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A FUNNY THING HAPPENED WHEN STRIP GOT THE AX

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It isn't often (although some readers say it's too often) that the Deseret News makes major changes in the Sunday color comics section.

In the daily comics, edited by Scott D. Pierce, there's a special spot for our "Rookie Comic Strip" - a corner of the page for an ongoing trial balloon that may or may not get popped by voting readers.But the Sunday comics are rarely revised. Those Sundays when an awkward-size advertisement or two foul up the routine aren't revisions. Ads just require dropping one or two features (and I really try not to pull the same comic strip out two weeks in a row on those rare occasions when there are ads in successive weeks).

But full-scale revamping doesn't happen until one of the national syndicates - which supply us with columns and features - decides to drop a comic strip.

Like today.

One of our longtime Sunday comics, "Professor Yuk-Yuk's Cartooning Class," is being canceled by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

This cancellation left us with a somewhat differently shaped space to fill. The majority of Sunday comics are horizontal. But, with some cutting and pasting and playing around with a variety of possible configurations, we discovered that Gary Larson's popular "The Far Side" cartoons can be stacked up vertically - leaving room for not one, but two additions to our Sunday lineup.

One is the Sunday version of Brian Crane's "Pickles," which has been one of the most popular strips in the daily comics for several years.

The other is "Inspector Danger's Crime Quiz," a solve-it-yourself mystery puzzle that has been well established in Europe and several foreign countries but which has just been introduced in the United States by Asterisk Features of Canada. This strip is by Danish cartoonist Werner Wejp-Olsen, who now lives in the United States.

In the "Crime Quiz," readers are invited to play detective by looking for clues hidden in the pictures and dialogue.

Another noticeable change comics fans will see is the larger format for "Family Circus," contiually among the top-ranked Deseret News comics page features.

When longtime artist Bil Keane visited Salt Lake last year, he commented that it was available in a larger size and suggested we try to fit it in.

Beginning today, we have.

- BRIAN CRANE, who works out of a studio adjacent to his home in Sparks, Nev., has several Mountain West roots.

A native of Twin Falls, Idaho, he graduated from Brigham Young University in 1973.

His sister, Lynda Hinckley, lives in Salt Lake, and the Cranes' oldest son, Matthew, 20, is in the LDS Church's Missionary Training Center at Provo, after being called to serve a mission in Portugal.

Their oldest daughter, Emily, is planning to attend Ricks College in Rexburg this summer.

Brian grew up in the Bay Area community of San Leandro, and his mother now lives nearby in Hayward. His in-laws reside in Pocatello.

Crane's family left Twin Falls when he was just a toddler. He never took any cartooning classes, but pictured himself as a fine artist.

"I studied art at BYU, and I can still do good paintings, but it's like pulling teeth. I've always had better success with cartooning," he said.

He's lived in the Reno area for about 10 years, working most of that time for several studios, publishing companies and advertising agencies.

He's done a series of animated spots for a Las Vegas company, and some of his work includes serious illustrations and design layouts.

When he first decided to tackle a full-time comic strip, he offered "Pickles" to several syndicates.

"I was turned down by three, gave it up and put it away for nine months, but my wife kept encouraging me to send it off one more time.

"The other three had indicated they liked it but never offered me a contract," he said.

So he sent it off one more time - and the Washington Post Writers Group bought it.

"Syndicates get hundreds if not thousands of proposals each year and they can only take one or two," Crane said. "It takes a lot of effort and money to launch a new strip - and then they have to convince the editors to put you on their pages.

Crane said he was pleased with how high "Pickles" placed in a recent Deseret News poll and it's been ranked as No. 1 in several other polls.

"And I don't think it's all older people. I get fan letters from yuppies and single women and the whole range of demographics. I think part of it is because I try to make it more universal," he said.

The young boy in the strip - Nelson - has progressed since "Pickles" began publication. He was a toddler back then and he's in the second grade now.

Crane said the characters in his strip are composites of people he knows.

The main focus is on Earl and Opal Pickles.

"If you were to attribute them to anybody, they'd be my parents and my wife's parents - the older people I know the best. But there are other influences, too. If my wife or someone else says something funny, it could end up as something Opal says."

The Cranes are the parents of seven children, ranging from 3 to 20.

Crane said he likes showing generational relationships.

"Nelson" was originally based on their son, Jonathon. But since Jon is now 10, Crane uses a younger daughter as a model "and I just remove her long hair."

"None of my children have shown a serious interest in art," Crane noted - except for sometimes bringing their coloring books out to the studio so they can color while he's sketching and painting.

Crane said he tries to keep at least a couple of months ahead on his strips.

"I'm working on mid- to late July right now," he said, "and I have to be at least 40 days ahead on the Sunday ones." (These advanced deadlines are mostly to service newspapers in Canada, where mail tends to run a little slower.)

He also keeps the story lines fairly simple ("Pickles" isn't like "The Amazing Spider-Man" or "Dr. Rex Morgan," where there are cliffhangers and dramatic stories). Crane did have Earl and Opal on a cruise one week, and he tries to tie the two characters together in an occasional series of strips.