Review: Dragman, by Steven Appleby

Funny, sad, touching, triggering, endearing and heartwarming, and that’s just the cover. Read it, now.

Trigger warning: if you have any form of gender dysphoria, and clothing forms a particularly triggering aspect of your dysphoria, you might find that this book goes hard. Be prepared to take a break before coming back to it.

Actually, what I would suggest is reading the author’s appendix, “I am not August Crimp”. There’s a version of it on the Guardian website. Steven Appleby is a trans woman who for many years lived her truth in secret and as many will recognise and empathise, she paid the price for it. The important thing to take away from her potted autobiography is that when she writes things that hit home hard, that make you feel putting the book down, that send you spiralling down a internalised shame spiral, she’s writing them after having experienced them all herself. If this book causes you pain, then know that she’s lived it, and got through it, and you will too.

If you are any flavour of LGBTQ+, this is going to look and feel horrifically familiar.

So, what is it?

Quick note: we will discuss this book in general, spoiler-free terms and discuss the plot from a high level, general viewpoint. I will try not to include any detailed plot information that you can’t get from the back of the book, which is pictured below, or the article linked above.

‘Dragman’ (Appleby, Steven, 2020, Dragman, Jonathan Cape: London) is a large graphic novel – 330 pages including a couple of afterwords – that deals with the story of unlikely crossdressing superhero August Crimp, aka the titular Dragman. In the Expanded Appleby Universe, superheroes have quite literal powers (people stick to the superhero called Flypaper, and he can fly, as his name suggests) and they are all unionised and collectivised. It’s not quite as bad as Vought International in terms of superhero management, although there is a similarly soulless corporation in this graphic novel.

As a young man, August discovered a love of wearing women’s clothes. Like many people in that situation, it wasn’t for kicks or any form of sexual fulfilment – crossdressing was more soul fulfilment for our August. He does not wish to transition, he simply wishes to present as a woman. One day, August discovers that dressing as a woman can literally make him fly, and Dolly Marie (his femme name) becomes Dragman. But events conspire to drag him (pun intended) into a murky world of corrupt superheroes and soulless capitalism when T-girls that Dolly Marie knows from the nighttime scene start being murdered. Alongside – I think I’m contractually obliged to describe her as “a trusty sidekick” – Dog Girl, Dragman starts to investigate the crimes but quickly discovers they’re linked to a far more wide-ranging and insidious plot. Dragman wants to investigate, but spending so much time as Dragman means that he’s not spending time as August Crimp, and that starts to put a strain on his relationship.

The book intersperses short prose interludes with chapters drawn in Appleby’s idiosyncratic but strangely touching style. Whilst it looks messy, an artist friend helped me realise that maintaining this homely style whilst making all characters immediately recognisable is quite the skill. It mixes line drawing with colour, huge spreads with tightly panelled action, and current events with flashback action. The watercolours are provided by Nicola Sherring, to whom Appleby is still married and still lives with, although they are no longer a couple. They are large and eye-catching and beautifully sympathetic to the novel. 

The book is heavy on metaphor and whilst it is often very on the nose, it’s usually for comedy effect. A lot of the superheroes, like Flypaper, have very literal powers (Pipe is a conduit from one place to another, Believer can do anything as long as he believes it, and so on). Other metaphors are more subtle, and usually relate to capitalism (no spoilers, you’ll see what I mean when you read it). 

It’s not a laugh out loud funny book, it definitely is funny but it’s a far more wry style of humour. But the humour is mixed with difficult details about gender dysphoria, outsider syndrome, internalised and external transphobia, and general anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice and violence (even the prejudice and violence that trans people receive from other members of the LGB community makes an appearance, in metaphorical form).

As someone who came to a nonbinary identity later in life but struggled with understanding they were different for most of it, it can be a bloody hard read in places. When you read about the harmless and innocent joy that young August feels just from putting a dress and heels on, you know full well that he is going to pay for it later in some way because that’s just the way that the universe seems to treat trans people. You read that, you know August is going to get kicked for it, and it makes it hard to continue reading because you recognise your own experiences and you know what’s coming. I would be interested to know how cishet people, especially ones that aren’t overtly allies, perceive the novel and whether they recognise the internal and external shadows that LGBTQ+ people live their lives under.

The Lowdown

Diversity and InclusionIt’s all here, pretty much the whole spectrum of human and superhuman existence. A
SustainabilityIt’s printed on FSC certified paper, but there are no more details than that. There are different grades of FSC certification and it would be good to have more detail. B
Vegan statusNo information given. E
RatingI can’t speak highly enough of this book and I recommend it unhesitatingly to everyone. It’s not ‘just’ a graphic novel or ‘just’ an LGBTQ+ novel, it’s a sad, funny, touching, triggering and heartwarming story that can and should be enjoyed by everyone. A

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