On History: The Human Fly

By | Tuesday, August 30, 2016 7 comments
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.
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Phil said...

You forgot the Human Fly comic book revival that came out a few years ago.

You mean the character from The Punisher and Venom titles? That's a totally different and unrelated character.

Phil said...


I'll be damned! I had not heard of that before; I didn't see mention of it at all in the reading I did for this. Thanks, Phil!

R. S. Martin said...

I enjoyed the article. I hope you won't mind if I offer some nitpicks.

You write;

"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."

I'm not really sure how much distribution the title could have gotten beyond the newsstand system. The direct market was very marginal in 1977--probably less than five percent of overall sales--and no staffer at the major newsstand publishers was giving it much thought. Marvel led the pack with the DM, and they didn't take any significant interest in it until late 1979, when they hired a sales manager for it. But even then, they weren't doing special promotions for it until late 1980, when they published their first DM exclusive. Dedicated comics stores were rare; many if not most storefront DM accounts well into the 1980s were used bookstores and non-comics collectibles shops (stamps, coins, sports cards) that carried comics on the side. The newsstand market was really the only market available for it.

Even if the fan market of the time had been significant, the book was not something with appeal. In general, licensed books were looked down upon. Lee Elias and the other artists who worked on the series, namely Frank Robbins and Bob Lubbers, were stylists in the Milton Caniff mold. This school of artists was not, to put it mildly, in favor with the period's fan readership. The publishers would get hate mail for using them, and generally only put them on low-end titles. The publishers stopped commissioning any work from them around the time HF was cancelled.

I also would question how famous Rojatt actually was. I was born in 1969, and I've never heard of him or the Human Fly outside of the comic. I think Evel Knievel was the only stunt performer of the time who qualified as a mass-culture celebrity.

I apologize if this seems a little long and loud, but I've been researching the '70s and '80s DM recently, and that graf jumped out at me.

I don't disagree with anything you said, and I don't think you're saying anything that disagrees with what I wrote.

The book got lost in the broad market, as you say primarily newsstands at the time, and there wasn't much of a Direct Market system in place yet to cater specifically towards a dedicated comic book audience. Human Fly was competing against not only Spider-Man and Batman, but Time and Wall Street Journal and Boys' Life and Sports Illustrated and Playboy and everything else. All of which boils down to the book not selling very well. We're not saying anything different.

Also, I said that Rojatt was at the height of his fame -- that is, he was as famous as he was ever going to get. That doesn't mean he was famous on the level of Evel Knievel, just that more people knew about Rojatt in 1977 than they did in 1976. I'm sure the book would have sold much worse if it had come out any earlier than it did.

R. S. Martin said...

I read the paragraph I quoted as saying that despite Rojatt's celebrity, the book failed because of Marvel's confusion about how to market it, specifically its ignorance of how to use the DM towards that end. I'm sorry I misunderstood you.