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Portrait of the Artist as a Family Guy

By Jerry Zezima

As a husband, father and grandfather, which puts me at the bottom of the family pecking order, I have a lot in common with Brian Crane, the Reuben Award-winning cartoonist who created the wildly popular syndicated comic strip “Pickles.”

The only real difference between us — aside from the incredible fact that he has 16 more grandchildren than I do — is that I’m such a bad artist, I couldn’t even draw a good salary.

“My grandkids are van Gogh compared to me,” I told Brian in a recent phone chat. “Except they still have all their ears.”

“Maybe they can start a comic strip,” Brian suggested.

“It could be about a grandfather with a mustache,” I said. “He’d be the butt of the jokes.”

“Hey, that sounds familiar,” Brian said.

No wonder. The star of “Pickles” is Earl, a mustachioed grandfather who, more often than not, is the butt of the jokes in the family, which includes his loving but long-suffering wife, Opal. The retired couple live with their daughter, Sylvia; grandson, Nelson; dog, Roscoe; and cat, Muffin.

My loving but long-suffering wife, Sue, is a big fan of the strip. So is yours truly, a mustachioed grandfather who, more often than not, is the butt of the jokes in the family, which includes two daughters and five grandchildren.

Brian has a loving but long-suffering wife of his own, Diana, with whom he will celebrate 50 years of marriage in June.

“Sue and I will celebrate our 44th anniversary on April 2,” I informed Brian.

“What a coincidence!” he said. “April 2 is when ‘Pickles’ debuted in 1990.”

“I wanted to get married on April Fools’ Day,” I said, “but Sue nixed the idea because she was afraid I would get her whoopee cushions as anniversary gifts.”

Another thing Brian and I have in common is that we are January babies: He was born on the 3rd, I arrived on the 11th.

“The only famous person who was born on my birthday was Alexander Hamilton,” I said. “That means I’ll either have a hit Broadway show or be killed in a duel.”

“I don’t know of anyone famous who was born on my birthday,” said Brian, who just turned 73 and, though five years older than I am, is a fellow baby boomer.

“My due date was Dec. 20,” I told him. “I was born more than three weeks later and haven’t been on time for anything since.”

“Your mother should have sent you an eviction notice,” said Brian, adding: “I was due in December, too. I was a breech birth. I came out feet first.”

“I landed on my head,” I said. “It explains a lot.”

Mining humor from family situations is also a similarity — except Brian’s clan is a lot larger than mine. He has seven children and 21 grandchildren.

“How do you keep track of them all?” I wondered.

“That’s a good question for my wife,” said Brian. “Our oldest child is a son in his 40s and our youngest is a daughter in her 20s somewhere. It keeps changing all the time. My wife has the ability to figure it out. It’s like a miracle to me. But I do know all their names.”

Then there are the grandchildren.

“We have a bunch of them,” Brian said. “It’s quite a dynasty. My wife knows their ages, weights, sizes, everything. I can recognize them on sight. The oldest is a sophomore in college. The youngest two were born a year ago. They’re not twins; they’re cousins who are a month apart.”

“Do you know all their names, too?” I asked.

“Yes,” Brian replied proudly. “Although sometimes things get so crazy, I can’t remember my own name.”

If so, Diana will be there to help.

“She’s always been there for me,” said Brian, adding that Diana encouraged him when he told her about his “secret ambition” to do a comic strip. “I was working for an advertising agency. I was in my late 30s and we were accumulating more children. I didn’t know how we could afford it. But she said, ‘You have to do it.’ I said, ‘I don’t have the talent.’ I was rejected by three syndicates, but Diana wouldn’t let it go. I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for her. She’s my first editor and biggest supporter.”

Now, more than 30 years later, “Pickles” is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group in more than 900 newspapers. Brian also has produced nine “Pickles” books.

“How much of Earl is you and how much of Opal is Diana?” I asked.

“Roughly, I’m Earl and she’s Opal, but there are days when I’m Opal and she’s Earl,” Brian said. “We do display both characteristics. She’s more outgoing. I’m an introvert. In a crowd, I clam up. She does all the talking. Also, I’m not very handy. My father-in-law was the world’s best mechanic. My wife expected I would be like that. She was greatly disappointed. She’s pretty handy. She can do things I wouldn’t try. And she’s smarter than I am. She can figure things out better than I can.”

“My wife is the same way,” I said. “And, like Opal, she’s married to a guy with a mustache.”

“You look good in a mustache,” said Brian. “I, on the other hand, look ridiculous. I grew one and my wife said, ‘Shave that silly thing off.’ A few years ago I had Earl shave his mustache. Then I came up with the idea to have readers vote to bring it back or not. I put out a call for entries. I even had a post office box. You wouldn’t believe the amount of mail I got. They voted for Earl to keep his mustache.”

“My grandchildren would vote for me to keep my mustache, too,” I said.

“They could put that in their comic strip,” Brian suggested.

“Maybe it’ll be syndicated,” I said. “They can call it ‘Poppie,’ which is what they call me.”

“Will you be the butt of the jokes?” Brian asked.

“Of course,” I said. “And like any good grandfather, I know all the kids’ names.”

— Jerry Zezima

Jerry Zezima writes a humor column for Tribune News Service, which distributes it to newspapers nationwide and abroad. He is also the author of five books, Leave It to Boomer, The Empty Nest Chronicles, Grandfather Knows BestNini and Poppie’s Excellent Adventures and Every Day Is Saturday, all of which are “crimes against literature.” He has won seven awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for his humorous writing.

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