Q&A: Cartoonist grew up in Gig Harbor, lives in Auburn and likes unicorns

Dana Simpson didn’t grow up with a unicorn. But she did grow up with The News Tribune, watching her parents read it at their Gig Harbor home and visiting the newspaper’s offices on a field trip in grade school. The News Tribune even published some of her editorial cartoons.

So now that Simpson’s strip, “Phoebe and Her Unicorn,” is on the daily and Sunday comics pages in The News Tribune and The Olympian, it makes a satisfying circle for the Auburn artist.

And while she might not have grown up with an imaginary unicorn like Phoebe is, Simpson says she shares traits with both characters: a Phoebe-like combination of intelligence and oddness (plus brown hair and freckles), and a unicornlike tendency toward self-reflection.

Simpson attended Bellarmine Prep (as David Simpson — she changed her name and gender in her 20s) and studied communications at The Evergreen State College before making it to the finalist stage of the Scripps-Howard Charles M. Schulz College Cartoonist Award and creating one of the first Web comic strips, “Ozy and Millie.” She freelanced in editorial cartoons and worked for the Puyallup Herald, but her heart wasn’t in it, and when in 2009 she won the Amazon/Universal Uclick Comic Strip Superstar contest, it got her a contract to develop the “Phoebe” strip, now syndicated across 100 papers.

She’s published two “Phoebe” books, one of which just made the finals for the Washington State Book Awards, with a third book in the pipeline. And she can sketch a unicorn faster than you can drink a cup of coffee.

Simpson talked recently about why she draws unicorns, and why the cartoon world needs more smart female characters.

Question: How do you feel about getting into the The News Tribune?

Answer: It’s not the biggest paper I’m in — that’s the Miami Herald — but it’s definitely the most exciting.

Q: How did “Phoebe” evolve?

A: It’s evolved a lot. When I won the Superstar contest, it was a completely different strip. Phoebe didn’t have a name — I just called her “Girl” — and there wasn’t even a unicorn. Then Marigold (the unicorn) just showed up one day as I was developing, it was just one of 30 strips. Phoebe was running around in the woods talking to the animals, as she had a hard time relating to humans. One of the animals happened to be a unicorn, and once I drew (Marigold) I knew I had something. Once I knew who Marigold was, I knew more about Phoebe — Marigold needs Phoebe even more than Phoebe needs Marigold, to interact with her, to get her to have experiences outside of herself. And I just like unicorns.

Q: Wasn’t the title originally “Heavenly Nostrils”?

A: Well, originally I wanted to call it “Girl” but the syndicators said it would be too hard to Google. And you can imagine the results — I don’t even want to go there, for a children’s cartoon. So it was “Heavenly Nostrils” online first. I got the name from a unicorn name generator.

Q: How do you draw? And has your style changed at all over the years of “Phoebe”?

A: I used to draw with pencils and paper, and then I got my first tablet in 2007. After one year I switched to using the software Manga Studio, drawing on the tablet (like a) sensor pad while I watch on a 27-inch screen. It took awhile for it to click, but now … the ability to erase is all-important. I draw the actual artwork for (up to) two or three hours a day, and I draw Phoebe and Marigold all the time so I can draw them in my sleep. I use fewer lines now to draw better.

Q: Horses (and unicorns) are notoriously difficult to draw — what’s your secret?

A: The secret is drawing a lot of horses! But actually I learned a lot from watching “My Little Pony.”

Q: On an average day, our newspapers have about 24 strips. Of those, eight feature just male characters and four are about animals. Six have a female in the mom/grandma role, two feature dumb blondes, and only two have actual independent female characters. Is this standard across the comics world?

A: It’s still very gender-driven, though less than 40 years ago. There’s more awareness that girls read comics ... but there’s a perception that while girls will read stuff written for boys, the reverse isn’t true. But that’s changing; I have boys who read my very pink books. But there’s a sense that even if you have a girl character she can’t be too girly, that femininity is bad. That’s something I’d like for people to get over. It’s limiting. What’s wrong with being feminine, being thoughtful and pink?

Q: You’ve said that Lisa Simpson is one of your inspirations.

A: My favorite “Simpsons” episodes are about Lisa. And Suzie from “Calvin and Hobbes” — I would love to read a whole strip about Suzie. There’s a lack of female perspective in comics, a lack of females you can identify with. Girls are there to be the girl, whereas boys can be anything.

Q: Does being transgender make any difference to your work?

A: It impacts my work in that Phoebe is a reimagining of my childhood self, in which I get to be a girl and ride on a unicorn. We get right in art what was wrong in life. I’m also writing a graphic novel memoir about my transition and my relationship with my husband (with a possible) 2017 release date.

Q: How would you describe Phoebe and Marigold?

A: They’re two sides of me. Phoebe is smart, a bit strange, and she likes video games and unicorns. She really only has one human friend, Max, who doesn’t look up from his phone much — just like my (techie) husband. She sees things the way I’d see them. Marigold is my ego, who would go around staring at her reflection all the time if allowed.

Q: You’re very active on social media. Is there a synchronicity between cartooning and social posting?

A: Cartooning is the art of minimalism. It does translate well to Twitter, and it’s easy for me to do. You have to do Facebook these days. And people like to see the process, so I post sketches to Tumblr. But I try to manage my online persona to be kid-friendly.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568



Find Dana Simpson

Paper: You can read Simpson’s strip “Phoebe and her Unicorn” on our comics page every day.

Online: Simpson’s comics are online at gocomics.com/phoebe-and-her-unicorn and ozyandmillie.org. She blogs at danasimpson.com.

Facebook: Dana Simpson Brodbeck.

Twitter: @MizDanaClaire.

Tumblr: nostrilsketches.

Email and mail: Simpson tries to return fan mail, especially from kids. Reach her at dcsimpson@gmail.com, or by regular mail at P.O. Box 98512, Des Moines, WA 98198