Bob Layton Talks about Iron Man, Marvel, movies and his new movie Shambler

Any comic book fan will know the iconic art style of Bob Layton as soon as they see it! They will immediately be familiar and comfortable with the artwork that brought Iron Man into the mainstream and turned the character and comic into one of the more popular and successful titles of a generation. For those individuals not familiar with Bob Layton’s work or the many other comics he penciled which I grew up with, they will surely be familiar with his work, as many of the concepts inherent in the Iron Man movies are based on work he did for Shell Head while at Marvel. Mr. Layton was kind enough to talk with Sci Fi Pulse about his outstanding contributions to comics, the mythos of Iron Man, as well as his thoughts on today’s comics, Marvel, the iron Man movies and his upcoming projects.

First and foremost, as an artist and comic book lover, your work throughout your career has been inspirational to myself and so many comic fans as well as a generation of artists. Thank you! How does it feel knowing that the Iron Man we are now familiar with not only in the movies, but even the comic and mainstream Iron Man legacy is in so many ways a product of your influence, imagination, hard work and vision?

Bob: I never imagined that Iron Man would become the iconic part of Americana that it has evolved into.  When we first inherited the Iron Man series back in the 70’s, David Michelinie and I took it from near-cancellation to one of Marvel’s all-time bestselling series.  We were able to reshape the initial Stan Lee concept of Iron Man into something that endures to this day. In fact, “Demon in a Bottle” was recently voted “one of the top 20 comic stories of all time” and it even has its own Wikipedia page. That is something more gratifying than any creator can usually hope for in their career. And, our fans have remained incredibly loyal and generous over the decades. I am forever indebted to them.

 When you see Iron Man in the movies, what parts or aspects do you see as being contributions which are direct translations from story arcs or designs and illustrations you created?

 Bob: As far as the Iron Man movie’s storyline, my overall impression of the first Iron Man film 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 our hero.  

As far as contributions?  David Michelinie and I created those specialty armors and the Hall of Iron itself, Jim Rhodes, Justin Hammer, Firepower, Mrs. Arbogast’s personality (transplanted into the film version of Pepper Potts) and the host of other concepts that were added to the lexicon of Iron Man films. It was quite a thrill to see them translated to the big screen.

What role have you had in helping to create or work on any of the Iron Man movies?

 Bob: I visited the set on Iron Man 2 and consulted with Downey, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux.  I also did numerous interviews and appearances for Paramount to promote the film.  Although I hadn’t seen a cut of the film, I was trying to be a team player and support a product that represents a substantial part of my own legacy.

Unfortunately, in hindsight, it’s difficult to endorse the final product.  Some films seem like they are merely vehicles for merchandising and Iron Man 2 was guilty of that. Just too many armored villains and they’re doubling down with even more in the third film. Where are the great non-armored villains like Spymaster and the Ghost? And they’ve spoiled Justin Hammer’s character forever, as far as serious film villains go. No matter what you think of a critical flop like ‘Superman Returns’, at least Lex Luthor was a brilliant foil for being able to thwart the Man of Steel without the aid of extraordinary super-powers. Now, I hear that Pepper Friggin’ Potts is getting armored-up in Iron Man 3?  These guys at Marvel Studios need to take a lesson from the critical and financial flop that Green Lantern was. There were too many versions of that character running around on the screen for the entire movie. I believe that each armored version of the supporting cast dilutes the uniqueness of Tony Stark and Iron Man.

I’m afraid that Marvel Studios has, as a business plan, strayed from the iconic Silver and Bronze Age storylines and concepts. When it came out, I was disheartened by the Avengers film. I saw it as merely an episodic event and an overall disappointment from a writing standpoint. There was NO genuine conflict in the screenplay, with a resolution that left the characters altered by those events as a result. Look at Luke Skywalker at the end of the first, two Star Wars movies or Ellen Ripley at the end of the first, two Alien films. Are they the same people at the end of those films as they were in the beginning? Were those characters inexorably altered at the end of their stories by the resolution of their conflicts? Absolutely. True conflict defines character and that just wasn’t there in the Avengers. But, it still made a shitload of money. And that’s the bottom line out here in Hollywood. But, as my TV director friend David Nutter once said to me: “There are good movies…and successful movies.  But rarely are they both!”

 I have seen photos of yourself with Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr., and see that you were at the Red carpet opening of Iron Man 2. Can you give us any insight as to a funny personal moment with both Jon Favreau and/or Robert Downey Jr., or any other actors or personalities from any of the movies that stand out in your mind?

Bob: I have to say that I was treated with respect by the folks at Marvel Studios… much more so than from their counterparts at the corporation’s publishing arm. Co-Producer Jeremy Latcham and E.P. Kevin Feige have been generally respectful towards me.

Robert Downey Jr. was amazing and took a nice chunk of time out from his schedule to sit and discuss the Tony Stark character in length when I first walked onto the set. And, Favreau was nice enough to give me a few souvenirs from the set itself and risked life and limb to introduce me to Mickey Rourke (who stayed ‘in character’ throughout the shoot and did not speak to the other cast members off-camera). Later that year, at the San Diego Comic Con, Downey actually pulled me up on stage with the entire cast of Iron Man 2 to take a bow. He’s always been extremely respectful of my contributions to the lexicon of the franchise.  At the IM2 World Premiere in Hollywood, Sam Rockwell (who’s a really warm and affectionate guy in real life) ran up to me and hugged it out. (That’s why there are all those photos of him squeezing me.) 

The funniest story took place on the Red Carpet at the premiere.  I was doing an interview with the press when I heard someone behind me shout my name—“BOB LAYTON!”.  I turned and saw Sylvester Stallone and Dane Cook standing behind me.  Presuming it wasn’t either one of them, I looked over their shoulders to see who was yelling at me. But then, Dane Cook steps up and says that he was the one who shouted my name. As it turned out, he’s a longtime comic fan and always wanted to meet me.  The feeling was mutual, since I think he’s one of the funniest actor/comedians working today.  The bottom line is, we became friends after the premiere and have been actually working together on a film project for the last few years. (And Dane introduced me to Olivia Munn at the IM2 After Party—I’d always had a huge crush on her!)

Unfortunately, I had a troubling experience with Marvel Studios last year.  A mutual friend tried to arrange a casual, shoot-the-shit meeting between me and IM3 director Shane Black but Marvel Studios wouldn’t allow it, citing security issues.  I was a bit insulted, since I had loyally held my tongue for almost two years concerning the plot contents of IM2. But, such is Hollywood. They have very short memories out here.

 I see you have also returned to work on Iron Man with Marvel for “Iron Man Forever”, how was it reuniting with old shell head back at Marvel? Are there any future Iron Man related comic projects in your future?

Bob: The straight-up  answer would be “no”. I’m currently out of comics and have been working as a screenwriter in Hollywood.  A few years ago, I decided to try my hand at screenwriting… to see my characters finally speak and move. (Something comics just can’t do.)  And, I’ve enjoyed some modest success in this comic-crazy environment in Hollywood.

I sold my first movie script in 2009 to Olmos Productions and I’ve started work on a second film for them called, “Mettle”.  (http://www.olmosperfect.com/extra-edition/ejo-announces-new-superhero-film-project/)  It’s great working for a class act like Edward James Olmos and his son, director Michael D. Olmos.  I also wrote several scripts for TV and just finished a film script for Dane Cook’s production company, SuperFinger Entertainment. Right now, I’m in pre-production on a horror/comedy film called “Shambler”, which I co-wrote.  We should begin filming it this spring in Utah.

So, things are going pretty well.  Unfortunately,   I have officially broken all ties with Marvel’s publishing arm.  The frustrating experience of trying to create my last mini-series, “Iron Man Forever”, soured me completely on attempting another Iron Man project for them.  I could go down the laundry list of insane incompetence and glaring corporate buffoonery on the project, but I’d rather just put it all behind me and move on the next chapter of my career.

Here’s the biggest problem:

The atmosphere at Marvel has changed dramatically since the corporate acquisition by Disney.  But besides that, there’s the issue of creator fairness. A few years ago, I discovered that they’ve made a statue out of my ‘Demon in a Bottle’ Iron Man #128 cover.  You’d think I would have, at least, received a freebee from Marvel licensing…but no. Not even a credit on the box or the statue itself.

This statue retails for $175.00 U.S. each.   However, I get no money or credit for this project, or the hundreds of other images of mine that they use for merchandising, even though it’s based on something created solely by me.  Marvel released an entire line of Iron Man action figures based on my specialty armor designs.  There was a cartoon show in the 90’s that literally lifted stories that David and I co-created for the comic series—but we received no money or credit.

But, the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ and forced my hand to leave Marvel was when I was in England in last February. There, I discovered that Marvel had been reprinting my work there for the last 30 years, without one cent in compensation.  When I came home, I quit Marvel altogether, swearing that they would never get another opportunity to exploit me. Keep in mind that this is an isolated corporate policy. DC has always paid foreign and merchandising royalties.  I still get royalties on the Huntress, which I co-created over 30 years ago!  

But Marvel has always waited until changes in policy, elsewhere in the industry, forced their hands to comply with any creators’ rights issues. So, my feelings are bittersweet concerning my legacy with Marvel. Like it or not, Marvel Comics is NOT the same place where David Michelinie and I had the freedom to create “Demon in a Bottle”, The Camelot Sagas” and “Armor Wars”.

For example: I recently completed a Marvel Bronze Age card set for Rittenhouse.  But, a few weeks after submitting them, I received an e-mail notice from Rittenhouse stating that one card, depicting my classic “Demon in a Bottle” cover to Iron Man #128, had been rejected by Marvel/Disney editorial. When I inquired as to why, I was told that “It was the alcohol bottle next to Tony.”  I was told that Marvel has a strict ‘no reference policy’ towards alcohol and smoking.  I was flabbergasted and replied; “That is incredibly stupid, since Marvel is releasing all of my first run Iron Man work in a huge Omnibus in 2013. (Which includes IM #128) Their corporate publishing rules have become totally arbitrary, self-serving and ridiculous. “

This latest exercise in ‘corporate buffoonery’ graphically punctuates the reasoning behind my decision to leave Marvel Comics. They publish an Omnibus with the same content…but reject the little card depicting one of the seminal moments in their OWN history that they plan to reprint in an upcoming coffee table edition?!  And people wonder why I quit..?  As I’ve stated in other interviews, it’s not that I hate them.

In recent years, “Iron Man: Legacy of Doom”, “Iron Man: The End” and “Hercules: Twilight of a God” are all projects I did in conjunction with Marvel Publishing which I’m proud of.  But, it simply became clear to me, after the “Iron Man Forever” mini-series fiasco, that it was time for me to move on. David Michelinie and I had a great run on Iron Man. I am so fortunate for having my name associated with the Iron Man character and for the connection to the legion of fans who have stuck with me throughout almost four decades of faithful service to the legacy.  I have spent the majority of my career at Marvel and I can honestly say that, for the most part, it was one of my greatest professional experiences.

I suppose that I’m mourning the demise of the company I remember, in that Bronze Age, that brought us Miller’s Daredevil, Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men, Starlin’s Warlock and Captain Marvel, Simonson’s Thor, Moench and Gulacy’s Master of Kung-Fu and a host of other classic Marvel series, re-imagined for that new generation. Marvel used to be a place that encouraged individually and imagination, unlike this corporate monstrosity which has lost its way. But, as Thomas Wolfe aptly stated; “You can’t go home again.”

What about any future role or new stories from Future Comics? I see that you had a large role in creating an on-line comic presence well before internet comics became as popular as they are today. Where is your vision for Future comics headed?

Bob: I was excited to see my “Colony” graphic novel, released by IDW last month, under the Future Comics banner. This project has taken me almost a decade to complete and it is the first, new Future Comic product in about eight years. 

Colony is based on the popular web comic created, written and inked by me and drawn by the late, great Batman illustrator- Dick Giordano.  After Dickie’s passing, my Future Comics publishing partner, Skip Farrell, offered to finance the graphic novel, suggesting that we publish Colony as a final tribute to our mutual friend and colleague.  With Skip’s help and moral support, we were finally able to complete the 150 page tale and publish it last October.

Will we do more Future Comics? Only time, and the fickle financial state of the comics industry, will tell. In the early days of the company’s conception (2001), Dick and I extensively researched the economics of self-publishing.  As an independent, how could we make our little company healthy and profitable?  As it turned out, the only solution was to cut the middleman out—namely Diamond. Future Comics developed from the idea that if we cut Diamond out of the mix, our comics could be profitable without having to generate huge sales figures.

But unfortunately, everything we offered wasn’t enough to get the retailers off their duffs and support a change. Plus, it turned out that nearly 40% of North American comic shops were not connected to the internet in 2003.  That came as a real shock to me—I thought all comic shop owners were cyber-geeks.  It was a fatal miscalculation for the monthly publishing plan.

Future Comics was more of an experiment to attempt to take comics back to the type of stories and storytelling that had more appeal to the new or casual reader, not the hardcore, die-hard types. Unfortunately, reaching the casual reader proved to be a daunting task because of the lack of mass market venues. But, I still believe that the business model is sound and that, one day, someone will follow in our footsteps with the concept of self-distribution. 

In the meantime, Future Comics has been given a new lease on life, thanks to the I-Pad.  All of our Future Comics properties ( Colony, Freemind, Metallix, Deathmask and Peacekeeper) are now available (including the unused stories) thanks to our distribution partners at I-Verse. And several of the film projects I’ve been working on in the last few years will have comic adaptations, all published under the Future banner.

Congratulations on your Shambler movie moving into production. What role will you have on the movies themselves and can we expect a Shambler comic as well?

Bob: The feature film “Shambler” is based on an original film treatment created by David Michelinie and me. It’s a horror/comedy movie in the vein of “Zombieland” and “Super”, with a monster hero in the titular role. The project, budgeted at around $4 million, was recently touted at Cannes by Executive Producer Anne Marie Gillen, whose Hollywood lineage includes producing “Fried Green Tomatoes” and co-writing Variety’s “The Producer’s Business Handbook.”.  Anne Marie is spearheading this project, being funded in part by Odyssey Pictures Corp. Michelinie and I are executive producers on the film, as well.  The actual screenplay was penned by Steve Barr, Michelinie and me.

Here’s the brief synopsis:

“Dr. Samuel Pratt is a multi-doctorate scientist who becomes obsessed with raising the dead. But, just as Sam is about to perfect his colossal breakthrough, an unfortunate series of circumstances puts him in conflict with LA’s organized Russian crime lords. The mobsters kill Sam and steal with his irreplaceable research, hoping to sell the secret of immortality to the highest bidder. Pratt’s desperate fiancé and his shady lab assistant uses the remaining prototype formula to bring him back to life, wrapping his body in police crime scene tape to preserve the resurrected scientist. Humor mixes with horror as Pratt sets out to avenge himself against the criminals who destroyed his life’s work. But time is against him. Sam must find a way to make himself whole once again before he permanently denigrates into this hulking anti-hero, the lurker in the shadows of LA’s underbelly, whom the tabloids have dubbed– Shambler!!” 

There are tons of laughs, a mummified monkey sidekick and gobs of blood-spattered action. The film should begin principle photography in mid-April, aiming for a 2014 release.  And, there will be a Shambler comic mini-series that will be released closer to the film’s debut.      

Other than the internet, what differences do you see in today’s comic market and industry that are changing the way the public experiences, understands and interacts with comic books?

Bob: Comic-related films have generated interest in the medium with the mass market audience, but it hasn’t been enough to drive them into comic shops. At the same time, comic conventions are getting bigger and attendance records are at an all-time high. I think you can attribute that boom primarily to the influence of Hollywood to the comic book genre. The positive aspect is that the film industry is keeping the super-hero genre alive and demonstrating that there is definitely an audience for this particular form of entertainment. I believe that these Hollywood producers, seeking to recapture the “sense of wonder” they experienced as youngsters, have now become a new creative extension for the medium of comics–taking their favorite icons back to their more accessible roots. In fact, many of the key producers, who were rabid comic fans in their youth, are now successful movie executives. I’ve been truly amazed at the number of movie executives I’ve met in recent years who actually knew me by name and were very familiar with my credentials in comics.

You want a really great Iron Man adventure done in the manner it was originally intended? Don’t buy the comic–go see the first movie instead. The truth is that many of the comic-based movies are what the comics themselves used to be, before the fans took over running the asylum. And I believe that the hundreds of thousands of fans, who now come to the cons in droves, are there because of that new venue for the comic genre… Hollywood movies and television.

As far as the comics medium itself, I-comics will probably change the comics industry the same way that the music industry was altered by the MP3 and ITunes players. It can definitely change the distribution models. As an outsider, one might think that things look somewhat bleak for the monthly periodical publication, but that’s not to say that things can’t be turned around or evolve. I think there will always be printed comics, in one form or another.

However, the editorial, distribution and printing costs of creating comics have only increased since the speculator boom of ’93 while sales have plummeted.  If you average the top 300 comics for any given month, you’ll see that the number of copies sold rounds off to about 15 thousand units per book. Not a profitable margin, to say the least.

I believe in the digital application of comics.  The I-Pad/digital business model WILL work, but the industry has to ‘clean up its act’ creatively first if they are going to appeal to a mass market, casual reader again. The industry has to make new inroads, if it’s to survive.

The major problem, as I see it, is that the current crop of mainstream titles are generally inaccessible to the mass market audience. The analogy I commonly use is that if Star Trek movies were written by hardcore Trekkers, the general public would be totally alienated by all of the insider references and convoluted continuity. That’s what’s going on in comics at the moment. Comics are written by former fans for current fans.

That’s why there isn’t a huge sales spike in the Iron Man titles when a movie is released. In my opinion, accessibility to the product, whether it’s digital or print, is something that has to change in order for the comics industry and the monthly periodical to succeed in the long term. **

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and Sci Fi Pulse Mr. Layton. It is indeed an honor to add to the lexicon of the comic, internet and science fiction industry by interviewing you and getting your thoughts on your contributions and work. I look forward to seeing you again at future conventions!

Written By:

Tye Bourdony is a Sci Fi cartoonist and creator of ‘The Lighter Side of Sci-Fi’, a mediator and science fiction reporter. He is also a graduate of the Barry University School of Law, SUNY Purchase and H.S. of Music & Art. Tye currently works in Florida’s 9th Circuit as the staff Divorce Mediator and has a regular self-published column in Sci Fi Magazine.  You can visit tye on facebook and www.thelightersideofscifi.com.

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