“I’m Excited for People to Meet My Other Cartoon Children”: An Interview with Dana Simpson

I was an occasional reader of Ozy and Millie, the webcomic from Dana Simpson that ended in 2008. Simpson then landed a deal with Universal UClick to develop a new comic strip and what emerged was Phoebe and Her Unicorn. To call it one of the 21st Century’s best comic strips may make it sound like I’m damning it with faint praise given the state of newspapers. Phoebe is smart and funny, inventive and entertaining and manages to walk that line of smart and knowing while never snarky. I give the collections of the strip to many of my friends’ children who seem to love it even more than I do.

This spring saw the publication of a new collection of strips, Unicorn of Many Hats, and Today I’ll Be a Unicorn, Simpson’s first board book. In August Andrews McMeel is publishing a collection of some of Simpson’s Ozy and Millie comics, and this fall will see the publication of a second Phoebe and Her Unicorn graphic novel. Simpson is also working on a graphic memoir and we spoke about these many projects and how she works. - Alex Dueben

 TCJ: You once described Phoebe as you and Marigold as your unfiltered ego.

Dana Simpson: I would still describe them that way. I talked to my mom and she said, “I love reading the paper and seeing Phoebe every day because it makes me think of you.” I said, “yeah, in many ways Phoebe is based on me.” She said, “no, she’s not based on you, she is you.” So that’s how my mother feels; she would know something about it.

The strip has a very personal and lived in sensibility and it had that from the start. It knew what it was early on in a way that many strips don’t.

I’m glad that it reads that way. It was very different than my first strip. I started doing Ozy and Millie when I was 20. I had never really done a strip before, and I really didn’t know what I was doing. It took a couple years to figure out what it was and what it was saying and who the characters were and how everything fit together. It was different with Phoebe, because I had a done a strip before, and so I knew how it all worked. But also, there was a lot of development that people didn’t see. By the time that strip launched, I had a two year development contract and I used pretty much the entire two years. It became a very different thing by the time it launched from what it had been even in the first year of development.

I got that contract because I won the Comic Strip Superstar contest in November 2009, and it was for a strip that wasn’t really anything like this one. It starred a kid, but there was no unicorn. It really went through a huge evolution over two years of development, and by the time we actually launched it, it had developed into something that I was pretty comfortable with. People didn’t see those two years. I should publish some of that sometime so people can see these are the stops along the way. It really took a long journey over that period.

The comic you won the contest for I know starred a young girl, but when Marigold or a unicorn arrived, did you know immediately that is what the strip was or did that take a while?

It was pretty clear immediately. The way that I always tell it is that Marigold just showed up and declared herself the other main character and that was sort of that. “I am here now. Now this is all about me!” [laughs] In my head Marigold sounds like Katherine Hepburn. In the first strip that had a unicorn, I didn’t think I was introducing the second main character, but having drawn that, it was like, wait, kid and unicorn? That’s it. That’s the strip.

You mentioned that there’s a collection of your previous strip, Ozy and Millie, coming out this summer.

I’m excited about that. I’m excited for people to meet my other cartoon children. I hope that the Phoebe audience likes them. It’s a different strip. It’s something I made when I was younger and a different person, in some ways. As we all were.

For people who don’t know, what was Ozy and Millie?

I always feel like Phoebe has an easy elevator pitch. It’s a story about a little girl and her best friend who’s an arrogant unicorn. It’s easy. There’s more to it, but that’s a pretty good basic understanding of how the strip works. With Ozy and Millie I’m not sure there is as easy an elevator pitch for it – which might be one reason why I never successfully got it syndicated. It takes place in an all animal universe, because at the time I was really into stuff like Walt Kelly’s Pogo. Ozy and Millie are foxes and children and misfits. Millie was a sort of pre-Phoebe self portrait, but she’s a much more combative character than Phoebe is. Millie is kind of at war with the world. Ozy is her best friend and he’s sort of the one person who will put up with her. It’s as autobiographical as Phoebe and Her Unicorn is, but for a younger much less subtle version of me. Ozy’s dad is a dragon, and dragons secretly run the world. Or maybe he’s full of it. I was never clear if Ozy’s dad is telling the truth or not, but he’s full of stories about, “Oh, this reminds me of the time I helped William Howard Taft...”

When they asked about putting a book together of those strips, they asked me if I wanted to put them out in order, but I really didn’t. That strip took a couple years to really find itself. The art style changed a lot over the run of Ozy and Millie. It’s not like with Phoebe where my drawing style was kind of established. For the book, I picked stuff from 2002-2007, part of the strip where the drawing style of the strip was established and not changing much. I had to pick strips that didn’t seem super dated, so no jokes about George W Bush or early 2000s boy bands that a Phoebe reader picking up the book now is going to scratch their head at. I think the result is a book that you can pick up that represents the characters and the strip well for what it is. I hope the Phoebe audience is into it.

 You mentioned that Millie is you but younger and angry.

I was angry when I was young. I didn’t see it this way at the time. I’m almost sorry every conversation with me comes back to this, but looking back on it, Ozy and Millie is very much me trying to sort out the whole gender thing for myself. There’s a reason that the characters are a boy and a girl. Ozy is a very detached, serene, accepting boy character, and he’s the anchor for Millie, a girl who’s angry with the world for being what it is and wants to burn the whole thing down. That’s sort of the conversation that was happening in my head when I was younger. By the time Phoebe came along I’d settled a lot of things for myself. Phoebe is not out setting fires but Millie very much was.

There are stories in Ozy and Millie that are overtly about gender. There was a whole story where Ozy and Millie dressed as each other’s genders as an experiment to see how people treated them for a day. By the time I got to doing Phoebe and Her Unicorn what I wanted to say about gender was different. I really felt it was important to do a strip where both leads were female. Not just because that’s what I was feeling inside myself by that time, I’d sort of settled that question, but also there weren’t a lot of strips like that. There are strips with multiple female main characters, but nothing like what I wanted to see. Bill Watterson said in the Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary book that after so many strips about boys, a strip about a little girl drawn by a woman would be nice to see. I was like, that’s what I want to do. I want to a strip in that area but from my perspective. Which I had come to realize is a very female perspective.

It’s a female perspective and it’s a very feminist point of view I would argue, as have many others. You’ve also embraced a lot of feminine qualities. Perhaps most obviously by the covers and the colors.

When the first book came out a lot of people were like, the cover is so pink, your publisher must have made you do that. No. That was completely my idea. I told them it didn’t have to be pink, but I said, I want it to be this color. They liked it. I think that’s good. I think I’m taking pink back, sort of. We live in a society where more and more girls get to do conventionally “boys’ stuff” as much as they want, and I think that’s wonderful, [but] I think the reverse should also be true.

We have to de-stigmatize traditionally girly stuff. Boys can be into pink and unicorns. Girls who are into that should be allowed to be into that. Boys who are into that should be allowed to be into that. The whole spectrum should be available to every kid. So I’m going to make something that’s unabashedly girly and fun and cool, as much as I can. I think it’s subversively feminist to do it that way. The strip is subversively feminist.

I’m curious about getting to make the graphic novels and telling longer stories because I know that doing long stories in the newspaper is frowned upon.

It is. I get to do a little bit longer stuff in the strip now than when it launched. Back then, there was almost a rule that I couldn’t go over a week. I just handed in something that went three, but that’s pushing the limits. Something like The Magic Storm or Unicorn Theater is 150, 170 pages of one story, which is a completely different kind of writing.

How did The Magic Storm come about?

They asked, would you write some graphic novels in the strip’s universe but separate from the strip. They had had some success doing that with Big Nate and I was excited about it because there are ideas that I had that were longer than what I could do in the strip. The longest storyline ever in the strip was six weeks. That was before it was in newspapers and was just online, so I had a little more freedom. I can’t do that anymore.

The Magic Storm itself was a longer idea than anything I had pondered for the strip. I had to come up with a long story I could set in that universe.

I thought, what am I not getting to do that I would like to do? The Magic Storm and Unicorn Theater are very different answers to that question. The Magic Storm is about an adventure. Marigold and Phoebe go on a quest to figure out why there’s no electricity and it turns out that there’s a dragon that’s responsible. Spoiler alert. It’s an adventure they go on. Unicorn Theater is a different story, because it’s almost all about their relationship. It’s about friendship and it involves Marigold’s sister Florence Unfortunate Nostrils. Phoebe gets jealous. It’s much more of an exploration of their relationship. Those are both things I can’t do as much in the strip. They can go on an adventure in the strip, or I can explore their relationship in the strip, but there’s a lot more room in a book length story to have a bunch of things happen and have a story that has an arc to it, or dig deep into the characters. In these first two graphic novels, I’m doing both of those things.

How does your work method differ on the graphic novels than from the strip format?

If a story doesn’t go longer than one or two weeks, I can just write it and see what happens. Writing something longer requires a lot more structure, and that was something I had never done before. I had to work with an outline, and then plan the whole thing out in a much more formal way than I ever do with the strip. It’s a lot to keep track of in a way that writing the strip isn’t. It requires structure and organization and those are not my strong suits. So it’s a good thing I have an editor.

First I write it out as an outline and then my editor Shena and I go over that. Then I sit down and start doing page layouts and a really sketchy version of the art so it’s clear to me and to Shena what’s going on in each panel. Having done that I sit down and make the finished art. It’s those three steps. Outline, very rough layout version, and then tackling the finished art. I’m all digital. I have been for about ten years. Ozy and Millie was mostly done on paper. All but the final two months. You can see if you read it. But Phoebe was always all digital. I like it that way. I miss in some ways having finished art on paper than I can show people, but I really like how I can undo anything. I think it causes me to take more chances and makes me a better artist.

Was there a big difference in drawing a page or two a day instead of starting and finishing a strip in a day?

Artwise it’s not as different as I would have expected. I can do more with panel layouts, but I usually don’t. I don’t think my panel layouts are radically different in the book. They can be and there are pages where I do things I couldn’t do in the strip, but most of the time it’s not that different. In terms of writing, the different is stakes. There can be a lot more at stake in the book. I think this is true of strips generally; nothing that big can happen. Nothing that big can be at stake. If you have 170 pages, as long as you resolve it by the end, you can put the characters through a lot more. In the strip it all has to resolve and have everyone back at their starting positions fairly quickly.

Having the collections and then the graphic novels in the same format and size, it wasn’t a very abrupt shift in terms of layout and design.

I think if you’ve been reading them in order and you get to The Magic Storm, it doesn’t feel like a massive departure. People are surprised sometimes to learn that it’s a strip. That always amuses me that people that are familiar with it as a book series. I was at a small Comic Con in Virginia, and talking to a family that were big fans of it. I mentioned that it was a strip and they were surprised. They had read all the books, and it had not felt like anything other than a graphic novel series to them. I guess that’s good. It’s good that reading them in that format feels natural and it doesn’t feel like it’s something completely different when you get to it, but it amuses me. I’ve won multiple book awards for something that I really did not write as a book.

I view the book as its final form. It’s cool that it’s in the newspaper, but as I write it I do with an eye to, how is this going to read in the eventual book. That’s where it’s all going.

In some of the early collections it felt much more obvious that a comic strip was being reformatted to fit in a book of these dimensions, but it doesn’t feel as awkward or obvious in the recent books.

There’s a shift that happens in Unicorn Crossing, which is book five. In book five, we finally get to the strips that were in the newspaper. The strip was online for three years before it got its newspaper launch, and books one through four are all from that period. In book five, we finally hit stuff from the newspaper launch, and the newspaper launch did change the writing a bit. Especially in the beginning, there’s an awareness that this is all material that people who have never encountered the strip before are seeing. The storylines in Unicorn Crossing and Many Hats are shorter. A story couldn’t go over one week. People have noted that.

I’m glad I get to do a little more than that now after three years. But I’m also glad to hear that reading them in book form still works. It’s a balancing act trying to get the strip to read well as a newspaper strip, but also thinking, how is this going to be in the book? Sometimes they feel like incompatible goals and I’m glad I’m walking that line okay.

Do you think it helps you that you can make a longer graphic novel and then turn around and focus on short stories in the strip?

I’m sure it does. I know that writing the longer stuff, I learn things about the characters that I maybe don’t learn writing shorter things. Writing Unicorn Theater and really exploring Phoebe and Marigold’s relationship, I get into deeper parts of who they are to each other than I get to explore in the strip. That ended up informing how I write the strip. Really, I’ve spent every day with these characters for six years. I know them really really well at this point. That probably comes across in the strip in ways that I don’t know. It’s hard for me to put myself in the head of somebody who’s reading the strip as an outsider, but for me, writing the longer stuff does change how I write the shorter stuff because it informs me.

How did you end up making a board book?

They asked me to. They had published one that was super successful called Today I’ll Be a Princess. I wasn’t in the room, but the way that it was related to me was that someone said, this has been really successful, we should do another one. Hey, what if it’s about unicorns and we get Dana to do it? It was really fun to do. I got to do full color two page layouts. It’s a different kind of art than what I get to do for most of the other Phoebe stuff. I hope it’s successful cause I’d love to do it again.

The colors in the board book are a little different from the strip. Did you do the colors?

I did all of that. I don’t usually. The strip has a colorist. His name is Spencer. He uses a color palette that I created for the Sunday strips, which I still color. The board book is all my coloring. I guess it’s what the strip would look like if I had the time to do it all myself.

Did you enjoy that total control over the look of the book?

I did. I like that I don’t have to do the colors every day, because that would be so much work, but having full control over the artwork like that was fun. It’s getting outside of what I do every day and making something that looks a little bit different. Getting to show off my skills in Photoshop, which are not unlimited, but I have skills.

Would you be interested in making another picture book?

I would. Any new thing they put in front of me is exciting at this point. I don’t want to complain because I think I have the world’s coolest job. I draw unicorns for a living. At the same time, after six years of doing the strip every day, day in and day out, it’s fun having new challenges. It’s why I said yes to the graphic novel. It’s why I said yes to the board book. There will be other projects that will be in the strip’s universe but not the strip that I will be taking on, which I can’t talk about. It’s fun that Phoebe and her Unicorn can include all of that. I don’t want to complain but doing a strip is tedious sometimes.

Do you think that moving to California has changed the strip?

Probably. If you go back and read the strips from November through March, before I moved there’s a lot of strips where Phoebe wishes it wasn’t so dark and rainy. I don’t write those as much anymore. [laughs] The move changed the cycles of my mood, which is something that always ends up being reflected in the strip whether I want it to be or not. My winter depression is no longer a thing, so strips in the winter are not just about how I’m unhappy.

I said before I moved that you’re not going to see as many strips about how Phoebe wishes it would stop raining, but I still write those. It still rains in the strip. The difference is when I write it now, I’m not complaining about it. I’m being wistful. Almost. The strip is very clearly set in the Pacific Northwest, and Phoebe didn’t move, so the strip still looks the same as it did and the weather where she lives is still the same. I think if you didn’t know that I moved, you wouldn’t figure out that I did, but there are subtle ways that it’s different.

There’s very little snow in the new book. Less than before, I think.

It doesn’t really snow in Seattle. Sometimes there’s snow in the strip because snow is fun to draw, and sometimes you think of jokes that have to do with it. But it doesn’t necessarily snow all winter there because it’s basically Seattle. The other thing that doesn’t really happen in Washington that much, but happens in the strip when I want it to, is fireflies. There have been fireflies in the strip a few times, and we don’t have them in Washington, but I lived in Michigan for a couple years and they have them there. I thought they were amazing and they’re fun to draw, so every once in a while they show up in the strip.

I know that one of the other things you’re working on is a memoir.

I can discuss that. Other stuff I don’t want to talk about. I’m not good at keeping secrets. My natural inclination is to tell everybody everything – which I think is a good trait in a memoirist. That keeps getting pushed back. The publication date was 2017, and obviously that did not happen. I’ve been working on it behind other stuff. Everybody wants more Phoebe content because it’s popular, but right now the book is supposed to come out in 2019 and I’m going to try to get it out then because I think it’s important. I’m nervous about people’s reactions to it, but I also think I have to say it. I have to tell my story.

As I’m surprised more people don’t know, I am a transgender woman, and an unusually visible one. We’re at a moment for that. For a while it seemed like everything was getting better and everything was moving forward, and then we entered this period of cultural backlash. That made it seem scarier but also more important for me to say, this is me, this is who I am. I’m curious and a little nervous about how people will react when that does come out.

 Is it aimed at the same audience as Phoebe?

I’m never good at figuring that out. When I started writing Phoebe and Her Unicorn, I wasn’t necessarily writing it for kids. I wrote what I wanted to write and they went, we’re going to put this out as part of our kids line. I said, okay, but I was writing for me. My natural sensibility turns out to be for kids, I guess. Maybe my inner self stopped growing at twelve years old? And I think the memoir will probably be no higher than middle grade. It’s a hard subject to talk about and hit that target. Try writing a book about this subject without using the words “penis” or “vagina.” You can avoid it, but you’re very much avoiding something. There are certain parts of the process that I want to write about that are hard to write about for that age group. We’ll see.

I’m not even close to being finished with it, but it’s a difficult balancing act. Especially since a lot of the points I’m trying to make is that it’s not a freaky prurient thing. You see people talk about trans people like it’s an orientation. It’s not. I’m a girl. I’m just out here being a girl now. It’s not anything more than that. I want that to come across. I want people to get a sense of how ordinary I am. If you don’t know I’m trans, who you think I am is probably right. Just add “trans” to it.

Now we’re at the point where kids can say, I know who I am, and people will listen.

I know. I’m super envious of those kids. It makes me feel like I was born thirty years too early. Not that it’s easy being a trans kid. The trans kids that I know are some of the bravest people that I’ve ever met. I’m in awe of them.

I don’t know how I would have been if that had been an option. It was not when I was growing up. Now you can say, this is me, I’m going to be me, and some people will actually listen to you. I think if I’d said “I’m a girl,” no one would have known what to do about it in 1985. Or 1995 even. Hell, in 2005, when I came out, people acted, like, very differently than I think they would act now. I know differently than they would act now. In 2005 I I didn’t know any trans people. It turned out that I did, I just didn’t know that they were trans.

I’m glad people can authentically be themselves. People are much more aware of it now in a way they weren’t. I speak at schools a lot and I usually don’t bring that up, but sometimes I do. Especially if they tell me there’s a trans kid at the school. When I do that, kids react like it’s not a big thing. Maybe that’s just the kids I’m meeting, but they always just nod like, oh, okay. This generation is great. We have to start listening to them more.