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Ziggy is 25 // insecure and unsure, endearing and enduring

Most of the icons from the 1970s are gone now: the Ford Pinto, smiley-face buttons, peace signs, crocheted ponchos. But one '70s image is still hanging on.

He still has a weight problem, is still in therapy and still has a dog that looks just like him.

He is Ziggy.

This year, Ziggy creator Tom Wilson celebrates 25 years of Ziggyness. The pudgy character first appeared in newspapers in 1971 _ a year that also brought the United States deeper involvement in the Vietnam War, Amtrak, Walt Disney World and a Supreme Court order to end segregation in public schools through busing.

To celebrate the comic strip character's anniversary, The First 25 Years Are The Hardest, will be published in April.

Ziggy, a likable loser, has universal appeal. There are 1-million Ziggy books in print, and 200,000 Ziggy calendars are sold each year. He has helped charities, decorated a musician's CD, starred in his own TV show and entered the Latino marketplace.

During a recent phone interview from his Cleveland office, Wilson said he thinks Ziggy's mass appeal is attributable to people's insecurities.

"I think growing up is a very Ziggy experience, and, as a child, being unsure and not knowing where you're going or what you are doing are very Ziggy experiences. We all remember what it was like to be one. I think in our own heads we're never all that confident. I'm not."

To begin his 25th year with Ziggy, Wilson, 64, orchestrated a major business deal. He left American Greetings after a 38-year partnership and signed on with Hallmark Cards. It was a greeting card coup for Hallmark, a company that has garnered success with fellow comic strips "Peanuts," "Garfield" and "Cathy."

Long before he invented Ziggy, Wilson began his career with American Greetings as an art director. He retired from the company in 1992 but continued the licensing agreement until the end of May 1995.

"American Greetings did a good job. I'm not knocking them," he said. "I did a lot of good work with them."

But Hallmark is the leader in the greeting card business with $3.8-billion in annual sales, and the opportunity to give Ziggy more exposure appealed to Wilson, whose strip appears in more than 600 newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit News and Kansas City Star (but not the St. Petersburg Times).

Before his move to Hallmark, Ziggy card sales were strong in Mexico and Spanish-speaking areas of the United States. With Hallmark's updated version _ a bolder and more vibrant Ziggy _ the company anticipates even stronger sales in the Latino marketplace, said Hallmark spokeswoman Rachel Bolton.

Bolton speculated that one of Ziggy's strengths is his unalloyed character, whose messages are universal and easy to translate.

"With Ziggy you don't need an interpreter," Bolton said. "He's visual and simple. He gets baffled by the same things that we do. With Ziggy, it's either you and Ziggy or Ziggy and the world."

Once Hallmark snagged Ziggy, the company dedicated a staff to work exclusively on the lovable loser. They have added a twist to the Ziggy line of 114 cards by offering an envelope with a Ziggy drawing on the back flap and tons of Ziggys on the inside flap. Hallmark also has pasteled and plushed-toyed Ziggy.

Yet no matter how much his surroundings and color change, Ziggy is still the same old character who is thrilled when a vending machine works on the first try and is stumbling along in life wondering, "Why me?"

And once in a while he may have wondered, "Why the name Ziggy?"

"When I had to get serious about syndication, I had to get serious about who he was," Wilson said. "I wrote down a whole list of names such as Lenny, Ernie and Danny. None seemed to fit him. They all ended in a "y" or "ie," that must be because I wanted people to care about him, and those letters are friendlier sounding, more lovable.

"I thought "Ziggy' was good because there's a "z" on the front establishing his alphabetical order in life. I wanted it short, and I liked it because there hadn't been anyone anywhere named Ziggy."

The character's look hasn't changed much in 25 years. Still, "he's evolved like all of us to some extent," Wilson said.

Both Universal Press Syndicate and Wilson were new to the world of comic strips when Ziggy first appeared.

"These days in syndication they will work with an artist for a year or two in advance of going public, but they went to print with Ziggy right off," Wilson said. "They don't do that these days. I don't think he changed after the first three or four years."

Ziggy's is not a hard look to achieve. The character is not much more than a bald, pantless, large-headed, large-nosed person. As with the androgynous "Pat" character from Saturday Night Live, it's not all that obvious which gender Ziggy is.

"When I developed him years ago, I tried to keep him neutral (not a male or female), but at this point in time he's a guy," Wilson said. "I still try to keep him as neutral as I can, but visually he's become more masculine."

Ziggy's male traits come through loud and clear for a particular segment of the population: men.

In a 1994 Hallmark consumer test of Ziggy, 26 percent of the people who selected Ziggy cards were male, much higher than cards normally test with men, Hallmark's Bolton said. In that same test, card buyers said 57 percent of the people for whom they were buying the cards were male.

Ziggy is (almost) forever

In an era that has seen the departure of the beloved comic strips "Li'l Abner," "Bloom County," "The Far Side" and "Calvin & Hobbes," "Ziggy" keeps on truckin'.

"I don't envy the ones that quit. I think there's a responsibility when you create something that people love and have made that emotional connection with the reader. To discontinue it is not fair to the readers," Wilson said.

Wilson admitted he was disappointed when Far Side's Gary Larson called it quits.

"I loved his work. I think Larson was one of the best. When I opened the comic pages, I looked at Ziggy and then I'd read Larson."

Now that "The Far Side" is gone, Wilson _ who says he's not really a comic strip fan _ doesn't even read the funnies anymore.

Wilson may not face the same burnout issues as Larson did because he doesn't have to start from scratch each day. Ziggy has somewhat of an advantage over strips like "The Far Side," Wilson said, because Ziggy's personality determines whatever he does with him.

"I feel under pressure occasionally, which is natural because you have to show up seven days a week," Wilson said. "I do the best I can to make him funny, but he's not a cave man one day and an animal the next. Every day Larson had a whole different challenge.

"With Larson, he had to come up with a funny gag every time. I do, too, but at the same time I have the benefit of a relationship with the reader, and I try to stay faithful to that."

Wilson also has had to stay faithful to the demand for Ziggy outside the comic strip arena. In addition to the Ziggy books and calendars, Ziggy's face adorns items such as mugs, T-shirts, mouse pads and jigsaw puzzles.

He also appeared in a 1982 television Christmas special, Ziggy's Gift, and may make it to the movie screen one day. Wilson has written a full-length feature starring Ziggy and his cartoon pets.

Like the TV show, the as-yet-untitled Ziggy movie is aimed at adults and is based on environmental concerns. Ziggy meets up with a number of animals who express their feelings about the Earth's decline.

In addition to acting, Ziggy has been a model of sorts. He has graced a CD cover for a blues harmonica player ("Ziggy, I thought, was very right for the blues," Wilson said) and has appeared on posters and in ad campaigns for charities such as the Leukemia Society and the American Red Cross.

Successor in the wings

The good news for true Ziggy fans is that when Wilson is ready to retire from the comic strip world, Tom Wilson Jr., 38, is poised to take over the Ziggy kingdom.

The younger Wilson started out adding ink to his dad's drawings and now contributes art and ideas. He used to draw his own syndicated comic strip, "UG," which appeared in 80 papers.

"In a way, Ziggy has been with me most of my life. When I was 14, I remember Dad drawing Ziggy at the breakfast table," Tom Jr. said in an issue of "Ziggy Newz", a bimonthly newsletter published by Wilson's licensing company, Ziggy & Friends Inc.

Even Tom Jr.'s son, 8-year-old Miles, draws Ziggy.

Although the younger Wilson lives in Cincinnati and the elder Wilson lives in Cleveland with his wife, Carol, who's also an artist, father and son exchange ideas daily via fax machines.

Wilson said his goal wasn't to push the family business on his children (his daughter Avais a painter), but it "pleased me a great deal that Tom wanted to work with me," he said.

As for future projects, Tom Jr. told "Ziggy Newz": "We've lately been thinking of launching Ziggy into cyberspace, but knowing Ziggy, he'd probably get tangled up in the Internet."

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