Home / Applied Geekism / Pretty fly for a daredevil guy: the return of the Human Fly

Pretty fly for a daredevil guy: the return of the Human Fly

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(Marvel Comics)

Marvel Comics billed him as “The wildest superhero ever—because he’s real!” Although the pages of The Human Fly, which ran from 1977-78, were fiction, they were indeed loosely based on a mysterious masked stuntman whose name may or may not have been “Rick Rojatt.” The self-proclaimed “world’s greatest stuntman” promised that he would prove that the Human Fly was “the greatest superhero that has ever lived or will live.”

Opinion differs on whether he achieved those titles or not, but no one can argue that he gave it a good run—he did several stunts standing on top of a DC-8 airplane travelling 250-300 mph. He also broke one of Evel Knievel’s records (and a few bones) by jumping a rocket-powered motorcycle over 27 school buses during a disco-themed concert at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

The Human Fly’s wild ride on planes, motorcycles and through news reports and comic book pages had a start in an unlikely and mild origin: a Montreal sausage maker that was bored out of his mind.

Brothers Joe and Dominique Ramacieri were born into the family sausage business, Roma Foods, which was founded in 1955. The business was doing well, but for young Joe Ramacieri, it was a dull trade.

“I’d be making sausages and my hands would freeze, from morning until night, and I would tell my brother, ‘I can’t do this, I got to find something else,’” Joe said in a documentary interview with filmmaker Tony Babinski.

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The Human Fly and company (image: via the-rocketman.com)

Joe and his brother decided to use some of the pepperoni profits to form Human Fly Spectaculars, Ltd in 1976, hiring an enthusiastic stuntman who called himself “Rick Rojatt” to fill out the fuzzy red felt Human Fly costume. The full body supersuit covered him head to toe, completely masking his identity. It was decorated with white stripes and bedazzled with sequins. The Fly also sometimes wore a cape and carried around an ornate scepter. He had a backup red and white leather costume and a helmet to protect his body while engaging in his stunts.

Rick Rojatt had a dramatic back story, one that calls into question which parts of his life were fact and which were comic book-style fabrications.

“Yeah, I thought he was a con man, a bull*****er all the way,” Ramacieri admitted in his documentary interview.

Rojatt claimed that he was a former stuntman and that 5 years before his appearance as the Fly, he was in a terrible car crash that had left his wife and daughter dead. Doctors, sworn to confidentiality, worked feverishly over the course of “38 operations” to save Rojatt’s life and replaced “sixty percent of his bone structure” with molded steel parts.  As part of his Fly stunt training, Rojatt said that he woke up every day at “3AM, ran six miles, and then plunged into a bathtub full of ice cubes.”

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(Marvel Comics)

Soon Human Fly Spectaculars, Ltd was successfully attracting media attention. In a 1976 interview about his plane-riding stunts, the Fly told People magazine, “Frankly, I’m not worried about death. I don’t have a death wish, I have a life wish.” After getting chewed up by 250 mph rain drops over the skies of Dallas (which he claims took two weeks in a hospital to recover from), the Fly made another run on top of a DC-8 over the Mojave Desert in 1977. This performance was caught in detail in a 23-minute Human Fly Spectaculars, Ltd promotional short film titled, “The Human Fly Challenges the Mojave Skies.”

The film shows the Fly being greeted by the UCLA marching band and talking about how he trained in a wind tunnel for the stunt. Then the stuntman is strapped into what looks like a medieval torture device on top of a plane with the words THE HUMAN FLY neatly painted down the side. The plane takes off and circles above the gathered crowd for 20 minutes, all set to a bumping 70’s soundtrack by the Black Light Orchestra.

This was right around the same time that Marvel Comics picked up on the Fly’s story and rolled out The Human Fly #1 in 1977. Led by writer Bill Mantlo and fleshed out by Marvel’s editors and writers (referred to as the “Marvel Bullpen”), the comic book Fly found himself joined by a supporting cast of characters who helped him fight giant robot birds, save children by walking to rescue them on a tightrope, escape from sharks and other spectacular stunt feats. The comic book Human Fly got to meet guest stars like Spider-Man and Ghost Rider. Burning questions from readers about the real Fly were delegated to the letters section of the comic book, called “The Fly Papers.”

“We take certain license with our monthly adventures,” the comic book editors admitted in response to a Fly Papers letter on whether the Fly really fought crime. “We build on the concept of the entity known as the HUMAN FLY as opposed to documenting his every day appearances. The newspapers and TV do that—our job is not to report but to get the Fly’s message across in as entertaining a manner as possible.”

Both the comic book and the Mojave Desert promotional film mention that one of the Fly’s goals was to inspire ill youngsters and that he donated some share of his stunt earnings to children’s hospital charities. The promotional film and a Canadian television news report both show footage of the Fly paying visits to children’s hospitals to pose for pictures, visit, and sign autographs for the patients. Specific details on which charities and how much money the Fly was able to raise for them remain unknown, but it would appear that if the Fly was a madman, he was at least a charitable one.

Late in 1977, the Fly was booked to do a halftime show for a concert in Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The concert featured Gloria Gaynor and several other disco age performers. It was destined to be the climax of his career.

The Fly’s goal—to smash Evel Knieval’s motorcycle jump record of 13 school buses, by doubling it with a line-up that stretched over 27 buses. To help give him the extra firepower he needed, he enlisted Ky “The Rocketman” Michaelson, who still maintains his company, Rocketman Enterprises, Inc., in Bloomington, Minnesota.

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The Human Fly in the motorcycle stunt that broke Evel Knieval’s record. (image: via http://the-rocketman.com)

“Rick sent me a brand new 1977 Harley Davidson XL-1000 Sportster, a true black beauty, to work from,” Michaelson recalled in an essay on his website. “I put exactly three miles on it and then the fun began. I yanked out the engine and built two 1500 pound thrust hydrogen peroxide rockets, which I mounted one on top of the other directly underneath the fuel tank…if a guy were to take this out to the local drag strip, hold the throttle wide open and hope the tires didn’t fall right off, he’d be capable of going well over 300 mph in the ¼ mile strip.”

Michaelson joined the Fly at Olympic Stadium and recalled that he was immediately nervous of the Fly surviving the jump when he noticed that the ramps weren’t quite built to specifications. The Fly ignored the potential threat and the show went on. The Fly kicked in the rocket boosters and jumped up a ramp and over a sea of yellow school buses. He cleared his mark but flipped the bike too high to make the landing.

“My heart just pounded as I stood there, witnessing the crash landings of all crash landings right before my eyes,” [sic] Michaelson wrote. “A hush fell over the crowd as we all expected the worst. It looked like nobody could have possibly survived such a crash. We were soon relieved when we realized he was actually okay.  He survived and he had done it – he had broken Evel’s record, but not without paying the price. He waved to the crowd as he was carried away on a stretcher, suffering a broken ankle and several other injuries.” The Fly was rushed to a hospital to recover.

After 19 issues, Marvel pulled the plug on the series, but the series is still remembered by comic book fans and has a cult-like following today.  Fly fans post pages from the series online, create their own fan art and post threads pondering what was perhaps the last great stunt of the Human Fly—a disappearing act. After the crash at Olympic Stadium, no one seems to know what happened to Rick Rojatt and the book seemed to close on the Human Fly…for the moment.

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A mock Marvel Now cover of The Human Fly by artist Brendan Tobin

About ten years ago, Tony Babinski, a filmmaker from Montreal, envisioned a Human Fly media revival. Babinski is now the president of Human Fly International and has a dedicated crew helping him with his vision. Growing up in the Fly’s hometown gave Babinski an added fascination with the masked stuntman as a kid. He eagerly bought the early Marvel Comic issues.

“Of course the big jump at Olympic Stadium happened in my hometown and there was lots of hype on the AM radio station I listened to,” Babinski says. “I really wanted to go to the jump, but couldn’t convince anyone to go with me. I missed out seeing it live, but read about it afterward in the newspapers.”

Many years later, Babinski was bouncing film ideas off a producer and remembered the story of the Human Fly. Assisted by his brother, a journalist, Babinski tracked down Joe Ramicieri and started on a project he’s been working on the last ten years—a narrative film based on the Human Fly. He bought the rights to the character from Ramicieri and found out a surprise about the identity under the mask.

“The reality is that Joe and his brother hired several people to be in the costume at various times,” Babinski explains. “The identity of the person under the mask was supposed to remain a secret, but Rick Rojatt apparently wanted to hog a little glory and let his identity slip to a reporter.” Babinski and his brother tried to track the elusive stuntman down. Babinski learned the stuntman’s real name was Rick Rajotte.

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The Human Fly from a documentary interview (image: via Javzilla)

“We sought Rick out and think we found him, but he denied he is who he is. So no one really knows what happened to Rick after the Olympic Stadium jump. Nevertheless, the Fly continued to exist. He ended up fronting a band called Human Fly and the Red Rockers that played original music in New Jersey bars.  The Fly at that time was Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend, David Wolff, a musician in his own right.”

To reintroduce audiences to the Human Fly, Babinski has helped collect an anthology of new Human Fly comic book stories for a graphic novel that debuted at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con. It’s titled The New Adventures of the Human Fly.

“It’s very exciting to see the Fly back in this way after all these years,” Babinski says. In addition to editing, he contributed one of the stories himself.  “A bunch of talented artists and writers from today’s scene and from the 1970s who actually worked on the Marvel comic have agreed to be a part of it. The stories are very ‘meta,’ not the straight take on the character you see in the Marvel comics. They take into account the story behind the story, the funny and twisted reality—though we also pay homage to the Marvel comics, so we have our cake and eat it, too.”

Babinski says he is trying to close in on financing for the film and hopes to start shooting soon.

“Creatively, we’ve always been fashioning a period piece that takes place in the 1970s and is a heartfelt recounting of the journey Joe and his band of merrymakers took on when they decided to create a real life superhero. It’s funny, raucous, irreverent, and wild,” Babinski says. “And yet, I think we take their insane desire for fame and notoriety seriously. So many of us want it, and they went to extreme lengths to get it. Of course, they paid the price, too. But we’re still talking about what they did today,” Babinski says, noting that the legend of the Human Fly is now about 35 years old.

“So in a way they pulled it off. Pretty good for a bunch of Italian Montrealers from a sausage factory.”

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About Tea Krulos

Tea Krulos is a freelance journalist and author of the new book 'Heroes in the Night' available from Chicago Review Press, which documents the Real Life Superhero (RLSH) movement. He also runs a blog with RLSH news and profiles.