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COMIC STRIP COUPLE `CRUSTY BUT LOVABLE'

Earl and Opal Pickles, a crusty but lovable retired comic strip couple, have cracked the notoriously tough market of newspaper comic personalities.

Earl and Opal are the subject of "Pickles," a newspaper strip created by LDS cartoonist Brian Crane. Pickles is syndicated through the Washington Post Writer's Group to about 50 newspapers in the United States and Canada.It is a `niche" cartoon, one that fills a specific need. Pickles' niche is the subject of aging, explained Crane. And Pickles treats aging in an inoffensive, humorous way that appeals to all generations, he said.

The comic strip "grows on you," according to feature editors at the Deseret News, one of the newspapers carrying the strip. "It has a gentle humor that older people can relate to and it does not make fun of them," the editors said. They also give it high marks because it is expertly drawn by its author, an art director for a Reno advertising agency.

Crane, 40, is one of few LDS syndicated comic strip artists. The strip was one of 700 submitted to the writer's group during the past year and the only one accepted, according to Jan Harrod, group sales manager.

"We thought this comic had a very nice combination of good art and good humor," she explained.

"Brian is a very funny, creative guy. The possibilities seem limitless and every set of strips keeps getting better and better."

Crane began illustrating while a missionary in Uruguay. He designed the cover of the mission newsletter. Later, he earned part of his way through BYU by designing bulletin boards in different languages at the Missionary Training Center.

"I was really excited to be syndicated," said Crane, Young Men president in the Sparks (Nev.) 2nd Ward. "Most of the characters in the strip are the kind of people that people like. The faults they see are like the faults in themselves; they laugh at themselves in the comic strips.

"I try to steer away from shock humor or anything controversial."

He chose to portray older people because they don't get the respect they deserve. The Pickles, he explained, are composites of people he's seen around him.

He enjoys drawing the cartoon, but meeting the comic-strip-a-day deadline can be a real grind, he said. He and his wife, Diana, are parents of seven children, and Church work is demanding. After a full day at the ad agency, he settles in his studio at home and draws. "Our children sometimes watch me," he commented. Life as a part-time cartoonist becomes "a real juggling act."

He said the children at first were excited with the prospect of having a cartoonist father because they thought that meant becoming rich and famous. But fame and riches are a long way off, he continued. The closest thing to fame is receiving fan mail, and occasional requests for a drawing of one of the characters. The closest thing to riches is planning a more elaborate vacation than usual.

So for now, Crane is content to continue his comic strip and look to the future: more and funnier adventures for the Pickles.

He claims that getting to know his subjects better gives him at least one edge over some other artists.

"I know a lot of older people," commented Crane. "I hope to be one some day."