GIRARD - A Girard man is making it his mission to bring out the superhero in everyone.
What started out as a hobby for Michael "Knightmage" Wilson has become a passion.
By day he is a Mahoning County deputy sheriff. But by night - or on his days off - he is a myriad of superheroes, including Batman, the Green Lantern, Captain America, Moon Knight, Spawn, Cyborg and more.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Bonnie L. Hazen
Girard resident and Mahoning County Deputy Sheriff Michael “Knightmage” Wilson suits up as Batman on Friday at his home.
Wilson, 34, has been seen at numerous community events, including the Relay For Life, Buddy Walk for Down Syndrome and the 5K Superhero Run for Abused Children. He also attended the Light the Bat Signal for Jayden event last year for 4-year-old Jayden Barber of Youngstown, who was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.
He sells photo prints of his portrayals, with 100 percent of the proceeds donated to charities such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He also has been known to make appearances at hospitals, birthday parties and daycares, where he strives to make others smile.
Wilson participates in cosplay, short for costume play - a performance art involving the creation of costumes and representation of characters including superheroes, movie and other pop culture icons.
"Everyone wants to be looked up to. You just put yourself in the mind frame of you are that person," he said.
He recently spoke to students at Howland Primary School about bullying while dressed as Batman. He told them that everyone can be a hero by making the right choices.
Wilson said the reason many people like Batman is because he is a superhero who fights crime but doesn't have super powers like Spider-Man or Superman. "When they see him, they think, 'I can be Batman,'" he said.
It all started with a Green Lantern costume that Wilson made for Halloween. Now, a year later, he has 15 costumes, with two more in the works. And although his costume-making skills continue to improve, Wilson said his first costume will always be special.
"I will say that's the one that has the most significance. I see flaws in it now, but it's something that I'd never change," he said.
Wilson said each costume is different, but he usually spends three to four hours a day over several days on one. His Spawn costume, a combination of sewing, armor crafting and painting, took him the most time.
Wilson gets help from his girlfriend, Gwendolyn Graham, also a Mahoning County deputy sheriff. She taught him how to sew his costumes.
"She's an ex-Marine. We are totally opposite. She's very shy," he said. "She's my handler, she's the one making sure the costume's always on right, taking pictures for me."
Graham said, "I'm not really into the comic book stuff, but I support him in it. He does a lot of good things with it," she said.
Batgirl may soon accompany Wilson to his events, as Graham has a costume in the works.
Although many serious cosplayers take part in competitions, Wilson isn't in it for the glory. However, he said competitions give cosplayers the opportunity to show the hard work they've put into their costumes.
He cited two main reasons for his craft.
"The first part is the kids. I love the reactions from the kids. No matter what, Batman has different looks, but they always recognize him. They go crazy over Batman.
''Two is helping other people. I think cosplayers don't know 100 percent the power they have right now. They could be doing a lot of cool, cool stuff," he said, adding that he hopes he can inspire other cosplayers to take part in charity events.
One of his favorite memories took place at Wizard World Ohio in Columbus, where he met a young man who was mentally challenged.
"He begged his parents to come only because he wanted to meet me. It was just really special. It was really humbling," he said.
He also has made numerous appearances at the Cleveland Clinic.
"All the hospital visits are special, but those are hard. You can see that they're excited, but they can't show it. That kind of tears you up," he said. When that happens, he said he just reminds himself why he's there and that he's doing something good.
Joy Sypert of Mineral Ridge saw Wilson in action last year during the Light the Bat Signal for Jayden event in Boardman, where he and other superheroes rallied to get the attention of actor Christian Bale. Sypert's son, Jacob, 10, is a leukemia survivor.
She recalled the event where Wilson, dressed as the Green Lantern, played a game of dodgeball with the kids. She said she had to tell them to take it easy as they pelted Wilson over and over again with the ball.
"He said, 'It's OK, I can take anything,'" she recalled with a smile.
Greg Bartholomew, Warren 4th Ward councilman and owner of All American Comics, has seen Wilson at several events, including Free Comic Book Day and All Americon 4.
"His Spawn costume is as good as any cosplay costume I've ever seen in my life. It's absolutely fantastic. The kids' eyes just light up," Bartholomew said. "He's a great guy."
Despite his portrayal of superheroes, Wilson, who has been in law enforcement for 14 years, has seen his share of villains.
He still remembers where he was when he heard the news of the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., last year during a premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises."
"That was horrible," he said. And when some people have the idea to become real-life superheroes, others can do just the opposite.
"Sooner or later, someone is going to take that idea, go that extra step and do something really, really stupid," he said.
But Wilson said costume or not, if he has the ability to stop crime in its tracks, he will.
"Yeah, absolutely I would do it," he said.
Wilson said if he could do any costume without limitations, it would be Voltron.
"Voltron, without a doubt. I'd do a 10-foot Voltron and just wear it. That would be so awesome," he said.
"I'm dressing up as superheroes, I travel, meet all these people and do all these things. It's just like a win-win for everyone. I've seen the good it can do. I'm having the time of my life," he said.