Science Fiction reader 1960s red scare Superheroes fleas insects parody alternate worlds j. edgar hoover

Henry the Human Flea

By Tom Marcinko
Dec 2, 2020 · 1,016 words · 4 minutes

From the author: This story was published way back in the last century, in a British magazine called The Edge, edited by Graham Evans. It was originally conceived as a pitch for an anthology of Spider-Man stories, but the editor who sent me a polite rejection said it was "too weird for Marvel." (How's that, again?) It's fortunate that I was able to capitalize on the superhero craze years before it was ripe for monetization.

Henry the Human Flea

by Tom Marcinko

We still remember the rollicking 1960s with twin measures of nostalgia and embarrassment. We remember them war, for social change, for music, for the Soviet moon landing that scared us so, for the Z-Bomb.

Most of us, though, remember the ’60s for the superheroes.

The strange career of the Human Flea epitomized the era.

Twenty years after the death of Henry Harkins, his memoir I, Siphonaptera shed new light on that fascinating and troubling time.

For most of us baby-boomers, superheroes began—where else?—on television. After his landmark appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, just before his irresponsible carelessness led to the death of his beloved Uncle Frank, Henry the Human Flea—the genuine article, mind you—spawned a circus of media imitations.

The fad is almost forgotten today. A few antique shops still carry carefully preserved dance-craze 45 rpm’s like “Human Flea Hop.” The Nick at Nite Network wallpapers the net with reruns of the classic “Teenage Leaper” series. Asimov on Fleas topped the bestseller lists for months, even bumping Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Bees from the number-one spot.

Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover sounded a call to arms in Reader’s Digest: “They call him the Human Flea, the Super Hero, but hopping vigilantes spell Siphonaptera Sovieticus in the book of every God-fearing American. Why doesn’t this Flea Man go to Vietnam? In olden times real fleas caused bubonic plague; today fake fleas spread the far more deadly plague of the yellow streak down one’s back.”

His warnings weren’t so easy to laugh off those days, after the East-bloc radiation-induced insectoids known only as the Worker Ants erected the Berlin Wall overnight.

Not every public official was as insectophobic as Hoover. Take one of his arch enemies, quoted in Variety, sometime in 1965: “Nubile starlet Jane Fonda raises eyebrows and blood pressures wearing antennae and little else in hubby Roger Vadim’s Euro-teaser Million-Year Itch. Gotham guru Andy Warhol lenses eight hours of celluloid wallpaper: Flea Bites Dog. And breaking B.O. records is Sean Connery in Goldleaper, pitting spy-fi-scribe Ian Fleming’s hero against Brit newcomer Diana Rigg as the supervillainness in skin-tight black threads. Flick gets A-OK from no less an expert than JFK, though Camelot buzz hears the free-world leader sigh, ‘The book was better. The book is always better.’ ”

How did the Human Flea himself see this? In his memoir Henry insists: “I never wanted to be a hero. I had it thrust upon me. I wanted even less to be a fad. Even now it’s hard to laugh it off.”

It was bad enough that his detractors accused Harkins of sucking blood and making perpetrators itch uncontrollably. It wasn’t true. Not every characteristic took via the bite of a radioactive bug. Period news footage clearly proves that Henry defeated his foes by jumping on them from a great height, and then simply beating them up.

No way to stop the fad, no way to quiet the slander, and not a dime in royalties—the Harkins luck ran true to form.

He complains: “It was the TV show that bothered me most. They got it all wrong. There was no hidden lair known only as the Flea Circus, no Fleacopter, no Flea-o-rangs to help me climb walls. And no damn sidekick. But to watch the character supposedly based on me spend half every episode rescuing the stupid brat made me livid. ...”

What about young Patrick Danielssen, hero-worshipper and would-be inheritor to the high-jumping mantle of his muto-insectoid idol? The kid made it all worthwhile. Patrick was as close as the real-life Henry got to a real-life sidekick.

Imagine Patrick’s suburban life: Photos clipped from the Madison Examiner festooned the walls. On his dresser stood a meticulously painted-and-glued Human Flea plastic model. Patrick really got into trouble when he ordered military-grade telescoping leaping-legs, failed Army surplus, from the Edmund Scientific Company ad on the back pages of Popular Mechanics, opposite the ads for the Rosicrucians and “Oriental Girls Make Wonderful Wives,” You Must Be 21!

Harkins’ memoirs bring young Pat’s misguided idealism to life. It happened on a school field trip to the Mad Exam offices, right in the belly of the beast; the editor-publisher fairly railed against Henry from A. M. Edition to Late-Evening Extra.

Patrick tried the Pentagon-ordered surplus jump-boots, designed to transform American fighting forces into mobile walls of hard-bitten death. He found himself dangling precariously from the side of the building twenty stories up. The mechanism jammed in Manhattan’s high humidity, providing a clue why these things weren’t being used to fight the Viet Cong. Patrick also discovered a fear of heights beyond his wildest dreams.

This was just the sort of thing J. Edgar Hoover warned Reader’s Digest about.

Fortunately, Patrick was rescued by the genuine article, who reminded the lad he didn’t need super powers to help people.

Though Patrick was safe and had a great yarn to tell, the Madison Examiner naturally played up the suspicion-of-kidnapping angle.

What does Henry Harkins remember most vividly from these years?

“As in a film,” he writes in his memoir, “I see a last tight freeze-frame on Patrick thirty years later. He still has a crumpled Mad Exam photo of his rescued young self and Henry in his wallet—and a flea-inspired career. He’s close to retirement as a rescue worker, working in disaster zones like Lebanon and Helena, but never too busy to pull a cat from a tree like he’s doing today.

“But there’s something I know about Patrick that nobody else does. I saw it burn in his shimmering eyes the day I galumphed to his rescue. The kid isn’t just afraid of heights. They flat-out terrify him till his bladder’s fit to burst.

“And he goes out there every day and faces it. Any idiot can get bitten by a radioactive flea. Any idiot can become the idol of millions, and get his masked mug plastered all over t-shirts and lunch boxes and Mattel action figures. But Patrick…

“Some guys have all the guts. Some heroes are real.”

Copyright 1998 by Tom Marcinko

This story originally appeared in The Edge, 1998.

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Tom Marcinko

Stories about human and other imaginary beings.