Frank (left) and Ernest. Artist: Bob Thaves.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Newspaper Enterprise Association
First Appeared: 1972
Creator: Bob Thaves
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We've seen the Archie characters in a cave man setting, Batman and his entourage set in Victorian England, and The Warner Brothers (and Sister)

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… interacting with various historical figures on their home turf just as if they belonged there. In TaleSpin, Disney took the cast of The Jungle Book and, without altering their characterizations or relationships, placed them in civilized society. But no other toons have had anywhere near the flexibility of Frank and Ernest, by cartoonist Bob Thaves. They can appear in any setting, past, present and future, at any location in the universe. Unless you count the fact that they're often seen as contemporary homeless folks, they don't even have a setting of their own.

In fact, even their personal nature is fluid. They've been depicted not just in every walk of life, from ambassadors to slaves, but also as dogs, cats, reptiles, insects, amoebae, space aliens and inanimate objects. Among the few things they haven't been is women — trans-gender stuff, Thaves said in a 2002 interview, is just a little bit off-limits. But they do have girlfriends, Francine and Ernestine, who turn up on rare occasions in the Sunday strip. Other than that, the two title characters are the only ones the series has — but the fact that they can be so many different things makes additional characters less necessary.

The only constants are what kind of guys they are, and how they relate to each other. Frank is the taller of the two, and more talkative — in fact, in the strip's early days, he was the only one who spoke. True to his name, he tends not to mince words. Ernest is more of a straight man, but does sometimes get in zingers of his own. He, too, is true to his name, and more candid and open than his taller pal. Both take a skeptical attitude toward the people and institutions that make the world what it is, and both engage in clever and amusing wordplay. Neither of them cares much for pretension and hypocrisy, but they never lose their big smiles when commenting on it. They were based on characters in cartoons Thaves had been doing for several years in True magazine.

Their daily comic strip was launched on November 6, 1972, and the Sunday on April Fool's Day of the following year, from Newspaper Enterprise Association (also the syndicator of Kevin the Bold, Our Boarding House and Alley Oop). The daily is done in the shape of a comic strip, but consists of only a single panel. Syndicate publicity claims it's the first comic done in that format, but actually, the small society, which also used that schtick, beat it into print by six years.

Where the Frank & Ernest feature actually did innovate was in computer-generated digital color, which had become common in comic books but wasn't seen in the Sunday funnies until Thaves introduced it in 1995. Now, lots of syndicated comics use it. Thaves was also a pioneer in computer-generated lettering, using a font of his own design, and in electronic delivery of the work to the syndicate. And, of course, in making such variety possible with such a small cast.

Up to the very end of his life, Thaves innovated in making interactive comics about Frank & Ernest, using 3-D art techniques, available on the Internet.

His work brought him many awards. The National Cartoonists' Society declared Frank & Ernest "Best Panel" in 1983, '84 and '86. In 1985, he won The Free Press Association's Mencken Award for Best Cartoon. He also seemed quite pleased with his 1990 citation as "Punster of the Year", from the International Save the Pun Foundation.

Another important "award" is the loyalty of his readership. After more than three decades, Frank & Ernest is carried in a phenomenal 1,200 newspapers worldwide, and read by about 25 million people daily.

Starting in the late 1990s, Bob Thaves went into semi-retirement, and much of the work on the strip was taken over by his son, Tom. The elder Thaves died on August 1, 2006, and now, Tom handles the whole job.


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Text ©2004-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Bob Thaves.