I probably shouldn’t admit it with kids in the room but I’m finding it harder and less interesting to write about people I’ve never seen sloppy drunk or piss all over themselves or fight their way out of a whorehouse. You can’t tell if a guy’s got sand when all you’ve experienced are his IMs, blogs, and e-tude. But what the hell?anyone who can still make art in 2006 can’t be that bad.
Cue music. Enter Bob Layton.
The first time I stumbled onto Bob’s art he was one of the star inkers at Marvel, though he didn’t know his stature at the time. He’d become the new guy on The Champions, a comic some editor named after my gang in Rockaway, NJ (these were the 70s?you didn’t sue; you slashed their tires). The book didn’t stand a chance of becoming the next Avengers, FF, or even Defenders because the concept was mother dumb. Hercules a leader? Ghost Rider a team player? Angel in a fag costume? There was no chemistry between pre-established characters, but back then books cost just two thin dimes and there weren’t enough to fill a Sunday afternoon’s reading session beneath that split oak, so I bought ’em all.
Of course, it wasn’t long before “Bubbly” Bob (or whatever adjective Stan Lee contrived) became one of my fav inkers. Now, good inkers are like bass players?you tend not to notice them until they bust a string and another yoyo starts thumping. But great inkers, well, those are whores of a different color. “Ballsy” Bob (my adjective, but you can claim it, Stan) went on to become the definitive Iron Man re-creator. No more cool exec with a heart of steel; those bottom-of-the-bottle stories were the standout books of their day.
Small world? Not always. I never crossed virtual paths with “Burgeoning Bob” (that’ll be enough of that, Cliff) until recently and I no longer recall what the occasion was, but it wasn’t at a bordello or I’d have Polaroids. Nevertheless, we swapped a few emails and I ended up commissioning some cover reinterpretations. What’s life without music and art on the walls?
If I may boast for a moment?and I do so only to set up the comparison ahead?I must say that I have a world-class comic art collection. I get to wake up to originals by Kirby, Kubert, and Kane; Adams, Steranko and Jeffrey Jones; Cockrum, Perez, Colan, Buscema?pages and covers and sketches and paintings adorning my walls. Fully insured, of course, by Allstate and Smith & Wesson. I’ve been collecting art longer than I’ve been collecting people.
When Bob’s package arrived. I held my breath as I opened it. First of all, someone had forgotten to walk the dog, so the room smelled foul. More importantly, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. But what I found was elation. The pieces instantly joined my list of beloved items. See for yourself.
So I called Bob to thank him, and one thing led to another. After we left the hook shop, I said, “There’s a few questions I’ve been meaning to ask?”
Clifford Meth: Your name is inextricably linked with Iron Man. Nothing confirms that more than the galleries on your home page. Thoughts on that?
Bob Layton: You have to understand?the fans of Iron Man are the most loyal and steadfast bunch I have ever come across in all my thirty-something years of doing comics. There are numerous websites and messages boards devoted to the character and my name tends to come up in any discussions and projects concerning the character. I feel honored to have that kind of devotion. I consider Bob Layton.com to be as much of an Iron Man website as any of those others out there. I genuinely treat my website as a monthly entertainment venue. Of course, I cover a variety of aspects of my career and even discuss non-comics topics. But the content of the site will inexorably be dominated by Iron Man subject matter. I don’t consider that a negative.
I think it’s the uniqueness of Tony Stark’s character that David Michelinie and I created that links me to him and the fans. Obviously, we must have done something right. I feel very fortunate and privileged to have such a loyal and vocal fan base.
CM: How did you get started?
Bob: I learned to read from comics when I was only four years old, after my older sister Sue became bored with reading the same comic to me about fifty times. (It was a Showcase issue featuring The Challengers of the Unknown.) As I matured, I began to comprehend the true potential that the medium had and became obsessed with becoming part of it.
After High School, I met Roger Stern (who worked for a local radio station in Indianapolis.) and we began publishing fanzines out of my little apartment.
CPL (a pompous, overblown moniker which stands for Contemporary Pictorial Literature) was our main ‘zine. It was an extremely popular fan publication for its day and eventually led us into a working relationship with Charlton Comics, with Sterno and me producing and publishing the Charlton Bullseye fanzine for the company.
The close association with Charlton (and their production manager, Bill Pearson) led to my meeting Wally Wood and becoming one of his apprentices. Once I went to work for Woody, doors started opening up for me all over the place. While apprenticing with Wood, I started getting inking work with Charlton and DC while continuing to publish my fanzines. Occasionally, I would deliver pages for Woody when I made a trip into NYC from Connecticut. One day, I was in the Marvel offices?handing in Woody’s pages to the production dept. So, I used the opportunity to show my samples around while I had my foot in the door. When I passed the Art Director’s office, I heard John Romita on the phone, frantically trying to find someone to ink a desperately late issue of Iron Man by George Tuska. Blissfully unaware of the consequences, I stuck my head in his doorway and said I could get the job done in the four or five days that was left on the schedule. It was an utter fabrication?but I REALLY wanted to work for Marvel Comics! Johnny gave me the pages and said, “Show me what you can do, kiddo.”
Panicking, I ran down Madison Ave. to Continuity Associates, where a lot of my fledgling contemporaries worked for Dick Giordano and Neal Adams. The gang at that time was comprised of Terry Austin, Bob Wiacek, Joe Rubinstein, Bob McLeod, Carl Potts and others. Like the troupers that they all were, they pitched in on the inking and we finished the entire book in less than four days.
Once I turned the job in, I never heard from anyone from Marvel for weeks. I was sure I had permanently destroyed any chance of ever getting work there again. Then, about a month after the Tuska job, a package arrives on my doorstep. I open it to find a complete issue of pencils on The Champions. I presumed that it was sent to me in error, so I called the Marvel offices to see where they want me to forward the material. But my utter amazement, Romita tells me that I’m the new regular inker on the book.
CM: Which comics did you read as a kid?
BL: I read everything I could get my hands on. Like I said, my first comic was a Showcase issue featuring The Challengers of the Unknown by Kirby and Wood. I have to say that it made such an impact on me that it set me on my career path. In general, my personal tastes tend to gravitate towards characters?like the Challengers, Batman and Iron Man?that possess no inherent super-powers.
CM: You studied under Wally Wood and Dick Giordano. Which artists and writers influenced you most?
BL: Dick would be my most prominent comics influence. Dickie has been mentoring me for the last thirty something years?and that’s been a significant contribution to my general neurosis. Since I was a kid, 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 correct. For the majority of my career, I’ve been able to function as an editor, writer, penciller, or inker?depending on what’s available at the time, thanks to Dickie’s sage wisdom. I’m honored that we’ve stayed close friends over the decades. To this day, Dick and I have lunch every first Wednesday of the month, just to keep in touch and exchange ideas.
I’d have to say that I was also heavily influenced by Gil Kane and Jack Kirby, as well. As a writer, it would be David Michelinie, Jim Shooter and Archie Goodwin, as far as comics go. Outside of comics, it would be Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick and Rod Serling who are my biggest general influences.
CM: You’re keeping busy with commissions these days, largely reinterpretations of covers. Is that fun?
BL: I genuinely love doing commission work. How often do you, as an artist, get an opportunity to revisit a drawing and correct your mistakes? It’s also a lot less work that doing a monthly, 22-page comic. And occasionally, the fans come up with some great concepts fore me to execute. I won’t lie?I miss telling stories, but I’ve always given 100% to everything I do. I throw myself into each commission with the same enthusiasm that I did with any comic project.
Also, I have been running previously unpublished comics at Bob Layton.com. This month, I’m presenting an unpublished issue of Deathmask by David Michelinie, Dick Giordano and me.
In 2006, I’ll be presenting a new, serialized comic based on one of my original creations, Colony. This story, written and drawn by me, is based on my motion picture treatment and will appear exclusively on my website. Colony is a project that I’ve been developing for the last 10 years and is currently making the rounds in Hollywood.
CM: What do you miss most about having a book to complete?
BL: Telling stories. I consider myself an entertainer, whether it’s Iron Man, Valiant or Future Comics…or my own website. I 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 comics business. They have every right to run their companies the way they see fit. I just don’t want to be a part of it anymore.
I tried it for a while, inking two monthly books for Marvel, and the experience put me in the hospital?quite literally. I had a small nervous breakdown because, deep in my subconscious, I knew the stuff I was doing wasn’t good comics and I was just working for a paycheck. I couldn’t tolerate having my name attached to that stuff and my health began to suffer as a consequence. It was literally killing me.
Hell?if you think I’m kidding, consider that I walked away from Valiant, giving back over a million dollars of my share from the sale of the company because I couldn’t stomach what Acclaim was doing to my characters, employees and the company. It’s never been about the money, Cliff. The work has always come first for me.
PART TWO? Next Week
© 2004, Clifford Meth