One of my favorite ways of disposing of my allowance when I was a kid was a comic book called The Micronauts. It was based on a line of imported Japanese toys — Loyal Readers of a certain age may remember them — and, like pretty much everything else around that time, it was heavily influenced by Star Wars, in particular by the Star Wars comics that were being published by the same company, Marvel. Despite its derivative elements, though, Micronauts quickly established its own rich identity. Its pages were filled with all sorts of wild ideas and concepts: another universe nestled within our own at a sub-microscopic level; a brave space explorer whose body spent 1,000 years in suspended animation while his conscious mind, merged with that of his robot co-pilot, traveled to the literal edge of their universe; and the decadent, violent society they returned to, where the rich and powerful prolonged their lives to near-infinity by replacing worn-out body parts with components harvested from the poor. It was all pretty heady stuff for a ten-year-old living in a sleepy little town in parochial old Utah, and it left a big impression.
Micronauts ran for five years, 1979 to 1984, resulting in 59 regular issues and two double-length “annuals.” Remarkably, all of those issues save one were written by the same man, a guy named Bill Mantlo. Even more remarkably, Mantlo was simultaneously scripting all the issues for another toy-based comic, Rom Spaceknight, as well as contributing to other titles such as The Incredible Hulk, Spectacular Spider-Man, Thor, and Iron Man, a simply amazing level of productivity. By the late ’80s, however, Mantlo was pretty well finished with comics; he left the industry, reinvented himself, and shortly became one of the great “where are they now?” mysteries from the pop culture of that era.
Earlier this week, I learned the fate of Bill Mantlo, and it isn’t pretty. In 1992, he was struck by a car while rollerblading. It was a hit-and-run; the driver has never been found. Mantlo survived, but honestly it would’ve been better for him if he hadn’t. He sustained massive brain injuries and was left severely impaired, both mentally and physically. But the accident was only the beginning of the real nightmare for Mantlo and his family. Although he made significant progress in his early rehabilitation, his insurance company soon started balking at the cost of the rehab, pressuring Mantlo’s brother Mike — who has been handling his affairs since the accident — to find cheaper and cheaper facilities. Finally, the insurer decreed — contrary to the opinions of doctors, mind you — that further rehab was “unnecessary.” Mantlo was cut off altogether. Mike was forced to liquidate everything Bill owned to qualify him for Medicare, and today Bill Mantlo, once such a prolific and creative force to be reckoned with, is warehoused in a geriatric nursing home in Queens, the only place his family could afford to send him. He is penniless and helpless. What progress he’d once made toward recovery has entirely dissipated without continuing therapy. His quality of life is essentially nonexistent. He is simply waiting to die.
That’s the executive summary; you can read all the details here. It’s a long article, but it’s well worth your time, and I highly recommend that you read it and ponder it. Consider it a cautionary tale of how thoroughly a human life can be destroyed, short of death itself. And keep in mind that Bill Mantlo was one of the “lucky” ones. He had health insurance.
For me, this sad story constitutes just one more outrageous piece of evidence that the way we handle healthcare in this country is seriously broken. Conservative politicians scared a lot of people silly a couple years ago by claiming that a single-payer health system would lead to rationing of care and so-called “death panels,” but what was Bill Mantlo subjected to if not rationing? And what were the faceless, implacable bureaucrats who decided his fate if not the equivalent of those dread death panels? Actually, they were worse than a “death” panel, because they condemned him not to death itself, but to a lingering, living hell until he finally gets around to dying. And they made that decision entirely on how much he was going to cost them, not whether he was responding to care or was still capable of improvement. If the United States truly is, as I’ve always been told, the richest country on earth, the best country on earth, how can we in good conscience abandon a human life in this way? The dirty truth behind our for-profit insurance industry is that insurers are more concerned with the dividends of their shareholders than the needs of their policy holders. People carry insurance as a hedge against anything really bad ever happening to us, but if anything really bad does happen, the insurance companies fight like hell to not actually help you, and that is just wrong. No… it’s obscene. Our society’s treatment of the long-term ill isn’t quite as perverted as what Bill Mantlo imagined in the pages of The Mirconauts, i.e., Baron Karza’s evil body banks, but in my book, it is just about as cruel and inhumane. I wish more people could see that and agree to change it.