BRIAN CRANE was ready to walk away. It was the late ‘80s, and three syndicates had replied with three rejection letters. As he approached middle age, he was resigned to mothballing his childhood hopes, packing away his comic samples in a cabinet. A dream refiled.
He had never thought of himself as a writer, after all. “That’s why I waited till I was [almost] 40 years old before I even attempted a comic strip … ,” Crane tells us. “I could never write a comic strip. I could never have that many ideas.” Or so he believed. He knew he had artistic talent — he worked as an art director in an ad agency — and he was clever enough to write greeting cards.
His wit was in the cards. A future as a comic-strip creator, however, seemingly wasn’t.
Fortunately, he says now, his wife wasn’t having any of it.
“She said, ‘You need to be doing this again,’ ” Crane says of the comic-strip submissions. “To prove her wrong, I sent it to The Washington Post Writers Group.
“She proved to be right. Since then, I’ve learned: She’s almost never wrong.”
On Saturday night in Pittsburgh, from a stage in the William Penn Omni Hotel, Crane looked right at his wife, Diana, as he clutched his gleaming statuette. As the creator of the WPWG-syndicated “Pickles,” Crane had just been named Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year — in a tie with “Baby Blues” co-creator Rick Kirkman — at the National Cartoonist Society’s 67th annual Reuben Awards ceremony. As peers showered him with applause, Crane could also see his daughters — one of whom colors his comic strip — and other relatives.
“That moment was great,” Crane recalls to Comic Riffs. “Diana’s been my support and main cheerleader for the last 47 years.”
Because of “Pickles,” he now can hold that trophy. And because he submitted “Pickles” at Diana’s urging all those years ago, he teases, “She can hold that over me.”
There is much that is gloat-worthy. “Pickles,” a warm-hearted comic that mines multigenerational humor, recently sold to its 800th newspaper — a very healthy client list for a strip that launched even as the journalism industry began to contract.
“When I first flew to D.C. to talk syndication and talk contract, [editors] told me it was an imploding market,” Crane says of newspaper comics syndication. “I just don’t worry about it — I just do the best I can.”
Crane’s best has won the strip millions of fans, as “Pickles” — which centers on the 60-something couple, Earl and Opal — routinely scores well in reader testing. “Some newspapers do polls, and mostly it’s older people who do a lot of the voting,” he tells Comic Riffs. “Not that it’s fair — but I’m not going to complain.”
Now that he’s 64, Crane also thinks he can write more directly from experience. “I used to give talks and [audience members] would say: ‘Wow, we thought you’d be a lot older.’ Now, I’m getting to the age of the characters, so it’s easier to write for them. I feel like I’m writing about myself more and more.”
The native of Sparks, Nev., also is realizing more and more that he’s respected within his industry.
“I knew he was liked and respected,” Crane says of co-winner Kirkman. “I never thought of myself as liked and respected. I don’t have that many close friends who are cartoonists, and I don’t belong to a local [NCS] chapter. … It’s not like I schmooze them and hang around, so it caught me off guard.”
Many in the industry certainly respect his work ethic and dedication to craft. “Since ‘Pickles’ debuted in 1990” — in 24 newspapers — “it’s just been a gradual, steady climb,” Crane says. “I think that the initial impression of the syndicate was that this would be a niche strip and [would get] to 50 papers. It kind of surprised a few people.” Crane credits the Post Writers Group for believing in his strip for so many years — and Editorial Director Alan Shearer specifically for being smart enough to launch his Sunday strip. “They really believed in me — from editors to the sales staff — never giving up on me.”
Crane also deeply appreciates the fans who don’t give up on “Pickles.”
“I get the sweetest letters,” he tells Comic Riffs. “I answer every one. They ask for drawings for anniversaries. I’m happy to do that. I just really appreciate them, because they’re the ones who keep me doing what I’m doing.
“I never take them for granted, because I know without them, I’d be doing something totally different.”
At this point, Crane doesn’t take life for granted, either. He had a major operation in 2010 for a tumor found on his pancreas. And in January, his wife had open-heart surgery.
Crane maintains a steady course, doing one idea at a time, one comic a day — methodically staying ahead of those deadlines. Arc by arc, line by line, punch line by punch line.
Yet even the professional humorist wasn’t sure at first whether, on Saturday night, someone was pulling a prank. Was the announcement of an almost unprecedented Reubens tie a joke?
“It was hard to process it when they said it — I didn’t know that kind of thing happened … ,” Crane says. “I was kind of confused, and thought: Everyone jokes around.”
As the realization of the Reuben win set in, Crane jokes, he had one other flash about Kirkman.
“I thought: Gee, if I only had voted for myself instead of him.”