Mormon cartoonist draws 'Pickles' from life, marriage, aging

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 15 2013 1:55 p.m. MDT

Brian Crane, who has been drawing the "Pickles" comic strip for 20 years, poses for a portrait at his sister's house in South Jordan in 2011. His sixth collection of "Pickles" comics is titled "Oh, Sure! Blame It on the Dog!"

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News Archives

More than once, fans have told cartoonist Brian Crane there must be a hidden camera in their house.

While Crane, creator of "Pickles" comic strip and resident of Sparks, Nev., isn't peeking into unsuspecting homes, he is homing in on the essence of life as we know it.

"That's what I try for," Crane said. "I try to find the little moments of life that we overlook and are humorous. I look for the little certain things that happen to us in life and that people can relate to."

Because that's what "Pickles" is all about — life, marriage and growing older.

And as for the nuggets of inspiration he gets, Crane has to look no further than his own family.

"Once when I was visiting my in-laws in Idaho, my father-in-law had gotten a magnetic bracelet he saw advertised. It helped the arthritis in his hands, but I noticed that whenever he would eat, all the silverware would (attach) to his bracelet."

It's these little moments, he said, ones that often go unnoticed or recorded, where the humor is found.

"I try to be aware and observant as I go through my life. I'll hear something someone says or does that strikes me as particularly funny," said Crane, an LDS Church member who was recently in Salt Lake City for a signing event for his new book. "Often I'll have to exaggerate it. But it all starts with a germ of truth, something that actually happens or struck me as something I found amusing."

And for a cartoonist who produces one new strip a day, he's captured a broad spectrum of life.

Because he doesn't just pull ideas for his strip, which is published in more than 800 newspapers worldwide, from watching the lives of his family. Crane also creates the world of Earl and Opal Pickles from a little living of his own.

"My dream as a child was to do a comic strip," Crane said.

But early in his career, he pursued graphic design and commercial art.

"Maybe it's good I did that; I didn't have enough experience to draw from. Maybe I had to live a few decades and gain material through life."

It wasn't until the early '90s that Crane became a professional cartoonist.

After three failed attempts, Crane's wife encouraged him to once again submit his cartoons for publication.

"I finally agreed to send it in once more to prove she was wrong," he said.

But what happened set the course for Crane's future, and his lifelong dream.

The Washington Post Writers Group syndicate picked up "Pickles" and has been Crane's syndicator for the past 23 years.

"They are a top-rate organization," he said. "They've been very fair and very good to me."

Despite his success, which includes two nominations and one win (2013) for the Reuben Cartoonist of the Year Award, an award given by the National Cartoonist Society, Crane keeps his sights set on family — on and off the drawing board.

A father of seven and grandfather of eight, Crane said if a member of his family notices they are the inspiration for a strip, he gives them the original drawing.

"('Pickles') is the history of funny moments in our family," he said.

And for Crane, it's a way to keep a family record and keep the family together.

"They are moments that we share. (The strips) bring back memories now that the kids are grown and gone," Crane said. "Unless you write them down or record them, they are lost forever. We can record them and share them with people all over the world."

His kids, Crane said, love having a cartoonist for a father.

"I've visited the classroom, and their friends think it's cool. It's not a job a lot of people have, so it's something the kids can feel special about, especially if they feel like they are a part of it."

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Crane also tries to portray the "Pickles" characters as a family of strong values.

"I try to have them act like members of the church. I try to have them live church standards," he said.

When Crane first created "Pickles," if there was a blank wall or a magazine, he would illustrate a mountain scene.

"Then I thought, 'Why don't I put something better?'"

From there, he started adding the Ensign or a picture of the temple.

"It was a little inside wink and nod," he said. "And people did notice. I started getting emails wondering if I was LDS. I can't preach religion, but it's another way to portray an LDS family."

Through it all, Crane tries to maintain a positive attitude and a dose of humor toward life in general.

"If you can laugh at it, you can live with it," he said. "If you don't see or hear as well, if you can laugh at it, it's easier. It helps ease your own life."

Crane's recent book, "A Pickles Collection: 'Oh, Sure! Blame it on the Dog!'" was published Oct. 8.

Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com or on Twitter: emmiliewhitlock

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