By Nicole Hostetter, contributor
Chris Barcomb wrote the “extreme” page of his high school yearbook — metaphorically and literally. The two-page spread, published nearly 20 years ago, features Barcomb’s article about the daring after-school pursuits of Albemarle High School’s teenagers, like motocross and skateboarding. It also features a photo of Barcomb’s exploits in competitive paintball with an image that captured Barcomb and two friends mid-sprint in their tactical gear during a practice.
Back then, if you wanted to find Barcomb, your best bet would be to check the paintball shop where he worked. He was the guy wearing flip-flops and a tank top — casual but passionately knowledgeable.
More recently, you might have encountered him conducting business as a police officer for Albemarle County.
These days, if you want to find Barcomb, the best place to check is the Secret Lair comic book shop on University Boulevard in Harrisonburg. You’ll know you’ve found him by one of the four Captain America prostheses he wears on his right leg.
If you ask, not only can he show you the location of your favorite comic, but also where he keeps a small run of his own series, The Amazing Adventure of Superior Sam, about an amputee elementary student who takes on any challenge that comes his way.
While the leaps from competitive paintballer to policeman to children’s comic book author might seem like big ones, for Barcomb it was a natural progression.
The Winter Soldier
In the winter of 2012, Barcomb found himself in a hospital bed for the second time that year. He was recovering from another surgical attempt to fix his ankle. The police officer had been injured during a training exercise the year before. He had since moved from patrol to desk duty while doctors tried to figure out why the unrelenting pain wasn’t improving.
Barcomb limped when he walked. His toenails came loose, and the hair on his legs began falling out. Some days the pain was so bad that Barcomb would casually leave his desk at work and carefully limp to his car.
Closing the door beside him, alone and suffering, he would cry.
Everyone else tried to maintain a positive outlook. Coworkers told him he’d be back on the job in no time.
“Six months passed. Nine months. Then, we’re doing surgery,” Barcomb recalled. “It went from a joke to very real.”
No one could see the pain, and that lack of a visual representation of his injury added to an unbearable sense of isolation and frustration.
He still wanted to protect and serve. Instead, he was left feeling purposeless, in the hospital bed again, discomfort creeping into his toes as the pain medication wore off.
“Everyone expects it to be easy to turn off that side of your brain,” he said of having to leave patrol work. “But it doesn’t work like that.”
One day, a friend stopped by with an unusual gift: A comic book. It was Ed Brubaker’s Captain America: Winter Soldier.
It had been years since Barcomb read a comic. But he was struck by the story of Bucky Barnes, an amputee who lost his arm during a failed attempt at disarming a bomb.
Barcomb felt comforted by the character’s strength in the face of adversity. Although he wasn’t himself an amputee, and could not have known that in just a short time he would be, Barcomb felt a connection with Barnes. He felt some hope.
“I saw he was Captain America,” he recalled. “There’s a guy who’s disabled, like me, who became Captain America.”
“Out of Options”
In 2013, Barcomb received a diagnosis of chronic regional pain syndrome. He underwent repeated treatments of spinal injections and a third round of physical therapy. He underwent a spinal cord implant surgery. But Barcomb found he was increasingly unable to thrive.
“I am really running out of options on how to deal with this,” Barcomb recalls thinking. “Pain meds — I can’t take them, I don’t want to take them. No one believes you when you say you’re in pain. You can’t talk to anyone, no one can see it. A year had passed. I am out of options.”
After two years of trying everything at his disposal to heal, Barcomb told his doctor he wanted to amputate his leg.
His doctor agreed to the procedure, with the conditions that Barcomb attend counseling for several months, that he speak with other people suffering from CPRS, and that he continue to explore other forms of treatment.
At the time, Barcomb had medically retired from the police force and was working part-time at an after-school program for kids. Some of the students were curious about the cane he used to walk with, and as the date for the amputation approached, Barcomb wanted to be able to talk to them about the procedure.
One particular student didn’t understand why Barcomb was leaving. He checked to see if any age-appropriate books were available about a person losing their leg, but the only titles he found were clinical.
“So,” Barcomb recalls, “I wrote a story about a little boy named Superior Sam who lost his leg and became an amputee. I wrote the story for this kid.”
The Rise of Superior Sam
The Amazing Adventure of Superior Sam traces the story of a young boy named Sam and his best friend, Billy. One day at recess, Sam is dared to jump off the twisty slide, and true to his take-on-anything nature, he accepts. The jump results in Sam losing his leg.
The seven-issue series traces Sam’s journey back to school and the ways in which he continues to face challenges, despite the lasting impact of his injury.
“Sam doubts himself,” Barcomb says. “Which is something I dealt with, and I know other amputees deal with.”
Other students stare and make fun of him. But Sam continues to stand up for what he feels is right and intervenes when the school bullies try tormenting his classmates.
Barcomb hopes his series shows kids (and adults) that being different isn’t anything to try and hide or be afraid of.
“Writing was therapeutic for me,” Barcomb says. “And I look at it as a way to give back still. I may not be able to be a police officer, but I can give back. If I change one person’s life for the better, that’s all that matters.”
One of the ways Barcomb gives back is by bringing his series to regional schools and groups. He has given more than 100 presentations to area kids and has taken Superior Sam’s story (and his own)to numerous comic book conventions.
Each presentation offers the opportunity to show kids that differences are natural. He tries to show them that a true support network, like the friendship Sam has with his best friend Billy, is invaluable.
Especially on the bad days.
“Listen,” Barcomb likes to tell them, “don’t try to be friends with the people you think you need to be friends with; be friends with the people you actually like. And here’s some advice from one hard-headed person to another — if you only tell one person you’re having a bad day they can defend you to everyone else.”
Each issue costs around $1,000 to create and publish, and so far, Barcomb has managed to fund all the issues through his presentations and fundraising campaigns through Kickstarter and Patreon. Barcomb is currently working on Issue 8, which focuses on the life experiences of a boy Barcomb met at a recent comic book convention. He hopes to have it out by the spring.
A Range of Reactions
Because Barcomb’s disability is visible, connecting with and educating the public aren’t limited to his formal presentations. He is always aware of the eyes on him. Responses to his prosthetic leg run the gamut of emotions: Curious, compassionate, pitying, and even judgmental.
Sometimes people get angry when what they see through the car window is a healthy-looking young man pulling into a handicap spot at the store. They glare and point, mouthing words of unwarranted frustration at him, thinking he is stealing a parking spot.
Barcomb joked this type of reaction has led him to buckle his leg into the passenger seat at times.
“You have to have a sense of humor,” he said, of dealing with the occasional negativity.
On the flip side, more than once a stranger has offered to buy his meal and thanked him for his service. Barcomb has learned how to delicately express gratitude but let them know he’s not a veteran but a retired police officer.
He has wondered if many ever considered that some people were born without limbs or lost them to accidents unrelated to combat.
“It was interesting in that aspect,” Barcomb said. “They just assumed I was a vet.”
Managing all of the reactions to his “new normal,” as he says, was hard at first. But Barcomb says it’s become easier as time has gone on. Especially when he’s managing attention from curious children.
“A lot of parents immediately try to get their kids to stop looking or asking questions. But [the kids] aren’t doing it to be mean, they’re just curious. When kids see me now and they look at my leg and point and stare, I give their parents a business card,” he said.
Writing Superior Sam during his recovery provided Barcomb with a therapeutic way to process his feelings.
Reading comics provided not only a respite from reality during a difficult time in Barcomb’s life, but they also provided a sense of purpose and connection to a community of people who didn’t look at Barcomb differently.
“Following the amputation, comics became this motivating thing,” he said. “I would go to places like a restaurant, and people would ask if I needed help. And I would go to comic book stores, and people didn’t treat me differently.”
Comic books and the comic community are a part of who he is now, as much as competitive paintball used to be.
“When I’m at a comic-con nobody treats me any differently than anybody else,” he said. “I set my Captain America leg on the table, and honestly, more people take pictures of my legs than they do of me. It gives me a chance to talk to people about being disabled, but also it allows me to be in a place where I don’t feel weird.”
Because after all, when Professor Charles Xavier, one of the Marvel Universe’s most powerful mutants is a paraplegic, to be Chris Barcomb — an author, educator, and retired police officer, all at the age of 35 — nothing is out of the ordinary.
“Oh yeah,” he said casually, referring to how people know him at the Secret Lair, “the one-legged guy.”
Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. Thanks for your support.