The Art of Making Pickles
Earl and Opal Pickles bring as much delight to cartoonist Brian Crane as they do to the rest of us.
“As I started drawing Pickles, I began to recognize my in-laws’ personalities in Earl and Opal,” Crane explains. “They bicker back and forth but are totally devoted to each other and depend on each other for their happiness. They are always doing things that find their way into the strip.”
His in-laws, for instance, once started wearing magnetic bracelets for their health, but whenever they ate, their silverware stuck to the bracelets. “It was hilarious and so typical,” Crane says. “Configurations of their magnetic adventure made it into 30 of my strips.”
Another incident took place at the Long’s cabin. Bud discovered he hadn’t brought along any shaving cream, so he lathered his face with toothpaste.
Opal: What were you doing in the bathroom for so long?
Opal: Is that a new aftershave you’re wearing?
Earl: No. I was out of shaving cream, so I used toothpaste instead.
Opal: Ah . . . That would explain why you smell so minty fresh.
Along with Opal and Earl, a pair of retired and timeless seniors, Pickles consists of their daughter’s family; their dog, Roscoe, and cat, Muffin; and a variety of other friends and relatives. Earl and Opal are especially devoted to their grandson, Nelson, and often share their wisdom:
Earl: Like I said, as you go through life, you have to develop a thick skin. Otherwise, you’re in for a lot of pain and disappointment.
Nelson: So you have a thick skin, Grampa?
Earl: You bet I do.
Nelson: It’s thickest around your tummy, isn’t it?
“I like his characters,” says Drabble cartoonist Kevin Fagan. “What I really like about Brian’s work is that he is funny and uplifting at the same time. You feel good about these characters. They are decent folks.”
In the foreword to the first of Crane’s five Pickles books, legendary Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz reflected the same sentiment: “I think it would be very comforting to have Earl and Opal for neighbors.” Schulz also correctly predicted the comic strip’s longevity. Pickles premiered in 1990 and 21 years later remains a popular feature nationwide.
According to Crane’s editor, Amy Lago of the Washington Post Writers Group, Pickles ranks in the top 10 in almost every market in which it appears and, more usually, in the top three, often coming in first.Pickles is found in nearly 800 markets, making it one of the most widely syndicated comic strips today.
“Brian deserves to be ranked high,” Fagan says. “He is one of the most consistent artists out there. Anybody can be funny now and then, but Brian is always funny.”
Lago describes Crane as an ideal person to draw and write Pickles. “Brian is an unassuming, genial family man, married for nearly 40 years,” she says. “But beneath that unassuming exterior is the quintessential cartoonist. His mind records and stores seemingly inconsequential, but covertly funny, details of life for future use.”
Neighbor: Hey Earl, what’s in the bag?
Earl, with Roscoe: I’m walking the dog. What do you think is in the bag?
Neighbor: Oh, yeah . . . right.
Earl, a few moments later: For a minute, Roscoe, I thought I was going to have to share these donuts with him.
An Impossible Dream
Crane’s success with the strip fulfills a childhood dream. He grew up reading and loving comic strips. His favorites were Al Capp’s Li’l Abner and Pogo by Walt Kelly. “They were really funny,” he says, “and as I got older, I liked them on a second level, where I could appreciate their brilliant political and social satire. I still think they are two of the greatest comic strips of all time.”
He cannot remember a time when he did not want to join their ranks. “I broke my arm when I was 12, and the doctor tried to distract me by asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. The first answer out of my mouth was ‘comic strip artist,’ but even as I said it, it seemed like an impossible dream.”
Crane’s first drawings were for his own amusement, often funny faces drawn in the margins of his school papers. Around fifth grade, he showed a drawing to a friend who laughed so hard milk spurted from his nose. “That was probably the greatest single encouragement I ever got to pursue a career in cartooning,” Crane says.
He enrolled as an art major at Ricks College, and when the school announced a $25 prize for a Viking character as a symbol of the honor society, he entered and won the competition. “I saw my drawing in the school paper, and it was the first time I had ever seen my artwork in print,” Crane adds.
Crane served a mission in Uruguay and attended BYU when he returned. “So many of my professors were outstanding. William Whitaker was my faculty advisor as well as an instructor for a couple of my classes. I was in awe of his talent, and the fact that he seemed to think I had potential was a boost to my self-confidence.”
Crane’s collegiate emphasis was on design and illustration. Through the ’70s and ’80s, he took several positions that lasted a year or two each. He sold advertising space for a newspaper in Hayward, Calif., occasionally illustrating articles as well. He worked in an advertising agency in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He was the art director for the Potato Grower of Idaho magazine. For awhile he freelanced from home, and he worked as an advertising-agency art director in Reno, Nev. “I did a string of jobs just trying to support my family,” he explains. “Sometimes it was tough. I had seven children, and as they grew, they ate more. Keeping them in Cheerios was getting harder and harder.”
Earl: The phone company called to say our payment was declined.
Earl: The credit card company closed my account. They say according to their records, I’m deceased.
Opal: Deceased? Really?
Earl: Yeah, can you believe that?
Opal: Well, you have to admit that’s an easy mistake to make.
Launching the Pickles Family
Crane’s fortunes began to change when a job creating greeting cards convinced him he had a talent for funny ideas. “I had never thought of myself as a writer,” Crane says, “but I actually enjoyed doing that as much or more than the artwork.”
That pleasure, and his growing disillusionment with doing ads for companies and products in which he didn’t believe, made Crane reconsider his old dream of cartooning.
“I was almost 40 and thought if I didn’t try now, I probably never would,” he says. Crane began to learn the process of getting syndicated by reading the autobiography of Mort Walker, known for the stripBeetle Bailey. As he read about making samples, sending submissions, trying to get a syndicate’s attention, and finding a market, he thought he would have better odds at the lottery. And he was right, says his editor. “The odds of being picked up for syndication are about 5,000 to 3,” Lago explains. “And being successful enough to make a nice living is like winning the Mega Millions.”
Crane decided to give it a shot anyway, since the cost would be nothing more than a little ink and paper. “I figured it was a better midlife option than buying a red Ferrari,” he says.
First he had to create his characters. “Trying to decide who I was going to write about was a major decision,” he says. “It’s not like writing a book with a set of characters you can leave behind after you’re finished. In a comic strip, you could be writing about these characters the rest of your life, so it’s important they have legs that can inspire you for a long time. I have always liked older people, because they remind me of grandparents. I drew an older lady and my personal lightbulb went on.”
The first characters were more crotchety than Opal and Earl have become, and he tried to find a name, like Crabtree, that would depict a cranky old couple. Nothing seemed right until he watched a football game in which one of the players had the last name of Pickles. Thus the Pickles family was born.
Crane sent samples of his cartoons to three major syndicates. The first rejected him. The second rejected him. “The third rejection really hurt his feelings,” says his wife, Diana, “because it felt so personal.”
“It wasn’t a case of the third time is a charm. It was three strikes, you’re out,” he says.
Crane was ready to abandon his dream, but his wife insisted he try again. “It’s really great to be married to someone who has more faith in your abilities than you do,” Crane says. “So I sent some examples to the Washington Post Writers Group.”
The syndicate liked his work and sent samples to newspaper contacts nationwide for evaluation. Then he waited.
“It takes considerable manpower to promote you, and there are many others from which to choose,” he says. “It’s a big commitment, and I wasn’t surprised when, after several months, I had not heard from the Washington Post group.”
When the call finally came telling him they wanted him to sign a contract, Crane felt a combination of euphoria and uncertainty. He asked himself, “Can I really do this? Do I have the ideas to do this for a month, let alone years and years? I think I was having the art world’s version of writer’s block, but I was smart enough to portray a confidence I didn’t really feel.”
Earl: So you’re saying that married men live about 10 years longer than unmarried men. . . . Therefore, in all likelihood I’d probably be dead now if it weren’t for you.
Opal: I believe the phrase you’re searching for is “thank you.”
The Graying of America
Crane believes he found a niche for the graying of America, and the editors saw the marketing potential for it. He was cautioned not to quit his day job, however, and when he asked an editor how many papers would run his strip, she said probably about 50. That would get them enough return on their investment, but not enough to ensure his security. He took their advice. Crane would work all day at the advertising agency, have dinner with his family, and head to an improvised studio in his garage, where he worked on the strip for four hours. When Pickles reached 60 papers, he cut his day job down to four days a week, and five years later he became a cartoonist full-time.
Joining the ranks of professional cartoonists, Crane began meeting his new colleagues—at comic strip conventions and elsewhere. Among them was the late Charles Schulz.
“He was very encouraging to me,” says Crane. “He used to have a Christmas ice-skating show in Santa Rosa [California], and he always had one night just for cartoonists. . . . He was generous and seemed surprised by his success.”
“Brian is a gentle guy and very quiet,” says Schulz’ widow, Jean, who runs the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa. Crane often loans original strips to the museum, and he has taught master classes and served as a cartoonist-in-residence at the center. “He does not possess a huge ego,” says Jean Schulz, “something that often happens with artists who become as successful as Brian.”
Crane considers his profession pretty isolating. “I am often inspired by family and friends, but when it comes time to work,” he explains, “I sequester myself in solitary confinement in my studio.”
On the rare occasion when a strip isn’t working, he shows it to his wife for her opinion. “She is the one person I trust to give me an honest assessment, because I know she will tell me the truth, no matter how much it hurts,” he says.
These days, Crane’s makeshift studio has became an addition to the house, crammed with a couch, desk, scanner, copy machine, television, and a plaque on the wall he received for winning the National Cartoonist Society Newspaper Comic Strip Award for 2001. Among his favorite mementos are models of other cartoon characters, such as Popeye and Snoopy.
It’s a great place to create, but Crane only wishes he could be inspired in the same way as other comic strip artists. “So many of my colleagues will spend several days roughing out their ideas and then ink them. They end up with a whole week’s work at one time. That’s not me, though. I do one strip at a time, and then when I’m completely finished, I can start another one.”
He gleans ideas from everyday life, especially from his family. Sometimes Crane will walk around the house and see what his wife is doing or check his children’s Facebook pages. One of his strips came from his daughter Sarah Crane Hunt (BA ’01) and her husband, Joseph (BA ’00). “Sarah was ordering new credit cards and chose a Hello Kitty design, not realizing her husband’s card would also arrive with the same design,” says Crane.
Earl: Anything good in the mail?
Opal: We got our new bank cards.
Earl: Great. My old card’s just about expired.
Opal: Well, here’s a brand new one for you.
Earl: Thanks . . . What the . . . ?! Why does my card have a Hello Kitty design on it?
Opal: I thought that might keep you from using it so much.
Crane, born among the first wave of baby boomers, is also starting to get insights from the man in the mirror. “I inspire myself a lot, including a day I walked my dog in the park. After some time, I looked down and noticed I was holding an empty leash. My dog had slipped out of her collar without me noticing and was off sniffing a tree somewhere. Meanwhile, I was greeting others and holding an empty leash. People must have thought I was crackers.”
Every morning Crane awakes ready to live his dream. He does not always know what the day will bring, but more than two decades of strips give him the confidence that his next idea is about to emerge. “I hope I can do this until I die,” he says. “I’m still pinching myself after 20 years. I would like nothing better than someday dropping dead into a bottle of ink.”