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by Mike Baron

We're all fans here, right? Not just of comics, but the entire panoply of popular culture: movies, books, television, rock, pop, hip-hop, Cracker Jack... Waidaminit. How'd that last one sneak in? Back in the day, Cracker Jack used to be the snack of choice. Cracker Jack debuted at the Great Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893. This was the World's Fair, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park, that put Chicago on the map as a serious cultural contender. Or so they hoped.

F.W. Rueckheim and Brother offered popcorn and peanuts in a molasses sauce. Three years later Louis Rueckheim figured out how to keep the pieces from sticking together. He offered some to a salesman. "That's crackerjack!" the salesman exclaimed. In 1912 they began inserting toys in each box and crowing, "A prize in every box!" Here's where our narrative becomes personal. I remember the Cracker Jack of my youth. The toys were often of molded plastic and quite intricate. Back in the thirties, the toys were cast from metal and included tiny automobiles and guns. I know because I have a couple - several specialty shops offer exact re-creations of early Cracker Jack toys.

Today, the box still offers a prize, but the prize is a shabby little pamphlet that says, "One in a series of ten collectible prizes." I hate to burst their bubble, but these poor attempts at amusement are not collectible. They are not even memorable. They've taken on a patina of political correctness. They seek to educate, not entertain. Some deal with geography. "A panhandle is an informal geographic term for an elongated, tail-like protrusion of a border or a boundary." Wow. Are we having fun yet? The point here is that something that used to be delightful has now been rendered stale and inert. Just look at the collector's market. Can you imagine Cracker Jack's sales if they began inserting tiny action figures, or a decent trading card?

Which brings us to the sad state of modern breakfast cereal. Cereal boxes used to come with serious toys - little plastic robots that required construction, and actually did something when they were built. You hung a weight off the edge of the table setting the robot in motion, marching to the edge, arms swinging. Who can forget the Frogmen that used to come in every box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes? The frogman stood on a hollow base which you jammed with baking soda, causing the frogman to repeatedly surface and dive. The figures themselves were handsomely molded, and are still available from specialty shops. But you won't find them in a box of cereal.


Free Frogman!

Cap'n Crunch used to offer a bewildering array of goodies, from tiny plastic pirate ships to magnetic buttons of the crew. Cap'n Crunch rings were to die for. And of course there was always the unfortunate child who inhaled his secret decoder ring and had to be rushed to the hospital. Liability litigation killed the cereal box toy. To see what we've lost: click here.

A comic book pamphlet inserted into a cereal box would pose no direct physical threat.


Mike Baron worked for the Boston Phoenix, Boston After Dark, and the Real Paper. He broke into comics with Nexus, his groundbreaking science fiction title co-created with illustrator Steve Rude. Baron has written Marvel's Punisher, DC's Batman, Deadman, and Flash. Nexus has garnered honors too numerous to mention, including Eisners for both creators. Baron has written Star Wars for Dark Horse, Turok, Dinosaur Hunter and Archer & Armstrong for Valiant, and has three issues of Legends of the Dark Knight in the works.

A prolific creator, Baron is at least partly responsible for The Badger, Ginger Fox, Spyke, Feud, and many other comic book titles. He currently has two new web comics up at Big Head Press. The Architect is a horror story based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Hook is rock and roll science fiction - think Farenheit 451 only instead of banning books they have banned music.
Volume 3 out now!
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