SPARKS, Nev. (AP) - He may be jogging through his neighborhood,
listening to his grandchildren argue, or even eavesdropping on people as they pay for their groceries, but cartoonist Brian Crane is busy at work.
"You have to have your antenna out," Crane says as he sits in front of his drawing table at his home in the foothills of Sparks. "What you hear will inspire you. Every idea has come out of my brain already, so I have to be inspired by outside stimuli."
Crane, 63, has been drawing the misadventures of senior citizens Earl and Opal Pickles for 22 years. "Pickles" is carried daily in more than 800 newspapers around the world, making it one of the most popular comic strips.
And Crane is one of three nominees for cartoonist of the year. Members of the National Cartoonist Society will pick the winner during a May 25-27 convention at Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson.
"Pickles" in 2001 was named the best newspaper comic strip of the year.
Those familiar with the comic strip know Earl and Opal are a couple in their 70s who constantly bicker.
Crane never quite knows what will happen next with Earl and Opal and their family. But millions of people wait every day to see how Opal manipulates what Earl says, or how grandson Nelson gets the best of both of them.
"Sometimes I am surprised by what happens, too," Crane said.
He recalls a series of strips about how the cartoon characters found their lost dog. Ultimately both Earl and Opal found dogs that looked like theirs. But Crane never ran a strip explaining which dog really was the family pet.
"For a long time when I was speaking to groups, I was asked `What happened to the other dog?'?"
"Pickles" is known for funny family situations that often take place in their living room or on the front porch. For example, there was the strip in January when Opal banishes Earl to the front porch when he corrects her answers to questions on the "Jeopardy" TV show.
Then there was a memorable one on Valentine's Day when Opal bakes Nelson some cookies and tells him she loves him. Opal waits for Nelson to respond with an "I love you" that never comes. Instead, the boy says: "Let's not spoil the moment, Gramma."
That response broke the hearts of a lot of "Pickles" followers. Crane heard their comments on his Facebook page.
Others tell him what they think by writing to the email address found on each strip: picklescomic(at)sbcglobal.net. Sometimes readers' suggestions even end up in strips.
"I knew they might be disappointed because he didn't say `I love you.' But a lot of kids don't express their emotions so easily."
He added that Earl and Opal might fight, but they do love each other.
"If I did a strip where they were totally nice, it wouldn't be funny," Crane said. "Humor comes from conflict. It is kind of like I am directing a mini episode of a TV show, with a cast of characters and a wardrobe department."
Crane had wanted to be a cartoonist since his days as a paperboy in the San Francisco Bay Area, delivering copies of the San Leandro Morning News and Oakland Tribune. He grew up reading the Lil Abner
strips by Al Capp and Peanuts by Charles M. Schultz. He later became friends with Schultz, visiting him at his Santa Rosa, Calif., home. He found Schultz to be as kind and unassuming as his readers suspected. Kind of like Crane.
"I realize I am not a big celebrity," said Crane, the only syndicated cartoonist in Nevada. "It thrills me when I hear people enjoy it. But if I thought about how many people are reading it, I would get butterflies."
Crane said he was a loner in high school, not active in sports or even on the school newspaper. But he would draw funny things for a couple of his special friends and his mother. He said the friends kept his drawings and are not surprised by his success.
But success was a long time coming. After high school, he headed off to Brigham Young University where he majored in art. Then he took a job designing ads for the Hayward Daily Review in the Bay Area and moved on to other art jobs. By 1984, he had settled in northern Nevada and the DRGM ad agency. A couple of years later he switched to the Bayer Brown agency.
By 1990, he had passed 40, married, had seven children and still dreamed of becoming a cartoonist.
With encouragement from his wife, Diana, Crane began submitting his ideas of a strip featuring an old man to newspaper syndicates.
"I drew a picture of this old man, and it ignited a spark," he said. "I wanted to know more about him. Old people are kind of underrepresented in the comic strips, and I read they are becoming a larger segment of the population."
Three syndicates rejected his strip.
"I gave up at that point. I would have quit if my wife didn't insist I send it off again."
The Washington Post Writers Group syndicate decided to give "Pickles" a try. On April 2, 1990, the first strip was printed in 24 newspapers.
Still, Crane wasn't confident it would last. For the next five years, he kept his day job at the ad agency and during evenings drew "Pickles" in a room set up in his garage in a middle-class neighborhood in Sparks.
Five books of the collected works of "Pickles" have been published, and they have branched off into greeting cards, but Crane has not yet agreed to Earl T-shirts and Opal mugs.
"I haven't embraced the merchandising mindset," Crane said. " I just concentrate on doing the best comic strip I can."
With success, Crane and his family have moved into a larger home in a better neighborhood in Sparks.
But why Sparks, when he could move to anywhere he wanted?
"We like it here," he said. "I tried to talk my wife into moving to somewhere more exotic. She said, `What about insurance? What about the grandkids?'?"
The Cranes have eight grandchildren. Two of their daughters still live at home. One daughter does the color work on the strip for her dad.
Most other members of the family live in northern Nevada or Utah. Crane imagines they may eventually rent a winter home in a warmer climate, but Sparks will continue to be their primary residence.
Besides, Sparks is where he takes daily two-mile jogs through the neighborhood and contemplates the next "Pickles" strip.
Crane said he won't ever retire from creating "Pickles." There could be worse endings than dying at his drawing table after finishing the latest strip, he figures.
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