The Ultimate Team Player: A look at the career and art of George Pérez
By Robert Greenberger [from Comics Scene Magazine #7, 1983]
Every team has its rookie of the year and its most valuable player but if you were to ask the Teen Titans, Avengers, Fantastic Four and Justice League of America who their ultimate teammate was, the answer would no doubt be George Pérez.
Since he came onto the comics scene in 1973, Pérez has become one of the most popular and influential artists working today. He has helped redefine the way team comics are handled and has brought back some of the energy and excitement missing from the comics since Jack Kirby left the mainstream several years back.
Noted today for his two and a half years on DC’s New Teen Titans, Pérez has been handling almost unbelievable amounts of work including, in just the past year, numerous covers, 12 issues of the Titans, the Titans annual, the four-issue Titans mini-series, character designs, and two 48 page comics for Atari. We caught him in-between jobs and he visited our offices on his way to drop off two Titans and one JLA cover at DC. He was relaxed and happy about his current life and brimming with enthusiasm for what’s coming next.
As the conversation began, he easily went through the struggles to learn his craft without benefit of art courses and his entry into the comics field. But, he said a little later, “The Titans was the thing that resuscitated my career.” To Pérez, it was a lucky break coming after a very turbulent period in his life.
LIFE IN THE BRONX
“Ah yes, the South Bronx,” Pérez began about his early years. “I’ve been drawing since I was five years old. I was not really much for sports and I’ve always had a lot of imagination. I was reading when I was very young, before I went to school. Comics helped, my mother helped me read through the Dick and Jane books. Reading comics was an outlet for me.”
Pérez was immediately drawn to the sheer power of Superman. Curt Swan’s style caught Pérez’s attention and became his first major influence and as Pérez read comics, he kept drawing – his own creations and interpretations of the DC heroes. By his teens, Pérez discovered the Marvel universe and was quickly drawn to Kirby’s work.
Being in Cardinal Hayes Memorial High School, Pérez was deprived of any real art training but continued to develop his work through imitation of already-established styles. “Starting from Swan, I went through a Kirby period and even Steve Ditko – for very briefly, I just loved the way Ditko did hands – then others that followed were Steranko, Neal Adams, Barry Smith, Gil Kane, Mort Drucker and many others. Norman Rockwell, Maxwell Parish, Alfonse Mouka as far as illustrators go. As far as someone whose style totally changed mine, Jim Starlin. I have developed an amalgam of styles,” Pérez said.
It wasn’t until an active fan named Tom Sciacca convinced Pérez to try comic conventions that the idea of working in the field occurred to him. He received his first professional criticism at a Trek convention. Also helping with criticism was Sal Quartuccio, now known for his line of posters and portfolios. “It was Quartuccio,” Pérez explained, “who gave Tom and me our first chance to do our first fanzine.”
In 1973, Pérez joined Rich Buckler as an assistant but the relationship didn’t last long. First, the two styles didn’t mesh terribly well, nor did the personalities, especially with Pérez trying to hold down a Bank Teller’s job. After six months the two stopped working together but by then the people at Marvel were familiar with Pérez and he began to get some solo work. To this day, Pérez refers to a Gulliver Jones story from Monsters Unleashed #8 as his poorest work. Originally, Buckler was to help him Out but he didn’t have time, so Pérez, still pretty much a novice, went solo.
AND THEN CAME MAN-WOLF
“When Marvel got a hole in their schedule – they suddenly had no one to draw a feature that no one wanted to draw anyway – they gave it to me,” Pérez said with a smile. Man- Wolf was running in Creatures on the Loose and selling only marginally, but when Pérez began working with writer David Anthony Kraft, the title’s popularity grew to where it seconded only Tomb of Dracula in sales among the horror titles.
Around that time Pérez was also assigned Sons of the Tiger, another feature few had an interest in. Teaming with then-neowriter Bill Mantlo, the feature became popular, eventually, more popular than Shang Chi himself in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu.
“It was my desire to please and my desire to learn,”Pérez commented, ‘One thing I had going for me,” he added, “was a natural storytelling ability which seemed to transcend most of the flaws in drawing, of which there were many. I just improved very quickly.”
Marvel noticed the young talent’s improvements and found more for him to do which brought him around the offices often. “I was constantly keeping my ears open, and letting go of my ego which was my biggest stumbling block, listening to advice from John Romita and people who have been in the business a long time, of urgency, and I’ve got to respect, and I finally started learning,” Pérez said.
Buckler was the regular Fantastic Four artist at that time and he was unable to do an annual. So Marvel “asked me if I could do it, figuring if I’ve worked with Rich, I’ve got his style – strange reasoning there.” Pérez did the annual and was then given the regular monthly to draw. At the same time he asked for The Avengers, thinking it wasn’t being done right. In just a short time he was doing four features and then a phone call came – The In-humans was given its own title again and the first issue was needed last week and it was Pérez’s assignment.
Something had to give. Pérez gave up Man-Wolf which ended up being the last issue anyway. He had one two-part story left and put it aside, unfinished. Later, Marvel felt they had a use for it and Pérez had to finish the story, two years later. “I had to be careful not to have too drastic a change in art style – constantly looked back at what I had done previously,” he explained.
“It felt great doing all these books but I think it might have been too much for any one person to take on. The work was eventually suffering and my personal life went to pot. The work just occupied too much of my time. Eventually, one book gets dropped and then another book gets dropped and another then you start missing issues. Like many young artists and a number of older artists, you have to be careful not to let the art become the beginning and the end of your life.”
It got so bad for Pérez that people in the industry began to talk. At one party Al Milgrom approached and asked if the rumors were true: that Pérez was quitting comics. Pérez then had to stop and think. “It took a bit of self-evaluation, a divorce regrettably, and a bit of soul searching to get back on an even keel. Truthfully, I believe, and I don’t pass any bad light on Marvel, I had a wonderful time.” But when it came time to renegotiate Pérez’s contract, Marvel chose not to renew and Pérez didn’t argue. He was too unreliable on any of his assigned books to be worth the investment.
ENTER THE NEW TEEN TITANS
Marv Wolfman, who had befriended Pérez while they were at Marvel was at DC in 1979 and Pérez was freelancing. Wolfman asked if Pérez wanted to do anything at DC. “I said the one thing I wanted to do is the Justice League, one crack which I figured was all I would get. He said yes but the one thing he was interested in was a new revival of the Teen Titans. After a few minutes of hearty laughter, I said OK strictly because I wanted to do a JLA story. I didn’t think the Titans had a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding,” Pérez said, laughing.
Pérez thought committing himself to five issues wouldn’t be such a bad thing to do and he’d get his shot at the JLA and that would be that. “I became more into it when I realized that we were designing new characters,” Pérez began, “And Mary, Len and I went into the office and started talking out new characters and asking about my ideas and I started giving them designs. I designed all the characters once each and they were all accepted which was very surprising to me – I hate designing more than once if I can afford it.”
While all the work was proceeding in the Spring of 1980, Dick Dillin, longtime JLA penciller, passed away. Paul Levitz called and offered the pen-ciller’s slot to Pérez who eagerly accepted. For about a year or so he tried to do both titles regularly but had to give up the JLA because of his commitments to the TT but at least he was around for the gala 200th issues.
With the sudden JLA assignment and the idea for the preview issue – inserted into DC Comics Presents #26 – Pérez was falling behind on the schedule, so Curt Swan was asked to do issue five as a fill-in. “It was very surprising,” Pérez remembered, “Curt being one of my earliest influences was trying to copy my style. It had the continuity intact and credit has to go to Romeo Tanghal who inked that and corrected any of the inconsistencies that Curt may have had.”
As the work progressed, both Wolfman and Pérez realized the title was going to be something special. Pérez explained it as being “almost like the sense of family they have developed into. There was a lot of friction between them, which I guess is natural since they were all strangers. Issue eight was the turning point, where everyone has a nice little story, a social life as well. Starfire took hold, giving her the role of a model.”
Pérez stopped to laugh and then admitted that Starfire was created as the group’s sex symbol. “When the book developed a fan following and we knew the characters meant something to these people. We knew Starfire couldn’t just remain a bubblehead, she has to have a character of her own which Marv developed wonderfully.”
As fans may have noticed, Pérez has a fondness for drawing women. As he puts it, he enjoys drawing “healthy” women, but over the years he has refined his drawing style and “the women have thinned out finally, because they were too thunder-thighed in the beginning. Starfire is the most zaftig of the group. Wonder Girl is very attractive, she has a starlet’s figure; she is perfectly assembled. I find her the most alluring, most satisfying woman in the lot. She is the one Titan I would most like to meet.
“Raven has developed, recently, a dancer’s body in which her breasts have gotten smaller. I gave Raven a body based on a young lady, Fran McGregor, who’s built with a very attractive dancer’s body. She goes to the same school as my wife, Carol.
“Lately I have been making the characters look more like people I’m basing them on. Changeling, for example, has become Mickey Rooney; his face is very young now.”
The Titans, being the longest series Pérez has worked on, has proven to be a pure joy to work on. He finds himself refusing other work so it wouldn’t interfere With the Titans and admitted to feeling a little odd when seeing this summer’s X-Men I Teen Titans crossover, illustrated by Walt Simonson and Terry Austin. At least he’ll get his turn next year when DC produces a return match-up with Wolfman and Pérez doing the story. Since Marvel printed the story in their new 48 page, Baxter package, Pérez would like to go that one better by going for full-process color on the interiors, allowing for a greater diversity in the colors available.
“I’m glad they gave me warning about full-process covers on the annuals,” Pérez said. “A lot of artists had already done their line drawings without illustrating it for full-process color. When they told me, I said ‘All right, I’m going to color it myself so then I can draw everything four-color.’ They were afraid that it would not reproduce, they feared my cover the most, but they then said it was probably the best annual cover they had. It reproduced exactly the way I thought it would.”
IMPROVING THE ART
With a smile, Pérez paused a moment in thought and then continued, “My entire career has been based on hit and miss, since I’ve never been trained at anything. I’m learning as I go along. When I started inking, I was using markers and now I’ve gotten into quills and rapidographs which I’m comfortable with, because my hand is too unsteady with a brush. Despite my fine detail, I can’t control a brush that well, I like to feel the paper give. I’m going to learn coloring and painting the same way. Lately I have been doing more half-painting/half-line work like when Neal Adams started painting. I did that for the Titans annual and I just did two T-shirts for Atari that was line work and a lot of color, particularly one which was all gray stonework, so I had to use six different shades of gray and mix it in with brown, so I’ve been experimenting with more mixed media.”
Pérez has been using his Titans and JLA cover assignments as an opportunity to develop his inking and get the fine work he feels essential to his true art style. Given a choice, Pérez would prefer to be inked by Terry Austin whose style is very compatible to Pérez’s, “with all respect to Romeo, and I love Dick Giordano’s inks on my material and Terry, who’s only inked me once. I’m more into a fine chiseled look than the brush-look. Romeo has a style which is right for the Titans and he’s the most conscientious of inkers. When I went to full pencils recently, most of the reservations I had about Romeo had disappeared.”
All along, Pérez had been doing only breakdowns on his work but what was a breakdown to Pérez was finished work to most pencillers. With these breakdowns, Tanghal felt free to interpret Pérez’s work and at first this led to some problems. Being a relatively new inker, Tanghal wasn’t as adept at putting in backgrounds or adding the details that Pérez felt tantamount to the finished look of the series. When
Pérez mentioned his reservations to Managing Editor Dick Giordano, Tanghal sat down with Giordano and went over the problems.
“I’m now teaching him to use overlays,” Pérez added. “The one thing I wish he would use are zip-a-tones but there are two things wrong with that: it takes a lot of explaining to show how to use zip-a-tone and an artist pays for it himself, the man does have a family and I have to consider that fact.
“But when I do full pencils, I control Romeo and I get Romeo at his best, and his best is considerable. Now, I’m really happy with the way the book looks.” And as for his full pencils, they are very tight, very dark pencils that are reproducible. Giordano has commented to Pérez that the book is looking cleaner and better than ever since the changeover, allowing Pérez more total control on the art.
As much as Pérez loves drawing the other DC heroes, including boyhood favorite Green Lantern, he just doesn’t have time for a second series. “In the next year I have six issues of History of the DC Universe [to be written by Wolfman and Len Wein, tying together the frayed DC continuity], the JLA/Avengers crossover for next summer. I just received the word that
Gerry Conway is scheduled to script it and DC is doing another Titans IX-Men team-up. I have two more issues of Swordquest to do for Atari and those will be inked by Dick Giordano and Mike DeCarlo. And I’m doing work on the anniversary issue of Action Comics, with Cary Bates. That in addition to the annual scheduled for next summer and the 12 issues of the Titans.
“The Graphic Novel we were talking about doing was originally scheduled for Christmas 1983 but with the crossover scheduled for then, I am asking that the novel be pushed back at least six months. They said fine and may wait until the Christmas of 1984. Mary won’t write it if I can’t draw it – he doesn’t want the Titans! team broken up for something that big.” In fact, Pérez is very pleased with the team spirit the creators have found with the book. Not only have inker Tanghal and Wolfman pledged to stay on the book but colorist Adrienne Roy has stuck with the book from the start.
Pérez says he isn’t planning on retiring from the Titans until he breaks the longest run on record. Depending on who you ask, the record is 102 uninterrupted issues of Fantastic Four pencil-led by Jack Kirby or 120 of JLA by Dick Dillin with a small handful of reprints and one George Tuska fill-in. And with DC’s royalty plan, the incentive to stay with the book is strong. They have helped finance a house his wife Carol and he are planning to buy next year. They are considering a move to Virginia, a place they fell in love with while on vacation. Pérez also takes pride in being part of the DC’s resurgence of strength.
“DC’s whole reputation has turned around because of the Titans,” Pérez pointed out. “When the first issue came out, it only sold about 35,000 in the direct market and now it’s about 130,000. When both Night Force and Firestorm came out with their first issues., they were in the 90,000 range… something that DC would never have done before the Titans. We are very, very proud of what we have done.”
Finally, Pérez commented that it is now very lucrative to stay in comics, something untrue as recently as two years ago. “Mostly because we had faith that someone was thinking about us. Someone like Jim Shooter at Marvel and Paul Levitz was working at DC with Jeanette Kahn to make things fairer. And by sticking to our guns and proving we were valuable – before there were royalties – we got a very, very high Christmas bonus, Marv and I got the highest bonus in the company. We still enjoy working, if not more, and the financial incentive has allowed for new ideas to come out more freely. I love being in the business.”
Such devotion has helped spark new ideas for titles and new characters such as Terra, the first new Titan to join since the book premiered in 1980. Wolfman and Pérez have also created a new character named Vigilante who is tentatively set to premiere in the second Titans annual and is described as Death Wish-in-tights. The character is slated to get his own series, which Wolfman will write, if they can find the right artist. So far, Ed Hannigan, Trevor Von Eeden and Kerry Gammill have all had to pass it up.
But for Pérez, life goes on very happily. With his incredible speed of some 20-25 pages a week, he is working at full tilt and still taking time to enjoy life with his new wife Carol and experiment with his art. There’s no doubt that in the coming years George Pérez will rank among the major comics creators of recent memory. With his blending of strength and grace, he has carved a niche for himself in the hearts of comics fans and has earned the admiration of his coworkers.
Not a bad way for a kid from the South Bronx to end up.
Bill Walko is an author and artist and the man behind titanstower.com. He's been reading and drawing comics since he was 5 years old and hasn't stopped since.