Great Graphic Novels: The Cereal Killings by James Sturm

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) — Mark

The Cereal Killings by James Sturm

James Sturm is probably best known as the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, a school dedicated to creating comics and as the artist and writer of Eisner — winning comics like The Golem’s Mighty Swing. But it was his first Fantagraphics title, The Cereal Killings, that knocked me out.

Sturm created a parallel fantasy world populated by the beings that worked as kid cereal mascots. Sturm re-imagined beloved cereal mascots as anthropomorphized animal/humans who gather at the local bar to reminisce on the good old days of the cereal business. There’s Burt, a chain-smoking loudmouth rabbit, Snip, the ruthless elphin president of KelCog Cereal Company, and Carbunkle, the middle-aged agent who pitches new cereal ideas and represents his old friends. If you can picture a pugnacious fifty-year old Trix rabbit, an insulin-crashing Cuckoo Bird, and a DiggEm Frog with food issues, all with real-life problems of failing careers, petty jealousies and corporate intrigue, you’ve got the picture.

Sturm cuts between the present-day story line of a “cereal killer” with flashbacks of the “cerealebrities” in their early glory days. His art has a personal, expressive line that works well to communicate the rough edges and tough breaks in the lives of the aging mascots. Slick cereal box art and tv commercial storyboards are used as an effective foil and contrast with the gritty realities of martial stress, alcoholism, and death.

Says Sturm: “These characters function both as cultural icons and as individuals, real men and women with all the dreams, frailties and hungers that shape all our lives.”

And the business aspects of kid’s cereals are woven throughout: new brands are proposed, designs for premiums are evaluated, and healthiness of kid cereals is questioned. Here’s Schmedly the elephant with Carbunkle at the bar:

(By the way, think the story is exaggerating the “controversy” of a Crunch Berry? I refer you to a recent lawsuit: On May 21, a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California dismissed a complaint filed by a woman who said she had purchased "Cap'n Crunch with Crunch Berries" because she believed it contained real fruit. You can’t write this stuff!)

Each issue of The Cereal Killings has a familiar comic book format with additional short stories; mock cereal ads, full-page portraits, and letters to the editor. Great stuff! The comic ran for nine issues, ending in 1995.

Does Sturm ultimately pull it off, this parable of redemption in a cereal bowl? The fantastical conclusion uses dream imagery and leaves the final interpretation to the reader. I found it to be an engaging tale in an imaginative world.