Bob Layton has been a constant in the comic industry for several decades. Given that fact it was impossible to ask him about precisely every twist and turn of his colourful career. That said he answered all my questions graciously and I was very grateful to speak to a creator I have long admired.
Paul: Can I start by simply asking how your relationship with comics began. What were the first comics you recall especially enjoying? How old might you have been or where were they from?
Bob: I learned to read from comics when I was only four years old, after my older sister Sue Ann became bored with reading the same comic to me about fifty times. That comic was a Showcase issue featuring The Challengers of the Unknown by Jack Kirby and, my eventual mentor, Wally Wood. Subsequently, I was skipped a grade when I entered the school system and wound up graduating High School at barely 17 years old.
Paul: Did you always plan to become an artist, or did reading comics inspire your career choice?
Bob: As I matured, I began to comprehend the true potential that the medium had and became obsessed with becoming a part of it. After High School I created a fanzine named C.P.L. with future Marvel Editor, Roger Stern. I met Roger (who worked for a local radio station in Indianapolis.) and we began publishing fanzines out of my little apartment. C.P.L. (an overblown title which stands for Contemporary Pictorial Literature) was our main fan magazine. It was an extremely popular amateur publication for its day and eventually led us into a working in alliance with Charlton Comics, with Stern and I producing and publishing their in-house promo, Charlton Bullseye magazine.
Paul: What was your very first paid professional work, and who was you first ever editor?
Bob: The close association with Charlton Comics in Connecticut (and with their production wizard, assistant editor Bill Pearson) led to my meeting Wally Wood and becoming one of his apprentices. Once Woody retired, I took over inking his two books at DC Comics, ‘All-Star Comics’ and ‘Hercules Unbound’. My first editor was Joe Orlando, another former Wally Wood assistant.
Paul: You’ll likely forever be associated with Iron Man. So, I ask, which is your favourite suit of Armour Tony Stark has worn? Which do you enjoy illustrating the most?
Bob: My most visual contribution to the Iron Man lexicon was the creation of the speciality armors. (I.E. Space Armor, Stealth, Undersea, etc.) If I had to choose a favourite, it would probably be the Mark 14 armor, the post-’Armor Wars’ suit.
Paul: What are your reflections now on the Demon In A Bottle storyline? Do you think if it was pitched to Marvel these days it would still be published in the same way?
Bob: The “Demon in the Bottle” saga, which culminated in Iron Man #128, is now considered a milestone event by most comic book historians. At the time, you never anticipate that you’re creating comic history. It was just another episode in the life of Tony Stark. David and I felt that we needed to create a personal problem for Tony Stark that fit the new world of corporate business that we set him in. The heart issue had played itself out. Even in the late 1970s, heart transplants were commonplace. I never accepted that someone with Stark’s brilliance couldn’t figure out how to fix his broken ticker.
Bob: Given his passions and somewhat compulsive behaviors at time, the alcohol story seemed somewhat to be a natural. Since Marvel has readdressed his alcohol issues several times since our original story, you could probably answer that second question better than me.
Paul: Your work developing the Ant Man franchise cannot be overlooked. What do you feel is the appeal of Scott Lang?
Bob: At the time David Michelinie and I began work on Marvel Premiere #47, Hank Pym had become an unstable, unlikeable character. Our goal was to humanize the character of Ant-Man and make him unique in the pantheon of Marvel characters. In this instance, we made him a single parent in the persona of ex-con Scott Lang. After those Marvel Premiere issues (#47 and #48), David and I decided to make Scott a regular character in Iron Man so we could flesh out the character of Scott Lang beyond the pages of that meager two-issue try-out. Scott was our “blue-collar” hero. Unlike billionaire inventors like Reed Richards or Tony Stark, he lived modestly and as a single father and that’s always the hook you’re looking for as a creator. You always look for that single note that sets your character apart from the rest of the pack. Could I have ever imagined that Scott Lang and Ant-Man would become an international film phenomenon forty years later? Of course not!
Paul: Given your connections to Iron Man and Ant Man what are your opinions of the respective character’s movies? If you were in charge of the MCU, would you have made any changes?
Bob: As far as the first Iron Man movie’s storyline, my overall impression is that it was one of the best comics-to-film adaptations to date. I did get some goosebumps when I initially saw it. Robert Downey Jr. totally nailed the role of Tony Stark, and the producers stayed true to the spirit of the technologically-based hero. I had the opportunity to have several conversations with Robert Downey Jr. on-set and he has always been passionate about his portrayal of Tony Stark. I told RDJ that I had concerns, when his casting was announced, that he might be too old for the role (our Tony in the comics was always genius progeny around in his early thirties). However, I assured him that, as soon as I saw the first dailies of him as Stark, my concerns immediately evaporated. I’m so proud that Tony Stark became the catalyst to the entire MCU.
Bob: As far as Ant-Man goes; I believe that Marvel Studios have done a fantastic job in translating Scott Lang and his particular world to the big screen with great humor and pathos. I’d rank “Ant-Man” high on the list of Marvel Studios’ string of successes, in spite of the unfortunate dust-up with Edgar Wright that might have derailed the project.
Paul: Hercules is another Marvel character you are known for that I am guessing you have an affinity toward, would that true to say? As I understand it your first series for the character essentially spearheaded Marvel's mini-series format. How did that format come about at Marvel? It was certainly successful and launched several characters out of obscurity.
Bob: At that particular time Marvel was looking to experiment with publishing concepts that had a finite beginning and end. When I heard that, the notion of doing Hercules as that limited series popped into my head. I always had a soft spot for secondary characters. Keep in mind that the Star Wars craze was in full swing in the early eighties, and it got me thinking about creating a similar venue for Hercules to romp in. Since Hercules was an immortal, I decided to take the character out of the current continuity and place him in a time and place that wouldn’t have immediate repercussion to the monthly books or his appearances in the Avengers. I’ve always loved tongue-in-cheek adventure movies like the “The Three Musketeers” or “The Adventures of Robin Hood”.
Bob: My take was to place him in a galactic environment, where there were powerful beings and looming situations that were far greater than the comfort zone of his own earthly confines. In that context, he would have to face his own shortcomings and grow-up as a consequence. However, I tried to make it abundantly clear in the series that he would resist that growth at every opportunity. In the Marvel universe, prior to my first mini-series, Herc had been portrayed by Stan Lee as a conceited, arrogant, but likable jerk. My childhood memories were of Hercules bashing people just for the sport of it! That became the genesis of “The Gift” in my stories. Hercules was comfortable getting his own way by using his godlike might. He was an adolescent bully, in a fashion. Not that he had a mean streak or was a cruel person, but merely someone who was not experienced in hearing the word,” No”. I set out to refine his character in my stories.
Bob: At that period of time in Marvel’s history, I felt that their books, as terrific as they were at that particular period, took themselves WAY too serious with stuff like Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Claremont’s X-Men and even David Michelinie and my Iron Man, for that matter. I wanted to do something to lighten things up in the “House of Ideas” a bit. The biggest problem was convincing the editorial ‘powers-that-be’ that poking fun at the Marvel Universe wouldn't do permanent damage to the comic company as a whole. It took a bit of pushing to have a finite series about a drunken super-hero published at Marvel in that era, but they were totally willing to do it once they understood the context of what I was planning. So, I put together a proposal and pitched it to the Powers-That-Be. Additionally, I had always wanted to try my hand at writing comedy and Herc seemed to be a perfect foil for my particular brand of humor.
Paul: The first few issues of X-Factor interest me. It has been reported that it was your idea to bring back the five original X-men in a fresh book, although working out the continuity may have been a team effort. Is this all essentially true? Less widely reported is why your run on the title was so brief. I am curious, what was the reason you handed over the reins after so few issues on a title you helped launch?
Bob: I wasn’t much of a fan of the new X-Men. To me, The Beast, Marvel Girl, Iceman, The Angel and Cyclops were the real X-Men. So, after Hercules, I pitched a proposal to bring back all the originals. It was an exciting assignment for me, being at the helm of that book, writing and inking it. And, being able to collaborate with my good friend and super-talent Butch Guice didn’t suck either. To be fair, there were many hands involved in its evolution after I pitched the initial concept. However, when I brought back the original X-Men (with the newly resurrected Jean Grey), it became a lightning rod for inter-office politics. Jean Grey’s resurrection opened up a vicious can of worms. In the initial premise that Jackson Guice and I submitted, Jean Grey was not part of the group. It was the Dazzler under the new code name “Strobe”. But Kurt Busick and John Byrne came up with a way to revive her and, of course, why would I refuse to use her?
Bob: But from that point on, the rest of the story devolves into an inter-office bitch-fest. Things didn’t go smoothly from “Boo”. My Editor, Mike Carlin, was wrongly fired off of the series after the first issue. The Editor-In-Chief insisted on having a third of the first issue rewritten and redrawn (and not for the better, in my opinion). Controversy and problems continued from issue to issue until I had simply had enough. The X-Offices hated that an outsider was usurping what they believed to be “their properties” and made my experience on the book a living Hell. So…I finally dropped X-Factor and moved on. My tenure on the series was mostly tumultuous… at best. It was one of the few bad experiences that I’d had during that era at Marvel. My first rule of thumb was: “Always have fun doing comics”, and X-Factor had ceased to be fun very quickly.
Paul: Valiant comics was certainly a bold endeavour. Your role in guiding the company is well documented. At the time, was that a daunting experience?
Bob: Valiant started up in '89, in a fifth floor loft in downtown Manhattan. The place was a total rat-trap. Valiant had about ten people initially and we had to share the office space with entertainment attorney Lauren Davis, the daughter of record mogul Clive Davis, who worked with Steve Massarsky in representing recording artists. At that time, the comic buying public was tired of what the Big Two were offering, with the emphasis of the mainstream titles becoming more art-driven than story-driven, with every other guy attempting to draw like Jim Lee. Good writing had also taken a backseat to flashy, gimmicky packaging. Jim Shooter brought me in from Marvel to manage the art and editorial on the Western Publishing/ Gold Key line of superheroes (Magnus, Solar and Turok). Only after I made the move did I find out that a decision had been made to shelve those properties and pursue Nintendo and WWF licenses instead. I argued with Massarsky and Shooter that this was a horrible idea! But they had dollar signs in their eyes and thought they could pull in millions from both franchises. It was a MAJOR miscalculation on their part, but, we published the books… and Valiant couldn't give the damn things away! Reality raised its ugly head when they discovered that gamers use their leisure time to play video games—not to read comic books.
Bob: After millions of dollars were lost to those ill-conceived projects, they finally decided to go to the Gold Key properties, which now became a last ditch effort to save the company from insolvency. Every day, the staff and I lived under the threat of closure at a moment's notice. Not a fun time. Nine months into the start-up, Triumph (the venture capitalists that funded Valiant) dismissed CFO Winston Folkes and placed Fred Pierce (yes--the same Fred Pierce that now runs the current Valiant) in our offices to monitor Shooter's business activities and report back to them. (They now had a crisis of confidence in Shooter's business competency) In a repeat of his history at Marvel, Shooter's relationship with upper management became antagonistic in nature. They were incredibly upset that their investment money had gone up in smoke and we weren't even out of the gate yet. He may have been a brilliant writer, but Jim was a terrible businessman. Ultimately, his lack of business acumen and very abrasive management style led to his downfall as Editor-In-Chief. Once Shooter was dismissed, Triumph came to me with a simple offer: take over the creative reins of the company… or they would shut it down. I had been running the day-to-day operations of the editorial department, as it was. Shooter had lost the loyalty of most of the creative staff by that time and I was struggling to hold the company together as a working unit. So, as it turned out, the transition of power was fairly smooth.
Paul: Arguable X-0 Manowar was Valiant’s headline character. Can you speak at all about your work on the character please? And out of curiosity were you involved in the development of the computer game? I am guessing you played it.
Bob: I believe that the real turn-around happened when my friend and collaborator at Marvel, Barry Windsor-Smith, decided to lend his considerable talents to Valiant and X-O Manowar specifically. Things started to turn around for us after that. I know for a fact that it was Barry that gave the entire Valiant line true credibility in the marketplace. BWS was, undeniably, one of the most prestigious creators in the industry and his contributions elevated the overall efforts of everyone creatively connected to Valiant as writers or artists.
Bob: And...let’s face it, X-O Manowar was “Conan in a Can”! It was a story of alien abduction, Goth warfare in ancient Rome, spaceships, and a barbarian walking the streets in modern times with a suit of amazing, living armor. I can only speak to the original series but, to me, that was the great thing about Valiant. It was couched in the ‘real world’ and strived to be believable, like Silver and Bronze Age Marvel Comics of old.
Bob: Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to play the cross-over video game. I was soooo busy in those days.
Paul: Technology has altered the way many comic artists produce their work. I am curious how much have computers changed the way you approach your art?
Bob: I’m still pretty much “old school” when it comes to my drawings, mostly because of the demand for my original art by collectors. However, these days, I generally compose all of my art roughs on my computer. After that, I print them out in grey or blue line and ink over the printout as if they were pencils. It’s a real time saver.
Paul: In a more general sense can I ask a question about the comic industry? Do you have an opinion about digital comics? Do you still read paper comics or do you use a tablet to enjoy them?
Bob: To be perfectly honest, I don’t have an opinion on this subject. I have never followed the current titles with any regularity. As a rule, throughout my career, I generally didn’t read comics as entertainment, only for research towards relevant projects I was working on. As both of my mentors beat into my skull from day one:
“Comics are a business. To be an effective creator, you need to be a seller – not a buyer.” That advice has served me well over the decades.
Paul: COVID stalled the convention scene for a long while, but in general, do you enjoy meeting fans and attending conventions?
Bob: I did. More than anything, I enjoyed travelling, meeting people from all walks of life and sampling the cultures of various cities and countries. However, since I’m at high risk for respitory infections at my age, I have ceased making public appearances, with a few exceptions relating to my film production company.
Paul: Do you have any fun convention stories you are allowed to share? Have you ever been genuinely star-struck meeting anyone at a convention?
Bob: The worse, or funniest moment, at a con was when a fan attempted to shake my hand…while I was doing my business at an urinal. I don’t recall getting star-struck. Keep in mind that I spent a decade working in Hollywood. Once you’ve toiled in that environment for a prolonged period of time, “the blush comes off the rose”, as far as actors and celebrities go. You just see them simply as people trying to make a living, just like me. As my dear, departed mentor Dick Giordano use to say about fame and celebrity; “That…and $3.00 gets you a coffee at Starbucks.” That being said, I’ve met a lot of famous people over the years and it’s always a pleasant surprise to meet someone whose work I admire.
Paul: What does the future hold for Bob Layton? Is there anything you are working upon currently that you are excited to talk about?
Bob: I’m currently Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder of Box Monkey Pictures, a Multi-Media Company helmed by me and my L.A.-based business partner Michele Grant. Box Monkey Pictures is dedicated to producing fun and thought provoking films and television, for an international market, based on existing properties and concepts created exclusively by me for our company. Our first feature film, “The Helix”, is currently in development in association with Sweden’s Phelecan Films.
Paul: Thank you for the interview and your time Bob.