INTERVIEW: Bob Layton – on Iron Man, Ice Cube & working in Hollywood

Bob LaytonWords by Olly MacNamee

With the recent International Comic Expo (ICE) being such a hotbed of comic book talent, I was determined to bag an interview with Iron Man legend, Bob Layton.

Having hotfooted it away from a riveting seminar/workshop on storytelling in comics with Dr Who comic book and storyboard artist Mike Collins, I was already running late, only to find Bob Layton holding court, luckily, with some friends of mine.

Accepting of my apologies, while I grabbed a beer, we somehow started talking about the career trajectory of Ice Cube – after his promising start in such films as Boys N The Hood and into more mainstream, family friendly affairs. Layton, no stranger to Hollywood, had an interesting story to regal us with:

Bob Layton: Well, you know why he did all that, right. The agent I had in Hollywood at the time came to me and David Michelinie and said, “Ice Cube’s interested in doing a superhero movie,” and he was interested in us creating something for him. We did this treatment called, Wheels on Fire, where he’s the world’s greatest car thief but with superpowers; we were working on this at the same time as he was doing a film called Torque.

It was one of the biggest box office bombs in movie history of the year, and after that he swore he’d never do another action picture. That’s why he switched over to doing all these family movies.

Olly MacNamee: You always seem to have been an entrepreneur – organising a comic con as a teen, self-publishing; you’ve always had a good business sense, it would seem. How has that helped you in the industry?

Bob Layton: My mentor, Dick Giordano, always said, it’s the guy that knows the business that will always get the work, even when things get tight and when tastes change. He was absolutely right. It’s been forty years now and I can pick and choose what I want to do.

I’ve exposed myself to every aspect of the business. I do lectures at conventions on the comic book industry and how it works. I threw myself into it, not always knowing what I was doing, because, to me, it was always about whether the next job is going to make me better. Doing another Iron Man mini-series isn’t going to do jack sh*t to my career – that’s a quote from Edward James Olmos (actor, Miami Vice, Battlestar Galactica) by the way.International Comic Expo 2015

When I was getting ready to leave comics I was having dinner with him; I was procrastinating over Iron Man and he said, “What’s one more episode of Battlestar Galactica going to do for my career?” And I said, “Well, absolutely nothing,” and he then says, “quit doing Iron Man, then.” And he was right.

Now the average age of a writer in Hollywood is 28 years old, and yet I am, in my fifties breaking into Hollywood as a writer, because I don’t know any better. But it’s also challenging, it’s fun and it’s different, and I still want to grow and learn. And that’s what interests me, and what has always interested me; it’s what’s always kept me working, right back to Dickie’s (Dick Giordano) sage wisdom all those years ago.

I remember sitting on a train with Dick – we both lived in Conneticut and shared the train together into Continuity Studios in Manhattan; this was in the mid-70’s. Dickie’s in his suit and there I am, little Bobbie Layton, reading a comic book, and he reaches over and he pulls it out of my hand. He looks at me and goes, “What are your intentions? Is this going to be your hobby or your job? If you’re going to be any good at it, it can’t be both.”

His word was like gospel to me. So the very next week I sold my comic book collection. I just got rid of it. I knew what he meant. If you want to bring something new to comics it had to come from an, ‘outside world’. If I wanted to shake things up, I had to draw my inspiration from the world around me. It shouldn’t be your main source material.

Olly MacNamee: Did you know at the time you were writing a seminal Iron Man storyline in Demon in a Bottle?

Bob Layton: It’s really funny, because in the mainstream (media) it’s the only comic book storylines that’s always quoted when they’re talking about Iron Man. To me, it’s the ultimate compliment that in the ‘real world’ they know that storyline. But no, at the time it was just another Iron Man story. We wanted to replace his heart problem; even by the mid-70’s heart transplants were commonplace. It seems to me that a guy that was genius enough to build his own suit of armour could figure out a way to fix his friggin’ heart, right?

Dave (Michelinie) and I agreed that we were going to create this whole corporate world for Tony (Stark – Iron Man). This was going to be his empire and he was King Arthur. That’s why he’s not a superhero in the traditional sense because he didn’t go round looking for crime be was basically protecting his empire from the forces that sought to destroy it.

Iron Man / Demon in a Bottle - by Bob LaytonAnd we felt in that corporate world we needed to give him vulnerability and the best ones always come from the character internally, some kinda character flaw that needs to be contained or controlled. That’s what we were looking for in Tony Stark and that (the alcoholism) seemed to be a logical progression.

It was never, ‘Let’s do something to shake things up,’ y’know. It wasn’t like we said, ‘Let’s make all the Marvel characters raging alcoholics. Let’s have Alcoholic Month at Marvel and have them all puking up in buckets and stuff. Iron Man could be puking in his helmet and have barf coming outta the eye slits.’ I did actually draw that once – only once – but that was it.

No one sets out to make comic book history. It was just another storyline to us and then we moved on. But it gave Tony that vulnerability and at anytime he could fall off the wagon if we pushed him too far in the comics. Would he ever crumble? But, y’know, there was a subtext to all that at the time. I myself was a raging alcoholic at the time. It was a cry for help. In fact it wasn’t until a few years later that I actually got sober. The reason why the story resonated with so many people is because I knew what he was going through.

Olly MacNamee: So it wasn’t just another comic book storyline then?

Bob Layton: No, it wasn’t just another comic in that sense, at least. And I’ve been sober for almost thirty years now. So, yeah, it did mean something to me. Comics can idealise life, so Tony could overcome it, while I couldn’t. It was cathartic for me.

Olly MacNamee: Ah yes, media texts, unlike life, can give us a solution rightly or wrongly. That’s one of the reasons why people watch soap operas. So why didn’t they follow through in the Iron Man films. At one time, it looked like they were going to play on his alcoholism for it to simply disappear.

Bob Layton: Well, I did have a conversation about that. Robert Downey Jr wanted to do that. That’s his favourite Iron Man storyline for obvious reasons. Part of his attraction to the character in the first place was those stories but attitude to their line (of films) was much more upbeat and light-hearted and Favareau (Jon – Iron Man’s director) said, “It’ll never get done, it’s way too dark.”

It wasn’t the tone they were going for and I understand that. The scene in Iron Man 2, when he is drunk and out of control at his own party, is there to placate Downey, who wanted to play an out of control Tony Stark. I think they wrote that in there to give him a chance to do that, so he could feel like he did a little bit of ‘Demon in a Bottle’.l-r Robert Downey Jnr, Bob Layton

Olly MacNamee: Moving on to your time at Valiant Comics. You say that you ‘brought your crew’ with you and then, Acclaim (a software company) bought you out. You walked away from $1.7 million?

Bob Layton: Yep. So I’m either insane or my work means more to me than the money.

Olly MacNamee: So what went wrong?

Bob Layton: Acclaim was a terrible company. We were financed by venture capitalists, short-term investors. Once they had made their money – they invested $4 million and made about $120 million from Valiant in the three years after that – then they were done. They ordered the company to be sold, they wanted out. So, we didn’t have a choice and it went to the highest bidder, which were the shmucks at Acclaim.

They were already considered a sleazy video game company anyway. Most of their titles were poor, so to me the writing was already on the wall. That and they wanted us to change our characters to be more like Image. Which explains, after I left, why they did get revamped into Image like characters. I told them that if they did that they’d alienate the readership, which it did. And people left in droves.

Olly MacNamee: So you can pick and choose now? What are you currently working on?

Bob Layton: A series of Justice League covers. This came about because Brian Cunningham is a friend and to me; it was one of those things I could do for fun. I could finally say I’d penciled something for DC Comics and get that monkey off my back. I could write there, ink there, but I could never draw there.

Olly MacNamee: Would you maybe do more for DC?

Bob Layton: No, I’ve pretty much done everything I want to do with comics. If I were to land anywhere, I’d go back to Valiant because that’s a company I helped found. That’s where I’d go.

Olly MacNamee: Any goals in the film industry then?

Bob Layton: Yeah. I’m still trying to get one of my friggin’ movies up on the screen. It’s like, since I’ve been in Hollywood I’ve written seven films and not one has made it to the screen yet. They’ve all been in some kinda development limbo. It takes forever to get something done there. It took Stallone seven years to get Rocky made. Who thought a movie about a boxer was gonna be any good?

Doing an independent film in Hollywood is almost unheard of now. It’s all from a book, a comic or some other thing. If I had the rights to the toy, Slinky, I could make a movie tomorrow!

Olly MacNamee: Well, if you can make Battleships into a movie…

ValiantBob Layton: That’s my point. But if I come with an original idea for a film, to get a major motion picture made is almost impossible. That’s the nature of it now, because it’s so costly to make a film.

Olly MacNamee: You’re still keeping busy?

Bob Layton: Yeah. I’m working on a project at the moment with Michael Uslan (Batman producer) for the UN and UNICEF, featuring some famous old comic book characters. I do a lot of charity work and a lot of work that just interests me, sometimes it’s scriptwriting and sometimes its artwork. That’s why I did Hercules for Marvel…

Olly MacNamee: You must be drawn to drunken idiots.

Bob Layton: I do love drunken idiots, for unloved characters. I just remember reading Thor as a kid and Hercules would just show up and just start beating people up for no apparent reason and I just found that charming. They never really explored him; why didn’t someone do anything with him, y’know? It seemed to me that you could make a book about Hercules and make it popular, so I did it. I could have easily done a regular series, but I had no interest in that.

Olly MacNamee: Are some characters simply destined to be second-stringers, mini-series only kind of characters? Or are all characters redeemable?

Bob Layton: Well, didn’t James Gunn prove that with Guardians of the Galaxy? Did anybody even buy a Guardians of the Galaxy comic before that? It’s always about how you approach a character. It’s how much thought you put into it.

Olly MacNamee: You’re right. None of my friends even knew a single one of them before the movie came out.

Bob Layton: Yeah. It’s just a matter of approach. That’s what we did with Iron Man. They couldn’t see what they had there and he was treated like the ‘red-headed stepchild’ at Marvel. It was a book people did to pay the bills and hopefully to get onto bigger titles like The Avengers.

Olly MacNamee: One last point then. Beyond Demon in a Bottle, what were your other highpoints in the comic book industry?

Bob Layton: It has to be Valiant. It came form nothing and I worked so hard there too; I put myself in hospital twice because of exhaustion. I was working 17 hours a day, seven days a week because I had a vision of what Valiant could become. And it did, it became the third largest company and, even now, we still keep in contact with each other.

Valiant FamilyWe looked after each other, we were like a family. We would have editorial meeting and include everyone, people in accounting, the secretarial staff, they could all talk about the books and what they thought of them. It was an open forum. I used to hold workshops and bring in people like Barry Windsor-Smith or Dick Giordano and teach classes every Wednesday after work; I could teach them how to balance a checkbook because many of them were straight out of college. We used to take vacations together; whole groups of us would run off to Puerto Rico or something.

But we worked very hard too because we all had the same goal in mind. So, as far as accomplishments go, it just didn’t get any better than Valiant. I can be a hard-nosed SOB, but they put up with it. And most of the people who started with Valiant today are still working in the industry. That’s something to be proud of too. The legacy is being kept alive.

I have two major legacies in my career, Iron Man and Valiant.

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