Bob Layton has been involved in the comics industry for three decades now. He broke in with several small series at DC Comics before hitting it big with Iron Man in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He and writer David Michelinie co-created the iconic "Demon in a Bottle" storyline, in which Tony Stark battles his addiction to alcohol in that well-remembered series. Layton went on to a major stint at Valiant and other companies. I caught up with him at this year's Emerald City Comicon, at which we talked "Demon in a Bottle" for a number of projects that I'm working on. The interview was so interesting that I thought I'd share it here on Comics Bulletin.
Bob Layton: [Writer] David [Michelinie] had never been a Marvel guy. He had always been a DC guy. So he wasn't sure about the characters and all that kind of stuff. I said “Trust me.” They offered us our choice of three books that were in danger of cancellation. That's the only way you got work back then, and when we were offered Iron Man, I told David, "Take it, take it, take it", because my whole life I wanted to get my hands on it.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Do you remember the other two books?
Layton: One was Ghost Rider, and I can't remember what the third one was. Because after he said Iron Man I was done. So I don't remember the third.
CB: You guys came as a team because you did Star Hunters and Claw at DC.
Layton: Yeah we worked well together. We decided to go over there as a creative team.
CB: Did you guys know each other before you broke into the industry?
Layton: No, no. We met, we just got paired up together at DC and we just clicked creatively. I think we balance each other out well. Dave had never really worked with an artist who had so many ideas for his concepts. So we just fed off each other.
By the time we got to Marvel we set up this 50/50 partnership with the stories. It was a fun time, but we decided we had to do a lot of changes. That's why we set with Bob at page five in the very first issue we did to kill off a lot of stupid characters. Then it was the matter of recreating the whole Iron Man universe. It was pretty stupid. If you go back and read Iron Man, it was a pretty dumb book for most of its history.
One of the things that we needed to do was that — by that time technology had gotten to the point where heart transplants were regular business. People were getting them all the time. So see, him having a heart problem is ridiculous. Even now in the movies they're finally had to get rid of it because just… you know. Just give him a transplant of a new heart, and give him anti-rejection drugs and boom. You're off to the races, right?
CB: It's outdated in the same way that the Vietnam side of it is .
Layton: Yeah that was one of the things that we had to change, because the only other person that I know that's had 57 heart attacks and lived is Dick Cheney.
So we decided that we were going to create this corporate world, which they really hadn't touched on a lot. We were going to make him King Arthur of the corporate universe. That's why the whole King Arthur theme runs throughout Iron Man.
We really thought about “We need to give him a weakness.” It wasn't hip, with him running out of energy and always looking for a light socket, you know. Or having a heart attack every time Ultimo was fighting him. So David and I discussed it and we thought that we would give him the corporate man's disease. Something that would always haunt him. Something that would struggle with regardless of whether he was Iron Man or Tony Stark. It was just the villain of the month. That was what we wanted to set up.
We never thought at the time that we were doing it that we would make comic book history. If you set out to make history, you probably won't, unless it's something infamous. In that particular case we were just doing our job. We were reshaping that universe for another generation, and it just made sense.
CB: It's interesting reading your run in the Marvel Unlimited app because there's all these issues that are just kind of churning ground, and basically as soon as you land, the series moves ahead very quickly. He starts drinking casually and it quickly becomes a problem. There's just a few little side references every once in a while. He lands the plane, he goes to another party and starts drinking like anyone would, right?
Layton: Yeah exactly and that's the insidiousness of alcoholism. We wanted to show that. We didn't want to telegraph where we were coming from with it until he started becoming dysfunctional.
We thought out a year's worth of stories in advance. Dave and I would sit down and we would have our annual plot. That's much like they do it in television now, how they figure out a whole season of where they're going to go with the storylines. That's exactly what we did. Dave and I would sit down and we would figure it out. We would start here, and we want to end up here. Let's break down into twelve issues on how we get there. With each issue having a contained story, but getting to our end result. So "Demon in a Bottle" was a slow progression that we ran over twelve issues.
CB: Specifically because there's a lot of storylines that pay off "Demon in a Bottle"; for instance, where he gets accused of murder, S.H.I.E.L.D taking away the corporation…
Layton: Yeah. All of that was all intentional because think that there's the omni view, and there's the eternal subplot. So we thought both of those out in the context of coming up with a thrilling adventure every month, too. But we would always make sure we were proceeding in the direction we wanted to go. We did that to our entire run on Iron Man.
CB: That's pretty unusual for that time.
Layton: Well that time yeah, I think we were being pretty innovative if you look at it that way. It's how we do series television now. We were way ahead of the curve on that.
CB: Well there's a great analogy because at the time they didn't have seriws television either.
Layton: They never had continued stories on television, you know? If they ever did a two-parter it was a big deal. We really approached it the way they do on serious TV now where you look at it a year at a time.
CB: So why alcoholism? You said it was the "rich man's disease."
Layton: It made sense in the corporate world. That's what a guy would suffer from, or likely would, considering how much pressure he's under. Considering the secrets that he keeps. All that kind of stuff. It's like, one night, take a drink and it's like “heyyyyy I feel better”.
CB: It really takes the series to a different level, yeah.
Layton: Again, it's something that would always be there that he would always have to contend with. And if you'd like to create a kryptonite for the guy, that's a good way to do it. It's not something that he can get rid of. You can't just suddenly wake up one morning “Oh! I'm not an alcoholic anymore!” you know?
CB: And he came back to the book and he relapsed.
Layton: No, I never did that.
CB: Oh you weren't a part of that?
Layton: No that was Denny O'Neil, I was against that.
CB: You were against that? Oh okay.
Layton: No, because Tony Stark is a winner. He's always a winner. He's the smartest guy in the room. In any circumstances, he's the smartest guy in the room. And it's like I'm a recovering alcoholic, okay?
I can't think of a circumstances that would cause wanting to live like that life again. Being conscious now of what it's like.
CB: Well that's great! I have friends that are alcoholics and they're unfortunately-
Layton: Who would choose to go back to that life, that's what you have to tell them. Who would choose, consciously to go back to that life? I don't think anybody in their right mind would.
CB: Consciously, yeah.
Layton: Well that's what they have to be conscious of. So what I'm saying is with Tony Stark, he's the smartest guy you'll ever know. And the smartest guy that any of us will ever know. I just don't see him making a conscious decision to go back to drinking, having faced that.
CB: Yeah, that's an interesting point.
Layton: Usually when you're an alcoholic, you're trying to kill yourself. Let's face it. It's a slow death, but it's a death. There are only two ways that you get out of alcoholism. You die, or you get sober. Tony Stark doesn't strike me as one of those guys.
To me it's like once you realize why you're trying to do that, it's like that's the thing that keeps you on the straight and narrow. I mean Denny was also a recovering alcoholic and felt like he needed to be treated broader, and he needed to lose more. To us we just wanted to get on with the series. Tell more interesting stories with Tony and develop his character. I wasn't interested in doing two years of alcoholism with Tony in the gutter.
CB: That would have been a drag after a while.
Layton: It was a drag, actually. That's why we had to come back and fix the book. Because the book quit selling, you know?
CB: It's great because it led to this culmination point. It's such a classic moment too where the love of his life sets him straight.
Layton: And you can't get preachy with this stuff because it turns people off. And ultimately at the end of the day the story is not about alcoholism, it's about Tony Stark. So that's what our focus always was.