Bob Thaves, the fellow behind the extremely benign, punny, and unusually funny comic strip Frank and Ernest died last week. I interviewed Thaves in August 1998 for a feature in the New York Times about the effect of the Internet on cartoonists. The piece led to four other articles on cartooning, three of which were about The Cartoon Bank or New Yorker cartoons.
I spoke to Thaves and his daughter Sara back in 1998 about the strip. Here are some rough verbatim notes from the conversation.
While Scott Adams is widely credited with being the first cartoonist to put an email address into a daily strip, he was syndicated in relatively few papers at the time--150, according to the article I wrote, based on information he and his syndicate gave me. Thaves, in contrast, was in well over 1,000 newspapers when he added an address. The mailbox exploded.
The cartoonist received thousands of email messages. Thaves said, "We had not anticipated that there would be that big a response. … it was the first strip in over a thousand papers… one of the first chances for people to communicate with a strip’s creator."
At the time, Thaves didn't want to broadcast that his kids, Sara and his son Tom (who is now taking over the strip entirely), were answering email on his behalf, as he didn't want to disrupt the relationship he had over decades with his readers.
Sara Thaves said a few prescient things back in 1998: "The newspaper will continue to be the medium for the foreseeable future. The Web will not provide comparable revenue [yet]. The newspaper market in general…has a real challenge in front of them." Truer words never spoken. I still don't see a revenue stream good enough to support more than a handful of online-only cartoonists, although it's the combination of print and online that has made more daily strip artists more successful.
She also noted, "[the] key opportunity is to capitalize on the fact that the Web is distinct from the newspaper. The same people will use both, the same people will see both. The challenge for comic properties to be successful on the Internet, is to find a way to bridge the newspaper and the Web."
Bob was fascinated by the potential for three-dimensional comics and immersive environments. He said, "I have read the comics all my life., and when I was a kid, and when reading the Sunday comics, somebody had said to me…now you can turn to the computer…and move right into that Sunday comic page, and suddenly you are surrounded by it,…and now you can walk around in it. See from different perspective, and see different elements of it environmentally."
Here's to you, Bob, frankly and earnestly.