The legacy comic strip, sometimes, gets a bum rap. It doesn’t matter who the second-generation artist is, the thinking goes; the feature must necessarily become inferior in the transfer of power. What such conventional wisdom doesn’t account for, however, is: What if both parent and offspring have similar genetic talent? We buy that DNA argument on the ballfield, on the screen and at the grand piano. So why not at the drafting board?
We’re jaded, of course, by those comic features that live on well beyond their “sell” date, propped up as cash cows to be milked dry and creatively barren. Yet sometimes, the line of succession is a fluid one, as if rendered by the very same hand.
So it is with the popular comic “Ziggy,” which is syndicated to more than 500 newspapers, according to Universal Uclick.
The creator, Tom Wilson, died earlier this month. The inheritor, TOM WILSON JR., took over day-to-day creation of the comic in 1987. The transition, to most eyes, was seamless.
Just several days after his father’s death (and on the same day he learned of his father-in-law’s death), Tom Wilson Jr. thoughtfully took the time to talk with Comic Riffs at length last week — to discuss his relationship with his dad, personally and professionally.
“Ziggy” is a family legacy that Wilson Jr. wears not only on the fabric of his sleeve, but also -- he says -- in the fiber of his heart.
IT WAS THEIR father-and-son ritual, a shared time on Saturday mornings that was sacred in its act of connection. Their devoted space was not a dugout or a court, a piano or a pew, but rather a formica table with plates and placemats. Always, the placemats.
During the week, Dad was often busy, holding down two jobs, dawn past dusk. But on those weekends, it was Tom Wilson Sr. and Jr. And one other constant companion, ever beaming back at them:
“When I was young, we would go to Bob’s Big Boy restaurants on Saturdays for breakfast,” the younger Wilson tells Comic Riffs of their Cleveland-area outings. “Dad would turn over their placemats and draw Ziggy about ready to fall in a manhole, a safe would be falling toward him, and then Dad would say: ‘I want you to save Ziggy.’ I would have to draw a contraption so Ziggy would avoid this horrible thing.”
The soft-hearted father knew not only how to engage his son, but also how to teach him craft.
“Then Dad would say that there’s just one rule: ‘You have to throw out the first idea.’ You couldn’t use your first solution.“ You’ve got to throw it out,” continues Wilson Jr.
And so, in caring ways, the line of succession began to be cultivated.
“When I was 12, 13, 14, it was fun for me. ... Ziggy, Dad and I — it was pretty much our special time together. I grew up with Ziggy as a successful little brother.”
At his father’s elbow, line by line and sketch by sketch, Wilson Jr. was learning not only how to draw like his father. More important, he was learning to think like him. To think like a gag writer who knows that the heartbeat reaches deeper than the funny bone.
“I always thought of him like the ol’ Andy Griffith, with Opie,” says Wilson Jr., 53, just days after his father, a West Virginia native, died of pneumonia Sept. 16 at a Cincinnati hospital; he was 80.
“He was always soft and had a countrified wisdom [about] things. ...When we were together, I could tell it meant as much to him as it did to me. It was all centered around things like art.”
As their relationship grew through art, Wilson Jr. underscores, his father was no “stage parent” with a pen.
“He never pushed it on me...I just loved giving Dad ideas,” Wilson Jr. tells Comic Riffs. “Dad would say: ‘Would you like to help me out? You want to try inking?’ and I said: ‘Sure.’ ”
Wilson Sr. had officially created the character Ziggy in the ’60s while working as an exec at the American Greetings Co., where he worked for more than three decades.
“ ‘Ziggy’ was his night job and American Greetings was his day job,” Wilson Jr. says. “As the head of Creative [at the company], he was like the crazy uncle in the basement — he was their idea man. ... That was his playground. He was passionate about bringing ideas to life and sending them on their way.” (It was at American Greetings Co. that Wilson Sr. also headed the teams that created and licensed Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears.)
“He was in the right place,” his son says. “He loved to create. ‘Ziggy’ was just one facet.”
Picked up by Universal Press Syndicate (now Universal Uclick) in 1971, “Ziggy” amassed popularity and newspapers, gaining more than 500 clients, as well as an Emmy Award for best animated short. The bald and big-nosed and barefooted character also became a commercial staple on T-shirts and desk calendars, his warm-eyed mug even gracing mugs.
Meanwhile, during these very years, Wilson the Younger would go on to art school, studying commercial art and graphics at the Miami University of Ohio, then fine arts and illustration at Boston University.
The bond between Dad, Son and Ziggy, however, did not diminish. Wilson Jr. and the son eventually became an assistant to his father, and the conversations over “Ziggy” became a renewed ritual.
One of Dad’s lessons concerned the secrets of Ziggy’s visual appeal. “Occasionally, he would point out that Ziggy’s got a softer quality and a line less hard and a rounder nose,” the son says.
“I want people to want to pick Ziggy up and hug him,” Wilson Jr. recalls his father saying. “The message was: ‘Let’s keep Ziggy round and lovable.’ ”
Another of Dad’s lessons emphasized that the force of maintaining an identifiable character had to be foremost, over humor or topic or trend.
“Ziggy has that conversational quality built into him. Ziggy was designed to identify with other people,” says Wilson Jr., noting that his father was influenced by how the Laurel and Hardy films of his youth would sometimes, empathetically, break the “fourth wall.”
“Dad was a charismatic communicator with other people ... and he could bring that to a character, too ... ,” Wilson Jr. says. ‘I’ve had to come from that same place — that same part of me. Ziggy has to be the editor — will it work for him? He tells you if it works. ...
“You have to respect, and be true to, that character.”
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[THE OBITUARY: Ziggy creator Tom Wilson Sr. dies at 80]
A third vital lesson from Dad was this: Ziggy must be an Everyman.
“Ziggy has maintained his popularity, I think, because he’s kind of a universal character,” Wilson Jr. says. “He’s not a trend, he never follows trends.
And as the abstracted Everyman, Ziggy is all about the universality of the beleaguered moment, whether the comic obstacle on that day is an appliance or a pet or another person or even just one’s own admitted ineptitude.
“Ziggy is kind of like the universal archetype,” the cartoonist says. “Everybody can sense a Ziggy moment in their lives and empathize with them — and that’s a strength. Those kind of things don’t disappear with the decades and the trends — they tend to always be with us. ... That’s why we feel closer to Ziggy.”
Ziggy’s sweet-hearted doggedness in the face of daily adversity strikes a similar chord to another hugely successful comic: “Peanuts.”
“Yes, that universal quality was akin to ‘Peanuts.’ Charlie Brown was one of my dad’s favorite strips ... ,” Wilson Jr. says. “He and Ziggy are actually mirror images in a sense: With Charlie Brown, you have these adults in children’s bodies; with Ziggy, it is pretty much the other way around — a childlike, gentle spirit going through life in an adult’s body.”
Amid the lessons, Wilson Jr. admits that he approached inheriting day-to-day operations of the print comic strip in the mid-1980s with some trepidation.
“I was behind the scenes for many years — I started helping out when Dad had health problems [including a severe stroke] — but I was self-conscious when I took over ... ,” the cartoonist says. “But it took a lot of pressure off when I realized I didn’t have to be perfect: It’s okay to be imperfet because Ziggy is an imperfect character. So it’s not wrong if it’s coming from an authentic source.”
(To outside eyes, the cartoonist notes, it appeared to be a subtle transition. “A lot of people thought my work was Dad’s work.”)
Now, more than two decades later, Wilson Jr. notes: “Ziggy was with Dad half his life, and he’s been with me half my life. I love the character.”
Just days after Dad’s death, the son says, the paternal gift of Ziggy lives on.
“For me, Dad is the most brilliant guy I ever meant, and he also was such a great Dad. He was always there,” Wilson Jr. says. “I think: How fortunate I was to have a Dad who found the [special] time.”
At the drawing board still thrives the legacy that harks back to Saturday-morning boyhood rituals.
“I sit down to draw and [Dad] is always there. That will always continue with me,” Wilson Jr. says. “All those years are some of the best times of my life.”
The father. The son. And their shared game of cartooning skills: How to save Ziggy.
“What I loved was being with my Dad and working with him,” says the son. “It felt very natural.”