of the Black Monday Society: two dozen characters with such names as Asylum, Fool King, Red Voltage and Iron Head who walk Salt Lake City streets looking for trouble — not making it, but trying to prevent it.
Montgomery, 41, is among the growing ranks of self-styled superheroes in places like San Jose, Boston, Minneapolis, New York, Cleveland and Kansas City. They're teachers, artists, students and blue-collar workers who transform themselves into crime-fighters like the comic-book characters they cheered on as children.
On its irregular forays, the Black Monday Society forms groups of four or more to patrol troubled downtown neighborhoods like Drug Alley and Area 51. The heroes stride with the assurance of rock stars.
For the most part, they have only themselves for company. They have yet to encounter a crime in progress, although they have broken up fights and helped drunks passed out on the sidewalk.
All the while, passers-by gawk. Cars slow and people shout praise or hurl insults, most of which involve a similar theme: "I thought Halloween was in October." Montgomery waves it off with a gloved hand.
"There just aren't any role models out there anymore, so we created our own superheroes," he says. "Our message: Believe in yourself. Become your own hero."
The Black Monday Society doesn't carry weapons. Members insist they're not vigilantes. When one potential recruit emailed that he was "an experienced swordsman" who "makes his own weapons," the group didn't respond.
But superheroes in other cities have armed themselves with mace, pepper spray and clubs, causing many to fear that the idealistic crusaders are soon going to hurt themselves — or someone else.
In May, a member of the Rain City Superhero Movement in Seattle allegedly pepper-sprayed protesters in the city's downtown, saying he was stopping an anarchist from throwing a bomb at the courthouse. Such acts have led many police departments to distance themselves from the masked crime fighters.
"We don't approve or condemn these characters," said Detective Joshua Ashdown, a spokesman for the Salt Lake City Police Department. He said that unlike police department volunteers, Montgomery and his group have no formal training.
On a recent night, Black Monday members parked their cars on a side street near the downtown library. They walked for two hours, always staying on the sidewalk, the leader pausing on street corners to randomly change direction.
Most passers-by were curious, but some nights bring tension. After coming upon a bar fight, members walked bar patrons to their cars in an effort to instill calm. "Whether these guy wore costumes or not, they were out there helping," said Jeff Hacker, a local bar manager. "What do most people do at night? Go home and watch TV."
Despite the dangers, the superhero trend is spreading.
"Just like the old Guardian Angels, they get organized and create their own manifesto," said Michael Barnett, director of the documentary Superheroes. "There are only two rules to being a real-life superhero: Put on a mask, and go out and do good. It's just that simple."
Stan Lee, the former chairman of Marvel Comics who collaborated on such characters as Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four, has another explanation for the movement's popularity.
"There's not much glamour in the average guy's life, but if you can put on a costume and give yourself a name and walk down the street, you're something special," he said. "Everybody wants to be a superhero."
Like Montgomery, the ranks of the Black Monday Society include people with troubled pasts. Like the comic-book superheroes of old, they've each got a dark side, a secret weakness.
Montgomery's tattoo parlor reflects a jumbled life of joy, attitude and heartbreak: comic book covers and horror masks hang next to a snapshot of his daughter Johnnie, who died at birth, and a set of photo-booth shots with his 6-year-old daughter, Frankie.
Montgomery looks past the family photos to talk about his motivation for taking to the streets: "I want to tell people I meet, 'Hey, I'm not doing this to save you; I'm doing this to save myself.' "
Mike Gailey, a 32-year-old tattoo artist, says his alter ego Asylum is his sanity. Gailey once provided muscle for drug dealers and worked as a strip club bouncer. "As Asylum, I tap into that gray area between who I used to be and who I am today," he said. "I'm a dude who used to own the streets but who now walks them in a different way."
A plaque at his tattoo station spells out his superhero mantra: "We grew up with giant monsters, comic books, punk, science fiction, skateboarding, robots and rebellion. No one made what we wanted. So we made it ourselves."
But the veterans are also finding that, like a comic book read over and over, the superhero story line can get old. Montgomery has handed over the reins of Black Monday to a younger crusader and now prefers to spend more time with Frankie and less on patrol.
"Do you know how hard it is to actually find a crime?" he said. "On the street, there are no real super villains. Life is just not that amazing."