In brightest day, in blackest night, no charity shall escape their sight! Albuquerque’s caped crusaders cosplay for a cause.
“I love the idea that just for a little while we can brighten their day and give them something else to think about other than what they’re going through right now,” says Emi Kimura, aka Wonder Woman, about visiting children in the hospital. “Honestly, I can’t beat it. At the end of my work week, this is what I look forward to – doing something with the kids.”
The Justice League of America: New Mexico was founded in 2011 by Miles Blackman Jr., the group’s Batman, after being inspired by friends in Atlanta and Tampa with a national group, Heroes Alliance. “I thought, ‘Albuquerque needs a group to dress up as superheroes,’ and I thought it’d be cool for kids in hospitals.”
Just like Batman himself, tragedy in Blackman’s childhood led him to don a cape and mask. “I had a really close friend that had cancer when I was younger, and I stayed with him in the hospital while he was going through chemo and stuff like that,” he says. “I remember that feeling, and wanting to help.”
“It makes a difference,” says Patricia Dimas, whose 7-year-old son, Elijah, has been in the hospital with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of bone cancer. “It gives him hope.”
Elijah’s dad, Anthony Dimas, also talks of the benefits of JLA:NM’s visits. “I see it in him, too, that it lifts his spirits. He’ll be feeling crummy and then he sees them and he gets so excited.”
“These opportunities to have fun really are supportive of their whole patient and family experience,” says Gretchen Blackmer, Presbyterian Hospital’s Child Life Specialist in Pediatric Oncology. “A lot of our patients … are here for months at a time … so having opportunities to create more life and create more happiness, and to bring back that laughter, really helps to support their well-being, emotionally and physically. It’s all interconnected.”
Parents are often brought to tears by the excitement their kids feel when these superheroes visit the hospital – tears that give JLA:NM members mixed feelings. “Seeing the parents start to tear up today – it felt bad, but it felt really good at the same time,” says John Sumrow, the group’s Dr. Fate. “Anything to add levity to their situation is awesome.”
Chris Medina and Jenn Darnell, who portray the Riddler and the Penguin, admit that not many kids are as thrilled to see the villains as the superheroes, but they still receive a warm welcome and appreciate being part of the process.
JLA:NM’s members come from a variety of backgrounds. When not in costume, Blackman works for Homeland Security, and Justin Bellows, the group’s Green Lantern, is a Navy veteran and server at Flying Star. Sumrow is a web designer at UNM and an artist. Other members’ occupations include business office manager, cashier, controlled environment specialist, and various positions in nonprofits and government agencies.
Hobby for good
Timberly Eyssen, the Huntress, says suiting up to put smiles on kids’ faces is right in line with “my geekiness, and my philanthropy. I’ve always worked in nonprofits, so charity work is a big thing in my heart.”
“I love comic books and sci-fi/fantasy. If you’re going to have a hobby, you might as well do something good at the same time,” says Jacqui Bluth-Ortega, the group’s Zatanna. “I get to have fun; it’s like Halloween everyday. [The kids] perk up, and the parents are happy, and it makes it worth it.”
Blackman, a huge Batman fan who owns tens of thousands of comic books, didn’t have any interest in dressing up like Batman until he got the motivation to start JLA:NM. “If you would’ve asked me five years ago, ‘Miles, would you dress up like Batman?’ I’d be like ‘No way, José. Why would I dress up as Batman?!'”
Bellows was not originally a comic book fan, he says, but started getting into them after being recruited for Green Lantern. An added bonus is the amusement he gets from the strange looks he receives for being, as he says, “a grown man in a leotard.”
JLA:NM averages 20-25 appearances per year. In addition to hospital visits, they work with organizations like the Children’s Miracle Network, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, New Mexico Autism Society and Wounded Warriors, to name a few. JLA:NM has 14 members at present, with each person portraying one specific character. Members have invested anywhere from $100 to more than $1,200 in their costumes.
Blackman would like to expand the group, as he sometimes has to turn down appearances because there simply aren’t enough members to be at two events on the same day. The JLA:NM is always recruiting, and people interested in joining should contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or through the group’s Facebook page. “We still need a great Superman,” Blackman says.
Kimura, strikingly dressed as Wonder Woman, looks nostalgically across the hospital lobby at her own son who is in his early 20s, and providing logistical support. She says of the little kids she visits with JLA:NM, “They’re at that age where magic is still real, and superheroes could be real. They haven’t lost that sense of mystery and magic yet, and [we want to] keep that going for them for however long we can, especially at times like this.”
Some people may say it’s “just a costume,” but to the kids and their families, and numerous charities, the JLA:NM truly are superheroes.