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A cartoon family: Popular 'Pickles' captures humanity of humans

Ever since he was a little boy reading the newspaper, Brian Crane has been fascinated by comics. His favorite was Al Capp's "Li'l Abner," followed by Walt Kelly's "Pogo."

"The political and social commentary were over my head, but the characters were so well-drawn and creative," Crane said. "They worked on many levels."

Whenever his mother and father went off somewhere, they always brought him back comic books. Once he realized that people drew comics and made up the stories, he began to think about drawing his own.

"He was always drawing little pictures," said his sister, Vicki Bigelow.

"Mother recognized his talent at a early age," said another sister, Linda Hinckley. "She had him take one of those art courses — one of those 'can you draw this head' things that you found ads for in the back of comic books. She was good at art, but he liked cartoons. His drawings were always funny, cute — with a dry, droll sense of humor. Mother kept a lot of them."

Crane, who was born in Twin Falls, Idaho, but grew up in California, majored in fine art at Brigham Young University.

"He was a very good artist," Hinckley said. "We all have some of his artwork hanging in our houses."

But, in the interest of a more stable job, Crane entered the world of advertising as an art director, settling down in Sparks, Nev., where he and his wife, Diana, also raised a family of seven children.

At the back of his mind, however, was always the dream of being a cartoonist.

Readers in 20 American cities who picked up their newspapers on April 2, 1990, had little idea they were part of the fulfillment of that childhood dream. But if — after scanning headlines about a rebellion in Lithuania, rocky trade relations between the United States and Japan, and Duke and UNLV tipping off for the men's NCAA Division I basketball championship — they turned to the comics page, they were introduced to a sweet little, old lady who had been ordering seed catalogs for 16 years, but never bought any seeds. Her name was Opal Pickles, and she was (as an editor at the Washington Post Writers Group Syndicate notes) a combination of "Sheriff Andy's Aunt Bee mixed with a little Hazel and perhaps a pinch of Rosie, the Jetsons' maid."

Soon, readers would meet Opal's husband, Earl, "a Wilford Brimley-Walter Brennan cross." (And if you immediately recognize who those prototypes are, you're in the perfect demographic for the "Pickles" strip.)

Editors at the Washington Post Syndicate told Crane not to quit his day job; "Pickles" was probably a niche strip that would maybe pick up as many as 50 papers, they said.

"It's a tough field to break into, a tougher field to succeed at," Crane said. "Many strips don't last more than a few years."

"I think they were as surprised as anyone at how popular it became," said Crane, who was in Salt Lake City recently for a book signing for his fifth "Pickles" collection, to visit several of his sisters and children who live here, and to help plan the spring wedding of his daughter.

Twenty years later, Earl and Opal Pickles are still going strong. The strip currently appears in more that 700 newspapers and is heading toward 800. Though most readers are in the United States and Canada, "Pickles" has appeared or does appear in South Korea, Australia, India, Aruba, England, Singapore and the Middle East.

"In South Korea, it was printed in both Korean and English," Crane said. "People were using it to learn English."

He also has a Facebook following and tons of other fans who follow "Pickles" online, although that huge audience is not something Crane likes to think about. "You start thinking about millions of readers, and it's like having your feet on a highwire. You start to get too self-conscious."

"Pickles," it turned out, was not a niche strip catering only to older readers, but one that people of all ages could relate to. Everybody knows an Earl and Opal; everyone can empathize with the ups and downs of life they experience, as well as their sometimes cantankerous, sometimes affectionate relationship.

As "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz said in the introduction to Crane's first "Pickles" book, "I think it would be very comforting to have Earl and Opal for neighbors. I can see myself going over to their house. … 'Pickles' has a wonderful group of characters, and, of course, I like the dog."

And, said "Mother Goose and Grimm" creator Mike Peters in the second "Pickles" book, "Who wouldn't love to be next door to the Pickles? They are adorable, and best of all, they like each other! What a treat for the 21st century. Sure, we're all getting older, but the Pickles show us that old and young are merely states of mind."

The strip has changed over the years; Earl and Opal have gotten a little less old and wrinkled. Daughter Sylvia and grandson Nelson have also had makeovers. Sylvia, who was a single mother, got married to Dan, a wandering wildlife photographer. That was a bit of self-interest, said Crane. "My editor wanted me to do some dating strips with Sylvia. I created Dan to get her off my back. As it is, he only shows up about once or twice a year."

Crane also originally envisioned Earl and Opal as "more cranky, cantankerous and ornery" than they became. "I found I didn't have that in me — or in them." They have kind of taken on lives of their own, he said, and it becomes easier to know how they would react.

An important focal point of the strip is the relationship between Earl and his grandson, Nelson. "That's what I wanted to freeze in time," Crane said. "Nelson's at the age where he believes everything Earl tells him, and he can say outlandish things and get away with them." It's a lot like the relationship Crane is starting to have with his own grandchildren. "I constantly write down things they say and keep them in a file."

One of his grandkids recently stuck an army figure in the toaster; another stuffed his ears full of chocolate chips. "I don't know if Nelson would do that, but he would use the toaster," Crane said.

That's one thing that Crane has learned over the years as a comic-strip artist: the closer things resemble real life, the funnier they are. So, he finds himself constantly listening, looking and recording the world around him.

He did eventually quit his day job, but doing a daily strip is not exactly a picnic. There's a constant pressure of deadlines, a constant need to keep things fresh. "In this business, you're only as funny as yesterday's strip," he said.

At the end of January, he was working on strips for the first of March. Now that submissions can be done electronically, they can be sent closer to deadlines, "so it's possible to be a little more topical," he said. "Sunday strips still must be done 40 days before publication." Sometimes he feels like he is running down the railroad tracks with a train on his tail. "It can be hard on the family; you have to have an understanding husband or wife."

And yet, there's nothing he'd rather be doing.

"I still feel really lucky," he said. "Besides, I'm not qualified to do anything else, and I still have two weddings to pay for."

As one of about 150 newspaper comic strip artists in the country, Crane is part of an elite fraternity, upholding a tradition that stretches back more than a hundred years. (The first true American comic strip is considered "The Yellow Kid," drawn by Richard Felton Outcault for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, first appearing in 1896).

Comics have changed a lot over the years. In recent decades, reductions in physical size have meant strips have had to become simpler to stay visually appealing. Some newspapers have even gone away. But Crane remains optimistic. "I'd hate to lose this great tradition. I love the feel of ink on my fingers."

The continued popularity of newspaper comics was perhaps best expressed by Winston Churchill, who said, "It is my belief, you cannot deal with the most serious things in the world unless you understand the most amusing."

While there are strips that deal with political and social commentary, Crane has "no profound agendas. I just want to provide a little happiness, look at the absurdities of life in a way that makes people laugh."

Yes, there are a lot of his own personal values expressed in the lives of the Pickles. But they are universal values, he said.

"A lot of people tell me, 'you must have a camera in our house; that's just how we are.' But it's more about the humanity of humans, the fact that laughter is a universal language. When someone tells me, 'that strip made my day' — and I get e-mails like that a lot — it makes my day."

Wit and wisdom from Earl Pickles

The secret for staying married for such a long time? One of us talks and the other doesn't listen.

I keep forgetting I'm old. I'm supposed to look this way.

The best thing to do after winning an argument with Grandma is apologize.

The ones going slower than you are nincompoops, and the ones going faster than you are lunatics.

Youth and vitality are no match for old age and treachery.

The older I get, the better I was.

Setting a good example for the grandkids takes all the fun out of old age.

The trouble with doing nothing — you never know when you're finished.

When you can put your foot on three dandelions at once, its spring.

I used to burn, but now I smolder. And that's how I know I'm growing older.

Scratch a dog once, and you're busy for the rest of the day.

I'd like to be remembered as the stubborn old man who just wouldn't die.

At our age, comfortable trumps ugly every time.

If you're going to put rocks in your pockets, you had better be wearing a belt.

I've found that the best way to locate something I've lost is to buy a new one.

Life is like a grapefruit. It's yellow-orange and squishy, and it has a few seeds in it, and if you're not careful, it will squirt you in the eye.