8 Comic Stories and Situations Made Possible by America’s Refusal to Reform Its Health Care System
1. “One More Day,” Amazing Spider-Man #544 (Marvel, 10/2007)
The TV series Breaking Bad, which wraps up this month after five incredible seasons, is a show about a high school chemistry teacher who, after learning he has lung cancer, turns to cooking crystal meth to pay for his expensive medical treatment. A lot of pundits have said it’s a show that could only have worked in the U.S., the only industrialized nation to have no universal health coverage for its citizens (a Canadian-made meme suggested a similar show set in Canada wouldn’t last too long). But it’s not the first time the American health care system has played the villain in a work of fiction; hell, during the ’60s it seemed as if a month didn’t go by without Aunt May’s medical bills motivating her nephew to take photos of Spider-Man to pay for her care. But this 2007 issue probably hits harder than most; post-Civil War, with his identity known to the world, Parker has to deal with the fact he’s unable to pay his aunt’s hospital bills after she took a bullet meant for him. A doctor who owes Spider-Man a solid buys him some time, which he uses to beg Tony Stark for help. Alas, Parker’s status as a fugitive makes it impossible for Stark to help him directly, but a certain butler to the Avengers later shows up at the hospital with a large cheque to cover Aunt May’s care. Moral: if you’re going to need major hospital care in the U.S., make sure you have a billionaire buddy to help you out.
2. The Penguin’s decision to turn to crime
I mentioned the Penguin in a previous list about super-villains whose destinies were shaped by their relationships with their mothers; in that list, I talked about how a young Oswald Cobblepot lost his mother, the proprietor of a bird shop, after a long illness (his father earlier died of pneumonia after getting caught in the rain, hence Cobblepot’s mother’s insistence he always carry an umbrella). The medical bills generated by her long illness were enough to bankrupt Cobblepot, and the grief-stricken young man had to deal with losing his beloved birds at the same time — a double-whammy of woe that embittered the young man against society and turned him into one of Batman’s more indefatigable foes. Just think of all the bird- and umbrella-themed death traps Batman might have been spared if the U.S. had a health care system more like… well, almost anyone else’s, really.
3. Cardiac’s reason for existing
Elias Wirtham was a noted surgeon who devoted himself to medicine when his older brother died of an incurable disease. Later in life, as the head of a successful biotech company, he learned of a miracle drug that could have saved his brother’s life — but after acquiring the company that made it, he was horrified to discover the company had intentionally withheld the drug from the market (essentially sentencing his brother to death) because it stood to earn more money by doing so. He channeled his anger into a second career as a masked vigilante who targets corporations who put profits ahead of people (and yes, he has been very busy lately, thanks for asking). In a recent appearance in Superior Spider-Man, Dr. Wirtham is seen heading a clandestine clinic that provides life-saving (if not entirely AMA-approved) operations for poor and uninsured people who can’t afford the kind of expensive health care they need. It’s interesting that a vigilante who specializes in targeting greedy corporations ends up spending a lot of time focusing on companies in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors, n’est-ce pas?
4. “Born Again,” Daredevil #227-233 (Marvel, 02-08/86)
The American health care system may have its flaws, but one thing it’s really handy for is providing otherwise decent people with the motivation to do something they would normally never do. Take, for example, New York City detective Nick Manolis. Introduced in Daredevil #167 in 1980, he was a trusted confidant of the titular hero until Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s “Born Again,” a storyline in which he accused Daredevil’s alter ego, attorney Matt Murdock, of bribing witnesses to commit perjury in court — a statement that led to Murdock’s disbarment and disgrace. Why would a decorated officer do such a thing? Well, it turns out his son had serious medical problems that weren’t covered by a cop’s medical plan… and that’s the kind of leverage the Kingpin found very useful when he needed an upstanding law enforcement type to frame Murdock. Alas, it was all for naught — his son died, and Manolis was killed in his hospital bed by a burly nurse moonlighting as an assassin when he tried to call reporter Ben Urich and tell him the truth.
5. Betty Brant’s employment at the Daily Bugle
Facing a mountain of medical bills can make otherwise normal people go to drastic extremes. Some people might turn to manufacturing and selling illegal street drugs. Others might choose to go work for J. Jonah Jameson. It’s a toss-up which is the greater crime. Jameson’s young secretary first appeared in the fourth issue of The Amazing Spider-Man; by issue #11, readers discovered she had an older brother who was in deep with mobsters because of his gambling debts. Years later, in a 1996 issue of Untold Tales of Spider-Man, writer Kurt Busiek expanded on the Brant family story, telling readers that Betty’s mother was Jameson’s secretary before her, and Betty dropped out of high school to take her mother’s place after her mother was pushed through a glass table by mobsters intent on sending a message to her son. Faced with mounting medical bills on top of her brother’s gambling debts that never seemed to go away, Brant saw no choice but to give up on her dreams and take the first paying job she could — which goes a long way to explain how an impossible-to-please boss like Jameson ended up with a teenager for his assistant, and why she stayed in that thankless job for so long.
6. “Home for the Holidays,” The Adventures of Superman #462 (DC, 01/90)
Lest anyone thinks Betty Brant is the only one forced to work a menial job in a major metropolitan newspaper to pay for her mother’s medical bills, allow me to introduce Alice, a character in the Superman comics who as far as I can tell didn’t even get a last name (some online resources call her Alice White, confusing her with the wife of Daily Planet editor Perry White). In this special holiday issue, Clark discovers the truth about Alice’s living arrangements, and the rest of the Planet staff hear her sad story. It seems Alice’s mother fell ill shortly after Alice began working at the Planet as an intern, and the medical bills combined with the loss of her (presumably rent-controlled) apartment meant she was out on the streets. With nowhere else to go, she set up a sleeping bag in a Planet supply closet and spent three years living in the building, covering up for it by always being the first and last employee in the newsroom during the day (White was mortified when he suddenly remembered all the jokes of the “you work so hard, you must live here” variety that he made to her). All’s well that ends well, though, as White figures out a way to get her some back pay for all the unrecorded overtime she amassed, and the end of the story shows vignettes of Metropolis residents helping each other as the text reprints an editorial written by White that encourages everyone to remember those in need. “And God bless us, everyone.”
7. “The Death Sentence,” Superman Annual #10 (DC,1998)
Breaking Bad is about many things, but one of the themes that keeps coming up is the importance of family — first as something important in its own right, but later as justification for all the terrible things that Walter has done. Lloyd Corman is another man who has done something terrible for his family, and like Walter White he’s moved to action by being unable to pay for the medical care needed to save a life. In this story, the death-row prisoner calls Clark Kent to beg the reporter to take another look at his case. Unfortunately, it turns out Corman really is guilty of killing a convenience store cashier during a botched robbery, but Kent learns Corman acted out of desperation when his infant son fell ill and needed expensive medical care. With that new piece of information, Kent is able to help Corman get his death sentence commuted to life in prison — though how that significant bit of news didn’t come up during his trial is a really, really good question.
8. “Family Troubles,” Justice League International #67 (DC, 08/94)
Okay, so newspaper employees, cops and whatever Corman was before he got sent up the river aren’t always able to afford the health care they or their loved ones need. What about superheroes? If they get hurt in the line of duty, then it only makes sense they would have the kind of access to medical care that anyone who saves the world on a regular basis deserves, right? Well, not always. During the “Judgment Day” story that crossed over DC’s Justice League titles in the mid-1990s, team member Booster Gold was seriously injured when an alien world-destroyer came calling. Unfortunately, those life-threatening injuries happened right after the League lost its United Nations sponsorship, and so no one was there to pick up the tab for Booster’s hospital bills. It was his buddy, Blue Beetle, who came up with the idea of selling their story to some of the trashier news channels to help pay for Booster’s bills (and also to ensure the people of Earth didn’t forget the sacrifice of another team member who wasn’t as lucky). And while it may sound unbelievable that heroes who have saved the world time and again would have to prostitute themselves to ratings-hungry newscasters just to pay their medical bills, don’t forget we’re talking about America, a place where 9/11 first responders are still fighting the government for help in dealing with illnesses related to their long-term exposure of harmful toxins at Ground Zero. You want to talk about your major-league super-villains…