Ziggy’s Gift 

Imagine, for a moment, that you’d never seen Ziggy. That’s not easy. Ziggy’s pretty unavoidable, even to those who never pick up a newspaper, where his strip has run for 40 years. But try to blank all that out and see what comes to mind based on this description of Ziggy from the character’s Wikipedia entry:

Ziggy is a small, bald, trouserless, barefoot, almost featureless character (save for his large nose) who seems to have no friends, hobbies, or romantic partner, just a menagerie of pets: Fuzz, a small white dog; Sid, a cat afraid of mice; Josh, a discouraging parrot; Goldie, a fish; and Wack, a duck. The appeal of the cast is juxtaposed with the endless stream of misfortunes which befall Ziggy. 

That’s a pretty stark description, but also an accurate one. Bad things happen to Ziggy on a daily basis, and yet there he is again the next day. Created by Tom Wilson, who died this past September, and currently written and drawn by his son, Tom Wilson Jr., Ziggy lives in a landscape as harsh as anything Samuel Beckett ever created, befuddled at all times by problems great and small. He’s a little guy in a big, mean world that he lets get to him but never crush him. He even pauses from his string of defeats to deliver the occasional affirmation about how life is should be appreciated (despite all the evidence to the contrary in previous strips).

That doesn’t sound like the sort of comic that would last very long and yet, four decades on, he’s still around. Why? The worst Ziggy strips traffic in insipid platitudes and easy gags. Some make no sense. The best are still kind of dumb. But there’s something about the character that speaks to the put-upon Everyman in all of us, the way we feel when we just miss the bus, or realize we forgot to pay the electric bill, or see the bad guys take advantage of the good guys. When life gets you down, you’re Ziggy too. No wonder he still turns up on calendars and coffee mugs. Beyond that, the simple character design helps make Ziggy appealing. He may have a disturbing habit of not wearing pants, but Ziggy is cute, a little blob of humanity who just wants to find a little happiness in the world. (Plus, there’s so little to it that, to paraphrase Art Spiegelman on Nancy, it’s harder not to read it than to read it.)

The 1982 Christmas special Ziggy’s Gift is Ziggy’s finest hour (or half-hour, anyway). That may sound like a modest feat, and I don’t want to oversell its charms, but the Emmy-winning special, written by Wilson Sr., is the finest expression of Ziggydom in any medium. It opens with Ziggy beginning his day in a sad, sparsely appointed apartment building. Unemployed and pantsless, he wakes up, turns on the news—it’s grim—and tries to brush his teeth, only to have the toothpaste turn against him, squeezing out in every direction except toward his toothbrush. (Okay, Simpsons fans, say it with me: “Oh, Ziggy, will you ever win?)

Happily, Ziggy has his devoted dog Fuzz to keep him company and a line on a job in the form of a classified ad reading “Santas Needed.” Ziggy gets the job, unaware that he’s working for a con artist who’s been using charity-collecting Santas to part unwitting shoppers from their spare change. This attracts the attention of both a billy club-wielding, Irish-accented cop and a grey-skinned, vulture-like thief. The former wants to put Ziggy in jail. The latter wants to take whatever money he collects.

But, this being Christmas, there’s a Christmas miracle waiting for everyone. Ziggy’s collection pan magically produces money when he needs it, first to give to a legitimate charity and later to free a bunch of live turkeys being sold for Christmas dinner. (He lets them loose in the city, presumably to starve or freeze to death, but never mind: Christmas miracle.) Then, at the end, there’s another Christmas miracle. The cop, having nabbed both Ziggy and the grey-skinned thief (who’s by now wearing the Santa suit), is dragging them to jail when some kids in a foster home—conveniently labeled “Foster Home”—mistake the thief for Santa. Not wanting to disillusion them, Ziggy, the policeman, and the thief begin singing “Silent Night” then join them to celebrate Christmas. The cop’s badge even turns into a star to top the tiny Christmas tree of the sort favored by Charlie Brown, a tree that Ziggy saved earlier in the special.

At this point, only those with coal for hearts could be unmoved. That’s not to say that Ziggy’s Gift is subtle, but boy, does it work. That’s partly because the animation, supervised by director Richard Williams (later to serve as animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit) is better than the average Christmas special. Williams doesn’t cut corners. Ziggy, Fuzz, and the cat who later joins them all move fluidly through a well-realized urban environment. Williams also mixes styles in effective ways. Ziggy is, as ever, a few circles and shapes, which makes his late-special encounter with an almost photorealistic homeless man that much more striking. Though Ziggy, and by extension all those who read his misadventures while sipping coffee in their comfortable homes, has problems, they pale in comparison to some of the real problems out there.

It’s a simple, heartfelt Christmas special that never strays far from the message of “Give, Love, Joy,” a song contributed to the show by Harry Nilsson: “Love’s the only answer.” Sappy? Sure. But it’s Ziggy. What do you expect? Or, put another way: Why, at Christmastime, would you want anything else?

Tomorrow: The one you’ve all been waiting for.