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A funnies story: Introducing our new ‘cheerfully, subversively feminist’ comic strip, ‘Phoebe and Her Unicorn’

  • Katie Champoux, 7, of Florence, who wrote a letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette asking us to run the comic strip “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” by Dana Simpson, is shown in her room with a Gazette weekend edition and her original letter. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Katie Champoux, 7, of Florence, who wrote a letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette asking us to run the comic strip “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” by Dana Simpson, is shown in her room with a Gazette weekend edition and her original letter. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Katie draws comics in her home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Katie Champoux, 7, of Florence, who wrote a letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette asking us to run the comic strip “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” by Dana Simpson, is shown in her room with a Gazette weekend edition and her original letter. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Katie Champoux, 7, of Florence, who wrote a letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette asking us to run the comic strip “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” by Dana Simpson, is shown in her room with a Gazette weekend edition and her original letter. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Katie Champoux, 7, of Florence, who wrote a letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette asking us to run the comic strip “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” by Dana Simpson, is shown in her room with a Gazette weekend edition and her original letter. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Katie Champoux, 7, of Florence, who wrote a letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette asking us to run the comic strip “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” by Dana Simpson, is shown in her room with a Gazette weekend edition and her original letter. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Katie Champoux, 7, of Florence, who wrote a letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette asking us to run the comic strip “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” by Dana Simpson, is shown in her room with a Gazette weekend edition and her original letter. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Dana Simpson. © Julie Voss Photography

  • “Phoebe and Her Unicorn.” Distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication. © Dana Simpson

  • © Dana Simpson  © Dana Simpson 

  • Distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication. © Dana Simpson

  • Distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication. © Dana Simpson

  • Letter to the Gazette.



Monday, December 04, 2017

One of the pleasures of being an editor at a newspaper is getting mail from readers, but a recent request stood out from the rest. Sealed in an envelope with a Wonder Woman stamp, this particular letter came from Katie Champoux, a seven-year-old from Florence and a second grader at Leeds Elementary School, who asked us to run her favorite comic strip, “Phoebe and Her Unicorn.” 

“ ‘Phoebe and Her Unicorn’ is about a girl named Phoebe and a unicorn she finds named Marigold Heavenly Nostrils,” Katie recently explained. “They become best friends, and they have a lot of adventures.”

Created by Dana Simpson, the strip is reminiscent of “Calvin and Hobbes,” but with a female protagonist (two if you count the unicorn) and a subtle but strong feminist message. You could even say it passes the Bechdel Test.

It seemed like the kind of work we should get behind — so we did. The Gazette will start running “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” in our comics section later this month.

On a recent afternoon, I visited Katie at home, where she lives with her parents Amy Winters Champoux and David Champoux, a therapist and an English professor at Holyoke Community College, respectively, to find out more about her interest in comics — and unicorns. Of the latter, Katie said: “They’re just magical and sparkly and I like them and they’re pretty and a lot of other things and I like their horns and they’re really colorful. That’s a lot of reasons.”

We spent a good chunk of our interview looking up our unicorn names on a website called The Unicorn Name Generator. “Daddy, my name is Primrose Pink Reins!” she said excitedly.

In her spare time, Katie has been known to attend meetings of the Comics Club at Northampton’s Forbes Library. “I want to be an artist or a writer or a baker or maybe all three,” she said. “For books, I might make graphic novels like Dana Simpson does. I would basically write about dragons and unicorns and mythical creatures that are really cool and magical, like narwhals.” (Well, the narwhal is real, but it has been dubbed “the unicorn of the sea.”)

With its winning combination of wit and warmth, “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” is for kids and adults, alike, so it only made sense for a kid and an adult to interview its creator, Dana Simpson, a Seattle native who now lives with her husband in Santa Barbara.

Here’s what we heard back.

 

Katie’s interview with Dana Simpson

 

How did you get the idea for “Phoebe and Her Unicorn”?

“Phoebe came first. That was sort of the original idea. She’s sort of a kid version of me. And, I suppose I always wanted a unicorn, so eventually I thought I’d try that out as a comic and see how it went. Pretty well, I think, as it turns out.”

How do you draw them so good? 

“I’ve been drawing them every day for more than five years now! If you practice anything that much, you tend to get pretty good at it.”

Why do you write “Phoebe and Her Unicorn”?  

“There are a few ways I could answer that question! One is that it’s my job! Another is to say that it's more fun than any of the other jobs I could have decided to do when I grew up. But the best answer is that I love it. I love drawing, and I love comics, and I love unicorns, and I’m really lucky that I get to spend every day with these characters and their adventures.”

Are any of the characters based on real-life people?  

“Oh, many of them are. Phoebe’s friend Max is based on my husband, David. (He looks a lot like him.) Her frenemy Dakota is partly inspired by my sister Nicole (who loves Dakota, and helps me write her lines sometimes). Her scary camp friend Sue is based on my scary but fun friend Lucy.”

When do you get time to write?  

“I don’t have another job I have to do, so really, I can write any time I decide to! Writing is harder than drawing, but also usually takes up less time. Drawing is the thing I really have to make the time to do.”

I read that you like to write outside. Where do you go? 

“Sometimes just out to my backyard. But I also live just a few miles from the ocean, so a lot of the time I like to go and sit on the beach and write.”

Where do you get all the names? 

“All different places. I got the name ‘Phoebe’ from a book — it’s the name of the main character’s little sister in a book called ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ ‘Marigold Heavenly Nostrils’ is a name I got from typing my name into an online unicorn name generator. (Which anyone could do!) ‘Max’ is my uncle’s name. ‘Dakota’… just seemed like a Dakota somehow.”

What’s your advice for a seven-year-old kid who wants to be an author/illustrator someday? 

“It’s never too early! The more you draw the better you’ll get. The more you write the better you’ll get. Your imagination is the limit!”

What are some other books you have written? 

“My only published works are the ‘Phoebe and Her Unicorn’ books, but there are six of them! Will be seven, in March. Book seven will be called ‘Unicorn of Many Hats.’ ”

 

Brooke’s interview with Dana Simpson 

 

Do you get a lot of fan letters and comments? What kinds of things do kids and grownups write to tell you?  

“I do hear from a lot of fans, and I enjoy it. Kids have lots of things to say: they tell me they like the comic, they ask me lots of questions, they want to tell me their unicorn names or suggest things they’d like Phoebe and Marigold to do. 

“Adults sometimes tell me how much they like the comic, too, but, maybe more often, they tell me how much their kids do. ‘Thanks for helping my kid become a reader’ is one of my favorite things in the world to hear.

“It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t necessarily set out to make a strip for kids. I’m making the strip I want to make, and my publisher was like ‘Oh, kids will like this’ and marketed it that way, and it seems like they were right.”

Did you read the funnies as a kid? What was your favorite comic strip growing up, and why? What are your thoughts on legacy comics?  

“I absolutely adored the funnies as a kid. I used to cut them out of the newspaper and hang them all over my bedroom, and I kind of always imagined it as at least a potential career.

“I really do have to pick ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ as my favorite. I know it’s kind of everybody's favorite, but there’s a reason. And although it’s evolved a  lot since, the original concept for ‘Phoebe and Her Unicorn’ was kind of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ from Susie’s point of view. I felt like that was the kind of strip someone should be doing.

“Legacy comics… I guess I’m of two minds. I mean, classic strips are classic for a reason, and they’re there because people want to see them, and sometimes, in the hands of a new creator, a strip will undergo a surprising renaissance and become really great for a while. 

“On the other hand, I have to say this as a newer comics creator: There’s limited space, and it would be really great if more new creators got a chance to have their work seen. I feel really fortunate to have gotten in at all, because it’s hard these days. So really, I would encourage readers and editors to take a chance on some new things.”

Where did your fondness for unicorns come from?  

“Is anyone not fond of unicorns? They’re pretty popular, especially lately.

“But I suppose I’m specifically into them at least partly because of how much I loved ‘The Last Unicorn,’ growing up. The animated movie, which I saw when I was nine or 10, and then the book, which I didn’t read until college. A lot of how I think about unicorns is from that book. (Its author, by the way, is a ‘Phoebe and Her Unicorn’ fan now.)”

What’s the first comic strip you remember drawing as a kid?  

“I drew this strip when I was five, called ‘Boo.’ It was about blue ghosts, who seemed to live somewhere called ‘Honted Boom Land.’ They said hi, then zoomed around, then got scared by lightning, then laughed, then went to sleep. I thought this was hilarious when I was five.”

Who has inspired you as an artist/writer? 

“So many people have inspired me that I worry about leaving out someone important. Like I said, Bill Watterson’s ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ was a huge one. We also had this treasury of old ‘Peanuts’ cartoons, that I think was my mom’s, that I read over and over.

“A little later on I was a really big fan of ‘Bone’ by Jeff Smith, and still am. And in high school I discovered Walt Kelly’s ‘Pogo,’ a classic strip from before I was born, at the library, and fell in love with the characters and the art.

“And, you know, I kind of have to give a shout-out to everyone who animates ‘My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.’ I have learned a LOT about drawing cartoon horses from that show. It’s really beautifully realized.”

“Phoebe and Her Unicorn” is one of the few syndicated strips “starring” a girl. Why do you think that is? Do you think of your strip as being feminist?   

“I definitely have feminist aims in writing the strip, because you’re right, there aren’t a lot of strips that star little girls. Or, for that matter, with two female protagonists, where a lot of the strip is just the two of them having adventures together and you might go a week without seeing a boy. Like I said, I kind of set out to make a feminist response to ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’ Representation matters.

“I’m not the only person putting a girl at the center of their comic strip, but there really ought to be more of us.

“I think there haven’t been more girl-centric strips for a reason. One is just that there have been a lot more male than female creators. That’s been changing, but like so many things, it’s traditionally been much harder for women to get in the door. Also, I think there’s always been this sense that boy characters are the default. Girls are constantly asked to identify with male characters; a lot fewer strips offer a girl as an audience stand-in, which I think is the role a character like Phoebe plays, because of this notion that boys can’t, or even shouldn’t, identify with female characters.

“I think that’s been changing, and it makes me really happy that I meet so many boys, little and not-so-little, who see something of themselves in Phoebe. We’re all people. A character's gender shouldn’t be the last word on whether you’re allowed to see something of yourself in them, particularly if that only goes in one direction.

“So yeah, I think of what I’m doing as kind of cheerfully, subversively feminist.”

I think I read on your blog that the strip was originally called “Girl.” Can you talk about how it came to be “Heavenly Nostrils” and then “Phoebe and Her Unicorn”?  

“I won the Comic Strip Superstar contest in 2009 with a kind of half-baked strip called ‘Girl,’ which didn't have a unicorn in it yet. I won a development contract in that contest, and one of the first things they told me during development was, ‘You can’t call a strip ‘girl.’ It’s a really common word. No one will be able to Google it.’ Fair enough.

“So during development, I decided the strip should be about a girl and a unicorn, for reasons I kind of discussed above. And I named my unicorn ‘Marigold Heavenly Nostrils.’ It was a name I got by typing my name into an online unicorn name generator — something anyone could do, just Google ‘unicorn name generator.’ And I thought ‘Heavenly Nostrils’ was a great title, and during the strip’s initial online run it was called that.

“But they always told me, ‘You can call a strip that online, but it’ll be a hard sell to newspaper editors, so when we launch it in papers we’ll have to change it.’ I thought maybe I could wear them down over time, but no, when the time came, we changed it. And I didn’t fight that hard, or really at all, because mostly I just wanted my strip launched. I was less concerned with the title. ‘Phoebe and Her Unicorn’ it was.

“Still, I think “Heavenly Nostrils” is a really funny title for something.”

I really like your blog on your website, danasimpson.com. I just read a post called “The Gay Unicorn Agenda.” You write about Phoebe’s friend Max: “I’ve actually known all along that Max has lesbian parents... representation matters. Families come in a lot of forms. Art should reflect it.” It’s hard to think of anything more mainstream than the  funnies. Can you talk about what it means to you personally and professionally to be syndicated in newspapers around America? 

“It’s a huge honor and privilege, first of all. I still kind of can’t believe I managed to make that my job.

“Newspaper funnies are a really mainstream thing, and therefore maybe, in some small way at least, a newspaper cartoonist gets to have something to say about what IS normal. And my work reflects the world, both as I see it and as I would like to see it. I have gay friends with kids and it’s just the most ordinary thing, they function like every other family, and it feels totally normal for me to have that sort of family in Phoebe’s world. None of the characters has ever treated it as something unusual.

“Seeing people and families that are like you in popular media can mean a lot. It would have meant a lot to see someone a bit more like me depicted somewhere, when I was growing up. Which brings us to the next question...”

Can you tell us a bit about your graphic memoir, “Only You’re Different”? What it’s about and who it’s for? 

“It might be for slightly older readers than most of the kids who read ‘Phoebe.’ But we’ll see. It’s not done yet; it’s tentatively supposed to come out in 2019.

“Here’s the part, though, where I mention that I’m a trans woman. It’s not something I’ve really emphasized up to this point, although I’ve never tried to keep it a big secret either. I don’t think it’s always relevant information: I’m some lady who draws a strip about a unicorn. The fact that I upgraded to a more comfortable gender in my 20s is kind of beside the point.

“I’ve been talking about representation, though, and... I do feel like the subject of what it was like being me, growing up, figuring myself out, in the years before ‘Phoebe’ ever existed, is one I want to talk about. I want to tell that story. We’ve titled it ‘Only You’re Different,’ which is a reference to L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Land of Oz,’ for reasons that are kind of their own story.

“And maybe it’s one I’m in a good position to tell. Apart from having a cool job, I’m basically pretty normal in most ways. Maybe telling the story of how I got here will help some younger trans people see their way to normal, which can seem really far off when you’re dealing with all of that. And maybe a few people will look at us with their eyebrows a little less raised.”

What kinds of other jobs did you do before your big break in 2009?  

“I was actually a newspaper reporter for a while in my early 20s, at a local weekly in Washington State. I don’t think I was great at it, because I was mostly just spending all my time making comics. Then, in an effort to maybe move up in that industry, I went to grad school, but my heart wasn’t really in that either… and finally, my then-boyfriend, now-husband, said, ‘Look, if all you want to do with your life is make comics, I’ll support you while you figure that out.’ That was 2004, five years before Comic Strip Superstar and eight years before the debut of Phoebe.

“Turns out I was a pretty good investment, because we’ve been happy together ever since. Oh, and the comics thing worked out pretty well, too.”