We interviewed comic strip creator Tom Wilson, the pencil and idea man behind one of our favorite comic stars “Ziggy,” while he was in Manhattan recently.
Is Ziggy based on you?
In a way he is. Any creator’s character has to come from himself a little bit. Yeah I draw upon. But I found over 40 years living with this little guy that a lot of it is the other way around. I am getting more Ziggy like as I get older. It’s kind of how people and their dogs when they live together a long time, they start to look like them. That’s kind of how Ziggy and I are as a creator and a creation type thing. He’s based on me, but he’s also based on that part of everybody that has a little bit of Ziggy in them. Things are not always going right, maybe not, but you keep going and you keep showing up every day and get through the day.
What made you decide to be a cartoonist?
I guess it wasn’t like a decision, it was like what I always loved to do. I always drew probably more than I should sometimes. Like in school I should be paying attention maybe I was drawing a little bit too much. My mom and dad were both artists and my sister was a painter. So I always loved to draw, I love cartoons and I grew up with comic books. When the choice came and when I decided to say what I wanted to do for a living it was pretty easy for me.
When did you start printing comics in the newspaper?
We’re coming up with Ziggy’s 40th anniversary now. So it was 1971 was when he was first put in and he started in four newspapers around the country. And over the years he’s grown and gone to different countries. He’s in about 600 now all over the world and different languages, and even different countries now. He’s been around a long time, but people seem to like him still. And hopefully he hasn’t changed too much over the years. Like me, which is I’m an old man now.
If you were not writing a comic strip, what would you be doing?
I like developing things, products. I like creating. So for many years I did as a side, I worked with a company to develop products for Fortune 500 companies. I like inventing things and coming up with ideas for new ways to do things. I always think that even a comic strip has to start with an idea first and to me whether it’s a painting, a cartoon, or a product you buy in a store. Everything has to start with that idea. That seems to be the most exciting part of anything. Is the idea of picking something that’s never been done before and bringing it out there and watching it turn into something that is real. I wrote a book last year. It was kind of an autobiography more than a cartoon collection.
Where do you get inspiration for Ziggy comics from?
Comes from everywhere. My kids will give me ideas, friends will send in ideas of things that happen to them, things that happen everyday to me. And going into a notebook and eventually coming out as an idea. I have to say it’s not so much a -- there’s a place where you could go to and open up a book and know there’s my next idea. It’s like things accumulate. If they happen to you and they’re real in some way or they sort of happen to you or somebody else. I always think things that are real are funnier or we feel better about them if we know that it could actually happen to us in some way. I like doing crazy stuff too. Like UFOs and characters like that because I like certain stuff like the Far Side. But for the most part it comes out from everyday stuff.
Which pet is Ziggy’s favorite?
That’s not fair because all the other pets will feel bad. He’s always had his dog. His first pet was his dog Fuzz. And he’s always been around him and followed him everywhere. So I think probably that but personally I like Josh, the parrot because he’s the one character and the one pet that could actually talk to him and talk back. So it makes it kind of more fun to write things where he’s got a personality and you can see it. You guys have a lot of pet questions.
To what do you attribute Ziggy’s popularity today?
I think it’s the way people connect to him because Ziggy has been part of their life for a long time. He was in a lot of things like greeting cards, showing up in the newspapers every day. People feel like he’s part of their life and their family. And I think that creates a loyalty that you can’t get anywhere else because in a way Ziggy’s like a part of their life or part of people’s family too. In greeting cards especially where Ziggy is one of the largest selling greeting card characters of all time. People are giving a card that says I Love You or I Miss you or I’m Sorry. So it’s personal things that Ziggy’s connected with between people and certain moments in their life. That makes a bond with people. I also like to think that everybody feels a little bit like Ziggy sometimes when life is going on. He really kind of cute and funny looking too, which I think makes people like him a little bit too. He’s not scary. He’s just a funny little guy you don’t mind welcoming in every day.
Is it hard to draw Ziggy?
No, not now. I still screw it up sometime, but I found out that as long as I’m doing it, people don’t mind if I screw it up sometime because I’m allowed to mess it up because I’m the creator of it. And so it’s still right. It’s kind of hard to explain, but if it comes from where it’s really source, then it’s real. Sometimes like if I’m doing book signings or something and I’ll usually do a little drawing for somebody in the book or a poster or something of Ziggy and I do him in the same pose, so I got that down pretty well.
We heard Ziggy’s last name is Stardust. What’s your favorite David Bowie song?
Where did you hear that? Oh, boy! “Young American,” “Fame.” I’m trying to remember some other. Technically I think I would get into a lot of trouble if I started calling him Ziggy Stardust. Somebody would get mad about that. He has no last name.
Do you get fan mail?
Yes. I get lots of emails and today or tomorrow I’ll be going to the book show and meet a lot of Ziggy’s fans there. That’s always great because I get to see people coming every year and he gets a lot of fans. It’s nice to be able to go meet people face to face rather than just drawing something and sending it out.
Will you continue to write Ziggy comics and other comics?
I don’t know about other comics, but Ziggy, yes, as long as people want to see Ziggy and as long as we have newspapers I’ll keep doing that. I think Ziggy and newspapers are going to be just fine. We’re going to be around a lot longer. I know my favorite comic strips growing up was Charlie Brown and Peanuts, and he was out 50 years. Another 10 years I would like to get Ziggy at least 50 years. I think I got 10 more years left in me. I hope.
How far in advance do you make Ziggy comics?
Now I’m embarrassed because I’m really late a lot. Because I travel and I got two kids I’m raising. At least two or three week for my dailies. In other words, the ones I just sent off this week will show up in the newspapers in about three weeks. And for the Sunday newspaper you have to do about 7 weeks in advance minimum. Whatever goes out last week will probably be in about seven or eight weeks from now.
How did you come up with the name Ziggy and the character?
Ziggy is always the last guy in line for everything. My last name is Wilson, so when I was a kid, when you lined up for being for something in school it was always alphabetically. I was always the last guy in line with my name with a “w” until a kid named Zagwinsky showed up. And all of a sudden I wasn’t the last in line. So Ziggy had to be the last guy on line for a lot of things, and the last guy picked and all that. And names that ended in a Y or IE like Billy or Bobby or Jimmy, they’re friendlier sounding. And Ziggy is a friendly little character. So you got the Z and you got the Y, it’s really the only name that could possibly fit is Ziggy. And that’s what he became and that’s what he’s always going to be. I get asked that a lot. I can’t imagine being called anything else. He’s always a Ziggy. A lot of people name their pets Ziggy.
Like Ziggy, did you have a lot of pets?
I always had a dog and I grew up in a family, my mom raised dogs. We always had dogs around, but my kids and I just got a rescue, pug. I don’t know if you know what a pug looks like. We had a bulldog before that named Molly and she died last year. So we just got this one, his name is Zack and that was the name that they gave him. So when we got him, and he looked so much like Ziggy’s dog Fuzz now, it’s crazy. We just saw him there and we want to adopt him. I was just thinking about this a lot, I really am becoming more like Ziggy because now my dog looks like Ziggy’s dog. And acts like Ziggy’s dog Fuzz, and he’s by far probably the sweetest and most friendly dog that I’ve ever had. So I always loved animals. My wife had a pet parrot, his name was Josh, was really a Josephine until. We didn’t know he was a girl until he laid an egg in our cabinets. So that became Ziggy’s pet parrot Josh too. I’ve always been around animals. I always loved animals. It’s part of growing up too.
Was Ziggy ever in a movie or a TV show?
Ziggy was in a TV show called “Ziggy’s Gift”. It was an animated holiday special and it came out in 1984. It won the Emmy for best animation that year. It went on TV and then in a very Ziggy way it got lost. The company that was making it into VHS went out of business and we lost all the masters and it took 15 years I found those again in some warehouse in Los Angeles. It’s was like being Indiana Jones, when he’s going through that big thing with the boxes looking for the lost ark. That’s how it is out there. So I found those and we brought them back on DVD now. This year and last year he’s been out. We’re trying to get him for one of the networks to put him on Christmas time with all the Rudolph, Frosty. That’s what we’re working on now. We like this. We’ve had a lot of people asking if they could make a Ziggy movie because Garfield made a movie and then people seem to like cartoon characters in movies. So that’s another thing that we’re working on right now and we want to see take place. Yes, he’s going to be out there more than just newspapers, internet.
Has being a cartoonist always been your dream?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t know how else to answer that. I always grew up around it. I love comic books, I still do. I love reading other comic strips. I grew up with Charlie Brown and in the newspapers, some like you never heard of like BC, some of those characters. If you do something that you really love it’s not work, it’s fun and if you get paid for it too, that’s great. But you still get to do something that you love and I love to draw. And I always liked the characters. Yeah.