From the South Bronx to Teen Titans GO!: The Career of George Pérez

On Sunday at 1PM, the Comics and Pop Art track aired Van Allen Plexico’s virtual interview, aptly titled “The Life & Works of George Pérez,” with legendary comics artist George Pérez. When they recorded the conversation, Pérez had recently finishing doing voiceover work for an episode of Teen Titans GO! that featured him and fellow Titans creator Marv Wolfman. Although Pérez found doing the recordings alone at his home a strange experience, he was pleased with the way the episode turned out and enjoyed his name on the voice credits with those of the regular cast.

Plexico asked how Pérez decided he wanted to be a comic book artist. Pérez replied that he made that choice at the age of 5 and never wanted to be anything else. He was “mesmerized” by comics as a child. Reading them helped him learn English. Inspired by the art, he sketched on any paper he could find, including torn grocery bags.

He loved all kinds of comics, including superheroes, strange science fiction, and westerns, but gravitated to superheroes. The first hero whose adventures he read was Batman. Connecting to Superman took him a bit longer. He loved reading and was caught up in the colorful art. Comics offered an escape from the violence and the gangs emerging in his South Bronx neighborhood. He never thought of being on television, another refuge, but he figured he could draw.

Asked about his artistic inspiration, he said he didn’t know who some of those early artists were because few comics at the time had credits. Later, Marvel made them common. He loved Curt Swan, whose portrayal of Superman Pérez considers definitive and whose Legion of Super-Heroes captivated him. He enjoyed Swan’s “realistic, quiet style.” Considering Marvel, he said liked Jack Kirby’s art. He considers Kirby and Swan his inspirations.

Pérez’s high school had no art department, and he never went to art school, so he had no formal training. He started attending conventions with a friend and eventually found the courage to build a portfolio and show it to artists at the conventions. These were his first critiques, some of which were quite harsh but taught him things he needed to know. He sometimes took the criticism personally but realized that if he wanted to be paid to draw, he had to meet a certain standard. So he set his ego aside and learned. At age 66, he’s still trying to learn.

Plexico asked where Pérez started in comics. Pérez cited some fanzines and work with SQ Productions and some friends but said he landed his first job in comics because of artist Rich Buckler. Buckler needed an assistant and remembered Pérez from conventions. Buckler called to offer him a job. Then working as a bank teller, Pérez jumped at the opportunity. He was little more than a gopher but was learning the creative process.

When Buckler was working on Deathlok for Marvel, he gave Pérez an opportunity to do a two-page cartoon about Buckler and Doug Moench creating Deathlok. Gradually, other opportunities came Pérez’s way. He said that even though his art was then weak, he was thought to have a sense of storytelling, so people kept working with him. On books like Man-Wolf and Son of the Tiger, books that were such low sellers that the creative team had nothing to lose, he honed his skill.

Plexico pointed out that some of Pérez’s best known work was on Marvel’s The Avengers, where he had two long, epic runs and produced definitive depictions of the characters. He asked Pérez how he came to draw the book. Pérez observed that many artists don’t like drawing the Avengers or other large teams because there are so many characters. In those days, compensation was a flat page rate with no royalties. Pérez had drawn The Fantastic Four, so when George Tuska, the artist on The Avengers, went on vacation, Pérez was asked to fill in. Tuska returned from vacation and was happy to let Pérez take over the book.

In the early stages Pérez tried to depict the Avengers as the characters he knew when he was growing up. Rather than make them uniquely his, he drew them as he remembered them but in his own style. He took his tone from his favorite Avengers artist, Sal Buscema, with a bit of Neil Adams. The characters were big, muscular, and larger than life but with the realistic style of Swan. Pérez noted that George Klein inked for both Swan and Buscema, which might account for similarities in their styles.

Avengers team members Captain America, Hawkeye, and Ant Man are all blond men. To make them distinctive, to show them as more than mannequins in costumes, Pérez tried to give each a distinctive face. “If I draw them all alike,” he said, “I’m not paying attention to them.”

Plexico asked how Pérez shifted to working on DC’s The New Teen Titans. Pérez said he got a call from Marv Wolfman, who was working with editor Len Wein to revive the Teen Titans with a contemporary edge and less silly humor. Wolfman asked Pérez to do the art on the book.  Wanting to draw the Justice League, Pérez saw this offer as a way to manage that. He agreed to work on the Titans book if he got to do at least one issue of the Justice League at some point. He didn’t think the Titans book would last six issues but figured he would then have a foot in the door at DC.

Publisher Jenette Kahn and DC’s marketing team decided to launch The New Teen Titans by including a comic within another comic at no extra cost, so they published it inside DC Comics Presents #16. The reaction was “phenomenal.” It was the first book Pérez had worked on from the ground up. Within six months, with the book still doing extremely well, he was captivated by it.

Sometime later, the artist on the Justice League’s book died, and Perez accepted the assignment. He was also still on The Avengers. He soon realized he couldn’t manage all three titles and still continue to improve a an artist. Because he had been on The Avengers the longest, he gave up that title. The success of the Titans book depended on him and Wolfman, so he remained dedicated to that.

When Plexico asked how Pérez came to work on Crisis on Infinite Earths, Pérez said he thought the series was ideal for him and lobbied for the assignment. He had just left the Titans because he wanted a new challenge. With the deadlines hard to meet, he was taking shortcuts and not producing his best work. Jose Luis Garcia Lopez had done a great job filling in for him on that book, and Pérez realized he could be replaced. When Pérez joined the Crisis team, the project didn’t have a title. Crisis on Infinite Earths was his suggestion.

Pérez found working on the series a joy and a challenge. He was working on Who’s Who in the DC Universe at the time, so he placed characters who hadn’t been mentioned by the writer, Wolfman, in the background of scenes. He and Wolfman co-plotted the series as they had The New Teen Titans. The series added the phrases “pre Crisis” and “post Crisis” to the DC lexicon. Pérez described himself and Wolfman as the gate dividing the two eras.

Plexico asked Pérez if there was a character he had never worked on but would like to try. Pérez answered that he had never written a Batman story. He did covers and other Batman material, but never a story. He had an idea for one called “Scars.” In it, Nightwing comes into the morgue because of a John Doe he knows is Bruce Wayne, Batman. Nightwing traces what happened to his mentor via the scars the body bears, especially the newest one.

Pérez declined to name his favorite character to draw. That, he said, would be like choosing among his children. One character is his favorite at one point, but another takes that slot later. He also couldn’t say what makes his art different from that of other artist. Saying that he loved what he did, he acknowledged that people liked his sense of detail and his use of numerous characters in crowds. He always wanted to be worth what he was paid, to provide “more bang for the buck.” He seemed proud that when people saw the detail in his work, they said, “this guy must really love what he does.”

Pérez concluded by noting that he was grateful for his career and had enjoyed a great run. Although it ended because of physical restrictions, he said, “I have no regrets.”

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.