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Monday, August 7, 2017

Bob Layton at Ottawa Comiccon

On May 13th, Ty Templeton held a special event at the 2017 Ottawa Comiccon called 'On the Couch with Bob Layton'. For nearly an hour, Templeton had Layton tell the audience about how he got into the comics industry and the inspirations behind his more well-known work (i.e. Iron Man, Valiant comics, etc).

DC in the 80s was fortunate enough to attend this event in-person. It was a fantastic interview and Layton did most of the talking (providing insights into his career which I would've never thought to ask him about) and it felt like one hour was just not enough time. In the interest of the Bob Layton autobiography that will inevitably NEED to be published someday, we will NOT be recounting the entire presentation, but instead just focusing on the highlights relevant to DC in the 80s.

Bob Layton (left) being interviewed by Ty Templeton (right)

How Layton was introduced to comics

"At the age of four years old I bought my first comic book, and it was a Showcase issue of Challengers of the Unknown by Jack Kirby. The story-telling was so clear that I could tell what was happening -- here I am in Preschool and I knew the story. I made my sister sit down and teach me how to read so I knew what was in the balloons and what they were saying. So I actually skipped a grade of school -- I graduated high school when I was seventeen because I was reading proficiently by the time I even got to Kindergarten."

Later on in the interview, he mentioned Wally Wood as the artist on the first comic he ever read. Based on those clues, I'm going to guess that his first comic book was 1957's Showcase v1 #12.

The comic book that started it all?

His first fanzine -- Contemporary Pictorial Literature (CPL)

"The fanzines that we produced at the time were very very popular -- there was a lot of stuff out there. I got the idea that if I send those fanzines up to the comic companies, those guys will read them. So I used to send twenty-five copies to Marvel, DC, Charlton [Comics] and anybody else that was publishing. Sure enough, they were passing 'em out. [Roger] Stern wrote really funny articles -- I mean, they were hilarious. I had my little art in there -- that's how Wally [Wood] first saw me. He saw my art in one of the fanzines and told a mutual friend that if I was ever on the East Coast that he'd take me on as his apprentice."

"At the time we were doing our little digest fanzine, CPL, with Roger Stern, and we had our house staff fan artist -- an unknown guy named John Byrne. John started with us. So did Bob Hall, Michael Uslan was an article writer for us, Steven Grant was a regular contributor to it. I mean I could go down the list of people -- it was like a Who's Who of people who wound up in the business now. In the case with all of us, we were publishing our fanzines and then Charlton got a hold of us -- because we did a special Charlton issue of CPL."

Bob Layton co-founded the Contemporary Pictorial Literature (CPL) fanzine with Roger Stern. Other comic pros involved in the CPL fanzine: Alex TothTony Isabella and Roger Slifer (to name a few). CPL ran from 1973 to 1975.

Cover of CPL #11 (1974). Curious to see the interior?

His first ComicCon

"I also put on the very first ComicCon at Indianapolis in 1975. I've always had sort of an entrepreneurial side to me -- I always wanted to understand the business that I wanted to be in, regardless of what it was. I LOVED comics. In those days, because we didn't have the internet and ways to get in touch with each other, it was very hard to network with other comic book fans. So, I decided to put on a ComicCon in 1975. It was awful. I was twenty years old and I didn't know jack about anything. It still came off big, but that was one of the beautiful things -- I made such great friends out there: I had Walt Simonson, Howard Chaykin, Dick Giordano was there, Michael Uslan was there. One of the kids who came to the Comiccon -- he talked his parents into driving him all the way from Illinois because there was a Comiccon in Indianapolis and he wanted to meet a professional writer there, y'know, he was dying to do that. This little twelve year old convinced his parents to drive all the way there so he could meet Michael Uslan and sit down and talk with him -- that kid was Sam Raimi [creator of Evil Dead film franchise]."   


[in response to discovering that Wally Wood wood take him on as an apprentice]

"I had $200 in my pocket and a beat-up Galaxy 500 station wagon and I drove up there and I slept on Walt Simonson's floor in Queens until I found an apartment. And then he passed me off to Chaykin, who lived upstairs. Chaykin and Bernie Wrightson lived upstairs, and they made me go up there to sleep. They all lived in the same apartment building in Queens. Bernie and Howie [Chaykin] shared an apartment, and then Walt Simonson and Al Milgrom shared an apartment." 

First breaking into Marvel

'I started as an inker [for Charlton] because that was the easiest way to break in. They needed inkers. Always. It was always the easier way to break in to comics. I mean, I wanted to write. I wanted to do everything. Which I eventually did -- but you have to start somewhere."

"Wally [Wood] hated going in to New York City. We lived in Derby, Connecticut -- a little depressed town in Northern Connecticut. So I would volunteer to deliver pages for him. I would get on the train, take the two and half hour ride down to New York City, and I'd go up to Marvel or I'd go up to DC and -- because I was delivering Wally Wood pages -- I'd say 'I have to give this to the Art Director personally'. And, of course, in my other arm, I'd have my own sample [pages].  And that's how I wormed my way in."

"I was delivering pages from Wally to Marvel -- I was going into John Romita's office. John was, like, pulling his hair out. He was having conniptions because the regular inker on the George Tuska book (which happened to be involving Iron Man) got sick, and had to send the pages back -- which took forever -- and there were only 3 days left before this book had to ship. He's on the phone trying to find someone who could knock this book out. 22 pages. At that particular time, I was dividing my time between working for Wally Wood and working for Dick Giordano down at Continuity Associates Studios (which was a big advertising firm that Neal Adams and Giordano ran on Madison Ave in New York). So I looked at John and lied through my teeth and said 'I can do it, John. I can do this in 3 days.' I was doing background inks at the time -- I got $6 a page for background inks. You know how many pages you've got to ink to pay rent at $6 a page? Living in the New York tri-state area? John's like 'okay kid, I'm gonna give you a shot'. What did he have to lose? The book wasn't going to get done anyways."

"I had a plan -- I was going to get help. I ran up to Continuity Associates Studios -- up there there were a whole bunch of fledgling guys like me who were working for Dick Giordano and Neal Adams at the time. Guys like Terry Austin, Steve Mitchell, Bob Wiacek, Bob McLeod, guys whose names you'd be familiar with if you were a comic fan. We were just kids then. I started passing out pages and I said 'I'm buying the beer'. I said 'I'm going to do those pages, everybody do everything else' and so we stayed up for 3 days and we banged that sucker out. (For the record, I found George Tuska years later and apologized to him in person.) I come in, and here's this ghastly thing, and I put it on his [Romita's] desk, and he's like 'wow. thanks, kid'. And that was it, that's all he said."

Layton was initially worried that he had killed his career with that very rushed assignment, but it led to his first official inking Marvel inking job on Champions #9 (1976). Layton didn't want to reveal which Tuska book he worked on, but based on the clues I'm going to assume he's referring to 1976's Iron Man #91.

cover by Herb Trimpe and Aubrey Bradford

Early inking work for Marvel and DC

"I bounced back and forth a lot, because -- you've got to remember -- we got paid nothing. If they paid me 2 more dollars a page, I was DC's [slave]. Y'know? And if Marvel offered me a $1.50 more, I was Marvel's [slave]. Y'know? That's how we did it -- we just bounced back and forth. Finally, the last bounce I did -- it's funny because I did one issue of the X-Men with Dave Cockrum (he was a friend), and I said 'This is stupid. The X-Men. Who are these guys?'. It was a bi-monthly book, so it only came out once every 2 months. I thought, 'I don't want to do this, it's just another team book', so I left and, of course, they became Marvel's #1 selling book. John Byrne comes on, and Terry Austin... it's like when actors turn down Academy Award-Winning roles. I left THE X-MEN to go over and do Star Hunters. Y'know? I can't say that I'm a genius or anything because I actually walked away from that. But, actually, it all worked out great..."

Green Lantern vs Gorilla Grodd from DC Super Stars #14 (1977).
Pencilled by Rich Buckler, inked by Bob Layton.

DC's Star Hunters (1977)

"... because that's where I met David [Michelinie]. David and I started co-plotting together over there (he was writing Star Hunters). He recognized that I had a flair for creativity and story-telling. He loved my ideas so we collaborated on that. And then DC was about to implode -- they were about to cancel a third of their line -- I kind of smelled it coming. Dick Giordano gave me a little heads up on it, too. And I said to David, 'Let's go back to Marvel'. David never worked there, but said I knew people there so... (I'd been back and forth doing my thing)..."

The Star Hunters premiered in 1977's DC Super-Stars v1 #16 and ran for seven issues as an ongoing series from 1977 to 1978. Tom Sutton became the inker for the title after issue #5. The saga of the Star Hunters was never resolved.

Cover penciled by Don Newton, inked by Bob Layton

Revitalizing Marvel's Iron Man (1978)

"We went over to Marvel and we were still relatively unknown at that point -- we hadn't made a name for ourselves yet or anything. What they would do back then -- a contract was signed with the National Distributor to distribute comics to newsstands and spinner racks all over the country for 12 issues. So, if the sales figures come back on the first 6 issues and it looked like the book was gonna tank... which was weird because tanked back then was 90,000 [copies]... what they'd do is remove John Buscema (or their other A-list guys) off those books, and try schmucks like me because they figured I couldn't hurt it, and then finish out the last 6 issues. So one of the books the offered me was Iron Man -- which I'd waited my whole ENTIRE LIFE to get a crack at."

"When I first started Iron Man, I asked them if we could change a few things. They said "We don't care, we're going to cancel it". So, we set off a bomb on page 5 and killed EVERYBODY and by the next five issues we had created James Rhodes, the Hall of Iron, the variant armors, and... the book took off. The next thing I know, they put a contract under my nose and I'm on contract with them. Another weird coincidence: my editor for Iron Man? Roger Stern."

"I've always been a very technologically savvy guy. I've always been very science savvy. By the late 70s heart transplants were common place. Here's a guy who's a billionaire and a genius, and he can't figure out a way to fix his heart? I personally knew people who were having heart transplants by then! We were trying to create a new corporate world -- the book was now about Tony Stark. When we took it over, it wasn't about Iron Man -- it used to be that Tony was just the shill, he was the guy with the money so he could be Iron Man all the time. I wanted to be Tony Stark as a kid -- I didn't care about Iron Man. I didn't care about the suit. I wanted the girls, the cars and the money. I wanted to be the smartest guy in the room. Previously, the emphasis at Marvel was never on Tony Stark, and that's what we brought. But we had to change the 'heart' thing because it didn't make sense." 

Tony Stark's Alcoholism

"One of the clich├ęs of Iron Man was: he'd be fighting the Mandarin or Ultimo, and he's just about to win, and he'd fall over at the end of the issue with heart problems. I don't know ANYONE who's had 50 heart attacks and lived! Again, medicine had caught up to Iron Man and the heart thing seemed outdated now. Since we were creating a brand-new and intricate corporate world for him, we wanted to give him something to be his kryptonite -- something he'd struggle with --  and it seemed to me that alcoholism would be the best thing. Plus, you have to remember the time we were living in: this was the 1970s and it was a time of social awareness. Comics don't really set trends, we reflect them. Comics really reflect popular culture. At the time, awareness of drugs and alcohol was actually being talked about. It seemed... appropriate... given the type of character we were writing."

Layton also set the record straight that, while he may have given Tony Stark alcoholism, Tony's extreme drunkenness (ex: sleeping in an alleyway, puking in his shoes) was Denny O'Neil's doing.
Iron Man #128 - "Demon in a Bottle". Inks by Bob Layton

Leaving Marvel Comics and the Birth of Valiant Comics

"One of my dearest friends in the business was an inker from DC named Jack Abel. He was a New York treasure --- a great inker -- y'know, an amazing, talented guy. And Jack had a stroke (sometime in the early 80s) and he lost the ability to draw, even though he still had it in his head. So Marvel Comics, feeling some loyalty to Jack -- because he'd been there forever -- they made him a proof-reader. This is so he'd have a job and he could finish out his career, because we don't have retirement plans -- we just work until we drop dead, guys, okay? That's the way it normally works. So... I remember seeing Jack sitting in the corner, and I would talk to him and he was just miserable. He wanted to draw -- he knew HOW to draw, he could draw BETTER than me -- BUT he couldn't do it anymore. I started to realize the biggest problem with this, the worst disservice I could do to myself and to my mentors, was to become a wage slave. Y'know? Basically become Marvel's slave for the rest of my life. The only way I was really going to succeed and grow beyond doing the same friggin' thing over and over again until I dropped dead or had a stroke like Jack or whatever, was to participate in the creation of stuff. To own it. To own what I create." 

"Valiant Comics started out in the noggin of Jim Shooter and Steve Massarsky -- they were actually putting together Marvel Ice Capades, believe it or not, and THAT fell through... and I don't know why. (chuckles) Jim always used me as a resource up there, so they got a line on venture capital through that project -- which DIDN'T happen -- but they still had the line on the venture capital. The comic business, by that time, was starting to really boom... I mean when I did X-Factor (that was one of the last big series' I did there at Marvel), I set Marvel sales records at that point. It was stupid, y'know? It was the like the first time I had ever gotten royalties. It was amazing. That would've been around 1985."

"So anyways, I get a call from Jim and he says "Look, you're my idea man. I need to create a whole line of characters over here. I need you over here." and I replied "Well, I'm on contract, I've got health insurance and all sorts of benefits and stuff" and Jim replied "I'll see to it that you get a percentage of the company." So I went over there and I ran production, and we had the Gold Key characters (Magnus Robot Fighter, Solar Man of the Atom, Turok Son of Stone) but they suddenly got the idea in their head that "we have licensing for WWE and Nintendo and we're going to do those instead", and they blew through the ENTIRE investment with the worst comic books they've ever made. I mean, JUST AWFUL. And I was screaming "People who play games don't want to READ comics about Mario, okay? They want to PLAY Mario!". Y'know? They couldn't GIVE this crap away."

Gameboy v1 #4 (1990). Published by Valiant Comics.
I like to imagine Solar, Man of the Atom is behind that door.

"I basically sat down and we co-created the entire line of [Valiant] characters and we launched those with Solar and Magnus. The FIRST new one was X-O Manowar -- which was mine. 'Conan in a Can' is what we called it among ourselves. I wanted to go totally opposite of Tony Stark, but they wanted me to create an armored character. And then the list goes on and on. Those books are still around."

X-O Manowar #1 (1992). Valiant Comics.

"I worked on almost every single first issue Valiant put it out -- I'm uncredited in a lot of stuff -- plus, I ran production. I put myself in the hospital twice, from exhaustion. I did EVERYTHING there for the first 2 years. It was INSANE." 

Interestingly enough, a few of Bob Layton's former collaborators did work at Valiant Comics during the early 1990s:

  • David Michelinie wrote (most of) the first eight issues of  1992's Rai, the first sixteen issues of 1992's H.A.R.D.Corps, and the first three issues of 1993's Turok, Dinosaur Hunter.
  • Bob Hall wrote thirty-three issues of Shadowman from 1992 to 1995. He also wrote seven issues of Timewalker in 1995.  
  • Roger Stern worked on a few issues of Magnus Robot Fighter in 1992.

The Current State of Comics (2017) 

Additionally, Layton had a few insights to give on the current state of the comic industry:

"When the bottom fell out of the collectability aspect of it in the late 90s, there was a concerted effort by the comic companies to cater to their base: the "hardcore" guys -- the older guys -- who had money and jobs and other stuff. Basically, they [the comic companies] started writing comics for those guys, and the thing is... when we worked, every issue was a FIRST issue. It was on the newsstands. EVERYTHING had to be a 'jumping on' point for someone, y'know? They have LOST the ability to do that now -- that's part of the problem. How many people go to the movies and see an X-Men film and think "Oh! I love the X-Men!" and then they go to the comic book shops to buy a copy of the X-Men and it's not even the SAME characters ...and it's part 6 of a 12-part story ...and they're just totally confused! That's part of the problem -- there's a DISCONNECT now. Comics used to be the jumping on point for the genre, now it's film and television. That's why, in the comic industry, the numbers are not as healthy as they used to be."

"One of the reasons I got out of comics -- and I don't want to trash it by any means -- but there's a tipping point.... and it's coming. Would you pay $7 USD for a 22-page pamphlet? For $7 USD I can get Netflix and watch two season of Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones -- it's the same characters for the same money!  Versus one badly done comic book that's issue 3 of a 10-part story. We're competing with Hollywood for the same characters, the same money. So, something has to change. Somebody -- smarter than me -- has to figure out how to do it."

"We're going to end on an upbeat note: the European model is the way to go. In Europe, have you seen Lieutenant Blueberry? These are french books that are done almost actual size. They're beautiful, hardback editions that you don't have to stick IN A BAG. They have a high enough price point that your retailer can make a profit with less copies. They're fully contained stories --  so you don't have to keep buying book after book after book. And you don't have to put them in a PLASTIC BAG -- you put them up on your bookshelf next to your other hardback novels and they'll STAY THERE FOREVER."


We did stop by Bob Layton's convention booth afterwards to ask a few follow-up questions.

Earth-Two Huntress (Helena Wayne). 

We asked about his co-creation credits on the Earth-Two Huntress (first appearing in 1977's DC Super-Stars #17). Layton, in fact, had a very large part in the creation of the Huntress back in the late 70s and even had a radically different costume in mind for her. "The costume she ended up with looked liked a combo of Batman and Catwoman's costumes -- no wonder Batman was able to figure out it was his daughter so quickly", he joked. Layton shares Huntress co-creator credit with Paul Levitz and Joe Staton.

In case you're wondering, his favorite series that he's ever wrote is still The Second Life of Doctor Mirage (published by Valiant Comics in 1993). Layton added that he's a closet romantic comedy fan, and this was his chance to write for the genre. He added that it sold really well until he left the series.

Second Life of Doctor Mirage #9 (1994)

Sometimes you go to a comic book convention, try to strike up a conversation with a comic pro sitting at his/her booth, and they have absolutely nothing to say. Bob Layton is NOTHING like that. Layton is extremely charismatic -- a truly energetic and engaging talker, and I encourage you to walk up to his table at any convention he appears at and chat with him. He has lots to say and has a lead a very interesting career. My only regret was not being able to ask him more X-Factor questions.


I've got to give credit (where credit is due) to Ty Templeton -- he was an excellent MC, kept the conversation with Layton on track, and clarified some details for fans who may not have been clear as to what Layton was referring to. It was almost as if Tepleton had the same questions we fans did. It was an excellent panel and I encourage you to attend any other panels Templeton hosts.

Layton also made a strong recommendation to check out Charlton Comics: The Movie (in which he makes an appearance to talk about his time working for Charlton Comics). By the time you read this, the movie may already

Extra big thanks to Ottawa Comicon and Agence Pink for organizing this informative and entertaining event.

Justin Francoeur

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