And on the page, the storytelling power of Pérez’s pencils was fueled by the undeniable joy that came through in every panel he ever illustrated. To flip through the pages of his decades of work with Marvel and DC Comics as well as independent projects was to know this man was born to draw superheroes.
As comics changed over the years, his art style remained classic — subtle and sophisticated. He never bowed to the pressure to draw oversexualized heroines in suggestive positions or heroes who looked as if they took superhero performance enhancers, which were the norms for many publishers in the very extreme 1990s.
Now we live in a world in which comic books are woven into the fabric of Hollywood’s DNA. Heroes that Pérez drew for years in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s have been a part of some of the biggest box-office moments in recent memory.
You can’t watch Thanos walking toward the Avengers wielding the power of the Infinity Gauntlet in the “Avengers” movies and not see Pérez’s cover of 1991’s “Infinity Gauntlet” No. 1. That comic has the look and feel of a big-budget movie with its bevy of Marvel superheroes surrounding an imposing villain.
Take a look at Pérez’s cover of “Wonder Woman” No. 1 during the heroine’s mid-’80s revival at DC Comics, with her arms raised, and her indestructible bracelets clashing together, clanging with power — part of a storyline Pérez co-authored that melded Wonder Woman’s lore with Greek mythology. Now watch Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” movie and take in how many of those comics Pérez penciled inspired one of the most important movies DC has ever made.
Pérez was the master of the big, pivotal superhero moment. His comics were movies before superhero movies were a consistent thing. Who cared if back then in the ’80s and ’90s comic books weren’t taken seriously by Hollywood? A Pérez-drawn tale was all you needed. One could argue that the Justice League/Avengers crossover in 2003 that he illustrated and co-authored with Kurt Busiek was just as monumental as the first “Spider-Man” movie that came out a year earlier.
One of the things that reeled me into comics forever was discovering that Dick Grayson, Robin the Boy Wonder, had grown up. He wasn’t a kid anymore. He was transitioning into a new superhero identity and escaping the shadow of Batman.
Pérez helped create that moment in an issue of “The New Teen Titans,” a series he penciled alongside writer Marv Wolfman that catapulted them to rock-star status. Pérez always drew Robin with muscles the size of your standard adult comic-book superhero of that time — he never looked like a kid. And that was the point. Robin growing up was important to Wolfman and Pérez. And they both knew it was time for him to move on to a new identity (one that would eventually become the superhero Nightwing). You could see both the determination in Robin’s face when he explains to the other Teen Titans that he has to hang up his yellow cape, green boots and mask forever, and the shock on each of his teammates’ faces as they realize they are saying goodbye to an icon.
The heartbreak and uncertainty of the moment were a testament to Pérez’s ability to draw emotion. Action is a big part of comics, but the artists who can convey the emotional impact of those actions are the ones who leave their mark.
Pérez was also proudly Puerto Rican. As a young artist at Marvel comics, he and Bill Mantlo co-created the first Puerto Rican superhero, The White Tiger, who first appeared in “The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu” No. 19 in 1975.
Pérez wanted to make sure everyone felt as if they too could be a superhero, including someone like him, a kid from the Bronx whose parents were from Puerto Rico. After all, what’s the point of drawing Superman, Batman and the Avengers if you felt that someone like you could never be a part of the roster. Even back then in the ’70s, decades before the comic book industry took a true interest in diversity among creators and superheroes, Pérez pushed for inclusion.
Comic-book-turned-Hollywood–heroes Miles Morales and America Chavez owe a debt of gratitude to Pérez for showing the world a Boricua can dream of flying too.
As a Puerto Rican comics journalist who has also written a superhero story for Marvel, I feel the significance of Pérez’s body of work while recognizing that his success meant I could belong in places where I didn’t see many people who looked like me.
Pérez taught us that our superhero destinies are within reach, and there is nothing wrong with chasing them. His work will forever be a testament to that.