I wasn’t really expecting one. A few years ago, I had nearly realized an ambition I’ve had since age 12: I had scored a contract to develop a comic strip for newspaper syndication. I won that contract, in the Comic Strip Superstar contest, which was sort of an American Idol for aspiring comic strip artists (without the surrounding glamour, and mercifully free of Ryan Seacrest). I won with a comic strip called “Girl,” which starred a little girl who would eventually acquire the name Phoebe Howell. She ran around in the woods behind her house and hung out with talking animals.
I thought I’d just draw a bunch of “Girl” strips, and that would be that and I’d be syndicated and happy forever. What happened instead was, I would send my required 30 strips in every month, and I’d get back a lot of notes explaining to me why the work I was doing wasn’t good enough to launch in syndication.
My editor at the time, John Glynn, was blunt. “The work you’re doing is better than some currently syndicated strips,” he told me, “but in a market this tight, your work needs to be transcendent.”
I was, as far as I could tell, doing my best. If it wasn’t transcendent already, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to make it transcendent. I wasn’t even sure what I was being asked to do.
A year of my two-year development contract had passed. Despair began to set in. And that’s when the unicorn made her appearance.
One day I wrote a strip with a unicorn in it. It was a one-off joke, riffing on a theme that was looming large in my life at the time: knowing what counts as a reasonable expectation. Phoebe was conversing with a voice off camera about whether her ideas about her life were realistic. Final panel: pan out, and look, she’s talking about this to a unicorn. I was on the verge of blowing the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream; given that, it was a pretty hopeful comic strip.
And then the unicorn wouldn’t leave. Once she was there, she was there. She more or less announced herself as the second main character in the strip.
Being a unicorn, she wanted attention. She needed to shine in front of an admiring audience. This dovetailed nicely with my own goals. I named her Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, a name I got by typing my own name into an online unicorn name generator. The strip was originally called “Heavenly Nostrils,” and I still miss that title, but my publishers thought we’d get the strip in more newspapers with a more descriptive and less weird name, and thus it became “Phoebe and Her Unicorn.”
Marigold, of course, would argue with that title (which is also the title of the first book collection), pointing out that she is her own unicorn, and Phoebe’s best friend rather than her property. She’s entirely on board, though, with the title of the second: Unicorn on a Roll.
The strip must, at last, have transcended, because it launched in over a hundred newspapers. The first two book collections have done well, and a third and fourth will be published in 2016. Every year I’ve spent in the company of Marigold Heavenly Nostrils has had more magic in it than the last.
Unicorns are around. The one I found was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Auburn, WA author Dana Simpson won a 2016 PNBA Award for her collection of comics, Unicorn on a Roll. She shares this essay with us in celebration of the award. Look for essays from the other winners on this site with the tag “2016 PNBA Awards.”
Dana Simpson’s PNBA Award plaque will be presented at Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday, February 11 at 6:30. Join fans of all ages and the Underground Book Club (the store’s YA Book Group for grades 6-12) on the mezzanine! Open to the public.