(File photo) An art installationnear the former CBD of the New Zealand city of Christchurch. A 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the city 2011. The installation comprises 185 white chairs representing the number of people killed in the disaster. REUTERS/David Gray

Wellington -

By day he is just a regular guy, but after midnight he shimmies into a leotard and tights and becomes Flat Man, a caped crusader tiptoeing along darkened city streets in New Zealand, leaving food parcels on doorsteps.

Flat Man, whose identity remains a closely guarded secret, takes his name from his first missions delivering food parcels to students living in shared flats or apartments in the South Island city of Christchurch.

The night-time escapades began a few months after Christchurch suffered a series of devastating earthquakes, including the 6.3 tremor that hit on February 22, 2011, killing 185 people.

It started as a one-off gesture to cheer up some of his friends, young students who were mourning the loss of the city's bars and night life.

“I never expected it to grow into a superhero operation,” he told reporters over the phone. “I just wanted to bring some joy back, just undermine that negative tone, and create something from that and bring some joy and lightheartedness to it.”

For the first year, he delivered two or three food parcels every couple of weeks to students, sneaking out of his flat between midnight and 3am.

Flat Man now delivers food packages more widely, to families and single parents who contact him through his Facebook page or website.

He visits schools, where he tells children that anyone can be a superhero as long as they are kind and generous and look out for others.

“A lot of kids think superheroes have powers and can fly, and it is just nice to be able to teach them that little simple things can really change someone's life,” he said.

His Facebook page has plenty of grateful messages from fans, including one from a mother who said: “My son has cerebral palsy and you made his day... still telling me you run like lightning.”

Conscious of the responsibilities inherent in wearing lycra, and perhaps wary of becoming Fat Man rather than Flat Man, he takes his personal fitness seriously.

His training video, posted online, is inspired by the Sylvester Stallone boxing movie Rocky. Dressing in black tights, leotard and cape is not for the faint hearted, and this 20-something former management and economics student is undoubtedly an extrovert.

“Flat Man is a character and when you put the costume on, you are in superhero mode, so when you are visiting schools, it is high energy, I am doing cartwheels, it is a big performance,” he said.

He has always loved superheroes and admits to taking an ill-advised leap from the second storey roof of his house when he was three years old while pretending to be Superman.

“I jumped off into a rock garden and broke my collarbone. I learned my lesson that I couldn't fly then, so I learned to have other powers,” he said.

The Flatmobile is a Toyota, provided by corporate sponsor Stadium Cars. He used to drive a Camaro but the 1970s muscle car was retired after it became too unreliable for superhero duties and almost derailed an appearance at a Christmas parade.

“Before the Santa parade the radiator blew. It is awkward when you are in a superhero costume and your car breaks down,” he said.

Flat Man is still looking for a replacement for his sidekick, Quake Kid, who resigned to pursue a day job in another city two years ago. He is cautious about who he selects for the role.

“You have to be a little bit special if you want to be running around in lycra,” he said.

Flat Man, no longer a student, now juggles his duties with working full-time and says he would love to be a full-time superhero. He declined to discuss his day job.

“I am waiting for the day that an anonymous donor can fund the whole superhero operation, but that hasn't happened yet. But one day.”

Flat Man is honoured that his first costume has become part of the permanent collection at the Canterbury Museum. Sarah Murray, curator of human history at the museum, said Flat Man had become part of the post-quake culture of Christchurch.

“We don't necessarily want to remember the quakes as broken bricks and collapsed chimneys and buildings gone. To us the earthquakes are about people coming together and supporting one another and working together, and Flat Man illustrates that beautifully,” she said.

The costume was shown in the museum's RISE exhibition earlier this year, in a “robes of authority” display case alongside clergy robes.

“It was rather fabulous because our costume gallery is on the second floor of our original museum building, so if you looked up from below you could actually see him watching out over you,” Murray said. - Sapa-dpa