Hitting someone with a rock may be an unconventional way to make friends, but it works for 9-year-old Phoebe when an errant stone she skips across a pond collides with the face of a unicorn named Marigold Heavenly Nostrils.
Marigold feels indebted to Phoebe for accidentally freeing her — she could not tear herself away from the sight of her own beauty reflected in the water — and offers to grant Phoebe a wish. Thinking on her feet, Phoebe wishes for the unicorn to be her best friend. Marigold reluctantly agrees, and so begins the adventures of “Phoebe and Her Unicorn,” a comic strip by Seattle-area cartoonist Dana Simpson.
On March 30, “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” will begin syndication in newspapers across the United States, including the Deseret News.
For Simpson, 37, it’s a “very, very exciting moment.”
“I’ve really always loved comic strips since I was a little kid,” Simpson said in an interview with the Deseret News. “My mother had this big ‘Peanuts’ treasury that was my first exposure to comics, and I remember reading that cover-to-cover and being fascinated by it. I started trying to draw my own comics as early as second or third grade. It was just kind of always something I did, always something I wanted to do.”
She wrote several comics throughout her childhood and teen years, continuing to create during and after college, including her Web comic “Ozy and Millie,” which gathered a large following online during its nine-year run. In 2009, she won the Amazon/Universal Uclick Comic Strip Superstar Contest and was awarded a two-year development contract. In April 2012, the comic “Heavenly Nostrils” was launched online, where it continues to be published and was recently renamed “Phoebe and Her Unicorn.”
When Simpson first started developing the strip that would become “Phoebe and Her Unicorn,” it was called “Girl” and didn’t have a unicorn in it. The little girl who would become Phoebe hung out and talked with animals in the forest, and one day a unicorn showed up.
“It was originally a one-off gag that there was a unicorn there, but as I was drawing that strip, I just sort of knew: This character needs to hang around,” Simpson said. “She was like the missing piece. And that made sense to me because I like unicorns … but it wasn’t something I necessarily so much planned as something that happened, and then I realized, ‘Oh, that’s it!’”
Some of Marigold’s personality was influenced by the description of a unicorn in one of Simpson’s favorite books, “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle.
“The way that the unicorn’s described in the first scene, where she lives near a crystal pool so she can stare at her reflection, I sort of took that idea and cranked it up to 11,” Simpson said. “When Phoebe finds Marigold, she’s just staring at her reflection in a pool, and I try to suggest that this is the sort of thing that happens to her a lot. She just sort of walks around in contemplation of her own beauty all the time.”
Marigold’s full name, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, came about by way of an online unicorn name generator.
“I typed ‘Dana Claire Simpson’ … and it gave me back ‘Marigold Celestial Nostrils,’” Simpson said. She changed “Celestial” to “Heavenly” to avoid confusion between her unicorn and the character Princess Celestia from “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.”
In contrast to Marigold and all of her magic, beauty and all-around splendor, there’s Phoebe, a smart and sweet but otherwise fairly average fourth-grader.
“Phoebe’s a kid who would like to fit in but not if she has to change anything,” Simpson said. “And so as a result, she doesn’t have that many friends.”
The majority of Phoebe’s classmates view her as weird, and while she has a friend in a nerdy boy named Max, her biggest enemy is a girl named Dakota.
“Dakota builds herself up by picking on Phoebe,” Simpson said. “In her original concept, she was sort of a composite of a few different girls who gave me a hard time in school.”
That’s part of what makes Phoebe so eager to have Marigold for a friend, Simpson explained, adding that the friendship is in many ways more beneficial to Marigold than to Phoebe.
“Without Marigold, Phoebe would probably be lonely and her life would be less interesting. But without Phoebe, Marigold would never have any experiences,” she said. “(Phoebe’s) this kid who exists in the world and has real experiences, and she gets Marigold involved in them, and it makes Marigold’s life quite a bit more interesting.”
Several elements contributed to Simpson’s decision to write about a little girl and a unicorn.
“Nobody else was really doing that,” Simpson said. “Bill Watterson (creator of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’) said in one of his books that after so many strips about little boys, a strip about a little girl drawn by a woman would be great to see, and I was kind of like, ‘OK, challenge accepted!’”
At the same time, Simpson had noticed that even when girl characters were present in comic strips, they had little to offer in terms of depth.
“There’s only one or two girl characters, and their defining personality trait is they’re a girl,” she said. “I would always look at those and kind of feel unrepresented.”
Because of that, Simpson said, she knew she wanted to write a strip with two female protagonists who were very different from each other but with whom readers could relate.
The decision to have Marigold as a “real” character, rather than one visible only to Phoebe, opened up a lot of possibilities but also some issues in writing the strip, Simpson explained.
“It seemed more interesting if Phoebe could actually introduce Marigold to people,” she said. “Marigold gets to come over to Phoebe’s house for dinner, that sort of thing.”
But then there was the issue of why everyone who meets Marigold isn’t “constantly amazed when they see her,” Simpson said. “I had to write my way around (that) by saying, ‘Oh, well, she uses magic for that. I mean, when a character is a magic creature, you can just say ‘It’s magic!’ and that explains most things.”
A compilation of the strips was released in fall 2014 as “Phoebe and Her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle.” A second book, “Unicorn on a Roll: Another Phoebe and Her Unicorn Adventure,” is scheduled to be released in May.
Several takeaways are embedded within the strip, Simpson said.
“I think hope is important, and that’s what unicorns represent to me,” she said. “Phoebe’s life is ordinary, and then, unicorn.”
From Marigold and Phoebe’s relationship, she hopes people will see “the value of friends who you don’t have to change yourself for; the value of friends who will just accept you for you. … Phoebe gets to just be entirely herself, and Marigold sometimes makes fun of her for it but doesn’t really ever judge her for it.”
And while readers may never meet a “real” unicorn like Marigold, Simpson said people should be on the lookout for those unicorns that do cross their paths.
“Unicorns are everywhere,” she said. “Maybe not literal unicorns, but you never know what’s around the next corner that will change your life completely.”