Friday, August 26, 2005

The Chronicles of the Human Fly
Chapter One

There is little doubt that The Human Fly is one of the most bizarre books Marvel has ever published. Even in an era - the late 70s / early 80s - when the stands were literally clogged with weird crap, The Human Fly stood out from the pack.

I am absolutely convinced, even if I can't prove it at this time, that the only reason that this book was ever published is that at some point in time Evel Knievel refused to grant Marvel the license. Because that's basically what the Human Fly is: a poor man's Evel Knievel. And Evel Knievel wasn't exactly a high-rent concept to begin with. Certainly, there has never been and there will never be a shortage of people willing to pay for the privelage of seeing some poor schmuck risk life and limb doing stupid things. The success of shows like Survivor and Fear Factor attest to the fact that danger never goes out of style.

But the difference here is simple: the dangerous stunts on all modern "reality" programs are essentially simulated. Never once, to my knowledge, has anyone on Fear Factor been asked to do something that might actually result in death or dismemberment. Every bungee-jump is triple-checked for safety, safety nets are always on hand, and there are no shards of glass in the worm-burgers (or whatever) they have to scarf for points. Back in the 70s, however, real-life "daredevils" like Evel Knevel made a "living" by putting their lives in honest-to-God jeopardy. At the very least I suppose you could say that modern reality programming is an improvement over seeing real people attempt non-simulated suicide . . . but this is only a relative improvement.

Marvel has never met a bandwagon it couldn't co-opt. Roller-disco was big in the 70s, so they created a roller-disco superhero named Dazzler. (They also created a plain-vanilla disco super-villain named the Hypno Hustler. One of them got to join the X-Men and still appears semi-regularly to this day, the other was never heard from again - let's see if you can guess which one.) Blaxploitation gave us Luke Cage. The kung-fu craze gave us Shang-Chi. Trucking was big (sort of . . . the 70s was a strange time), so we got U.S. 1 and Razorback. Drugs were big in the 80s so we got Cloak & Dagger. Marvel even tried again with a concept that bore significant similarities to The Human Fly - Team America, which wasn't merely one daredevil but a whole team of daredevils (and, significantly, it wasn't a licensed project).

It's worth pointing out that at some point - perhaps not-so- coincidentally, around the time Jim Shooter left Marvel - the powers-that-be at the company stopped trying to chase every fad. Also, in most cases, anything that Marvel created to exploit a passing fad usually came out a few years after said fad was already in the dust. All of which means, thankfully, we were spared a forty-something white guy's attempt at creating a hip-hop superhero. A "Who Let The Dogs Out?" supervillain would probably be premiering right about now if Shooter still edited the Marvel line.

The Human Fly's existence has left a surprisingly sparse record. Others have already tried to track this elusive prey, with variable levels of success. The Human Fly was apparently a man known as Rick Rojatt. There was another "Human Fly" in 1977 - a man named George Willig who scaled the World Trade center on May 26 - but this one-time stunt had no connection to Rojatt's career.

Evel Knievel has never been a shrinking violet, continuing to promote himself and his various charitable endeavors. albeit on something of a reduced scale, long after his heydey in the 1970s (his website can be found here). Never one to shrink from self-promotion, he even goes so far as to make the somewhat dubious claim that "Knievel was credited with re-vitalizing the poorly performing toy industry in the 70's". It wouldn't surprise me if Knievel toys were popular, since they made quite a few of them, but I have a hard time believing that motorcycle daredevil toys could possibly have outgrossed Star Wars as the premiere children's toys of the late 1970's and early 1980's. Not inconceivable, but a surprising claim nonetheless.

In any event, the popularity of daredevil stuntmen eventually disappeared entirely in the early 80s, and with it, Rojatt's career. The most significant Rojatt-related anecdote online is a story by Ky Michaelson - "The Rocketman" - a rocket aficianado and the man who custom-crafted the rocket cycle Rojatt used in his 1977 jump over 27 buses at the Montreal Olympic Stadium. The whole story, complete with a few wonderful pictures, is here. I don't want to steal Michaelson's thunder - it's a great story - but a couple passages relating to the Rojatt's character stand out as particularly revealing:
"The other very unique thing about this off-the-wall daredevil was that he was never seen out of costume, and kept his true identity a secret by wearing a red mask and a white cape, identical to the comic book action hero. . . . From the moment I met this guy, I was convinced he was an accident looking for a place to happen, especially when he told me he wanted to attempt 36 buses."

"We went over the stunt as thoroughly as possible, and much to my amazement, Rick didn't want to do any practice runs at all. He just sat on the bike, admiring it, determined to just wait until the time came. I gave him step-by-step detailed instructions on how to operate the rockets, and he just took it all in, nodding as I went along. I knew he understood what I was saying, but I hardly slept that night because I was always so safety conscious, and typically rehearsed stunts many a time before actually performing them. . . . I was uneasy with this particular situation."
So - what we have is someone with a secret identity, a death wish, and a disinterest in safety precautions. Sounds like a borderline psychotic to me - but hey, it was the 70s.

The only other artifact from the Fly's career that have surfaced online is a photograph and brief description of another, even more psychotic stunt:

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According to the Mojave Transportation Museum's virtual archive:
"The Human Fly, a dare devil/stunt performer named Rick Rojatt, lives out the Marvel Comics character on the back of a DC-8 cruising low at 250 knots, flown by Clay Lacy at the Mojave California 1000 air races."

Here's a picture of the Fly on top of another airplane, proving that he did it at least twice:

The DC-8 stunt would be referenced in the very first issue of the Fly's comic.

Other than these two strange stories, no other evidence of Rojatt's career has surfaced online (and because this is the digital age, I'm way to lazy to actually go to a library and look him up). The one other detail about Rojatt that may have had any bearing on his life and career is that he was Canadian . . . but a search of the online Canadian white pages find no one with the name "Rojatt" anywhere in the confines of the country. Perhaps, at some point in the late 70s, the Human Fly did something so terrible, so inconceivable, that all record of his name and legend was wiped from the books?

Well, probably not. He probably just faded into obscurity like most of the other late 70s Knievel wannabes.

Join us next time as we actually begin our in-depth look at Marvel's Human Fly series - don't miss it!

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