Encomiums should be written while people are around to enjoy them, which was the reason for dusting this soapbox off in the first place. So let’s talk about Don Perlin this week. Don’s under the weather at the moment and while he’s healing, I thought it would be nice to send him our love and a get-well wish with a look-back at his impressive, reliable career.
Don was born in 1929 and raised in New York City. His father had always wanted to be a pro artist but circumstances hadn’t allowed it, so when Don showed talent, he was greatly encouraged. “We never figured out what kind of an artist I was going to be,” he explained, “but the path was marked early on. I loved comic books…I would collect them, trade them. In those days, kids didn’t save them like now–you’d read one and trade with friends so you didn’t have to buy all the different ones.” Don was 14 when he caught an ad from Burne Hogarth in his high school paper offering a cartooning class. Hogarth leased a loft in a small building on Broadway where half a dozen students met each Saturday morning. Don’s father called Hogarth and his boy was accepted as a student. Don recalls the pivotal moment: “I knew comic books was the thing I wanted to do and everything then was focused to that goal.” By the time Hogarth opened his Cartoonists and Illustrators School–alma mater to such future stars as Ross Andru, Dick Ayers, Mike Esposito and Roy Krenkel–Don was already a graduate peddling his wares.
The first professional gig came at the age of 19, pencilling a cops-and-robbers story for Fox Features (inked by Pete Morisi). Soon, Don wracked up credits with Timely, St. John, Hillman, and Harvey. In 1953, he even assisted Will Eisner on The Spirit for three weeks. “That was about when that psychiatrist Wertham came into the picture, and I was drafted,” he recalled. “But I went into the army and for a few months in the army I was doing stuff for Stan Lee. Then things in comics got worse and I couldn’t get any more work. When I came back out of the army, I started getting a few things from Timely and then they went under.” Nevertheless, comics were in Don’s blood now, so full-time jobs as a technical illustrator and then a packaging designer couldn’t stop him from taking comics work on the side, including jobs from Charlton and DC (doing Weird War for editor Murray Boltinoff).
One day, Roy Thomas called from Marvel and said there were two books available: Werewolf By Night and “Morbius: The Living Vampire”. “Morbius was bi-monthly and the other was monthly, so I took the monthly book,” Don remembers. He spent three years on Werewolf, then three more on Ghost Rider while also inking Sal Buscema on Captain America. Eventually, he ended up on The Defenders and also did odd issues of The Avengers and Marvel Team-Up. When Jim Shooter left Marvel to form Valiant, he took Don with him — and we all remember how cool those books were.
Here’s Chuck Dixon weighing in on Don: “I’ve often used one particular freelancer as an example to disprove the fatuousness of the ‘youth is king’ philosophy of comics. By 1990 there was possibly no freelancer in comics whose career was deader than Don Perlin’s. The guy had done yeoman work, mostly at Marvel, for decades. I think even Don would admit he never set the world of comics on fire. Sure, his books sold just fine. A long run on Werewolf By Night was popular, but no one was clamoring for the “next Don Perlin” or imitating the “Don Perlin Style.” So, things being what they are, time passed Mr. Perlin by. But along comes Acclaim Comics and Jim Shooter, looking for guys who can draw and who understand that monthly comics come out every 30 days, hires Don to pencil some of his books. Suddenly, Perlin is popular. Not just popular. He’s HOT. This guy for whom everything was “over” or “never was” now has lines at conventions rivaling the Image guys. I saw him at a big New York con and the guy looked bewildered as hell seated with a long line of enthusiastic kids clamoring for his attention and signature. I felt happy for him. And I didn’t see any kids turned off by the fact that he was probably older than their dad. They bonded to him ’cause he did the comics they liked. He wasn’t pierced in any portion of his body. Not only didn’t he wear his ballcap backwards, he didn’t wear a ballcap at all. They didn’t know he was middle-aged and unhip when they enjoyed his work and it was still irrelevant when they saw him in person.”
When I heard Don was ill, I passed the news to friends who should hear it. All of them who’d worked with Don–from Marie Severin to Neal Adams–used the same word to describe him: Reliable. That’s a word I wouldn’t mind associated with me behind my back. Reliable has lazy piece of shit beat hands down.
If Don was up for it, I’d call now and say hey and get one of his poignant observations on the industry. Here’s one for the record: “[Today’s comics] have lost their uniqueness. You used to be able to pick up a book and you could tell John Buscema did this, or Neal Adams did that, or Herb Trimpe did something, and it was interesting. Now you look at them and it looks all the same. The main thing that seems to have gotten better in comic books is the technical end. They use better paper.”
You said it, Don. Of course, there’s still a few things worth looking at, but we miss seeing your work. So here’s to a speedy recovery!
P.S. Drop Don a get-well message at DPerlin@bellsouth.net
Grateful acknowledgement to Bob Layton for the warm update on Don’s health and to Daniel Best for his in-depth interview with Don Perlin from 2003, which I’ve liberally quoted from (read it in its entirety at http://www.adelaidecomicsandbooks.com/perlin.htm)
© 2004, Clifford Meth