Artist Dana Simpson gets magic touch for her new comic strip from a unicorn

Early inspiration for Dana Simpson, creator of the syndicated comic strip “Phoebe and Her Unicorn,” could have not come from two more diverse sources.

“When I was young I was really interested in drawing and so I would draw my friends or my teachers. Then I got into drawing the characters from ‘The Simpsons.’ Later on I discovered ‘Pogo,’ ” Simpsons says.

She blended the simplistic art style that Matt Groening used to create his yellow-hued family from Springfield with the subtle examination of social topics presented through wordplay and puns that made Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” a comic strip classic.

Those inspirations can be seen starting Monday, March 30, when Simpson’s “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” joins The Fresno Bee’s comics page. The comic strip about a 9-year-old girl who is slightly weird and her best friend, a unicorn named Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, is debuting in nearly 100 newspapers nationwide.

To make room for “Phoebe,” “Get Fuzzy” will no longer be in The Bee daily comics section but will continue to appear in the Sunday comics. The change is being made because the “Get Fuzzy” strips that have been running in the daily paper have been reruns. (Sunday “Get Fuzzy” strips are new.)

The doodling Simpson did in high school (more dragons than unicorns) developed to the point where the Washington State University graduate became a finalist for the 1998 Charles M. Schulz College Cartoonist Award. In 1999, her online comic strip, “Ozy and Milly,” earned her the College Media Advisers award for Best Strip Cartoon.

Simpson ended “Ozy and Milly” a decade later after it had been rejected by numerous syndicators. Simpson decided it was time for a change and was ready to shift from comic strips to illustrating children’s books. Just before making the career change, Simpson entered the “Comic Strip Superstar” contest with a new strip called “Girl.”

“The girl was Phoebe, but I just hadn’t named her yet,” Simpson says.

She beat out thousands of other artists to win the competition that included a publishing contract with Andrews McMeel Universal. Because she had only a small selection of “Girl” strips ready, the launch was delayed while she worked on the project.

Simpson knew something was missing.

She did a “Girl” strip that was to have a one-time appearance by a unicorn. But, as soon as she was done, Simpson knew the unicorn was a character that needed to stick around and was the missing piece to making the strip work.

“Phoebe and Marigold are both different sides of my personality,” Simpson says. “I think that’s one reason I was more interested in comic strips than comic books. With the strip, I do everything. Comic books are more of a group effort.

“I guess I’m a little bit of a control freak.”

She’s connected so closely to “Phoebe” that even the unicorn’s name came from the artist putting her own name in an online site that will generate your unicorn name.

Phoebe’s dad, Ethan, is based on a good friend. Simpson wants the parents in the strip to come across differently than other moms and dads in comic strips.

“Comic strip parents seemed like they stepped out of the ’50s. I don’t have kids. But I try to think what it would be like if people like me, the band geeks, had kids,” Simpson says. “I don’t want the parents to be like those in ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ where they fight all the time.

“Phoebe’s parents are more like allies. She gets along with her parents. Her mom is a friend.”

That’s the case since “Phoebe” was released as a book last year and continues through her strip that also appears online. One of the big differences Simpson found between doing an online strip and one for newspapers is the length of story lines.

She had one online story line about a school play that ran for seven weeks. The printed versions are much shorter to allow readers to pick up the story quicker. It’s also easier on the series creator as she was really tired of the school play story when she finally wrapped it up.

The launch of the comic strip series brings Simpson back to newspapers — her first job out of college was as a reporter for a small newspaper in Washington. She says she soon realized that trying to juggle a reporting job with doing a comic strip was impossible.