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In the mid-1970s, brothers Joseph and Dominic Ramacieri were running the family pepperoni business in Canada. Joe was interested in a way out, and he somehow struck upon the idea of sponsoring a daredevil stuntman in much the same vein as Evel Knievel, who had gained popularity a few years earlier. The brothers formed another company called Human Fly Spectaculars, Ltd. and hired Rick Rojatt to take the mantle of The Human Fly.

Rojatt's story was a bit dubious. He claimed to be a former Hollywood stuntman, whose wife and daughter were killed in a car crash that resulted in 60% of his skeleton replaced with steel. Joseph was skeptical, but figured that if the guy could do stunts, he didn't care. Dominic also hit on the idea that by putting Rojatt in a costume that completely covered him, they could replace him pretty easily if they ever needed to. (Either to get more precisely trained individuals for each stunt or, more cynically, if Rojatt died during one of them.) The group then set out a five year plan of different types of stunts, working hard to ensure prime media coverage.

Rojatt's first stunt, in 1976, was to strap himself on top of a DC-8 jet, which then took off for a long flight in which he endured 250 mile per hour raindrops pelting him. He passed out during the flight, and spent the following six weeks in the hospital, but he had made a name for himself.

It was after then, with The Human Fly now generating some name recognition, that Ramacieri's legal team started talking with Marvel. This would have been after a few years of office tumult at Marvel that eventually left Archie Goodwin as editor-in-chief. Bill Mantlo was given writing duties and Lee Elias initially took on the art chores. (Elias left Rojatt's real-life costume design alone, only emphasizing the musculature a bit more.) Mantlo took some of the basic backstory elements provided by Rojatt and team, and expanded on them. Which Rojatt, in turn, expanded upon in subsequent interviews.

The first issue, which came out in mid-1977, didn't sell particularly well. Though the daredevil himself was at the height of his fame, Marvel was still trying to sort out the burgeoning direct market system and hadn't figured out the best distribution for the book. The title basically got lost in the market.

Several months in the book's run, however, Rojatt attempted jumping 27 buses on a motorcycle, which would beat Evel Knievel's record of 13. Problems with the ramp's construction, though, led to Rojatt blasting off the ramp at the wrong angle. His bike stalled in mid-flight, the back end curled under the front, and Rojatt landed on his back with the bike crashing down on top of him. He survived, amazingly with only a broken ankle and various cuts and bruises.

Questions started coming up about the whole operation, though. A woman in Florida said she recognized what little people could see through The Fly's mask, and that he had walked out on her and their two kids. Some of Rojatt's safety coordinators dropped stories of possible mob ties that scared them from working with Human Fly Spectaculars again. There were claims that a million dollar life insurance policy was put on Rojatt right before his jump.

But after another hospital stay, Rojatt vanished. The comic went on for about another year. Mantlo even incorporated the disastrous jump in issue #11, which led the comic book version of the character down a journey to psychologically overcome his failure. But it eventually ended with #19, long after Rojatt himself had been out of the news cycle.

To this day, no one knows what actually happened to Rojatt. Or, for that matter, if that was even his real name! In the 1980s, a man named David Wolff (former boyfriend and manager of Cyndi Lauper) performed a concert as "The Human Fly & Red Rider" and the act was once again backed by Ramacieri, but whether they were just adopting the name or Wolff was really Rojatt is unknown. Filmmaker Tony Babinski, trying to put together a documentary about all of this -- a preview trailer of which can be seen here -- thinks he tracked Rojatt down in Ontario, but the man who answered the phone refused to talk. So the mystery remains.

Regardless, though, all of this left readers with a year and a half of Mantlo-written stories, not quite like anything before or since.
This weekend I swang by Count-i-Con for a bit. It's not a huge show like something from ReedPop or Wizard, but it's pretty respectable for a local show. Like a lot of other "comic" cons, it blends into pop culture more generally so there's plenty of booths for toys and games and cosplay and all that. But they usually get more than a few comic professionals as guests, some of them decent names. Bill Reinhold was probably the biggest comics person there, but there also had the likes of Greg Hildebrandt and Timothy Zahn (who I believe have both had work published in comics, at least, even if their normal focus is a little tangential to comics).

Anyway, it's a decent show. It's close enough for me that I can swing by for an afternoon, pick up a few things, chat with a few people, and be home in time for dinner. This year, I was pleasantly surprised to fill some long-standing holes in my collection thanks to several dollar bins. I also picked up a couple of new (to me) titles by some local, independent creators. I ran into a friend of mine, and got to catch up a bit which is always good. All in all, a decent show for me.

The show is two days, though. Both Saturday and Sunday. I was able to walk the entire floor, go through three booths's worth of dollar bins, talk to several tablers including the two creators who I bought stuff from, chat casually with my friend, and use the restroom in under two hours. And I was going moving pretty casually. I could've stayed longer if I took an interest in the costume contest, and there were a few panels each day which could take some time. But even with that, I think it'd be a really hard show for most people to attend for both days. It's just not that big.

So the question, then, is whether or not the show (and others like it) warrant two days. I've seen other shows of similar size do quite well as a one-day event.

The argument for one day is: yes, there will absolutely be people who simply cannot attend because they have zero availability on the day you're open, but those who do have some availability will make a greater effort to attend because they know they won't have a Day Two to fall back on. Which means that the traffic for a one day show would roughly be 75% of what you'd see if you held a two-day event. That is, I'm sure you'll note, less money. However, it's also a full day less of working a convention and, theoretically, fewer costs in hosting the convention. Certainly, some of that would dependent on whether you could rent a space like this for only one day -- I expect many places would require both Saturday and Sunday -- but there'd certainly be less organizing involved, and your costs for hiring ticket takers, concession workers, security, etc. would also be cut roughly in half.

Now the down side here is that you put a lot of setup and tear-down into a shorter time-frame. Essentially doing both on one day, and those are just bookends to doing the convention itself! But the up side is that it's over an done with, and you still have a full day in your weekend to watch sports or have a picnic or whatever.

I wonder how of these local cons have sit down and done the math on this, and how many just assume that you're "supposed" to do a convention over two days?
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: On Business: Why Business?

Kleefeld on Comics: On History: Englehart's FF

Kleefeld on Comics: Weekly Comics Links

FreakSugar: Webcomics Wednesday: Topics of Discussion

Kleefeld on Comics: On -isms: Imitation Game Review

Kleefeld on Comics: On Strips: W.C. Fields

At some point I heard about the existence of a W.C. Fields comic strip. I'd heard of other old film stars having their likenesses used as the basis for comic strips (most notably Charlie Chaplin) so this didn't strike me as unusual. I was going to write something about the Fields strip today, and tried to do some research on it, but... there's about nothing. There are plenty of references to the fact that the strip existed and some of the basic info, but not much beyond that. In fact, the only "comprehensive" study on the strip I've found is one blog post from Allan Holtz. Here are the highlights...
The first team to tackle Fields-lite, starting on October 31 1982, consisted of artist Frank Smith, and Jim Smart. Smart is unknown to me, but Smith had proven his chops on Disney's Donald Duck newspaper comic strip...

By July 1983 somebody had decided that something had to be done to, if not necessarily save the strip, at least rehabilitate the W.C. Fields image. On July 31, a new creative team took over. Gags were now credited to a member of W.C.'s own family, Ronald J. Fields... All of a sudden, Fields became rancorous, lethargic and half-lit -- just as he ought to be.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water, artist Frank Smith also exited, and was replaced by Fred Fredericks. Apparently Mandrake the Magician wasn't keeping Fredericks busy, so he tried his hand at this strip, probably knowing that the gig would be short-term.

And short term it certainly was. The latest I can find the W.C. Fields strip running is August 7 1983, meaning that if I have the right end date then the new team was active for a mere two weeks.
It's not surprising the strip didn't last long. The jokes are tame and fairly stale from the examples I've seen...
But what strikes me as odd are those dates. 1982-1983? Fields' last film was in 1941 and he died in 1946. Because of his raunchy humor, his films were rarely, if ever, shown on network television so he never received any latter-day attention like the Three Stooges or Laurel & Hardy. So by 1982, he had been pretty solidly out of the public consciousness for decades. Why try to bring the character back then? And even if you did, why would you think it would be successful if his humor had to be so diluted to be used in a newspaper strip environment?

One of those weird things that shouldn't exist at all, but... well, there it is.
Jim Ottaviani's career in comics consists primarily of biographies of notable scientists of the 20th century. His most recent book is The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded, which came out earlier this year, and was drawn by Leland Purvis. Turing was a mathematician and logician, and his work was used as the foundations of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.

The book starts when Turing is a young boy, and showcases his early penchants for math, logic, and running (sometimes a combination of them at the same time). But it also starts to show his social awkwardness and stutter early on as well. As these were somewhat themes throughout his life (not necessarily the stutter per se, but the deliberate, often self-imposed isolation from others) it of course makes sense to introduce them in the early pages. Ottaviani proceeds to spend about 60 pages on Turing's youth and schooling before he's drafted (after a fashion) into working for the British government. There's another 100 or so pages on his work during the war, with the last 60-ish pages devoted back to his teaching and formal social ostracization.

Interestingly, most of the personal life is left off in the middle section and we see him primarily in a work environment. I suspect this was done for two reasons: A) because many people in England during the war focused so intently on their work that they had little time for not trying to defeat Hitler, and B) many of of Turing's greatest strides and theoretical advances occur during this period. We certainly see Turing's personality and habitual quirks throughout, but his personal life -- which had already been set up as somewhat removed from "normal" society -- is largely set aside until he returns to academia.

The book has a somewhat different structural set-up. While the primary story follows along Turing's life in a fairly typical linear fashion, it's narrated by a variety of people from his life who are being interviewed about him many years after his death. Going somewhat against convention, Turing's story is told in full color, but the short sequences showing these various interviewees are in black and white. Normally, one would use black and white to represent the older work, trying to mimic the technological advances of film. Here, the reverse is done -- successfully -- to put greater emphasis on Turing himself. The narrators simply provide additional details and interpretations that we wouldn't get from Turing's point of view.

As with any of Ottaviani's comics, I find a lot to recommend here. It's very well-researched with a note-worthy bibliography, but unlike a lot of comic biographies, Ottaviani is able to infuse a lot of his subject's personality into his works so they don't come across as the visual version of a bland history textbook. Turing is a complex and compassionate individual, and while some of his social issues kept his own friends and acquaintances a little at arm's length, readers are able to see an intimate portrait of the man here.

Now, why would I put this review under my "On -isms" label? Because Turing was gay. He spent most of his life in the closet, since homosexuality was a crime in England at the time, and was outed publicly in 1953. The problems (both legal and social) it caused him gave him so much distress that he committed suicide the following year.

But here's the thing as it relates to the book. Aside from the public court trial and the repercussions of that towards the end of the book, Turing's sexual orientation is barely hinted at throughout the rest of the book. And that's noteworthy because, frankly, that's how it should be approached. I don't mean to say that homosexuality should be swept under the rug but, while it was part of who Turing was, that wasn't a large part of his own identity for much of his life. Because of his social awkwardness, he didn't have these grand flings or anything. He was just a guy interested in math and logic who happened to prefer the company of other men. And that's how Ottaviani approaches it here. It doesn't really become a plot point until he's dragged into court for it.

Comics talking about sexuality and gender identity are great. I have any number of books on my shelves that are, in some way, autobiographies of people along the LGBTQ spectrum. Being friends with and having spoken to even more gay/lesbian/transgender folks, I know coming to terms with their identity in a society that has actively discouraged that for generations is liberating. So metaphorically shouting their stories from the rooftops via their comics makes sense, and it's great for a cishetero guy like me to help me understand what they've gone through.

But that wasn't Turing. He was gay, but that was just a statement of fact to him. His identity was more wrapped up in his work. And this biography reflects that. And that's one of the things I like about where comics are going. Where you can have a gay character, and his sexuality is just part of his character, not all of it. I think other writers would do well to study that idea and mimic it.
I first started reading the Fantastic Four during John Byrne's run. Lots of great material there, and that's what really got me hooked on the characters specifically, but comics more generally. Byrne worked on the book for a couple more years before he bowed out just before a couple of big anniversary issues. Much as I didn't want to see him leave the book, by the time he did, I understood that his long tenure as the writer/artist on a single book was unusual. So then there was a period of creative change-ups until Marvel found a regular creative team, but since John Buscema was doing most of the artwork, I didn't mind. They eventually landed on the team of Steve Englehart and Keith Pollard.

I didn't initially care for dropping two of the main characters and replacing them with love interests for the remaining two. But once some of that seemingly forced soap opera-y stuff got out of the way, there were some decent stories going. Even the "Inferno" stories weren't too bad for being part of an unnecessary crossover.

But then this John Harkness guy started writing the book. The Fantastic Four were captured, an evil clone version of the team replaced them, and readers got several months of nothing but dream sequences. I was thrilled when Walt Simonson finally took over with #334.

Of course, what I didn't know at the time was that Englehart and Harkness were the same man, and that he was using a pseudonym because he himself didn't like what he was being told to do with the stories. So what was being done?

Englehart was brought in under Jim Shooter's rein as editor-in-chief to shake things up with the book. In Englehart's words from his own site...
The FF was always the "real life" adventures of superheroes, but as the series atrophied many people forgot about the real life part; growth and change went out the window. I identified the hermetically-sealed group of Reed & Sue & Ben & Johnny as a main reason the book has grown stale - and Reed & Sue had been saying for years that they should pay more attention to their perpetually 6-year-old son Franklin - so I let 'em. Thus, Ben & Johnny had to find two new members and do new things.
A few months after Englehart began, however, Shooter was fired and Tom DeFalco was given the editor-in-chief role. Initially, he seemed to leave things alone, presumably as he was getting a handle on the new job. But when the next Annual came around -- which tied into the "Evolutionary War" story that ran through many of the 1988 Annuals -- DeFalco evidently started demanding changes that book editor Ralph Macchio put in place.

Changes were also being made on his West Coast Avengers title, and he tried to salvage some of the storyline he began there in FF #322-325. In an open letter Englehart wrote in 1990, he noted...
#322 through #325 were plotted as [West Coast Avengers] stories and shoehorned into FF when WCA was yanked from under Al [Milgrom] and me--that's why the FF is fighting [WCA] villains. #325 originally ended with the Surfer and Mantis getting together and leading into the shelved Surfer #23; in the end, I had to use it to kill Mantis with dignity, because she'd already been trashed behind my back...
That's when DeFalco demanded that Englehart bring Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman back into the book. Englehart then removed his name from the book and began using the Harkness pseudonym. Again, from that open letter...
As always, I did the best I could, because the fans ought not to suffer in these situations, but anyone reading them with the knowledge of what was going on will find them filled with cries of outrage--not the least of which was the entire plot. Alien freezes real FF, sticks 1962 FF in their place -- the man who raised stealing from Jack Kirby to Official Policy never got that, and if you understand that fact, you understand everything that's gone wrong at the House of Ideas. In fact, the 1962 FF was such a hit in the offices, they want to do a mini-series starring them. Almost all the 1962 FF's dialogue in the series was lifted verbatim from FF #1-3, by the way; it actually took a lot of extra time to make that work, but that's what their stunted characters required.
Englehart now recalls that period as "one of the most painful stretches of my career." He tried to do the stories he wanted during this period, but basically had to relegate them all to dream sequences...
Anyway, the dream stories at the end were bare bones versions of the stories I would have done for real if I'd been able to; the last one, how Frank made Alicia leave Ben for Johnny, was the plot that got me the FF in the first place (over the then-not-in-charge Tom DeFalco). In one of my early FFs, back when they had letter columns, I said I had a long term plan working for the book; that was the first half of it. But in the end, as the titles very clearly said: "Bad Dream--And You Can't Wake Up!"
I've never been able to find anything where DeFalco specifically talks to his view of what happened. The closest I've come across is an interview that he conducted with Macchio for Comic Creators on the Fantastic Four in 2005...
Why did Steve leave the book?

We had a parting of ways, creatively. I remember there was a storyline he embarked on and I knew right away that we were beginning to see the characters differently. There were stories he wanted to do that just didn't work for me. I liked a lot of his run, but I didn't like the way he wanted to go so I made a change.
It was an unfortunately inglorious end to what had been a very interesting take on the title. While I disagree with Englehart's initial premise -- that Reed and Sue were fundamentally problematic to the book moving forward -- I can respect some of the ideas that he was able to develop out of that. I didn't like that "John Harkness" period for years until I began hearing about some of the behind-the-scenes problems years later. I'll end with a small request from Englehart's 1990 letter...
Anyway, now you know, so when you think back on my work, as you will from time to time, don't damn me for the stories I wrote under duress. There's a lot of ignorance and aggression around these days... but I'll continue to bank on the understanding of an informed public (still sounds like Captain America, doesn't it?). Let me reiterate that I did write every word of the best stories I could produce under the circumstances, even if every word didn't make it into print...