The first collection starring Phoebe and her unicorn friend Marigold Heavenly Nostrils was the strongest new syndicated strip I'd read in years; with Unicorn on a Roll, Dana Simpson demonstrates that she's got plenty more where that came from.
It alarms me to think that I almost skipped this series. The publisher sent me the first book and I stuck it in my daughter's room, thinking we'd try it at bedtime. But it got shelved, and then every time I looked at the spine, I thought, "gah, not more dainty-girly stuff" and pass it over.
But my daughter rescued it (and me) because she's smarter than her old man. By the time I noticed that she was reading it to herself, she was basically finished with it, but wanted me to re-read it to her at bedtime. Dubiously, I picked it up and started reading, and in seconds, I knew she'd found a winner.
Phoebe isn't just a female successor to Calvin — I think I like her better than Calvin. Like Calvin, she's precocious and funny and has this amazing imaginative internal life. But unlike Calvin, she's not a jerk to kids of the opposite sex, and she's introspective in a way that's healthy without being mopey (and is the source of a lot of sweet humor that adults and kids can both enjoy).
Book two starts a year after Phoebe meets Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, freeing her from paralysis brought on by being unable to look away from the beauty of her own reflection (unicorns, right?). In that time, Phoebe's parents and frenemies have come to grips with her new invisible (usually) friend, who can project a field of uninterestingness that allows her to mix with humans with impunity.
Phoebe is growing as a character (another satisfying departure from the usual kids' comic formula), as is evidenced by the first major plot-arc of the book: her decision to free Marigold Heavenly Nostrils from her duty to be Phoebe's best friend (naturally, Marigold rewards her by sticking around of her own free will). The amazing thing is that this piece of relatively moral philosophy manages to pull off a bunch of extremely funny gags in several modes — some aimed square at the grownups, some at the kids, and plenty that both can enjoy.
The book is a perfect mix of ongoing stories — largely about Phoebe's relationship with her rival/pal Dakota, and Max, the boy she's friends with and who acts as a kind of foil for her strongest characteristics — and one-off gags about things like nose-picking, rainbows, generation-gaps with parents, and how awesomely cool a unicorn looks on roller-skates (hence the title).
The ongoing stories — Marigold falls in love with a unicorn so humble he won't let anyone see him lest he be admired; Phoebe competes with Dakota for a part in the fourth grade play; the other unicorns summon Marigold for an intervention to get her to unfriend Phoebe — cover some heavy ground, but always with a sprightly touch, and never without great comedy.
In case there's any doubt: I plainly love this strip, and I love the books. The short intros (the first by Peter "Last Unicorn" Beagle; this one by My Little Pony rebooter/creator Lauren Faust) make it clear that there are plenty of others who can't get enough of Phoebe and Marigold. And the aftermatter — glittery unicorn poo cookies recipes and tutorials for drawing Phoebe and Marigold — are great, too.
Unicorn on a Roll [Dana Simpson/Amp]