Normally, Gwen’s parents would hire a babysitter to take care of Hazel when they wanted to go out. But things had come up suddenly, and they knew that Gwen would be home at her apartment that evening. Besides, Eleanor and Dania had always expressed a fondness for Gwen’s younger sister –– “more than Gwen, sometimes,” her mother had joked.
It was for this reason that Hazel found herself standing in the living room of Gwen’s apartment, wrapped up in her thermal coat and scarf, with a backpack full of activities.
“Hey Hazel!” Dania said, jumping up from the couch. “How have you been!”
“Doin’ good,” Hazel said. She shuffled into the room, with Gwen close behind her.
“My parents will be back around eleven, so we’ve got about six hours to spend with her,” Gwen said.
Eleanor and Dania both smiled. “That’s perfect,” Eleanor said. “Do you want to play a game, or draw?”
“I have some things,” Hazel said, jumping up onto the couch and fumbling with the zipper on her backpack.
“Careful of your shoes on the couch, Hazel,” Gwen warned. Immediately the sneakers swung down to the floor.
“What’s in your bag, Hazel?” Dania asked.
“Some fun stuff.” Hazel pulled from her backpack a small bag of snacks –– pretzels and apple slices, plus a handful of Oreos –– as well as a couple of coloring books. Dania’s eyes immediately lit up.
“Oh, yes!” She immediately opened one, looking for a suitable image to color in. “Do you want to do some coloring books?”
Hazel seemed to shrug.
“Yeah, she’s not super into coloring books,” Gwen said. “She likes them, sure. But to be honest, when we were packing that bag, I mentioned that you like them, Dania, and that’s why they’re there.”
“Ugh, you know me so well,” Dania said warmly. “You have crayons? Wait, I have crayons.”
Dania stood up to fetch them from her room. Meanwhile, Hazel had removed a pair of books from her bag. Both featured a cover drawing of a young girl sitting atop a unicorn.
“What are these?” Eleanor said. She attempted to take one, but Hazel held on tightly.
“Phoebe And Her Unicorn,” Hazel replied. She held one of them up –– a grey-blue cover with the title “The Magic Storm” in the center, and a silvery spark shooting from the unicorn’s horn. Opening the book, Hazel pointed to the graphic illustrations inside. In the scene she turned to, Phoebe was wearing a strawberry hat, while the unicorn had a mane like a sunflower.
“That’s Phoebe,” Hazel said, pointing to the girl. “And that’s Marigold,” she added, indicating the unicorn.
“Wow, very cool.” Dania said. “Gwen, you know these two?”
“Yes,” Gwen stated, with subtle exhaustion. “Those are very popular books in our house.”
Eleanor opened the other book –– Unicorn On A Roll was the title –– and flipped through pages of four-panel adventures between Marigold and Phoebe. Only a few other characters appeared: Phoebe’s parents, her best friend Max, school bully Dakota and her legion of trolls. Normal stuff.
“It’s a graphic novel?” Eleanor asked.
“It started out as a webcomic,” Gwen explained. “Syndicated and official, but online-only. It’s only been in newspapers for a few years. We don’t get it here. But the books are collections.”
“She, um…” Hazel began to say. “She skips a rock across the, over the pond, and then…”
Dania and Eleanor waited, breath held for Hazel’s adorable explanation.
“…she skips it and it hit a unicorn!” Hazel added. “So she said –– the unicorn says, ‘you can make a wish,’ and she wishes to be best friends!”
“That’s super adorable!” Dania said. “Which of these is your favorite one?”
Hazel took the first book from Dania, and turned over pages in a search for the ending. “This one, with the storm,” Hazel said. “There’s a storm, and the power goes out, and then there’s this dragon that eats lightning, and then they go to find her, and then…”
“This sounds amazing,” Dania said. “Legitimately.”
“Yeah, how come all the books for adults are about infidelity and deceit?” Eleanor said. “I want more books about lightning-consuming dragons!”
Hazel grinned wide. “And then at the end…”
“No, Hazel…” Gwen stepped back, putting a hand on her sister’s shoulder. “You can’t spoil the ending for them. Why don’t you read it to them?”
– – – – –
Snuggled into the crook of the couch, Eleanor and Dania listened as Hazel read the comic aloud –– with some small asides to explain what was happening. Gwen, for her part, knew the story extremely well: Phoebe and Marigold’s search for the true cause of a power outage during an ice storm, after Marigold senses a magical frequency affecting the town. It was a familiar setup, with the young rascally child and the mature animal sidekick. Although, certain aspects of the book gave it more freedom.
Marigold, for example, could create a “Shield Of Boringness,” allowing her to interact with the other humans in the town without them sensing anything strange about talking with a unicorn. The insistence on Marigold’s place in the reality of the town also skirted the issue that always nipped at Calvin and Hobbes: the inability of Hobbes to interact with anyone else, and the logical loops of how Calvin managed to get into certain situations with only the aid of a “stuffed” tiger.
“I have trouble keeping track of details that are not about me,” Hazel read –– a line from Marigold, discussing the prophesy.
“Ugh, same,” Dania chuckled.
Hazel read one of Dakota’s lines: “So…what do we do?” Looking down the page, Hazel began laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Eleanor asked.
Hazel attempted to read the next line, but continued laughing hysterically. She leaned into Dania, who took the book from her hands.
“Do you want us to read the next part?” Dania asked. Hazel didn’t reply.
“I think we should,” Eleanor agreed. They both looked at the dialogue, for Dakota’s band of goblin attendants.
“BLART,” Dania read. Hazel laughed even louder.
Eleanor attempted to be more conversational: “Blart!”
“BLART,” Dania repeated. “BLART BLART BLART.”
“Blart blart, blart blart!” Eleanor leaned into the goblin’s monosyllabic language. “Blart!”
Hazel was howling with laughter. She fell off the couch and sprawled out on the floor, laughing at her sister’s friends and their commitment to the trolls.
“BLART BLART BLART,” Dania said. She flipped through the next few pages. “How long do they ‘blart’ for?”
“It’s all they say,” Gwen said. “Like ‘Hodor.’ She’s a big fan.”
“It’s such a cute book!” Eleanor said. “I love Marigold, she’s so practical. The whole adventure has a great sense of humor and honesty about it.”
“Everyone is so nice,” Dania added. “Like, even the bully Dakota. I love Phoebe’s parents and how much fun they’re having. Where’s the one section…right here, here.”
The panel, from earlier in the novel, showed the mother suggesting a candlelit evening of board games, during the Internet-free blackout, to which the father replied: “Being married to you is the BEST.”
“It’s so rare to see a depiction of marriage where you actually get that ‘married to my best friend’ dynamic,” Eleanor agreed. “But Simpson nails it here.”
“There’s more of that in the comic,” Gwen said. “There’s more of everything. Because the characters have to sustain not just graphic novel narratives, but also long-form multi-week stories in the daily comics, Simpson loads them up with relatable and enjoyable characteristics.”
“I like, um…” Hazel, freed from the giggles, sat up and joined the conversation. “…um, I like the part when, where they try on the costumes.”
“I like that, too!” Dania said.
“I do have a question or two about the crowd response in the scene where the Shield of Boringness doesn’t work,” Eleanor wondered. “It feels like everyone seeing a unicorn would probably alert someone else about it.”
“Eh, fantasy world rules,” Dania waved away. “She can stay secret.”
“You gotta finish the story!” Hazel cried out. She scampered back to the couch, cracking open the book exactly where she left off.
As they read through the climax, Eleanor was genuinely surprised by the heft of the story’s final beats. After embracing the fantastical up to then, the story took a turn into the realm of real-life-issues, deeper than the generic “sometimes we get sad” variety.
“This is intensely relatable,” Eleanor said, after a particularly moving passage spoken by the Dragon.
Dania nodded. “It’s good that they’re teaching kids about it at a young age. Normalize talking about it.”
“And the whole book has been so gentile up to this point!” Eleanor continued. “How dare they go for the heart now…”
“I think Phoebe And Her Unicorn could be sorted into the nascent ‘nicecore’ media genre,” Gwen suggested. “Shows like Queer Eye and Great British Bake-Off, musicals like Head Over Heels and Mamma Mia 2, that documentary about Mr. Rogers…”
Dania put a hand over her heart.
“…it’s a time when we need to remember that there are nice things out there, too,” Gwen said. “People with heart that care.”
“It’s, like, really well drawn, too,” Dania said. She looked at Marigold –– the swan-shaped body topped with a Turnbladian swoosh in the mane. “Real simple but definable.”
“Marigold is so pretty!” Hazel added, grinning.
“Although I think some illustrations are copied,” Eleanor said. Observing closely the bottom two panels of 122, it became clear that the same illustration had been repeated, with the facial expressions changed. “Yeah, definitely. Not a deal-breaker, though.”
“Who’s the author?” Dania asked, turning the book over. “Dana Simpson?”
“Yes,” Gwen said. “She has a couple other projects, but Phoebe is the main one she’s known for.”
“Amazing, I’ll have to check out her other stuff.”
“There’s one of the comics…there’s another, in the other books…I wanna show you…” Hazel said. Picking up Unicorn On A Roll, she flipped through to find her favorite joke.
As Eleanor and Dania laughed along with Hazel, Gwen reflected on the scene. Two generations, laughing together at a vibrantly positive newspaper comic drawn by a transgender artist. With a contentious Tuesday coming up, Gwen couldn’t help but think: this is the world I want.
Image Source: Basket Case