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Bob Thaves, 81; Creator of “Frank and Ernest”

Times Staff Writer

Whatever life form the amiable outcasts at the center of the long-running comic strip “Frank and Ernest” take, they never quite fit in.

Traveling the universe, the pair most recognizable as eccentric old men would occasionally change shape -- in one strip they could be centipedes, in another birds or creatures from deep space -- as they poked fun at life on Earth.

As aliens, one harrumphed to another in a 2000 strip: “I said ‘Take me to your leader,’ and before I knew it I was at a fundraiser!”

The creator of the comic strip had done a little changing of his own: Bob Thaves spent decades as an industrial psychology consultant before becoming a nationally syndicated cartoonist in 1972.

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Thaves, a longtime resident of Manhattan Beach, died Aug. 1 of respiratory failure at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, said his daughter, Sara Thaves. He was 81.

“Frank and Ernest” is carried by more than 1,300 newspapers worldwide and read by more than 25 million people a day, according to United Media, whose Newspaper Enterprise Assn. distributes the strip.

Having two characters who could play a cast of thousands was a convenience that Thaves had said gave him the flexibility to address any subject.

He once explained the comic’s popularity by recalling what one fan said: “They loved Frank and Ernest because they’re simultaneously above everything and below everything.”

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His ability “to find humor in diverse things” also played a part, his daughter said. “The strip was a reflection of his knowledge and wide-ranging interests.”

And, perhaps, of a playful appreciation for the frustrations of daily life. In a panel from a decade ago, a character confronts a page-a-day calendar in which every page reads: “Not your day.”

Robert Lee Thaves was born Oct. 5, 1924, in Burt, Iowa, where his father, John, published local newspapers. When Thaves was about 13, his father died and his mother, Gertrude, went to work as a home healthcare attendant.

As a boy, he knew he wanted to be a cartoonist; he developed his style by studying other comic strips. His cartoons were first published in his high school yearbook, and he drew comics for the student newspaper and the humor magazine at the University of Minnesota.

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During World War II, Thaves served in Europe in the Army’s 89th Infantry Division. After the war, he completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and came west with a raft of college classmates, including Thaves’ future wife, Katie Sandberg, a nurse he started dating in Los Angeles. They married in 1954 and moved to Manhattan Beach three years later.

While working as a psychological consultant who helped companies screen potential employees, Thaves sold an occasional comic strip to the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.

At a family dinner, he introduced the idea of a cartoon about two everymen who could fall through time and space. By the late 1960s, he was drawing “Frank and Ernest,” whose names were chosen to reflect their personalities.

In the late 1980s, Thaves collaborated on the short-lived comic strip “King Baloo” with Scott Stantis, creator of the currently syndicated “Prickly City” strip. Stantis has announced plans to draw a tribute cartoon to be published Sept. 10. A tribute by cartoonist Darrin Bell appears today in his “Candorville” strip, carried in The Times.

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Thaves’ survivors include his wife of 52 years; his daughter, Sara, who markets an archive of diverse comics; and his son, Tom, who has worked on “Frank and Ernest” since 1997 and will lead a team that produces the comic strip.

As a final tribute to Thaves’ sense of humor, his family posted a “Frank and Ernest” strip from 1998 on his website, www.frankandernest.com. In it, Ernest asks Frank: “What would you like your epitaph to say?”

Frank responds: " ... to be continued.”


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