Seattle has felt a lot like Gotham City lately: anarchists clad in black wielding wooden clubs and smashing windows; random shootings claiming the lives of innocent bystanders; a public that has lost faith in its police force; and a mayor unwilling or unable to stanch the bleeding. These are dark days and nights in the Emerald City, and the only things missing are a costumed crusader and his villainous rival.
Wait, we've got those too.
While the mayhem has been tragically real, our superhero is a brawny comic-book aficionado with an itchy trigger finger on his pepper-spray canister, and his arch-nemesis is a satirical provocateur battling him for Internet-celebrity supremacy. The only way it could be more quintessentially Seattle is if they both were vegans working day jobs as paddleboard-yoga instructors.
We're talking, of course, about Phoenix Jones, the self-proclaimed Guardian of Seattle, and his new mustachioed foe, Rex Velvet. Jones, outed long ago as 22-year-old ex-MMA fighter Ben Fodor, has stretched his 15 minutes of fame into genuine notoriety. It's been nearly three years since he donned a fedora and generated his first headline, but he's still wrangling last-call drunks in Belltown and still a media darling. In the past month alone, Jones and his Rain City sidekicks were featured on cable's National Geographic Channel, and he starred in a music video for a rock song dedicated to his alter ego.
While a portion of the public adores Jones, his ego and approach to crimefighting have also riled a legion of critics. Now that long-simmering backlash is personified by Velvet, a bowler-wearing, samurai sword–wielding, DeLorean-driving scoundrel with some serious video-editing skills. In a series of viral clips released last month on YouTube, Velvet dubbed himself "The People's Villain," called on Jones to "hang up his mask for good," and decried the Seattle superhero movement as a "silly gang of misfit Power Rangers disturbing the peace."
Velvet debuted the morning of May 1, the day thousands of protesters took to the streets and nearly re-enacted the 1999 WTO riots. Jones and his crew were there, unleashing a cloud of pepper spray in a vain attempt to guard a downtown building. By mid-month, Jones hit KISS 106.1 to publicly challenge his invented adversary to a debate/fight. The confrontation has yet to occur, but discussion has definitely begun. In these trying times, our city stands divided into two camps. It's Jones vs. Velvet, heroes vs. villains, and, as usual, serious vs. snarky.
Yet curiously little is known about the man who calls himself Rex Velvet. Where did he come from? Why does he despise Phoenix Jones? Just how evil is he, really? A series of interviews with Velvet yielded some shocking answers. Not only does he secretly loathe cats (except when they're being used to torment kidnapped real-life superheroes), Velvet is poised to stoop to the lowest level of villainy: merchandising.
It's a dreary afternoon in downtown Seattle, but it's warm and dry in Bernard's, the dark basement bar beneath the Hotel Seattle. The joint is German-themed, with a big Bavarian mural on one wall; the absence of windows makes it feel like the set for the shootout scene in Inglourious Basterds. Incongruously, the soundtrack is Swedish pop, with ABBA's "Dancing Queen" just loud enough in the background to drown out the conversation at a nearby table. It seems a suitable place to rendezvous with a supervillain.
Velvet arrives late, cursing downtown's parking squeeze. He looks nothing like the dastardly devil depicted on the Internet. The cartoonish handlebar mustache is missing from his upper lip, and the gnarly scar that runs down his cheek has vanished. He wears a hoodie, and looks like any other fresh-faced 26-year-old Seattleite. He orders a coffee and a beer, and talks about himself in the third person.
"Briefly, I'll let you into the world that is Rex Velvet," he says. "Mind you, I don't share this info with many, but since you're going to give me a front-page story in your silly little blog paper, I'll make an exception."
Asked about his altered appearance, Velvet mumbles something about being incognito. He bears a conspicuous resemblance to the actor who stars in a series of spoof videos on YouTube uploaded by the same "dirtyc34" account that added Velvet's missives. But he's carrying Velvet's signature silver Space Needle–shaped shank, and his voice—vaguely British and over-the-top sinister—is unmistakable. Velvet, however, is in no mood to discuss the origins of his peculiar accent.
"I was dropped off a little bastard in a basket at the evil orphanage," he says. "But I can trace my origins: I know exactly where the accent comes from, but it's neither here nor there. I talk a certain way, and if you don't like it, I assume you're prejudiced."
Velvet claims to be descended from "a long line of villains," and his evil pedigree is bolstered by a record of childhood mischief. In 1998, according to his Facebook profile, he earned "Camp Chaos' Youth Troublemaker Award." Asked to elaborate, Velvet wistfully recalls his first major caper. "We managed to make sure, on the girls' side of camp, all of the toilet paper was stolen for the entire week," Velvet says. "It was absolutely horrific."
At this malevolent summer camp, Velvet says, he also became acquainted with the gang of miscreants that still serve as his henchmen in his Social Villains Alliance, or SVA. But the typically loquacious Velvet is cryptic when queried about the Illuminati-esque group he leads, saying "Certain things must remain a mystery—these are matters I simply cannot discuss."
Velvet made it a condition of our interview that his true identity would remain off-limits, though he did dispute Jones' claim that the real-life Rex is a wedding photographer. Typically sharp-witted, with a mischievous smile, Velvet's demeanor briefly turns serious, and he actually seems somewhat offended by Jones' mischaracterization of his profession, which he vaguely describes as "videography." Some basic Internet sleuthing reveals connections to a company called Rocket Launch Productions and a background in media.
Loath to discuss such details, Velvet quickly steers the conversation to his favorite topic: Phoenix Jones. What galls Velvet most about Jones might come as a surprise. It's not just the so-called superhero's attempts to fight crime, but rather the bombastic public persona and cult of personality Jones has cultivated. "If we're going to fight crime," Velvet says, "we don't have to put on a suit and parade around downtown like an ass and hurt people."
On this point, Velvet strives to make himself clear: He is opposed to physical violence and illegal acts. There is, as he puts it, a fine line between evil and illegal. Waging a propaganda campaign to taunt harebrained do-gooders like Jones is evil; blowing up a building is illegal. "You do that and you look like an asshole terrorist," Velvet says. "There's no class, no tact. Rex has charisma. It takes a great man of distinguished character to cripple you psychologically."
It's an odd paradox. Velvet purports to promote all manner of nefarious deeds, yet when push comes to shove, he is anti-shoving and pro-hugging. To rephrase the immortal question posed by Rodney King: Why can't Phoenix and Rex just get along?
"There's no rhyme or reason why Rex doesn't like good guys," Velvet says. "He just doesn't. He's only a villain because he dislikes superheroes. He's an opposing voice, a devil's advocate. Rex isn't necessarily doing anything bad, he's just stirring the pot."
Long before Velvet and his Social Villains Alliance came along, a group called the Ruthless Organization Against Citizen Heroes (ROACH) ruled Seattle's villain scene with iron fists on their keyboards. Led by a shadowy figure known as The Potentate, the group formed in 2009 as a direct response to Jones' antics.
Like Velvet and the SVA, ROACH's arrival was heralded by the Gawker Media blog i09, which published their recruiting video with the tagline "It is a time of Heroes. Hope runs rampant. Evil must act." Trouble was, evil never really acted. The group stopped maintaining their website last year, their plans for world domination apparently falling by the wayside.
Agent Beryllium, a Seattle-based ROACH co-founder, says The Potentate moved to the Midwest and mellowed after he became a father. Now the group's day-to-day activities are managed by a guy in Florida who calls himself Poop Knife. "I've never met him in real life," Beryllium says. "I'd imagine he smells bad."
Beryllium suggested a meeting at Cupcake Royale on Capitol Hill. Formerly, ROACH's evil lair was the nearby Po Dog hot-dog shop, but they recently decided to relocate. In her late 20s with close-cropped red hair, Beryllium arrives wearing tinted aviator goggles and a suede jacket with a sheepskin collar. This, she explains, is her time-travel outfit. She may or may not be kidding.
Despite her alleged ability to visit the future, Beryllium says she did not see Rex Velvet coming. She and the other remaining ROACH villains are impressed by his Hollywood-caliber video production, but somewhat jealous of all the attention he's been getting. Nevertheless, she and her cohorts have decided to adhere to the old adage "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
"We thoroughly congratulate him," Beryllium says. "We like his moxie."
Velvet has no plans to forge an alliance with ROACH, saying he represents "a shift in the villain guard," but Beryllium offers him unsolicited advice: Watch out for the crazies. ROACH, she explains, was overrun with e-mails from lunatics—many calling themselves "The Real-Life Joker"—conspiring to attack superheroes or participate in actual crimes.
"I respect people like Rex Velvet because it is about pure entertainment," Beryllium says. "He isn't trying to sugarcoat something. It's raw, viral fun."
Tea Krulos, Milwaukee-based author of the forthcoming Heroes in the Night, about real-life superheroes, says mockery was also the inspiration for the original real-life supervillain. Several years ago in Cincinnati, a character called The High Noon Tortoise emerged as a rival to that city's hapless hero, Shadow Hare. "Shadow Hare was kind of people's stereotypical vision of what a real-life superhero guy typically is," Krulos says. "He's a young, kind of scrawny, squeaky-voiced dude who is obviously kind of nerdy. The local news report on him pretty much laughed him off. The video started circulating, and that's when people were like, 'If this guy is a superhero, I'm going to be a supervillain.' "
The High Noon Tortoise, Krulos recounts, broadcast his plans to thwart Shadow Hare by littering and jaywalking every day at an appointed place and time. As Krulos observes, the petty plot was quite obviously meant to be a joke, but the very existence of villains like Velvet implies at least half- seriousness on their part. "What separates them from the public is a lot of people just kind of shrug this thing off as being 'Oh, these guys are doing this weird superhero thing, I'll turn the page and read about something else,' " Krulos says. "[For] supervillains, it kind of strikes a deeper nerve, to where they feel the need to debate and kind of retaliate."
Vasilis K. Pozios is one of three forensic psychiatrists at Broadcast Thought, a Los Angeles organization which analyzes movie villains for Hollywood scriptwriters. Pozios and his colleagues declined to psychoanalyze Velvet, but they too suspect there is at least a speck of sincerity behind all the sarcasm. "It seems like there's a pretty large contingent that feels like this whole real-life-superhero concept is kind of ridiculous in some way," Pozios says. "Rex Velvet seems to be the mouthpiece for that, but I don't know. I can't get inside Rex Velvet's head, and I don't want to."
Velvet acknowledges that his extraordinarily elaborate prank comes embedded with a deeper message: Phoenix Jones and other real-life superheroes are attention-craving vigilantes trying to do police work without the proper training or authorization. But the best part about Velvet's gag thus far is that Jones is taking him seriously.
Phoenix Jones officially declined an interview request for this story, but he did make his feelings about Velvet quite clear. "He's the worst person of all time," Jones says during our brief phone conversation. "Everyone knows Phoenix Jones is a marketing strategy in itself, but the marketing is to not be a dick or a douchebag!"
Jones, notorious for typing exclusively in upper-case letters when responding to critics online, legitimately feels he's making a difference. The young father of two lost his job as a respite-care worker with the state Department of Social and Health Services after his pepper-spray arrest last October, and has yet to cash in on his celebrity with a book deal or reality-TV show. With his pretend-superheroine wife PurpleReign, Jones recently held a fundraiser for a charity that supports victims of domestic violence. The "marketing," Jones emphasizes, is a variant of the Department of Homeland Security's "If you see something, say something" campaign. He wants to encourage people to call the police or take action when they witness crime.
Velvet, however, isn't buying it. "At best," he says, "Phoenix Jones is a snitch—a tattletale, a babysitter roaming about the city."
It's that sort of needling which led Jones to publicly confront Velvet. On Thursday, May 17, Jones appeared on the Jackie and Bender show on Seattle's KISS 106.1 FM to challenge Velvet to a 10-minute debate followed by a three-minute fight, in which the villain could wield "any weapon . . . other than a gun."
Velvet refused to take the bait, which irked Jones even more. "Villains fight superheroes, and fake villains make YouTube videos," Jones said on-air. "You're like the Kim Kardashian of villains."
Asked later about the exchange, Velvet claims hand-to-hand combat with Jones was never his aspiration. He merely requested a face-to-face meeting with his archenemy, and urged the public to stop tolerating superheroes. But, in hindsight, given the virtually limitless array of weapons that had been offered him, a tussle with Jones could have been very entertaining. "I could run him over with a Ride the Ducks," Velvet muses. "Or maybe I'll box him in with 100 mimes and then Silly String him to death."
Velvet, though, prefers to inflict mental anguish; his primary tactic is public ridicule. He recently created flyers reading "Super Heroes Not Welcome" for followers to print and plaster about the city, and he encourages people to shout "Nerd!" whenever they see Jones and his sidekicks on patrol. "That way anywhere Phoenix goes, he can't escape the fact that he's a silly nerd," says Velvet.
Of course, in his most recent video, Velvet does appear to inflict actual physical pain on a real-life superhero. A nameless man in Captain America–style tights is shown tied to a chair. Velvet briefly wields a massive claw contraption, but ultimately eschews the ghoulish torture device for something entirely crueler: housecats. In the end, the hero's face appears to have been clawed repeatedly.
"Though I keep hundreds of cats, I do not like them," Velvet says. "I find them to be the most horrific and evil of all creatures. But I must have the relationship with the evil cats. I know they're evil and they'll get the job done."
In addition to the feline affliction, the abducted hero in the video also ends up with a handlebar mustache inked in Sharpie on his upper lip. Velvet envisions mustache-tagging as part of the public uprising against superheroes. He urges concerned citizens to carry felt pens and, if possible, draw mustaches on the faces of costumed crusaders like Jones. "I believe if you do see a superhero, you should you do your best to run at them and mark them with a permanent marker," Velvet says. "They need to be mocked—branded with a scarlet letter, if you will."
But to hear Jones tell it, the last thing Velvet wants is for his counterpart to quit the superhero business. Jones says that before Velvet's first video premiered online, an associate of the villain sent an invitation asking Jones to collaborate with him. "He doesn't actually want me to quit," Jones says, claiming to have e-mails that prove the conversation occurred. "He's a huge fan."
Velvet rebuffs the accusation. "Rex will go to great lengths to ensure the city is rid of vigilante nerds," he says, adding that the e-mails mentioned by Jones were written by a wannabe villain not affiliated with the SVA. But he concedes his endgame includes some sort of profiteering—whether a feature-film opportunity or hawking branded merchandise on the SVA website remains to be seen.
Either way, Jones and Velvet have an oddly symbiotic relationship. The more views Velvet's YouTube videos rack up, the more attention Jones invariably gets, and each time Jones acknowledges Velvet's existence, it lends the villain a little more legitimacy.
Superhero author Krulos nails the Jones/Velvet dynamic by comparing Jones to someone who attempts to engage in serious debate with a troll on an Internet forum. "It's like someone getting mad at a ventriloquist dummy or a puppet," Krulos says. "It's not something you should get mad at just because it's talking. One guy I met said 'I've got the perfect weapon against real-life supervillains.' He had a picture of the on/off key on his computer. It was like, 'Once I press this, there's no evidence they ever existed.' "
So is Velvet at all concerned that his lowercase-averse nemesis will discover the secret weapon embedded on his keyboard?
"Clearly," Velvet replies, "Phoenix Jones needs to figure out where the caps lock button is first."