Bob Layton is Iron Man. Or more specifically, Layton is the Armored Avenger’s alter ego Tony Stark. On June 30 at Connecticut’s ComiCONN, the writer/artist partly responsible for iconic stories like “Demon in a Bottle” commanded the room during the “I am Iron Man!” panel in a dark suit and tinted sunglasses — sound like anyone you know?
It should come as no surprise to learn that a panel dedicated to the creator who chronicled Stark’s adventures for so long was overflowing with sarcasm, laughs, personal opinion and brutal honesty. With Ant-Man and the Wasp — which features Layton co-creations Scott Lang and the Ghost — now in theaters, there really was no better time to talk to this man of many accomplishments (I forgot to mention he co-founded Valiant Comics).
Of course, as Layton is so candid, our conversation covered more than just Ant-Man, including the future of the comic book industry. Fitting for a creator who put words in the mouth of Marvel’s most famous futurist.AiPT: Ant-Man and the Wasp will mark Scott Lang’s third appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In your opinion, what is it about this version of Ant-Man that makes him so popular with moviegoers?
Bob Layton: What’s the hook? I was talking about Spider-Man [in my panel]–the hook is he’s a teenager. He pretends to be a man but he’s actually a teenage boy with all the problems a teenage boy has. He doesn’t have the security that Tony Stark has when he puts on the suit and goes out there knowing that he has his full facilities–he’s not even grown up yet. He doesn’t even know who he is as a person. He has this calling that he has to answer to.In Scott Lang’s case, I wanted to do something with a single father. I was a divorced parent myself and I had my daughter on the weekends. It was kind of a bit of the inspiration for that — “Wow, how can I go out and be a superhero if I have to take care of Cassie?” So that was part of the inspiration. There wasn’t a character like that in the Marvel Universe, and again, that’s what we try to do as creators — bring something new. So here we had a single parent superhero.
AiPT!: The MCU had Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 and now the Ghost in Ant-Man and the Wasp. Are there any other villains you played a role in creating you think would be great on the big screen?
Layton: Ya know, that’s not one of those things I stay up late at night thinking about, to be honest with you. I think Master Darque at Valiant would be great on film if they ever get around to a Shadowman movie. Because Master Darque is like super creepy, dude, ya know, albino with the tattoos and long, flowing ponytail and all that stuff. I think he could be really be frightening and cool.
AiPT!: What about the heroes you worked on that Marvel Studios hasn’t gotten to yet?
Layton: I would love to see a Hercules movie, are you kidding? Look, Guardians of the Galaxy is pretty much the same tonal quality I had with Hercules 40 years ago. I mean, Hercules was a comedy set in space. At least have him be in Guardians. Plus Skyppi the Skrull, ya know? Transvestite shapechanger–I think we’re ready for that as an audience, I think we’re ready for Skyppi.
AiPT!: Now, obviously, there are a lot of rumors about the future of Iron Man in the MCU following Avengers 4…
Layton: I have no idea.
AiPT!: Well, I know that…
Layton: You want my estimated guess? I think RJ is probably going to retire.
AiPT!: Well, if he did, what direction do you think the franchise should go in?
Layton: Well, you know, here’s the biggest problem with having Robert Downey Jr. define that character for an entire generation. No actor in their right mind would want to follow that. I don’t know any actor who says, “Yeah, I can do better than him.” Yeah, screw you, right? Ben Affleck! [Laughs] So this gives them a chance to recast because the suit remains, you know? It’s a possibility to recast Iron Man as a different character.
AiPT!: Like Rhodey.
Layton: Or a younger character. Who knows, Cassie could grow up to be the next Iron Man–who knows? But I’m saying, I kind of see them opening the door to that. I will miss Tony Stark. Or they might just wait 10 years to do phase four or five and just reboot Iron Man.
AiPT!: I hope not. I hope they keep it going.
Layton: I know, but the point of it is Downey’s been doing it for 11 years now. I would want to move on–I’ve never stayed at the same job for 11 years and he’s one of the great actors of our generation.
AiPT!: He wants to do something different.
Layton: I don’t know if he does or not–I haven’t talked to him about that, but the point of it is — I could call him, I have him on speed dial — but I don’t. That’s the emergency, when I call RJ it’s because I have something really specific to say, OK?
AiPT!: He doesn’t want to talk to me.
Layton: I think it would be smart for him to move on while he’s still young enough to do some other stuff, but the money Hollywood throws at you is hard to turn down too, because they throw some serious bucks. I mean, he’s the highest paid male actor in Hollywood and he’s raising a family, so who knows? I don’t really know. I would say retire the character and let somebody else be Iron Man for a while. Draft some Riri whatever her name is — I hate that.
AiPT!: You said in your panel you don’t follow the comics…
Layton: I don’t follow the comics but I know about her because when they do something egregious, all my fans start writing me immediately. So I know every horrible thing that’s ever happened to Iron Man even though I don’t follow the books, because the fans hate the Iron Man comic.
AiPT!: They just relaunched it again.
Layton: Yeah because nobody can ever get it right, it seems like I’m the only guy who’s ever been able to do the character properly, you know?
AiPT!: During your panel you also said some interesting things about a career in comics, and I know you said Marvel is a very different company now than when you were working there. What’s your take on the current state of Marvel Comics?
Layton: Yeah, because Marvel now is about the brand, not about the characters anymore. Everything’s that Marvel brand, you know? I don’t think it’s the same thing, it’s like artists are taking front and center on a lot of books and it was never that way. I mean, most of the guys who grew up, they only found out I did the book in retrospect — they were just reading it every month because they couldn’t wait for the next issue, and that’s the way it should be — shouldn’t be about us, we shouldn’t overshadow the characters or the story. But they’re at such a point where sales are so low too that anything sells a book. That’s part of the problem to me, being on the inside and having been a businessman in the industry. I saw the writing on the walls — it’s an unsustainable business model. You can’t keep going on. Sooner or later Marvel or DC, Warner Bros. or Disney will look at the publishing arm as diminishing returns. Both of them have the largest reprint libraries in the world. I mean, think about — when’s the last time you saw a Mickey Mouse comic? Mickey Mouse is the most popular character globally — most known character. They don’t make comics of Mickey Mouse anymore. Once you climb the rungs of the ladder and become part of the lexicon, you push the ladder off — you’re on top. All this other stuff, Iron Man sells what, 20,000 copies a month or something? You think they’re even making a profit off that? And the price keeps going up. Now we’re competing with Netflix. When comics hit $7, they’re dead, because it’s just cheaper to get a Netflix subscription and watch all the Marvel stuff in the cinematic universe. So as I said, 10 years ago I saw the writing on the wall. And not that I don’t love comics — I do…
[Layton takes a moment to sign something for a fan]
So yeah, I saw as a businessman–having owned two companies — it’s an unsustainable business model. This industry hasn’t changed in 75 years. We’re still putting out this pamphlet that you have to encase in plastic so it doesn’t rot. And when I do the ‘how the comics industry works’ lecture I was talking about, I always end on an up note. I talk about the European and French model. Have you been to a comic shop in France?
AiPT!: I haven’t.
Layton: Oh my God, they’re unbelievable. Everything is hardback books–great, very large, original-art-sized — they’re made to last. Single, contained stories, higher price points so the retailer makes more money, advance against royalties just like James Patterson novels. I mean, it’s a totally different business model but the French have sustained that for 30 years. That’s what we need to be doing here–experimenting with getting it out to a wider audience.
The trouble is, if your mom goes to see the X-Men, right? And she loves the X-Men the first time she sees it–she loves it and she goes, “I want more X-Men, where do I get more X-Men?” You have to try to go find a comic shop–good luck with that, first of all, and then when you get there, it’s like a sweaty little porn store done by some guy using a cigar box as a cash register- – most of them, I mean, not all of them are, but you know what I’m talking about. Most of them are fly-by-night kind of places. And you pick up any X-Men — it’s none of the characters from the movie. They don’t look like the characters, there’s no introduction to the characters because it’s not written for a mass audience like it was when I did comics. It’s done for the niche audience that just reads X-Men comics, so you’re a part six of a 12-part story and you have no idea what’s going on. So as a result, the movies — you don’t get a bounce in the comic industry because we’re not on the newsstand anymore. We’re not accessible in that way.
AiPT!: I spoke to Jim Shooter last year at Rhode Island Comic Con and he explained how as editor-in-chief at Marvel, he preached the importance of self-contained stories.
Layton: Yeah, no, we were always taught — and he was there as part of that group, you know, because I was right there with him — every issue’s a first issue. You always presume that every issue is a first issue, that someone’s reading it for the first time. Television does that for the most part, you know, serial television has always done an introduction to the character. They rarely — unless you’re watching a serialized Netflix show, or something, where they just jump in — boom and good luck — they always kind of recap and reintroduce those characters at the beginning of every show because there’s a new viewer every episode. That’s the way we had to do it on the newsstands, you know? That’s why we were successful. Those were written for a mass audience. That’s why the movies resonate more than the comics, because they’re done for a mass audience. You don’t have to see every Marvel movie to get it.
AiPT!: Finally, you mentioned that you have a sci-fi movie in development during your panel. I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about The Helix.
Layton: Uh, very little, because, you know, loose lips sink ships. I can’t really talk about a movie that’s still in negotiation. Best way to describe it — it was actually the first movie I ever wrote. I wrote it for Edward James Olmos’ production company, but it got shelved for another project and eventually the rights reverted back to me. But it’s a serious drama. I’m a science buff, right, and I hate the way space travel is presented in movies where they have swimming pools and basketball courts — it’s not the way it’s going to be. It’s going be ugly and tight and small and unglamorous — my movie is very, very unglamorous, but it’s also about first contact. The way the movie came about was I went to see District 9 — good movie, right? But I said, that’s not how first contact’s going to be. It is going to shake the foundations of society. It is going to cause our structure to fall apart because there’s nothing in the Bible about aliens. We’re not prepared for that. So what I did was create a microcosm inside this ship. The Helix is actually the name of an object. What I do is I show the breakdown of society inside this small craft with four people — it’s like Lord of the Flies in space. It’s intense, you know? But everyone who’s read it says it’s a brilliant script — I’m taking their word for it. It’s an ensemble, there are only five actors. The whole movie takes place inside this really grim tin can but it’s like I said a real intriguing drama–It’s a drawing-room drama in space.
AiPT!: I wish you luck with that, it sounds great!
Layton: Well thank you, I’m hopeful.
AiPT!: Thanks for taking the time to chat!