Dana Simpson’s earlier comic, Ozy and Millie, started running on GoComics in 2013. I would read it off and on. I liked the character designs and artwork, but it didn’t really grab me because I wasn’t in the target demographic. But, Heavenly Nostrils began running on GoComics in 2012, and I was reading that more consistently because the character interactions are fun, and there’s a lot of imagination beyond the simple “Unicorn!” catch-phrase. When the strip was picked up for newspaper syndication last year, the name changed to Phoebe and Her Unicorn. There was a bit of reworking of the strips at that time to fit in with the paper version, but we’re back to original stories again. The premise: A young girl with fanboy parents finds a unicorn that tolerates her because she hits it with a rock. Are you ready?
DS: Okay, let’s take these on!
BC: Who are you?
DS: My name is Dana, and I draw unicorns for a living. I have a husband and a cat.
BC: What personal details do you think are relevant?
DS: I’m originally from Seattle, Washington, but I currently live in Santa Barbara, California. Before I was a syndicated cartoonist, I was a web cartoonist, dating back to when I was in college. (I went to the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, a school that seems to produce a lot of cartoonists.)
BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
DS: I consider myself a unicorn. And as a unicorn, I am not bound by your human limitations, and therefore I can be a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, AND a writer. It actually kind of fascinates me how cartooning is a kind of hybrid art form. I almost feel like “cinematographer” and “comedian” should be on the list as well.
BC: How did you get your start as a unicorn?
DS: I’ve been drawing comics, or at least trying to, since I was a kid–I still have the first comic strip I ever drew. I was 5. It was about ghosts. Later, I drew a comic strip that ran in my middle school’s monthly, xeroxed newspaper. It was called “Skippy.”
DS: In college, I drew comics for the newspaper. I managed to become editor of the opinions page, which meant I could draw comics to put in whatever available spaces I could find, in addition to having a strip in the comics section (Ozy and Millie, which went on to be a web comic for ten years).
BC: How long have you been at this, and what do you think your biggest breaks were?
DS: I’m not going to tell you how long, because then you’ll be able to do the math and figure out my age, and, as a stereotypical woman, I don’t want to volunteer that information.
DS: But my single biggest break, ever, was winning the Comic Strip Superstar contest in 2009. That got me the development contract that led to Phoebe and Her Unicorn coming into being.
BC: What led up to your starting Ozy and Millie, then leading into Phoebe and Her Unicorn?
DS: Ozy and Millie were kind of characters I’d been doodling on stuff. They didn’t necessarily have names at first, even, but they were these two fox characters I’d started drawing. So when I considered my career options and thought “nothing sounds as appealing as cartooning for money,” they were there for me to build a strip around.
DS: I tried for years to get that strip syndicated, and when that never worked out, I figured I’d get out of comic strips and maybe become an illustrator. But while I was still getting THAT together, Comic Strip Superstar happened, and what do you know, syndication came calling after all. “Girl and her best friend the unicorn” just seemed like a strip that should exist. When I thought of that concept, it seemed weird that no one had done it, which I think is one of the signs of a good idea.
DS: The only other thing I’m working on right now is a sort of graphic novel memoir project. That’s due out in 2018. Apart from that, these days it’s all unicorns and their young human friends.
BC: Which of your works are you most happy with, or proud of?
DS: That question is a little like asking me to play favorites with my children.
BC: Why do cartoonists keep saying that?
DS: but…if you want to know what work I consider my best, I think I’m doing my best work right now, because I think I’m always learning and improving.
BC: I understand that taoism featured somewhat in Ozy and Millie. Can you talk a bit about that?
DS: I don’t wanna call taoism a “phase” because that seems dismissive of it, and it’s something I respect. But, it was something I was fascinated by when I was younger. I feel like I learned a lot from it then, but it’s not something I think about it as consciously now. Plus, honestly, when I look at the references to eastern religion in Ozy and Millie now, some of it feels like cultural appropriation–I’m a little bit surprised I didn’t get called on that more than I did.
DS: In Ozy and Millie I’d do jokes like Ozy’d be holding a blank piece of paper and say “it’s a zen map!” Which is a sort of riff on “doing through not doing,” which is actually a Taoist idea, so that’s me conflating two different things. Which people would, justifiably, point out to me. But, I dunno. It was part of what Ozy and Millie was. Its understanding of eastern religion was both sincere and muddled, because mine was, and ultimately art is self-portraiture.
DS: I did that strip in my teens and twenties, and so I had a lot of youthful inner chaos, and I found both Zen and Taoist ideas (in watered down, western pop culture form) comforting. They offered me some possibility of peace and calm. Now, in my upper [redacted]’s, I feel a lot more settled into myself, and I don’t have to go consciously seeking relief in the same way.
BC: So, where can readers find your books?
DS: Wherever books are sold! Usually in the children’s section.
BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of white paper?
DS: There are various ways of breaking through writer’s block. Sometimes the characters themselves suggest things, as weird as that is. Sometimes I think of a situation, something from my own life or a friend’s or maybe just something I made up, and insert the characters and just see what they do. Sometimes I think of something I’d like to draw. (“A unicorn riding a unicycle! That would be fun!”) Then I write something that lets me draw that.
BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
DS: There’d be some girl punk, like Sleater-Kinney. And some happy girly alternative stuff, like the Sundays. Tegan and Sara would be on there somewhere for sure. Definite emphasis on female artists. I do think of what I do as feminist, in that I approach it with the deliberate aim of not treating male as a cultural default.
BC: You and your sister play music too, right?
DS: As far as music goes…I used to perform live, mostly at open mics but occasionally someone would actually pay me. In grad school I had a recurring gig at a coffee shop where they’d give me two drinks and $20 to fill two hours. That’d be me just solo, with an acoustic guitar.
DS: The stuff Nikki and I do would be a lot harder to reproduce live, because Nikki is an electronic musician and it’s really hard to do that well live. (She records solo as Boreal Network.) We have fun making music at home, but right now we have no plans to try and translate that into live performances. I’m probably too busy for the amount of work that would require, anyway.
BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers? Have you met any of them? Got any dirt on them?
DS: A lot of my idea of what unicorns are like comes from The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Both the book and the animated film. I’ve actually gotten to be friends with Mr. Beagle, since then (he wrote the introduction to the first Phoebe book). If you want dirt on him, he…is apparently confused by revolving restaurants? But, you know. Those are tricky.
DS: Phoebe herself is named for Holden Caulfield’s little sister in The Catcher in the Rye. Obviously I never had the pleasure of meeting J.D. Salinger. But I did get to meet Berkeley Breathed, of Bloom County, whose strip I absolutely obsessed over when I was a kid. He was sweet to me in our one encounter.
DS: More recently, Lauren Faust (of the My Little Pony reboot and other great shows) has become kind of a creative and feminist icon of mine. (She wrote the introduction to the second book.) I have no dirt on Lauren. I might not tell you if I did!
BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
DS: I don’t actually read comics that much anymore. It’s too much like being at work. I tend to read a lot of nonfiction in my spare time. I really want to plug Breaking Cat News, though, an online strip that’s getting its syndicated launch in a few months, because it’s great and adorable and because creator Georgia Dunn has become a good friend of mine.
BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
DS: Something to connect to. Same as with any other kind of art. I mean, obviously it’s great if it makes me laugh, but even more than that I look for a bit of myself. One of the things I love about comic strips is, generally it’s an art form with a single creator, so you’re really seeing inside someone’s head. So when there’s something there that I connect with, it feels very personal.
BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
DS: Comics can be great in so many ways. A good story, an unexpected sense of humor, beautiful artwork. Any number of things can make a comic strip worth your attention. But like I said, I think the greatest thing is when there’s a human spark in there for me as a reader to connect to.
DS: I don’t use either Patreon or Kickstarter myself. I would have if they’d been around in the Ozy and Millie days. I bet I would have made much more money than I actually made back then. It’s nice that there are more ways to monetize comics now. That’s progress. But I don’t need to right now, because…not to be crass, but I’m doing okay through more conventional revenue streams nowadays.
BC: Appearances scheduled for conventions?
DS: I don’t think I’m doing any more conventions until Emerald City Comic Con, in Seattle in March. I used to do a lot more of them, but right now I’m sort of taking a break from it.
BC: Any other thoughts?
DS: Some soapboxing? Let’s see, what haven’t I discussed…
DS: We’re in an election season, so I’m going to touch on politics, specifically the absence of politics in Phoebe and Her Unicorn. My younger self would have found that strange. Ozy and Millie could get really political sometimes, to the point where some of it really had a limited shelf life. (The stuff I wrote during the 2000 presidential election recounts would be pretty boring and incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t know, or care about, that history.) Eventually I decided the strip had way too much of that, but I needed an outlet, so I started a second comic that was basically a weekly political cartoon, called I Drew This. Which I drew from 2004-2008, and it was mostly me taking humorous shots at George W. Bush and making arguments for progressive policy ideas.
DS: Frankly, after doing THAT for a few years, I kind of burned out on attempting political humor/commentary. I decided I didn’t want it to be my job to be angry. So now I get to spend my time thinking about unicorns. I still keep up on politics and I still have a lot of opinions, but I’m never going to make my current strip a mouthpiece for them. That’s not what I feel like doing anymore.
DS: Which isn’t to say there’s nothing political at all about Phoebe and Her Unicorn. I think of it as subversively feminist actually, being a strip starring two female leads. Little girls in entertainment tend to always be someone’s annoying little sister, or they’re just there to be cute. Or, there’s an ensemble cast, and there’s eight boys and one girl, and so her whole identity is that she’s The Girl. I try to make Phoebe a character a reader will actually identify with. (Which I accomplish by having her basically be me.) That itself is a statement, and maybe one more likely to have a positive impact on the world than if I were just yelling at Republicans.
And you know what I love? I wrote this very pink sparkly unicorn book, with a girl protagonist, and while most of the biggest fans of it tend to be girls, there are some boys there too. And they never seem to think there’s anything strange about that. I have tremendous optimism about this generation.
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Dana Simpson © 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright © of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)