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Interview: Steven Appleby and DRAGMAN

Dragman: Enough with the Secrets!

Steven Appleby is, among his many accomplishments, the creator of the comic strip, Small Birds Singing, and the BBC radio series Normal Life. One of Britain’s best loved cartoonists, his Loomus and other comic strips have appeared in newspapers and magazines internationally, and he has written and illustrated numerous books. His new book, Dragman, brings together themes dating back to Appleby’s early work in the ’80s in his comic strip, Rockets Passing Overhead, in New Musical Express.

From Steven Appleby’s comic strip, Loomus, in The Guardian

Indeed, Steven Appleby is a prominent cartoonist, illustrator and artist. Steven’s early career included creating cartoons for the legendary British humor magazine, Punch and a comic strip for the prestigious New Musical Express. This activity branched out in many directions, including many more comic strips, an animated series, a theater show, art shows, and many books, all the way to the new graphic novel, Dragman. Steven’s new book is about a superhero who can fly when he wears women’s clothes. As I point out in my review, this is a delightful tale about identity while also being a riveting thriller to boot. It is my pleasure to share with you this interview. A portion of the audio file is included at the end. During our conversation, we discuss process, a wonderful career, and the art of just being yourself.

Dragman by Steven Appleby

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Let’s jump in and discuss Dragman. First, let’s discuss a bit the title and main character. It seems to me that Dragman begs the question as to who is Dragman and the actual idea of dressing in drag. At one point in the book, the main character, August Crimp, takes issue with being called a dragman. Could you talk about that? 

STEVEN APPLEBY: The name Dragman comes from a comic strip I did for The Guardian. I was a transvestite in secret, this was around 2002, and so I was using that name. When I came around to creating the book, the name still had a nice ring to it. Drag is a different thing from trans. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when I was experiencing cross-dressing in secret, the term, drag, clearly referred to performance. In the book, August is labeled as drag by the press and he resists but it sticks.

Dragman is truly a graphic novel in every sense, in terms of playing with words and images. You even have some wonderful prose passages that link up the narrative. I could easily see you writing the whole book as prose. Could you talk about the process of putting the book together?

It was really hard as I’d never done a project like this that is so long. I was used to doing short comic strips. I wanted to have everything in it: I wanted it to be funny, serious, have the superhero parody, be a thriller and be true to my own trans experience. That was difficult to do. I love writing prose and maybe I’ll do a prose book in the future. It was a lovely way to have a different sort of atmosphere and also not reveal the character who is referred to in the prose, keep that a secret for later in the book. It took me around two years to write it and I was creating little scenes, as in a play, but then I needed to figure out how to draw all that. At one point, I had written 40 pages of material that didn’t fit into comics. So, in a sense, it seems a wasteful process. But I love graphic novels. I love both the visual and prose side of it.

Captain Star in Steven Appleby’s comic strip, Rockets Passing Overhead, in New Musical Express

Your career is so impressive. You’re quite prolific. You’ve found ways to connect your work with other media. You’ve found ways to sustain your vision. What can you tell us about Dragman as part of your body of work?

Take a look at the early work, Captain Star in New Musical Express, the character there was obsessed and repressed. There are dressing up scenes. The navigator of the starship, Boiling Hell, he’s obsessed with fish. So, I had them all have obsessions, like my dressing up obsession. It’s all in there but coded in a different way. Dragman is the whole thing coming out into the open. I’ve lived dressing in women’s clothes for the last twelve years now. This is me being honest in my life, especially to my children. I didn’t want them to discover I had this big secret that they never knew about. So, I came out twelves years ago for that reason. I had such a warm reception from people I worked with, like at The Guardian. With the book, I wanted to explore all of that, the life I’d lived in secret, when nobody knew; and the parallel of superheroes who have secret identities.

Linda McCarthy’s adaptation of Appleby’s comic strip, Small Birds Singing

Could you tell us a bit about your influences? Perhaps you could talk about your studying under Quentin Blake?

I moved to London to go to the Royal College of Art. Quentin Blake was the head of the Illustration Department and he was my tutor. I wasn’t so much influenced by him in terms of actual drawing style but very much in terms of work processes. How he uses a lightbox. I find that I still use that way of working now: very loose rough drawings that you then place on a lightbox and ink very loosely. Yeah, he’s great, really inspirational. We still see each other from time to time.

Is the artwork in Dragman all hand-done or also digital? 

Mostly hand-done. It’s using that process that I just said. I do rough drawings and then ink them with an old-fashioned dip pen and India ink. Then I scan the art and print it out so that watercolor can be added. My ex, my wife Nicola, did the watercolor for me. She did it on a lightbox so that the line drawing and the watercolor are separate. I then would scan the watercolor and I manipulate the colors on the computer. I also addd skin tones, made colors richer, tweaked the colors and so on. The flashbacks scenes are all colored on the computer by me, a slightly muted, more monochromatic way. It’s really pretty traditional the way I’ve worked for years.

Steven Appleby, 2019

What can you share with us about growing up and discovering your creativity and who you wanted to be in the world?

I grew up in the north of England up near the border with Scotland, in a small village. We lived in a big old house, an old vicarage that my mum and dad had bought. It had leaky roofs and lowsome bedrooms. My mum and dad were in the ameuter dramatic society so they stored scenery in one of the out buildings. It was like a magical place growing up. When I was a little kid, I remember a room full of furniture and we’d go there to play. There were rooms that were never decorated and kept this old brown wallpaper from the ’20s. My mum drew comics in the ’30s in her school notebooks and that inspired me. We had New Yorker cartoons books with artists like Charles Addams and Ronald Searle. And I loved Dr. Suess as well. The artist who had a huge influence on me was Edward Goery. I discovered Gorey when I was in art school in the ’70s.  It wasn’t so much the drawing style that influenced me as much as the way that Gorey put things together. The surreal ideas, the macabre, in his books. I had thought that I could only  write and draw books for kids but Gorey showed me that you could really do anything. He liberated me.

Would you share with us a bit about being a professional cartoonist and maintaining a comic strip? I see there’s a recent collection of your Loomus comic strips in The Guardian.

I became a cartoonist kind of by accident, like many things that have happened in my life. It turned out to be perfect for me. I could write and draw as I wanted. I had this little space at the NME and I could do whatever I wanted as long as I didn’t go too crazy. At The Guardian, for example, where I was for 23 years, I think they only rejected two comic strips during the whole time I was there. I’ve always tried to do things that aren’t too topical but more just about life, what’s life all about, because I like it when you can return to the work like Edward Gorey–it’s not just a joke; it’s a comment on life. So, I’ve always tried to do that. And, I think a deadline focuses the mind. Mostly, it’s a good thing to have a deadline. There was a short period when I did a daily comic strip for a German newspaper while I also did my Guardian strip along with a few other things and that was like heading for a nervous breakdown, the amount of ideas I had to come up with. But I really did enjoy doing the comic strips. If I was still doing them, I wouldn’t have been able to do Dragman. It wouldn’t have been possible.

Excerpt from Loomus comic strip.

I know creating comic strips are quite time-consuming. I can recall my own comic strip work for my college paper. Among the many titles that readers can choose from, I highly recommend that folks check out a collection of your Loomus comic strips.

Thank you for mentioning that.

This is sort of a two-part question. What can you share with us about being trans and what can you tell young people about self-expression?

I would say that it’s something that’s been with me since my late teens, when it occurred to me that I could wear women’s clothes and having it be completely secret for 25 years. It was an engine that powered my work. In quite a lot of my comic strips and other work there are themes of secrets. I came across Philip K. Dick in my late teens. I loved his books because they have that constant theme that nothing is what it appears to be. That felt like my life that things weren’t what they appeared to be. In a funny way, when I started to come out to be siblings, family, and friends, and eventually work collegues, I kind of lost some of the mystical power of that secret that was an engine in my work. I found that very interesting.

I have two boys, who are now 24 and 22, and they are completely cool, as well as their friends, about me choosing to dress like this. I was so impressed how it didn’t phase them at all. They would be surprised if you ask them if it was difficult finding out and they’d say no. It was fine. I think, nowadays, it’s a very good time to not just to be trans but to be who you are. There are so many ways for people to be who they are. It seems to me to be a very good time.

Page from Dragman. Captain Star poster in the background.

It’s interesting to me to think about all the potential there is for everyone to veer off the status quo. For instance, a man can have his nails painted, crossing into a female-dominated domain. It seems like a small gesture but you are actually entering into a social exchange. If I were to get my nails painted, I’m engaging with the public–and that’s mostly about their curiosity.

I remember when my Captain Star character became a TV series back in the ’90s. I would paint my nails gold back then. And that would get commented on. One of the things that happens for me is that I use my name Steven and, when someone comes to the door, people will initially do a double take and then usually that opens up a conversation. I haven’t had a bad conversation yet. I agree with you that it’s something to deal with sometimes but it’s often in a positive way.

Share with us what lies ahead for you. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?

This is such a weird time. I’m sure it is in Seattle. It is in London. I’ve been ill lately and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve had the virus or not because they’re not testing people in the UK all that much. I think something having to do with all this will probably go into my next project, but I don’t know at the moment what that will be. I’m in this strange little time when Dragman has come out and I’m starting to think about what will come out next. For me, that process is partly an intellectual thinking of ideas and partly an emotional instinctive reaction to things. So, somehow I’m going to decide what I’m doing next.

I wish you great health and thank you for doing this interview.

It’s been a pleasure. Maybe we’ll meet the next time you’re in London.

Yes, absolutely.

That would be great.

Dragman is available as of April 7, 2020. For more details, visit the family of books at Macmillan Publishers right here.

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Filed under Comics, Interviews

Spider-Man and the Mueller Report

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain. What A Tangled Web We Weave When First We Practice To Deceive!

Maybe you’ll never read the Mueller Report. Well, don’t feel too bad.
Many a House Democrat hopes that Americans may finally be convinced that there is overwhelming evidence that Trump should be frog-marched out of office byway of the Mueller Report. They believe that if only Americans read the report or even a Cliff Notes version or maybe even seeing the big man himself forced to testify about his own report that then a collective light bulb would go off across the land. Well, there’s an even easier way to achieve that eureaka moment. Just go see the new Spider-Man movie.

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain. What supervillain would Bill Barr be? Doctor Octopus?

Nothing hits a person harder than to be betrayed by someone that they’ve grown to trust. Just think of this magical connection that Trump has with his base of supporters. It’s pure magic, right? Well, Spider-Man develops a bond with Mysterio in this new movie: one raw talent finds a mentor in a mature and seasoned superhero from another world. Pure magic! And then Mysterio delivers the greatest cut of all. He not only totally betrays Spider-Man’s trust, he proves to be a master of deception who doesn’t care who he hurts since he sees everyone as more than willing to be decieved. If only Mysterio could be impeached!

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain. Trump Demands Loyalty from Comey.

Well, there’s no impeaching Mysterio or even sadly hoping he’ll just go away with the next election cycle. Mysterio is around for as long as he wants striking fear over and over again. You gotta wonder if Trump finds anything useful in the Mysterio playbook. Mysterio and Trump would get along. Heck, they’re both already sharing from the same dictator playbook: strike fear, sow distrust, promise everything, discard any rules or sense of decency. If that were crystal clear to citizens, they’d want a guy like that out of office pronto, right?

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain. Lots and Lots of Fire and Fury!

And then the house lights go up and the movie is over. Mysterio is only fiction, right?

You know you want to read it.

Gee, if you had a guy like Mysterio running the country, it would make sense to impeach him, wouldn’t it? People wouldn’t just pretend there wasn’t a problem, would they? Well, truth is always stranger than fiction.

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Filed under Cartoons, Henry Chamberlain, Political Cartoons, Trump

Movie Review: WONDER WOMAN

Finally, Wonder Woman gets her very own movie!

“Wonder Woman” is simply the movie to see rounding out its third weekend with U.S. sales at $275 million and $570 million worldwide. You may have noticed there are a lot of showings, including 3D and 4DX versions, and they sell out quickly. All of this is for very good reason. This Wonder Woman movie is very sharp and Gal Gadot in the main role commands the screen at all times, even more so, I dare say, than a Ben Affleck or a Henry Cavill. That had to be part of the thinking behind this first ever Wonder Woman major motion picture. The stumbling block all these decades was supposed to have something to do with whether or not a Wonder Woman movie could ever deliver the box office of a Superman or Batman movie. The answer is YES!

Yes, Wonder Woman can Kick Ass!

“Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins, is certainly one of those exceptional movie events. It comes out of that urgent need to get it right. The most brilliant step in getting it right was to set the story during World War I. When was the last time you saw a major motion picture set during WWI? Any young person walking in to see this movie would shrug. There have been a select few, including 2004’s “A Very Long Engagement,” starring Audrey Tautou. The original Wonder Woman comic book was inextricably linked to World War II since it came out during that era. But to rework that same terrain would have been dreadfully tiresome for many a fan. Setting things back to an entirely different epoch opens up different and more compelling options, bringing it all back to basics in a very intriguing way. What could be better than to have a young and idealistic goddess confront “the war to end all wars”? I can imagine that being the pitch to the story by Zack Snyder (Man of Steel) that was fleshed out in the screenplay by Allan Heinberg (Grey’s Anatomy).

HOLLYWOOD, CA – MAY 25: Actors Gal Gadot (L) and Lynda Carter attend the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Wonder Woman” at the Pantages Theatre on May 25, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

The beauty of “Wonder Woman” is how purposeful it is. Yes, we are dealing with the inevitable origin story. But that becomes a big plus as this is used to full advantage. The opening scenes set in Themyscira, the idyllic world that Wonder Woman comes from, have a refreshing vibe to them. There is a certain amount of dutiful explaining going on but, right from the start, we see quick and steady progress from our main character. We see Diana, the little girl, get the early training she demands. In no time, she has grown into a young woman more powerful than even she could imagine. And, all the while, this phase of Diana’s life, comes across not as merely backstory but as essential. Most importantly, there is a sense of urgency and suspense. In a different era, not too long ago (not exactly over with), this depiction of a female paradise could have easily fallen prey to titillation. More harmful than any supervillain, that would have been the worst sucker punch Wonder Woman could have endured.

Yes, a Wonder Woman can be VERY SUCCESSFUL and POPULAR!

So, let me jump to my big point. I went to see this movie with my 21-year-old daughter. She was not really all that aware of the Wonder Woman TV show, starring Lynda Carter. I tried to explain that it was part of its era, the ’70s, and less enlightened. It was too easy to make Wonder Woman a sex symbol for that show. And my daughter quickly picked up on that and said she appreciated how this new Wonder Woman was not sexualized in that way. I also mentioned that I have read more than one account, over the years, of women claiming to have been inspired as little girls by the spinning Lynda Carter did on the show to magically transform into a superhero. Girls would spin and spin and spin. Again, my daughter picked up on that. She said she was more interested in Gal Gadot’s impressive Taekwondo kicks. I am sure that Lynda Carter would understand.

“Wonder Woman” offers a whole new way for girls to be inspired. They no longer have to just spin and spin and spin. What a remarkable job this movie does in playing catch-up. Had a movie just like this come out in Lynda Carter’s heyday, it would have been hailed as nothing short of revolutionary. Superman and Batman movies have dominated the pop culture landscape for decades having left a Wonder Woman movie at a considerable disadvantage. How this movie overcomes that, with a genuinely inspiring main character, clearly demonstrates that there is a demand of strong and powerful female characters. In fact, the revolution continues and this movie manages to depict Wonder Woman as leading the way.

“Wonder Woman” is distributed by Warner Bros. Visit the official Wonder Woman movie site right here.

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Filed under Batman, Comics, DC Comics, Movie Reviews, movies, Superheroes, Superman, Warner Bros., Wonder Woman

BIRDMAN, starring Michael Keaton, Top Offbeat Superhero Movie for 2014

Birdman-Michael-Keaton-movie-2014

“Birdman,” starring Michael Keaton, has got to be the best offbeat superhero movie since “Paper Man,” starring Ryan Reynolds, as Captain Excellent, in 2009. You can also include “Super,” starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, and Liv Tyler. Hmm, then there’s “Kick-Ass” (2010) and “Kick-Ass 2” (2013). We could maybe add a few more. They emerge at a nice steady pace.

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Review: iHero #1

iHero-OR-Comics

“iHero” is a comic book that mixes satire and whimsical use of superhero tropes to provide some good laughs in its debut issue. I think what I like most about this work is that it’s not afraid to just goof around. There is plenty of silly humor run amok. There is more going on too but it’s the offbeat humor that I’m favoring the most.

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Filed under British Comics, Comics, European Comics, Superheroes

Review: EGOs #1, published by Image Comics

EGOs-Image-Comics

“EGOs” is a sci-fi comic that is crunchy and substantial, just my kind of treat. Created by writer Stuart Moore and artist Gus Storms, the story takes off with interesting observations from the narrator and quick-paced action front and center. This is a killer opener as we observe a lone figure of a jaded old space warrior. This is The Planetarian and he’s a profiler who can detect clues on a world-scale, as opposed to just a boring little ole crime scene. As the narration continues above his head, we learn this guy is not exactly the heroic type but he gets the job done. He gets it done well enough to clue us in on Masse, a larger-than-life baddie that has resurfaced after many years.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Image Comics