Monday, May 18, 2009

The Monday Fly: Who is the Human Fly, anyway?

From the very beginning, The Human Fly was a mystery.

As a character, the Fly was never referred to by anything other than his stage name, and like the Mexican wrestlers he somewhat resembled, he never removed his mask. His backstory went something like this:

After breaking nearly every bone in his body in the same car accident that killed his family, the Human Fly was told he would never walk again. Indeed, it was considered a miracle he had survived at all. But after enduring hundred of hours of reconstructive surgery that ended up replacing most of his bones with a steel skeleton, the Fly began to exercise and push himself in secret through sheer will. First he retaught himself to stand, and then walk, finally training himself to the point where he had the agility and strength (aided by that steel frame) to become a world-famous stuntman who's mission in life was to bring hope to those whose lives might seem hopeless.

Because of his desire to be seen as a symbol of inner-strength and optimism, the Human Fly kept his identity a secret, and also made every death-defying stunt a charity event. Any money he made went to help a charitable organization, usually benefitting kids, with only a small portion being kept to fund the next stunt planned by the Fly and his loyal crew (more about them in future posts!).

So that's the Human Fly as far as the comics are concerned — or is it? One of the most intriguing bits of Marvel marketing can be found right at the top of any issue of The Human Fly:

Real? How could a comic book hero be real? Well, in this case it was true ... sort of.

Back in 1976, a 29-year-old stuntman named Rick Rojatt emerged from Montreal, Quebec, calling himself the Human Fly and already hidden behind the red and white mask. The mid-70s were a high-point for stuntmen, and the Fly distinguished himself by wing-walking on a low-flying DC-8 over the Mojave Desert at about 250 miles per hour. Then he did it again the next day.

The real life Human Fly was a little less modest than the comic book Fly if this article from People magazine is anything to go by, but there was no denying it was a hell of a stunt. And he had a heck of an origin story of his own:

"Rojatt, a Canadian, says he once was a Hollywood stunt man — although the California union has no record of him. He also says he was in an auto accident in North Carolina six years ago which killed his wife and 4-year-old daughter and badly injured him. He had 38 operations in four years, he says, which allowed him to walk again but left him with a body that is '60 percent steel parts.' He says he conditions himself by rising at 3 a.m., running six miles and then plunging into a bathtub full of ice cubes."

Hmm, sounds familiar (well, except for the thing with the ice cubes). Keep in mind that at the time Marvel (which was run by Jim Shooter then) was quick to jump on any trend that surfaced in American pop culture, and that story sounds ready-made for comics. Add the occassional rumor that Evel Knievel had supposedly already rejected a licensing agreement with Marvel to a guy with his own costume and stir the wacky imagination of writer Bill Mantlo into the mix and you've got a real-life superhero!

Of course, there were gray areas. I kind of doubt the real Human Fly ever teamed up with the Marvel U's White Tiger, Daredevil or Ghost Rider. But Rojatt really did wing-walk that jet (as featured in the very first issue) and he really did attempt the rocket-cycle jump over 27 buses (a key point in issue #11). There's even a detailed account about that last stunt straight from the rocket-cycle designer himself right here.

And then there's the question of Rojatt himself. You'll notice that the quote from People mentions how the California union didn't have any record of him, and shortly after the 1977 bus jump Rojatt seemingly fell off the face of the earth. Beyond what came out of the remaining run of the comic (which only published 19 issues in total), there apparently wasn't much to hear about the Human Fly.

There don't seem to be any other headline grabbing stunts after the bus jump, and an online search doesn't turn up any phone or address listings. Even a relunctant dig for an obituary didn't reveal a fate for the Human Fly.

So, who was the Human Fly? Who was the wildest superhero ever? How "real" was he?

Like all good stories, the real answer is still a mystery.

Speaking of rumors ...

Besides the whole "Evel Knievel rejected Marvel" rumor (supposedly paving the way for the Human Fly to make the jump from stuntman to superhero), there are a couple of other interesting whispers floating around the Internet:

According to Mike Sterling at the rocket-powered Progressive Ruin, the Human Fly may have given up stunts to follow a career in music! (And you thought the end of issue #11 came out of nowhere.)

Was the Human Fly black? Scroll down into the comments for the brief discussion; personally, I think that would be awesome (even though it would make me wonder why he was depicted as white — complete with blue eyes — in the comic).

• The Human Fly never took off his mask — not even at T.G.I. Fridays.

EXTRA SPECIAL BONUS: A sort of explanation about the man known as the Human Fly, written by Bill Mantlo!


Dom said...

a letter to The Human Fly...

Dan said...

There's more info on Bill Mantlo and the Human Fly in Mantlo- A Life In Comics, downloadable free from Wowio at

Maxo said...

Dom: Thanks for sharing the link! The fan letters published in The Human Fly are pretty great. Is it weird that I find this particular letter endearing because, on top of all the much more serious problems he lists, he includes "mild asthma?"

Dan: Cool, I'm going to have to check that out - thanks, Dan!

Nik said...

Man, I wish there was an Essential Human Fly. Not that the Human Fly was ever really that essential, but still, I have a quirky love for those short-run '70s comics of my boyhood...

Admittedly, though, the whole "went through hard times and had my skeleton replaced with a metal" motif seemed fresher than it does now...

My god, I would SO see a Human Fly movie though.

Maxo said...

Y'know, I totally think a Human Fly movie could work.

Anonymous said...

The whole Human Fly story was bogus. He was never injured per the story, and was supported and promoted by Roma Foods. He was not a black guy, and when he was questioned by the press, another person was in the red suit because the Fly was a complete dolt. Cindy Lauper's boyfriend was the stand-in. His name was David Wolf.

Maxo said...

I expect there was plenty of truth-stretching and story-spinning where the whole Human Fly back-story was concerned; it was pretty much a P.T. Barnum kind of thing.

If you've got any kind of information to share about the Human Fly, I'd love to hear it, Anon (though, c'mon, how 'bout a name for yourself?) — feel free to send me an e-mail at the address in the sidebar.

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