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Growing up with a Boricua comic book legend

In the storied list of accomplished Puerto Ricans, there’s one Boricua who has earned his fame in a field that is, perhaps, not as widely appreciated as, say, film or medicine. His name: George Pérez. His field: Comic book artist.

Born and raised in the South Bronx, George is an industry legend with over forty years producing jaw-dropping work on some of comic’s biggest titles, including AvengersJustice LeagueCrisis on Infinite Earths, Wonder Woman, and his co-creation, The New Teen Titans.

In 1975, along with Bill Mantlo, he also co-created the industry’s first Puerto Rican superhero: White Tiger, a master martial artist who appeared in "Sons of the Tiger", a serialized action-adventure strip published in Marvel's long-running Deadly Hands of Kung Fu magazine. White Tiger’s secret identity was Hector Ayala, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and then moved to New York where, as a student at Empire State College, he transformed into White Tiger through the power of Jade Tiger amulets, which gave him enhanced marital arts powers.

Peers and fans, which are legion, agree that George is one of the greatest, most influential comic book artists of all time.

He happens to also be my brother.

George and I were born a little under a year apart—he on June 9, 1954, I on May 28, 1955. We grew up in the Millbrook Houses, a ten-building public housing complex which ran from 135th Street to 137th Street, from Cypress Avenue to the east to Brook Avenue to the west. Millbrook was one of several housing projects sprouting up in the Mott Haven area. Along with the Melrose and Port Morris sections, Mott Haven was part of what would later be designated Bronx Community District No. 1, the area with the highest concentration of housing projects in the Bronx—eleven complexes totally 11,149 units.

In 1958, the year my parents moved there, the Millbrook Houses were sparkling new, a virtual mini-city: concrete and glass high-risers nestled in an enclosed community complete with crisp lawns, newly-planted trees, and six playgrounds. George and I explored the area in matching red-seat tricycles and clamp-on roller skates.

Our parents, Jorge Pérez and Luz Maria Izquierdo, encouraged us to learn English, which we did primarily through comic books, reading them both to ourselves and aloud to each other. When you think about it, comic book dialogue can be pretty sophisticated, with descriptions of inter-galactic empires and futuristic scientific weaponry. Alongside simple lines like, “Hulk mad!” you have the Silver Surfer “navigating the endless bounds of space and time.”


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We also practiced by watching endless hours of television, from Superman to The Beverly Hillbillies to The Twilight Zone to Million-Dollar Movie. When the lights went out at bedtime, we re-enacted entire films we had memorized, and I mean all the dialogue, and if they were musicals, the songs too. We committed to memory Hercules Unchained, March of the Wooden Soldiers and Jack and the Beanstalk, the musical version with Abbot and Costello. Before long, George and I would become totally English-language dominant.

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George began drawing when he was five years old, sketching characters like Popeye and Mighty Mouse on brown paper bags from neighborhood bodegas, which averaged two per block. In time, I started drawing cartoon characters as well, and I was pretty good at it. But when we moved on to actual people, George’s budding talent left me in the dust. I could only draw the same bearded Steve Reeves-like character, and only in profile from the neck up. I labeled my signature piece, “H-S,” short for Hercules-Samson, my two beloved sword-and-sandal champions. When I tried the muscled arms, torso and legs, my sense of anatomical proportion went haywire, leaving my strongman with tiny legs supporting an impossibly huge head.

George, on the other hand, had the bodily proportions down pat. His Cyclops from The Uncanny X-Men may have looked wimpy compared to H-S, but at least his body looked human. Then George started creating his own super-heroes, like Rubber Band Man, which he drew on the bathroom hamper. “Mira, un hombre de goma,” our father marveled. After that came The Bat, who was blind (this was pre-Daredevil), and the Kleptomaniac Kid, who could look at an object and make it appear in his hand.

I tried keeping up with my big brother, but gave up when he learned to illustrate women, the dimensions precise, as if hardwired in his system. My woman looked, well, I can’t even describe it.

While we always remained close, by our teenage years George and I were heading in different directions. I gravitated towards the streets, lured by the increasing toughness of the South Bronx, admiring the gangs and tecatos and those who “didn’t give a shit,” the ultimate badge of cool. Just like my brother, I had been a top student in school, but eventually felt that getting high and partying didn’t require a lot of work. The 70s saw the rise of Salsa, the birth of disco, and the seeds of hip-hop, and ‘Ricans were kicking it on all those fronts. But the street operates by its own rules, much like an ocean undertow. So amidst all the gozando I also found myself without direction and purpose. Luckily, I didn’t go too far under.

George, on the other hand, never felt comfortable hanging out in the hood, and preferred to stay home and practice drawing. Constantly. One time he made a comic featuring his junior high school classmates at St. Luke’s Elementary School, with some of the caricature drawings dead on accurate, like chain-smoking Fermin Rivera with a slew of cigarettes protruding from his clenched teeth. That was the first time I fully realized the incredible talent my brother had, a gift that as an adult would take him to the top of the comic book world.

You see, it had morphed into much more than the drawing. George was now creating his own stories. Say what you will about comic books, or even comic strips, but they’re great forms of storytelling, requiring skill and thought as you move from panel to panel. When do you use words? When does the image say it all? What pushes the plot along? What colors do you use, and why?

And here’s the thing: George honed his craft without ever having taken an art class. Not one. While I was spending my allowance on Mota and Colt 45, George was buying flair pens and sketchpads. He studied acting at Cardinal Hayes High School and got into Shakespeare. He wrote and illustrated more original stories, with titles like Terror Train and The Battalion.

 All this was during the time that the nascent Nuyorican community was telling stories through poetry and music and drama and graffiti, building itself as a force that would shape-shift the visual, written and spoken word forever. In many respects, the Nuyorican movement was underground, or at least often felt that way. Well, so were comic books.

Yet how many thousands of us cut our reading and storytelling teeth with comic books? Arguably, comics are one of the places where we found our grandest adventure, our greatest fantasy. How many of us ran like the Flash, lived in Aasgard with Thor, rode on an invisible plane like Wonder Woman, worked in the Baxter Building with The Fantastic Four? Said “Baya!” when we first saw the White Tiger? Or even knew that one of George’s first portfolio in 1977 was titled, “Pérez: Accent on the First ‘E’,” a way of getting people to finally pronounce that last name correctly?

Of course, George is not the first and only Latino comic artist to achieve success, and if you include cartoonists in the mix, the list of gifted artists goes back several decades and crosses many borders. Nonetheless, it should be another source of Boricua pride that at a time when the South Bronx burned into national consciousness as a place of arson and poverty, there were also jewels in our midst that bucked the odds, and added another Puerto Rican name that we can celebrate and call our own.


© David Pérez. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 5 February 2016. 
All images courtesy of George Pérez.