Wednesday, January 08, 2014

ON THE FIVE: Interviewing Bob Layton

Uncanny X-Men isn't the only major Marvel title that once faced cancellation. Iron Man did too. Where the X-Men was overhauled with a truckload of fresh heroes, Bob Layton and frequent creative tag-team partner David Michelinie recycled the armoured avenger by focusing on the duality of the existing Tony Stark and what his situation would mean to the sanity and perspective of one man. The results were just as legendary.

Over his expansive career, Layton has held and succeeded in every gig imaginable. Writer, inker, editor-in-chief or artist, the characters he has touched have been just as diverse. He co-created Rhodey and X-O Manowar among others, and with his origins hip deep in the Charlton universe, you can bet if there's anyone with plans on how to resuscitate those characters without mentioning the graphic novel they inspired, it is he.

Fortunately, when I contacted the living legend about taking part in On The Five, he kindly agreed. Extremely giving of his time, the down-to-earth creator spoke freely as we talked about influences, X-Factor and his dynamite future.

IADW) As a kid, the foodstore of my town only carried four comics. With the Knights of The Round Table my main 'other' addiction, Iron Man as the modern day equivalent (and one of the four) was the instant win.

Those adventures I grew up with were the issues David Michelinie and yourself (and extending that out to John Romita Jr) handcrafted. Story arc Demon In A Bottle didn't talk down to me as a young reader, Iron Man was more human than his 'Peter Parker' Tony Stark and Ghost became one of the most fantastic Iron-rogues of all time.

While I don't collect the current Iron Man comics, my fondness of that era still sees me class myself as an ardent Iron Man fan. 
When you launched the original X-Factor, was part of your initial aim to recapture the best of a similar era for those characters to you?

Bob Layton: Of course. 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, 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. 

Bob Layton's original X-Factor line-up. Issue 5, Bob's last vs The Alliance of Evil
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 Dazzler. But Kurt Busiek and John Byrne came up with a way to revive her and, of course, why would I refuse to use her? But from that point on, the rest of the story devolves into 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've 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.

IADW) My signature 'Bob Layton' character is Hercules. You didn't just redefine the hero by adding his now trademark 'fun' side, your Hercules: Prince of Power mini-series also harboured one of the best takes ever on Nova, Frankie Ray. Was there much of a battle to get The House of Ideas to give one of their first ever mini-series to a wine-loving avenger from The Champions, over the bigger Marvel icons of the time?

Bob Layton: I wanted to do a ‘coming–of-age story' and the idea of doing it with a 5000 year old Greek demi-god tickled my funny bone. In the Marvel universe, prior to my series, Herc had always been portrayed by Stan Lee as a conceited, arrogant, but likeable asshole. My simplified childhood memories, from his early appearances in Thor, were of Hercules bashing people upside the head just for the sport of it! So, he seemed to be the perfect subject for me to experiment with. 

It was time for Herc to grow up a bit and develop a small degree of self-awareness. I've always had a soft spot for forgotten secondary characters and Hercules was no exception. Additionally, I had always wanted to try my hand at writing comedy and Herc was a perfect foil for my particular brand of humor. Fortunately, since he was an immortal, I could take the character out of the continuity of that era and place him in a time and place that wouldn’t have immediate repercussion to the monthly books or his appearance in The Avengers

The Hercules mini-series was the first in comic history, released in conjunction with Frank Miller's Wolverine project. At that particular time, Marvel was looking to experiment with concepts that had a finite beginning and end. When I heard that, the notion of doing Hercules as a limited series popped into my head. 

I've always loved tongue-in-cheek adventure movies like the The Three Musketeers or The Adventures of Robin Hood. The idea came to me to create something in that genre, but capitalize on the science-fantasy craze that Star Wars had created at that time. However, it took a bit of pushing to have a finite series about a drunken super-hero published at Marvel. 

I felt that the Marvel 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. Just coming off my Demon in a Bottle run, 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 image as a whole. Otherwise, it was a breeze. Along with my contributions to Iron Man's lexicon and to the Valiant Universe, Hercules ranks right up there as one of the more positive legacies of my career. It’s something that I am very proud of.

IADW) From your own fanzine on comics to co-founding the original Valiant Universe and serving as E.I.C. through its most profitable period, the Layton story in itself is made for Hollywood. Do things like seeing the incredible work the current Valiant Universe is doing with those toys, make you look back and go 'Wow - that is really some climb I'm climbing, some life I'm living?' Is there one perspective or attitude that describes your approach to making success happen?

Bob Layton: I believe it’s very important and wise, as a creator, to reinvent yourself every five years or so. Plus, I can't stand the idea of standing still and doing the same thing, day in and day out, until I'm bored to tears. For the most part, I've been living the dream (albeit with a lot of hard work). 

I consider myself an entertainer and storyteller, whether it’s Iron Man, Valiant, Future Comics...or working in Hollywood. I still love the medium of comics and wish I could bring myself to jump back into the mainstream. But the esthetics that I value as a storyteller are no longer held in esteem by the people running the mainstream publishing business. They have every right to run their companies the way they see fit. But, I could never tolerate having my name attached to stuff that I don't have my heart and soul invested in, simply for a meager paycheck. It’s never been about the money for me.

HARD TO STOMACH: Layton and Acclaim differed over the original Valiant characters.
Hell—if you think I'm kidding, I walked away from my E.I.C. job at Valiant, giving back 1.7 million dollars of my shares from the sale of the company, because I couldn't stomach what Acclaim was doing to my characters, employees and the company. Just as with X-Factor, the work (and fun) will always come first for me. That probably makes me a hopeless neurotic—but I'd like to believe that my love of storytelling takes precedence over my monetary concerns… or my own ego.

IADW) Post Valiant, you've gone on to hit other media just as hard. From online comics to animation, Cinemax to the Iron Man movies - can you give us an insight into what projects you are currently pouring your efforts into?

Bob Layton: To tell the truth, working in Hollywood has many advantages and very distinct drawbacks. First amongst the disadvantages is the inability to discuss any pending film projects openly. In Tinseltown, you're likely to ‘kill the deal’ if you prematurely speak about it. I've been involved in the mistake of publicly divulging information in the past and it has ended badly. Not necessarily because they were discussed openly, but because perception is everything in Hollywood. So, I've learned to keep my mouth shut until I get the ‘green light’ from my creative partners. Here’s what I CAN talk about:

I recently completed the third draft of a film script for Olmos Productions called, Mettle (for details click here - Dan). It's really great working with a class act like Edward James Olmos and his son, director/producer Michael D. Olmos. And, I'm currently working on a top-secret “Zombie Movie” project. As I get closer to finishing the first draft, there will be some press releases about it. So, stand by. And, I'm actually dabbling at returning to comics, agreeing to do new covers for Dynamite Comics and their Gold Key license. (Magnus, Solar and Turok) It’s a blast revisiting those characters again.

IADW) Who is your personal Superman/inspirational figure?

Bob Layton: Dick Giordano is my most significant, inspirational figure. Dickie mentored me since I was 19 years old. He was a contributor to my fanzines as a kid and that’s how we got to know each other. I was always a huge fan of his Charlton super-hero line. When I moved to the east coast of the United States to pursue my comic book career, he took me under his wing immediately. 

Since I was a teenager, Giordano admonished me to learn every single aspect of the business—because that knowledge would insure me continuing to get work when times are tough. I have to say that he was absolutely correct. For the majority of my career, I've been able to function as an editor, writer, penciller, inker or publisher—depending on what’s available at the time, thanks to Dickie’s sage wisdom. Few can boast of the degree of success he experienced in his long and illustrious career. 

I'm deeply honored that I was able to be close friends with this giant of the industry over the decades –right up to being at his side on his deathbed. He was probably the bravest man I've ever met, who faced his own demise-- with courage and humor. I owe so much to his humble wisdom and insightful instruction, not merely about the job...but how to conduct myself as a man.
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I have re-read this interview many times and each time at bat I am humbled with how open and honest Mr Layton is in his responses. I once again take this opportunity to thank him, both for all his efforts in responding to my request, the magic his career has generated for me as a fan, and all that's still to come.

 What do you think?  Let me know your thoughts below! For one of the best creator sites you will ever find online, visit boblayton.com For more On The Five interviews with the likes of Norm Breyfogle, Dan Jurgens and Paul Ryan, click here.

7 comments:

  1. How disheartening to hear about Mr. Layton's (as well as Mike Carlin's) experience on X-Factor. That book's rudder seemed to constantly be in motion; by the time the original team left, I couldn't have told you exactly what they'd accomplished in 70 issues. I wish his brief run on the title had been more rewarding for him.

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  2. Thanks Comics fan! Puts a whole new perspective on things huh? Beast is an odd one for me. I think he's worked on every team he's ever been a part of, yet there is always something awesome between him and Jean that makes the original X-Men tick a few more boxes. While Jean wasn't in his original line-up, I would've been interested to see how Mr Layton played her up against the reuniting of 'The Beatles'.

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  3. Wow! Hell of an interview there Dan. You sure you're not really Anderson Cooper?;)
    I have to say I did learn one thing new from this interview, mainly that it was Layton who was behind the formation of X-Factor. For some reason someone else seemed to come to mind on that. I can only imagine the shit he had to put up with though in the X-Offices at the time. Considering that Claremont ruled that place with an iron fist, I'm not surprised Layton encountered all the needless problems and bullshit he faced. Still, people are supposed to be professionals, and this is just another sad case of that not being the case.

    I also didn't know Layton gave up his shares and job as EIC or Valiant. I vaguely remember him having the job after Shooter left, but I didn't keep up with what happened after that.

    Good job mate. Looking for much forward to more of these interviews.

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  4. Thanks Dale! It may be a bit of a Butt Munch move to interview Bob Layton and not ask an Iron Man question but I imagine over the years he's heard about every Iron-question out, so thought I'd atleast give him a break on that one.

    As for X-Factor, I always wonder what moment tipped the scales in terms of Iceman, Angel and Beast. Was the pre-hit X-office ever denied these characters in favour of Avengers or The New Defenders?

    Seems the more you ask the more you want to know!

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  5. Good question. I know for a few short years Beast, Angel and Iceman were all in the last incarnation of the Defenders, or "New Defenders" as they were called, so I'm not sure. Dazzler sounds like an interesting additon/dynamic, but in regards to the fab five, it would've been like if the Beatles had kept Pete Best on as drummer instead of Ringo. I guess it worked out the way it did, like it was supposed to. But it does make you wonder what new characters Layton would've introduced had he not left. Would we still have gotten Apocalypse and his Four Horsmen, or Angel becoming Archangel if Layton stayed on that long? Like you said, the more you ask, the more you want to know.

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  6. I didn't know Layton had so much influence on the titles he worked on - or not, as the case may be it seems. What an absorbing interview you gave, plenty of interesting snippets to ponder over. His X Factor run certainly had lots of odd patches and his interview gives some curious behind-the -scenes info on what went on. For me Layton was more associated with Iron Man an dI expected him to say more about that, his work just screams 80s and 90s to me thru and thru.. I appreciated the kind word he gave towards Dick Giordano also.

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  7. Thanks for the positive feedback Karl - much appreciated! I liked what he had to say about Giordano too - a true great from DC's own Golden Age, that's for sure.

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