Apologies to those of you who’ve been waiting with baited breath and worried beads for Part II of the Bob Layton Interview. I’ve been overwrought by a project for IDT Entertainment (“Give it to Cliff,” they said. “Cliff’s got nothing to do…”) and finalizing galleys on METHo.d., my new book with the nifty new STERANKO cover, and a series of pitches to a major comics publisher who just might maybe lets-cross-our-fingers hire your favorite columnist to script a story about a beloved costumed super-doer?But enough with the excuses. Take it away, Bob.
Clifford Meth: Which projects were your favorites? Wait?let me guess!
Bob Layton: Good guess. Sure, it’s Iron Man. And, I’m grateful that my time on Iron Man helped to open new doors for me as a creator. Hercules was another favorites. I loved working on that big, dumb-ass character. Prior to pitching the series, I felt that he hadn’t found his niche in the Marvel Universe, being relegated to supporting roles and such. Also, I felt that the Marvel books, as terrific as they were, took themselves way too seriously in those days, with stuff like Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Claremont’s X-Men and even our Iron Man, for that matter. I wanted to do something that would lighten things up the “House of Ideas” a bit.
The Second Life of Dr. Mirage was specifically created by me at Valiant as an attempt to attract more women to comics and quickly became one of my favorite career projects. Unfortunately, it never succeeded in bringing in significantly more female readers. I guess the industry wasn’t ready for a romantic / comedy series? And the Future Comics line of characters, mostly because they were totally a labor of love and an opportunity to return to classic, Marvel-style storytelling form.
CM: Worst moment at Marvel? At Valiant?
BL: At Marvel?it would probably be leaving the company for Valiant?which cost me my friendship with John Romita Jr.
I was on top of my game and Iron Man was selling like crazy at the time. I had just taken over as writer/inker of Iron Man and had hooked back up with JRJR as the new penciller. I gave all of that up to go work for a start-up company, because I felt I had a real chance to do something more significant at Valiant (which turned out to be true). Unfortunately, this decision alienated JR and it cost us our friendship, which I regret to this day.
However, I don’t regret making the decision. It was the right one for me at the time and Johnny has done okay for himself over the years. I am troubled that JRJR and I lost touch as a result. I wish I could go back and fix that one. Johnny and I were like brothers at one time in our lives.
The worst moment at Valiant was probably leaving the company in anger and watching it go down in flames.
CM: Many of us in fandom believed Valiant was the best thing to happen to comics since the Lee/Kirby Renaissance of the early 1960s. After the failure of so many “alternative” superhero comics publishers, what made you guys think you could pull it off?
BL: We really didn’t know if we could pull it off, to be quite honest. And—it almost didn’t happen.
We started up in ’89, in a fifth floor loft in downtown Manhattan. The place was a total rat-trap.
Valiant had about ten people to start out with and we had to share the office space with entertainment attorney Lauren Davis, the daughter of record mogul Clive Davis, who worked with Steve Massarsky in representing recording artists.
However, I believe that the comic buying public was tired of what the Big Two were offering, with the emphasis of the mainstream titles becoming more art-driven than story-driven. It was guys like Rob Leifield, Todd McFarland and Eric Larson who were driving the market. Good writing had taken a backseat to flashy, gimmicky packaging.
Jim Shooter’s reputation as a writer from Marvel brought some marketable credibility to the fans who were beginning to feel alienated by the current publishing trends of the Big Two.
I was brought in to manage the art and editorial on the Western Publishing/ Gold Key line of superheroes –only to find out that the decision had been made to sit on those properties and pursue Nintendo and WWF licenses instead. I argued with Valiant’s management that those two audiences are notorious for not reading–period. But they had dollar signs in their eyes and thought they could pull in millions from both franchises.
It was a MAJOR miscalculation on their part. Valiant couldn’t give the damn things away.
Reality raised its ugly head when they discovered that gamers use their leisure time to play video games?not to read comic books. After millions of dollars were lost to those ill-conceived projects, they finally decided to go to the Gold Key properties, which now became a last ditch effort to save the company from insolvency. Every day, the staff lived under the threat of closure at a moment’s notice. Not a fun time.
However, the superhero books started coming out and the situation improved. I believe that the real turn-around happened when my friend and co-collaborator at Marvel, Barry Windsor-Smith, decided to lend his considerable talents to Valiant. Things started to turn around for us after that. I know for a fact that it was Barry that gave the line a true credibility in the marketplace. Barry was, undeniably, one of the most prestigious creators in the industry and his contributions elevated the overall efforts of everyone creatively connected to Valiant as writers or artists.
CM: What really happened at Valiant? Why did that dream end?
BL: Triumph, (the venture capitalists that originally funded Valiant) by the end of ’93, had made a small fortune off the company. We were netting around 30 million a year and they had more than satisfied their investors. However, if you understand how venture capital works, they are always short-term investors. Once Triumph had made sufficient profits, they ordered Publisher Steve Massarsky and me to put the company on the auction block. They were venture capitalists –not publishers. And– they wanted out while the getting was good.
They really didn’t give us a choice. It was an order.
Steve and I met with a variety of potential new owners. Unfortunately, the highest bidder was Acclaim.
Acclaim paid 65 million for us–although, if they had done their homework, they would have discovered that we were only valued at around 30 million. This should have been a warning sign to us that these folks weren’t very bright.
Only after they acquired us, we found out that they had earlier attempted to buy Image, who Acclaim felt better matched their video game demographics. When that didn’t pan out, some braintrust at Acclaim got the idea to buy Valiant –and clandestinely turn us into a carbon-copy of Image.
Since Steve, Jon Hartz and I were the major private stockholders of Valiant, we all got millions from the sale of the company. However, the way the deal was set-up, the money was placed in escrow and paid out in one/fifth increments over the five year term of our employment contracts.
To answer your question, shortly after Acclaim took over, I got into a very heated shouting match with Acclaim C.E.O. Greg Fischbach once he began allowing his suits to make wholesale changes in the characters and premises of our books.
As a result of that blow-up, Fischbach removed most of my authority and gave it to Massarsky and Jon Hartz. He couldn’t fire me, because he’d have to pay me the full term of my contract. So–they basically locked me in my office for the next year and a half, even thought they continued to pay me a monthly salary for doing absolutely nothing. But I didn’t care about that. As I stated before?it’s never been about the money.
If you look back at it, you can see the point where I no longer influenced the line. It sticks out like a sore thumb.
Birthquake immediately comes to mind, for example.
Not only that, but Steve Massarsky had made some outrageously-expensive contracts with the creatives on Birthquake. However, the sales numbers were abysmal after Birthquake.
By late 95′, I was suing the Acclaim’s management for “Obstruction of Duties”, so my days there were definitely numbered. I settled the breach of contract suit out- of-court and wound-up giving the lion’s share of the money for my shares of Valiant (over a million dollars) back in the settlement, in order to get as far away from Acclaim as possible.
Steve Massarsky was interviewing replacements for my position and he needed to find someone who would act as a deal-breaker on the costly Birthquake creator deals. A retooling of the entire line gave management the ability to cancel those expensive contracts.
Once Steve settled on Fabian Nicieza as my replacement, they went about the process of deconstructing the company, creating the new Valiant universe and breaking their promises to the creators who had trustingly signed on. It was a despicable mess. It definitely marked the ‘beginning of the end” for the company.
However, with Valiant Universe 2 relaunch, Steve got out with his millions and Acclaim got what they always wanted?a dumbed-down, imitation of the original Valiant.
Does that answer your question, Clifford?
CM: Who were your favorite collaborators?
BL: David Michelinie?because he’s my best friend and the most proficient wordsmith I have ever met.
Ron Lim?because he’s a terrific, energetic artist and one of the best natural storytellers I’ve ever worked with.
Barry Windsor-Smith was a huge influence because he opened my eyes to a unique way of approaching comic illustration.
And Dick Giordano (of course) because he’s?well?Dick Giordano. How often do you have a chance to work with a living legend?
CM: What are your problems with today’s comics?
BL: The major problem is that the comic books themselves are becoming a loss leader for mass market re-packaging and motion picture licensing. The drawback is that there are no guarantees that your property, even if optioned, won’t wind-up in “development Hell.” So, if you’re a publisher, banking on the success of creating the next Spider-Man film franchise, you’re in for a big disappointment. And, for every Spider-Man that Hollywood produces–there is also a Man-Thing. There is no guarantee that your film, whether you’re Marvel or a small indy, will be a success.
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.
You want to read a really great issue of Spider-Man done in the manner it was originally intended? Don’t buy the comic–go see the movie instead.
The truth is that many of the comic-based movies are what the comics themselves used to be.
However, how we take advantage of that audience, as creators and publishers, has yet to materialize.
The industry has to make new inroads to a mass audience if it’s to survive.
Although I hate making sweeping generalities, as I see it, the current crop of mainstream titles are not accessible to the general public. Comics are being written by former fans for current fans. That would be fine if that’s all there was, but the potential for the medium is much greater than ‘shooting fish in a barrel”. That’s why there isn’t a huge sales spike in the Spider-Man titles when a movie is released. The general public (where the big sales potential lurks) can’t read or comprehend them.
In my opinion, accessibility to the product is something that has to change in order for the comics industry, and the monthly periodical, to succeed in the long term.
Also, quite a large number of comic shops are dingy, poorly managed venues, comparable to XXX porn shops. The comic industry needs to take a very hard look at some good retail business models and strive to help the Direct Market create easily accessible venues where young people can casually find and purchase comics, either through subsidies or discount incentives.
At various times, while running Future Comics, I looked at mall kiosks, movie theaters and similar venues to sell our comics and related merchandise, places where there can be walk-in business in a clean, attractive environment.
CM: Any chance we’ll ever see a return to the popularity comics once enjoyed?
BL: I wish I could be more optimistic but the answer is no. At least?not in it’s current form.
Please visit Bob Layton’s site at: http://www.boblayton.com.
© 2004, Clifford Meth