About 18 years ago, Brian Crane's family really grew.Already married with seven children, Crane had to make room in his life for an older retired couple, along with their daughter, son-in-law, grandson, dog and cat.But it's not as complicated as it might sound. In fact, it was the fulfillment of what Crane calls a "childhood dream."Crane is the author of "Pickles," an award-winning comic strip that appears in almost 500 newspapers nationwide. Since leaving his career as a commercial artist after finding success as the creator of Earl and Opal Pickles, Crane has discovered just how much his days are consumed by the characters he created, and how rewarding and challenging life as a cartoonist can be."They almost become living parts of my family," said Crane, who lives in Sparks, Nev., with his wife, Diana, and three children who still reside at home. "I almost think of them as part of my family."Crane, a former paper boy who faithfully read "Li'l Abner" and "Pogo" comics, was an admittedly shy child who would grab the attention of others by cartooning. Although a funny face he drew in elementary school made a friend laugh so hard that milk came out of his nose, Crane struggled with confidence in his abilities. He was unsure he'd ever become what he aspired to be."I thought there's no way I could come up with funny ideas day-after-day," he said.After working in graphic design and illustration for 20 years, Crane became somewhat disillusioned with his profession. At the same time, he started to evaluate the needs of his family and decided to try his hand at a career in comics. He sent his work in to three of the major syndicates, and although he received positive feedback, all three passed."I basically gave up on it at that point," he said. "I thought, three strikes, you're out. Fortunately my wife had more confidence in my abilities than I did . . . Of course, my wife is always right.""Pickles" was picked up by the Washington Post Syndicate in 1990 and debuted in 24 newspapers. Crane continued to work as a commercial artist for five years, but eventually the comic strip became successful enough that he was able to quit his job and become a full-time cartoonist.The evolution of "Pickles" spanned several years, and inspiration came from various sources."You have to have a real affinity and love for the characters," Crane said. "That's why it took me so long to develop the strip because I needed characters that I could live with."Which is why a picture of a temple or a copy of the Ensign can occasionally be seen in the Pickles' home."I don't try to preach or push my religion on people," he said. "(But) I've got to put something on the walls or have them reading something."Crane, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a 1973 graduate of Brigham Young University, said that because Earl and Opal are like family, they share the same standards and do what he imagines his own family doing. They don't drink or smoke, and Crane said he tries "to keep the humor at a high level."But there is conflict, and Crane acknowledges that without it "Pickles" wouldn't be very funny. In some ways, Earl and Opal are based on his in-laws."It's the same relationship that my wife's parents have," Crane said. "They've been married 60 years, and they can be a little bit cranky with each other. You know that they love each other to death, but . . . on the surface they bicker."Another source of inspiration came when Crane was living in Idaho Falls near the LDS Temple before moving to Nevada in 1984. His home ward was attended by several older couples, and Crane enjoyed hearing their stories and being in their company.Of course, the creation of the characters was the easy part. What's difficult about being a cartoonist, according to Crane, is the continual demand to produce an original piece of art for each day of the year — and make it funny."It can be very daunting," he said. "And plus, it's a very competitive field . . . You always have to be at the top of your game. In the cartoon world, they don't care about how funny you were last week."The process of keeping up begins every morning when Crane wakes and wonders: "What am I going to do next?" Arriving at that answer involves taking walks, fiddling around the office, speaking at gatherings and, of course, eavesdropping. Crane said humor comes from observation, and that his "net is always out."One idea came when Crane spoke at a Lions Club gathering and saw an older man showing off an atomic wristwatch he received for Christmas."I'm thinking, why does this guy need to be that accurate about time?" Crane said.Most of his thinking and writing are accomplished in the morning, with the artwork done in the afternoon hours. Crane said he usually produces one cartoon a day.Considering his success, he'll likely be doing that for some time. In 2001, "Pickles" was honored as the comic strip of the year by the National Cartoonists Society. Crane also has published four books.And Earl and Opal aren't going anywhere. Crane has chosen to freeze the characters in time, and for good reason."I don't want them to get too much older or I'll be out of business," he said.