Written by Bryan Stroud
Don Perlin (born August 27, 1929) is an American comic book artist and occasional writer best known for Marvel Comics' Werewolf by Night, Moon Knight, The Defenders, and Ghost Rider. Beginning his career as a comic artist in the 1940's, Don worked for several different publishers - including Harvey Comics, Ziff-Davis, Atlas, and PS Magazine. In 1962 Perlin started an 11 year stint at Charlton Comics, drawing stories across a variety of genres. In 1974 Don began his long association with Marvel Comics, where he would go on to co-create the Moon Knight character. In the 1990s, he worked for Valiant Comics as artist and editor - but left the company shortly after it was purchased by Acclaim.
Don is another of those tremendously reliable and talented artists who probably don't get the recognition they deserve. He recently had his 89th birthday and is still a wonderful elder statesman with lots of experience and some great stories, as you'll soon read for yourself.
This interview originally took place over the phone on February 25, 2010.
Bryan Stroud: How did you get your start?
Don Perlin: I always wanted to draw and I always like to draw cartoons. While I was in high school, Burne Hogarth had put an ad in some of the high school papers about a class he’d be having on Saturday mornings in Manhattan. I showed it to my Dad and he called Hogarth. We went to his apartment and showed him some of the things I’d done and he accepted me into to the class. There I started learning about comic books and comic strips and the “how-to” part of things. From there on I started trying to get into the business and slowly I managed to. My first job was after I graduated high school, for Fox Features Syndicate. I worked for them for a little while and then they went belly-up. They owed a lot of artists a lot of money.
Stroud: Oh, no.
Perlin: They had a policy of paying in 90 days and there were artists running up big bills with them. I kept pestering them for money so they didn’t give me a lot of work; I only lost a hundred and some odd dollars. There were artists that lost thousands of dollars. At that time the companies did not buy penciling and inking separately. People were either doing their own inking or teaming up with somebody they knew.
Stroud: Like (Ross) Andru and Mike Esposito.
Perlin: Right. At one point I teamed up with a fellow named Abe Simon who was a letterer.
Stroud: So he was doing the inking?
Perlin: Yes, he was doing the inking. I was penciling. We worked together for quite awhile until the Kefauver Commission hearings. They were trying to blame all juvenile delinquency on comic books. The comic book business slowed down, work was hard to find, Abe and I split up. I started inking my own work. I penciled three issues of the weekly Spirit comic book for Will Eisner and then we parted company. I had an uncle that sent me to camp. What I mean by that is that I was drafted into the Army in ’53. When I came out I found it difficult getting back into comics.
Stroud: Was there a lack of work or too much competition?
Perlin: I don’t know. At first, I got some work from Stan Lee. I delivered a job and his secretary called me after I got home.
“Hey, Stan wants me to tell you that was a great job.”
“Well, do you have another one for me?”
“We’ll be in touch.”
That was the last I heard from him for eleven years.
Stroud: That’s a pretty long dry spell.
Perlin: Yeah, in the interim I worked as a technical illustrator. Taking blueprints and converting them to three-dimensional exploded views. I worked for a company that did the parts catalog for Boeing airliners. These were the books that the mechanics kept in the hangars so that they could order the parts. We drew every screw, washer, bolt and everything else in the planes. I got to the point where I thought I could go in there and take the plane apart with a screwdriver.
Stroud: (Laughter.) Sounds a little bit tedious.
Perlin: I don’t know. I kind of enjoyed it. It was different. After that I went to work as a package designer for a manufacturer of paper boxes. I would do dummy artwork for the boxes and after they were approved I did the camera-ready art so that it could be printed. I worked there until one of the partners did some tricks with the books and the place went out of business.
I was going for a job interview with another company to do paste-ups and mechanicals. This was before computers. I was going in on Monday morning and Sunday morning I got a call from Roy Thomas. I’d been doing some comic book work in the evenings when I got home from working at the different day jobs that I had. Roy had seen some of the horror stories that I had done for DC. He told me about two books that they were looking for artists for and asked if would I be interested? One of them was Werewolf by Night and the other was Morbius, the Living Vampire. When I went to Marvel and spoke to them I was told that Werewolf was a monthly and Morbius was a bi-monthly so I took the monthly book deciding that would be a great job.
Stroud: Steady work.
Perlin: Right. So, from then on, I worked for Marvel and didn’t miss a day. I went from the Werewolf to Ghost Rider and Defenders and Transformers. I worked on most of the characters that Marvel had while I was there. Then I went to Valiant.
Stroud: Weren’t you one of the very first editors for Valiant?
Perlin: I wore more than one cap. When I went to Valiant they had a tie-in with Nintendo. They were going to do comic books with Super Mario and some of the other Nintendo characters. I drew some of those Super Mario books. I edited them. Nintendo had their own magazine that was selling millions of copies and they thought all those people were going to buy the comic books, but they weren’t interested in the comic book stories, they were interested in the gaming, how to win strategies for the games.
When we went to doing our own comic books, I did the Solar comic. I edited a number of books. I was the originating artist on Solar, Bloodshot, Timewalker and the Bad Eggs. I went through eleven or twelve issues on Solar and then we decided we were going to do the Bloodshot book. So, I started that and did it for about seventeen issues. Then they needed somebody to do the beginning of Timewalker, so I did that. That’s when the comic book industry started to cave in on itself.
Stroud: It does seem to have its cycles.
Perlin: Well, they were doing things they shouldn’t have been doing. The people that were buying them were investing. Comic books were created as a dime item for kids’ entertainment. The kids would read them and trade them until they fell apart and then discard them. When the collectors came along these books were scarce, so the prices on them were high and people were amazed that Superman #1 is worth thousands of dollars. Suddenly there was the perception that comic books were worth so much money that people began to treat them as if they were an investment. But it didn’t work that way because there were a finite number of collectors, say 400,000 and now when they printed books they’d print enough to cover everybody that wanted one and more. People thought they were collecting something that would be of value. The thing that had originally made them valuable was that they were scarce. The new comics were not!
Now comic books also had competition from electronic games. Then the publishers started getting cute by taking the same issue of a comic book and making 10 different covers for it and telling you that you weren’t a real collector unless you had all 10 covers with the same book in it… You can do that maybe once or twice, but as Lincoln said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time.” I guess they didn’t study their history. People weren’t buying books because they weren’t the great investment they thought they were. The “investments” were in big trouble.
Stroud: The market wasn’t really there after all.
Perlin: I remember one telling incident. I used do store appearances and sign comic books. Collectors would come to see me and get their books signed. This happened when Bloodshot #1 came out. The book was selling for $3.50. If you bought the book in the store, I would sign it for the cover price. You just bought it and I’d sign it. If you had a copy that you’d bought somewhere else they would charge $3.50 to have me sign it. A young fellow came in with 15 copies he’d bought somewhere else and he wanted them all signed. So, while I was signing them I asked him, “How did you like the book? What did you think of the story?” He said, “Oh, I didn’t read it. I didn’t open any of them. They’re all going in bags and I’m putting them away. I’ll take them out in a year and they’ll be worth a lot of money.” But there were 850,000 copies of that book printed. And there are only 400,000 collectors, so everybody had at least two if they wanted it, right? Now you can get it for a dollar, with my signature and a certificate of authenticity. So that’s what helped bring comics down.
Perlin: I don’t read comic books now. They’re different. Am I going to get myself in trouble here?
Stroud: Not at all. There’s not much out there that interests me these days, either.
Perlin: To me they all look the same. They’re all colored with the computer, which is good because you can get a lot of great effects with it, but for the most part they all look the same. I remember the last few times that I looked at comics I said you could take pages out of 5 or 6 books and shuffle them like a deck of cards and then put them together and it would take awhile before you figured out it was from different books. (Chuckle.)
Back in the day when we would do the book we never thought about getting the artwork back. You gave it to the company and you never saw it again. The only thing it was good for was feeding your printing press. Nobody was going to see this artwork again. So, if you patched it or used white paint it didn’t make any difference. When the publishers started returning the work artists started doing things that looked great on the wall so that they could sell their pieces when they got them back. With that in mind they’d do a lot of stuff that wasn’t good story telling, it was a lot of fancy pictures. I now see they’re reprinting stuff I did 30 years ago into these graphic novels. Essentials of this and that in black and white and selling them for $16.00 or $17.00
Stroud: It certainly has changed a lot over the years. I think it speaks well to your work and that of your peers that there’s obviously a market for reprinting the older work.
Perlin: When I get calls or interest from someone like you it makes me feel good. I get Google alerts sometimes where my name comes up out there. Sometimes it’s someone critiquing a book I did 30 years ago and if they liked it I say, “There’s a smart fella.” If they don’t I wonder why they’re bothering to talk about a 30-year-old book and taking the time to say it was no good. (Chuckle.) I started reading through some of the Essentials volumes that they sent. I even got one from DC. House of Secrets or something like that. There was one story that I did for them in there.
Stroud: Do you do commissions these days?
Perlin: I do. I have a gallery at comicartfans.com, so if you go there and go under “P” for Perlin you’ll see examples of the stuff I’ve been doing.
Stroud: Amongst all the different duties you had as penciler, inker and editor, which did you prefer?
Perlin: I like to draw, so the penciling was my primary enjoyment. I liked that. Editing helped me get some of my bossiness out of me. (Chuckle.) When I was an editor at Valiant I had some darn good people working on those books and I didn’t really have to take a heavy hand to anything.
Stroud: I noticed in your credits you worked on Iron Man for a while and you already mentioned Ghost Rider.
Perlin: I did a few issues of Iron Man and I believe I penciled a few and then inked a few that George Tuska did. I also inked some Captain America stories that Sal Buscema did and I think I penciled some Caps. Lots of things I can’t even remember any more. I worked for Harvey Comics in the early days when their horror stuff first came out. I did some work for Charlton.
Stroud: I’ll ask you what I asked Frank McLaughlin: How did you survive on Charlton’s rates?
Perlin: Well, that was when I had another job. It wasn’t my main source of income. Charlton was a cheap company. I hate to say that. I worked for two nice editors there. Three actually, I worked for Dick Giordano for a little while. Then Sal Gentilli took over and after him George Wildman. They were all great guys to work for. A couple of times I was offered a job in Connecticut to be an editor but they wouldn’t budge on the salary or even give me assistance to move from New York to Connecticut, so I let that pass.
Stroud: I can’t blame you. That would be a major commitment for no additional reward.
Perlin: And then of course they eventually went belly-up. People were getting low rates and they were actually hacking out most of the stuff, but now, from what I see on the internet, collectors seem to be nostalgic and think Charlton was so great.
Stroud: Well, obviously Steve Ditko’s work has always had a following, but other than a few things here and there, in my opinion Charlton didn’t do anything all that outstanding.
Perlin: There was some stuff that came out of there that was nice. I remember Pete Morisi did some stuff for them. He went under the name of PAM. He did a character called Johnny Danger, I believe. I forget the names, but I remember they looked good. A lot of us in the cartoonist field followed the path to get any kind of work you could and keep the money coming in. They had enough respect for themselves to try to do a decent job no matter who it was for. So as a result, you’d get some interesting things even at the low budget places like Charlton.
Stroud: Sure. When you were penciling did you have a favorite inker?
Perlin: There were a number of them that I thought were very good. At Marvel I liked Kim DeMulder, Joe Sinnott and Jack Abel. At Valiant I had Stan Drake inking my stuff on Solar. Are you familiar with Stan Drake?
Stroud: A little bit.
Perlin: He had this strip called The Heart of Juliet Jones and he inked my Solar stuff. Then there was John Dixon who came from Australia and he had done a comic strip there for 28 years called Airhawk and he inked a lot of my work on Bloodshot. Then on Timewalker and the Bad Eggs, Gonzalo Mayo did a great job. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Bad Eggs?
Stroud: Not really.
Perlin: It was a raunchy funny strip about these two raptor dinosaurs and their adventures in prehistoric times. One had a goatee and wore sunglasses and the other one wore a baseball cap backward and a t-shirt that said, “Bite me!” It was a lot of fun to do.
Stroud: You did some work for DC, but not a great deal.
Perlin: I was doing horror stories. Neal Adams took me up to see Joe Orlando to get me some work at DC. Joe Orlando put me onto that magazine…National Lampoon. I did a number of stories for them and then one time they called me up and wanted to give me a story called “The Kennedy They Couldn’t Kill.” It was a spoof of the Kennedy family and I figured it would be okay. Politicians are supposed to have thick skins. So I went down there and I got the script and I took it home and read it and I discovered it wasn’t about any of the Kennedy politicians. It was about the sister that was retarded. They wanted to portray her with the hanging down stockings and all, and I couldn’t get into it. I said, “No”. I thought this story would be poking fun at politicians, but this was a woman with problems and not a very happy life. I turned it back in and told them I couldn’t do it. They took it back and never spoke to me again.
Stroud: I couldn’t blame you. That doesn’t sound like it was in very good taste even for a parody.
Perlin: It wasn’t and I wouldn’t be proud to have my name on it. I guess in the long run it didn’t do me too much harm. Then I did some horror comics for DC working for Murray Boltinoff and that sort of led to the call I told you about earlier from Roy Thomas to do the Werewolf book. So, I was doing both the DC horror books and the Werewolf book for Marvel. Everything was fine until one day I walked into Boltinoff’s office and he found out that I was doing the book for Marvel and he got totally upset and said, “Who are you working for, them or us?” The people at Marvel knew I was doing work for DC and they didn’t care. Marvel would get would calls from firms outside comics asking for any artists that can do a kind of superhero illustration that they needed. Lots of times they’d give them my name. So, they didn’t care. All they cared about was if you got your work in on time. So, I parted company with DC. Then later on, after I moved to Florida, I got to do something really different, some Scooby-Doo stories. I’m a bit on the versatile side. I can do cartoony stuff or horror stuff or whatever you want to pay me for. (Laughter.)
Stroud: I noticed you’d done a little of everything from war books to superhero to love stories and jungle adventures and westerns.
Perlin: Anything and everything.
Stroud: Even some Conan.
Perlin: I inked some Conan the Barbarian stuff for Marvel and then I did some black and white books for King Kull I think it was. I did Conan #222 where I penciled, inked and wrote the story. I’m not sure it was all that great, but I did it. (Chuckle.)
Stroud: That’s no small feat.
Perlin: I was working for a while as managing art director. I worked with John Romita who was the Executive Art Director. I liked to draw and I didn’t get much chance to do it while I was serving as Art Director, so it was getting boring. Right around then Jim Shooter started Valiant and offered me a job, I’d never been in a start up company and it looked like it might be fun and if it didn’t work…but it worked, so (chuckle) I had a good experience and I enjoyed it.
Stroud: Good for you. When you’ve seen characters that you’ve worked on up on the big screen, do you think comic characters are good in the movie house?
Perlin: It depends on how you do it. If they took the essence of what made the comic character good and interesting enough in the comic book to get to the point where you would want to put them on the big screen and interpreted it for the big screen, then you would have a successful picture. Like they did with Spider-Man, for example. The first movie was tremendous and everybody liked it. Tobey Maguire was an excellent choice in casting. He was even interesting when he was Peter Parker, but by the time they got to the third one it was getting a little repetitive. When they did the Hulk, they seemed to forget about the Hulk comic book. Everything was different. They seemed to ignore everything that made the Hulk what he was except that he was big and green. He was too big in the movie. He was like 15 feet tall unlike in the comic book where he was big but not that big. His origin was ignored and stuff was put in so the actors could emote with the father and all. Then the second half seemed to go to the animators so they could do the Hulk bouncing around. I thought they did a pretty decent job on the Ghost Rider, but that wasn’t received too well.
Stroud: As you look back over so many decades of your career, what was your greatest satisfaction?
Perlin: Living this long, I guess. (Chuckle.) And to tell you the truth if it wasn’t for my wife I wouldn’t have. There was many a time she caught things that needed to be taken care of or I would have been taken care of if you know what I mean. So, I’m still alive and kicking. I also feel that if you get the blessing to do something that you love and can make a living doing it and every once in awhile someone pats you on the back it makes you feel good. I lucked out.