The “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” artist turned internet fame into a publishing career

It all started about five years ago when 9-year-old Phoebe skipped a rock across a pond and hit a unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils.

“You're a unicorn, right?” The stunned little girl asked the magnificent white creature.

“Mm-hmm. And you, clearly, are a genius,” Marigold replied.

“I know, right? Four skips!”

From there, the two forged a friendship chronicled in “Phoebe and Her Unicorn,” a comic strip syndicated in over 200 newspapers worldwide and collected in five books.

“In the beginning, a lot of the relationship between Phoebe and Marigold was about them getting to know each other,” said California-based cartoonist Dana Simpson, who will visit Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC) Thursday, Sept. 28 through Sunday, Oct. 1. “Now, they've been best friends for years and they have a rapport.”

Simpson has gradually added new characters, including Phoebe's friend Max, enemy-turned-friend Dakota and a goblin queen. Readers can expect a robust cast for the newest and most expansive “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” project: a graphic novel, “The Magic Storm,” due Oct. 17.

“In the graphic novel format, there's a lot more that you're deciding … like layouts and flow, and it was hard but it was fun,” Simpson said. “I was glad for the opportunity to do something really different with the character. I've got longer stories that I've never been able to put into the strip.”

Simpson's audience comprises children, and mostly little girls, whom she hopes to inspire.

“I consider my work subversively feminist,” she said. “I have a rule that … a character should be female unless there's some reason for them to be male. I think it works exactly the opposite way in most of writing — that the default character is male. … I hope that means something for little girls reading it — that any character role could be a girl.”

Simpson also said she transforms traditionally negative, female-associated tropes — like Marigold's vanity — into positive characteristics.

“I don't think it's wrong that Marigold thinks she's great,” Simpson said. “And Phoebe wants to be liked by people, but she never changes who she is in the service of being liked by people. … She's friends with a unicorn [so] she must be awesome. I would like to see some little girls pick up on some of that self-confidence.”

Simpson has lived her own life with aplomb; she toiled for over a decade producing the online comic “Ozy and Millie,” hoping to make the transition into print despite the dwindling number of newspapers and stiff competition.

“People had been telling me for years that it's a dying art form,” Simpson said. “But I was determined, and luck favors the prepared.”

Simpson's experience served her well in Amazon's Comic Strip Superstar Contest, which she won in 2009. She was given a development deal and publishing contract for what would become “Phoebe and Her Unicorn.” And, ironically, she built an online following for the comic a few years before her team approached newspaper editors.

“They were like, ‘Hey, here's a new strip, and here's some data on how popular it is on our website,'” said Simpson, who predicts more syndication deals will happen that way going forward. “As a result, we got a 110-newspaper launch, which is gigantic.”

Talking about her career at conferences — as she will do in a focused interview at CXC — is an activity to which Simpson has become accustomed. Her personal life is another matter; she is open about being a trans woman, but has been taking tentative steps in addressing it in public and in her art.

“I got kind of a hard time on the internet for a while because [in the past] I think even progressives didn't all know you were supposed to be nice to trans people,” she said. “I sometimes bring it up in public appearances [now].”

“I've got an autobiography/graphic novel that I've been working on for a couple years about being a pre-transition kid and about transitioning,” she continued, and said the book is due in 2019. “It's something I've come to enjoy writing about and talking about.”