By Wendy Browne
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
Many can claim Japanese influence in Western comics, but Vernon E. Grant deserves credit for being one of the first comics creators to discover and incorporate the unique artistic style and thematic elements of manga. In the first issue of The Love Rangers, Grant even expresses his gratitude to writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, the creators of Lone Wolf and Cub, for their inspiration. Their manga series, which he first spotted on a subway newsstand, prompted a deep exploration of the story, including the archaic kanji used on its pages. He often wrote about manga in the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, and in 1972, he wrote a three-part article analysing Lone Wolf and Cub for the Mainichi Shimbun. This series is considered by some to be the first academic analysis of manga to appear in English, and was intended to be part of his graduate thesis on manga, which encompassed his intensive study of Japanese cartoonists and the diversity of their work.
“…the history of comics in Japan goes way back,” Grant explained in an interview for Pulp Magazine. “They’ve been part and parcel of the scene for a long time. Some of the famous historical artists, you might say they’re the prototypical Japanese cartoonists in some of the ways they put forward the elements of their drawings.”
Grant’s interest in cartooning started at a young age, as did his penchant for business, earning a few bucks selling drawings for birthday cards. He spent a year at Vesper George School of Art before joining the army in 1958 and serving two tours in Vietnam. In 1969, he self-published Stand-by One, a collection of his Vietnam cartoons, and Point-Man Palmer, which was an illustrated series about life in the U.S. Army. In 1972, alongside the Lone Cub and Wolf articles, he published A Monster Is Loose in Tokyo! It details the life of a foreigner in Japan, and emulates the composition angles for action sequences that he learned from studying the Japanese illustrators he so greatly admired.
Reading about Grant paints the picture of a person who learned through experience and immersion; someone who approached everything with an open mind. When something caught his attention, he veered right into embracing it wholly in order to understand everything about it, including the culture and history that it grew out of. Furthermore, his insatiable curiosity seemed to benefit from often being in the right place at the right time, or simply just by asking. “I had wanted to visit several major cities when I was a civilian, and Japan was on the top of the list,” he told Pulp Magazine. “I had a habit of going into the Pentagon and asking for different assignments. They usually gave me everything I wanted, so I asked for Japan, and not only did they give me that, they sent me back to the information officers’ school. I had already graduated from information specialist school so I was one of the few people in the military to go through both courses, both the enlisted men’s course and the officers’ course, down at David’s Island in New Rouchelle in New York.” That was in 1964. After being discharged from the U.S. Army in 1968, he began his studies at the Sophia University in Tokyo.
Grant also seems to have possessed the rare skill of having ideas simply coalesce for him, something that often happened while he was running. An avid marathoner, he and his wife Betsy participated in many races and would run together regularly. During his runs, ideas would just pop into his head and he would jot them down as soon as he could get to pen and paper. Sadly, it was on one such run in 2006 that he suffered a heart attack and hit his head, falling into a coma from which he would never recover. Who knows what ideas might have come from such a creative mind that day, but prior to that, in 1977, The Love Rangers popped into his head and resulted in seven issues that ran through to 1988.
The manga influences in The Love Rangers come through in both artistic style and Grant’s storytelling. Published in a 36-page, 5½”x8½” format, the series follows an adorable team of intrepid space explorers who counter violence and strife through the power of love in the form of “love gas.” “In the first book,” writes Balogun, “the love gas helps change the consciousness of Count Ratalus from having a killing drive to flooding his mind with an understanding of history as well as nature’s instinctive patterns.”
Acknowledging that the darker aspects of life are woven into the tapestry of nature and are necessary elements of change and renewal, the Love Rangers nonetheless seek to soften that change through hope, compassion, and joy as they bring peace to the galaxy, but understand that sometimes, you might have to be a little forceful to get to that goal.
While the Japanese influence stands out, so too do many other elements. The influence of Star Trek, introduced by Gene Roddenberry in 1966, weaves its way into The Love Rangers’ mission as they explore strange new worlds in their spaceship, HOME, led by Lt. Teebee, whom Grant’s wife is certain was modelled after Grant himself. Teebee shares his shipmaster duties equally with a female officer. The genetically engineered crew is wonderfully diverse, and they are accompanied by 35,000 robots and people of all kinds living and working on the seven-levels of the ship. HOME is powered by discord and hate throughout the universe, which serves to guide their mission, but also gives their mission an end goal to work towards wherein that mission is no longer needed.
You can also see the influence of Carl “The Duck Man” Barks’ work in Grant’s pages, with imagery that is welcoming to children. Barks was best known for his Disney comics, of which Grant had many growing up. So many that he would sell his Donald Duck comics for two cents each from his high school locker until he got caught and had them confiscated. The Disney artistic style, combined with the manga style of high level, mature storytelling, make for a wonderfully compelling story about people learning the value of being good to each other and how that extends well beyond their own circles.
Vaughn Bode is among Grant’s vast list of influences as well, as the American underground comics scene is most certainly in the mix. “I was just intrigued by his approach and his management of form and color as well as the way he could punctuate things in such a short space of a page or so,” Grant said. Most notably, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers by Gilbert Shelton was the first underground comic he’d read. It impressed him, though he didn’t pay much attention to the artistic style.
Much of Grant’s work is influenced by and based on his military career. Whether or not he experienced the kind of darkness and trauma that veterans of the Vietnam War speak — or don’t speak — of, in spite or because of those experiences, we have beautiful stories like The Love Rangers to inspire hope that we can all understand the need to do and be better for each other. Such stories speak to a man who was a seeker of knowledge, but also one who seemed to hold an immensely positive view of what humanity can be and how he could use his skills to capture that through illustration.
Of himself, Grant said in an essay titled, The Cartoonist: “Just a man who draws funny pictures? No, not quite. His ability to produce these pictures comes from knowledge of human traits, undertakings, strengths, weaknesses, shortcomings and ambitions. He is essentially a philosopher, psychologist, story teller, historian, chronologer, sentimentalist and realist rolled into one. He quickly sees many sides of issues that escape the notice of the average observer.”
The Love Rangers #1
By Vernon Grant
Published in 1977
There’s nowhere to read The Love Rangers available online. The image used in this article is taken from The Ohio State University Site, where the Billy Ireland Museum has a collection of artwork by Grant.