Creator of Rocket Raccoon, Bill Mantlo, continues to struggle after brain injury

GEEK-21062017-0001
Bill Mantlo, comic book writer, creator of Rocket Raccoon.

With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 passing Deadpool this past weekend to claim the No. 9 spot on the all-time list of Marvel films based on Marvel characters, it seemed like a good time to look at the man who created Rocket Raccoon – and now, unfortunately, can’t fully appreciate his success.

Bill Mantlo co-created Rocket Raccoon with Keith Giffen back in 1976 and was one of the most popular and prolific comic book writers in the 1970s and early 1980s. His life was changed forever when, while rollerblading without a helmet on July 17, 1992 he was struck by a car, severing his brain stem and leaving him with severe cognitive deficits. Mantlo is unable to reason or understand what has happened to him.

To catch up with what’s been going on with Mantlo and learn if Guardians success has changed his life in any way, we spoke to his guardian, his brother Mike.

First, can you capsulize your brother Bill, as both a writer and a person. Did you ever read any of the stories he wrote?  

My brother Bill was (and is) AMAZING!  As a kid, he was incredibly dedicated to pursuing and honing his creative talents to the greatest extent he could. His passion as a youngster was art, and he self taught himself drawing through a late 1950’s TV show (infomercial, really) called “Jon Nagy’s Learn To Draw.”  Bill’s ability to absorb the lessons had him headed for a career in the arts. As kids, we were also constantly devouring reading materials, with Bill’s emphasis being Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Again, he soaked it all up like a sponge, and his imagination soared!  As a person, he was the coolest kid I knew. Yeah, we had our share (if not more) of brotherly squabbles, but I idolized him completely.

Bill created a ton of new characters in the comics he wrote – many before rules were changed at Marvel to make sure creators were compensated for their creations. However, he did not seem to care. When Jim Shooter told him to hold off a bit, he famously said, “I’ll just make more.” What do you think this says about your brother’s creativity and attitude?  

Well, first off you need to realize that Bill’s responses to Jim Shooter were always laced with cynicism and sarcasm. He cared deeply about creators’ rights, and was in the forefront of the Marvel “bullpen” trying to organize in the early 1980’s in an effort to reclaim the rights to their creations.  Bill accepted and understood the contracts he had signed (pegging him as a “for hire” writer), but so loved what he was doing that he never allowed that injustice to diminish his craft.  He was determined to always tell a good, solid story.

One of the characters Bill was famous for writing was ROM. He took a comic based on a failed toy and told over six years of stories. There is a group of ROM fans who started a Facebook page to help benefit him. Are you aware of it and have they helped? if so, how?  

There are more than just ROM fans out there…you could easily group ROM, the Micronauts, Cloak and Dagger, Alpha Flight, et al together, and you would still be leaving out a whole bunch of fan favorites.  I am most definitely aware of the Facebook group that was started, basically, to keep Bill’s name “alive” and have a place where his fans and followers could communicate with each other. I am currently the administrator of that group page, and also the “webmaster” of the billmantlo.com website, which I created. The input and love that’s shared about Bill on both of these sites has helped keep his spirits up, and given him a reinforced sense of pride in his accomplishments.  You know, for a long time, Bill was sort of “forgotten” by the powers that be at Marvel, and it’s only recently that his history is getting the recognition it so rightfully deserves.

ROM is back in comics, which says a lot that those fans had such treasured memories that they wanted the character back. Again, any comment?  

I don’t want to take credit for anything that Bill’s (and ROM’s) fans have made happen, but I kinda did plant the seed in many heads a few years back to have them join together and deluge Marvel with pleas for ROM’s return to comics.  For many, many years Marvel was sort of handcuffed by the toy companies (the ROM licensing changed hands several times), and their response to the clamoring for ROM to come back might have been just a tad frustrated.  But eventually, with the very enthusiastic assistance of Chris Ryall and IDW Publishing, we were able to get cooler heads together and hammer out a deal enabling ROM’s story to continue.

What are the characteristics of your brother that made him such a popular writer?

In my humble opinion it was Bill’s ability to make his characters real, and believable.  Human frailties were never forgotten, and Bill had a knack for knowing how to “speak to” readers through his dialogue.  I’d say at least 90 percent of the fan mail Bill has received over these last 2 1/2 decades reflects that, and he has apparently been the inspiration for quite a few of today’s writers!

Can you sum up your feelings on the accident that changed Bill’s life. How would you sum up in laymen’s terms his condition?  

In plain English, the accident robbed Bill of the single most important aspect of his life….his ability to harness his imagination and share the wonders of his visions with any and all that wanted to be entertained.  I know that Bill could have overcome ANY other injury and continued to grow and improve in his creative life, but the inability to control his own brain has taken away any hope that he will ever be able to return to that level of greatness again.

How would you sum up how Marvel and James Gunn and Kevin Feige have taken care of Bill…and have they helped his condition?  

As with all of Bill’s fans and followers, Marvel, Kevin Feige and James Gunn have helped Bill realize just how beloved he was, and to see the smile on his face when he hears he is “famous” tells you all you need to know about how important all involved have been in helping him enjoy his successes…. There have not been any direct actions by (Gunn or Feige) benefiting my brother monetarily.  In the past decade, I have negotiated several contracts with Marvel for the rights to use characters that Bill created and those contracts have resulted in a mutually beneficial relationship being forged between both parties. (To clarify a previous story)  There has never been a time where Bill was making progress and then lost his insurance.  Bill had been receiving active rehabilitation therapies for nearly 3 years as I battled with his insurance carrier to maintain coverage, but by 1995 he had begun to regress and it was deemed that continuing therapies were no longer “medically necessary.”  At that point, due to the insurance carrier’s determination that rehabilitative therapies were no longer producing positive progress, it was mandated that he be moved to a “maintenance” program in a New York State (as he was a NY resident) licensed nursing home.  He was forced to forfeit his assets to qualify for Medicaid coverage.  Through the courts, my family was able to establish a “medical needs trust fund” for Bill which would shelter any future earnings from sources outside of Social Security and/or disability insurance (i.e.:  Marvel, etc) from seizure by New York State, and those funds could be used ONLY to provide Bill funding for services not covered by Medicaid that would benefit him and improve his quality of life. The trade-off that you have to accept to get approval for this type of trust fund is that any and all funds/assets remaining in the trust when Bill passes away are surrendered to New York State as repayment for the Medicaid expenditures provided to him while alive.

Is Bill making some progress?  

I only wish I could answer that he was making progress. If he remains in the nursing home, that will never happen.  I am determined to provide Bill with a better quality of life, and new opportunities to attempt to improve his capabilities, and it is only through the use of the trust fund that I will finally be able to give Bill hope for a happier future.

Hugh Jackman and Hayley Atwell, to name two, are not shy about thanking comic creators like Len Wein and Stan Lee for creating the characters that made their careers. Has Bradley Cooper thanked Bill for creating Rocket Raccoon? Is he aware of him?  

I have not heard directly from Bradley Cooper, so I cannot answer as to whether he knows anything about Bill.  I have heard from James Gunn, however, and he is unabashed in his fondness for Bill’s creations. I have tremendous respect and admiration for James Gunn!

How does it feel to see your brother’s creation – which didn’t seem a big deal when he first hit print – on the big screen and known throughout the world?  

Great. I am enormously proud of my big brother.  But, what’s more important is how happy it makes Bill to see that so many people love the character(s) he created, and that he is remembered and revered for the phenomenal talent that he shared with the world!

Any closing thought?

Only one, and it is a constant…..”MAKE MINE MANTLO!”