Honoring Marvel And DC's Greatest Artist - George Pérez
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Artist George Pérez provided me with some of my most treasured comic book experiences. So when the 67-year-old creator shared an announcement this past December that he was diagnosed with stage three pancreatic cancer and given six months to a year to live, I and countless other fans were devastated.
Instead of dwelling on the mortality of my heroes, I decided to write a tribute highlighting some of his best and most noteworthy projects. It was a serious challenge to pick favorites from a body of work that influenced the comic medium and offered significant contributions to the mythologies of characters like the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the Justice League, and the New Teen Titans. I settled on a few choice cuts that will provide a touching trip down memory lane for veteran Pérez fans and a quintessential guide for anybody who wants to experience his comics for the first time.
Before diving into his work, let’s gain some helpful context by asking …
Who Is George Pérez?
As the childhood home of Stan Lee, Will Eisner, and Jules Feiffer, the Bronx was already known as the origin of many comic book industry legends when George Pérez was born there on June 9, 1954. He was raised in a Spanish-speaking household by parents from Caguas, Puerto Rico, so comic books were one of his earliest introductions to the English language. Pérez took inspiration from superhero stories, drawing his earliest comics on brown paper trash bags. After he graduated from high school, the burgeoning comic book convention circuit of the 1960s and '70s introduced him to professionals like artist Rich Buckler, who hired Pérez as an assistant. That gig brought the young artist into contact with editors at Marvel Comics, and a brilliant career was born from there.
His signature style can best be described as “hyperdetailed.” Pérez is known for compositions of panels within panels within panels. He packs these panels with superheroes performing feats of strength set against abstract but meticulously designed backgrounds. Most importantly, though, Pérez loves to draw as many of these characters as possible. In a situation that brings to mind Gary Oldman in The Professional, Pérez’s typical response when asked which characters he wants to draw is, “All of them.” That attitude shows in his art, where he excels at filling pages with multiple, expressive individuals interacting in ways that can be clearly understood even without written language.
His voracious appetite for drawing new, dynamic characters was put to use early in his career when he co-created …
The First Latine Superhero: White Tiger
At Marvel, Pérez’s earliest assignment was on The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. A typical issue of this black and white magazine could feature a Chris Claremont story about Iron Fist, an interview with Chuck Norris, or a review of a recent action film like Sam Peckinpah’s Killer Elite. In the same way that Marvel’s Dracula Lives! was more of a vampire fanzine than a comic book, Deadly Hands was basically a magazine tailor-made for guys who sell nunchucks and vitamin supplements at New Jersey flea markets. With Deadly Hands writer Bill Mantlo, Pérez created the White Tiger, the first Latine superhero.
As the child of Puerto Rican transplants living in New York City, Hector Ayala is clearly inspired by Pérez’s background and upbringing. Pérez’s sleek character design plays a large part in what makes the hero so compelling. White spandex covers the majority of White Tiger’s body. The white suit acts as a canvas for shadows, creating particularly noteworthy effects in the black and white Deadly Hands strip. All of that white against gray and black backgrounds means that the character can be drawn without a black line around his figure, making him appear otherworldly. White Tiger proved to be so popular that his strip went from a backup to the magazine’s lead feature.
Along with his concurrent work on the character Man-Wolf, Pérez mastered the solo hero and was ready to tackle a new challenge …
The Master Of Team Books
Pérez reached new creative heights whenever he drew comics that focused on the adventures of superteams. Surprisingly, these assignments were significantly less desirable among artists at the start of his career. 1970s Marvel had yet to introduce the royalty system in paying freelancers, who received the same page rate whether they drew a comic with one hero or 10. Most artists opted for the easier payday of drawing a comic with one protagonist. Obsessed with putting as many characters as possible on each page, Pérez leapt at the invaluable opportunity to produce work that most artists were unwilling (and probably unable) to match.
While his work on the Avengers began in the '70s, Pérez’s most inspiring run arrived in 1998, when he was hand-selected by fanboy-turned-writer Kurt Busiek to illustrate his Avengers run. Pérez was grappling with a reputation for unfinished projects and saw this Avengers reboot as a means of re-establishing himself as a consistently reliable creative powerhouse.
The artist reinvigorated his career with truly astounding work. When Cracked accepted my pitch for this article, I honestly contemplated sending 50 images from this Avengers run with the caption “LOOK HOW GOOD THIS IS!” and not an article. While my desire to get paid put the kibosh on that idea, it’s indicative of how full of awesomeness these issues are.
The four-part storyline “Ultron Unlimited” is a key point of Pérez’s second stint on the Avengers. The fan-favorite storyline explores the Avengers’ response when killer robot nemesis Ultron invades the eastern European nation of Slorenia, killing all inhabitants in three hours, and clearly inspired the MCU's Age of Ultron.
The real treat in “Ultron Unlimited” is seeing Pérez put his unique stamp on elements of Avengers mythology outside of his previous work. This story features retellings of Ultron’s creation, Hank Pym’s heel turn from Ant-Man to Yellowjacket, and other historic moments. It’s fascinating to watch Pérez select which single visuals are powerful enough to represent stories that lasted one or several issues. This reimagining of history reaches its climax in a double splash page where the Avengers fight dozens of previous Ultron models. As these robots have similar visual elements but have minor design differences between them, the splash presents the type of maddeningly detailed work that Pérez finds fun. And the fact that he’s enjoying himself shows on the page!
Pérez’s success with Fantastic Four and the Avengers in the '70s put him on DC Comics’ radar. He initially made the move to Marvel’s competition because of the lure of becoming the regular artist on Justice League of America. Instead, Pérez agreed to launch a new title for the company.
While the artist took the assignment on New Teen Titans convinced that the title would be canceled, the series became his most prominent achievement at DC and–in my opinion–the best-sustained run of his career.
During his time on the series, Pérez created iconic heroes like Cyborg, Raven, and Starfire, as well as villains like Deathstroke. Pérez draws an array of characters with different genre connections that he delighted in exploring with writer Marv Wolfman: Robin’s gothic detective tales, Cyborg’s entanglements with bleeding-edge technology, Deathstroke’s war stories, Starfire’s galactic adventures, Wonder Girl’s connections with the Greek pantheon, and more.
“The Judas Contract"—a storyline running in New Teen Titans (vol. 1) 42-44 and Annual 3—is the culmination of many threads from the series, including Dick Grayson’s name change from Robin to Nightwing. It also represents Pérez’s single greatest story. The most compelling sequence in a story full of them comes when Dick Grayson enters his apartment to find Deathstroke. Their fight is one of the rare moments when the static comic image succeeds at conveying kinetic motion.
The storyline coincided with Pérez starting to see Carol Flynn, the woman who would become his second wife. As a dancer, she often brought Pérez to live dance performances. Reflecting his newfound appreciation of choreography, Pérez offers images where action progresses clearly from panel to panel. Swoop lines indicating the direction of blows also help guide the eye through this tangle. The following sequence …
… is memorably homaged in the 2017 film adaptation of “The Judas Contract,” and the smooth transition between mediums is a testament to how well-conceived the original comic is.
Like Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men, New Teen Titans became one of its publisher’s best sellers throughout the '80s, but–unlike Chris Claremont and John Byrne–Wolfman and Pérez actually liked each other enough to continue their partnership in the following decades. While the brunt of their collaboration falls in the first 50 issues of New Teen Titans, they worked together on these characters on and off for over 40 years, culminating with 2011’s long-delayed New Teen Titans: Games graphic novel.
Pérez Finally Drew “All Of Them”
Once his legend was fully established, Pérez received three chances to achieve his oft-stated goal of drawing “all of” a company’s heroes.
My fellow Cracked writer Maxwell Yezpitelok recently explored JLA/Avengers, so I won’t go into that again.
Almost two decades before JLA/Avengers, Pérez drew every single DC Comics character in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Wolfman was an editor at DC at this point and pushed for a series like Crisis to reconcile and simplify the company’s continuity encompassing many realities. He turned to his trusted creative partner Pérez to draw the comic and–for the first time–be his co-plotter.
Together, the duo pioneered an art form ubiquitous to modern comics: the company-wide crossover. Crisis allowed Pérez to have a hand in defining the visual language of this new storytelling vehicle. Pages feature an average of seven to eight panels, an economical use of space to fit in all the characters and action involved. Pérez also created the iconography of “crisis” stories in the DC Universe: red skies, multiple Earths hovering in space, fractured “walls” between universes rendered as shattered glass, and more.
While his obligation to the “War of the Gods” crossover at DC would cause him to leave midway through the fourth of six issues, Pérez produced some admirably demented imagery in Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gaunlet. Worth the price of admission alone is a splash page of Thanos wielding the titular gauntlet while surrounded by images of tidal waves attacking Earth and a dinosaur vomiting its own skeleton; I am including screenshots with this article, so you don’t think I’m making this up.
After a significant number of Earth’s heroes are wiped from existence by Thanos’ snap, Pérez still includes a page showing the many heroes who disappeared. In his “all of them” mania, he creates an excuse to draw characters who don’t even play a part in the story. It’s a weird flex, but at least it let me see how Pérez tackles Archangel (still the best X-Man for those following at home.)
With the sheer amount of ideas Pérez contributed to DC and Marvel, you may be surprised to find out that he’s had a few forays into creator-owned comics.
In conjunction with writer Peter David, Pérez drew Sachs & Violens for Epic Comics’ Heavy Hitters line. Sachs & Violens follows softcore model Juanita “J.J.” Sachs and photographer Ernie “Violens” Schultz as they fight porn industry crime and corruption in the early days of Giuliani-era New York City. Finding out that, in addition to drawing some of the greatest comics of all time, Pérez has directed superheroine fetish wrestling videos in the past makes me appreciate Sachs & Violens on another level as an artist exploring the common points of his creative outlets. The overlap is apparent in the fact that David and Pérez steep their story in many visual tropes of superhero comics, including a sequence where the protagonists suit up like vigilantes preparing for nightly patrol.
After briefly publishing the vampire comic Crimson Plague as a partner in the Gorilla Comics imprint, Pérez worked with Boom! Studios from 2014 to 2016 to produce the final series he wrote and illustrated. George Pérez’s Sirens arrived at a time when Pérez’s interior artwork was becoming less frequent due to diabetic retinopathy interfering with his vision. Sirens loses the obsessive detail of Pérez’s previous work, but each page boasts distinctly Pérezian composition. A double-page spread in the first issue boasts so many hallmarks of a Pérez layout that it’s still a pleasure to experience. Seeing his active visual imagination at play behind the structure of each page makes Sirens worth a read for any fan of his work.
Although his failing sight and a 2017 heart attack interfered with his ability to work, fans still saw Pérez as playing an active role in the comics community well beyond his January 2019 retirement. The June 2021 book The Marvel Art of George Pérez reflects this sentiment but does so in a way that–in hindsight–is unfortunately expressed.
In discussing Pérez’s future, author Jess Harrold says, “Longevity runs in his family–his parents are both 89 years old, while he, at time of writing, is just 66. That’s plenty of time to fill–so who knows what the future holds?” While Pérez’s announcement a mere six months later undermined Harrold’s prediction, the sense of the artist’s monumental impact holds true. Comic fans should be grateful that we lived at a time when George Pérez was actively creating, and we should celebrate his life by appreciating his accomplishments. All of them.
Top image: Marvel Comics