From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
She finds her work as an accountant "a boring 9-to-5 job." But many an evening after Irene Thomas, 21, returns to her cramped 400-sq.-ft. attic apartment in a town in Bergen County, N.J., she slips into a black catsuit, accessorized with a red belt, red gloves and boots, and sometimes also dons a mask. When she emerges in her Honda Accord on the Manhattan side of the Lincoln Tunnel, she is Nyx, her namesake a Greek goddess of night. While she might patrol the streets looking for anything out of the ordinary, her immediate mission is distributing food and clothes to the homeless. And she has another goal: to call attention to her actions so that "other people notice and are maybe motivated to help too."

She is not alone. From New York City to Seattle, scores of costumed crusaders have joined the superhero movement. While their aims aren't always unified-some cater to the needy while others are bent on thwarting crime-most of them share a desire to stomp out citizen apathy by modeling "superhero" virtues. "I just feel like I'm walking on air after I've helped 30 people," says Chaim "Life" Lazaros, 26, a production manager by day, who wears a mask and fedora (a la Green Hornet) when he takes to New York's streets at night. The superheroes, who range from dishwashers to Fortune 500 execs, cut across political, religious and age lines and are often comic-book geeks, says Tea Krulos, who blogs about the phenomenon. "They don't want to admit it, [but] it's fun to dress up."

Not everyone is impressed by their derring-do. On a recent night in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, a teenage homeless girl only smirked when Motor Mouth, a ninjalike fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area's streets, handed her a bag of food. Unfazed, Motor Mouth (who refuses to give his real name) says he doesn't mind "a million people snickering behind my back as long as there is the possibility to help."

The costumed do-gooders, who pack nothing more lethal than first-aid kits and benign intentions, get high marks from the police. "Any time a citizen gets involved-great," says Det. Renee Witt of the Seattle police department. Others, like Seattle superhero Phoenix Jones, 22, have created a stir by being brazen crime fighters. In recent months Phoenix Jones claims he has interrupted knife fights, helped catch drug dealers and been stabbed. Certainly he's sparked discussion among his peers about boundaries. "If we see the police are already there, our philosophy is the matter has been addressed," says Seattle's White Baron. Most self-styled superheroes are well aware they can't fly or outrun speeding bullets. "If you live this kind of life," says Motor Mouth, 30, "you can't take yourself entirely seriously."