Perlin was born in New York City, and grew up in the Canarsie neighborhood of the borough of Brooklyn. At 14, he began studying art under Burne Hogarth, who taught small private classes at either his Central Park West apartment or at a rented "loft in a small building up on upper Broadway in Manhattan and on Saturday mornings we had about half a dozen students. One of them, future comics artist Al Williamson, became a friend and colleague. As the class expanded and became affiliated with the Stevenson School, Perlin could no longer afford to attend and left; he later returned as a student when Hogarth co-founded the Cartoonists and Illustrators School.
He broke into the industry, he recalled in the late 1940s, saying, "My first job was for a company called Fox Features. It was one of those cops-and-robbers stories. I pencilled it, Pete Morisi inked it. Credits were not routinely given in most comics until the 1960s, making identification difficult, and Perlin's first confirmed work is penciling and inking the seven-page story, "Ghosts From the Underworld", by an unknown writer, in the publisher Youthful's Captain Science #3 (cover-dated April 1951).