Celebrating Ziggy

American Artisans, Odd Jobs, People
on June 16, 2011

He’s short, bald and plump. He’s got an enormous nose. He never wears shoes or pants. He doesn’t have a job or a girlfriend. He has a bunch of pets—including a dog, a cat, a parrot, a fish and a duck—but they often boss him around or belittle him. He’s almost always in a jam.

But despite all his chronic problems, the lovable-loser cartoon character Ziggy has been making Americans smile for 40 years.

In June 1971, Ziggy, who was originally created for greeting cards, made his debut in a one-panel, daily syndicated comic that ran in a handful of newspapers.  People loved the upbeat cartoon everyman, who seemed to endure and rebound from all sorts of travails.

Soon he was everywhere—on coffee mugs, calendars and cards, wishing people a happy birthday or telling them to get well soon.

“Ziggy is a child in an adult’s body, and his world reflects that,” says Tom Wilson Jr., 52, who has drawn the character since 1987. “Childhood innocence is not such a bad thing.”

WIN: Ziggy prize package including a one-of-a-kind framed Ziggy cartoon

Ziggy was born in the late 1960s when Wilson’s father was working as an executive on a creative team at American Greetings, the New York-based greeting-card company.

“I wanted Ziggy to be a little guy in the big world, much like I felt as a kid,” says the elder Wilson, now 79, whose team also developed Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears. “So I made him clumsy and unsure, yet wide-eyed and full of wonder.”

Eventually, Wilson Sr.’s Ziggy was featured in more than 600 newspapers worldwide, with some 75 million readers looking for him each day. Today, after 40 years of syndication, he remains one of the most beloved and lasting characters in American pop culture.

A timeless message
“One of the keys to Ziggy’s endurance is that he’s not tied to politics or current events,” says Lee Simon, president of Universal Press Syndicate, the Kansas City-based company that distributes Ziggy. “He confronts the same problems we all face and says, ‘We’ll get through it.’ There’s nothing wrong with that message, whether it’s the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s or today.”

Ziggy references pop up in many TV episodes

The younger Wilson took over the job of drawing Ziggy when his father retired, continually striving to maintain his original vision. He remembers that Saturday mornings, back in his hometown of Berea, Ohio, meant breakfast with his dad at the local Bob’s Big Boy.

While waiting for their pancakes, young Tom and his father often played a game they called “Save Ziggy.”

“It involved a placemat, a pen and Ziggy,” Wilson says. “Dad would draw him where he was about to fall off a cliff or something and I had to draw him out of it. The rules were you couldn’t use the first solution that came to mind.”

Besides lessons in creative solutions, the elder Wilson and his wife, Carol, also inspired their son by example.

“He and my mother were both painters,” Wilson says. “Art was a big part of our family.”

And so was Ziggy. “I grew up with Ziggy because Dad worked at home, like I do,” Wilson says. “So we were always together.”

From father to son Wilson’s role as the future Ziggy artist evolved slowly.

“Gradually, I started doing some writing for Dad or throwing out ideas, like my kids do now,” he says. “He welcomed that, and for many years, he would pencil the drawings and I would do the inking. It was like any family business where the father teaches the son.”  

After high school, Wilson studied graphic design at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, then graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Boston University in 1981. He worked as director of new project development for a New York City toy company and even developed his own children’s comic strip, UG!, before returning home and officially taking over for his dad.

“It was daunting for Tom Jr. at first,” says Kim Hammeren, vice president of sales and marketing for Character Matters, a branding and licensing company Wilson founded in 2005. “But he had instant credibility. He understood the philosophy of Ziggy. He had Ziggy in the blood.”

More than a job
When he first started drawing the character, the younger Wilson felt an enormous responsibility to the millions of longtime fans.

“He’s grown up with so many people, and he’s such a part of our lives,” he says.  “I value that more than anything.”

As the years went on, Wilson Jr. embraced the cartoonist role and, especially, the character. In fact, he credits Ziggy with carrying him through the toughest times of his life—when his father battled cancer and later suffered a stroke, and when his wife, Susan, died of breast cancer 11 years ago at age 44.

“I was a mess,” he says. “I was losing something—my wife—that I thought was the foundation of my life. During that time, Ziggy was a reassuring constant and not just from the standpoint of responsibility. I got very close to him and saw him as much more than a job.”

Wilson looked to Ziggy for inspiration, just as millions of readers do every day.

“He’s a guiding light in some ways,” he says. “I kept going and tried to create something positive from something negative. That’s what Ziggy has done every day of his life.”

These days, Wilson works from his home studio in Cincinnati, which gives him flexibility as a single dad. His sons, Miles, 23 and Sam, 21, who live at home, are college students studying business and marketing. And yes, they love to draw.

But Wilson has no plans to retire, passing Ziggy along, anytime soon.

“Like Ziggy, I have trouble looking too far ahead,” he says, then smiles. “Maybe it’s the size of our noses.”