Legendary Comic Book Writer and Artist
by Richard Vasseur - (Posted: 5/30/2006)
RV: What has been the highest and lowest points of your comic career?
Bob Layton: The high point was probably accepting the trophy, in front of a huge crows of retailers, when Valiant won the Gem Award from Diamond as Publisher of the Year--we were the first independent company in comics history to beat out the Big Two.
The low point was probably when I had to close the doors of Future Comics. That hurt a lot. I was severely depressed for a long time after that happened.
RV: How did you end up doing the cover art for Zoom Suit # 1?
BL: I was contacted by John Taddeo, the series' creator, and asked to recreate the cover of Iron Man # 117 using the Zoom Suit characters. John is a huge fan of my body of work on Iron Man and was inspired to create Zoom Suit based on some of those concepts. After that, John and I became friends and he continued to send me Zoom Suit cover assignments. It's a fun comic and I recommend it to your readers.
RV: Is there anything in the comics field you haven't done?
BL: Not much. One of the reasons I don't seek work in comics these days is that there's very little that interests me. "Been there---done that" seems to come up a lot in my conversations about returning to comics. The only thing that I'd like to do is educational history comics---like illustrating the entire history of the 60's Space Race, or the events of WWII in comics form.
RV: How did you first get into the comics field as a career?
BL: 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 (an 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 alliance with Charlton Comics, with Sterno and me producing and publishing the now-famous Charlton Comics, with Sterrno and me producing and publishing the now-famous Charlton Bullseye magazine. The close association with Charlton (and production wizard, Bill Pearson) led 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, DC and Marvel while continuing to publish my fanzines.
At that time (mid '70's) Charlton was struggling to re-establish some sort of footing in the superhero market. Marvel and DC had house fan publications of their own, namely F.O.O.M. and Amazing World of DC Comics. Charlton wanted to establish a fan presence, as well and formed an alliance with the Indy CPL/Gang to produce the Charlton Bullseye. They gave us access to unpublished material from their vaults by the likes of Steve Ditko, Jeff Jones and a host of others. While I was producing Bullseye, I began taking on inking work on their anthology books. But I never actually worked in the Charlton offices.
I DID, however, live about two blocks away from their Derby, CT. offices. I was already getting work at DC at that time ('76). In the meantime, I continued to do stuff with Wody and would occasionally deliver pages for him 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. Like an idiot, 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 contemporizes worked for Dick Giordano & Neal Adams. (The gang at that time comprised of Terry Austin, Bob Wiacek, Jore Rubinstein, Bob McLeod, Joe Brosowski, Carl Potts and a host of others) To my relief, they all 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'm sure I have 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 an entire 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 to my utter amazement, Romita tells me that I'm the new regular inker on the book. To make a long story a bit longer, I worked there for about a year, then signed an exclusive one-year contract with DC--after they made me 'an offer I couldn't refuse'.
RV: You wrote and drew "Hercules-Prince of Power" what did you enjoy about working on it?
BL: The Hercules mini-series was one of the first in comic history (released about the same time as the Wolverine mini). But it took a bit of pushing to have a finite series about a drunken super-hero published at Marvel. The big problem was convincing the parties involved that poking fun at the Marvel Universe wouldn't do permanent damage to it as a whole. I loved the big dumb lug and I've always had a soft spot for forgotten secondary characters. Plus, I felt that Hercules hadn't found his niche' in the Marvel Universe, being relegated to supporting roles and such. Also...I felt that the Marvel books took themselves WAY too serious in those days. I wanted to lighten things up a bit. I've always enjoyed writing comedy and Herc was a perfect foil for my brand of humor. After Hercules, I followed up writing tongue-in-cheek comedy with my 'Dr. Mirage' and 'The Bad Eggs' series at Valiant. My one regret is that I never got the chance to do my planned "Red Wolf" spin-off mini-series---although it was thematically far from a comedy.
I worked up the premise and designed a mocked-up cover for the first issue and pitched it to Jim Shooter. Unfortunately, he rejected it without hearing the full pitch, stating that, as successful Marvel creators, we should be thinking bigger than coming up with new premises for third-string heroes.
RV: What was it like working "Iron Man" with David Michelinie?
BL: David and I are best friends---and have been for over thirty years. David was the best man at my wedding and the guy that's ALWAYS been there for me when times were tough. Just before my contract expired at DC in the late 70's, David Michelinie and I (we had first formed our partnership at DC, working together on Star Hunters and Claw-the Unconquered) had agreed to leave the company for greener pastures. We both sensed the impending 'Implosion" and didn't want to be a casualty of it.
Together, we went to Marvel and interviewed to work as a team there. We were given a choice of lower end books to work on and I jumped out of my seat when I realized that Iron Man was one of those choices. That was the one book in the entire industry that I wanted to do more than any other. Together, we retooled the series into the way I had always imaged it could be. David's lack of history with Marvel's Iron Man mythology proved to be a tremendous asset--translating into his fresher approach to the character. We had a 50/50 relationship on the plots, with both of us contributing equally to the story and character development. I have to say that David and I have always complimented each other well creatively and our time on Iron Man was one of the most fulfilling times on my career.
RV: You have also worked on video games. How is that similar to creating a comic?
BL: Not really all that different. You have to create a story, character designs and such. Obviously, there aren't as many plot twists as in a comic story. It's more about game play than story points. Premise and game play are generally the primary concerns.
RV: What do you think in general of the comic book industry today?
BL: I always hate these sort of questions, because it's almost impossible to remain positive when discussing the current state of the industry.I would have to say that the biggest problem is that many of the techniques that a writer has at his disposal have been discarded by the new generation of writers. The current generation doesn't seem to have the same kills or training that the iconic writers of the comics industry possessed. And now, they seem to be merely regurgitating all their favorite stories from the past five degrees to the left or padding very short plots to fit into the obligatory trade paperback. However, the biggest problem today is Diamond Comic Distributors. We need to break this monopoly and force them to compete in a fair marketplace. I had nothing but bad experiences with Diamond during my days of operating Future Comics. They rarely followed up on any request and never promoted out products as promised. During that time, there was more than a hint of collusion between Quebecor and Diamond. Our books began to get printed days or weeks past the scheduled press time and were frequently mishandled in shipping and customs. All of this resulted in nothing but huge financial problems for us.
And today, Diamond is creating new distribution policies that will ultimately eliminate the Indy publisher. In hindsight, it now seems clear that getting rid of the small press is the best way for the two (Quebecor and Diamond) to insure spreading the finite amount of consumer dollars evenly amongst their larger and more profitable clients. There's simply too much product being produced in the Direct Market each month. Marvel and DC (being corporately-owned) have to make their numbers. And, they do that by dumping more product into the Direct Market to bolster sagging sales on other titles. It is foolish and counter-productive to think that Diamond would ask Marvel and DC to cut the amount of monthly product. The simplest solution seems to be to get rid of Indy publishers. So now, Diamond is placing Draconian regulations on distributing small print runs of comics. End result: More rack space for their larger clients.
So, if someone currently contemplating the possibility of becoming an independent publisher---I'd advise them to think long and hard about self-distribution.
RV: What is "Colony" about?
BL: Colony is a project that I've been developing for the last 10 years and is currently making the rounds in Hollywood. The concept for the comic is based on my motion picture treatment and will appear exclusively on my website beginning in June. The story of Colony is about a being's right to exist...and the quality of life one chooses...or fights...to live. It is also an unsettling allegory to the current, extremist political climate and what could happen if power and racial hatred is left unchecked. The backstory begins at the end of the 22nd century, when Earth's space exploration was at an all-time high. This boom was partially due to the commerce created by the discovery of the first of five non-human races in 2204. Until that time, Man had explored the galaxy for a century without encountering life in any form other than microbes. As a result, many Earth leaders had become arrogant, convincing themselves that Man was unique, the single sentient creation of the Almighty. To some in positions of power, the conquest of space had become the "will of divine providence", a manifest destiny for the only entity with a soul in all creation: Man. Their Monumental arrogance was matched only be their absolute dismay when contact was first made with the Pyresians.
At first, there was jubilation at having finally made contact with a sister race and that the long search for intelligent life had finally proven fruitful. However, some in power quickly realized that the fundamental core of their power base rested on the premise that Man was the dominant life form in God's universe. Through the Pyresians, Earth discovers the existence of the other races that occupy our galaxy.
To allow any alien race to influence Earth culture would quickly erode the foundation of galactic supremacy that kept certain factions in power. However, Earth quickly becomes a depository of all things Pyresian, with its music, art, cuisine and philosophy quickly becoming a "fad" in the popular culture of the time. Then, in 2221, the first Pyresian?Human hybrid was born. As a result, the mingling of racial blood came to be seen as a threat the human gene pool itself. The newly-elected Confederate President, Alexander Wayne, had waged a campaign of fear and racial distrust. Citing several examples of routine clashes between humans and Pyresians, Wayne creates a climate of fear and uncertainty to subtly poison the governing counsel on the idea of allowing the respective races to intermingle without supervision. Shortly after taking office, Wayne manufactured an incident that turned popular opinion against the five known alien races, culminating in a deportation of all aliens from Earth territories. Wayne declared a state of emergency and seized total military control over the Agency for Commerce and Exploration of Space. In the years that followed, the five alien races were declared inferior and stripped of all individual rights. Those aliens who refused to knuckle under to the Con-Fed regional governors were declared outlaws.
The planet Erus (were the main story takes place) was first discovered in the Earth year 2217 by renowned stellar explorer, Professor Marcus Wallace. Located in a backwater corner of the universe, the planet had undergone a global upheaval a thousand years before its initial discovery. That cataclysm, resulting from the impact of an asteroid, had released a unique element on the planet's surface. The discovery of that valuable and mysterious element eventually led to Alexander Wayne declaring the planet off limits to al. In order to keep curiosity seekers and privateers from meddling with his plans for Erus, President-For-Life Wayne concocted a brilliant scheme to make the planet undesirable to outsiders. He decreed that Erus was to become a prison planet, a depository for the living refuse of the Confederacy. He created a place, so cruel and inhospitable, that no man in his right mind would ever venture there of his own free will. Thus---the hellhole prison known as Colony was born.
However, the brilliance of President Wayne's plan was that he had also conscripted a massive work force as slave labor for mining the planet. With no chance of parole for the prisoners on Colony, the planet's secret would remain safe from the outside world. Shortly after learning of Wayne's horrifying plans for his discovered world, Prof. Wallace disappeared. It is presumed that he died in hiding somewhere on Erus. Wrongly sentenced to 30 years of hard labor, my lead character, Scott Landus, is set to---THE COLONY. The saga revolves around Landus, whose station in life goes from lowly convict to the leader of an entire planet, whose power will shake the very foundations of the ruling Galactic Confederation. The serialization of the series will begin in June on my website--- www.boblayton.com
RV: Do you read any comics now and did you as a child?
BL: I learned how to read from comics when I was only four years old, I skipped a grade when I entered the school system and wound up graduating High School at barely 17 years old. And, no---I no longer read comics unless someone sends them to me.
RV: You now work in motion pictures and television. Do you find that rewarding?
BL: It is almost as frustrating as working in today's climate in the comics industry. The difference is that you get paid a hell of a lot more for dealing with that frustration. Currently, I'm in the stages of finalizing a movie that has literally taken two years to merely get off the ground. The creative process moves incredibly slow in Hollywood. 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. The new generation of producers in Hollywood are mostly former comic fans. That's one of the main reasons why you see so many comic-to-film projects today. Seeking to recapture the "sense of wonder" they experienced as youngsters, those producers have now become a new creative extension for the medium of comics--taking their favorite icons back to the more accessible roots they remember as a kid.
RV: What future projects are you working on now?
BL: Besides the stuff in Hollywood, I genuinely love doing commission art work. It's a lot less work than doing a monthly, 22 page comic. And occasionally, the fans come up with some great concepts for me to execute. 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. As I mentioned previously, in June, I'll be presenting a new, serialized comic based on one of my original creations, COLONY.
RV: How can someone contact you?
BL: They can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or simply log onto my website (www.boblayton.com) and click on the e-mail button.
RV: Any parting words of wisdom?
BL: At times, life can be a series of successful mistakes.