George Pérez: "I Get to Do What I Wanted to Do When I Was Five Years Old!"A comics interview article by: Chase Magnett
Denver Comic Con, one of the largest comic conventions in the United States, was held last weekend with marked increases in both attendance and star power. Amongst said stars were some legends of the comics medium, including George Pérez. Pérez has worked on such titles as The New Teen Titans, Avengers and Crisis on Infinite Earths. He is now working with publisher BOOM! Studios writing, drawing, and inking his newest project Sirens.
Pérez spent most of his weekend chatting with fans, drawing sketches, and being one of the nicest people at the entire convention. He was able to spare some time on Saturday morning to speak with Comics Bulletin reporter about a wide range of topics. Below is their conversation about healthcare, royalties, theater, working at BOOM!, and a whole lot more.
Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: Thanks for taking the time to schedule an interview. I was excited to hear that your surgeries have been going well and that you’re still attending conventions and are getting back to work.
George Pérez: Yeah. I’ve been working even when I was going through the eye surgeries. My eye doctor is kind of surprised that I’m working as much as I am, but I didn’t want to stop. Everyone has been very understanding. Everyone has also been very surprised to see the quality of the work considering that I am still undergoing eye surgery. I still have certain treatments for my diabetic retinopathy and I will be in line for a cataract surgery in the next couple of months.
CB: How have the issues with your health impacted your work over the last few years and has it changed your perspective on comics and creating art?
Pérez: Not as much on the creative process as the ability to create work. I’m not as timely as I’d like to be, which is why for the last few years doing a monthly title is not something I could do comfortably. Even when I did World’s Finest, I had to get a bit of a lead in and I was sharing that book with Kevin Maguire. So it wasn’t a full book. I was offered the book as a full book afterward, and I turned it down because I knew I couldn’t maintain a monthly schedule. That’s the biggest impact. It takes longer to concentrate on a page and do the type of detail I’m used to. Trying to do twenty pages per month under those conditions is difficult.
CB: And healthcare is a bit of a hot topic in comics right now. The Hero Initiative is bringing a lot of attention to it and Bill Mantlo’s plight has been receiving more attention due to the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. With so many creators working as freelancers, there’s no easy access to healthcare. How do you see that problem in the industry right now and how it is changing?
Pérez: I’m hoping it will change, but I do see it as a motivation now as to where one finds work. One of the advantages when I was working at DC, and at that point I was being wooed by both Marvel and DC, was that DC since they are owned by Warner was part of a big group policy. When it came time to decide where to go in terms of exclusivity, DC had that big bargaining chip. Like you said, getting insurance is important, especially for people with health issues like myself and my wife. So that does make you make certain decisions, in particular where you will work. Even now when I am working at BOOM!, I am an employee. I am under the company’s group policy. Thankfully, I am now in a financial position where I can afford more than the average person can. I couldn’t get private insurance before due to a lot of pre-existing conditions, but now thanks to Obamacare I can. Now I could afford it, but because of my employment with BOOM! that’s not necessary.
CB: I’m a diabetic as well, so I completely understand that stress. Let’s talk about some actual comics. You’ve worked with a lot of characters and you generally gravitate towards team books or comics like Crisis that feature lots of characters. What is it about superhero teams that attracts you to making those comics?
Pérez: From an artistic point of view, the idea of being able to draw all of the characters I grew up with, at least as many as I can at one time. I’m impatient. I didn’t want to wait. If I’m drawing Captain American, I think, when can I ever draw Iron Man, but I have to finish Captain America first. But I can draw Captain America and Iron Man and Thor and Scarlet Witch and The Vision and the Fantastic Four. Everybody.
From the storytelling point of view, I like the interaction between the characters. I like the social dynamic of these characters being friends or being enemies or being tension-driven acquaintances. I like the idea of social action since drawing a comic is a very solitary occupation. It helps me keep my social skills in a way by living through the characters in a way; understanding that Captain America is not just any figure in a red, white, and blue costume. No. He’s Steve Rogers in a red, white, and blue costume. They’re all individual people that should be treated like characters in costume as opposed to puppets in costume. That became part of my storytelling.
I was always fascinated by dialogue and social interaction. I loved courtroom dramas and dramas where there were a lot of people talking. It created a niche for me at a time when no one else really wanted it. At the time, since there were no royalties, you didn’t earn any more for doing a team book than you did for drawing a book with a single lead. My want to do those books made me very valuable early on in my career.
CB: You mentioned wanting to draw some of your favorite characters that you saw growing up. When you were growing up, what artists influenced you, what comics were you reading, what made you want to draw comics?
Pérez: I started doodling since the first time I saw what I think was an early issue of Batman or Detective Comics. I was from a Spanish-speaking household, so I was just mesmerized by the characters, the colors, and everything else, even though it was one of those silly Batman meets aliens stories. It sparked my imagination at the time and inspired me to learn how to read. In order to read these stories, I had to learn English, starting with comics.
I’ve been doodling since I was five years old. At first I wanted to emulate the artists I was reading. I would try, the best I could, to draw Batman the way Dick Sprang and Jerry Robinson did primarily. Also, Superman the way Curt Swan did. Then I would start imagining drawing them myself. It was just something I always wanted to do and I’ve been very fortunate. How many people can say at five years old you had a good idea of what you wanted to do with your life. Here I am now, I just turned sixty and am still getting to do what I wanted to do at five years old.
CB: That’s part of your personal story that I find really fascinating, that comics were an introduction to a second language for you. When you were five, did you speak any English or were comics your very first exposure?
Pérez: Comics were one of the very first steps. I had to learn English because I had to go to school and my parents started to speak English at home in order to make the easier for me. But regarding how to read English, as opposed to learning to speak English, comics were the big thing. There were other primers out there, but those seemed like forced education. Comics were voluntary education. I wanted to learn in order to read a comic. Other things we had we got through school and their purpose was to teach you and give you the skills you would need in life, but to a young child it was work. Comics were play.
CB: When you started reading comics, were you more fluent in the visual language than you were with the dialogue?
Pérez: Probably. The fact that I could understand what was going on to a certain degree, if the stories were told well. That became more prevalent as I got older and started reading the Marvel comics where visual storytelling was a lot stronger. A lot of the 1960’s DC comics, tended to feature dialogue that said a lot of the same things the art was saying. Someone would say, “I am opening this drawer”, and you could tell they were opening the drawer. The understanding of the visual medium is something that I would develop later on and primarily through Marvel comics. Guys like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko showed how to tell a story visually so that art complements the dialogue, instead of over-explaining it.
CB: In addition to having all of these favorite characters that you had a chance to reinterpret and make your own in a lot of ways, you created many characters that have stuck around and remain popular today. Starfire and Raven are two great examples that are still seen in a wide variety of media. Do you feel an attachment to the characters you helped create and do you stay apprised of how they are being used?
Pérez: As much as I am very proud of the characters that Marv Wolfman and I created, I understand that they were created for a company. We knew that while we get a participation in the characters we created, we earn royalties for the use of the characters, I don’t own them. I have nothing to do with or no opinion on what’s been done with the characters since we left.
After we left, I left a little earlier than Marv did, a little of the chemistry disappeared. They were characters birthed by two people, Marv and me. We each provided a bit of our genetic makeup to the characters and when I was gone, they were still there, but there was something missing. It was a little different. Once the characters went on with other creators, they had their own interpretations of them. Now in the New 52, there is no connection. No creator feels burdened by any part of the past. So there’s a Starfire and she’s Starfire in name, but maybe not in character. The same thing happens with film versions of characters. They have the basic background, but beyond that they’re almost unrecognizable.
I don’t begrudge DC or any company for doing that. Those were the rules of the game when I came in and, in the case of the Teen Titans, I still earn money from them. So as long as they’re using them, that’s fine.
CB: You mentioned that you receive royalties for the use of characters you helped to create. When that deal was struck, was that a new occurrence?
Pérez: It was new at that point, at least for the mainstream. There were some independent comics that might have been the first to introduce that policy. It became important then, because none of the big companies wanted to lose some of their talents to a small company that could offer them better deals. Whether they would sell as much you don’t know, but the incentive to start offering some form of participation to the creators became important, if you want to hold onto big name creators.
Now there were avenues they could go down where they wouldn’t be burdened by corporate mandates and could potentially earn more money. Titans was the first book to benefit from that program at DC, because it was the only book selling high enough to benefit from it at that time. Titans was the trailblazer in mainstream comics and everyone else had to follow suit in their own way. I spoke to Marvel and said that if they wanted me to create their, then they would need to give me some backend money and that’s how it sort of snowballed.
CB: A lot of what you’ve said about creators being attracted to smaller publishers and wanting to have a greater investment in what they’re writing seems very similar to discussions and changes that are occurring now. How do you think the view of creators towards owning their own material has changed since you and Marv Wolfman created Teen Titans?
Pérez: This is just my opinion; I have no data to back it up. A lot of comics companies nowadays are owned by major corporations. If you’re talking about a corporation that has investors or a board that you have to answer to, would you like to do projects that feature established characters that you own or would you want to get even a well-known creator to try and create something where some of that money is going to go to them?
I think a lot of the creativity as far as new things is being hampered by that corporate mindset, where it’s better to exploit the familiar than experiment with the new. It’s a double-edged sword though where creators are looking to creator-owned work outside of the companies. The companies are not as welcoming to new work where they will have to negotiate their profit and will have to risk their money on a new project. Especially when you’re talking about something like movies, where millions of dollars are on the line, you’re going to be more hesitant unless you’re working with an established property.
CB: A lot of new projects are seeking out smaller publishers. You’re signed with BOOM! Studios, and there are many others like Image, IDW, Oni Press, and so on that are willing to take larger risks, but also stand to profit from large rewards.
Pérez: That’s one reason I really like working at BOOM!. While I’m appreciative of all royalties, when I’m there, I’m there to draw comics and they don’t care about making it adaptable to a movie or pleasing to someone outside of a comic book reader. That becomes marketing’s job.
When we started Titans, Marv and I were just trying to do a crackerjack book. We had nothing to gain by catering to an audience outside of comic readers. We just wanted to do a good story. It became popular enough that it became a cartoon, video game, and all of the other stuff, but it was primarily a comic we wanted to do.
I’m aware that BOOM! has adapted books like Two Guns into films and if they can do that with my book Sirens, then that’s awesome. That’s not the goal with Sirens though. I just want to do a good comic; make it visual, make it exciting, do all of the stuff that I want to do. If it goes beyond that shelf life, fantastic, but that is other people’s job. Comics are my primary consideration.
I remember at one point I was talking to a smaller publisher and they said they had a lot of Hollywood connections. That really turned me off. I didn’t want that to be the prime reason for doing a comic. Of the many decisions to be made, that’s inescapable, but I want someone else to make that decision, not me.
CB: I do want to get to your work with BOOM! on Sirens. You mentioned that their focus on comics was very attractive to you. What else made BOOM! the right fit as a publisher?
Pérez: Several things, the fact that everyone working at BOOM! is very, very knowledgeable, from a fan-level, about comics. Even the people in marketing, they’re comic fans. They all have an understanding of the industry and what made them excited about the industry growing up.
I remember when I went there to be interviewed and I mentioned it had been decades since I had to attend a job interview. They quickly corrected me and said, “You think we’re interviewing you? No. You’re interviewing us.” We know who you are. We want to show you that this is a good place to work. My wife was bowled over when she heard that.
I’m not just a company cog. They want to give service to me. When I was trying to think of the story that would become Sirens, but was originally She-Devils, I had not formed an entire story idea and had no idea if I would be successful. I was kind of making it up as I was going along in the interview. Ross Richie, the publisher, asked to be excused from the meeting. He said that he wanted to be excited when it was published. He didn’t want to find out the ending. He wanted to view it from the eyes of a fan when the book came out. To have a publisher that didn’t want to have his fingers in the pie was something I had not run into in a long time. That spoke volumes. That made me even more excited to work there.
They talked with me about what kind of schedule I would need to maintain. In order to do a monthly title, I would need to do five pages per week and I just couldn’t do that anymore. Luckily, I was in a good enough financial position with my royalties from DC that I didn’t need to maintain a monthly schedule. I could afford to do a little less work. If I needed to rely on a page rate, I couldn’t live that way. I can afford to work on comics for the sheer joy of comics. I don’t need to rely on comics to make a living anymore. I earn enough royalties by the end of January that I don’t need to work for the rest of the year.
They knew I had health problems, and I felt so guilty signing the contract with them. They were giving me a regular paycheck. I felt like an athlete who signed a multi-million dollar contract and was injured on the first game. I came to them and said that I was feeling guilty. Do you really still want me? They said that this is a long-term deal. You have insurance. You get better. We’re going to be here a long time. Just get better. It had been over a year since I signed the first contract when they saw my first full work.
I did three covers for them that first year. That’s very little work, but they said, you’re creating. That’s what we want from you, to be creating. We want you to have the most comfortable creative environment you can have. All of that was so alien to me. Even my editors, they’re not trying to tell me what to write or what to draw. They make suggestions and say, these are our suggestions, if you don’t agree with them, ignore them. They’re acting as the audience I’m working for.
All of this stuff is reminiscent of the industry when I got into it. There’s a feeling that we should enjoy comic books. Let’s just have fun. They understand that we need to market this and make it sell, but encourage me to be a creator again. Because of that I’m writing, and drawing, and inking. I use markers now, the micron pens, which I learned how to use from Mike Perkins. Because of my eye issues, working with a quill doesn’t work. My depth perception is still slightly off and I don’t want to take a chance of breaking my quills every time I work.
I’m having a great, great time. The first issue is already in the can. I’m just auditioning colorists now. They also made it bi-monthly with special fill-in stuff in between to make it easier on me. Realistically, they don’t want to take years to get the book out there. They want to get it out there a little earlier without putting any extra burden on me. They’ve been very, very considerate of me.
CB: In addition to your work on Sirens, have you worked with BOOM! in any other capacities?
Pérez: I love to do covers for them. We envisioned the possibility of a George Pérez month where I would do the covers of all BOOM! and KaBOOM! titles. Unfortunately, trying to negotiate that became a little difficult when I reminded them that all of those covers would have the same deadline. If it’s all in the same month, it’s all the same deadline, and I can’t do that. It didn’t work out, but I loved doing the Herobear cover and doing Garfield. I’d love to do more covers, but the idea of a George Pérez month is not very likely.
CB: You said that you developed a lot of Sirens.
Pérez: It was initially called She-Devils and was based on a concept I came up with back in the 1970’s before I even turned pro. It was part of a fanzine called Hotshot. When I was first creating the characters, I imagined them as campy secret agents, very sexy in lots of bikinis and leotards, much more fetishy. Initially, I thought that would be the way I would go with She-Devils again, but now with science fiction and time travel elements.
I wanted to draw period pieces that would test me as an artist, something outside my comfort zone. Then I realized what appealed to me as a teenage boy, I had outgrown. Some of that stuff might even be offensive now or too niche. I took some basic concepts and turned it into what it is now, which bares almost no resemblance to my original concept.
It’s now a group of female freedom fighters in the future, instead of secret agents. That’s where it started though. It was first produced in that fanzine by two artists. I put one of them into the story as a thank you. When I changed the name to Sirens, the connection was no longer there, but he’s still there, which is what mattered to me.
I thought the name of the book might be changed from the moment I mentioned it. I thought of Shanna the She-Devil and didn’t want to risk any copyright infringement. It turns out that it was Red Sonja, the people who control that property, that sent the letter. They weren’t demanding. We probably could have fought it. The reference is Red Sonja, She-Devil with a Sword. It’s a sub-title to a series. When I was asked about that, they were concerned I would be upset and not want to change the title of something I had forty years earlier. I completely understood. So we used the name Sirens, which my wife came up with.
CB: How does it feel to see an idea you first had forty years ago become a major publication? That’s a very unique origin story.
Pérez: It is, but it bears very little resemblance to the original story. If it had the original title, it might have, but I don’t think anyone is going to notice any resemblance to it other than that it is very female oriented. All of the lead characters are women. There are male characters, but it is female-centric. I’ve been praised by a lot of women and men about how I handle female characters. Primarily, Wonder Woman who is a major female icon I wrote to be accessible to both men and women. I enjoy working with female characters, as you mentioned Raven and Starfire and Wonder Girl.
In Sirens, it’s similar to the brief jaunt I made into creator-owned comics with Crimson Plague in the 1990s, where all of the members of the cast are real-life people. It challenges me to use real faces and likenesses. In this world of cosplay, so many young women are going to want to get into costume and represent themselves as my characters. That’s something I find completely wonderful. Even my wife is one of the characters. I deliberately wanted women of all races, sizes, and ages. My wife is sixty-four. I think the youngest She-Devil is nineteen, but she’ll probably be twenty by the time the book comes out. I wanted him who are large women and petite women. I wanted all types of people. I wanted everyone to feel represented.
CB: I want to thank you for that. My girlfriend cosplays and we collaborated on an article a month ago looking at costumes for women that all women can find accessible. Hearing you talk about the thought that went into Sirens is something I think a lot of people will appreciate.
Pérez:I know a few women who cosplay and are into comics. One woman told me that she hadn’t read comics in a while because she couldn’t find anything that was catering to her. I’m not making it a niche book. I want it to be a book that everyone can enjoy. I don’t know if all of it will be appropriate for a young child, but you be the judge of what your child can read. It’s not a children’s book and it’s not a women’s book. It’s a superhero, science fiction, fantasy book.
I do scenes that I’ve not done before. I do Vikings back in the 12th century. I do Victorian England. I’ve got the Old West and I hate drawing horses, so I really challenged myself there. I am doing 1960s Alabama. And those are all back-stories. The main story takes place in the far-flung, dystopian future. I’m having a great time just being visually challenging to myself.
I remember one artist telling me something that I thought was death to creativity. He was writing and drawing a book by himself and told me that he as a writer would never write something that he as an artist wouldn’t draw. I thought, oh no. I want to curse myself from the artist’s point of view. Whenever I get a script or a plot from a writer and I’m thinking that they are out of their mind, and I am cursing them reading it, I know that I will be a better artist because it challenges me. I want to do the same thing with myself.
When I did Wonder Woman, I was doing stuff that I would have never thought I could do. The only way the book would progress would be to meet that challenge head on. I had to do research on things like women’s hairstyles of the day. All of this stuff is work, but it makes me a better artist.
It’s the same thing with using real people. I’m known for using distinctive likenesses, but it’s something different to make a face distinctive and recognizable as particular people. That’s a big challenge and that makes it exciting. One thing I enjoyed in Crimson Plague was seeing my friends and family become stars. I’m used to being the person behind the table signing autographs. When I did Crimson Plague, I did a special signing where fans featured in the series would attend a convention, so fans could get their autographs. I enjoyed watching my fans become the stars. This is my love letter to my fans. They made my career and to be able to share some of that sheer joy and fame I never expected, and watching them get. Knowing that Margie Cox is the leader of the She-Devils and so many others like my niece and my wife are going to be asked for their autograph, that they’re going to be famous because of me… That is a legacy. That is something. To do something creative and share it and let somebody else benefit. That is exciting.
CB: One last thing, I recently became aware that you’re a fan of live theater. When did you become interested in theater?
Pérez: I’ve always been fascinated by theater. In high school, my English teacher took us to see our first professional plays, productions of Our Town with Henry Fonda and Harvey with Helen Hayes and James Stewart. I love play-acting. The first time I was ever asked to be on stage, I was a child at summer camp and I was asked to sing. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but it was when I first realized I had a singing voice. I got hooked there.
Unfortunately, I can’t do as much acting as I’d like to because I have work to do. I really immerse myself in the material when I do. I am involved with the Moonlight Theatre now. I do all of their program covers and on occasion have appeared on stage with them. My wife and I really like going to the theatre. We like musicals and drama as well. Hearing the written word spoken so eloquently by stage performers and watching the stage direction...
I have directed some theatre shows before and learned so much from drawing comics. They told me that I was one of the most efficient directors they ever had. It is the largest panel I could work with and everything has to be alive. I wish I could do it more. Thankfully, with BOOM! being so great and with Sirens being a limited series of six issues, I’m going to take a break after that and get back on stage again.
CB: You mentioned that your familiarity with comics helped inform your work as a director. Has the theatre, the expressiveness of play-acting and blocking of scenes, influenced how you create comics at all?
Pérez: Not as much theatre as it was movies that helped me understand visual mediums. Alfred Hitchcock was a big, big influence. Same with John Ford. Imagine that when you’re creating a comic book, you’re storyboarding a silent movie. You put as much of the information, as much of the storytelling into the visuals as possible, so you need as few title cards as possible to explain what is going on. That’s what I learned from movies.
The distinct difference between doing a play and doing a film is that in films I can change the camera angle whenever I want to. In plays you have a fixed proscenium. What I learned from plays is how to keep the action moving and how to divert the eye to be where I want it, staging certain actors to create a focus because you don’t have the advantage of the camera to do so. You have one rectangular area that you are in charge of presenting to the audience.
CB: Very cool. Thank you so much for your time this morning, George.
Pérez: Thank you.