I’ve always been a fan of Lucky Charms. They have all of the nutritional value of a shotgun blast to the head, but they’re so delicious that I don’t even care. Really, they have no right being as good as they are. That’s kind of how I feel about Mark Russell and Peter Snejbjerg’s series of stories for Ahoy Comics. The shorts, previously appearing in anthology titles like Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror, Snifter of Blood, and Snifter of Death, will soon be collected in the aptly named graphic novel, Cereal. These stories follow analogs of Count Chocula, Franken and Boo Berry, as well as the Leprechaun from the Lucky Charms boxes, as they fight for power, survival, and revenge.
The narratives at face value would seem like a recipe for some shallow laughs and nothing else – no nutritional value. Instead, Cereal is a tragic, horrifying, and strangely beautiful tale of loneliness, self-loathing, and the search for one’s home. The humor, which at first glance would seem to be the point of these stories, is only sprinkled in to enrich the horror. Russell and Snejbjerg have a firm understanding of what makes us laugh and what makes us shiver, and why you need both to be a part of a balanced breakfast.
Humor and Horror: Ingredients to the Recipe
This is far from Russell’s first humorous outing. In fact, Russell was nominated for an Eisner for a series that featured some other characters that are no strangers to the world of cereal mascots: The Flintstones. The DC Comics publication – with art by Steve Pugh – is another prime example of how Russell uses humor as a disarming tool to lure you into what seems like a simple story, only to hit you with the depth of his stakes and the humanity of his characters. The Flintstones is about the roles religion and consumerism play in our evolution, and it asks the question, “Are we really more advanced now, or have we been regressing all this time? Were the cavemen better off?” The Hanna-Barbera cartoon doesn’t dwell on these types of existential questions, and neither do the Count Chocula advertisements – as far as I know – but luckily Russell doesn’t confine himself to what’s expected.
Russell is a comedic veteran. What’s new to Cereal, though, is the added element of the horrific. There’s something so brilliant about the relationship between humor and horror that Cereal dives into. It’s a dynamic that Russell discussed with Hart Seely in a Q&A for Ahoy:
Seely: Does horror need humor to be scary, and does humor need horror to be funny?
Russell: I think so. But to me, these are not goals for a writer. They are ingredients that go into the cake you are baking. Humor is like butter. You wouldn’t make a cake without butter; it’s a necessary ingredient. But you don’t just eat a stick of butter. At least I don’t. Horror is the same. It’s best when used in a dish with a lot of other elements. I’m not a big fan of things that are exclusively horror, or exclusively humor. I like stories that employ elements from all of our emotional palette.
In Cereal, horror and humor exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship. But the premise itself – cereal mascots living dramatic lives of intrigue and deception – is already so ridiculous that Russell and Snejbjerg actually rarely lean into laughs much at all. In fact, most of the jokes simply come from the names of the characters. The greater, more subtle humor is in Russell and Snejbjerg underlining the absurdity of these situations. For example, the Marquis de Cocoa, a clear reference to Count Chocula, is a vampire that is associated with a breakfast cereal, yet vampires aren’t able to go out during the day.
Russell and Snejbjerg place the Marquis at the far end of a long table where he hosts his daily breakfast parties. His guests include Franken and Beau, sons of the Count du Barrie (Franken and Boo Berry), Captain Crackle (Captain Crunch), and Antonio the Tiger (Tony the Tiger). One troubling addition to the guest list, someone who is out of place, is the Duc l’Orange. He tends to be more of a dinner party person, along with peers of his like Croque Madame. The set-up is ridiculous, the character names are hysterical, and the occasional line from the Marquis’ narrations like “Her love fortifies me with eight essential vitamins and minerals” makes you want to pass the whole thing off as a joke. But then the sun starts creeping across the table. The Marquis’ quiet dread as the breakfast party wanes on into the day makes you forget the hilarity for a second and focuses you in on his tragic backstory.
It’s that initial dismissal of the story that gives the turn to a more serious tone some extra oomph. You’re drawn into the Marquis’ story because your guard is completely down. You don’t expect a chocolatey blood-sucker to bring tears to your eyes.
The Farcical and the Tragic – Never Too Far Apart
Snejbjerg is the perfect artist to be attached to this project. He’s no stranger to horror, with brilliant work in Dark Horse’s B.P.R.D. series and DC’s Starman, but Cereal proves he’s just as adept at being farcical. He hits a perfect balance with his diverse linework throughout, going from loose cartoonish characters with big expressions to specifically rendered moments of incredible tension and brooding seriousness without skipping a beat. As we are introduced to the guests attending the Marquis’ breakfast, Snejbjerg leans into their character designs from the cereal boxes we know and love. Franken and Beau du Barrie look as close to their counterparts as you can do in a story like this, without making them outright pink and blue. Captain Crackle has the bright blue hat and coat with a giant white mustache, just as you’d expect.
The parade of caricatures is quickly interrupted, however, by the quiet, ambiguous threats of the Duc l’Orange. The Marquis and his wife try to maintain their composure as fear sinks into their souls. The very next page depicts the Marquis’ vampiric origins. It’s a surprisingly human and sad tale of a man turning into the very thing he despises most. The look on the Marquis’ face as fangs plunge into his neck is one of shock, agony, and confusion. Snejbjerg’s ability to make you giggle at the familiar mascots on one page and then to suddenly break your heart a page later is what gives Cereal its irrepressible life. Snejbjerg and Russell work perfectly in tandem to push Cereal out of the well-trod realms of parody and satire and into the territory of emotional masterpiece.
Cereal: “It’s Grrrrrreat!”
The Marquis de Cocoa is only one of the amazing characters that Russell and Snejbjerg explore in Cereal. We’re also invited to discover the tragic developments of Franken du Barrie (sometimes called Franken Cherrie), the bitter progress of the disgraced Leprechaun King, and the sad fate of the unstoppable Fruit Brute. If you follow the stories in the Edgar Allan Poe anthologies, you won’t get the whole picture, but you will get a taste of the sugary goodness Russell and Snejbjerg have to offer. The narrative leaves us on a cliff-hanger, which October’s collection Cereal promises to finish with three new chapters, included along with all of the previous stories.
If you’re a fan of horror and comedy, or if you’ve ever looked at the front of a cereal box at any point in your life, you need to read this Ahoy Comics masterwork. It expertly balances absurdity with groundedness. Russell and Snejbjerg get you to underestimate their story for just long enough to frighten you and move you in a way that you didn’t think was possible.
The Cereal stories were originally published in Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror #1 and #6, Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Blood #2, Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Death #1, and Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror Season 2 #2. These have been collected in the Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror Volume 1-2, Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Blood, and Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Death trade paperbacks. The Cereal trade paperback will be available on 12th October. These can be found at all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, and Amazon/Kindle.