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Interview: Dana Simpson, Creator of ‘Phoebe and Her Unicorn’

Phoebe 1 cropped

I interviewed Dana Simpson, the creator of the Phoebe and Her Unicorn graphic novels, when I was writing the article “Just Another Day in an LGBTQ Comic” for SLJ. As often happens, it was a great interview and I could only use a few sentences in the story, so I’m running it in full today. Simpson is transgender, and in addition to her successful Phoebe series, she is working on a graphic memoir of her transition, Only You’re Different, for middle-grade readers. AMP, which also publishes Phoebe, is expected to release it in 2018.

Dana Simpson

What were your favorite comics when you were a kid?

The first one I really liked was Peanuts by Charles Schulz. My mom had this treasury of Peanuts cartoons from the 50s and 60s, that she’d had since she was a kid, and I remember devouring it I was fascinated by the fact that it was this whole world, this big and varied cast of characters, and all of it had come out of one guy’s imagination. I also got into Berkely Breathed’s Bloom County. I didn’t understand a lot of it, because I was like nine and it was really tied into current events, but I liked that about it. I’d be like “mom, who’s Jesse Jackson?” And she’d tell me and I’d get to learn something.

Phoebe 1And I’d be remiss in not mentioning Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, because that strip was a revelation to me, as it was to so many other people—I doubt there’s a cartoonist under 50 who wasn’t hugely influenced by it. When I set out to create Phoebe and Her Unicorn, I was consciously trying to explore some of the same territory. What’s the female equivalent of a boy and a tiger, if it’s not a girl and a unicorn? You could think of my strip as partly a feminist response to a great, but very boy-identifying, strip from my youth.

How does Phoebe resemble you? What experiences were you drawing from when you created her, and how has she changed over the years?

Do you know what a “retcon” is? It’s a nerd word, meaning “retroactive continuity.” Where you change something and declare that it was always thus. As in “Klingons have now always had those things on their faces.”

Phoebe is a sort of retcon of my childhood, where I get to be a girl (and ride around on a unicorn, because when you’re daydreaming…) She has my freckles, my natural hair color, kind of my fashion sense.

Phoebe 3And a lot of the storylines are inspired by things from my own younger life. Phoebe will get emotionally invested in a spelling be, or obsessively want a certain part in a school play, or worry whether a cool older kid likes her; that’s all drawn from the well of my own childhood.

It’s worth noting that Marigold is a self-portrait, too. Marigold is the voice in my brain that tells me how awesome I am, without the other voices that immediately go “yeah, but here’s all your flaws.” A lot of the strip is my inner child having a conversation with my unfiltered inner unicorn.

I don’t know if Phoebe has really changed THAT much in the time that I’ve been drawing her. We’ve gotten to know more about her, but I think on a basic level Phoebe is still basically Phoebe. The interesting contrast is with Millie, of Ozy and Millie, which was the web comic I drew for 10 years prior to doing Phoebe. Millie was a self-portrait in her way too, but a much angrier, more unsettled one. Millie was a kid at war with the world. In some ways she was a lot like Phoebe, because she was also me, but she was a younger, angrier me, trying to find her place in a world that seemed confusing and stupid and terrifying.

For most of the run of that strip, I either had not yet transitioned, or was transitioning, so that was how the world looked to me. Phoebe came along post-transition, and she’s better adjusted to the world because I am.

Ozy and Millie

Ozy and Millie

Do you think it is important for children and teens to see diverse characters, including LGBT characters, in the things they read for fun? Would it have been meaningful to you when you were a child?

Oh, most definitely. If you never see characters like yourself, or if you only see characters like yourself as bit players in some “normal” character’s story, that sends a powerful message. I grew up at a time when nobody in my world even knew the word “transgender.” If trans people were referenced in pop culture at all, it was as a punchline, or as something scary and beyond the pale, kind of in the same category as serial killers.

That made it pretty much impossible for me to acknowledge my own situation, let alone resolve it. From a very young age, I felt that I ought to have been a girl, that I would be much more comfortable as a girl and make much more sense as a girl, like some kind of cosmic joke had been played on me, but absolutely nothing in my environment even remotely suggested it to me as an actual real-world possibility. So I assumed I’d just never be able to tell anyone. I thought they’d laugh at me or think I was crazy in a really disgusting way.

If I had encountered characters in fiction who were anything like me in that way, I might have gotten to be happy a whole lot sooner than I did.

Phoebe 4How does your experience as a transgender woman come through in your work, and how has that evolved over the years?

My work is self-portraiture. It’s almost a kind of therapy. So even before I was out to anyone (including, in a sense, myself), creating a character like Millie, and having her deal with the kind of emotional issues I was dealing with myself, helped me work through some of it in a way that nothing else did.

It’s a bit different with Phoebe because, since I live my life as myself now, I’m not as dependent on self-portraiture to work through stuff. In a way, Phoebe is me going back and filling in a gap in my life—I never got to properly be a little girl before, so that energy had to go somewhere, and Phoebe is that somewhere. This long after transitioning, though, I almost think Phoebe is less an expression of me as a trans woman, and more just an expression of me as a woman, full stop.

Phoebe is a girl because I’m a girl. And she’s a kid because I kind of refuse to grow up any more than I absolutely have to.

That’s the point of transitioning, after all, isn’t it? To get the issue off the table and move on? That’s always what I wanted from transition. To just be myself and get on with my work and my life. In that way, Phoebe represents something of a personal victory.

Phoebe 2Would you like to see more transgender characters in children’s and teens’ graphic novels? If so, what roles do you want to see them in? Are there characters or stories you would not want to see?

I would love to see that. And I’d love to see them just being there like anyone else, rather than “this character is trans” being such a big deal that it dwarfs all other stories. (But I’d like to see stories specifically about that, too. I’d like to see every possible approach to it. Dramatic and comic, focused and incidental.)

I’d like to live in a society where the message we send to children about all different kinds of people is that it’s all fine. That no matter who they are, their story is interesting.

I’d like to live in a world where any character could be trans, in the same way that any character could be left-handed. We’re pretty far from there. But a girl can dream.

Correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I don’t recall any queer or trans characters in Phoebe and Her Unicorn. Why is that?

Heh. I’m honestly surprised people don’t ask me that more.

I have a few responses to that. Feel free to interpret the fact that I don’t have one single answer as “I’m not entirely sure”.

  1. Any of them could be, couldn’t they? You wouldn’t necessarily know. Maybe one of Phoebe’s friends is trans, or queer. Probably not Phoebe since it’s never come up, but even at that, how sure can we be?
  2. One of the kids in the strip actually does have same-sex parents; it’s never come up in the strip so far because I was waiting for it to come up organically, and in writing a forthcoming graphic novel (Phoebe and Her Unicorn In: The Magic Storm) it finally did, and so that’ll be something for people to notice.
  3. I’ve never actually been an out transgender kid, having transitioned in my 20s, and I think the trans kid experience is probably very different if you’re 10 in 2017 than if you were in 1987. Weirdly, writing about trans kids now would require significant research.
  4. Maybe this is me being a bit of a coward, or a bit of a hypocrite, but…that’s just not what I feel like talking about all the time. I’m writing a non-Phoebe graphic novel about my own transition, and I’ll have lots to say about it then, but for me the whole point of transitioning was so I wouldn’t have to think about it constantly. I like that the issue doesn’t come up in most interviews until or unless I decide to bring it up myself. (This interview, obviously, is a bit different, and that’s great, but I don’t want every interview to put me in the position of being Dana Simpson, Trans Spokeswoman. A lot of the time I just want to talk about unicorns.)

I have read on your blog and in interviews that you are working on an autobiographical graphic novel about being transgender. Is that still in the works? When can we expect to see it?

It’s called Only You’re Different. It’s tentatively scheduled for a 2018 publication date. I really hope people get something out of it; it’s a book I’ve been talking about writing since even before I had finished transitioning.

Phoebe 5On your blog, you said your publisher suggested you target middle grade readers. Why that age group, and how specifically would you tailor the book for them?

I never really know with this stuff. I wasn’t entirely aware what age group Phoebe was for, until they told me “we’re going to put this out as part of our kids’ comics series.” And I was like “sure, kids are great, go ahead and do that.” I’m writing for me. Apparently middle-grade is just my particular sensibility.

Likewise, the graphic novel is for middle grade readers because when I showed them samples, they were like “okay, let’s target this at middle grade readers.” I’ll write it the way I write it, and then I guess we’ll sit down and talk about what’s appropriate for them and what maybe ought to be changed. It’s a fine line. What’s a “middle grade reader” description of the experience of, ahem, reassignment surgery? Maybe there isn’t one. There’s a lot we still have to work out before this book can exist.

When you make visits to schools and libraries, are the kids aware that you are transgender? If so, what is their reaction (if any)? How about the adults?

Sometimes, and sometimes not, and a lot of the time I’m really not sure. I honestly enjoy not having to talk about that every time. But I’ve done school appearances where I did talk about it, and so far it’s never been a big deal. The kids nod like I’ve just told them my shoe size, and that makes me happy and gives me a lot of hope.

Sometimes I’m invited to speak to groups of LGBTQ kids, and that’s pretty gratifying, and it’s a different experience than talking to kids in the general population. With the latter group, if I mention it, my message is “I’m trans, and trans people are everywhere and we’re normal and it’s fine.” With the LGBTQ kids it’s “I’m trans and it’s fine, I’m reasonably happy and successful, and you can be too.” That’s what I would desperately want to hear if I were them.

Aside from being transgender, do you think there is something universal in your comics that speaks to the longings of children?

I certainly hope so. Enough kids seem to connect to my work that I think I’m succeeding in that area. And I try not to be too analytical about exactly why. It’s just something I can do.

My being trans both does and doesn’t have a lot to do with my work. It’s one of the things that’s shaped me, obviously, and because of that it’s enormously relevant if you’re talking about what the strip means to me personally. What it means to a reader is another thing entirely. I like to think any kid, trans or non-trans, might see a bit of themselves in Phoebe and her friends. And maybe when they hear the author is trans, they’ll remember that and realize that trans people are pretty much the same as everyone else.

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

Comments

  1. Very good interview. Good to hear that the Calvin & Hobbes influence is deliberate, I’d wondered but I haven’t really dissected how she gets some of the same feeling or tone of C&H but still keeps Phoebe & Her Unicorn it’s own thing.

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