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Welcome ‘Phoebe and Her Unicorn’ to The Star’s comics lineup

“Phoebe and Her Unicorn” debuts in The KC Star Monday.
“Phoebe and Her Unicorn” debuts in The KC Star Monday.

A boy and his dog. A girl and her … immortal and narcissistic unicorn?

For Seattle cartoonist Dana Simpson that’s the recipe for success with “Phoebe and Her Unicorn,” a new seven-day comic strip starting today in The Kansas City Star. It replaces “Stone Soup,” whose creator, Jan Eliot, announced her retirement from drawing daily strips.

“Phoebe” follows the exploits of an intelligent but awkward 9-year-old girl who meets a unicorn in the woods. Marigold (full name Marigold Heavenly Nostrils) is certain she is the loveliest and most superior creature in the world and is not shy about saying so. Freed from gazing at her own reflection in a pond when Phoebe hits her in the face with a skipped rock, Marigold grants her one wish. Phoebe wishes for the unicorn to be her best friend.

The pair become inseparable, talking about everything and nothing with wit, insight and sarcasm.

“It’s based on me as a kid,” Simpson said in an interview from her home. “Phoebe is sort of a reimagining of my childhood where I get to ride on a unicorn. But since Marigold is me, too, it’s sort of like having a conversation with myself.”

Other characters include Dakota, the most popular girl at school and Phoebe’s biggest enemy; Max, Phoebe’s video-game loving best friend; and Phoebe’s laid-back parents, Ethan and Emily, who are unfazed by their daughter’s new friend.

The strip already has drawn comparisons to one of the most beloved comics of all time.

 ‘Phoebe and Her Unicorn’ is nothing less than the best comic strip to come along since ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ ” said Peter S. Beagle, author of the 1991 fantasy “The Last Unicorn.” Beagle has toured with Simpson and helped promote her work. “Simpson is that good, and that original.”

Others, however, wonder if Simpson’s strip borrows too heavily from Bill Watterson’s iconic comic.

Simpson’s take?

“I play the saxophone,” she said. “And I remember a music teacher telling me you should never be embarrassed if somebody tells you that you sound too much like John Coltrane because they’re telling you that you sound like the best. That’s how I feel about the Watterson comparison. If you want to call my strip ‘Girl Calvin and Hobbes,’ please. I invite that comparison.”

Just remember the girl part. That’s important. When it comes to gender equality, Simpson agrees with Lauren Faust, best known for creating the animated TV series “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.”

“She did an interview where she said in so much of children’s entertainment there will be one girl, and her main personality trait is that … she is a girl. There’s not one girl who represents all female humanity. So it was important to me (to have) two female voices in the strip. And it’s important to me (to have) two distinctly female voices talking to each other.”

Shena Wolf, acquisitions editor for Andrews McMeel Universal’s Universal UClick syndicate, said the strip has something for everybody.

“It’s very funny, but it’s also very sweet,” she said. “And the art is beautiful.”

Simpson got her start in the ’90s drawing a Web comic named Ozy and Millie while attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She submitted the comic countless times for syndication, but never got a deal. After 10 years, in late 2008, she stopped drawing the strip and gave up on her dream.

But the next year, after drawing a new strip that became “Phoebe and Her Unicorn,” she won the Comic Superstar award, a national talent search by Universal and Amazon.com. The prize: a book contract and development deal for newspaper and online syndication.

That strip debuted on Universal Uclick’s GoComics.com website in 2012. Simpson also has written three books. Her first, “Phoebe and Her Unicorn,” won a Washington State book award this month. Her latest, “Unicorn vs. Goblins,” hits bookstores in February. Today her strip is syndicated in 110 newspapers.

Fans often tell Simpson how much they enjoy her protagonist. The problem: some call her “FOE-bee”

You can practically hear her roll her eyes.

“Has it been that long since ‘Friends’ went off the air?” she said.

But her Phoebe is not named for Phoebe Buffay from the hit TV show. Simpson named her character after Holden Caulfield’s sister in J.D. Salinger’s classic “The Catcher in the Rye.”

 ‘Catcher in the Rye’ was always one of my favorite books,” she said. “I remember identifying with Holden Caulfield’s disdain for the phoniness of the adult world, and his appreciation of the honesty of children. It’s pretty much how I still feel a lot of the time. Phoebe Caulfield is the main child in the book, and sort of stands in for children generally. So, in a way, the same impulse that made me want to write a strip with a child protagonist lead me to to give her that particular name.”

Simpson, 38, grew up in the Tacoma suburb of Gig Harbor, Wash., reading “Peanuts” and “Calvin and Hobbes,” and playing in the woods. The daughter of a dentist and a high school foreign language teacher, she was bright and creative, and sometimes didn’t fit in.

 The Simpsons’ show came out when I was in middle school,” she said. “I played the saxophone and immediately everybody stated calling me Lisa. Lisa Simpson was one of my heroes. I count (her) as one of the inspirations of Phoebe.”

As far as the other characters go?

“Dakota is sort of a composite of girls who were not very nice to me,” she said. “But at least one of them was a friend in high school, so I like to think Dakota is not just Phoebe’s enemy. The term ‘frenemy’ definitely applies. Maybe in five to 10 years (they) will re-evaluate their relationship.”

Max is based on her husband, David Brodbeck.

“He was a nerdy kid (who) went on to get an electrical engineering degree,” she said. “Now he’s a systems administrator at the University of Washington.”

People ask Simpson if Max and Phoebe will become boyfriend and girlfriend?

“I’m like, ‘They’re 9 years old. That’s not on their radar.’”

But it is important that Phoebe’s closest (human) friend is a boy.

“Phoebe and Max are an example of the kind of people coming together regardless of gender differences that I would like to see more of,” she said. “In that sense I think I’m saying something about relationships. It doesn’t matter so much what you are, as who you are.”

Even if you’re a unicorn.

James A. Fussell: 816-234-4460, @jamesafussell

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