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

Published: Sunday, Feb. 20 2011 3:00 p.m. MST

Washington Post Writers Group

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."

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