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@Steve Cook; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of DC Comics

by Andrew Farago

George Pérez was born in New York City seventy years ago this Sunday, on June 9, 1954. Over the course of his 50-year professional career, Pérez established himself as a true Legend among comic book creators. New Teen Titans, Avengers, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Wonder Woman, The Infinity Gauntlet, JLA/Avengers… Pérez illustrated nearly every major character for Marvel and DC Comics in popular, impactful stories that have remained in print decades beyond their original publication. 

His contributions to American popular culture have entertained and enthralled literally millions of comic book readers, and his fans and peers have awarded him virtually every major honor within the comic book industry, culminating in his induction to The Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2017.

As notable as Pérez is for his artistic contributions to the comic book medium, the love held for him by everyone in the comic community is unequaled. He has been universally known to all as one of the kindest, most generous people to ever grace the comic book industry. For 15 years, Pérez served as a founding board member and an enthusiastic fundraiser for The Hero Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides financial assistance for comic industry professionals in need. Through his appearances at comic book conventions worldwide, the tireless ambassador of comics personally raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide vital financial support to his friends and colleagues in their time of need. 

In December 2021, those who loved him—and they were legion—were stunned to learn that Pérez had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and that his doctors had determined that he had less than one year to live. The artist, unsurprisingly, put a brave face on the prognosis, and focused on the positive when he broke the news via social media. “I hope everyone enjoyed themselves as each of you ushered in the new year in your own fashion,” he wrote on his blog in December 2021. “It looks like I will be kept quite busy in 2022 if my schedule for January alone is any indication. So many wonderful people determined to keep my days full and my spirits elevated with visits, dining and a cascade of loving texts, emails, phone calls and letters expressing love, support and gratitude.

“I’ve been especially touched by the number of people who have expressed gratitude for my inspiring them through my art and stories. One can never really predict or appreciate how much one’s own stories and art can affect, influence and inspire those who read them.”

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@Steve Cook; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of DC Comics

 

News of the diagnosis led to an outpouring of love and appreciation for Pérez, with online tributes, new reprint collections of his work, impromptu celebrations and appreciations at comic conventions worldwide in the aftermath of his announcement. In accordance with his wishes, those who loved him saw this as a time for celebration of a life well lived, and an opportunity to express love and gratitude to a person who had made an indelible impact on so many lives.

DC Comics staff reached out to Pérez immediately following his announcement and invited him to visit their new offices in Burbank, California at his earliest convenience for an opportunity to meet with old friends, share time with loved ones, and to honor their beloved colleague. On January 18, 2022, Pérez met with DC publisher Jim Lee, retired DC editor Mike Carlin, and longtime creative partner and friend Marv Wolfman for an afternoon of stories and celebrations. 


Not long after the momentous visit, Jim Lee shared the news via social media. “Spent an extraordinary, special lunch today with the legendary artist George Pérez, equally legendary writer Marv Wolfman and longtime amazing DC comics editor/writer/exec Mike Carlin. It was part of a day of honoring George and giving him the proverbial keys to the DC offices here in Burbank—a home that he and Marv helped co-create and build! 

“It was a conversation any comics fan would imagine and instantly be envious about—topics ranging from inking other penciling giants like Gene Colan, collaborating on art pieces with Alex Ross and what it is that makes work enduring and so beloved by the fans. 

“It’s hard to explain all the thoughts and emotions running through my head during the day and even now as I put this post together. What I do know is that George is not just an amazing, incredibly gifted artist but an inspirational, kind and gracious human being who is the epitome of class, courage and civility. I was so struck by how thankful he was to his collaborators and to you all—the fans—for the incredible career and life he has been blessed with. I feel equally fortunate to have spent some time with one of the greatest there ever was and ever will be.”

This visit also included a private tour of the Warner Bros. Studio Museum. Pérez’s museum visit was documented by DC’s Director of Design, Steve Cook, an accomplished art director and photographer whose portraits are included in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in the United Kingdom. Cook’s photographs truly captured George Pérez’s spirit, a man who loved life, who enjoyed spending time with his friends, and who maintained his sense of humor and love of humanity in the face of adversity. 

Pérez passed away four months after this visit, but during that time, he saw an unprecedented outpouring of love and support from the comics community. Tributes and celebrations included award ceremonies, gatherings and panel discussions at conventions, and a deluxe reprint of Pérez’s landmark JLA/Avengers DC/Marvel crossover series, rushed back to print as a limited edition with all proceeds going to benefit Pérez’s beloved Hero Initiative.

One final honor, however, was set into motion in the spring of 2022, when the Cartoon Art Museum, acting in conjunction with DC Comics’ archives department, reached out to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. with a formal nomination for the inclusion of Steve Cook’s photographs of George Pérez in the NPG’s collection. The nomination included a testimonial outlining Pérez’s contributions to popular culture, the high regard in which he was held by the comics community, his dedication to charitable works, and his outstanding moral character.

Upon receipt and acknowledgement of the nomination, the board of directors of the National Portrait Gallery began their discussions and vetting process to determine if the portraits would merit inclusion in the their collection. As noted in their official mission statement, “The National Portrait Gallery was authorized and founded by Congress in 1962 with the mission to acquire and display portraits of individuals who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States. Today, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery continues to narrate the multi-faceted and ever-changing story of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts, and new media, the Portrait Gallery presents poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives form our national identity.”

After a thorough review and discussion, the National Portrait Gallery made the formal decision to accept Steve Cook’s portraits of George Pérez into their collection in December 2023, making Pérez the first comic book artist to be honored in such a manner, and an enduring tribute to an American icon. 

The portraits can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery’s archives

More of Cook’s photos from that day can be seen here

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@Steve Cook; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of DC Comics

 

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