Marvel legend Bob Layton was in Dubai over the weekend for Comic Con, and he was full of praise for Saudi Arabia’s choice of movie to usher the era of cinema back into the kingdom after a break of over 35 years since cinemas were closed down.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” the writer and artist states. “It’s a wonderful, multi-cultural movie to open with for a country that wants to move forward. It had real cultural significance.”
We don't know yet what effect Black Panther may have on Saudi audiences when it screens in Riyadh on April 18, but Layton is in no doubt of the positive effect it has already had on American society.
"You see little white kids across America now in Black Panther costumes, and that's when the race barrier starts to crumble in the face of that," he said. "All my grandkids took pictures of themselves doing the Black Panther salute. Obviously, we have a race problem in the US, and these things always start to change first through popular culture. The media has a lot to do with getting people to wake up and join the 21st century, and I hope it's the start of something great for the people of both America and Saudi Arabia."
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Layton isn’t exactly a household name outside of comic book circles, so you may reasonably ask what qualifies him to comment. The simple answer would be: he’s the man who sparked the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In 1978, aspiring comic book writer and artist Layton, along with his collaborator David Michelinie, were drafted in to finish off the final few issues of a struggling Marvel title that was due for cancellation. That title was Iron Man.
Layton takes up the story: “In those days, with the Mafia running distribution for comics, if you had a contract for distribution of 12 issues, you weren’t getting out of it. So if a title was struggling, the publishers would take the writer off it and bring in some of the young talent, just as a try out, until they could put the title to bed.”
Iron Man, as it turned out, was not ready for bed just yet, thanks entirely to Layton and Michelinie’s intervention.
"I always hated Iron Man as a kid," Layton said. "People forget that Stan [Lee, creator of many of Marvel's most popular characters] didn't write Iron Man. He came up with the idea and gave it his brother Larry, and Larry had Iron Man fighting giant 30-foot robots made by aliens that looked like cavemen. It just made no sense."
With a few key changes in mind, Layton felt could revitalise the comic. Primarily, he felt the story should be about the man inside the suit, Tony Stark, rather than an unrealistic metal warrior. "To me, Tony Stark was way cooler than Iron Man. He was an attainable goal. He was a rock star. As a teenage kid, that was what you'd look up to, not Iron Man."
With nothing to lose on a doomed title, Marvel gave Layton the green light to make his amendments.
“I asked if I could change a few things and they were ‘we don’t care, we’re cancelling it anyway.’ So we changed the whole emphasis of the book. It became about Tony Stark, and the technology became real, I started drawing it like it was real armour and the rest is history.”
Iron Man went on to be one of Marvel's biggest successes, and Layton says it's no coincidence that the character was used for the very first Marvel Cinematic Universe adaptation.
"If you go into [Marvel Studios founder] David Maisel's office, it looks like the Bob Layton museum. My artwork's everywhere," he said. "We were at Wonder Con together a while ago and he paid $40,000 for one of my covers. The guys nuts, but he said to me 'Iron Man was the first thing we did because to me your Iron Man was what my childhood was about and what made Marvel Comics what they are. That was always the movie I wanted to make first. The movie that would resonate with the public most'."
Layton is clearly flattered by the statement, but he also understands its logic.
"He's right. If you look at all the Marvel characters, Iron Man is the one that's easiest to believe," he said. "As long as you believe in the technology, that's it. It's not like he was bitten by a radioactive water buffalo. You buy the technology and it's just a story about a man who learns from his mistakes and turns over a new leaf. I still think it's the best comic to film adaptation ever done, in my humble opinion."
Layton believes that making characters believable is where some of Marvel’s rivals have failed in creating their own cinematic universes.
"When you look at all the films Marvel has created, they're still very much in the same spirit as those characters we created," he said. "This [DC] Justice League is not the Justice League I remember. The thing that resonates is the original characters. Green Lantern is a prime example too. If you have 500 Green Lanterns and the one you decide to focus on is a boob who can't do anything right, it just dilutes the character."
Layton is even more scathing about Universal's efforts to rebrand its classic monster movies as a new universe: "What resonates in the parents' minds who are going to take their kids to those movies is Lon Cheney and Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. They've gone so far away from that," he said. "Sofia Boutella playing The Mummy? She's great but she's nowhere near Boris Karloff. It's a disaster. I've nothing against making the villain female - Marvel has done that with Ant-Man and The Wasp.
"The villain is The Ghost, actually one of my characters from Iron Man. They’ve made her female, but it’s the same character, they just happen to have made her female. It’s not going to change anything – gender has nothing to do with it. But retain the spirit of the original if you want it to work.”
Despite his criticisms of other cinematic efforts, it’s in the field of creating strong female characters that he has some praise for Marvel’s arch rivals, DC.
“For the first time in my memory, Wonder Woman actually resonates with the general public in a way she never has. My 10-year-old granddaughter gets to grow up with a female superhero role model which previous generations never had and that’s great. It gives me real hope for the future.”