George Pérez on his fans, his legendary career, and being happy

George Pérez
George Pérez (Image credit: George Pérez)

On May 6, 2020, George Pérez died, five months after the beloved comic book legend announced to the comics community that he had a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months to one year to live. Within minutes of that December announcement, Pérez's fans responded - and the response was significant - on social media where the announcement was made, and then to media coverage ranging everywhere from the comic book press like Newsarama to the Hollywood Reporter, Syfy, and the New York Daily News. 

As Pérez told immediately following, the rally of support was uplifting.

Pérez's nearly 50-year career in comic books included drawing three of the most iconic superhero stories of the modern era - DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, Marvel's Infinity Gauntlet, and the DC-Marvel crossover JLA/Avengers. He also co-created icons like the Teen Titans' Raven, Cyborg, and Starfire, and the villains/antiheroes Deathstroke and Taskmaster. Raised in the South Bronx, Pérez grew up reading superhero comics and went on to become arguably the definitive superhero artist of his generation and for multiple generations of readers.

JLA/Avengers #3 excerpt (Image credit: George Pérez (DC/Marvel Comics))

But his legacy doesn't end there.

In addition to his standing as a creative legend, Pérez was also a gracious and active member of the comic book community, a frequent guest of comics conventions, and a contributor to and fundraiser for charities to aid his fellow comic book professionals. As a co-founder of the nonprofit Hero Initiative which benefits comic creators in need, Pérez regularly drew sketches to be sold and/or auctioned to raise money. For a time, he was the charity's biggest fundraiser and continued to draw for the Hero Initiative and other charities even after failing eyesight forced him to retire from comics in 2019.

But in December, George Pérez put down his drawing pen permanently. But he wasn't done giving - along with this his terminal diagnosis, he announced plans to connect with his fans one last time before his passing.

Just hours after his announcement, Newsarama had the privilege of speaking with the iconic artist/writer about his diagnosis, how he's processed it, and what he hoped to do with the time he had left. What could've been a melancholy conversation turned into an uplifting and reaffirming discussion about life, charity, and fellowship between comic pro and fan, but more importantly between one person to another.

We present the interview in its entirety as conducted that day, as a tribute to Pérez's generous spirit and uplifting outlook that will inspire his fans for decades to come...

Newsarama: George, how are you feeling today?

Wonder Woman #10 excerpt (Image credit: George Pérez (DC))

George Pérez: Ever since the announcement, I've been getting texts, phone calls, Facebook comments.... over 250 people at this point, and in some cases people I haven't heard from in many, many years. My poor wife has been inundated as well.

I can't really help how flattered I am by the attention everyone is giving me, and the concerns. It's quite overwhelming.

Newsarama: You've been carrying around this prognosis for a few days now, and this morning you decided to make it public - directly to your fans through Facebook. What you said was direct but still uplifting. Why did you decide to let fans in on what you're going through?

George Pérez: Well, I knew when I was given the final diagnosis that I wanted to let my fandom know. But trying to figure out to disseminate it was a chore. And of course, the one thing I didn't want to happen is for my family and inner circle to find out in a bad way. I called many of them individually, and there were a lot of tears and a lot of theories on this being unfair.

We had initially thought about sending it to the news media, but it seems to be working out. So many people are trying to contact me.

I have to thank Constance Eza, my art agent Spencer Beck, and Vu Nguyen who handles my website. When I announced this Tuesday morning, everyone has been real busy keeping up with it all.

But when I got the final diagnosis, one of the first things I knew I wanted to do was say 'thank you' to my fans. They deserve to know. I didn't want to keep putting this off.

Avengers #2 cover (Image credit: George Pérez (Marvel Comics))

Newsarama: My late father said we can learn from everything. What do you think you're learning (or re-learning) from what you're going through now?

George Pérez: Well, it's the realization of how much impact I've made. It's life-affirming. 

Even my mother, at 90 years old... the greatest comfort she has is that I was a good man. I tried to live by the principles she taught me.

I've always treasured my life, but I didn't realize how many people I've touched until a time like this occurred where everyone shows up. I've been reminded of my true friends. Neighbors are bringing rosaries, and some people are coming clear across the country to say 'hello' and help my wife. It's an incredible feeling.

I really know now how much fans love me for what I've done, and the person I've tried to be. This makes it so crystal clear. It makes me strong, and it gives me peace. Like anyone put in this kind of situation, I cried and I screamed when I first got the diagnosis and the prognosis of the longevity. But after that, the friends who I immediately told became a close source of comfort. And my peers and fans have really stepped up and given me strength, and I am happy this many people love me. I have no regrets, and I'm just incredibly at peace.

I know I will experience a bit of fear and dread as the day counts down. I don't know what it's going to be like after I'm gone and off into the unknown. But I also have a feeling of dedication to doing the best I can in the time I have left.

For me, when I die it will all be over. But for my wife, my friends, and my family, they have to soldier on after losing me. I didn't realize how much losing me means to them, and my goal now is to make this experience as relaxed as possible. I want them to see me smile, and I want to hug them; I want to give them the good memory of the man I was. That is something that will make the last years of my life the best.

Wonder Woman #10 excerpt (Image credit: George Pérez (DC))

Newsarama: I look forward to seeing you celebrate Christmas later this month, and on to your birthday next summer.

George Pérez: You know, this is the most Christmas-y I've felt in a long time. Despite everything, I am happy. I am feeling so much love. I can't be sad.

Yes, I'm sad that this will probably be the last Christmas for me, but if this is going to be the last one, I'm glad I get to enjoy it like I am now.

Newsarama: I'm glad you're here now for us to tell you one more time how important you are to us. Do you have a further message for fans, maybe in response to such an outpouring of support? I've seen tributes to you from your peers, the comic creators that follow in your footsteps, as well as major Hollywood trades and famous comedians.

George Pérez: Wow. Well, this is the first I've heard of some of that... Gee whiz, it's incredible.

One thing I want to say to the fans, my family, and people close to me: Thank you. Thank you. 

Avengers Finale #1 excerpt

Avengers Finale #1 excerpt (Image credit: George Pérez (Marvel Comics))

I am hearing and reading this feeling of melancholy, but I have been blessed beyond words by my incredibly loyal and dedicated fandom. I love them. I genuinely feel that warmth when I'm going to a convention, when I'm signing autographs, doing sketches.... it all helps me connect with them. I appreciate their support. They have made my career and given me the envy of kings.

If I say anything to fans, it's 'Thank you.'

Newsarama: And for comic creators and artists that look up to you and what you've done, what advice can you give them that helped you along the way?

George Pérez: Well, everyone has to make their own judgment on how to live their life. I would never suppose or impose my philosophy on life to someone else. Everyone has to march to their own drummer. 

I've been blessed. The type of person I am is a direct connection to my mother. Thankfully she's alive, at 90 years old. 

If there's one thing, it would be appreciation. The sense that anything can be taken away at any time, but you have to appreciate it for the here and now.

I've gotten to do what I've wanted to do in life since I was a child. I've been making comics for 45 years, and I didn't have to backstab anyone. I don't have an enemy in the industry or the world. And the fact that I got to 'do' what I love, and to express myself artistically. It's a blessing. 

JLA/Avengers #3 cover (Image credit: George Pérez (DC/Marvel Comics))

I remember the words of the late Michael Turner. We had a conversation where he asked me a question about something, and I replied 'Hey, we're comic artists, not rocket scientists.' Without missing a beat, he reminded me about the people we inspire. He inspired me to look at what I've done and be proud of that; to be grateful for what I got to do.

If you're doing what you want to do in life, being creative, that's a lot to be grateful for. How many people get to do that? The advice I give to my peers is to never take these gifts for granted. Realizing how much enjoyment others get out of your work - some you'll see, some you'll never see. There's so much to be thankful for.

Newsarama: Earlier today I re-read Sirens, and now years later it reads well as you grappling a bit with everything you've done in comic books while also being a photo album of sorts, incorporating people you know as models for some of the characters. When you look back at your works, which ones do you have the fondest memories of?

George Pérez: That's like asking me to choose one of my favorite children; I've had so many fond memories.

I did enjoy Crimson Plague, which like Sirens had a cast based on real people. 

I remember being on the other side of the table.

Newsarama: As a fan, you mean?

George Pérez: Yes. I realize that to some fans we're celebrities, and I wanted to give that experience back to fans as a gift. 'Now you're the celebrity here.' Whenever I see them, I ask them for their autographs. Now they get to feel what I have for decades. There's a certain thrill to it.

I remember what it's like being on the other side of the table. With what I was able to do, some fans got to live the dream they inspired. I love the fact that I helped fans feel like a part of the bigger family. 

George Pérez

Sirens' launch signing with George Pérez and some of the models from the book at Coliseum of Comics in Sanford, Florida on October 1, 2014 (Image credit: Constance Katsafanas-Eza)

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from Stan Lee when I was at Marvel; he told me I was the face Marvel wanted comics fans to see. Stan told me that I was like his nephew. That was incredibly satisfying, and also something I always tried to live up to. 

I know there are other professionals that like to keep that distance between fan and pro, but for me, I like being in the trenches with fans. It always gave me great comfort.

Newsarama: Three years ago you announced your retirement from drawing comic book pages, but up until recently have continued doing commissions. How have the changes in your life and body affected how you look at art and being a working artist like yourself?

George Pérez: I tried not to repeat old ideas, and continue to be fresh. After I retired, I was constantly being offered more work. But I retired not because of my age, but because of the effects of diseases - diabetes mainly.

Even before I retired, it became very different. I couldn't even look at my older work and see the detail. My eyes started to go several years ago, and I'm now blind in my right eye. There's distortion in the other one.

But even after I retired from drawing comics, I wanted to do more for charity or to help friends and family affected by the pandemic and circumstances beyond their control.

Wonder Woman #10 cover (Image credit: George Pérez (DC))

Thanks to royalties and incentive payments from my comics work, I never had to work another day in my life. Doing those sketches was a way to help others; a way to say I'm not going stir crazy, but to live through my scribblings and give back.

The amount of people I was able to help since I retired by doing sketches was phenomenal. I one case, I helped them avoid losing their eyesight. For another, I helped them through school; they were an honors student but couldn't afford living expenses. I helped relatives through tough times, and helped charities. One time they came back after I submitted a donation and joked 'did you accidentally add an extra zero?'

Newsarama: [laughs]

George Pérez: So, in post-retirement, I have a legacy that sometimes is even more important to me than my work in comics. I was still able to do some good with what was easy to me.

I had to finally give up sketches when it took almost an hour to do a sketch that previously took 10 to 15 minutes. I already thought about this decision before the cancer diagnosis, but I kept getting more and more requests. But it became more and more of a struggle, and this diagnosis was timing - telling me it's time to stop.

I feel a bit relieved in not feeling the pressure to finish sketches anymore.

Newsarama: You mention charities, and I know you best from the amazing work you've done with the Hero Initiative - the comic industry charity which helps creators in need.

George Pérez: The Hero Initiative is one of my greatest sources of pride. I've been a member since its founding, and back before with ACTOR. At one time I was the single greatest fundraiser the charity ever had, and only recently did I have to tender my resignation. I obviously can't participate anymore; I have a hard enough time reading, let alone making judgments and voting. It wasn't fair to them.

I am stepping down with absolutely the greatest feeling of accomplishment. We've helped so many of my peers, and Hero Initiative has helped me. I'm grateful to them, and it's a nice legacy to have.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 cover (Image credit: George Pérez (DC))

I'm very proud of the fact that one year when doing my taxes, I had at least 17 separate deductions for charitable contributions on my tax forms. Sometimes I brag more about this than co-creating the Teen Titans, working on the Avengers and Wonder Woman.

The thing I love to do so much ended up helping so many others.

Newsarama: What can fans do to help you with what you're going through - either you directly, or to support a cause you feel strongly about?

George Pérez: That's a very good question. I hadn't really thought about that.

If anyone has loved my work or likes me as a person, there's nothing to do for me. My wife is okay, and there's nothing much you can do. I have a great doctor and a great medical community. I have great help.

If you want to ask questions, ask on my Facebook page - please don't contact my wife if possible. I can't answer everyone, but respect the privacy especially of my wife. I love her to death. I would really like to see her smile and relax instead of being overwhelmed. Everyone has good intentions, but if people want to send questions and good wishes, send them through my Facebook page.

But the Hero Initiative would be a great place to donate in my name. Just donate something in my name to them, and it'll be the greatest compliment of all. Pay it forward. If they really want to show me I've made an impact, give. Give to someone or some organization, Hero Initiative or not... but just give. 

Newsarama: I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but I think of you more for how kind and welcoming you are at conventions as a person than your comic book art. Your comic book art is amazing and definitive, but how you are around myself and other fans is extremely heart-warming.  You're always a friendly shining face when I see you at conventions. 

George Pérez at a ceremony naming October 1 'George Pérez Day' in Sanford, Florida on in 2014. He also obtained a 'Key to the City' (Image credit: Constance Katsafanas-Eza)

Between your illness and this pandemic, how has it been for you connecting with others and sharing this love of comics and art?

George Pérez: Making the decision I couldn't attend conventions due to my health was hard. And now, the idea of doing it behind a table and a shield... I can't enjoy cons that way. I need to meet fans physically and enjoy my time with them; giving every single one a hug, and bonding with them. When I'm with a fan, they're the only person in the world - I give myself to them, and I feel that back in return.

Not being able to do that was torture. 

We're hoping now to be able to do something - perhaps a photo op with fans, to hug them and remember the way I lived.

I'm proud of what I've done. I've met people who might've been the 'plus one' to a comic fan coming to meet me, and my talking with them and involving myself with them sometimes ends with them going out and picking up a book. 'I liked George! Let me see what he's doing.' So I get a fan out of that.

People just think I'm a nice man and support what I do. I get a lot of rewards, like today. The fandom rallying behind me... I wish I could answer every single message. I am incredibly grateful, and I like to think I've earned it.

JLA/Avengers #3 excerpt (Image credit: George Pérez (DC/Marvel Comics))

I can't help but me flattered at what you said; to love my work is one thing, but to like me as a human being. That again, is reflective of my mom and my wife, who I'm very proud of... This is me.

Yes, the pandemic was torture. And in a way, since my time is limited now and I've got nothing to do, as long as I have strength in my body I will find ways to visit people, to hug them, to say 'thank you,' and in some cases to say 'I love you.'

I know the news this week might be a bummer to people, but I appreciate everything. There's a lot of great people out there, people that have been very very good to me. I'd like to cherish that. I had a good run. 

Others are going to draw, entertain, and write, and say they were inspired by me. That's an incredible compliment. Lord knows I've stood on the shoulders of many giants who inspired me, and I'm grateful to be a part of the community as I have been. 

Looking back on the past 45 years doing what I wanted to do since I was a child, I'm very happy.

Chris Arrant

Chris Arrant covered comic book news for Newsarama from 2003 to 2022 (and as editor/senior editor from 2015 to 2022) and has also written for USA Today, Life, Entertainment Weekly, Publisher's Weekly, Marvel Entertainment, TOKYOPOP, AdHouse Books, Cartoon Brew, Bleeding Cool, Comic Shop News, and CBR. He is the author of the book Modern: Masters Cliff Chiang, co-authored Art of Spider-Man Classic, and contributed to Dark Horse/Bedside Press' anthology Pros and (Comic) Cons. He has acted as a judge for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Harvey Awards, and the Stan Lee Awards. Chris is a member of the American Library Association's Graphic Novel & Comics Round Table. (He/him)