Happy Birthday

Posted by on April 2nd, 2010 at 10:33 AM

Brian Crane’s Pickles is twenty years old today. The comic strip had a beginning that should be legendary. Pickles started soon after Crane’s midlife crisis: he was standing naked while talking on the telephone.

Crane had known he wanted to be a cartoonist since he was in the fourth grade, he once wrote. “Sitting in the cafeteria for lunch, I drew a cartoon face for my friend, Lloyd. It had bugged-out eyes, buck teeth and a wild-man hair-do. Lloyd started laughing so hard that milk came out of his nose. At that moment, I knew I had found my calling in life.”

To be a cartoonist was his dream. “Of course, at various other times, my dream had been to be a cowboy, an explorer and the guy who makes Hostess Twinkies. But such are the fantasies of youth, right? They’re fine for kids.” But when you realize your parents aren’t going to support you for the rest of your life, “you start looking for something more realistic. Like advertising.”

So Crane went into advertising, and by the time he was 38, he was art director at a mid-sized advertising agency in Reno, Nevada. Then he had his midlife crisis.

He realized that he was approaching “that dreaded stage of life, Middle Age—the point in your life when you take all the glorious dreams and goals you had as a youth and either do something about accomplishing them or chuck them out the window for good.”

He found himself thinking about developing a comic strip for syndication. He had no expectation that he would actually achieve this goal: “I knew the odds,” he said. He knew almost no one who develops a comic strip for syndication actually sells it to a syndicate. But he wanted to do it anyhow so he could say to his errant brain cells that pestered him to try: “Look, I gave it my best shot and it didn’t work out. Now go play with some amino acids and leave me alone.”

He decided that his comics trip would be about a couple of senior citizens, reasoning that the ever-increasing population of old people in the world had no comic strip about them. “Shrewdly, I figured that a strip about a heretofore ignored segment of society would stand a better chance of selling that yet another strip about a sarcastic cat.”

Crane made this comment in 1992 before Bucky the Katt got fuzzy. All we had then was Garfield. But Crane wasn’t taking any chances either: he included a sarcastic cat as one of the characters in his strip.

Crane didn’t realize at the time that the readership of newspapers was skewing more and more into the elderly vicinity, which made his scheme even more practical, unbeknownst, of course, to him.

“The strip I dreamed up centered around Earl and Opal Pickles,” Crane said, revealing yet another aspect of his diabolic plan: “Pickles, I thought was a funny-sounding name, and it reminded me in a way of Peanuts.”

He drew up a couple dozen strips and sent them off to three of the largest syndicates, which, one by one, rejected the strip. Crane put his Pickles away (in a file folder, not a jar) and contemplated returning, somewhat satisfied that he’d tried his best but it didn’t work out.

His wife, however, would not let the matter rest. Diana nagged him. Finally, noticing that Berkeley Breathed was announcing the end of his Bloom County, Crane thought that Breathed’s syndicate might need a replacement, so he sent his samples to the Washington Post Writers Group, vowing that this would be his last try.

Again, he was doomed to disappointment: WPWG expressed interest. They wanted to show the strip around and see how newspaper editors felt about a comic strip featuring members of its predominant demographic. Crane waited.

“Finally, in December 1989,” he wrote, “I was called out of the shower to take a phone call. There, standing in a towel and dripping wet, I got the news that they wanted to offer me a contract to syndicate Pickles. It’s a good thing I wasn’t in a public place because the towel was soon lying forgotten on the floor.”

That’s how Crane’s midlife crisis was solved while he was talking on the phone naked.

Pickles started April 2, 1990, six days a week in 24 newspapers; two years later, it was in about 80 papers and Crane had added a Sunday. Today, Pickles is in 647 papers around the world. (That’s the actual count: WPWG doesn’t fudge by generalizing.)

When Pickles passed the decade mark, Crane was amazed. “When I first signed my contract, I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it for ten weeks let alone ten years, so this feels like a major accomplishment. I didn’t think I’d be able to come up with the 365 ideas a year it takes to keep a strip in business for me, the key is not to think of all the strips I have to create but just to do one, and then another, and then another.”

Crane explained: “It’s kind of like the man who had to eat an elephant. Looking at the gigantic beast, the task seemed impossible. But the man just began taking one bite at a time, and pretty soon, he had eaten an elephant. Of course, it helps if you like elephant.”

You can tell, Crane is a funny guy.

Now, another decade having slipped over the horizon, Crane is still amazed, attributing the longevity of the strip to “dumb luck and clean living, I guess. It’s all been kind of a wonderful mystery to me. I never had a master plan or anything like that. My only real goal was to do the best comic strip I was capable of doing each day and hope a few people out there would like it. Luckily for me, they did.”

Right. Pickles consistently tops readership polls. In 1995 and 2001, it was nominated for Best Comic Strip of the Year by the National Cartoonists Society, winning in 2001; and Crane was also nominated for NCS Reuben as cartoonist of the year in 2006. (Didn’t win. But there’s hope: Crane didn’t think he’d last ten years, remember?)

Pickles readers are passionate about Earl and Opal. Once Crane grew a beard while working out of a cabin near Yellowstone and decided he’d put the experience to use in the strip: Earl grew a beard.

He enjoyed drawing Earl with a beard for a change but wondered about how his readers felt about it. So he asked, including his e-mail and post office box in the strip for them to reply. He was again amazed: he received seven thousand e-mails and nearly a thousand cards and letters. Some said: “Lose the beard!” Others said: “We love the beard!”

Crane let Earl keep the beard until Christmas that year so he could play Santa in a department store; then he gave the old man a shave for the New Year.

Not all of Crane’s continuities in the strip reach crescendo conclusions. One of the earliest storylines was about the Pickles’ dog, Roscoe, who ran away from home. Earl and Opal went looking for him, and they each returned with a dog that looked like Roscoe.

“They had two identical dogs,” Crane said, rehearsing these events at the ten-year milestone, “and, as unlikely as it may seem, they couldn’t tell which one was their pooch. Back then I was still a novice at this, and I couldn’t figure out a way to solve the dilemma, so I more or less just dropped it and went on to something else. To this day, ten years later, I still occasionally get people asking, ‘Whatever happened to that other dog?’”

And Crane may have been the first cartoonist to inflame Islamic Hooligans.

In the late 1990s, Crane did a strip in which two of his characters were having their fortunes read in a crystal ball.

“I drew a squiggly line inside the ball for shading. Soon after it as published, I got a threatening e-mail from a man in New York who claimed that inside the crystal ball I had spelled out the name of ‘Allah’ in the Arabic script, and that in doing so I had insulted and profaned his god. His message called for action to be taken against me.”

Crane continued: “I wrote back, telling him that I had not intended to profane Allah with my squiggly line, that I can barely speak English let alone Arabic, and that it was all a misunderstanding. I don’t think I convinced him. To this day, I’m not sure I shouldn’t be in hiding with Salmon Rushdie, but I guess I’ll take my chances.”

If this incident had happened ten years later—in the wake of the nefarious Danish Dozen—Crane would probably be in hiding with Rushdie, Vilks, Westergaard and the rest of the twelve blaspheming Danish cartoonists. As it is, however, he is still living in [location withheld for fear of endangering an award-winning cartoonist’s life not to mention the further adventures of Earl and Opal].

Crane is deeply grateful to his loyal readers. He hears from many of them who tell him how a particular strip was meaningful to them or how Pickles has become a part of their daily routine.

“I feel like I have friends I have never met in places I’ll probably never visit,” he wrote at the tenth anniversary of the strip. “That, to me, is the best part of doing a comic strip for a living. Don’t get me wrong: I do cash the checks, but it’s a rare privilege to be able to touch people’s lives with laughter each day. The only thing that could make it better is if I could once more make someone laugh so hard that milk came out their nose. Oh, well—I’ll keep trying.”

But he can’t imagine where his trying will take him. On the strip’s twentieth anniversary, Crane says: “I’m not a good long-range planner. I don’t know what Earl and Opal will be doing a year from now or even a month from now. I just start each workday wondering, ‘What could happen next?’ That way, I get to be surprised like everyone else.”

Writing in 1992 after only two years of getting himself surprised, Crane said: “Sometimes I’m thrilled and excited by what I’ve come up with on my drawing board. More often, I’m satisfied but not enthusiastic with the result. And then there are those mornings when I’m so unhappy and embarrassed with my strip that I want to sweep across the land gathering up all the newspapers from everyone’s front porch before they have a chance to see the comics page.

“Strangely enough,” he continued, “those seem to be the days when 13 people come up to me and say, ‘I just loved your strip today. I had to send a copy to my Aunt Effie in Fresno.’ I guess it just goes to show that I really have no idea what I’m doing.”

He still doesn’t. And we’re glad.

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