0: The Origin Story
My name is William Barrow, and I am now a recovering comic book villain. Most of you have never heard of me, and perhaps this is a good thing. I’m pretty lame. My power involved being able to transform myself from an ordinary, simple construction worker into a lethal killing machine. More aptly put, I can transform myself into a wheelbarrow. But here’s the punch line: the wheel of the wheelbarrow would be a circular saw.
I was Kill Barrow, Wheelbarrow of Doom, and, man, nobody has to ever tell me that I sucked.
I guess it’d be bad enough if I were a villain from a failed line of comics: something rejected by DC or Marvel, something created by some third-rate, amateur comic book ‘zinester. Instead, I’m a Geek trapped in Charles Bukowski’s body. Or maybe I’m a drunk Fred MacMurray, the very personification of a shaggy dog story. At least someone modeled Captain Marvel, a comic book hero, after MacMurray in the ’40s. Me? I’m nobody important. In fact, I’m actually quite surprised at how many people haven’t forgotten about me.
But for those who have, I’m a villain from a series of comic books produced by the Federal Government during the early ’70s, a character in the woefully named Amazing Workplace Stories. This was a comic book series about the need for mongoloid workers to pay closer attention to on-the-job safety. All the stories were all about day-to-day things that could lead to workplace accidents. Poor safety practices, sour emotions and hostile work environments — you know the drill. Or, in case you don’t get it, I was little more than a goddamn example for people who should know better than to stand in a puddle of water while working with electricity.
Amazing Workplace Stories was utter junk from the get-go, a two-dimensional concept that wasted both the space and time of dim-witted adults, dreamt up by a bunch of hippie utopianists who got their hands on some government dough, and were just doodling around one day. In fact, I guess I was supposed to be part of an alternate universe that was seemingly good for you, something that taught people how to make good choices and be safe in the workplace. If you ask me, they would have been better off sending government representatives into the workplace, and having them teach employees to act out the Schartz-Metterklume method of workplace safety.
Like most things that government puts out, the comic was amazingly horrible, despite their best intentions. Amazing Workplace Stories wasn’t just the sort of non-challenging Big Mac of comic books that art snobs would turn their noses up at; it was the package that you threw away before eating the Big Mac: lots of fiber, but of a kind that’s otherwise inedible and totally useless. For all the good intentions behind informing a market of adult laborers, one could look at my “skill” at transformation and conclude that I was probably about as unskilled and incompetent as the people I was being held up as an example to. I might as well have been a blind man leading the blind.
I guess it is little wonder that I was scripted to kill 19 people in the series’ first issue when I cut loose and discovered my “super” power. In a rather idiotic storyline, my saw blade hadn’t been properly sharpened, which tripped up a construction site goon and prevented him from being able to transport a crate of dynamite away from a bridge construction site fast enough. (Editor’s note: See Amazing Workplace Stories, Vol. 1, Issue 1). Don’t ask. I didn’t write it. I was merely some writer’s plaything, at least at the time.
Precisely for all the by-now obvious reasons, the comic was pretty much a three-issue done deal. Obviously, nobody paid much attention to the series, and when the government money ran out, there was no need for me. Thank God. It spared me the humiliation of having to face the public again. It was a good thing, too, for the last issue left off with me to fight with Mr. Assertive, the mighty leader of the League of Responsible Worker Behavior. What a shithead! This dude always came into battle looking for a win-win and somehow always got it. I should have known walking into that one that I’d wind up being the loser.
I know that you probably aren’t wondering about it, and couldn’t otherwise give a fuck, but the so-called showdown between me and Assertive was left unresolved. Instead of being the win-win situation he was always looking for, the whole situation turned out to be one great big stalemate, an end-game looking for its checkmate. The fourth issue never got picked up, probably because nobody really cared. All of us, both superheroes and super-villains together, were left with fragments of our pathetic selves to be boxed and put away in various corners of the country by a government too ashamed to admit that we existed.
Since then, I’ve been in the Fed’s Comic Book Villain Relocation program, trying to live down the past. I live in the suburbs — I was moved there during the early ’80s after one drunken incident involving a prostitute, the final straw for my government keepers. I was “positioned” here in the hopes that I would somehow mingle with all of the boring suburbanites, and become a new man. Here, in the ‘burbs, I instead got to play a new role: the creepy drunk guy living alone in the bungalow at the end of the street. The guy who never works, never ages, never grows up — the guy with the sailor’s mouth. I spent so much time spending my monthly allowance in the local Liquor Barn, which I can get away with thanks to a loophole in the Comic Book Code dating back to 1971, I could almost be living and working there. I guess that’s why I’m now persona non grata over there: stick around any longer and they’d have to hire me.
Locked in a weird sort of permanent adolescence, I played this role for the longest time because it seemed to me that the Feds were still trying to figure out what I might be good at. Hell, at one point, I figured that I might keep playing it at least until their copyright on me ran out in maybe 40 more years. Until the day my nemesis arrived in the ‘hood, I was still trying to figure out what I was good at — besides drinking and masturbating all day to the Catholic schoolgirls that walk by my house and whom I can never obtain, of course. I couldn’t hold down a job, I’m almost ashamed to show my face in public. When I do, I try to act normally. My sole reason for stepping outside into the world is pretty much limited to the grocery store. I live the life Bukowski would have loved to have, if he were still alive, except I do it on a government cheque. I suppose this might make the whole experience a little on the inauthentic side.
Still, it used to be a pretty good existence, living and working on my own. It’s not like I had another choice. Can you imagine what would happen if I took on some office job and accidentally turned myself into a lethal wheelbarrow? Can you imagine how our leaders at the highest reaches of power would they be able to explain to the people what a comic book villain was doing being subsidized on taxpayers’ money, living marginalized in detached tract housing on the edge of one of the biggest cities?
My situation could be worse, I suppose, so I had nothing to complain about. I could have been The Human Shovel, a guy who dug his own grave way too early. (Ed.’s note: AWS, Vol. 1, Issue 2.) That’s another story altogether, though. This story is mine, it belongs to me and me alone and it begins as it did in the comics: with great big sound effects in brightly-coloured, hippy-dippy word balloons.
It begins like this:
It was him. I could tell.
I watched like a voyeur from my kitchen window, peeking through the horizontal plastic blinds that I bought recently with yet another government cheque. Across the street, a moving truck was unloading its cargo. I count off the possessions as they’re moved off the truck, carried by professional movers. There was a fog machine and cartons of broken records — two weapons in the traditional arsenal belonging to my old nemesis.
The one, the only.
And then, like a goddamn policeman directing traffic into his apartment, Mr. Assertive himself finally appeared. Sure, he was without his trademark flaming red cape with the distinctive fist-like logo emblazoned on his chest, but, Christ, it was him all right. He was dressed smartly in a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe, directing the movers into the house across the street, one of those semi-detached units. He, like me, hadn’t aged a single day, but there he was, acting all suave and mature-like, like a grown-up playing house. He, also like me, did not appear to have a wife or kids. He was still a loner, which is the role most heroes and villains wind up playing. All the popular people, after all, somehow wind up meeting somewhere in the middle (class).
I felt as though I could kick myself. It was as though I’d willed the bastard into being, that this was something I’d secretly wanted. Maybe I’d secretly wanted him to reappear. It was like being in a parking lot of a crowded supermarket, looking for a damn space to park your car to open up. Through the act of expectation, one invariably will supposedly appear, but only if you’re being positive enough that someone is about to move out in front of you. Me? I generally have an unfortunate tendency to get into fender benders.
Still, I had to wonder. There had been this huge void in my life. I felt utterly useless, like I didn’t have a purpose, now that I was sucking money from the public purse. And here he was: my purpose. My sole reason for existing.
I went to the sink, grabbed a dirty shot glass and poured myself some rum. I scratched my stubble, and then wondered to myself: what the fuck did a guy have to do to live a completely peaceful and quiet life in the suburbs?
The morning paper was on the kitchen table. There was a story about some chick gunning down a post office. Now there was a twist.
One that gave me some ideas.
Much needed ideas.
Hmmmmm, said my furrowed brow as the whiskey made a conversation with the happy receptors of my brain. A plan began to formulate. An evil, devious plan.
I would have laughed manically, and started rubbing my hands in the way that they do only in cartoons. The only problem was that this was real life, and I’d somehow found myself tumbling towards the black-and-white squares of the linoleum. Tripped up by my own two feet, which now resembled a saw blade. This was something that hadn’t happened to me in years.
I shielded myself from the blow of my latest mortal enemy.
Who would have thought? I thought as my new friend, the ground, rose up to punch me in the head.
I went through his trash one night. I found exactly what I was looking for, right out there in his blue box. Shredded moving carton invoices that I went back to my kitchen and put together with Scotch … tape.
A name emerged. A hero.
Aha! So that was his assumed identity. He was so careless.
I sneaked off across the street with this crucial little detail, back to the back door of my house. Back to the camera, a vintage Pentax K-1000 I’d bought cheap from a pawn shop, that I’d set up by the kitchen window, my private Xanadu. The next time he reappeared, I’d shoot him. I’d get a good shot, and compare it against the back issues of Amazing Workplace Stories.
Every first step must begin with a plan. So from behind a kitchen window, I waited. I plotted.
Hours passed by. Days even. Many drinks were consumed, and perhaps one could say that I was consumed by my own curiosity. My finger rested on the camera trigger, waiting for the most opportune moment. Me, I was the imagined Lee Harvey Oswald of shutterbugs.
Who’d be the Superman now, huh? I thought, pacing the living room with glee.
It took the photo lab at the local Wal-Mart precisely 58 minutes to develop my roll of film, despite the fact that there were maybe only five shots on it. I took the developed photos out of its plastic packaging while walking to the parking lot, and was startled to see that I’d placed my thumb over part of the camera lens on at least three of the shots, and the other shots were either a bit dark or blurry. You could see in one of the photos what appeared to be a suburban housewarming party happening through the front window. There were lots of bodies and motion, but not a whole lot else. No clear view of Mr. Assertive. In fact, there wasn’t even a clear view of Mr. Assertive or his various goings-on imprinted on the negative of my memory. Everything, aside from bits and scraps of data, were just blurs. No data.
I simmered out of the parking lot of the Wal-Mart, secretly hoping I wouldn’t turn into a wheelbarrow, like I’d nearly done the day before.
Backing out of the parking lot, I was jostled from my thoughts by whiplash and a very loud thump! Damn, I’d hit another car. Nobody was hurt, which turned out to be a very bad thing when my insurance broker happened to be the guy who got out of the afflicted car.
My hands gripped the steering wheel to prevent my middle finger from doing any talking.
Believe me, restraint is a superpower, one that I’m often incapable of.
Anyhow, after my not-so-nice encounter with the insurance agent, in which I decided to let a bunch of goddamn f-bombs fly, I decided to scrap the camera and all the brooding by the window. I figured that it was time to take action. It was time to stop being a two-cent private eye, and start being the Bad Guy. I could let nobody push me around. I needed to be more assertive somehow, just like — .
Cripes, there had to be a contradiction in there.
I took a Pabst Blue Ribbon from the fridge — a choice of beverage clearly influenced by the Hipster Handbook — and took a seat on the living room couch that was broken in two spots underneath. I took a quick scan of my surroundings and began to really understand how trapped in the ’70s I was. A tacky Coolidge print, one of the famous ones with the dogs, hung crooked on the wall. The basement was all done up in badly water-damaged wood paneling. I used to have a pin-up on the wall, but the Comic Books Authority paid me a visit in the late ’80s and had me take it down.
Eventually, I bolted the front door. I locked it real tight. Then, I called the Liquor Barn Home Delivery Service and placed myself a good order that eventually involved two nice young men coming to my front door with various cartons of booze.
I had motivations for my actions; I had a long night ahead of me, after all. Thinking. Drinking. Defending myself against one of my rogue’s gallery of enemies: if not Mr. Assertive, then mainly myself.
I had a dream once after Mr. Assertive’s arrival in my ‘hood. I dreamt that I’d turned myself into a wheelbarrow: an ordinary wheelbarrow, one without the circular saw blade as a wheel. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. Mr. Assertive was using me for some diabolical do-good purpose. My rubber wheel, at times, threatened to go flat as it hopped and skipped over all sorts of sharp pebbles and bent-out-of-shape nails. Merrily, I was pushed along. I began to panic, but there weren’t, naturally, any brakes to be applied. And thus, Mr. Assertive pushed me around a housing rebuild project.
In real life, it isn’t in the guy’s nature to do that. Normally, he’d just stare me down and try to convince me with stern words what the consequences of my actions might be if I continue on with my super-villainy reign of terror. You know, usual schtick like, “I feel that it would be best for both of us if you … blah blah blah.”
That’s how I knew it was a dream.
I woke up bathed in sweat, a common enough cliché in both comic books and popular entertainment. At least, I didn’t wake up transformed like I did one time not long after the comic book got canned. I had a hell of a time getting out of bed that day. It had taken me a good half-day to get retransformed and get back on track, which, it turned out, wasn’t such a horrible thing because I don’t have too much time on my hands to begin with.
After taking a shit, shower and shave — maybe in that order, maybe not — I poured myself a gin and tonic, and then went back to my window. I was watching and waiting for the world to end.
It certainly beat the alternative: Pretending that someone else was the bad guy.
After sitting around for days in my kitchen doing little else but getting acquainted with another friend of mine named Jack Daniels, I decided that I needed to take action. If I couldn’t find the adequate help in dealing with the problem, maybe it was best to deal with the problem entirely by myself.
A quick break-and-enter into the high school chemistry lab on a Friday night, along with some old church basements and garage sales the next morning, yields exactly what I’m looking for: a smoke machine and a bunch of cracked Nana Mouskouri records in a milk crate peppered with other lame leftovers from the ’70s.
So it was a little cheesy. So what? I am the cheese. I wanted to make a statement, and, in doing so, I hoped to defeat Mr. Assertive using weapons that were symbolic of his skills. I planned to go into his house, unleashing the fog from the dry ice. Once he was utterly confused and disoriented, I’d tie him up and whip sharp-edged broken records at him like ninja stars. It’d be the perfect crime. It was such a great plan, such a calculating cruel plan — one that would finally do away with the unwanted guest now living across the street from me. Finally, Mr. Assertive would be the insult that made a man out of Kill Barrow, Wheelbarrow of Doom!
Of course, I knew that this also meant that I’d have to eventually sneak into his lair, map out the floor plan as to know all the potential booby-traps and secret exits. But first things first: I needed to train myself, get myself into tip-top shape. Lose the beer belly. Perfect my throwing technique. Become a Charles Atlas. Cue the Rocky montage to awful ’80s music and all that.
Actually, I whistled Gotta Fly Now as I went about my business, turning my backyard into a de facto training ground. Thank God my neighbours on three sides had either had built fences or grown hedgerows, which helped obscure other people’s view of my backyard. Nobody would see me. Nobody would care.
I went out back and brought the records out into the backyard with me. As soon as I stepped out into the great outdoors, I could feel a tingle of excitement beginning to build within me — something that had been missing for years and years. I was no longer a hapless drunkard; I was a man on a mission. I was going to be the one who would stop Assertive in his tracks and put all out aggression and evil on the map.
Of course, it didn’t exactly turn out that way.
I don’t know how it happened, but as soon as I hooked up the smoke machine I started to feel dizzy. Gravity, once again, called its name to me, wanted to wrap its arms around my suddenly spinning head.
Gravity held me back as I — .
… zzzzz …
When I came to, I felt as though I were missing something in my upper deck. It was as though I’d found myself wedged between the spaces of two comic book panels, fallen into some deep, dark Phantom Zone that I couldn’t get out of. Perhaps I’d slept through an entire 24 pages’ worth of action?
I looked up to the sky. Nobody in a cape flew by. Life was still good, I surmised.
Then, of course, I looked down.
There were tiny lines all throughout the backyard, as though someone had gone through the yard with a small tiller, churning up bits and pieces of dirt. Clumps of grassy sod had been sprayed everywhere, without much rhyme or reason. Bits and pieces of smoke bellowed through the clods of grass, turning my back yard into a miniature Bellona. Chunks of broken records were scattered like confetti, shards of black kryptonite, fragments of a bad idea.
This was damage done by me, to myself.
I guess I did all I could do under the circumstances: I left my mess, my plans, and all of my ambitions. I merely picked myself up, went into the house and called the Liquor Barn.
It was clearly time to go back to the drawing board, clearly time to just get wasted again. Never underestimate the power of alcohol to make you smarter. That’s what I always say.
Stay tuned for part 2 of “Kill Barrow, Wheelbarrow of Doom” on Friday at 12 noon EST.
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Zachary Houle lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where he works for the federal government as a Project Officer and is also an Associate Music Reviews editor for PopMatters.com, a pop culture webzine that reaches 1.2 million unique visitors a month. He also contributes regular book and music reviews to PopMatters. Houle has been awarded a $4,000 emerging artist grant from the City of Ottawa to write fiction, and was a Pushcart Prize nominee for a novella that appeared in Midnight Mind. His fiction or poetry has also appeared in places such as Broken Pencil, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Kiss Machine, The Danforth Review, Girls with Insurance, Thieves Jargon, Friction magazine, Megaera, and many others. His poem “Ode to the Long Lost Mini-Pops Album” was published in the book anthology In Our Own Words, Vol. 7 (MW Enterprises, 2007).
Read his contributions to Snake-Oil Cure here.