PULPman Profiles: Vernon Grant
Name: Vernon Grant
Vernon Grant was one of the first American comic artists to discover manga. After several years in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and other parts of the Far East as an enlisted infantryman and a commissioned officer, Grant visited Tokyo briefly in 1964, and returned from 1968 to 1973 to study at Sophia University. His three-part article on Lone Wolf and Cub in the 1972 Mainichi Shimbun ("Mainichi Daily News"), part of an intended graduate thesis on the manga, was probably the first academic analysis of a manga to appear in English. "During my years in Japan I made an intensive study of Japanese cartoonists and their diverse works," he wrote in his newsletter Ranger Readout in 1987.
But writing about other artists' works is one of Grant's lesser contributions to the comics world, which include Point-Man Palmer and Standby One (distributed to the Armed Forces in the early '70s), A Monster is Loose in Tokyo (an book published by Tuttle), characters such as Pollution Rat and Hacker Duck, and the science-fiction series The Love Rangers (self-published from 1977 to 1988), of which seven issues were completed out of a projected twenty. Grant's work, inspired by underground and classic comics, comes from a tradition of cartooning (like many Japanese manga artists). Never supporting himself completely from comics work, he has been a self-publisher; stapled, photocopied and sold through mail order, The Love Rangers gained an audience mostly from self-promotion and word-of-mouth. On top of this, Grant lived in Tokyo at a fascinating time. His observations on European, Japanese and American comics show that a diversity of influences and life experiences always contributes to fascinating work.
PULP: What kind of cartoons and comics did you read when you were growing up? Did you read science fiction?
Vernon Grant: Quite a bit of science fiction, but at the time we were growing up, a lot of it was the Disney work and the stuff by Walter LantzAndy Panda and all of that stuff. There was a huge variety because a lot of the comics used to come out on a weekly basis as well as the monthlies. In fact, we used to get them sometimes when the ink was still wet on the pages. Comics were pretty pervasive in my childhood days. I read everything from Bulletman and the Blackhawk comics, [the original] Daredevil, Crimebusters, all the way through from Little Lulu to Archie, just the whole range.
P: Did you read Carl Barks?
VG: Yes, quite a bit of Barks. In fact, I used to go around in the neighborhood selling comic books. I had a suitcase full of them and I used to sell them for two cents apiece. Even when I went up to my first year of high school, here in Cambridge, I was selling them out of my wall locker in high school in freshman year. I had a lot of BarksesDonald Duck and allin the locker, and the school administrators chased me down and they confiscated all of those books. (laughs) That was the last I saw of them. That was in 1948. I often think back now on that loss. Yeah, Barks was a major, major influence. I didn't know who he was at the time, but there were distinctive elements to his stories and all that I guess drew, and are still drawing, everyone to his stories.
P: He was "the good duck artist."
P: What about science fiction? Because The Love Rangers seems to be very science fiction influenced.
VG: I read a lot of them. It's funny that you mention that, because your magazine is Pulp, and we used to read tons of pulpnot the comics, but the actual pulp magazines, with those old science fiction stories going way back. I used to bring them in here by the carton. The science fiction that we used to read back then was Buck Rogers, that was really big, and let's see, there were some elements of fantasy in Andy Gump and the Lost City of Gold and stories like that, that really drew us kind of deep in. But I would say Buck Rogers was easily the major science fiction pull of our formative years.
P: What was the first work you did as a cartoonist?
VG: I guess it was birthday cards. I used to do a lot of birthday cards and I still have one or two of those around. I guess that was the first paid work I have to think back on that. I'm not really sure.
P: What kind of contact with comics did you have while you were in the Army?
VG: That was difficult. I was really ripped apart from comics for the major portion of my Army service. But while I was over in Saigon, I was walking by a newsstand one day and I saw the Tintin comics in French. I kind of took to those and I think I bought a couple of those off the newsstand in Saigon. Other than that, I guess, my military period was more or less too busy for comics, but there was one interesting thing. The Overseas Weekly [in 1967] had this young cartoonist from Connecticut, and that was the first time I had ever seen what they called the underground comics style. I still have a copy of one of those somewhere here, which I'll make a copy and send along to you. And that was kind of a revelation because of the detailed work. His pen and ink drawings were quite striking. But I had never seen the underground comics 'till my wife-to-be showed me a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic over in Tokyo. She was over there going to school at the time. We were going to the same university.
P: The detail is really one of the most amazing things that strikes you about the underground comics.
VG: Yes, they're really cohesive, and if the observer looks at them really closely, there's a lot of interesting detail that you might miss out on otherwise.
P: Did you do a strip while you were in the Army?
VG: Not while I was in the Army as such. I did do some when I got out of the Army. But there is one interesting story. When I was in the Army out at Fort Carson, Colorado, the Battalion Commander picked me as a young lieutenant to take care of a table at the Division Banquet. And I had nobody to support me; all of the other Divisions were being set up by the officers' wives and they had a multitude of people working for them, and I was hard put. So I thought for about three or four hours and then I came up with an idea. What it was is, I did ten-inch drawings, caricatures, of all the officers of the Battalion, detailing their individual personalities in the drawings, and cut them out of cardboard, and I had a generic wife which I put beside them. And then I looped the whole setting with string which represented a telephone line from the commander of the Battalion. And when I went in the next day to set up, I remember the whole room stopped, because the place was full of people setting up these tables, and I walked in and started setting the table up by myself and the whole room came and crowded around. They were thunderstruck, because they had floral placements and all, but this was really out of the ordinary. And later on at the Banquet the general of the division came over to the table to see the setup. I've never forgotten it; it was just a flash in the head and the whole thing seemed to fall into place all at once. That's what happened with the Love Rangers too, the whole story came to me just in one swoop.
P: Why did you choose to go to Japan in 1964?
VG: I had wanted to visit several major cities when I was a civilian, and Japan was on the top of the list. 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.
P: Did you see the Tokyo Olympics?
VG: I did. They sent me over there as part of the defense department's tri-team. They sent in Air Force, Army and Navy staffthree headsto take over the Far East Network with five radio stations and three television stations on the Islands of Japan and Okinawa. We were charged with broadcasting the Tokyo Olympics worldwide for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. I was in command of the Army element there, about 150 men, and my day-to-day specialty was comptroller, I handled the finances for the network. We had quite a bit of dealing day-to-day with the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, and NHK, and the Japanese Broadcasting Committee and all, setting up the different sites and broadcast venues for the '64 Olympics. It was quite an interesting assignment.
P: What was your impression of Tokyo then, and why did you choose to go back in 1968?
VG: It was so fast-paced and so creative. The creative element in Japan is so marked, it just stands out. The most prosaic thing, like doorknobs, will have a family which will have spent hundreds of years just doing doorknobs. The artistic endeavor on so many levels is just astounding. I knew when I got out that I'd want to stay in that element, and by that time I had several interests built up in the area, so it was a real good choice and a good move at the time.
P: You studied Contemporary Chinese and Japanese Economic History.
VG: Yes. My major area was the Tokugawa period, the exclusionary period, from about 1600 to the coming of the black ships with Commodore Perry. It was such a rich societal study that there's virtually no end to it, so it was, again the best of choices I could have made.
P: At the same time that you were studying the past, I guess you were seeing a lot of the current pop culture in Japan at the time.
VG: Quite a bit. I was kind of lucky in one way; I was going with a Japanese girl over there at the time whose father was the third highest-ranking person at one of the major ministries, and she had use of his card, his meshi, which allowed us to travel around. I would guess I've been in some places that maybe foreigners would never get to see in a lifetime.
P: It sounds like you did a lot of things in 1972. That's when A Monster is Loose in Tokyo came out, and you were also doing the Kozure Okami articles for the Mainichi Shimbun, and you also discovered the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
VG: Yes. In that period sometimes we'd go two or three days without sleeping, there was just so much going on. What was also interesting was that Notre Dame had taken that time to send its first class of sophomores overseas, and they stayed in a brand new dorm which was the only foreign and Japanese mixed dormitory in Japan at the time. And the first year, they sent over 17 men and two girls from St. Mary's next door for their sophomore year in Japan. At the time I was staying at that same dormitory, so the place was just a beehive of activity, as you can imagine. 17 motorcycles going out of an underground garage at the same time, going to class. Throw in the wild street battles with the Japanese students and dissidents over the U.S. involvement in Okinawa, and the constant veil of tear gas, and it was just an unbelievable time.
P: Really! I didn't know there was that much protest going on at the time. I thought in Japan that was more a product of the early '60s.
VG: Oh, you see those battles that they've been having in Italy and Seattle and all over, over World Economic Trade those were nothing compared to the battles over in Japan with the students and the Metropolitan Police Force. The students utilized everything from homemade flamethrowers to pipe bombs and it all unfolded right in front of us, because some of the biggest battles were on the street right in front of our dormitory. I can remember people stampeding through major train stations trying to get away from the tear gas and the swinging clubs. Oh, it was quite a time. The Metropolitan Police, before riot day, would go in and lift all of the cobblestones and cement squares off the sidewalks throughout the entire area to keep the dissidents from finding anything, any ammunition that could be thrown. They were very thorough. I've never seen anything like it.
P: When you saw the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers at the time, did you pick up on both the political elements and the artistic elements?
VG: I didn't pay too much attention to the artistic element. Being out of the States for so long, you really lose touch. I can remember coming back to the States and seeing miniskirts, and that was a shock after being away. And when I walked into a store and saw security guards, I had to ask what all of these security guards and policemen were doing standing in clothing stores. I had read that society was changing, but it really didn't sink in until I saw it for myself.
P: What was the inspiration for A Monster is Loose in Tokyo?
VG: Oh, that was the wild affinity that the Japanese have for monsters. I coupled that with their curiosity and at times animosity towards foreigners in their midst. It seemed like a good mix and it paid my school bills for about two or three years.
P: When did you create Point-Man Palmer?
VG: That was almost the same time. The Point-Man Palmer series was a real battle, because I had to deal initially with Japanese printers and Japanese publishing houses, and I had to be very careful, because I was over there on a student's visa. I didn't have a commercial visa, and once you're kicked out of Japan you can forget about going back in. They are very strict about immigration. So I could have done a lot more, but I had to be a bit muted in my endeavors. Eventually I moved it from the Japanese publishers to the publishers at Stars & Stripes. They did the last books, and they shipped them directly into the military service chains which sold the books in Vietnam and different outlets in the Far East.
P: What sort of things caused trouble with the Japanese publishers on Point-Man Palmer?
VG: They constantly tried to find out how far ahead you wanted to carry the series, in order to adjust their pricing guidelines. I had another book that was very popular in Vietnam too, called Standby One, and I had to go through the same process with that book. I had to keep things pretty close to my chest because I was just a one-man operation and I didn't want to go into any debt or anything. I just wanted to keep everything out in front as far as possible and I managed to do that and I did pretty well. I'll send you a copy of Standby One. It's a book of about thirty cartoons, battle cartoons. It's interesting because just yesterday I found an old correspondence from back then, where one of the cartoons that was printed in Stars & Stripes from that time, they got a letter from the command in Hawaii. They wanted to reprint it in a monograph for General Westmoreland, and they had asked permission, and so Stars & Stripes sent me the whole correspondence, the letter and all.
P: Did you also do some cartoons for the Mainichi Shimbun?
VG: Yeah. (laughs) A lot. I must have over 50 cartoons that were done as headings for a popular question-and-answer column in Mainichi. And I did a couple of editorial cartoons and some straight single-panel cartoons, and I also did book reviews. I think I did over a hundred book reviews and an occasional movie and television review also.
P: When did you discover Japanese comics? When did you start noticing them?
VG: I guess the brunt of them hit me when I first came into Japan for the first time. I had seen a few of them while I was back in the States but I hadn't paid much attention to them. But when you get on the ground there, they're so much a part of the existence over there.
P: Was this in 1968?
VG: That was in 1964.
P: Even back then, they were all around?
VG: In Japan? Oh, the history of comics in Japan goes way back. 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.
P: I heard that in the late '50s and the early '60s, there were some cartoons produced in Japan that were drawn by Japanese artists that were written in English. Did you see any of those? I guess they were mostly educational cartoons, or cartoons for visiting foreigners.
VG: I didn't see any of those that I can remember. I do have a lot of stuff that I haven't looked through, but off the top of my head I don't remember any.
P: Did it seem to you during the time that you stayed in Japan from 1964 to the early '70s that cartoons and comics were becoming more pervasive?
VG: Definitely, but that is hard to gauge because they were already so pervasive that the percentage of increase is kind of foggy. But it seemed to me that by the time I left that with the advent of the electronic media, the cartoon elements just blossomed everywhere.
P: In Pacific Stars & Stripes [April 22, 1972], referring to monster movies, you said, "Most foreigners who study Japan overlook this massive industry. They study traditional culture while missing the most pervasive folk arts."
VG: Yes. Of course, that was part and parcel with what the Japanese ministry had pushed forward for areas of study and promoted overseas. They promote the flower arranging, you know, and a lot of the other elements, but they did very little in the way of pushing the comics as something for a foreigner to be interested in when they visited Japan. That all remained to be seen by the foreigner when he got there. But now with the explosion of television and movies and all, Japanese comics' sensibilities have reached out worldwide. I would expect that a number of people now go to Japan just to study the comics and never take a look at the flower arranging or anything else.
P: At this time, while you were studying, did you ever consider going from part-time to full-time as a cartoonist?
VG: I did, but I've always been kind of cautious. I figured that if it happened it would happen. There's a line between cautious and lazy. (laughs) I just wanted to put out a few things and see what happened. I figured if somebody thought they were good enough that things would click by themselves, but I've learned that you really have to promote your efforts. If you have a half-baked idea it won't go forward unless there's good promotion behind it.
P: When did you specifically discover Lone Wolf and Cub?
VG: Right at the end of our university, Sophia University, is an entrance to the major subway system called Yotsuya. Upstairs there was a newsstand that sold magazines and newspapers, and there was this older woman who tended the newsstand. I was going by one day and I just happened to see this cover with this little boy on it, and it caught my eye, and I bought it. That happened to be the first book, and when I went back to a small bar that was near our living dormitory, I was drinking coffee or something and reading this book, and somebody else had the same book. And so the next weekit came out weeklyI went back and I got the second book, and this woman noticed that I was getting these books so she had them ready for me as each week went by. There was some kanji in Lone Wolf and Cub which I couldn't find any explanations for, and I was told that some of the forms were archaic forms, like Old English. I had to dig a little deeper to find the meanings of some of these words. I would be in different places, on the train or something, looking at these books, and the Japanese were kind of shocked, and they would ask me, "Can you understand these words?" And they would say they couldn't understand them. (laughs) So the stories got more interesting and the whole comic strip sort of seemed to explode in Japan and its popularity just grew like no other story had grown in Japan for a long time. And all of a sudden there were television movies, stage plays, and everybody knew all about it. It's the little boy [Daigoro] that carries the element of interest.
P: Was that the first manga that you really read regularly, or that really caught your eye?
VG: No, there was another one that had contemporary elements in it called The Wild Seven [by Mikiya Mochizuki]. That was a really excellent strip about a team of special police, an outside gang of police, who ride these motorcycles. The artwork was by far the most commercially viable and the stories were just superb. But nobody over here seems to know anything about 'em.
P: Did you read any Osamu Tezuka?
VG: I did, but not in detail. I did not get into the storylines, but the artwork more or less interested me.
P: I was curious about that, because he did a lot of philosophical stories, and I was wondering where the philosophy of The Love Rangers came from.
VG: That just came out of my background, I guess. It's funny it's hard to put your finger on it, but the whole idea seemed to just plop into my head and I don't even know where the strands started from. It happens with all my artwork; all I have to do is just put what I see in my head on the paper. But I haven't tried in a lot of cases to trace it back to its formative stage.
P: How did your idea for the series come about?
VG: When we came back to America [in August 1973], we did a lot of running. In fact, we were running something in the neighborhood of over 3500 miles a year for over 25 years. When I'm out running, a lot of the ideas pop into my head then, and when I get a chance to sit down I put them on paper. Maybe it was an amalgamation of some of the things that I had seen in Japan, and Star Trek, and all the rest. I'm not exactly sure how the thing formed myself.
P: Do you feel that you're influenced by both underground comics and Japanese comics?
VG: Yeah. But one of the big influences for me was Vaughn Bode. I used to clip his stuff out of the old Cavalier magazines. 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.
P: And you also thank Goseki Kojima and Kazuo Koike in the first issue of The Love Rangers.
VG: Yeah. Every once in a while you see something close to genius pop up, and you really have to acknowledge it when it happens. And that style, both the story and melding that tremendous drawing style that carries the pages, is just to me an amazing feat of art and writing.
P: Did you incorporate some of that into The Love Rangers?
VG: I would say it's there. I would hope it was there, but I can't say if it's on any given panel.
P: I guess it's more of a case of, naturally, we're all influenced by all the things that we've seen and read.
P: About the size of the Love Rangersthey're short because they're genetically engineeredwith their big heads and their little bodies and big eyes, they look sort of like the dimensions of a lot of Japanese manga characters.
VG: Yeah. I remember that part of the thought process was truncating things like that for the "cute." I don't know if commercial aspects might have entered into it, but it might have been a bit to be just different in some way, to set them off from anything that I might have seen around here.
P: You also got some traditional Japanese cultural elements in the Noriko story, with the bonsai tree and the sword.
VG: Yes, yes. Definitely. Her whole character, I guess the characters of all of them, are a mass attempt at diversity as well as to build up a complex framework of characters that could play off of each other.
P: Was the planet of the mouse people going to be the main planet around which the plot of The Love Rangers revolved, or would they have moved on to other planets?
VG: No, they move on to one more.
P: I guess I sort of already asked you how you had the idea to do the Love Rangers, but how did you have the idea to do such a long story?
VG: I don't know. The idea, when it came, just said "20 books."
P: I'm kind of curious how The Love Rangers intersected with, or met up with, the American comics market. I know that back in the very late '70s and very early '80s was when it was just starting to get possible to distribute your own comic to comic stores. Did you do any of that?
VG: I did on a smaller scale, but mainly I advertised slightly in Comics Buyer's Guide and people would write to me and I'd just put the stuff in an envelope and take it down to the post office. Usually I tried to do it the same day I got the request, and often people would write back and say "Wow, this is the fastest I've ever received anything." I made it a point to try to put stuff in the post office the exact day. Some people say "Well, you should wait 'till the check clears", but we're dealing with two dollars (laughs), so I wasn't too worried about whether the check would clear or not. I just tried to push things that way, but I did put books in places like The Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, and one or two other stores. I had a little bit less luck with one outlet in Ohio. I guess it was just a matter of about ten books or so, but you remember the people who never send you the money back like they should.
P: I actually found out about The Love Rangers from an article by Bhob Stewart in The Comics Journal. Did you know him?
VG: Oh yeah! He lived here in Cambridge. I've gotten more help from Stewart than anybody in the industry. He's given me a lot of very pointed and sage advice on things, and I always listen to what he has to say because the guy is really right on the beam. I haven't spoken to him for about a year and a half now. I think he's down in the New York area. He had lived here in Cambridge for years.
P: Did you also do an illustration for Harlan Ellison?
VG: Yes. He bought one of mine. I used to exhibit at the New England Science Fiction Convention art show. Every year I'd put in a number of illustrations and drawings, and he bought one of my illustrations. Needless to say I was very thrilled and very pleased, because at that timethis was years agoit was the first or second time I had exhibited at an art show. And some people came up to me and they said "Did you know that Harlan Ellison bought one of your drawings?" I was surprised and pleased.
P: Some of your pages are really beautiful, especially the full-page panels with elements floating in the background, or with converging lines, like in the first issue, where there's the shadow of the owls coming down on the mice.
VG: Well, thank you. I guess a lot of it is kind of original. It's funny you mention that, because as we shift some things here in the house and my wife and I look at some of this stuff, I say "I don't even remember doing that!" And I'm shocked, not to be immodest, but I can't believe I was that good at doing what was in my mind and putting that exact same thing down on a piece of paper. It took a long time to be able to do that but it's kind of nice to have that ability now. I do a lot of children's drawings for kids.
P: Did you bring a lot of Japanese comics with you when you left Japan?
VG: Yes. But unfortunately, I made the mistake of getting rid of a lot before I came over. I mailed something like 22 shoebox-sized packages and three foot lockers. In 1974 I was having a yard sale and Wendy Pini's husband came by and bought a couple from me.
P: Were they the first people you'd met who'd heard of Japanese comics, aside from yourself?
P: Was there anyone else you met who was doing work similar to yours?
VG: Tim Corrigan; he had a book called Small Press Explosion. He did quite a service for little people who had no experience in publishing anything. He did a lot of good work.
Many thanks to Mr. Grant for making artwork and newspaper clippings available for this article. Issues #1-6 of "The Love Rangers" are available for $10 each (shipping & postage included) from Vernon Grant, 210 Erie St. #3, Cambridge, MA, 02139-3922.