These comic creators are thinking outside the cereal box

PHILADELPHIA — While most mainstream comics feature super-powered heroes and menacing villains bent on world destruction, Philly-based creators Don Steinberg and Rich Harrington feel the world of corporate America is just as wicked.

Under their independent label Boink Comix, Steinberg and Harrington launched the comic Cereal in January 2023. The six-part series is filled with business meetings, vengeful micromanagers, and a cast of cereal box mascots looking to unmask the hidden evils of power-hungry executives.

The story follows “rebellious” cereal inventor Tracey Colorado, who lands her dream job at a cereal manufacturer and begins to hear cries from the characters on a cereal box.

Those pleas, it turns out, are those of Doodad the Clown, Betty Confetty, Captain Withaspoon, and others who are all trying to avoid being captured by — you guessed it — a cereal killer. They cross over to Tracey’s world to stop the milk-shed, and help the young inventor seek retribution for the wrongdoing of InGrain, the corrupt cereal company that crushed her childhood dreams.

The fantastical world of Cereal and the duo’s larger comic book venture is inspired by their early years reading Mad Magazine issues and eating mounds of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

“We’re for grown-ups, but it’s the piece of kid in you,” Steinberg, 62, said. “It’s the idea [that] you grow up with this cereal, and the characters kind of live with you. It reminds you of your younger days and simpler times.”

Steinberg envisioned Cereal as a TV series at first, but convinced the script would only collect dust, he asked Harrington, a longtime friend, to add visuals to the story.

He and Harrington, 64, are now looking to breathe new life into Philly’s indie comic community with a new expo.

Harrington, an illustration professor at Moore College of Art & Design, has decided to create the inaugural Moore Comics Expo. The April 13 event will highlight emerging cartoonists, graphic novelists, and indie publishers in and around Philadelphia. “We hope to provide an event where student, novice, and more established cartoonists can show and sell their work, raise their visibility, and expand their network,” he said.

Before launching Boink Comix in 2022, most of Steinberg’s career was spent in newsrooms, including those at the Wall Street Journal, GQ, and The Inquirer. His foray into comic books, he said, was an inevitable path. “I was always writing things that would make people laugh, and it was the coolest thing in the world,” he said.

Harrington, who spent years crafting sports cartoons for the Philadelphia Daily News, doesn’t usually like long-form projects. A 28-page, full-color comic was new territory for him but Steinberg’s vision for the comic series and publishing label drew him in.

“If it didn’t have a humorous edge to it I don’t know if I would’ve been able to stick it out,” said Harrington, who is the president of the Philadelphia Sketch Club. “But because [Steinberg] has such a great sense of humor and he works in a lot of cool funny things, it took me back to our days when we really loved Mad Magazine.”

Along with Cereal, the two creators have produced Chunks of Tomorrow, a sci-fi anthology series that’s a cross between Mad Magazine and Netflix’s Black Mirror, Steinberg said.

As an independent publisher, Harrington said he and Steinberg still wrestle with the idea of a print product. The general demand, for some time now, has been on the decline.

But like vinyl records to music lovers, a floppy comic book brings readers into closer proximity to the artform, and Cereal has slowly gained traction at comic book expos and landed on the shelves of local shops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Bucks County’s Phantasm Comics.

Owner Gregory Zuerblis met the two creators at a zine show in Lambertville, New Jersey. “We’re always interested in supporting indie creators and anyone that has a professional, fully finished comic book,” he said. “And that’s what they had.”

Along with the Moore Comic Expo, Harrington and Steinberg want to publish a graphic novel, and possibly return to the origins of their project. Like Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys and Invincible, Steinberg hopes to turn Cereal into a TV or streamed series.

“We’re trying something, which means we don’t have this well-paved road for our audience,” Steinberg said. “It’s crossing different genres, and we’re working on finding people who really appreciate it.”