America’s favorite grandparents are celebrating their 30th anniversary this week.
Sparks-based comic Brian Crane first published the comic strip “Pickles” on April 2, 1990 in about two dozen papers, including the Reno Gazette Journal. It wasn’t long before Opal and Earl, their cat Muffin and dog Roscoe were being featured in 1,000 newspapers worldwide.
Crane, born in Idaho in 1949, always wanted to create comic strips, but he didn’t think his drawing talent or funny bone were strong enough. He became an art director and graphic designer for years, until he revisited his childhood dream around the age of 40.
Crane still works out of his home studio in Sparks. his daughter, Emily, colors each of the illustrations. He is the father of seven children and now 19 grandchildren with his wife of nearly 48 years, Diana. He talked to the Reno Gazette Journal about celebrating three decades with the Pickles family.
What was the first comic strip or cartoon that you ever made? Think way, way back, even if it was when you were a kid.
The first comic I remember making was about a kind of gangster insect, named Billy the Big Black Bug. He wore a trench coat and fedora and went around shooting holes in everybody. Sounds kind of violent but it was inspired by comics I read in the paper, like Dick Tracy and Li’l Abner. I was about 12 years old at the time. I used to show my cartoons to my friends in elementary school to get laughs. Once in the lunchroom I made my friend Lloyd laugh so hard at something I drew that the milk he was drinking came out his nose. That’s probably the best compliment a cartoonist can get.
Describe some of the real-life family and friends that have inspired Opal, Earl, Muffin and Roscoe. Any particular story behind the characters’ names?
I drew heavily (pardon the pun) on my own grandparents. I also found inspiration in my mother- and father-in-law. They were funny without trying to be. I got a lot stories from them. Once my father-in-law was showing me a magnetic bracelet he had bought. It was supposed to help the arthritis in his hands. But as he was showing it to me we were at the dinner table and the silverware kept sticking to the magnetic bracelet. It was hilarious and I used it in a strip. They had kind of an interesting way of bickering back and forth and getting on each other’s nerves, but it was also obvious that they really loved each other underneath it all.
I named Opal after one of my wife’s aunts by that name. She kind of looked like Opal too, and I thought it was an interesting name. She was the first character in Pickles that I sketched out. I chose the name Earl for her husband just because I thought it sounded like it went well with Opal.
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You were about 40 when you started Pickles; why depict a couple that was older? Are you an old soul?
In the beginning, when I decided to try to create a comic strip, I was just filling a sketchbook with lots of different characters. Nothing really struck me as interesting until I drew this older couple. I seemed to me that seniors can get away with eccentric and humorous behaviors that young people couldn’t. Old people have seen it all and done it all and so they have a set idea of how things ought to be. And maybe they can get away with things that younger people couldn’t. It also occurred to me that, as far as I knew, no one was doing a strip with senior citizens as the main characters. I had been reading about the “graying of America” as the general population was skewing older, so I thought it might be something unique that might appeal to newspapers, since their readers tend to be older.
Am I an old soul? Yeah, I do kind of feel like an old soul. I was a teenager in the ’60s when most of my contemporaries were into the hippie culture. I was dressing and acting more like an old fogey.
It appears you still publish a piece every day, but do you create every day?
For most of the past 30 years I have created new material every day. Lately I have slowed down a bit, slipping in some of my favorite reruns here and there. They’re strips that were done many years ago when Pickles was in a lot fewer papers, so most people didn’t see them anyway. And if they did they’ve probably forgotten them. I know I have.
I’m assuming a lot of the comic strip is inspired by your own life. Do you ever use your characters to say the things that you struggle to say in real life, for instance when you want to apologize to your wife or when someone has done something to upset you?
Yes, most of what I put in the strip comes from observation about things I see and hear in my own little corner of the world, but it seems to resonate with people everywhere. Not a day goes by where I don’t get multiple people commenting that I must have a spy camera hidden in their house. I think that just shows that we all, in spite of how different we are, still have a lot in common, and can relate to similar funny experiences.
I don’t really use Pickles to respond to friends and family because I create my strip months before it appears in the paper, so anything I said as a response to family and friends would be old news by the time they saw it.
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I read somewhere that you sometimes draw a Mormon temple in your work since you are part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Do you ever hide other treasures or secrets in your comic strips?
I wouldn’t call it hiding, but I do occasionally draw a picture on Earl’s and Opal’s wall with a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (We’re trying to get away from the title “Mormon.”) I just do it as a sort of wink and a nod to members of my own faith. I don’t try to preach my religion in the strip, but I do portray my characters as people of faith who go to church and try to live according to good principles. I hope it is something that people can enjoy regardless of their religious or nonreligious leanings.
Comic strips often reveal humor in every day life; are you finding inspiration as the world is self-isolating and grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic?
I have thought of that but since I work so far ahead of real time I am hoping that when the strips I am writing this week appear in the paper later this year the viral pandemic will be a thing of the past that people won’t want to be reminded of.
What have been some difficult times in your life where you were able to rely on humor to alleviate your fears or concerns?
When I had been doing the strip for a few years my 4-year-old daughter was hit by a car and was critically injured. She miraculously recovered after some time, but during the time we were at her side in intensive care and later in rehabilitation I was still on deadline having to think of humorous ideas for my comic strip. It was incredibly difficult but it probably kept me sane.
It sounds like you have a lot going on between kids and grandkids and life in between. How many more years do Opal and Earl tend to stick around? Any plans to retire?
It seems like everyone my age has pretty much retired from their jobs, but I still love what I’m doing. On the days when I decide to take a day off I get bored very quickly and find myself wandering back into my studio. So I plan on carrying on with the silliness until I’m no longer physically or mentally able to do it anymore. I’ve always been inspired by the way Charles Schulz approached his work. He kept going until the very end, and his last Peanuts strip appeared in papers on the day he died. I think that’s a pretty cool way to make your exit.
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Jenny Kane covers arts and culture in Northern Nevada, as well as the dynamic relationship between the state and the growing Burning Man community. She also covers the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry (Check out her podcast, the Potcast, on iTunes.) Support her work in Reno by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.
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