Fleisher rose to prominence in the early 1970s after writing a series of reference books titled The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes. His work on these books led him to the offices of DC Comics where he began working on “House of Mystery” and various other DC suspense titles.
Fleisher is perhaps best known for his work on the Spectre in an acclaimed and highly controversial 10 issue run of “Adventure Comics.” At the time, many considered Fleisher’s version of the Spectre to be overly violent and disturbing. According to comics historian Les Daniels, Fleisher’s Spectre was co-plotted with “Adventure” editor Joe Orlando, who had recently been mugged and wanted a hero who was more proactive and revenge oriented. As Daniels noted in DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes:
“They [Fleisher and Orlando] emphasized the gruesome fates of criminals who ran afoul of the Spectre. The Comics Code had recently been liberalized, but this series pushed its restrictions to the limit, often by turning evildoers into inanimate objects and then thoroughly demolishing them. Jim Aparo’s art showed criminals being transformed into everything from broken glass to melting candles, but Fleisher was quick to point out that many of his most bizarre plot devices were lifted from stories published decades earlier.”
DC Comics pulled the plug on the Spectre prematurely, with several of Fleisher’s unused scripts being shelved until years later, when they were reprinted in 1988’s “Wrath of the Spectre.” In the wake of this controversy, Fleisher began to to earn a reputation for being edgy and even “unstable.”
Acclaimed sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison referred to Fleisher as “crazy”, “certifiable”, “twisted”, “derange-o”, “bugfuck”, and a “lunatic”, and even claimed that DC Comics had cancelled Fleisher’s Spectre run because they “realized they had turned loose a lunatic on the world.” These comments caused Fleisher to file a lawsuit against Harlan Ellison and Fantagraphics’ Gary Groth (the man who was interviewing Ellison at the time), though ultimately both men were acquitted on all charges of libel.
But despite the controversies surrounding his “Adventure Comics” run and his novel Chasing Hairy (which followed two young misogynists), Fleisher’s portrayal of the Spectre continues to be the most popular iteration of the character, with subsequent series by Doug Moench and John Ostrander drawing considerable inspiration from Fleisher’s run.
In addition to creating the definitive version of the Spectre, Fleisher’s use of over the top violence and black humor may have helped pave the way for the mature comic trends of the 1980s. He helped to prefigure the DC Vertigo imprint with his work on the original “Shade the Changing Man” (plotted and drawn by Steve Ditko) and “House of Mystery” series. Fleisher also became closely identified with the “Weird Western Tales” character Jonah Hex, whom he would write for over a dozen years, transitioning from the anthology book in 1974 to the solo titles “Jonah Hex” and “Hex” that ran from 1977 to 1987.
Fleisher also wrote for Marvel, writing various Conan titles during the 1980s, as well as “Ghost Rider” and “Spider-Woman.” By the 1990s, Fleisher had withdrawn from the world of comic books, returning to school to earn a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Michigan, though he co-wrote the “2000 AD” strip ‘Rogue Trooper’ with others from 1991 to 1994.
Subsequent details surrounding Michael Fleisher and the circumstances surrounding his February 2nd death remain unclear at this time. Please check back with Multiversity Comics as more details become available.