Interview: Dana Simpson

The Cartoonist
Photo by Rachel Coward

Photo by Rachel Coward

Cartoonist Dana Simpson is Northwest through and through. She was raised in Gig Harbor, educated at The Evergreen State College, and lives in Auburn with her husband and cat. She’s the creator of the syndicated comic strip Phoebe and Her Unicorn.

In 2015, Phoebe and Marigold rode onto the funny pages of newspapers across the nation when Phoebe and Her Unicorn was syndicated. She’s also published three book collections of Phoebe strips, and is working on an autobiographical graphic novel.

Simpson works from a home office, using a computer system and trackpad to draw the comic strips. The move from paper to digital allows her to take more risks, because she knows she’s free to hit “undo” when something doesn’t work. Still, she takes her notepad down near the water at Des Moines to create. Simpson chatted with us at her home office about her influences, experiences, and Phoebe and Her Unicorn.

(The idea came) gradually, and one piece at a time. One day I drew a strip of (a girl) talking to a unicorn, and that was the piece the strip needed. The unicorn was the missing piece. (Marigold) was supposed to be a one-off, but she’s been there ever since.

Marigold Heavenly Nostrils is the name I got typing into a unicorn name generator. Phoebe is actually named Phoebe Caulfield after the Catcher in the Rye. I decided on Phoebe because I could tell everybody it’s a literary allusion.

The strip is very visually Northwest. I try to make it look like around here. Where Phoebe lives is vaguely here, vaguely Gig Harbor.

When I write I definitely don’t write (at home). There are too many distractions. I write at Auntie Irene’s in Des Moines … it’s one of my favorite spots.

With the rise of web comics, there’s so much good stuff being done, and newspaper readers might be better served (with new comics). If there had not been an Internet, I would not be doing this. Ozzy and Millie (her web comic from 1998-2008) had 20,000 readers.

Growing up (not out) kind of left a big hole in my life that needed filling in, and that’s where Phoebe comes in. We get the results in art that we can’t get in life. [On how being a transgender person influences her art.]

I get a fair number of fan letters. People write to me, and I see letters to the editor for all sorts of stuff. I’m aware from having my strip syndicated that people complain. I had to develop a thick skin from that. What people send me is almost uniformly positive and that’s nice, because it acts as a kind of filter. Reading those is very good for my motivation.­­

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