Sugar Isn’t A Health Food Anymore: Interviewing `Cereal’ Writer Don Steinberg
by Tom Smithyman
The breakfast cereal industry is not a topic typically addressed by many comic books. But that doesn’t deter Don Steinberg, a professional journalist who co-founded Boink Comix, from publishing a comic called Cereal. In this exclusive interview with Comicon.com, Steinberg discusses his early attempts at writing humor, his favorite sugary breakfast treat and how cereals are a form of entertainment.
Tom Smithyman: So let me see if I have this straight: A successful journalist who has reported for The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and GQ decides the next logical step in his career is to write an independent comic book about the breakfast cereal industry. That sounds like a pretty common career path, right?
Don Steinberg: It all led to this! As I reporter and editor, I learned how business works and learned business jargon. I spent time covering entertainment, interviewing movie directors and screenwriters. I’ve always written humor – as a kid I made MAD Magazine ripoffs with my friends. This comic book was almost inevitable.
Smithyman: Why focus on the cereal industry? Have you done a lot of reporting on it in the past, or was it just something you were curious about?
Steinberg: Cereal is underexplored as part of our culture. It’s not just food. It’s like a form of entertainment. As little kids we choose cereals to eat before we can read. They kind of embody our childhood joy and imagination and desires. Those characters like Sonny the Cuckoo Bird and Lucky the Leprechaun, they always wanted things, and as kids we related with their struggles. Now as adults, I think, cereal is like our “Rosebud,” our way to travel back to easier and more innocent times.
Smithyman: The book starts off with protagonist Tracey Colorado failing to…ahem, perform…in the bedroom because she hasn’t poured the right color combination of cereal on her would-be partner. Please please please tell me you don’t know anyone like this in real life!
Steinberg: Ha! We wanted to create this character who is so single-minded and nerdy about inventing great breakfast cereal, she can’t maintain a normal relationship. Tracey is a scientist first. And the idea of a physical response to colors is part of the story (color is in her name!). As we will see, she has other personal reasons for wanting to totally impress the big cereal company, InGrain Corp.
Smithyman: Cereal is really funny. You write humor for The New Yorker and have your own humor zine called Meanwhile. What is your process for “finding the funny” in everyday situations?
Steinberg: I think you need to look at things sideways to really see them. I flunked a test for early admission into kindergarten because they showed me a drawing of a guy who was holding up an umbrella, but it wasn’t raining. They asked me: “What’s wrong with this picture?” I said, “Nothing.” I was thinking to myself “The picture looks fine, but maybe there’s something wrong with that guy who’s holding up an umbrella when it isn’t raining.”
Smithyman: I know it can be expensive to print anything these days, but are you concerned that the $5.99 price tag for the print version of the book will scare away potential readers?
Steinberg: It’s a consideration. Some comics from established publishers are a dollar or two less. Comics that debut on Kickstarter may be higher. Issue #1 of Cereal took us more than a year to put out, so hopefully readers will support that. As we get quicker at putting these characters in action, increase sales volume and potentially connect with a regular publisher, we can get the cover price down for the next issues!
Smithyman: Richard Harrington draws the book. How did you two meet, and what is your creative process like?
Steinberg: Rich was a college classmate of my wife and a cartoonist for the college paper. He can draw anything. We first collaborated making some fake baseball cards in GQ magazine. Rich was excited to embrace the chance to draw two different worlds, the cereal mascot universe and the real world of Tracey and InGrain Corp. We meet every week, going over sketches and layouts, trying to improve the storytelling. Besides casting all the characters and framing every shot, he added so many visual jokes that go beyond the dialogue.
Smithyman: Obvious question, but what is your favorite cereal and mascot?
Steinberg: I always wanted hang with Sugar Bear. He was so suave, and I loved his cereal, which used to be called Sugar Crisp. Now they call it Golden Crisp, because sugar isn’t a health food anymore.
Smithyman: Issue #2 is titled “Surprise Inside.” Do you remember the best toy you ever pulled out of a cereal box?
Steinberg: Thinking about it, I remember Cap’n Crunch had little plastic treasure chests. Secret hiding places are the best! One of our “Cereal” characters is a takeoff on Cap’n Crunch, and, yeah, a treasure chest is a big part of the plot.
Smithyman: Looking forward to seeing how it all plays out. Thanks for taking the time to talk to Comicon.com.