Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Did I mention I can fly? Oh. Sorry. That's rather important.
"When I put on women's clothes I can fly."
Only Steven Appleby could or would lob in such a profound statement of elevating empowerment and celebration disguised as a superhero sub-plot.
He can do this, hilariously, because DRAGMAN is no more a macho superhero mag than Fraction and Aja's HAWKEYE or King and Gerads' MISTER MIRACLE. Indeed few who've read even those left-field comedic triumphs - let alone the more corporate claptrap - are going to be looking in Steven's infinitely more demure direction.
I far more and fully expect fans of CASSANDRA DARKE's Posy Simmonds and WHEN THE WIND BLOWS' Raymond Briggs to be sallying forth instead, because that's the strength of the book's aesthetic and the breadth of its appeal. It is a very British book, in part about how we treat each other, ourselves and our souls, and the way the corporations ain't half taking over. Also, the very idea of British superheroes is ever so silly, and there will be plenty within to make you grin.
Drawn in what Posy Simmonds refers to as his "nimble, nubbly line", then washed over by Nicola Sherring's warmest watercolours, Steven Appleby's infectiously affectionate art leaves one feeling as safe as if in the hands of an English village's road-straddling lollipop lady.
Freed from the confines and constrictions of panel borders, the gentle, fluid forms and wibbly-wobbly gesticulations don't so much control your reading as liberate it from harm. Even something as far-out as flying full-pelt from the cloud-covered city of London to race trains past the patchwork, hedge-seamed farmland of bucolic Britain is rendered as regular as popping down to the corner shop.
The truth of this contention becomes clearer when you're left to experience the graphic novel without the graphics: those dozen or so pages interspersed within the full three hundred others which are pure prose, bleak and bereft, unadorned - and emphatically unmitigated - by Steven's dainty doodlings.
For when the pictures disappear, so does any trace of the fanciful, as we slip into a subplot which will shimmer queasily below the surface, in and out, on and off, until its relevance becomes all too terribly clear.
"The tide is in and the police tape droops down into the water, rising and falling as a fresh breeze sweeps in off the sea, rocking the boats on their moorings. Waves slap-slop up and down the grooves in the concrete slipway while far out in the estuary birds bob on the surface in dotted flocks."
Arresting, no? At one point the prose and sequential art criss-cross oh so tantalisingly close - no further apart that the width of a crowded club - but the fleeting opportunity goes unnoticed for what it unexpectedly is.
"All in all, no one at Pretty Pretty can work out if they knew any of the victims or not, because all the trans-girls and most of the guys in the room, including himself, use scene names, meaning their secret lives and their real lives, or whichever way round you want to think of it, don't connect up."
It's also more difficult for the police to connect the smudged trail of bloody dots, and so very much easier, therefore, to get away with murder.
"The man leans deeper into the shadows and watches until the meeting breaks up, the lights are dimmed, the music comes back on and the crowd return to their hedonistic pleasures. At which point the new arrivals disappear into the office with Filly and the man suggests to Cindy that she take him back to her place, to which she greedily agrees, so they collect their coats and slip out into the real world, where the real murders take place.
"And no one notices them go."
Brrrrr... I told you that you'd miss the art.
It's time for a superhero secret origin!
Many moons ago a teenage Augustus Crimp - and indeed his creator, Steven Appleby - discovered a stocking down the back of a sofa and put it on, instinctively, without thinking. Immediately they felt that they were floating on air, but in Augustus's case the effect was far from just figurative for yes, my dears, he found he could fly!
And he promptly cracked the back of his bonce upon the plaster ceiling.
Neither looked back as they further explored the natural fit of wearing more women's clothing, but they did look over their shoulders because, you know, society... And some mothers...
You'll learn more about Steven's trajectory in the Afterword, but for August the second pivotal point came while enjoying a quiet cup of tea, several floors up in the local art gallery, only to spy young Cherry Mingle, who lived opposite Augustus and his Mum, playing on the cafe balcony outside. Just as August is fretting as the prospect of being recognised by Cherry in a wig and women's clothing... over the railing goes Cherry!
And in leaping immediately, selflessly after her, that's how Augustus became the reluctant superhero called Dragman. Briefly.
"Sssh. Don't tell."
Things... didn't work out. It was a territorial thing. Some people are dicks.
Since then Augustus has retired, met a lady, got married and had a baby boy. (Did I mention that Augustus likes ladies? Oh. Sorry. That's hardly important, but Augustus likes ladies.) And I'm so sorry to fast-forward so swiftly, but his missus must never, ever learn that Augustus was once Dragman because oh you'll see, and now Cherry needs Dragman's help yet again!
People are selling their souls.
It's not some covert Faustian Pact for the few, it's the very latest equity-freeing opportunity for the many, and the masses are selling their souls to huge corporations for cash. It's all over the TV...
"You know how we all sometimes get the feeling that the world is an illusion and nothing is real? Well, if you sell your soul you'll find that alarming feeling GOES AWAY... Pop into a Black Mist store today..."
"Souls are valuable. You can get a great deal of money for your soul..." observes Augustus. "Better to have a new car than something ancient and invisible. Only, when your soul was gone... nothing made much sense any more. Except jumping out of a plane."
They're doing that too: buying a plane ticket and jumping...
And Cherry's parents have sold their souls.
Everything I've told you about ties together; every single element, I swear - apart from the lollipop lady.
It's so deftly done, each episode so diverting that you won't spot it all creeping up on you, and the central concern really couldn't be more topical, because every day we make decisions about money, and who we're prepared to give it to in the full knowledge of what they are likely to do with it and how that in turn will affect what happens to us within our wider society.
"It's so much easier to run a business without scruples.
"Principals are painful.
"Without a soul the pain simply fades away."
I leave you with the exquisite endpapers - August Crimp's 'Finding Myself' Journey of the Unknown, Unimagined, Not Yet Invented or Unexplored - because I've just reminded myself that this is an astutely insightful comedy, as all the interior art here will attest, full of the feel-good and the funny.
And, of course, the nimblest and most nubbly of lines.