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

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

"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."

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