The release of this week’s Guardians of the Galaxy trailer instantly galvanized the Marvel fandom, with many pointing to scene-stealer Rocket Raccoon as the movie’s wisecracking, machine-gun-toting trump card. But there’s a tragedy behind this character: His creator, Bill Mantlo, has languished in America’s health care system for years after suffering severe brain trauma in a hit-and-run car accident in 1992.

Now, longtime comics fans are using the new surge in attention as a rallying point to make newcomers aware of Mantlo’s situation, and to give Mantlo and his family a few “guardians” of their own.

It’s no stretch to call Bill Mantlo a comics legend. He was as groundbreaking as he was talented, whether he was writing arcs for classic characters like the Hulk and Spider-Man or creating new characters like Rocket Raccoon, the Micronauts, and Hector Ayala, better known to the world as Marvel’s first Hispanic hero, White Tiger.

Illustration by nightmarezerox6/deviantArt

Mantlo didn’t just write heroes: he became one, serving as a public defender in the Bronx after leaving comics to pursue a career in law. But this phase of his life was short-lived: In 1992, while rollerblading, Mantlo nearly died after being struck by a car whose driver was never found. After recovering from a coma, Mantlo suffered serious physical and brain damage.

According to an eye-opening 2011 LifeHealthPro article detailing his current health and living conditions, Mantlo is physically hidden away in remote Far Rockaway in Queens—an exile resulting from years of battling with a hostile health care system that at one point saw his insurance company order him to sell nearly everything he owned in order to qualify for Medicaid. According to the insurance company, this was the only way he could receive permanent respite care after rehabilitation efforts had failed. At the time of the article, health care costs had eaten through a $100,000 life insurance policy, and Mantlo was subsisting on $50 a month.

Lifelong Mantlo fan and acclaimed comic author Greg Pak has spent years trying to get the word out about Mantlo. Six months ago, as buzz for Guardians grew, he put out a call for Rocket Raccoon fans to donate to Mantlo’s health care fund. Mantlo’s family likewise tried to raise awareness through Facebook and the Hero Initiative, a not-for-profit charity that aids struggling comics professionals, many of whom lack health insurance entirely due to the comic industry’s notoriously low wages. Results were meager: LifeHealthPro reported that while the Hero Initiative donated $2,000 to Mantlo a decade ago, no one seemed to know what else if anything was being done to help him.

But in that way the Internet has of sounding the clarion call, this week has seen a rapid rise in attention to Mantlo. Yesterday, Pak’s six-month-old blog post got 8,500 views. And although the last update on the Facebook page for the Bill Mantlo Project, his family’s charity, is three years old, comments of support have been steadily pouring in as Marvel fans learn his story. A Tumblr post linking to the 2011 article and urging fans to donate has been slowly but steadily making the rounds, as noted comics writers like Matt Fraction pass it on.

It’s important to note that while Mantlo created Rocket Raccoon, the character’s copyright belongs to Marvel, as do all of the characters created under its auspices. Unlike the world of publishing, where write-for-hire is seen as something of a dangerous route for a writer to take, the comics industry is built on a system that rewards writers and artists with the privilege of being a part of the culture they love—instead of things like fair wages and competitive benefits. 

This isn’t an isolated practice; the gaming industry likewise gets routinely criticized for piggybacking on the enthusiasm of fans eager to work for peanuts. Last year comics professionals fundraised for noted Dark Horse comic artist Stan Sakai, whose health insurance was insufficient to cover his family’s medical costs.

Mantlo isn’t alone. He is, however, a writer with a character about to help Marvel make millions of dollars when Guardians of the Galaxy opens in August—of which he won’t see a penny. “You might also want to ask Marvel Comics if they’d like to chip in as well,” Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston wrote wryly yesterday as he donated.

So far, funds are being collected via a simple PayPal donation link to Mantlo’s brother, Mike. It seems almost retro in the days of crowdfunding, but it’s apparently effective:

AM RT, 1st person to send me proof of a $200+ donation to bill mantlo's care gets a 9x12 painted rocket raccoon. http://t.co/wwG4D5li8K

— tom fowler (@tomfowlerbug) February 20, 2014

In many ways, the Mantlo project just proves that even as the comics industry expands thanks to the Marvel-verse and a growing number of new fans, at core, it’s still a small community made up of fans and artists supporting each other.

Hopefully that support can make a difference for Mantlo and his family.

Photo via GregPak.com