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Zig-zagging: Loving Madly, Losing Badly How Ziggy Saved My Life (2009)

by Tom Wilson

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Ziggy cartoonist Tom Wilson celebrated the comic’s 40th anniversary in June 2010. He stopped by the The Licensing Book office to chat about his memoir, about bringing an old newspaper comic character into the modern age of communication, and, of course, about licensing.

One of the few remaining toys I have from my childhood is a plush Ziggy in red plaid pajamas and a silly matching hat. My husband had a dog named Ziggy when he was growing up. My mother used to cut out Ziggy comic strips she liked and put them on the refrigerator. We all know Ziggy—after all, the little guy has been around for 40 years. But it seems that, while everyone has a Ziggy story of their own, no one really knows Ziggy’s story.

In 2009, Ziggy cartoonist Tom Wilson Jr. set out to change that with the publication of his memoir, Zig-Zagging: Loving Madly, Losing Badly… How Ziggy Saved My Life.

The book recounts Wilson’s journey with Ziggy, from taking over the character when his father—the original Ziggy cartoonist and senior Tom Wilson—retired in 1987, to losing his wife to a seven-year battle with breast cancer. While Wilson faces the loss of his wife, the challenge of raising his two boys alone, and the task of filling his father’s shoes, he continues to draw daily Ziggy comics to keep his fans smiling. And Ziggy’s simple way of chugging along with a smile no matter what life hands him ends up being the motivation for Wilson to push through his own tough times.

“Ziggy continually shows up for work every day, shows up for life every day… he’s the only character who’s really winning for losing, because after 40 years of life throwing something at him each day, he keeps coming back,” says Wilson.
Although Ziggy comes off as a simple guy, and though Wilson himself describes Ziggy as “a child trapped in an adult’s body,” he may also be a savvy businessman. I read the memoir to learn about the personal side of the story behind Ziggy, and then spoke to Wilson face-to-face to get the business side of the story.

While most characters start out small and then branch out into licensing, Ziggy did things a little differently. He started as a greeting card character for American Greetings, and, by being at the right place at the right time, ended up as a syndicated comic strip through Andrews McMeel Universal.

The story goes like this: while Tom Wilson Sr. was drawing Ziggy for greeting cards at American Greetings more than 40 years ago, he created a small, humorous, card-like book for a branch of American Greetings then called Sunbeam Library. The book was called When You’re Not Around, and featured the then-barely-known Ziggy having a streak of bad luck, ending with the words, “When you’re not around, nothing goes right.” The little book ended up selling half a million copies its first year. Among those half a million buyers was a woman by the name of Kathy Andrews, who sent the book to her husband Jim Andrews to say “I miss you” while he was traveling with his business partner John McMeel. At the time, Jim Andrews and John McMeel ran a tiny new business called Universal Press Syndicate. Andrews took one look at the book and decided that the little man inside it deserved his own syndicated comic strip. As a result, Ziggy first appeared in newspapers in June of 1971.

Today, nearly 40 years later, Ziggy is anything but barely-known. He’s had thousands of licensed products, from toys to calendars to T-shirts. He even had his own 35-foot parade balloon in August of 2009 for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Timken Grand Parade. Ziggy especially has a history of partnering with non-profit organizations and charities to help out pets, patients, and people of all kinds. Ziggy has teamed with the American Red Cross, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, World Food Day, National Bike Day in New York, Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG foundation, and Earth Day Network, among others.
Why so much charitable work? “You have an obligation when you reach millions of people to contribute something positive to the world,” says Wilson. “He’s a natural for working with non-profits and organizations because his personality isn’t so strong that it takes away from whatever the goal is—he only enhances it. Ziggy’s always happy to lend a hand, even in a small way.”

For a character who has branched out into licensing as extensively as Ziggy has, many brands would have licensing agents, outsourcing, corporations, and a whole slew of other efforts in place to handle the deal-making. However, Wilson himself is president of Ziggy and Friends, Inc., which handles all the licensing for the brand. Why not hire an agency to manage the money-and-merchandise side of things? “We’ve sort of learned along with Ziggy over all those years,” says Wilson. “It’s a very personal property to us; it’s a family business.”

On top of drawing daily Ziggy comics, running Ziggy and Friends, Inc., and raising two boys on his own, you might ask what else Wilson’s got going on. Or, you might be thinking, “Isn’t that enough to handle?” The answer, apparently, is no; Wilson has also founded his own creative marketing agency, Character Matters.

According to the Character Matters website (http://www.charactermatter.net/), “Character Matters delivers original customized characters, mascots, and icon personalities to support and enhance your business' brand, service, or product marketing strategy.” Basically, the company delves into the character of your business, then personifies that to create an actual character to represent your business. “The idea has always been the beginning and the end for me,” says Wilson, “The real fun is getting to know the passion behind the character of the business and then working from there to develop something that really speaks honestly about that character.”

Character Matters has worked in one aspect or another with several big-name companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Hallmark, Pizza Hut, Pepsi, American Greetings, DreamWorks, and Sony. In addition to character development, the company also offers services in areas such as marketing, product development, intellectual property development, animation, licensing, promotions, and more.

Wilson’s memoir and our in-person interview gave me a good idea about Ziggy’s past—a more deeply layered history than I (and I think any of his fans) had any idea could be going on behind the few minutes a day Ziggy’s audience spends with him. But what about Ziggy’s future?

The key to sticking around for so long, says Wilson, is having a character that can adapt, and one that can communicate directly and personally with the audience. Because Ziggy was created originally as a greeting card character, “he is a communicator on some of the most special levels, and people remember that,” says Wilson. “He’s shared everybody’s most personal times… people remember when the baby was born, a marriage, a first date… and the fact that Ziggy was a part of that, I think, is why we’re still doing licensing after so many years.”

Wilson is working to make sure Ziggy continues to share special moments with his fans in new ways, in a world of Twitter and mobile Apps instead of Sunday comics. Ziggy is embracing change and new technology on many levels; in his comic strip, quips about tweeting, organic foods, cell phones, and economic recessions often turn up. In licensing, mobile apps are in the works, Ziggy’s daily comics can be seen online, and there’s even a possible big-screen movie in the works (the details of which are still hush-hush).

Bringing Ziggy into the future without losing touch with his past is a constant balancing act for Wilson. “My job is to make sure, while he can adapt, he doesn’t change too much from the things that originally made him who he is… I’m constantly on board not to lose touch with that, no matter how much I might change personally.”

My interview with Wilson ends on a reflective note, looking toward a technology-riddled future from Ziggy’s point of view. “It seems like the only real way to learn is to get thrown in—and you sink or swim, or fly, or fall—but gradually, we adapt. But we’re always communicating, and good characters—great licensable characters—are always, foremost, going to be able to communicate something important to us. That’s what I love about this little guy—he’s managed to do that over all these years, and he’s still out there, shoveling through, whatever life has in store for him."

(Please visit www.jenniferringler.weebly.com for more of my book reviews and other writing samples. Contact me at Jennifer_Ringler@yahoo.com to send me a review copy of your book or to recommend other books you think I should review). ( )
  JenniferRingler | Aug 25, 2010 |
Zig-Zagging: a memoir by Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson, the author of this book is the son of the creator of the cartoon character Ziggy. He is also currently creating the cartoon as his father is unable. This book is an excellent autobiographical story of his life & Ziggy's life. I kept marking pages that had very inspirational yet common sense thoughts that were very helpful in dealing with life & facing the zigs & zags along the way....but there were so many that all the markers kept falling out so...just read the book! You will get something out of it! It is uplifting, inspiring, touching & an easy read. Regardless of our plans for our lives....life is filled with detours, ups & downs(zigs & zags) and it is the things we don't see coming that affect us most! The author helps us learn through his experience how to deal with these detours better!
Page- Rock Hill ( )
  bookus00 | Jul 8, 2009 |
Tom Wilson, Jr’s beloved father was the creator of the Ziggy cartoon, so Tom grew up feeling like Ziggy was his younger brother. Tom would sit in the basement with his father and create drawings of his own. Tom attended Miami University and fell in love with Susan, a very spiritual woman. Tom and Susan settled into a quiet, stable life and had two boys.

When Tom’s father became ill, Tom took over drawing the Ziggy cartoon because he felt like no one else knew Ziggy like he does. When Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer, Tom felt like his world was falling apart, yet Susan remained rock steady. Susan fought the cancer for years, but finally succumbed to it and Tom sank into a deep depression.

Zig-Zagging: Loving Madly, Losing Badly. . . How Ziggy Saved My Life by Tom Wilson is the story of Tom’s struggle out of the depths of despair. This book is full of raw emotion - anger at God, love for his wife, sorrow for his children having to grow up without their mother. Tom is very honest in sharing his feelings. The love for his late wife is evident throughout. His faith in God is too, yet the book doesn’t come across as preachy. This book would be great for someone who is mourning the death of a loved one or the friend of someone who is mourning the death of a loved one. It gave me a deeper understanding of the grieving process. This is one of my favorite passages in the book:

"The real superheroes are the single parents doing their best to raise their kids alone. They’re the faithful husbands, the loving mothers, the understanding friends who are always there in the time of need and crisis. These superheroes wear no impenetrable suits, yet they never hesitate to face life’s bullets, even thought their only armor consists of the scars from previous battles often fought but not always won. In spite of their human imperfections, or maybe because of them, they never think twice about doing “the right thing,” no matter what the odds against them." ( )
  bermudaonion | Mar 27, 2009 |
Tom Wilson's memoir is not a collection of literary essays or a self-help book. It's the story of one man's journey to finding peace after recovering from a personal injury, coping with his father's failing health, and coming to terms with the early death of his wife from cancer. The frame story of the book is Tom's solo drive from Cleveland to Cincinnati, bisecting the state of Ohio. The interlacing text draws on the types of thoughts we all have when driving alone along the highway. And through these thoughts, we learn the story of Tom, his family, his sorrows, and his joys.

I can relate to much of what Tom writes about because my older brother lost his young wife to cancer 10 years ago. And although I didn't lose my spouse, I have certainly watched the process of mourning and recovery through my brother's life as single parent.

Each situation and individual is unique, but Tom's personal story offers solace to the grieving by showing them that they are not alone and that it is possible to once again enjoy life.

The book is enhanced with photographs and Ziggy drawings as well as a history of the comic.

For an author interview and a cool personalized cartoon, go here: http://bfishreads.blogspot.com/2009/03/review-and-interview-zig-zagging-by-tom.h... ( )
  BFish | Mar 20, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0757307930, Hardcover)

Our lives aren't composed like a headstone with a straight line that marks the date of the first breath we take to the last; the journey we're on is really a zigzagging series of unexpected detours. Every detour is a destination unto itself, and regardless of our plans, it's what we don't see coming that often affects us most

Ziggy cartoonist Tom Wilson didn't see it coming: after losing his beloved young wife to breast cancer, it's up to him to raise two children alone and keep the laughs coming in his cartoons worldwide—even as his own personal orbit is falling apart. In this mesmerizing and nostalgic account of a beloved artist's life, Tom Wilson details his compelling journey from growing up in the shadow of his father's genius to inheriting an iconic cartoon when his father falls ill, all while struggling to overcome a crippling depression.

With his trademark humor and self-effacing wisdom, Tom invites you into his intimate life as he searches for hope and strength to overcome his own life detours. In an ironic twist of art imitating life, Tom reveals how Ziggy's own weekly syndicated quest for answers was the unforeseen catalyst that enabled him to say yes to life again and face his greatest challenges. In Zig-zagging, Tom and Ziggy explore the consequences of the upward, downward, inward, wayward, and sometimes backward roads of our zigzagging lives—and discover that while there is no road map for living, with a little character, you don't have to be lost along the way.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:23:02 -0400)

With a little help from his old friend Ziggy, a syndicated cartoonist candidly shares his stories as a boy who witnessed the creation of a future American icon, an adult who was thrust into the position of creative caretaker for Ziggy after his brilliant father became chronically ill, and a husband who lost his wife to cancer, in an artfully woven collection of musings and inspirational discoveries.… (more)

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