The joint opening ceremony of Filmakademie and the Akademie für Darstellende Kunst Baden-Württemberg academic year takes place on Monday, September 20 at 11 a.m. at Albrecht-Ade-Studio. This year’s keynote is held by the cartoonist, illustrator, and filmmaker Steven Appleby. Here he talks, what it takes to become a successful independent cartoonist.
For almost thirty years Steven Appleby has created, written and drawn surreal yet personal comic strips for many newspapers including: New Musical Express, Guardian, Observer, The Times, Sunday Telegraph, Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Berliner Zeitung. He has also written a comedy series for BBC Radio 4; had his character Captain Star animated for television; written and drawn around 30 books; exhibited prints and paintings in many exhibitions and seen his secret world adapted for the stage as the musical play CROCS IN FROCKS.
However strange and bizarre Steven’s world may appear – chairs talk, and cars may feast on pedestrians – it is rooted in reality and his personal obsessions. “I look at the world,” he says, “and wonder: ‘what’s going on? What on earth is life really all about?’ Then I play about with what I see, turn it upside down and sideways… and reimagine it. On a good day I end up with some sort of absurd idea that is completely untrue… yet somehow feels truer than the truth and says something about the complexities of life.”
His latest book, DRAGMAN, stars August Crimp, a man who can fly when he puts on women’s clothes. Grounded in Steven’s own experience of the secret world of transvestites, DRAGMAN is a multi-layered graphic novel set in a version of the UK in which science has proved the existence of the human soul and superheroes save only those who can afford superhero insurance. DRAGMAN has been published in the UK, America, Holland, Germany and France (where it won the Prix Spécial du Jury at the International Angoulême Comic Festival 2021).
After secretly dressing in women’s clothes for most of his life, Steven came out in the early 2000s and began living fulltime as a trans-person in 2008.
It's hard for me to know why people have liked my work and what happened, but I think it might have to do with ideas, having a different way of looking at the world, a world that is fresh for a lot of people or comes at it from a different angle. Because I think ideas and work must be rooted in the real world. Otherwise, that’s my theory, it can't connect with an audience, if there's no sort of rooting in reality. Take one of my books as an example, that had come out in Germany: DIE MEMOIREN DES CAPTAIN STAR. It sets out a crazy world, but it seems to connect with people however crazy it is. I think it is why it is still rooted in real things like obsessions, for example about the spaceship being clean or dust on the surface of the control room.
Hmm, I mean at the beginning I obviously didn't know whether people would like my style. It was just how I draw, it is like my handwriting, it’s just how it comes out. When I went to the Royal College of Art in London and studied illustration, Quentin Blake was my tutor. He was the person from whom I learned to be myself, do not push yourself into a different pigeonhole, just try to develop being yourself. It also has a lot to do with not being able to do it differently. I once had a commercial job where I had to do a lovely kind of shaded pencil drawing. It was such a nightmare, because I couldn't do it well, that wasn't what I do! So looking back, I wanted to draw my own world and not to illustrate other people’s version of the world. I stuck to that, and it was worthwhile in the end, because I was lucky. My first commissions for the NME I got because they thought I was original. One needs to be brave. Sometimes you need only a few people to like your work. All my work in Germany is due to one person at DIE ZEIT who loved Captain Star in the NME. He then ran it in DIE ZEIT. Later he worked for the FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG and got in touch and said do stuff for me.
Looking back, they nearly all start with something else that I liked. CAPTAIN STAR started with loving science fiction (crazy science fiction I used to like, not so much logical science-based science fiction). As a child, I loved TV shows like Flash Gordon or Star Trek, which basically became the model for the characters of CAPTAIN STAR with the captain, the first officer, the engine stoker on so on. It is about finding something you love, be it science fiction, gardening, or whatever, and find something new in that or put it together in a different, personal way. For example, there's a whole tradition in the UK of country house dramas, like in Agatha Christie’s detective novels, they often used to be set in their country house. So I did a country house world which is kind of crazy and the characters have my obsessions. They are obsessed with the shortness of life, getting older, death, time, affairs or with finding love. Another one is obsessed with her appearance and so on. Dragman is obviously the trans thing combined with superheroes. So they come from something I like and then I push it around and make it, hopefully, my own and say something with it. It’s not so much to try to be funny, it's to try and say something about life, something which is all about.
They were planning to make a live action TV series based on DRAGMAN, which would be really cool. Due to the pandemic, this was put on hold though. I'm working on a couple of things, but I'm one of those people that have really struggled this last year to work. Not being able to travel to promote my book was obviously necessary, but made me sad. I was not depressed exactly, but kind of flat, I just couldn't. I did some things, I relettered Dragman into Dutch and French and then German, but the kind of inspiration I need for books hasn't been coming. However, I'm just getting back to that now. So I'm working on two book projects and I'm kind of seeing which one flies.