July 25, 2002
Mark of the Werewolf
For four years, comic book artist Don Perlin put a monster in Malibu.
In the 1970s -- dubbed "the Bronze Age" by comic book historians -- I was a kid living in Canarsie, Brooklyn, N.Y., where, every week, I blew my allowance on Marvel Comics. What I didn't know at the time was that Don Perlin, a Canarsie native, was illustrating some of those books in my very neighborhood -- at one point, on my block! With next week's San Diego ComiCon International, the nation's biggest comic book convention (Aug. 1-4), I reached my childhood hero by phone at his Jacksonville, Fla. residence.
Born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to refugees of the Russo-Japanese war, Perlin moved to Canarsie at age 3. Aside from his years in the Army and a brief residency in Crown Heights, N.Y., Perlin lived in Canarsie until 1996.
"When I was a kid, I thought it was the greatest place," Perlin, 74, said of the then-Jewish/Italian neighborhood. "We had big empty blocks. It was a lot freer than the city."
Perlin's grandparents and mother spoke Yiddish. His grandfather would teach Perlin the Aleph Bet and the Chumash.
But Perlin was encouraged to practice something other than Judaism: "I always wanted to draw," Perlin said. "It was the one thing I did the best. Other than that, nothing outstanding. Except I was good-looking."
Perlin got his start in the 1950s, employed by legendary cartoonist Will Eisner, and later Eisner's ex-business partner, Jerry Iger, to do menial work. Iger fired Perlin, telling the aspiring cartoonist that he couldn't rule a straight line. A determined Perlin put a portfolio together and marched back into Iger's studio, landing a staff artist position.
Perlin began drawing and inking Western, horror and "big foot" (humor) comics for all of the majors. In between, he supported his wife and three kids on gigs such as designing box labels.
In 1972, Perlin returned to Marvel, at the height of company's monster craze. In 1973, Perlin began to work on "Werewolf By Night," a monthly series in which Perlin and Doug Moench chronicled the angst-ridden exploits of Malibu resident Jack Russell, who wrestled with lycanthropy during a full moon.
Perlin took over the werewolf saga with issue 17, following popular artists such as Mike Ploog.
"The kids loved Ploog, and they weren't too happy to see me get in there," Perlin recalled. Heated debate over Perlin's art filled the letter columns in "Werewolf." Perlin got it from the top, too.
"You can't have him running around like Captain America," Perlin said he was told by one Marvel executive, who proceeded to demonstrate a werewolf's lope by running and jumping atop the office furniture.
Despite the hubbub, Perlin modified the Werewolf's design and made the book his own with a savage, almost primitive imprimatur. "Werewolf" sold well, before culminating with issue 43 in 1977.
In the 1980s, Perlin pulled long stints on "Ghost Rider" and "Defenders," wherein writer J.M. DeMatties became obsessed with the superhero team's soap opera relationships. Perlin became a master of showing costumed superheroes crying over love lost. Again, readers complained. The editors forced DeMatties and Perlin to re-focus their energies on superheroics. Perlin admired DeMatties' conviction but admitted, "You've got to remember who you've got reading this stuff. They weren't getting the sales on it. It's what cost us the book."
Perlin was an original artist on two toy-inspired titles that, this year, have enjoyed major revivals: "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers."
"The 'Transformers' was probably one of my most difficult books," said Perlin, the guy whom Iger claimed couldn't rule a straight line, and was now assigned to sketch scores of robots. To Perlin's relief, Marvel graduated him to managing art director (1987-1990).
At Marvel, Perlin co-created two popular superheroes: Moon Knight and Gargoyle. While his Marvel days have eclipsed the rest of his career, Perlin feels that his best work came in the 1990s on Acclaim titles such as "Bloodshot" and "Timewalker."
Looking back over his career, Perlin remembers his favorite artists, including his mentor, revered artist Brune Hogarth.
"When people ask me who is my favorite cartoonist, I answer 'God.' Just look around at all the characters he created."
In 1996, Perlin relocated with wife, Becky, to Jacksonville, where he now serves as president of National Cartoonist Society's (NCS) Florida chapter. Perlin, who for years drew werewolves running amok through Los Angeles, has only visited our city once -- in 1997, to collect his Reuben Award from the NCS. Even then, he never left his Pasadena hotel.
Perlin's career has had its ups and downs. Yet he still freelances. When asked about his profession's rewards, he quoted his favorite adage: "Find something you love to do, and you'll never work a day in your life."