Dana Simpson's Phoebe and Her Unicorn is poised to turn five in April, celebrating hundreds of daily adventures since a little girl unwittingly pond-skipped a stone into the face of her mythical best friend. Appropriately, today sees the release of the strip's fifth collection, Unicorn Crossing. We'd call it destiny, but Simpson is just that good at keeping a schedule for her continually growing fanbase. She's also good at answering interview questions! Your proof? Scroll on for the punctual cartoonists' take on everything from Phoebe fandom to contemporary video game consoles.
GoComics: You've been creating Phoebe and Her Unicorn for five years now. What kind of audience were you expecting when you started the strip and how does that compare to the reality of your fanbase as of your fifth collection? Any surprises?
Dana Simpson: I don't know quite what I was expecting. I'm always writing for myself, first, and then kind of hoping an audience will connect with it. A lot of Phoebe's audience seems to be kids, and I didn't necessarily consciously seek that at first, but I love it. Kids are the best possible fans. They're so sincerely joyful about stuff they really like. (Although I love you, too, adult fans.)
GC: You find ways of rooting Phoebe's day-to-day activities in the real lives of regular kids. How important do you think it is to get those details right?
DS: It's rooted in MY real life, past and present, and I hope that makes it seem more real. Of course, I have to translate stuff--I have to think "how would this experience be different if you were a kid having it now?" Obviously the world has changed a lot.
Sometimes, because I don't have kids myself, I feel like I need some help knowing what it's like being a kid in 2017, and I'll ask friends with kids about their experiences. I want Phoebe's world to be recognizable.
GC: Before creating Phoebe and her Unicorn, you drew Ozy and Millie for a decade. How do you think O&M prepared you for not only creating Phoebe, but engaging fans and handling other aspects of your life as a cartoonist?
DS: Ozy and Millie was my education in cartooning. I became a much, much better artist; I like to think all that practice shows in the work I'm doing now. Writing, too. How to pace a comic strip. How to have enough ideas that the strip can be there every day. How to manage my time--when your job is at your house, it becomes really easy not to work.
I did learn a lot about engaging fans, too, although it was kind of a different audience because Ozy and Millie was a really different strip. Those fans were older, I think mostly teens and twenties (which was where I was too), and Ozy and Millie had a lot of random cultural references and some thinly veiled political commentary, and a lot of its fans were... opinionated. Adjusting to that, learning when to engage people and when to tune them out, and which thoughts I should probably not actually type, took me a while.
After that, the Phoebe and Her Unicorn audience, which is generally younger and generally a lot more upbeat, feels pretty manageable.
GC: Phoebe's been shown to play current-generation video game consoles. How long until readers can expect to see her playing a Nintendo Switch?
DS: The very next time I think of something pithy to say about video games.
GC: Phoebe and her Unicorn's supporting cast has expanded quite a bit as the series has progressed. Have you surprised yourself at all with any of the characters' growth or utility as a storyteller?
DS: I almost think there are too many of them for me to keep track of! I've noticed that happens to a lot of cartoonists over time. You sort of run out of things to say abut a character. They'll be back if you think of something new for them.
Dakota is surprising because she ended up playing a much bigger role, and having a more complicated relationship with Phoebe, than I expected her to. And I never imagined she would end up hanging out with Goblins so much. Sometimes characters will grow into certain roles as needed, and I don't feel I'm in complete control of it. It's fun to watch unfold.
GC: A lot of the early humor in Phoebe and her Unicorn comes from Marigold not quite understanding the intricacies of the human world (particularly the world of a modern kid). How do you put yourself in the POV of a unicorn, exactly?
DS: Especially in the beginning, Marigold was an outsider to the human world, and so it's fun to sort of step outside of everyday reality, look at the world and think about what doesn't make sense at a glance. Like, there's a strip where Phoebe is playing video games, and she says "I died," and this upsets Marigold, and then she clarifies "my GUY died," which doesn't actually clarify anything... that strip exists because I always thought it was weird that people said that.
At the same time, Marigold also has her own set of experiences that I get to make up. Sometimes they're sort of parallel to Phoebe's because that seems funny, and sometimes they're completely out of left field because THAT seems funny.
GC: Marigold occasionally speaks in a kind of Olde English font for emphasis. How would you describe how her inflection sounds in your head?
DS: Grandiose and slightly British-ish. Like Katherine Hepburn, or Rarity from My Little Pony.
GC: Phoebe is constantly dealing with her rude classmate Dakota. How important do you think it is to depict a child capably handling targeted negativity in today's world?
DS: It's always been important. A lot of Ozy and Millie is about that subject, too.
Kids can be viciously negative to each other, and that was true when I was a kid. And the world in general has gotten more viciously negative since then, I think, and I can scarcely imagine what it must be like being a kid now. I hope I'm helping a little bit.
Phoebe's able to get through it because at the end of the day, she's best friends with a unicorn, who can help her work things out. The good news is that unicorns are never far.