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Comics: Meet the Webmaster

Sara Thaves
Webmaster, cartoonistgroup.com
Friday, November 19, 2004; 1:00 PM

Join Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin online two Fridays each month to discuss the comics pages. From artists to writers to editors, Tobin is joined by a different guest for each show. This week, Tobin was joined by Sara Thaves, webmaster of www.cartoonistgroup.com -- a searchable cartoon database. Thaves is also the daughter of "Frank and Ernest" cartoonist Bob Thaves, and runs his Web site.

Tobin and Thaves were online on Friday, Nov. 19 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the future of cartoons on the Internet.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Suzanne Tobin: Welcome, comics fans, to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is actually a Webmaster, not a cartoonist. Sara Thaves, who is the driving force behind www.cartoonistgroup.com, and also the daughter of "Frank and Ernest" creator Bob Thaves, is joining us from her office in Los Angeles. Welcome, Sara, and thanks for joining us Live Online.


Sara Thaves: Hello! It is such a pleasure to be here and to be able to chat with folks about one of my favorite things -- comics!


Falls Chuch, Va.: Frank and Ernest is a good cartoon, with especially funny drawings. But please don't put Family Circus and Pinhead in an Internet cartoon database. They are so unfunny and stupid.

Sara Thaves: Sorry about the delay between responses - technology! One of the most interesting things about comics is that they are read by such a wide audience. As individuals we may like some better than others - as with movies and television, for example - but I think that the comics industry as a whole is stronger when there are different comics for different parts of the audience.


Baton Rouge: Do you spend any time looking for new talent on the Internet to add to your site? Or are you only interested in established cartoonists?

Sara Thaves:Unfortunately, I'm not able to spend alot of time looking for new talent, and we hope to be able to do more of that in the future, but people can always feel free to contact me at sthaves@cartoonistgroup.com.


Detroit, Mich.: I have been a great fan of your father's comic strip since I
discovered it two decades ago. Were there any strips he
did where he got his inspiration from you as a child?

Sara Thaves:Oh, good question. I don't think so. I was in high school when he started the strip. He gets inspiration from alot of different places, some of which I think had to do with the family, but the majority of it comes from the fact that he does alot of reading and is a keen observer of the wide world around him.


Derwood, Md.: Hello, Sara. What do you foresee for Internet cartoons 10 years from now?

Sara Thaves:My hope is that in 10 years Internet cartoons will include more interactivity, and they will be more focused on the user... meaning that it will be easier for the user to find cartoons that they are interested in.


Dayton, Ohio: Do you have a favorite Mike Peters cartoon?

Sara Thaves: I can honestly say that it is a true pleasure to see each and every one of Mike Peters' cartoons. His drawing style contains so much energy and his humor is so smart and he's just funny. But I can't pick just one.


"Frank and Ernest" fan: What program is used for the interactive part of the Frank and Ernest Web site? The drawing doesn't look like it's in your dad's style. Does someone else do the drawing for that feature?

Sara Thaves:The 3-D drawing was done by somebody else using models and with the benefit of alot of input from Dad. It involved actually creating digital 3-D models and then we put them onto the site using QuickTime.


Rockville, Md.: So, Sara, the big question. Who do you like best... Frank or Ernest?

Sara Thaves: Somedays Frank, somedays Ernest. Interestingly enough, when Dad originally6 thought about doing the strip, he thought about having only one character, and he also thought about Ernie being silent, but he decided he really needed to have the benefit of both of them speaking in order to provide the best opportunity for observation and gags for readers.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Sara, thanks for taking my question. I'm curious about how you decided to start your site. How did you get the idea? Who do you see as your core customers?

Sara Thaves: The idea for the cartoonist group grew out of work that I'd done on my Dad's Web site, where we had the first searchable comic archive. The response suggested that there was an opportunity to make comics available to users in ways that made sense to users, not just on the basis of publication date. I also thought that there was an opportunity to not just include comic strips, but also to include editorial cartoons, illustrations, vintage art and to essentially broaden the definition of comics. It didn't have to be limited to what was in the newspaper. We market to both businesses and consumers. One of the driving ideas behind the cartoonist group is there is an opportunity for cartoons and comics to be published more broadly in newsletters and to be used by diverse business and special interest groups, like associations. What we're attempting to do is to reach out to new audiences, both business and consumers.


Gaithersburg, Md.: It seems like your Web site has a fairly limited number of cartoonists? Is that because of their syndicate contracts?

Sara Thaves: The number of cartoonists is limited, for the time being, by the amount of work that's required to get the cartoons into the database. We are looking at a number of alternatives to make it easier for the cartoonists themselves to add images to the site, through administrative tools and things like that. The syndicate contracts are somewhat of an issue, but less of one than you may think. Our view of the comics world is broader than how syndicates have typically viewed the comics market. We look at it to include not only newspaper comics, but vintage comics, illustrations and other types of humorous art as well.


College Park, Md. Geek: Thanks for taking my question. How much are you involved with the actual software development of the sites? What is your educational background?

Sara Thaves: I don't actually write the software, but I do have enough of an understanding of the concept of a database to be able to provide general direction for it's development. As for my educational background, it's not directly related to this, but it's a traditional liberal arts background. (I graduate from Mount Holyoke College.)


washingtonpost.com: Can you give us an idea of some of the ways you try or have tried to make the www.frankandernest.com Web site interactive?

Sara Thaves: Dad has always believed that when you put comics on the Internet that if you simply take the print version and put it on the Web, than you are not taking full advantage of the medium. And with frankandernest.com, we also thought it was important to avoid competing against the print version. We actually wanted to add value to the print version. So the interactive elements include interactive comics (both 3-D and 2-D) and a daily Java puzzle. Additionally, there are a number of ways for users to access and enjoy the strip in ways that make sense to them, not simply based on publication date. These include a keyword search of more than 5,000 images, and also a feature we call "this day" in which users can see the strips that were published on this day over the last 10 years.


Monterey, Calif.: I noticed that you use CopyNo on your site to prevent downloading of images.

Does it work?

Have you had copyright violation problems with the internet?

Sara Thaves: This is a really important question and something that is becoming more of an issue. We do use tools such as CopyNo that work hard to protect the copyrights of the images that are in our database. We take the value of those copyrights very seriously, and we feel it's incumbent on us to use every tool available to protect them. CopyNo is an important part of that mix, and it does work hard to inhibit downloading of images onto desktops. The artists work hard to create images and it's our responsibility to make sure that the value and integrity of their work is protected in the marketplace. Especially when it is easy for images to be altered or modified without the artist's permission. If anybody wants to know more
CopyNo, they should contact its developer, Bob Staake, and he can be reached bobstaake@aol.com.


Southwest Washington, D.C.: I noticed that on www.cartoonistgroup.com, many of the editorial cartoons have the captions, but not the images. Why is that? Is it a copyright issue?

Sara Thaves: That's a software problem. That shouldn't be happening. E-mail me at sthaves@cartoonistgroup.com, and let me know what kind of operating system and browser you're using.


Germantown, Md.: Did your father approach you about helping with frankandernest.com, or were you the impetus to get him to start his Web site?

Sara Thaves: I honestly can't remember how it happened. I was working for him at the time creating an offline database and we were also doing some work with some people who did the coloring of the Sunday page. They helped educate us about the Internet and they were also the ones who helped us create the 3-D characters, so it was really a mixture of the database work we'd been doing, the coloring of the Sunday page, and it all came together in a very exciting way when we began to realize the opportunity for new ways to present the comic on the Internet.


Richmond, Va.: What do you think about the future of Internet only cartoons? Do you think cartoonists will be able to bypass the syndicate process at some time in the future?

Sara Thaves: This is another really good question. The Internet creates the potential for this, but the challenge will continue to be marketing...how people can see and access the cartoons. Syndicates will continue to be important until cartoonists are able to figure out how to get paid for their cartoons without the benefit of the exposure syndicates provide. There are many newspapers who consider only syndicate cartoons because then they have already been through a vigorous screening process. It's an interesting challenge, even for successful cartoonists, because as newspaper readership declines, and Web usage increases, cartoonists will want to be able to appeal to that audience in a way that's appropriate for both media.


Reston, Va.: Very few ventures on the Internet have been financially viable. What makes you think yours can be? How did you find a group of investors or is this strictly a family business?

Sara Thaves: I decided after looking at the opportunity to have investors that I wanted to do this on a so-called bootstrap basis. I think it's in the best interests of the comics and of the cartoonist to do it without the benefit of outside money. The discussions that I had led me to believe that the need to generate an immediate financial return could mean that decision would be made that wouldn't be in the best interests of the cartoonists and their work. So I'm not a starving artist, but I'm as close to one as you can be without being an artist.


Dayton, Ohio: What's the future of syndication going to be like, given the shrinking budgets and page placements in newspapers. Does Scott Kurtz' plan for free syndication of PvP (www.pvponline.com) have a future?

Sara Thaves: I'm not familiar with PvP, but I'll look forward to checking it out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. The syndication market is facing alot of pressures which means that there may, in fact, be opportunities for a company that is able to compete efficiently in a changing market.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I noticed Signe Wilkinson is one of the editorial cartoonists you carry on your Web site. Have you met her and, if so, what can you tell us about her?

Sara Thaves: Signe is delightful. She is, like her cartoons, insightful and direct. Being the first woman editorial cartoonist to win the Pulitzer, the cartoon world has been lucky because she's been a good spokesperson in that role.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Will the cartoon database go back into time? For instance, I remember a cartoon called Lenny. I spent time unsuccessfully seeing if there ever was a compliation of this strip anywhere, and I could not find anything. Could I use your database and search for old comic strips?

Sara Thaves: I think there's a great opportunity to include comics from the past in a database like ours. And we do now have some old comic images, including work by Harvey Kurtzman, who was one of the founder of Mad magazine. And we also have images from the Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library, which is the country's largest collection of vintage cartoon art. They might even have the cartoon you're specifically looking for. I don't know there Web address offhand, but if you want to e-mail me at sthaves@cartoonistgroup.com, I have it and can forward it to you.


Chicago, Ill.: How familiar were you when you were growing up of the
comic world? As a kid, did you meet any cartoonist
friends of your dad?

Sara Thaves: In my particular case, while I was very young, my dad worked as an industrial psychologist. Cartooning was always something he did, but it was more than a hobby, but he made his living primarily in other ways. It wasn't until I was in high school that he started Frank and Ernest, and it wasn't until I was out of college, that he actually gave up his day job. My brother and I had a different view than most other children of cartoonists. However, having said all that, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet other cartoonists and to develop a real respect and appreciation for the art form and for the opportunity to do this for a living.


Encinitas, Calif.: Sara, what do you think is the best change you've seen in the technology since you started working on your father's Web site in '94?

Sara Thaves: The best change in technology is that the users have more of a chance to find cartoons and comics that are of interest to them, as opposed to just on the basis on the publication date. The second change is the increase in comics that are more appropriate for the Web environment, whether that be through the introduction of some animation, interactivity and it can just be as simple as seeing the strip in color.


Sara Thaves: I see we're out of time. Thank you for all your excellent questions and for taking the time to join us.


Suzanne Tobin: Thanks, Sara, it's been very interesting to look at the cartoons from another point of view other than that of the creator. I hope you and everyone else will join us again in two weeks when Brian Crane of "Pickles" will be our guest.


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