TAMPA — Wherever he travels nowadays, Bob Layton says, everyone seems to know Iron Man, Ant-Man and War Machine, the comic book superheroes he popularized in the 1970s who are now stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Especially Iron Man,” said Layton, a comic book writer and illustrator. “Iron Man is now part of our lexicon.”
But no one recognizes Layton himself, he said. “That’s how I like it. I don’t want to be a celebrity.”
Hillsborough County officials believe he should be treated like one.
“His impact on comics is legendary,” said Hillsborough County film commissioner Tyler Martinolich. “And he’s made Tampa home for a long time now. His accomplishments should be recognized.”
So, the first week of August will be “Bob Layton Week” in Hillsborough County, Martinolich said. “There will be a series of events to honor his work.”
It begins at 6 p.m. Monday with an art show at the Scarfone Hartley Gallery at University of Tampa. Free to attend, the gallery will house an exhibit of some of Layton’s work on the “Iron Man” comic plus works by local artist Ales Bask Hostomsky, whose paintings were used as decor in Iron Man’s home and offices throughout the films.
That exhibit runs through Thursday.
Then, also on Thursday, Tampa Theatre will screen “Iron Man” at 6 p.m. Layton will be in attendance to answer audience questions.
The Hillsborough County Commission will also present Layton with a commendation.
“His collaboration in reinvigorating Iron Man and his co-creation of the second version of Ant-Man served as the foundation for their film counterparts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, further enhancing the franchise’s legacy in the annuls of motion picture history,” the commendation reads.
“This is all humbling,” said Layton, 68, an Indiana native who has lived in Tampa since 1995. “I’m not anything special. I’m just some guy.”
Layton’s characters resonated because he reminded readers that superheroes can be just some guy.
Iron Man was a fledgling character when Layton was hired to reboot the story in 1979.
He and writer David Michelinie penned “Demon in a Bottle,” a nine-part comic book series focused on the battle with alcoholism waged by Tony Stark, the man who invented and wears the Iron Man armor. That, for the first time, humanized the person inside the armor and is the version of the hero depicted in the movies.
“Up to that point, Tony Stark was just a cipher,” Layton said. “He was just some billionaire who had all this money so he could go be Iron Man. They were missing the mark. I thought the guy should be like Mick Jagger when he walked into a room. But I thought he should also be the tortured King Arthur who sat on the throne of his empire. And he creates The Avengers as his Knights of the Round Table.”
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He also needed a friend.
“Tony Stark didn’t have any,” Layton laughed. “What billionaire doesn’t have any friends.”
So, Layton and Michelinie created Stark’s best friend James Rhodes, known as War Machine when he dons superhero armor of his own.
“There is a funny story to how he got his name,” Layton said.
He was driving in New York when he spotted a sign for the company James Rhodes Tool & Die Design.
“That company is no longer there, but the name lives on,” Layton said.
Iron Man’s humanity, Layton said, made him the perfect superhero to kick off the MCU in 2008.
“Tony Stark is a believable guy,” he said. “All you have to accept is that the technology works and the whole film works. It doesn’t stretch credibility. And when you are trying to develop an audience, you don’t want to go too far out there right away. Start with a relatable guy and build up to flight of fancy stories like ‘Dr. Strange’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’”
Relatable is how Layton also described his version of Ant-Man.
Hank Pym, a genius scientist, originally wore the Ant-Man superhero suit that can shrink a person.
Layton and Michelinie created Scott Lang in the comic in 1979 and gave him the suit.
“We made him a single father,” Layton said. “He needed a hook, like how Spider-Man is actually a teenager with teenage problems.”
Pym is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and credited in the story as the creator of the Ant-Man technology, but Lang is Ant-Man.
Layton’s work will continue to impact the films.
Iron Man is dead, but Lang’s Ant-Man remains a key character. “Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania,” to be released in February, will introduce Kang, the next big bad.
Next year, Layton and Michelinie’s seven-issue “Armor Wars” comic spanning 1987 and 1988 and about Iron Man technology falling into the wrong hands, will be released as a Disney+ series. The original story will be tweaked so that it is War Machine instead of Iron Man seeking to recover the stolen weaponry.
And, just as the 2019 blockbuster “End Game” concluded a 22-movie story arc told over 11 years, “Secret Wars” will do so in 2025 for the long-term story currently being told. Released in 1984 and 1985 and illustrated by Layton, “Secret Wars” is a 12-part comic series about superheroes and villains transported by a mysterious being to another planet to fight to the death.
Layton left Marvel to cofound Valiant Comics in the late 1980s and then retired from that company in 1995.
Today, Layton is seeking to launch film projects through his Box Monkey Pictures production company.
Still, he appreciates that audiences continue to enjoy characters and stories he wrote and illustrated decades ago.
David Maisel, the founder of Marvel Studios, “once told me that there would be no Marvel Universe if it wasn’t for his love of my work,” Layton said. “That is the highest compliment I have ever gotten in my life.”
If you go
“Iron Man” screening with Bob Layton
When: 6 p.m. on Aug. 4
Where: Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St. in Tampa
Tickets: Admission to the movie is free but an RSVP is required through tampatheatre.org.