Many years ago, a 12-year-old Corey S. Lewis drew this:
It was a picture featuring a bunch of little grape warriors, each with a Smurf-like adjective name, distinguishing characteristic and weapons or powers.
He also drew mecha-battle suits for the characters, called “Robo-stomps,” and made up a bunch of video game-like special moves and special weapons for them.
If you look at that picture and think, “Wow, not bad for a 12-year-old,” then you and I think alike. If you think you see a little Japanese influence in the art, then I think you’re right—it does resemble modern pop Japanese art, as filtered through Nintendo video game design, doesn’t it? And if you find yourself remarkably impressed with this 12-year-old’s lettering ability, and wish the grown-up you could draw and letter like that then, well, I think you and I have been spending too much time together lately, because it’s almost like we’re reading eachother’s minds.
So, what ever became of this Corey S. Lewis character? Well, he kept drawing, and grew up to create such comics as Sharknife and Peng! for Oni Press, and to contribute shorter stories to a variety of anthologies for a variety of publishers.
His comics-creating style grew into a fusion of myriad influences—video games, manga, anime, kung fu movies, cartoons, toys, graffiti and hip hop, rock and roll and advertising imagery—influences that weren’t available to artists from previous generations, at least not in the quantities they were available to Lewis. He was able to internalize these influences, giving him a potent, unique style that was personal rather than a pastiche, and is therefore poised to become one of a handful of artists who might ultimately prove emblematic of his generation of cartoonists, along with the likes of Brandon Graham and Bryan Lee O’Malley.
Oh, and he also went back to his 12-year-old’s designs for grape warriors to produce Seedless, first as a webcomic and now a trade paperback collection from Image Comics.
The result is something like a collaboration between the Corey Lewis of today and his 12-year-old self. The, er, seed of the idea is clearly seen on those old drawings, which are included among the substantial amount of back matter in the trade collection; it’s actually kind of incredible how much visible in that drawing makes it into the 2008 online comic…some of the names, weapons and character designs are unchanged, others barely tweaked.
What have changed, however, are Lewis’ abilities, and that’s where this feels a bit like a collaboration—Lewis’ artwork is as incredible as always, more so here than in his previously mentioned signature works, as this is full color rather than black and white.
I wonder which of the two Corey S. Lewis’ is most responsible for the fact that this comic ultimately reads like a paper version for a 1980s-to-early-‘90s cartoon show-as-half-hour-ad-for-a-toy-line. You know, G. I. Joe, He-Man, Transformers, My Little Pony, Rainbow-Brite, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. Bits that seem familiar to all of those—and later, slightly less commercial cartoons like Dragon Ball Z—are evident in the work, particularly in the way new characters, powers, weapons and vehicles get slowly introduced, as if the toy designers needed the cartoon producers to work this holiday season’s new products into the next season.
So, on the distant planet cluster Vitus (which looks like a bunch of grapes, with each piece of fruit being a big purple planet), there lives a race of sentient grape people. One of these is the inventor Dr. G., who creates a super grape warrior named Crazy.
Unfortuantely, Crazy goes crazy and becomes evil, using his power to take control of other grapes via their seeds to try and conquer Vitus. To stop him, Dr. G. creates three new grape warriors, and makes sure these ones have no seeds to control: Funky, Pulse and Dash.
The two sides take their war to earth, where Crazy can animate and control earth grapes to serve as his footsoldiers. A teenage girl named Harmony Treblecleffe becomes involved and serves as our point-of-view character (although she too has a rather extraordinary background).
As the strips progress, we learn more about the grapes, with new hero and villain grapes being introduced, the Robo-Stomps appearing and allowing the Seedless warriors to form a big Voltron-like fighting robot, an evil version of Harmony named Vex-Zen pops up, and just when her pet bat Mega-Bat reveals his true self, the volume ends (although there’s a whole mess of back matter, including the sketches, profiles, guest-strips, a first stab at the Seedless story, and enough pin-up art from guest artists between the chapters (each referred to as a “seed”) to sometimes give the volume the feeling of a jam book.
From an art and design perspective, Seedless is a fascinating book, and there’s something equally fascinating about its creation and existence—how it came to be, what its very existence says about pop media consumption over the last few decades, the suggestion that many of the entertainment products aimed at children over the last few decades that might have seemed like mercenary, consumer-driven, destructive forces might ultimately lead to positive creative expression.
It’s also a ton of fun and really funny, particularly if you grew up with some of those influence, and/or enjoy fruit jokes (For example, a frustrated Crazy complains about a henchman keeping him waiting: “At this rate, I’ll turn into a fine wine.”)
And that’s probably the only recommendation most readers need. I do wonder about its universality—something tells me it would read like brightly-colored gibberish to certain audiences, like the handful of readers I know who say they can’t process manga at all—and what it is that the book really says.
After a single reading, I have a sense Lewis makes a point or comments on the human condition—and the grape condition—but mostly it’s simply a really great, really funny comic about cute little grape warriors fighting a tiny, grape-sized war.
If you have an inner twelve-year-old boy, then this is a comic for you. If you don’t, then this is a comic that will probably cultivate one in you. And I hope more observant, sharper critics than me will take the time to give this book a good read, a good think, and a good review—there’s some really astounding stuff going on here, from the way the plot is punted through time from a child artist to his grown-up self to the weird meta-commentary of a comic for a toy line and video game that doesn’t exist, outside of the artist’s mind.
Last month Chris Arrant interviwed Lewis about Seedless and the long-in-the-works Sharknife sequel for the main page. If you missed it, you can read the piece by clicking here.