This book has been on my list to write about for a while now, but given the sad news regarding the health of artist George Perez, it now seems like something I should get too sooner rather than later. For those who are unaware, george has been diagnosed with inoperable and terminal cancer, and he’s facing down his impending demise with astonishing grace and transparency. And so, while it’s inevitable that I’m going to talk about myself somewhat in the course of looking back at this issue, I’m also going to try to keep the overall focus where it belongs: on George and his astonishing work.
So, to set the scene a little bit: AVENGERS had been one of four core Marvel Universe titles that, over the course of the year prior to this release, had been outsourced to Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Studios and Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios to produce and package. The intention here was to allow Jim and Rob, two of the most successful artists in the history of the field, to reverse the sagging futures of four books that seemed out of step with what the comic book reading audience wanted in 1996. This represented a break with tradition, as it was the first time that any Marvel series had been outsourced, and it represented the sundering of the continuous Marvel Universe that had been established back in the 1960s–the Jim and Rob iterations of these titles would begin again from scratch and introduce the properties as though they were new. It was a divisive approach, but it definitely worked–the sales for all four HEROES REBORN books were good. But for a variety of reasons that don’t really impact on this AVENGERS #1 directly, the decision was made to bring the books back in house after the one-year deal concluded.
What this meant is that Marvel Editorial was then being challenged to not only maintain the much stronger sales numbers that Jim and Rob had delivered, but to build upon them. As a result, there was a lot of pressure on the new HEROES RETURN iterations of these series–some of which was financial, some of which amounted to pride. One of the first titles assigned was IRON MAN, which I was going to edit and which was going to be written by Kurt Busiek, with whom I’d worked extensively on UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN and THUNDERBOLTS. We had lined up Sean Chen to be the artist of the book and finalized designs for a new iron Man armor based off of a design that Alex Ross had created for a never-realized pitch years before. But then, there was a sea change.
Ralph Macchio had been the editor of AVENGERS before the hand-off, and he was also close with editor in chief Bob Harras, who had started out as Ralph’s assistant. In thinking about how to generate super-strong sales for AVENGERS, Ralph hit on the notion of having his old friend George Perez do the book. My memory of this is that Bob Harras wasn’t a tremendous Perez fan, but having no better ideas for what to do, went along with Ralph’s recommendation. George was approached about not only illustrating the series but also writing it. And he told Ralph that he’d be happy to come back to draw AVENGERS–he’d done a well-remembered stint on the title in the late 1970s and it was still strongly associated with him even twenty years later–but he didn’t think he was in a place where he could write it. He had fallen out of touch with the events of the Marvel Universe over the years, and so he recommended getting either Mark Waid or Kurt Busiek to scribe the series. Kurt was called first, and he took the job without much hesitation.
The thing was, there was some bad blood between Ralph and Kurt. Again, nothing that is worth getting into here, but the upshot is that Kurt told Bob that he would prefer to be working with me on the title. And so I was the last man in the pool on this assignment. (As a consequence, IRON MAN was shifted out of my office and handed over to Bobbie Chase to helm, though my development work was still maintained.) I hadn’t especially been an AVENGERS fan growing up. I mean, I liked the book well enough, but no more or less so than any other–it wasn’t a special favorite like FANTASTIC FOUR or anything.
What I was, though, was a huge fan of George Perez. George was my favorite contemporary super hero comic book artist, and had been for years, going back to the earliest issues of FANTASTIC FOUR that I had purchased as a kid. I had worked with George a few times before this–He did a few Trading Cards for me, and inked the first issue of SPIDER-MAN: HOBGOBLIN LIVES as well as a Stan Lee-scripted Spider-man story in an Annual. And right before HEROES REBORN, he had written an issue of SPIDER-MAN TEAM-UP for me that had guest-starred the Avengers. At one point, we had been speaking about ULTRAFORCE, the Malibu comics series that George had helped to launch and whose team was made up of characters who were different spins on a variety of super hero archetypes. George revealed to me that the money had been good on ULTRAFORCE, but that every morning when he sat down at the drawing table, he wanted to be drawing the Avengers rather than these guys. Now he was going to get his chance.
It probably needs to be said that George’s reputation as a producer was fairly well in tatters at this time. He’d done a slew of projects over the past decade, but somehow, ever since he stopped drawing WONDER WOMAN over at DC, he never quite managed to complete more than an issue or two before deadlines did him in. His work was still stellar–if anything, he’d continued to improve over the years–but his inconsistent track record had kept the fans of this generation from really recognizing him in the way readers in the 1970s and 1980s had. The most regular joke that people made whenever they were told that George was going to be drawing AVENGERS for HEROES RETURN was inevitably, “All right, so who’s drawing issue #2?”
But George got the last laugh on his naysayers. He was ready to buckle down and prove his detractors wrong. And he did so in fine style: not only was he the artist on the HEROES RETURN titles that lasted the longest time without requiring a fill-in or an artistic change, but he managed to draw the first 15 issues of the book before having to skip one, with two of those (#1 and #12) being oversized. In all, he remained the artist-in-residence on AVENGERS through issue #34, a hell of a run for anybody. (Me, I’ve kind of exceeded that in my own way–I’ve been the editor of AVENGERS ever since, a tenure that is almost 25 years long.)
What’s more, George put his all into those first AVENGERS issues. While he’d switch back to doing breakdowns (or what he considered breakdowns–which were often tighter and more fully realized than a lot of other artists’ full pencils) after issue #4, the initial storyline he produced in full, lush pencil. Fortunately for history, this AVENGERS run was so successful that, to capitalize on it and generate a few more dollars for Marvel’s bottom line, I convinced the powers-that-be to release AVENGERS: ROUGH CUT #1, which contained reproductions of all of George’s uninked pencils as well as Kurt’s plot. It’s where I’ve been pulling the majority of the images for this piece from. The ROUGH CUT books that Marvel put out had no balloons–later, DC would perfect the format in my eyes by adding the balloons atop the pencils, so the story could still be read. I thought that was a distinct improvement over my concept, though in this instance I’m happy that the balloons aren’t there to be covering up any of the artwork.
Which brings us back to the story. Kurt and I had a well-oiled working relationship at this stage, and I was aware of his overall feelings concerning the Avengers. I believe we had talked about the Steve Englehart run on several occasions, likely in reference to the work we were trying to do in THUNDERBOLTS. In true fashion, when Kurt first spoke to George about the book, and which characters he most wanted to include on the team, George responded, “All of them!” He had mad ehis reputation in part thanks to his willingness to draw enormous crowds of super heroes, and so he wanted an opportunity to make an impact and show what he could do once again.
This led to Kurt and myself doing a deep dive to research the actual provenance of Avengers membership–who had joined, and when. There had been a number of full rosters published over the years, but we found that we disagreed with most all of them on one point or another. Kurt wound up doing almost all of the legwork on this research, his muscles in that regard well-honed from having done the same sorts of things on MARVELS and UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN. We worked out what we considered to be an accurate and comprehensive listing of heroes who had officially joined the group and when exactly they had done so. (We had to fudge on one or two of the entries, as certain characters were simply assumed to be Avengers past a certain point without any formal induction ever being shown.) This wasn’t wasted effort as it turned out, as this document is still the basis of the roster we use to this day (although it’s length has more than doubled over the past two-plus decades.
George started out by working up the cover, which was to feature every character in the series. Because so many of his compositions were so involved, George preferred not to do a cover sketch ahead of time–we would discuss the content of a particular cover over the phone, and then he would go off and execute it. This caused a bit of friction with a short-lived art director who had been hired up at Marvel (who was quite within his rights to demand a sketch on every cover.) I won that fight, with some help from EIC Bob Harras. It didn’t hurt that AVENGERS under George’s pencil was a smash success.
AVENGERS #1 wound up being the best-selling of the four HEROES RETURN titles, and the series maintained that position for a number of years thereafter. For older readers, it heralded a return to the flavor and style of the team that they remembered from years gone by, when George had been drawing the book. For younger readers, the stories and artwork struck a nerve in a big way. I’m convinced that coming back to AVENGERS made George a superstar again with a generation for whom he’d been largely unknown before. It was the standout success of that period.
Working with Kurt and George on the book was always a pleasure. George in particular seemed grateful for the opportunity as well as the way in which the fans embraced what he was doing. There’s a story that George once related to me that I like to tell to the younger Marvel editors whom I instruct: Years before, George had returned to Marvel to work on the INFINITY GAUNTLET crossover being written by Jim Starlin. This was the early 1990s, and George had been away from Marvel at that point for close to a decade. After the first issue came out, George did a convention appearance, where he was approached by an enthusiastic young fan. This kid could not say enough good about George’s work, and he concluded his praise by telling Perez that if he kept on going in this manner, he could be the next Todd McFarlane. Now, some artists would have been miffed to be compared thusly to an artist who came into the business so much later than they had. But George’s take-away was very simple. That kid had no idea what he had done in the past, had never read NEW TEEN TITANS or CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS or WONDER WOMAN. To him, George was a new face, and he was competing with the hottest artists in the field at that moment for the kid’s attention. This motivated George to always give 100% when he was at the board and to never take his popularity for granted. It can become easy to rest on ones laurels a little bit, but George understood that he was a new find for each successive new reader who came into the hobby.
George is renowned as a super hero action artist, but not enough is made of his storytelling chops. He would instinctively break down a page that Kurt might have thought was five panels into eight, or nine, or ten, whatever communicated the story in the best way. For all that George could go large, he was equally adept at going small, and personal. He had also expanded his repertoire from his earliest days, when everybody he drew had a similar facial construction. George developed individual features for all of the Avengers (as he had done years earlier with the New Teen Titans.) This was one of the things that helped to humanize his characters, to make them inviting.
On this spread on Pages 16-17 of AVENGERS #1 in which George drew the entirety of the Avengers membership gathering in the Mansion for the coming struggle, he had put an empty frame above the mantlepiece. He had intended for it to be filled with the image of his 30th anniversary Avengers poster. But in those pre-internet days, not only could we not come up with reproduction materials for the poster that would work in that space, but the thing was so detailed that we were afraid that it would turn into mush once reduced to that small size (since, like the panel it was in, it showed off every Avenger who had been a part of the team by that point.) It was my decision to instead substitute Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers’ cover from the original AVENGERS #1–not only did it feel appropriate and would work at that size, but it was also something we could easily reproduce. This constituted perhaps my greatest contribution to this issue.
This first storyline was intended to help establish and define just what it was that separated the Avengers from all other super hero teams–what the “Avengers spirit” really meant. This entailed having Morgan LeFay remake the world into a medieval-style realm, in which the heroes would be cast in new identities. Not only did Kurt dutifully come up with new names for each of these alternate Avengers (my favorite, which I recall to this day, was “Sir MacHinery” for Machine Man) but George originated a new design for every one of them. It was a staggering amount of design work to pull off for a short adventure with so many characters. But it was feats like these that made readers sit up and take notice, I expect.
Among the core Avengers, while he liked them all, George had a strong affinity for Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. He gave Wanda a new outfit that was more strongly reflective of her Romani roots–an attire that was relatively impractical, but which also made her stand out as an individual. George’s cover for issue #2 featured Wanda in this outfit, but the EIC was uncomfortable with it, and had it pulled. We wound up shifting what had been created as the cover for issue #3 onto #2 and then George did a new cover focusing on the resurrected Wonder Man for issue #3. he told me that it was the fastest cover he’d ever done–until he beat his own record on the Ultron-focused cover for issue #19.
There’s a lot more that I could say, both about working on this run of AVENGERS and about George himself. But this piece is beginning to get too long as it is. And so I’ll leave things with this: it is often said, never meet your heroes, and there is some truth to that sentiment. But every once in a while, there are people who live up to your expectations and more. For me, George was one of those people, and it was my absolute honor to work with him and alongside him on AVENGERS and elsewhere. And I sincerely hope that his final days are filled with love and joy.