Drawing on His Inheritance, Tom Wilson Jr. Unveils a Ziggyfied, Hard-Luck Hero Named Ug
As far as authorities in the cartoon business can tell, the Wilsons are the first father and son to have major comic strips at the same time. Ziggy, created in 1971, has been appearing seven days a week in nearly 500 papers for the past four years, while UG! has already made its way into nearly 75 papers since its debut last April. Tom Jr. describes UG as "a misfit in any world. UG is the way people feel—especially me—rather than the way people look. He's just...you know, when you feel clumsy or awkward, and everybody's making fun of you or something, and you can't really put your finger on what it is. That's what UG is." Ziggy, too, has to contend with befuddlement. "He's the little guy in the big world," says Tom Sr. "He's vulnerable, incapable but staunch, with a heart that's always in the right place."
Wilson Sr. got his start drawing and designing for American Greetings Corporation in Cleveland after graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1955. But promotions gradually moved him away from the drawing board, so he started working on comic strips in his spare time. Syndicators rejected all his efforts until James Andrews, a co-founder of Universal Press Syndicate, called with an offer because he liked a character in one of Wilson's greeting-card books. The character eventually got named Ziggy. First appearing in 15 papers, Ziggy struggled and expanded to 50 in two to three years. Then in 1973 Wilson published his first book, Life Is Just a Bunch of Ziggys, and Ziggy greeting cards came out in 1974. By 1978 Ziggy was one of the five most popular cartoon panels in the U.S., and since 1980 U.S. sales of Ziggy products have nearly doubled every year. "I'm amazed that after all these years I still like him," says Wilson. "He's not a bad person."
Tom Jr. recalls a game called Save Ziggy that he and his sister, Ava, played with Tom Sr. while they were growing up in Cleveland. "There would be a manhole with Ziggy about to step into it. We had to figure out a way to save Ziggy." Later, at Ohio's Miami University, he often ran into strangers who asked after his father. "It really started to bother me after a while," he says. "Plus I always had an interest in drawing too." At Miami Tom married fellow student Susan Shepard. After he got his fine arts degree from Boston University, the couple moved to New York City, where he designed novelties for AmToy, Inc. Then, frustrated because of severe cutbacks, he quit and, although his favorite comic is Conan the Barbarian, began the doodling that evolved into the benign UG. When he felt he had enough panels to show his father, "he told me to take it to Universal Press Syndicate," which bought UG! after a year of fine-tuning.
The young Wilsons moved to Cincinnati last May because New York was too expensive. Tom spends two to three weeks roughing out ideas for his editor, who selects the ones to be developed to final form, which usually takes a week of drawing eight strips a day. "I've always had problems with insecurity," he says, but he finds drawing UG! "great therapy."
Tom Jr. also has the satisfaction of knowing his success is his own. "I wanted to help him any way I could," his father says, "but there's always the temptation you've got to resist, to get in there and show him something or change something. Now that his strip seems to be off and running, there's no question in his mind who did it." Tom Jr. also feels that drawing UG! has helped him grow up and, in the process, view his father as more of an equal. "I'm seeing him not just as an idol—although what he has done is magnificent," he says. "I'm seeing him as another person." That doesn't mean, says his father, that either he or Tom Jr. has put his childhood totally behind him. "I don't know how you could produce something like that day after day," Tom Sr. observes, "if you couldn't tap your experiences as a kid."