When a comic is compared to Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, it has a lot to live up to. I mean, seriously, how often do you see that type of comparison thrown around? But when the strip is about a girl and her unicorn, and no less of an authority than Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, makes that comparison, you have to give it a try.
It’s a somewhat foggy morning out by the lake, and Phoebe is out skipping rocks, wishing she had a best friend. Also standing by the lake that morning is Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, who is entranced by her reflection, a common occurrence for her. One of Phoebe’s rocks hits Marigold in the forehead by her horn. Oh, right, Marigold is a unicorn and she offers Phoebe one wish. Phoebe’s wish? For Marigold to be her best friend. Bound by the laws of unicorn magic, and being a generally nice unicorn, Marigold grants the wish, and thus begins a journey of friendship and awesomeness.
I’m not sure how many people remember it now, but Dana Simpson had a long running webcomic titled Ozy and Millie, which ran from 1998 to 2008. Ozy and Millie is set in an anthropomorphic universe and features a young fox and wolf growing up and discussing contemporary life and having adventures. It was here that I first fell in love with Simpson’s storytelling, artwork, and sense of adventure, much of which carry over into Phoebe and her Unicorn.
The comparison with Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes is inevitable. While there are other characters in the comic, the bulk of the strips focus solely on Phoebe and Marigold. And Marigold, being a unicorn, isn’t always seen by other people. But this is not Simpson’s attempt at trying to be like Watterson, where all too many comics have tried and failed. It is Simpson letting us intimately explore the friendship between these two characters. Over the strips, we get to watch Phoebe and Marigold discover things about each other, life, and the modern world, as well as just having fun adventures with each other. I mean, in what other strip are you going to meet Todd the Candy Dragon? Nowhere, that’s where. While unicorns are typically viewed as the realm of young girls, Phoebe and Marigold have a sense of humor and adventure that will appeal to everyone. Particularly because of the dragons, goblins, pranks, and other things that show up from time to time.
The comparison with Peanuts is not as evident, but after reading the strip for some months, I have realized that there is a certain sense of gravitas to the strip. By this I mean that despite the main characters being kids (or at least young at heart), they act like real kids. Sure, Phoebe and Marigold have fun, but they branch out into areas that we don’t often see in the comics world. Like characters not having many friends, or being told that they’re weird, or different, and discovering that, despite all of this, it is okay to forge your own path into the world beyond. This was something that Schulz was a master of: reminding us that kids really do discuss deep events in life. While Simpson is not at Schulz’s level (let’s be honest, who is?), it is something that she explored heavily in Ozy and Millie and continues to explore here with Phoebe: that we can have a kids’ strip that shows aspects of the real world, while still being fun. While some parents might be leery of this, kids are sure to enjoy having a comic that doesn’t try to talk down to them and has aspects of themselves they can recognize in it.
Simpson’s art style is somewhat simple, capturing the outlines of the characters quickly. But this is all that we really need. The characters have their own unique designs and are easily recognizable. For example, Phoebe has thumbs, which she teases Marigold about for a while. Until Marigold points out that she has a tail, which can do a lot more. Simpson captures what we need to tell a good story easily, and her color choices complement the characters and backgrounds well, often being soft and natural to make us feel at ease. Something else that Simpson does well is never letting the background overwhelm the characters. Simpson only gives us the background when we need one and often has no background or simple cross hatching to make sure our focus is on the characters.
One last thing to mention is that this is part of AMP!’s Comics for Kids collection. The other comics in this series, Peanuts and Big Nate, already have a fair amount of traction in the book world, so it is a pleasant and happy surprise to see AMP! release this collection so that others can discover the joy of Phoebe and her Unicorn. While this series is marketed to kids, Phoebe has broad appeal to all ages.
Phoebe and her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle
by Dana Simpson
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12 years