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GIFF 2017 Interview: Bob Layton explains why “we can’t just maintain the status quo”

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Comic book writers, pencillers, inkers, and colourists all hone their craft with one ultimate goal: to leave a lasting impact on their beloved industry. Talented people spend their careers hoping to create an iconic series, memorable storyline, or character-defining run worthy of comic book immortality. Comic book writer, artist, and editor-in-chief Bob Layton has achieved these feats several times over.

With over 5000 comic book credits to his name, Layton has left an indelible mark on the industry. Layton’s official website lists him as a “Creator, writer, artist, designer, and entrepreneur,” and that description is overly modest. In the late 70’s, Layton redefined Iron Man comics when he crafted the iconic “Demon in a Bottle” storyline. Layton continued solidifying his legacy; he produced a classic Hercules miniseries, designed Marvel’s Secret Wars toy line, created the X-Men spinoff series, X-Factor, and launched Valiant Comics.

Marvel's Secret Wars -Heroes

Marvel’s Secret Wars -Heroes

Layton currently works in Hollywood, where he channels his creative energy into an industry known for its lack of creativity. He recently attended the Gasparilla International Film Festival to conduct a panel discussion on “the art of pitching.” Given the subject matter, Layton’s storied career, boundless charisma, and steely-eyed candour make him an ideal panelist .

The day before Layton’s GIFF panel, he took the time to sit down with Sordid Cinema for an interview. As we spoke, both on and off the record, nothing came through more than his love of storytelling and his desire to help Florida’s film industry grow. The following are excerpts from our hour-long conversation where Layton discusses his inspirations, Tony Stark versus Bruce Wayne, and the secret ingredient to successful superhero movies:

Layton on attending his first Gasparilla International Film Festival:

So this is my very first Gasparilla Film Festival, it’s been amazing. The opening night was fantastic. Jordan Roberts’ film Burn Your Maps was brilliant. I mean, just heart-warming and funny and tragic. A brilliant film. I even posted on social media that people should get off their asses and go see it.

I don’t know what sort of distribution it’s going to get, so anyone reading this article, I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s what movies are all about. It’s what we were talking about before starting the interview. About character drives story. That’s a perfect example of it.

Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were a huge influence on Layton’s work, but movies also played a large role. Layton stated that he “thinks cinematically when it comes to comics”:

I grew up with the 50’s science fiction movies. The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Incredible Shrinking Man; what was interesting about those – and you go back and watch them and I’m sure you have — The Thing from Another World  they had really crappy special effects.

So what did they do to compensate for that? They created character-driven stories, powerful messages, character-driven stuff that kept you intrigued even though everything looked fake. They knew that though. They had to create stories that would drive that stuff because they didn’t have the technology to create the rollercoaster ride we get today with CGI. That was the biggest influence on me as a storyteller as a kid, outside of comics.

The Thing from Another World - 1951

The Thing from Another World – 1951

Layton cites Kubrick’s work as a major influence. Specifically, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket:

As a cartoonist, it was bringing that sort of cinematic feel to comics. I mean, there are restrictions, because film and comics aren’t the same thing. People confuse that. You go, “Oh well, it’s movies in still form.” No, it’s not at all. I learned that in Hollywood when I started working with things that moved.

Comics have no time constraint. I can tell an epic that takes over 50-years in 22-pages. You can’t necessarily do that in a movie and do it right. But yet, in a movie you have room for nuance, something that comics don’t have, because you have 22-pages, 150-words a page. You have to basically tell War and Peace in 22-pages at 150 words a page.

On the subject of repetitive comic book movie stories, Layton said he doesn’t ever want to see Uncle Ben or Bruce Wayne’s parents gunned down again. He believes that the movies will become more sophisticated and mature as the audience does:

The moviegoing audience for superheroes are not comic book readers necessarily. There’s not enough comic readers to fill the asses in the seats that’s mass-market. What Hollywood has done successfully is tailor those properties for a wider consumption, something comics have not been able to do for the last two decades.

I grew up reading Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby Gene Colon, John Romita – the early original Marvel stuff. As interesting as all of it was, the generations grow up. The audience that started reading Marvel comics, they got older and when my generation came in. My generation was me, John Byrne and Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Walt Simonson. What we did was we redefined those characters for a new generation. That’s why my Tony Stark is entirely different than ever before. I said “No teenage boy thinks of Iron Man as being a reasonable thing they can achieve, but they could all possibly be Tony Stark.” I said “Why isn’t this guy a rock star?”

I went in revamping it because I felt like the emphasis had always been wrong. The emphasis had always been getting him in the suit, fight superheroes, he’s a millionaire so he just pays for this shit. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the character, it’s about Tony. Get into the guy wearing the suit and the fact that he had the coolest lifestyle of anybody in the world.

Iron Man - Demon in a Bottle

Iron Man – Demon in a Bottle

They always make these analogies between Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. Bruce Wayne is a secret identity, he’s really Batman. From the time his parents are shot down, he’s Batman. He pretends to be Bruce Wayne. Tony Stark is Tony Stark, man. No doubt about it. Iron Man is just another toy in his collection. That was kind of the difference. That’s what drives him, because he’s a real person, he’s a real character.

Layton believes the reason certain comic book movies don’t work is because they are not rooted in character:

In a good story, characters will evolve naturally from the resolution of their internal conflict. Iron Man is a prime example. Is Tony Stark the same guy at the end of the movie as he was in the beginning? No, the resolution to his personal conflict changed him forever. He had an epiphany and he is a very different man at the end of the movie than he was in the beginning.

We can’t just maintain the status quo. We have to think about the audience is growing, the characters have to grow with the audience, it’s very important. Marvel has done a fairly decent job all the way around with most of their films.

I thought Ant-Man – I got a personal stake in that – but I thought Ant-Man was a return to character-driven stories for them, something they had lost sight of a little bit. Ant-Man was totally character-driven. We cared about Scott Lang, we cared about Cassie, we cared about his little cohorts, we cared about Hank Pym, because it was driven by character and not just by situation.

Ant-Man - Scott and Cassie

Ant-Man – Scott and Cassie

Layton came back to Florida with the goal of bringing more film interest into the state:

Two of the best film colleges on the east coast are here in Florida, and they lose every single one of those kids to California. They all graduate and they go. It seems insane to me that the next generation of craftsman and writers and DPs and all that stuff, they all go away.

It doesn’t make any sense. The weather is good here 80% of the time. Atlanta has done amazing things there, Louisiana, places where they’ve opened it up to film. I’m gonna work with these guys and the other commissions around her and do what I can here to try and bring a more robust film industry to the state of Florida.

Since Layton was at GIFF for an industry panel on pitching, it seemed appropriate to ask him if he could pitch local filmmakers to stay close to home.

Just hang in there, let me see what I can get done. I will hire you if I can get this accomplished. I have a lot of backing from venture capital and from the commissions here. We need to talk to the people in the state house, we need to get them behind us.

Hopefully, if we can get something accomplished, I can start luring my friends from Hollywood out here and get some bigger productions done. That would bring jobs to the state and recognition to the state and I could stay here and still visit my grandchildren and not have to live in Hollywood.

Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based pop culture writer and film critic who enjoys covering the city's biggest (and nerdiest) events. Victor has covered TIFF, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada for publications all over the internet. You can find his latest posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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