The first time Mark Ashfield entered BC Children’s Hospital, one thing stood out: none of the kids were sad — even the ones with terminal illnesses.
Yes, some were upset by how weary their parents looked, but the tiniest thing (someone to play Xbox with or an extra cup of lime Jell-O) would bring the biggest smiles. The first time Ashfield entered a children’s hospital, however, wasn’t as the adult who is now orchestrating a heroic operation guaranteed to bring some of the biggest grins yet — it was when he was a patient himself.
“I was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which, for me, basically meant being brought into this world with a constant migraine headache,” he says. “I was in the hospital a lot, from the time I was born. And I learned a lot about what makes kids happy in there.”
Looking at a tall, muscled and cheerful Ashfield today, many might not guess that the 32-year-old still lives with sustained pain — he’s just learned to put up with it. But anyone who does know him also gets his super-geek obsession with comic books and superheroes, and they know that’s what gives Ashfield his child-like passion for making kids happy.
It’s no surprise, then, that Batman will be appearing in Victoria on Sat., Sept. 1, along with Superman, Catwoman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Poison Ivy, Aquaman and 30-or-so more of everyone’s favourite superheroes. After all, Ashfield sent out the batwing, spiderweb, aquafin and rallied as many of his favourite heroes as he could to show up at Market Square so that eager kids of all ages can pose with these famed ones in the “Superhero Photo Shoot,” to benefit the BC Children’s Hospital.
Butler to the cause
The Superheroes of Victoria don’t just live in fanciful comic books — the entire league, all 36 members, has a secret headquarters in Ashfield’s apartment.
For the last three years, Ashfield and his fiancé Ru Takemoto have turned their kitschy, downtown living space into a “justice cave” of superheroic proportions. Framed, special-edition comic books line the brick walls. Costumes hang in every angled corner. A giant Superman S-flag is draped over the hearth, while a classic Batman Returns rubber cowl and Hawkgirl’s head shield are stoic statues on the kitchen mantel. Any space that isn’t taken up by Lycra fabric and heroes-in-the making is instilled with photos of events labeled “Superhero Kids Day,” “Justice League Photo Shoot,” “My Mom, My Hero” and “Salmon Kings Hero Night.”
Yet, Ashfield rarely wears the costumes. That’s saved for the real actors, he says.
It’s easy to picture Ashfield as Batman’s Alfred, with every bit as much dedication to a cause he can’t stop loving. At the same time as pulling a full-time job as a security dispatch officer out of Royal Jubilee Hospital, Ashfield is applying to become a police officer, in the hopes of entering the financial crimes division.
The former military corporal served five years in the Canadian Forces infantry after getting his accounting degree. He’s spent a lifetime helping others, from the first time he organized a battle-of-the-bands competition at age 16 to raise money for repairing a church roof. Then, three years ago, a friend who knew of Ashfield’s charming geekiness approached him about the BC Children’s Hospital “Be A Superhero” campaign. The program was struggling with no one to take the reins or find a physical way to breathe life into it. It was Ashfield’s bat signal.
“Kids don’t give up on life because they are sick — and it takes so little to make them thrilled,” says Ashfield. “I knew I could do something that would mean a lot to them.”
With a plan in hand, Ashfield created the official Superheroes of Victoria registered charity and recruited as many volunteer models as he could, sticking loosely to body-type guidelines. While the Superheroes of Victoria’s Superman may not actually have super-human strength, he won’t have a beer gut, either.
Ashfield’s vision was to make the characters as believable as possible, which is why he invested his own money (more than he’d like to disclose) into hand-making and special-ordering all the costumes to give kids as real-life an experience as possible.
Throw out the vinyl and plastic make-believe: Captain America’s shield and Wolverine’s claws are forged from real steel, as are Wonder Woman’s gauntlets. Batman’s cowl is polyurethane rubber, Green Arrow’s bow set is genuine, all boots are tailor-made with leather or skin-tight PVC, all fabrics are a stretchable blend of Lycra and Spandex, and imagination fills in the rest. For events like the upcoming “Superhero Photo Shoot,” Ashfield even has the Aveda Institute of Victoria on hand to perfect makeup, and Danger By Design is providing special effects.
“There’s always this sense of innocence kids have, a different way they see things,” says Ashfield. “For me, walking home from work now feels like ‘I’ve had a long day’ but, back then, it would have been like a scene from a movie — a real adventure. I wish I could still see the world the way I did when I was five.”
The real superheroes
“Heroes save the world, but it takes people to change it.” That’s the slogan the Superheroes of Victoria promote online. When it comes to those people, Ashfield can’t think of a better time than when children are ogling over superheroes to teach them about our real heroes.
“I love asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, and inevitably they say they want to be Superman, or Spider-Man, and when I ask why, they say ‘Because he can lift buildings and blow out fires, and save people!’” says Ashfield. “And I tell them, ‘Do you know there are supermen out there right now, doing just that?’ And their eyes go wide, and I say, ‘Yup — they aren’t bullet-proof, and they don’t even have super-human strength, but firemen, police and paramedics risk their lives every day to save people.’”
Ashfield also has a special guest coming to this year’s photo shoot: Saanich Police civilian officer Kevin Nunn. Nunn, who is known around the community for his fundraising and charity work, made an appropriate look-alike name for himself as “Billy Idol” two years ago by dying his hair bleach blonde, then by running 60 kilometres over the Malahat from Cowichan to the Saanich Police station. This year, on Sept. 9, Nunn intends to harness himself to a 2,530-pound BMW Mini and pull it around UVic’s Ring Road 12 times (equaling 21 kilometres) to raise money for the Cops for Cancer Tour de Rock.
But taking a pause from his heroic work on and off duty, a modest Nunn has agreed to guest star as Aquaman for Ashfield’s shoot.
“I don’t see myself as being a real superhero, I don’t really even have a favourite character. I just like to be helpful, and I’m willing to do whatever is needed for the day,” says Nunn.
That attitude is what makes the “make-believe” believable, and what makes the actors become true heroes, says Ashfield.
“Putting on a suit doesn’t really give you any superpowers, but it can feel like you have this alter-ego,” he says. “Once you get into one, it’s really easy to just become this confident, powerful character and get into the role.”
Ashfield’s fiancé shares that feeling. Takemoto, who acts as volunteer coordinator, wasn’t particularly interested in comics before she met Ashfield two years ago, but his passion for helping people was as alluring as the alter egos themselves.
“I’m a very shy person, so it’s been a new experience for me to be around so many people, and organize donations and create the costumes,” she says. “But when I have tried on Wonder Woman, for example, she makes me feel like I can really be that person. It’s a lot of fun.”
When it comes to everyone’s favourites, Ashfield says his all-time hero is Superman. Nunn says, for him, it’s his father. Takemoto says her hero is Ashfield.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but he protects me, emotionally, and he’s there to support me,” she says. “His devotion to others amazes me, and I respect what he does so much. I want to be more like him.” M
See all your favourite heroes and villains at the “Superhero Photo Shoot,” Sat., Sept. 1, noon to 3pm, at the Market Square courtyard. Suggested donation $10 per photo. Learn more, or meet all the heroes at SuperHeroesOfVictoria.org.