by Dana Simpson
Sometimes a unicorn turns up and changes your life. It happened to me.
Some background: I wrote and drew a web comic called “Ozy and Millie” for ten years. I never meant it to be a web comic. I had visions of newspaper syndication in my head. I still have a stack of rejection letters from that time, in a drawer.
I had nearly given up on that dream after a decade, though. I ended the strip and began assembling my portfolio to maybe pursue some other ways of making money from my art. It turned out that my 20-year-old self, who thought getting syndicated might happen quickly, was being a touch unrealistic. And then a friend told me that Universal Uclick was holding a talent search competition, one of the prizes of which was a development contract for a potential syndicated strip. And I thought “I’m as qualified to win this contest as anybody on the planet.”
So I scraped together a 14-strip sample of a proposed new strip. I settled quickly on a protagonist: a dark-haired, freckle-faced little girl, who may bear at least a passing resemblance to a young me. I didn’t give her a name; I just called her “Girl.” Which was also the title of the strip. The concept was, she spent all her time hanging out in the forest with various talking animal friends, all of whom were called “Bird” or “Rabbit” or “Dragon.” They didn’t go by actual names, so neither did she. I still think that’s funny.
I recycled some Ozy and Millie scripts, to get to 14 strips. It wasn’t a fully formed strip concept. It was a seed.
And I won the contest, so I had to make the seed grow into something.
I had to send in 30 strip roughs per month. So I started doing it. And the notes I got back, at first, were…less than encouraging.
Among other criticisms, I kept hearing some version of “I don’t know who your main character is.” Which was fair. I didn’t know who she was either. Like all my characters, “Girl” was basically me, and I wasn’t even sure who I was at the time.
And when you do that, you have to reinvent yourself. Who are you on the other side of that divide? It’s a particularly salient question for a writer. And it was one I discovered I had no answer for yet. I quite simply didn’t know what I wanted to say, anymore. Or how, or about what.
And so I flailed my way through a year of development, trying various ideas. My protagonist acquired the name “Phoebe,” after I was advised that a strip called “Girl” would be impossible to google.
But I was told that the work I was doing was not good enough to syndicate. And I had to concede that was right. I got scared I was going to blow the opportunity I’d been trying to get for so very long. And then one day, a unicorn showed up.
I didn’t want her to leave, either. I saw immediately that the unicorn was exactly what the strip was missing. So I wrote her into some more strips. I named her Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, a name I got by typing my own name into an online unicorn name generator. I knew quickly all the things she was. Vain, cheerfully arrogant, sometimes wise in a hoof-gazing sort of way. And when I made her Phoebe’s best friend, I understood who Phoebe was, too. Their relationship clicked, the strip launched, and now it’s in a lot of newspapers, and the two book collections have been successful. And that’s how I made “Phoebe and Her Unicorn.”
But Marigold didn’t just show me who Phoebe was. Marigold and Phoebe together helped me find who I was, as a writer and as a woman.
I’m the lady who makes the unicorns. And I have the best job in the entire world.