“My Little Twin Brother”: Cartoonist Tom Wilson, Jr. on Drawing “Ziggy”

Interviewed at Book Expo America 2008 by Shel Horowitz, Editor, Global Arts Review. Interviewer’s paraphrased questions in italics; comments in brackets.

Ziggy is usually just one panel. What challenges do you face versus a traditional three- to six-panel strip?
We were having a discussion the other night about the single panel, whether it’s true to the comics that are multipanel and sequentially telling the story. People say, do it as a strip too, and you could double your papers. (Currently, Ziggy runs in 500-600 papers in the U.S., plus international markets.)

I do him sequentially on a Sunday once in a while. But Ziggy is an in-the-moment kind of guy. He works so well, and they empathize. They’re ready for the humor in a one shot. Maybe Ziggy would be a lot different if I laid it out sequentially.

Dad (Tom Wilson, Sr.) started the strip in 1970, and he always said Ziggy communicates directly to the reader. There’s this awareness between reader and character. Ziggy came out of greeting cards; he did it backwards. [It’s not unusual for a strip to start in newspapers and then go to greeting cards. But Wilson, Sr. was a greeting card creator who then went to the newspapers.]

He was telling me about the old Laurel and Hardy where Stan would do something and Ollie would look at the viewer and say, isn’t this stupid.

Basically, Ziggy invites you in and says “here’s the moment and you’re a part of it.”

You as a cartoonist didn’t invent the character. Is it tough to take over someone else’s world?
As far as the character, I didn’t create him but I grew up with him. We’re related by blood. Ziggy’s more a twin brother than anything else. He’s a little guy [Tom is far taller than my 5’7″] and we don’t look much alike, but he represents my higher self. I work for him.

I grew up with my ego rampant, everything was a means to an end, and as I got older and shared the trials and tribulations Ziggy did, I began to let go a bit, and see the world as Ziggy does. His way of looking at life is a much better way for me. It’s a gentle acceptance that we can’t change things, no matter how much we want to, so we have to assume there’s a purpose. I’ve come to accept that through my own trials, losing loved ones…

Ziggy shows up every day ready for another opportunity. That became a philosophy that I could live with, literally as well as figuratively. Art and life are very similar.

How did you take over?
It was a gradual transition. I started with the writing, and then some of the inking, and then when my dad had a stroke, I took over full time, mid- to late-80s. Dad and I worked together for a number of years, but I started out just writing ideas. That’s how it was with him. He was a busy man and worked at home a lot, and we’d be talking about ideas, sharing things. But he never pushed. [Wilson’s family was] my mom, dad, and my sister and I. My sister was younger. I was 12 or 13 when Ziggy debuted, in 14 papers.

How did your dad get the strip known?
The character was so fresh at the time that he attracted a lot of attention just by his unique qualities. It wasn’t a rocket to success; it was a gradual climb. But we had a lot of support from the syndicate (Universal Press Syndicate). We were their second property, after Dunesbury. And since Dad worked at American Greetings, he saw greeting cards as the perfect medium for me-to-you communication.

People took to it right away because everybody feels there’s a Ziggy part of them.

Let’s talk about the business of cartooning.
You renegotiate your syndication contract over time, but it’s a partnership, always. One can’t exist without the other. It’s very hard to self-syndicate. I’m not an expert in that, and they are. I rely and trust in their abilities as they do in mine.

Publishing (books, calendars) is a form of licensing as well. And that’s a whole other job, running that, contract negotiation. So you need to have people around to help, As a creator, I can do some o those things while I’m creating, but it’s a whole different mindset, the right and left brain thing.

In Cleveland where I do the licensing, I’ve got two people full-time. I live in Cincinnati. And we have a lot of freelance artists. Cleveland and Kansas City are these centers for editorial and graphic talent, because of Hallmark and American Greetings.

How do you work? How long does it take to do a panel, or a week’s work?
At home, it’s me with a pen and piece of paper and my English bulldog next to me on the couch, and then I’m running to pick up a kid or run groceries—I’m a single dad (boys, Sam, 17, and Miles, 21). And the editors keep me from making a fool out of myself or repeating myself.

It’s off and on throughout the day. To get my full range of seven a week, if I had uninterrupted days I could do it in two or three days. I’ve started scanning and e-mailing in my work, rather than FedEx. But it depends on the kind of day you’re having. Some days you’re slow, and some you’re just jazzed. I know they’d like me to send twice as much per week, but it’s a balance. I want my family life.

I’m always drawing at home, and my sons saw Ziggy on the Daily Show, and they ran in and said, ‘wow, you’re famous!’

Both of them—artistic sides are coming out in both of them, and nobody’s forced them. Passions come out when they’re ready.

Advice: Ask yourself, do you love this? Are you passionate about it? Will you fight for it, and are you willing to give it everything you’ve got, because if you don’t, you’re better off going somewhere else. But if you do, it’s an uphill climb, a lot of rejections, a lot of competition—but if you can get there with your passion intact, stay with it. For me, it was a part of my life. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’d be lost without Ziggy too.

Shel Horowitz is the author of Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers and six other books.

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