According to a press release from Ziggy distributor Universal Uclick, the comic strip’s creator, Tom Wilson Sr., died this past Friday, Sept. 16. Between 1971 and 1987, the former American Greetings creative director turned the strip’s bald, perpetually put-upon protagonist into one of the funny page’s most ubiquitous faces, eventually seen in more than 600 newspapers worldwide. Wilson was 80 years old.
Despite being absent from the day-to-day operations of the strip for more than two decades (Wilson’s son Tom Wilson Jr. has overseen Ziggy since 1987), Ziggy remains what Uclick called “a reflection of Tom’s endearing wit and optimism in the face of adversity.” A prototype of the character was introduced in the wordless panels of Wilson’s 1969 book, When You’re Not Around; in 1971, the founders of Universal Uclick (then Universal Press Syndicate) asked Wilson to adapt the character for one of the syndicate’s flagship titles. Alongside fellow breakout strip Doonesbury, Ziggy helped establish Universal as one of the world’s premier press syndicates. Wilson’s acumen for licensing—honed at American Greetings, where he helped create franchises such as the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake—made his creation an icon of the warm-and-fuzzy wing of ’70s and ’80s pop culture. Like many characters of the era, Ziggy’s daily trials were eventually adapted into an animated Christmas special; 1982’s Ziggy’s Gift (with music and lyrics by Harry Nilsson!) earned Wilson an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program.
After passing the reins to the strip to his son—who previously helmed the Ziggy-esque UG—Wilson rotated between several towns in his native Ohio, while also maintaining homes in Hollywood and New York. While Ziggy’s cultural cachet faded—the Associated Press’ notice of the strip’s 35th anniversary ran under the headline/backhanded compliment “Unflinchingly unhip but unbelievably popular, Ziggy turns 35,” which seems all too appropriate for the character—Wilson publicly exhibited paintings and privately played the bass guitar, an instrument he had previously played in the Army. On the occasion of the character’s 40th anniversary in 2011, Wilson remarked “I wanted Ziggy to be a little guy in the big world, much like I felt as a kid. So I made him clumsy and unsure, yet wide-eyed and full of wonder.” An unflinchingly unhip sentiment, but one of undeniably universal appeal.