KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the beginning, the round little bald man who got lost and dropped his ice cream, who always requested a table for one and who was laughed at by passers-by, was simply a loser. Today, though, 35 years later, those who turn to the funny pages each morning see Ziggy, that lovably beleaguered but always optimistic character, as a hero.
Since being launched by Kansas City-based Universal Press Syndicate on June 28, 1971, Ziggy has managed a rare feat for a simplistic comic — he's become an icon. He is published in more than 600 newspapers around the world, is the face looking out from countless greeting cards and is the inspiration for thousands of licensed products, from calendars to cookie jars.
"He keeps going on. He's kind of an Energizer Bunny of the comic strips and life," said Tom Wilson, the strip's artist and son of the creator, the elder Tom Wilson.
"You keep getting the worst life has to throw at you and you show up everyday in the morning in the newspaper and people see that and they say, 'Well, you know what, he's still here so maybe what I'm having happen right now, or Ziggy's thing happened to me, is not so bad.'"
Ziggy, nameless at his conception, has been visible in some form or another since the mid-1960s. The elder Wilson — who lives in a Cincinnati nursing home and completely handed over his brainchild to his son in 1987 — first drew a Ziggy-like character as an elevator operator offering political commentary in editorial cartoons. No one would syndicate it.
The pantsless everyman eventually appeared in an American Greetings gift book, "When You're Not Around," that caught the eye of Kathleen Andrews, a founder of the fledgling startup Universal Press Syndicate that badly needed a popular comic to keep it afloat. A deal was struck, a name was given and Ziggy was born.
"It sold, thank God," Andrews said. "And sold and sold and sold."
Times change but Ziggy remains the same
What took shape was a comic detailing an always giving, never cynical, often laughable character who is a hopeless romantic, a true believer, an unsophisticated inspiration. He has changed through the years — trying on platform shoes in the 1970s and lamenting magazines' coverage of O.J. Simpson in the 1990s and talking of homeland security today — but at his core, Ziggy has always been the same.
Caring. Friendly. Hopeful.
"He's not so much a strip as a personality, a living character, in many ways and he sort of develops just as we all do as we go through life," the younger Wilson said. "He tells us essentially by virtue of his character what works for him, what doesn't work for him, how he would react. It makes our jobs a little easier."
Ziggy has been the punch line of a "Seinfeld" episode and the subject of an Emmy Award-winning animation special, "Ziggy's Gift." Tens of millions of Ziggy greeting cards have been exchanged. He is recognized around the globe.
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All of this may seem surprising for such a simply drawn, unflinchingly unhip, inoffensive little guy. But Lisa Tarry, who has edited the strip since 1989, said readers connected with Ziggy and keep coming back because they find solace in him.
"There's a comfort zone with Ziggy because it's been around for such a long time and you get kind of used to having it," she said. "And if it were gone it would be upsetting."
The younger Wilson himself — his father no longer gives interviews — has found comfort in his character. His father suffered several strokes and battled lung cancer. His wife died of breast cancer. He raises two teenage boys alone.
"Even if you're dealing with horrible things and sadness there's still something positive. It's kind of a therapeutic place," Wilson said. "I'm always smiling when I'm drawing him. It's a very happy thing for me."
Those who know the Wilsons, father and son, say you can see Ziggy in them, but the younger artist counters it's easy to see the character in anyone. We're all Ziggy.
"It's hard to say when I'm thinking like Ziggy or thinking of Ziggy or when a Ziggy thing is happening to me," Wilson said. "He's with me pretty much 24-7 in some form or another."
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