Superhero Worship

Armed only with their pens and their pit-bull protagonist, Rolando and Josue Matos sic Lycanthrope on Miami and the comic book world

Another sunny day in downtown Miami. A playful eight-year-old tags along with her mother on a shopping trip. When Mother stops to take a closer look at something, bored daughter wanders off. By the time Mom realizes her little girl is no longer at her side, it's too late. As inevitably as lions attack the baby zebra who strays from the herd, human predators abduct the wayward tot. But no! Just when it appears she has become yet another tragic casualty of Miami's mean streets, a mysterious hooded stranger in black ninja garb drops out of the sky and blocks the would-be kidnappers' path. Without a sound the stranger strikes, wordlessly running the thugs through with a pair of razor-sharp swords. The terrified little girl watches the carnage in shock, cowers as the deadly stranger turns to face her. But more violence is the furthest thing from his mind. He takes her gently by the hand, hoists her onto his back, and carries her to safety. Mission accomplished, he vanishes into the bowels of downtown's seamy underbelly as wordlessly as he materialized.

Kidnapping. Rape. Murder. Home invasions. Child molestation. AIDS. Poverty. Drugs.

This is one dangerous and screwed-up world we live in. You aren't safe in your own home (assuming you've got one); the streets are a jungle. Miamians could really use a guardian angel -- and not just the unarmed kind who wears a spiffy red beret and tries to look intimidating.

What we need is a protector of the bulletproof, omniscient, superhuman variety. Preferably one with the grace of a ninja, the ferocity of a pit bull, and Dirty Harry's willingness to resort to deadly force.

Someone like the mysterious stranger in black.
Enter Kendall resident and FIU photography major Rolando Matos, a onetime U.S. Army Ranger with bad knees from the 63 jumps he made while in the Airborne and a fondness for pit bulls that blossomed while he worked for a breeder during an eighteen-month tour of duty in Alaska. Matos is a walking contradiction, a twenty-seven-year-old man who looks like a nineteen-year-old kid; it's hard to reconcile the sensitive artist whose acrylic-on-canvas still life of a floating chair placed second in a national scholastic art competition during his senior year of high school with the street fighter who broke his nose in a barroom brawl in the army. Unlike the rest of us who daydream from time to time about taking action, Matos has actually done something. He has created Lycanthrope, the half-man, half-pit bull superhero who prowls the streets of Miami in Volume 1, Number 1 of the comic book of the same name. (Pronounced like-an-thrope, the word derives from the Greek lykos for wolf and anthropos for man, and is defined as a sufferer of a kind of insanity in which the victim imagines himself to be a wolf or other wild beast.)

"I always wanted to do something about issues like AIDS, homelessness, and missing children," says the former soldier. Rolando came up with the idea for the character and does all the drawing; his 22-year-old brother Josue, a junior majoring in education at FIU, contributes to the storylines and dialogue. "I used to have this friend, a Vietnam vet with all kinds of medals," the elder Matos recalls. "His family had just turned their backs on him when he came home from the war. He was homeless, but I don't think he was a drug addict or anything. When I met him, he was living in the park behind IFAC [the International Fine Arts College near the Omni, where Matos once studied drawing and design]. One day he just disappeared. I kept going back to the park to see if he was okay, but he never came back. You always hear about homelessness, but when you know somebody like that, it really affects you. I always wondered what happened to him, and the character of Lycanthrope sort of evolved out of that."

Matos's hero roams the shadowy maze of downtown, fighting for runaways, orphans, homeless veterans, and anyone else he feels has been victimized by an uncaring society. Lycanthrope is violent (the artist insists his book is far less graphic than the norm), but social concerns are emphasized throughout the comic's pages. Example: graffiti scrawled on the walls of this cracking, crumbling community does not convey typical gang bravado, but the words "Get high, get stupid, get AIDS." And the artist has included another altruistic feature A public service ads for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a runaway hotline, and the National AIDS Research Center. The superhero with the social conscience is nothing new in comic book country. What is unique is the extent to which Matos works his personal crusade into his art.

It's a strange and ambitious mix, this mingling of local setting, martial-arts heroics, and humanitarian sentiment. At least one retailer who sells Lycanthrope thinks it distinguishes the locally produced comic from the crowd. "I think it's very innovative," says Bobby Briggs, proprietor of Legends Comics and Cards in Houston, Texas. "It's not just a bunch of good guys with superhero powers flying around and beating people up."

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