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'Iron Man' writer wants to energize Florida's film industry

Bob Layton is an artist, writer and editor, noted for his work on Marvel Comics titles like Iron Man and Hercules. An Indiana native and longtime New Yorker, he now lives in Brandon and works in downtown Tampa.
Published Oct. 9, 2016

TAMPA — First he helped turn Iron Man into a pop culture sensation.

Now he hopes to energize Florida's fledgling film industry by infusing it with productions based on new characters he is creating.

And he's doing it from Tampa.

He is Bob Layton, and if you only know Iron Man from the blockbuster films starring Robert Downey Jr., you might not recognize the name.

But die-hard comic book fans idolize Layton for more than 5,000 writing and illustration credits that include some the industry's most beloved characters.

Among his works is the groundbreaking Demon in a Bottle. Penned in 1979, this nine-part Iron Man comic book series focused on the battle with alcoholism waged by Tony Stark/Iron Man, which for the first time humanized the character in the superhero armor.

This became the version of Tony Stark portrayed in the films.

"I never wanted to be Iron Man," said Layton, 63. "I always wanted to be Tony Stark. I wanted girls and cars and nice clothes and to be the smartest man in the room."

With a jovial cackle that almost tips him from his chair, he adds, "At least I ended up with nice clothes."

Tony Stark plans his super deeds from the fictional Stark Towers in New York. For his headquarters, Layton uses a 17th floor suite in downtown Tampa's Bank of America building, occupied by the Tampa Hillsborough Film and Digital Media Commission.

There, he's creating new characters and worlds and stories for movies, television shows and web series he will produce.

But unlike Tony Stark, who can never stop blabbing, the Indiana native and longtime New Yorker is coy about details.

"Teenage dramas to high concept sci-fi" is all he would say.

"I like to have a fantasy element to a lot of what I do, but I won't be doing something like The Avengers. We don't need another Avengers. We need something original."

One thing that's different: He'd like to film it all in Florida so he can remain close to his home in Brandon, where he moved in April after a decade in Hollywood.

"Here we have so many advantages," he said. "Great weather, great locations, no state taxes. And yet very few major productions are coming here."

The main reason productions stay away is because Florida offers no tax incentive for films or television series, as do nearby Louisiana and Georgia.

Tax incentives are why Ben Affleck chose to recreate Ybor City in Brunswick, Ga., rather than use the authentic locale for his film Live by Night, about the rise of a petty Boston crook's rise to powerful rum runner in Tampa's Latin district during the 1920s.

Florida used to have these incentives, but for four straight years the Legislature has declined to provide more.

Layton hopes the prospect of making Florida a home base for his productions can persuade officials to change their minds.

Or, as producer, maybe he can lobby his production investors to let him film in Florida without incentives.

If that all fails and the movies are made elsewhere, the productions will still help the state, said Agnes Lee, managing director with CEA Group, a Tampa-based investment firm with a focus on entertainment.

As Layton's Tampa-based company grows, it will need more artists, writers, marketers, creators of merchandise and others to come up with and support new creations.

"I propose we build a pipeline of content here," said Lee, whose company working with Layton. "These states that attract productions are not originators of content. They are just the service provider, where they go to shoot the film. Let's make Florida a production base for content providers."

Creative content is Layton's specialty

He also wrote stories and drew for The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Hercules and Ant-Man before founding his own comic book company, Valiant. Valiant created Ninjak, now set for a web series, and X-O Manowar and Bloodshot, both optioned for live action adaptations.

Layton, however, is not directly involved with those productions because he retired from Valiant in 1995.

That's when he moved to Brandon for the first time. He stayed until 2007, when production began on the Iron Man movies and he left for Hollywood to work as a consultant on the blockbusters and as a writer for animated comic series such as X-Men, Spider-Man and, of course, Iron Man.

A year ago, Layton and Lee met at the New York Comic Con. They stayed in touch and — convinced Layton could help revitalize the state's film industry — Lee urged him to return to the Tampa area.

The chance to live closer to his daughter and grandchildren helped win him over.

The film commission agreed to serve as an incubator for his initiative.

"When you are offered an opportunity to help a brilliant creator such as Bob," film commissioner Dale Gordon said, "and in an effort that may ultimately lead to the creation of jobs and economic impact for Hillsborough County, you say yes."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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