Bob Layton, the Iron Man resurrector personaly, was the guest-star of Comic Con Stockholm 2015. This comic industry visionary (creator, writer, artist, designer and entrepreneur!) was very popular among fans from all over Scandinavia, but he still found time for a little chat with PopCulture Magazine.
By Marin Milosavljevic
Q: You’re the man responsible that we have Iron Man alive and well today, and it’s an urban legend how you did it – so can you tell us more about that?
A: As you know, Iron Man was originally created by Stan Lee, but it was never a popular series – it got cancelled a few times, but I remember having read it as a kid and seeing potential in it. When I was 11, I made my own little Iron Man comic book. One of the first stories I came up with was the “Doom Quest” story, where Iron Man and Dr. Doom go to Camelot, which was a popular thing, but I came up with that when I was 11 years old! But I ended up actually using it later. The way Marvel used to try out new talents, back in the day when comics were sold on newsstands, was that they had to have a 12-issue-contract with the distributors, and if they saw by issue 6 that the comic wasn’t doing well, they would cancel it and pull their A-list-writers off it and use new talent for the last issues. So I got Iron Man because they were going to cancel it, and I was barely 20 at that time. For me, it was always Tony Stark who was interesting, and for them, Tony was just an excuse to have Iron Man. So when I got the book, I asked the people in charge if I could change a few things. They said they don’t care, they would cancel it anyway, so I pretty much killed off the old cast and brought in Rhodey and Justin Hammer and all the new cast and characters and changed the focus to Tony Stark. If I could choose to be a superhero, I’d rather be Tony Stark than Iron Man. Even as a kid it was my fantasy to be the playboy, the coolest guy in the room. So that’s where it happened. The first of those last six issues took off and the book became oone of the best selling Marvel titles. The rest is history, as you know. It continued to grow, then came the movies and now it’s an international phenomenon.
Q: What other books did you write at Marvel?
A: Well I did the “Hercules” series, the first mini-series in Marvel history – “Hercules: The Prince of Power”. That was the first time I wrote and drew everything myself. So that was a big milestone for me career-wise. Then I created X-Factor, which was the reunion of the original X-Men. But then in the late 80s I left Marvel and formed Valiant comics and we became the third largest publisher in America. And Valiant is still around, and they’re doing great and getting ready to make some major motion pictures with characters I helped create so it’s exciting. So many characters I was involved in creating are winding up on the big screen. War Machine, Iron Man, Bloodshot, Archer & Armstrong – it’s surreal in some ways for me. Starting out from humble beginnings, these characters are becoming international trademarks. I was at the UN two weeks ago and the delegation from China was crazy about Iron Man, you know. They were so thrilled to meet me, because for them Iron Man is the coolest thing that ever came out of the West.
Q: Why did you decide to leave Marvel?
A: My mentor, Dick Giordano, who was the head of DC comics for 25 years and mentored me since I was a teenager developed me into being more than just a cartoonist. He knew that I had a sense for business, and if you really want to change something in the industry, you have to be on the other side of the desk. I realized at some point, that management is going to be in my future. So when I got offered to be part of the founding team of Valliant it appeared to me as an opportunity to be more than just a wage-slave to Marvel. I did over 120 issues of Iron Man and career-wise that’s a 0 growth situation. Most cartoons do the same they always do until they burn out and die and to me if was more important to continue to grow. Valiant seemed a way to change the system and create something new. Also, to learn my craft from the inside out, to learn the business of comics. You’d be surprised how many creators have absolutely no idea how the business works. I hold lectures in the US about the comic industry, profit loss and the costs of units sold. I try to educate our audiences about what the business is actually about – the disconnect between the massive mass-market-appeal that these characters have and the lack of effect it has on the comic-book-market. That’s what I talk about at these conventions, too. Whether you’re a fan or a professional, I think it’s good to be informed. I feel that’s part of my duty, to give back, to educate people to make educated choices on the products they buy. Not to be a robot any buy everything Marvel or DC. If you hate what they’re doing, DON’T GIVE THEM MONEY. That’s the first rule I try to teach. Bite the bullet, quit buying it, and they’ll quit making it. It’s as simple as that.
Q: Comicbook-movies are a huge thing today. How much of you can we see in those movies?
A: Edgar Wright told me personally that my issue of Ant-Man in 1979 – it was a cover with Ant-Man under a magnifying glass – inspired him to write the Ant-Man movie. He went to Marvel and pitched Ant-Man to them.
Q: It’s interesting how today Comicbook-movies are something that big, and 20 years ago people were laughing at attempts at such movies.
A: There’s a way to explain that. In The 90s, Hollywood was on a kick of producing movies based on TV-shows. Bewitched, Beverly Hillbillies, Dukes of Hazard and so on, because all of the producers back then grew up with those. That was the thing that excited them. So when they got the opportunity to make movies, they looked to the stuff that resonated with them. So this generation now grew up reading Bob Layton’s Iron Man and Frank Miller’s Daredevil And Jon Byrne’s and Chris Claremont’s X-Men. That was amazing to me. I went out to the set of Iron Man 2 and when I met everybody I saw they were all comic-book-geeks! And that’s why I stayed, because I realized these people already knew who I was. That was a foot in the door for me in order to get things done in Hollywood. So I decided to stay and I’ve been out there for about eight years now.
Q: Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing right now?
A: This is a great part of my life. I put in four decades into working in the business. Right now I get to travel to Sweden and talk to all you lovely people here. Wonderful country, everyone was amazingly laid back, and then I get to go to London, and next month to Australia for two weeks. I get to travel around the world and spread the gospel of good comics to as many people as possible. In Hollywood I primarily work with Edward James Olmos and his son Michael – they have their own production company. I’ve written a movie for Ed, I’ve done production art for Michael on his movies. We also collaborated on a project. I have a movie called Shambler, which is a horror comedy, that is in development right now. It will be a very funny movie, if you like horror comedy. I just did a public service comic book for UNICEF – that’s why I was at the UN a couple of weeks ago. I take as much time as I do stuff for Wounded Wear, for MS research – whatever I can do to give back. At this late date in my career, I get to do a little bit of everything. I earned my place and offers come to me all the time. I turn down more offers than I accept. I just did a couple of covers for DC comics – one for Justice League and one for Cyborg and the only reason I did it? In my 40-year-career, I never penciled anything at DC. I wrote stories and I inked stories, but I’ve never actually penciled anything. And I was a cover artist at Marvel for half of my career. But I never got to do it at DC, they kind of pigeon-holed me.
Q: What’s your favorite character that you wrote? And what’s the character you’re sad you didn’t get the chance to write?
A: Iron Man, obviously is my favorite. Most artists work their entire career and they don’t have their names synonymous with a character. And that’s the best thing that can happen to you in this business – having your name attached to a character. The way Frank Miller is with Batman or Chris Claremont with the X-Men and I’m associated with Iron Man. Money cannot buy that. Much better artists then I am have worked their entire careers without having that. I’m extremely fortunate in that regard. As for the character I never got to write – the very first comic book I read as a child was Challengers of the Unknown, a DC comic about four adventurers and that’s what got me started and also started my love for characters without superpowers – like Iron Man, guys who rely on their wits and technology. That’s why Batman will resonate with me more than Spider-Man for instance, because there’s less of a fantasy element to it. I always liked guys who were normal guys. So I always wanted to do a version of Challengers of the Unknown and never got a chance to do that. I actually once pitched it together with Barry Windsor Smith as a mini-series to DC and they declined. They said they had already planned something with somebody else. So I think they missed the chance of a lifetime there to have me and Barry work together and we had a great story. But no idea ever dies in this business, it just takes a number and stands in line.