The casual Frank and Ernest reader could be forgiven for making some assumptions. Merely surveying the strip, it seems like it's about hobos who have somehow maintained really great attitudes in the face of deepening personal turmoil. Perhaps they live outside by choice, like ducks. There's no shame assuming such a thing-- you have a life to lead, and are likely more accustomed to strips like For Better or For Worse, where you know from the title the entire scope of what the plot may offer. Frank and Ernest offers little in the way of easy answers.
Luckily, I'm here to welcome you into the fold. Thanks to a confluence of fate, refusal to recalibrate my interests to more age-appropriate materials and a little luck, I'm now a bit of a Frank and Ernest expert. Well, I've read a lot of them, anyway.
*They aren't hobos.
*Sometimes they're hobos.
*Other things Frank and Ernest are, depending on the day: Planets, children, stuffed animals, cavemen, robots, dead hobos, hobo ghosts, knights, political prisoners, kings, lamps, trees, regular ghosts, clouds, shapes, letters, superheroes, chemicals, monsters, dinosaurs, senators or snowmen. I'm leaving out three dozen other varieties because they're infrequent enough to be statistically insignificant.
*The strip's title not only refers to the character's names, but also serves as a mind-bending easter egg microcosm of the sort of jokes they serve up daily. Let's see For Better or For Worse work on two levels-- oh, wait. Well, Frank and Ernest does, too-- and not only do they also have a big fluffy dog in their strip, but a few times a month, chances are good that they themselves are literally that big fluffy dog. Now might be a good time to see if all these mind-bending facts have caused your nose to start bleeding.
At the most basic level, comic strips are generally joke-delivery devices. Those jokes can come from the characters, situations or phrasing, and they can take any number of panels to get there, but ideally, the intended reaction from the reader is pleasure resulting from a well executed joke. Frank and Ernest has managed to boil this concept down to its essence, serving up gags immediately and consistently with any extraneous material syphoned out to make way. Looking through the archives and seeing a few years' worth in a single sitting was akin to being sucker-punched repeatedly by a clown. There's a reason we're only supposed to read one of these per day-- our bodies just can't take jokes this pure.
When I first started working here, I wrote the strip off as a pretty tired, corny legacy strip. Like virtually every other assumption I've made during the execution of my daily workload, I was completely wrong-- the barrier for understanding, much less enjoying, 40% or so of Frank and Ernest's jokes demand that the reader have a grasp on history, philosophy, science, math and literature. The other 60% are equally highbrow, but are colorful enough to also be enjoyed by illiterates (even the aggressively ignorant can't resist those big noses). It's one of the most consistently smart strips in newspapers, even on Sundays, when it has to compete with Mark Trail's big, strapping brain.
It's really easy to assume the strip is a trifle, as it lacks an ongoing storyline or any consistent point of view, but the entire worth of Frank and Ernest comes from its flexibility (remember: they're only hobos occasionally) and its unyielding commitment to silliness. Silly isn't something you can do by half-measures. Take a look at the strip above this paragraph. It's a clever joke, to be sure, but it's also a model of just how perfectly Frank and Ernest deploys its silliness. For the joke to really work, it needs to be packed into an absurdly specific context. Y'know, like "Shampoo School." An adult wrote this joke. It's basically a miracle.
Lest I stomp all the humor out of Frank and Ernest by continuing my parade of reasons why it's so great, I'll get out of the way of the big bunch of highlights I've pulled for your viewing pleasure. If they're not to your tastes, take some time and consider what benefit could possibly come from your commitment to hating fun and joy, then take another look. You'll come around.
Wait a minute… what if Frank and Ernest actually does have an ongoing storyline, and we've all just been too blind to realize it? A story that spans the spectrum of all existence, before the earth's formation until long after the heat-death of our universe? I know what I'm doing this weekend: buying a bunch of thumbtacks, tape and red yarn and piecing together this puzzle in my basement, strip by strip, epoch by epoch, until I've solved it.
I don't want to sound cocky, but if my initial figures are correct, we're all about to be rich.