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Ziggy's Tom Wilson Jr.: Thinking Like a Greeting Card

interview by matthew webber

Week 1: Monsters, Inc.'s Pete Docter: Telling Stories
Week 2: Ziggy's Tom Wilson Jr.: Thinking Like a Greeting Card
Week 3: Luann's Greg Evans: Thinking Like a Teenager
Week 4: Fox Trot's Bill Amend: Thinking Like a Math Geek
Week 5: Marmaduke's Brad Anderson: Thinking Like a Dog

Nationally syndicated cartoonists and Hollywood animators visited Marceline, Mo., Sept. 18 to speak and draw for the sixth annual Toonfest. At this all-day festival, the artists discussed their craft, as well as the legacy of Walt Disney, who lived in this small town from 1906 to 1911. In individual interviews, the artists shared their ideas on art, creativity, and dreams while acknowledging Disney's influence.

Tom Wilson Jr. took over drawing and writing the single-panel comic Ziggy from his father Tom Wilson Sr. in 1987. In this week's interview, Wilson Jr. discusses his "loveable loser" character, his own everyday struggle to come up with ideas, and why Ziggy never dates. Oh, and one little known fact: Ziggy was a greeting card character before he was a comic strip character, not the other way around.

Since you have a panel strip every day, and you don't have recurring stories, how much of a challenge is it for you to come up with something new, a new idea, each day?

Tom Wilson Jr.: It's not a challenge in the sense that it's hard. I remember when I first starting doing it, it was really a challenge. At first, it's very scary, and once you get beyond your fear it's like anything, and you understand the process and what's expected of you, and it gets a lot easier. So, at this point, being a great procrastinator and waiting till the last minute, waiting till the eve of my deadline sometimes to draw everything up, you know, the pressure seems to help me. But also I'll write down ideas all week, or a week or so in advance, or bits of ideas as they come, and I'll develop or revisit them or toss them out as the time comes.

So panel format - I don't know, you'd have to ask Greg [Evans, the creator of Luann] the difference. I've done multiple panels in Sundays, but even there I prefer the single panel because I think it works best for Ziggy. Actually, I like the fact that even though I have a limited space of one panel instead of say, three or four, I try and keep Ziggy simple as a character, and because of the massive reduction that's going on in size, I work six-and-a-half by six-and-a-half and make it down to, you know, really tiny in some papers, I want to keep as little copy, and keep it as un-detailed as possible, so Ziggy is basically relaying what I want him to relay. And the story I think is less in the environment for Ziggy than in what comes from the environment of his mind, what his thoughts are or how he reflects on something, so I don't need as much space really for what I do with Ziggy.

And you've been doing this for almost 20 years, you said. So maybe the reverse of what I just asked is, do you have a fear you're going to run out of ideas after having done this for so long?

I don't have a fear of it, although I have afterwards looked and said, "Wait a minute, I've done that already, or some version of that without knowing it." I've never calculated how many over - well, Ziggy will be out 35 years now coming in 2005, 7 days a week, that's a lot of stuff. So you're bound to repeat. But fortunately it's not something you're repeating that you did last week, it's 10 years ago, and maybe there's a new take on it or something. So, in a way, it's different but the same, or a lot of people didn't see it but see it now.

You said something a minute ago about the shrinking size of comics. With a strip like yours, does that affect the artistry very much? Do you worry about it being shrunk? How much does that affect you?

Well, it's something you want to keep in mind as far as even to a degree of what types of tools you use, I mean, what pen line thickness you want to use for something. You want to - You see the originals, the line's a little fatter, because you know it's going to, when you shrink it down, it's going to thin out and be lost. So it's affected that way. I don't know any cartoonists who are happy about it. However, I guess the plus side is you can fit more on a strip. With a panel, you've got very limited space you're competing for to begin with; where a page might have a dozen strips on it, there's two, sometimes four, panels. So competitions a lot more fierce.

Who were some of your influences as an artist?

Well, I just have my favorites. Of course, I've always loved Gary Larson, of Far Side. Even though Ziggy's sweet and I try, you know, he's not side-splitting, bizarre humor, I like that kind of humor very much, and I'm comfortable with it. It doesn't work well with Ziggy. He's more of a subtle, philosophical, light-hearted humor, which fits his character more, so I have to do that. But I still like a little edge every now and then, a little taste of bizarre in some of the things I do. So that's coming out. That's an influence. I grew up loving the MAD magazine guys: Don Martin, Sergio AragonÚs and, boy, all those guys. So MAD magazine was probably a big influence as a kid. But then I also loved the great comic book artists. Especially the Conan magazine, Vampirella, and all those cool, well-drawn, amazing, talented artists.

Last question: I don't think I've seen Ziggy date-

No. It's not, there's no deep, psychological reason for that. Ziggy is - His world revolves around his animals and everything. That's his universe. He interacts with some repeating characters, but for the most part it's a very tight world he's in. I remember Dad had a question once a long time ago, some little girl in a group he was talking to said, "Well, how come Ziggy doesn't have a girlfriend?" And Dad looked at her, and he said, "Ziggy does have a girlfriend. And you are his girlfriend." And it makes sense when you think Ziggy does have an awareness of his audience. He looks out. He actually - You're not just watching him like watching him on TV. He knows you're out there. He's actually talking to you a lot of times. You don't see that very often in strips. But that comes from his greeting-card background as a communicator of a me-to-you message. So Ziggy is very me-to-you in the newspapers, too. And so if he has a girlfriend or he has a friend or he has a family, you know, he's really close to, it's his readership. I love that idea. For him, it's very right for him.

Issue 27, October 2004


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