Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a man in a dress. One of the many pleasures of Steven Appleby’s debut graphic novel Dragman is the way it finds a way to refresh the superhero narrative; to use it to discuss masculinity and, in particular, tranvestism, which, in retrospect, seems an obvious thing to do. To read Dragman is to realise how well-suited the superhero genre is to tackle the subject.

It helps that Appleby is a cartoonist who is both a capable storyteller and has funny bones.Since his early strips Captain Star appeared in the New Musical Express back in t he 1980s, Appleby has been a welcome addition to editorial cartooning in the UK, contributing to both newspapers and magazines. His style – Posy Simmonds has talked of Appleby’s “nimble, nubbly line” – is instantly recognisable.

And yet Dragman feels like a fresh start for its creator. In a way, despite the superheroics, it is a deeply personal piece, with Appleby using the strip to explore his own relationship with women’s clothes.

For Graphic Content, Appleby, discusses superheroes, dressing up and why he always wanted to be Catwoman:

HeraldScotland:

Steven, Dragman has had a long and complex creation. Do you want to outline the challenge to get from the first Dragman strip to this new graphic novel?

Dragman started out as a few light, jokey comic strips of four or five drawings 18 years ago. I had been dressing in women’s clothes in secret since the 1970s, and these strips were a fun outlet for that secret. But quite soon I began thinking there was more I could do with the idea. More I could say. The cross-dressers I knew lived as men 90% of the time and changed into their secret identity from time to time rather as superheroes do. I liked the parallel. So, I started thinking of doing a longer comic in which superhero characters and their stories run alongside Dragman’s story, which would be rooted in a real portrayal of the guilt and confusion of a man who feels compelled to dress as a woman. But it wasn’t easy to get right. I worked on it - and abandoned it - many times over many years before finally coming up with the version that has just been published.

It’s a story with a transvestite superhero. I can’t think of any others before. Did it feel like a new thing?

It certainly used to feel like a new thing to me, and I haven’t seen any others. But as the years passed and trans came out of the shadows – particularly over the past four or five years – I began to worry that someone else would do it. Trans is in the zeitgeist now. But as far as I know no one has.

It is a book that draws on your own experience dressing in women’s clothes. How important has it been able to have a vehicle to explore that experience publicly?

Maybe that was part of the reason I found the book so hard to do. It was, on one level, my own secret life I was revealing! What might people think? How would I be seen? I couldn’t claim it was just an imaginary book… That would have been dishonest for a start. I felt that the book needed to feel strongly true, so that even though Dragman is a superhero who can fly, he also (as his alter ego August Crimp) agonises with real issues such as guilt, honesty, ‘who am I?’ and so on. Just as I did.

Growing up, did it feel like you had a secret identity?

Oh yes, definitely. And I felt terrible about it. Like I was a weirdo, or a pervert. But as the years passed and I came across films such as the ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, or saw Ru Paul on late night TV, I began having fun with dressing up. Slowly it became a delicious, naughty secret rather than a frightening one that no one must EVER find out about. I began alluding to it playfully in the cartoons I drew and the paintings and prints I made, in which there are people dressed as plants, or beds, or living in closets. I enjoyed slipping references to transvestitism into my work that only I knew about.

Did you see some reflection of yourself in superhero comics? That idea of dressing up, dressing differently? If so, did you have favourites?

I didn’t really identify with superhero characters. I was a wimp! I could never do what they did! But I did read superhero comics from time to time. My favourites were Daredevil and Spider-Man. They seemed human as well as being super powered. But the character I really wanted to BE was Catwoman in the sixties TV series! She’s ambiguous, funny, sexy, dangerous, unpredictable. Neither fully bad nor fully good. She’s like a scary nursery rhyme character. Or an archetype. She represents something dark and deep. I like that. Maybe Dog Girl, Dragman’s “sidekick” is a little inspired by Catwoman.

What’s striking about Dragman is the way it shows that superhero stories are a perfect vehicle for dealing with these issues.

I agree! They are a great vehicle. Back in the 1980s I was totally blown away by Alan Moore’s astonishing Watchman series, in which superhero comics really come of age. Watchmen showed me what’s possible. It’s utterly brilliant and touches on all sorts of issues ranging from global politics to the future of the human race. From war, psychosis, male chauvinism, impotence, madness, to the objectification of women… Watchmen is a wonderfully rich, sophisticated and clever book. With a thrilling, compelling story - something I wanted Dragman to have, too.

Dragman is also a novel about masculinity and it’s a reminder that superhero stories can be more subtle than alpha-male bullishness. It made me think of reading Spider-Man as a kid and recognising my Peter Parkerness.

Yes, Spider-Man showed that characters with ordinary flaws and problems, such as the inability to talk to girls, could also be superheroes. Groundbreaking. And August Crimp is certainly not a bullish alpha male. He’s a bit of a rubbish man. Something I was described as once, by a girlfriend.

I remember seeing your cartoons in Escape magazine back in the 1980s. What has been the appeal of cartooning that has kept you working in this field all those years (And has it been hard?)

Back in the eighties I was really just having fun. Entertaining myself and friends. Which is a great way to think up, write and draw comics! (Perhaps most other creative work, too). And I was very lucky back then because I had the friendship and support of Malcolm Garrett and Kasper de Graaf, who owned the record sleeve design company Assorted images. I worked for them as a graphic designer and they became my patrons. They paid me a salary and, because they believed in me, let me get on with creating my own work.

My Captain Star comic strip in the NME came out of that period and went on to be seen in Escape, the Observer, Die Zeit, and eventually on television as an animated series. Anything seemed possible. I just did whatever came along. Later it got harder and more complicated. When I was drawing newspaper strips for the Guardian, The Times and the Sunday Telegraph and also paying a mortgage, there were very tight deadlines and the pressure of coming up with ideas three times a week. But still, there’s a fun side to that, too. A puzzle-solving pleasure, perhaps.

HeraldScotland:

What does Dragman represent for you now?

That’s a hard question. I guess I’m completely out of the closet now! Though I was anyway, really, having dressed in women’s clothes now for almost 12 years. And although Dragman isn’t me, he is very close to me – so I’m very fond of him. In order to bring August Crimp to life I gave him many of my own experiences, such as finding a stocking down the back of a sofa and putting it on. Much of what happens to August happened to me. Except for the flying.

What comes next?

Oh gosh… I don’t know. Dragman has been optioned for a live action television series, so if that happens I’ll be involved a little in that. Or perhaps I’ll write and draw a Captain Star graphic novel. I love the Captain and it would be a real pleasure to bring him and his crew back to life again. We have unfinished business… and a whole universe to explore.

Dragman, by Steven Appleby is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £18.99