Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wonder Wednesday - Creator Appreciation - George Perez

Following the death of Dwayne McDuffie, Newsarama ran a feature that urged fans to express their appreciation of favorite creators while they were still alive. Great idea! Today, I am going to honor an illustrator whose work just blows my mind, George Perez. In my opinion, he is the absolute most talented illustrator to EVER work in comics!
Perez began his career in the early 1970s. His first major company work was on the Sons of the Tiger strip in Marvel Comics' black and white, magazine-sized title Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. Perez, who is Puerto Rican, co-created the character White Tiger, comics' first Puerto Rican super hero.

Perez went on to work in Marvel's color titles, initially on second (if not third) tier characters like Man-Wolf and The Inhumans, before graduating to two of Marvel's biggest name properties, The Avengers and The Fantastic Four.

Even at this point, Perez's work was more intricate and realistic than most other pencillers in comics. The level of detail in his renderings definitely surpassed some of the crude line work typically seen in the format.

His work developed over time, becoming more and more refined. Perez had always loved team books and his work on FF and Avengers allowed him to cram in as many characters as he could! Not only did he illustrate the full rosters of these teams, but his stories tended to throw them up against super villain teams and draw in loads of guest-stars! His work on these titles lead to his being offered work by rival company DC on a relaunch of Teen Titans.

Perez wasn't really interested. The most recent attempt to revive the title had fizzled quickly and boasted little in the way of compelling story lines. (It HAD introduced Titans West, a second team of teen heroes based in California in a story that many fans still consider a favorite today, as well as the introduction of Bumblebee, DC's first African American heroine.) Perez figured the new relaunch would likewise last only a few issues and only agreed to render it if he could also be given the chance to draw DC's super star title Justice League of America.

(This was the first issue of JLA I ever owned! But, Perez only drew the cover. The interior art was by Don Heck.)

Coincidentally, almost as soon as DC agreed to this, the JLA's longtime illustrator Dick Dillin passed away and Perez received his wish!

In the meantime, Perez had begun collaborating on the Titans relaunch with writer Marv Wolfman. Entitled The New Teen Titans, this incarnation very quickly proved to be something that Perez wasn't expecting. It would be a darker take, with loaded emotions and controversial topics of the time, everything from teen runaways to drugs to cults!

For a brief time, Perez drew both team books (including a crossover in New Teen Titans #4) but found himself unable to maintain both and to his surprise, he'd become more interested in Titans. Crafting the adventures of character he had more control over had proven more gratifying to him, so he left JLA in favor of Titans.

Perez was tasked with designing three new heroes that would debut in this title and tweaking the looks of the existing cast. Remaining from past incarnations were Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, The Changeling (a new name for Beast Boy) and Robin, the group's leader, no longer the joking "laughing boy daredevil" of yore. This Dick Grayson was suddenly struggling with growing pains, unhappy at not being able to escape his "Batman &..." past. Likewise, Changeling was given more personality than he'd ever exhibited before, a silly, wise-cracking facade which masked one of the more tragic pasts in comics, the deaths of both his real parents and his subsequent adopted mother (Rita Farr, a member of the Doom Patrol), a failed child-actor phase and a struggle to fit in (what with being green and all). Among the new heroes Perez and Wolfman created was Cyborg, the most bitter super hero to appear in comics up to that point. Cyborg's body had been nearly destroyed in a scientific accident which killed his mother. Cyborg (Victor Stone) blamed his father, Silas, for the accident. Silas saved Victor's life by turning him into a super powered Cyborg, but Victor felt his humanity had been stolen and at times seemed to think he'd have been better off dead.

MOST comic illustrators rely on costumes and hair to differentiate their characters, drawing every character with the same body and face, just clothed and coiffed differently. Not Perez. He strove to make his characters as realistic as possible. This meant unique consistent faces, different body types and even body language and posture!

His Robin has a muscular lean body, fitting an acrobat, whereas Kid Flash has a lithe (almost skinny by super hero standards!) runner's build and a slightly gaunt face. Cyborg had been an athlete before his accident, so he had a tall, stocky frame. And Changeling was younger than the others, so he was drawn shorter, smaller with a round cherubic face. In what may be a first, Changeling's body was also revealed to be extremely hairy! Super heroes almost never had body hair! Too much detail for most pencillers, I guess, but not for George Perez!

Raven was also a fresh approach to a super hero, one that had almost no offensive super abilities. She possessed the power to teleport and heal. She could release her soul self from her body (a black energy form) that was capable of some combat ability, but which rendered her physical body helpless. She dressed appropriately for a mostly non-combative character in an otherwise impractical dress, cloak and pumps instead of boots. Initially Perez rendered her with the typical voluptuous super heroine's body, but in an attempt to bring more diversity to his illustrations, over time Raven became skinner with almost no curves and small breasts. The change was so dramatic, it had to be written into the book as a physical result of her mystically combating her father Trigon's attempts to enter our dimension and destroy it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Starfire (Princess Koriand'r), a lusty, passionate warrior woman from the planet Tamaran. Starfire could fly, was super strong and fired devastating energy blasts. Whereas Raven was withdrawn and subdued, and thus rendered in a concealing dress and cloak, Starfire was completely uninhibited and wore a revealing metal bathing suit!
In a genius move, Wonder Girl (Donna Troy) fell directly between the other two female Titans. Raised on Paradise Island by the Amazons, Wonder Girl was a skilled warrior and combatant, possessed super strength and flying ability as well as a magic lasso and bracelets, just like her older sister Wonder Woman. But even with her battle skills, Donna was compassionate and rational. When Dick Grayson left the team, it was Donna that assumed leadership. Fittingly, she was drawn with a more realistic body type, not as overly curvaceous as Starfire, not as lean as Raven.
As a challenge to himself, Perez created a MUTE character, Jericho! Without being able to rely on dialogue or thought bubbles, Perez had to convey everything Jericho thought via body language and facial expression!Wolfman and Perez's Titans was a SMASH! It quickly became DC's top selling book and drew comparisons to Marvel's similarly successful revamp of a second string concept The Uncanny X-Men. Fans were enthralled by the book's darker, more mature story lines and Perez's intricate drawings. In the late 60s the creators of the Batman books shipped Robin off to college because they felt the teen sidekick was an antiquated concept, especially such a brightly dressed one, who didn't really fit in Batman's increasingly darkening world. Wolfman and Perez turned Robin into a superstar in their book and the Batman office immediately tried to drag him back into their books AND limit his appearances in Titans! The compromise, the Batman office could have A Robin, but Titans was keeping Dick Grayson, who evolved into Nightwing, a man who was his own hero, not a sidekick! The move was embraced by fans and Dick retained the Nightwing persona for decades, until recently adopting the Batman identity himself after it appeared that Batman (Bruce Wayne) had died.

The team's other major innovation was the creation of Terra (Tara Markov). After critics accused The New Teen Titans of being DC's attempt to rip off The X-Men, the pair created a 15 year-old female member for the team, shortly after the X-Men added a similarly young new cast member, Sprite (Kitty Pryde). Sprite was bubbly, perky and enthusiastic. Basically reading her dialog was like getting punched in the face by puppies and kittens. And rainbows and unicorns. As Wolfman and Perez anticipated, critics cried foul, accusing Terra of being a Kitty Pryde knock-off. Then, slowly, in a storyline that spanned over a year, it was revealed that Terra had lied about her origin and background. She was a SPY sent to infiltrate the team by their arch enemy Deathstroke the Terminator!

She wasn't just working for him... she was SLEEPING with him! She was FIFTEEN and he was clearly in his FIFTIES! WHAT?! Plus, she was a SMOKER! Gross!

Even so, critics kept up their skepticism. Most felt assured that before things were said and done, she'd repent her evil ways and turn out to be a hero after all. Wrong. Deathstroke and Terra succeeded in capturing all of the Titans except Dick Grayson, who then adopted his Nightwing identity and teamed up with Jericho (oh, who, by the way, was Deathstroke's son) to free his teammates. During the course of the battle, Changeling pleaded with Terra, whom he'd fallen in love with, to change her ways. She was a hero! He knew it! She'd battled alongside him for months! She'd helped save the world! He believed in her!

Long story short, she went BANANAS and killed herself in attempting to kill him and the other Titans, crushed under an avalanche of her own creation. This storyline The Judas Contract is one of the most famous in the Titans' history and was even due to be adapted as an animated movie, but those plans seem to have been either put on hold or scrapped entirely.

Perez became DC's most popular illustrator and their go-to guy for major projects. He was slated to draw a dream project, a crossover between DC's Justice League and Marvel's Avengers! He had even begun illustrating the book based on the spec script DC had created. However, Marvel was unhappy with the script, including the inclusion of Ant Man, to serve as a parallel to the JLA's Atom, despite the then-current Ant Man not being a member of the Avengers and the pitting of the Avengers' Quicksilver against The Flash, despite their speed levels being hugely different in established comics. Marvel backed out and the book would never be completed. (But more on that in a bit...)

But Perez soon became involved in three massive projects for DC in celebration of its 50-Year Anniversary. I feel never-ending-ly fortunate to have grown up during this period of comics! First, there was Who's Who, not a comic, but an illustrated encyclopedia providing detailed background on almost every DC Comics character in its 50-year history! I still remember almost everything I read in these books! Perez was initially supposed to draw each wrap-around cover for this series, but his workload became such that he wasn't able to do so. He did provide quite a bit of interior artwork including all of the profile artwork for the Titans-related characters. His inability to provide covers, though, was mostly due to...
Crisis on Infinite Earths! Written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Perez, this book remains my absolute favorite comic book of all time! Not only does it feature Perez's unparalleled artwork, but, based on a storyline he'd come up with as a child, Wolfman manages to incorporate almost every character in DC's roster, everyone from Anthro the cave boy to their full roster of old western characters to the 30th Century's guardians, the Legion of Super Heroes and everyone in between! And it's coherent! The various characters don't just have silent cameos, they usually get a small vignette with thoughts or dialogue which homage their previous story lines and unique personalities. Perez got to really flex his artistic muscles rendering HUNDREDS of characters! He even got to illustrate alternate universe versions of a number of heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, allowing him to add little subtleties to differentiate them.

Crisis is daunting to modern readers. Modern comic creators use a more decompressed style of story-telling, so Crisis can be a tad stiffer and more formal than current books. Like I said, there are approximately eleventy-gajillion characters in it and modern readers don't have Who's Who for reference. Plus, the crux of the story takes place firmly in the DC Universe in 1984, so a number of characters that appear in prominent roles, due to their popularity at the time, have since faded from the spotlight of have been dramatically altered since.

But it was a truly important book in super hero comics' history. It was the first Maxi-Series a 12-issue self-contained storyline. It dramatically altered DC's status quo, deleting all parallel universes and alternate time-lines and killing off some pretty huge names like The Flash and Supergirl! The cover to Crisis #8 (left) has been replicated DOZENS of times and is considered one of the all-time best super hero comics covers! The series set the stage for DC's revamping its entire super hero line which in some ways was still firmly entrenched in its 1960s Silver Age. DC revamped most of its bigger name heroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and so forth, adjusting their origins and histories to better fit the modern 80s sensibility and to better appeal to the ever-aging comic book fan-base.
The third major project Perez and Wolfman crafted during this period was History of the DC Universe. Narrated by Harbinger, a major character in Crisis, this prose and illustration book told the new, post-Crisis history of the DC Universe from the creation of the universe, through every heroic age, illustrating various important moments and most major characters, in gorgeously rendered pages. Unfortunately, this tome was released a bit too soon after Crisis as DC hadn't fully worked out all of the changes that would later be made upon their characters. For instance, Wonder Woman had been removed from history in anticipation of an upcoming relaunch, so the Justice League was shown as boys-only club. But soon afterward, DC decided that instead of Wonder Woman, Black Canary had been a founding member of the group. The characters Hawkman and Hawkwoman continued to appear almost exactly as they had since the 60s... only to be COMPLETELY overhauled a few years later creating quite a continuity headache for creators and fans. But... it was a valiant effort and the artwork is gorgeous!

And did I say something about Wonder Woman being relaunched? Guess who was tapped to provide the art chores (and later writing) on that book! George Perez! Perez crafted a book much more seeped in Greek mythology than earlier depictions, removing a lot of the mumbo jumbo science that had been part of the series from the beginning, removing such wonders as the Amazon's Purple Healing Ray which was powerful enough to bring people back from the dead and, most shockingly, Wonder Woman's Invisible Jet! Not only that, but HUGE chunks of Wonder Woman's cast were altered. Steve Trevor, while still part of the story, was depicted as older... too old to be a love interest to Diana. Comedic sidekick Etta Candy became a serious military figure and eventually it was SHE that married Steve! Diana was also given two new supporting cast members, Julia and Vanessa Kapetelis, who proved popular with fans. This was Wonder Woman's most successful period in terms of sales since her early days! Fans turned out in droves for Perez's intricate, dynamic artwork and dynamic storytelling!

Perez worked on Wonder Woman for many years, although he eventually gave up drawing and just served as writer. Things soured, though when Perez crafted a Wonder Woman-centric crossover War of the Gods that would celebrate Wonder Woman's 50th Anniversary and would tie in all of DC's regular super hero titles (a la Crisis). DC distributed the series poorly and didn't really require any other creative teams to participate. They didn't advertise the series well and it underperformed. Perez decided to leave Wonder Woman as well and planned to write the wedding of Steve Trevor and Etta Candy in his final issue, but DC gave that story to oncoming writer William Mesner-Loebs and Perez severed ties with DC for many years after that.

He went to Marvel where he became the artist on yet another crossover title Infinity Gauntlet, however due to the turmoil with War of the Gods, Perez was unable to complete the project and another artist finished the last two issues.
Perez's output was more sporadic after that. His big comeback was in the late 90s relaunch of The Avengers, working with writer Kurt Busiek on a nearly three-year run.
This led to Perez's dream project, the team-up between the Avengers and the Justice League. Written by Busiek, loosely based on the concept of the original, aborted series, Perez was finally able to depict the meeting between DC and Marvel's two biggest teams... plus a bounty of guest-stars and super foes!
In more recent years, Perez has worked with smaller publishers and even created his own comic Crimson Plague. He worked on Malibu Comics' short-lived Ultraforce and CrossGen's CrossGen Chronicles and Solus before the entire company folded. He has resumed working for DC, especially on projects near and dear to him. He contributed work to celebrate milestones for both the Titans and Wonder Woman and when DC decided to craft a sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths, Infinite Crisis, he penciled covers and a few pages in the main series and the entire tie-in book Legion of 3 Worlds.
Most recently, he's provided work for a super heroine fetish multimedia company. (Aw man, do I really have to end on THAT?!)I can say with certainty that no other comic artist has drawn as MANY different characters as George Perez... nor as well. Very few bring the level of detail and variety to their work. Some, most-notably Phil Jiminez, follow very closely in his foot steps, but George Perez is and probably in my mind, always remain THE BEST comic illustrator EVER!

1 comment:

  1. Great post. George is the best. He set the standard very high. And he did it all without the coloring and special effects that all the comics rely on today. And without the ease of taking digital photos of models/friend/yourself that so many artists certainly do in comics today. He never needed it. Just pen and flat coloring of the 80s. I was influenced by him and learned a lot from him in my own art :)