Steven Appleby © Antonio Olmos/The Guardian
Steven Appleby © Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

I was familiar with Applebyland or, more accurately, the Applebyverse – the world inhabited by cartoonist (mostly) Steven Appleby - long before Steven and I met in person. My first wanderings in this instantly familiar but somewhat quirky-verse were in the company of Captain Star in the Rockets Passing Overhead strip in the NME, the inky music weekly that served as a portal to a world of culture (or more specifically a sequence of subcultures each with their own exotic sound, look and feel, think prog, punk, two-tone, post-punk, goth, cow-punk, indie and so on) beyond the bedroom walls of thousands of young Britons in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As someone who delights in the absurd* and who spent many happy hours when younger drawing and sometimes illustrating letters with a leaky Rotring pen, I felt Steven was a kindred spirit and treasured his drawings such that I would sometimes cut them out, photocopy them onto coloured card and make them into mix-tape covers. The Bat Farming and Japanese bonsai whales compilations were classics, if I say so myself, though they failed to impress the future Mrs Hare in the way that I hoped they would.

Some years later, I am talking to Siobhan and Paul, (friends who, when they came to split, argued over the custody of the mix-tapes I’d given them), and I mention the Appleby tape covers. Paul then tells me he and Steven studied at the Royal College of Art together and that we would most likely get on, something which pleased me greatly. I also learned that Steven is a fellow music lover and would appreciate his drawings being turned into cassette inlays. Indeed, Steven does care about music and in the 1970s dropped out of a design course at Manchester Polytechnic to play keyboards in Ploog, a band with both ideas and ambition but one that never managed to break out much beyond its hometown of Leamington. Sadly, while the band wasn’t destined for bigger things, Ploog is significant within the complex web of connections that is the Wild Hare Club as another friend, Pete Lawrence was also a member: all of which suggests to me that there was something creative bubbling in there. Ploog may have sunk with barely a trace but Steven has earned a slightly longer entry in the annals of rock and roll for pieces of design work with Malcolm Garrett’s Assorted Images and in particular artwork for Trompe Le Monde by The Pixies - a record which is associated with a very particular time and place in my memory. Later on, in 2014, Steven provided over 100 drawings for The Good Inn, a novel by Pixies assassin Black Francis and writer Josh Frank.

All this is a bit of a digression, but maybe that’s appropriate because Steven is prone to getting side-tracked and that’s how the ideas get flowing. So, suffice to say Steven went back to art and over the years Steven has been immensely prolific, producing gazillions of drawings, strip cartoons and books. Many of you reading this - and I know your habits well – will know him from Loomus, the long-running strip in the Family section of the Saturday Guardian which came to an end in 2016.

I finally got to meet Steven by chance. Not sure how or why, I’d received an invitation to Sebastian Horsley's crucifixion, well at least the launch of the Sarah Lucas film of the frankly disturbing act shot on a trip to the Philippines, held in an arch in the carefully chosen Crucifix Lane and this seemed like just the kind of edgy, cultural event to take my friend Denise who was over from Australia. As we were making our way to the destination, I saw a board pointing the way to an exhibition of Steven Appleby’s drawings and so a diversion (again) was made and we went up. Unfortunately, Steven wasn’t there in person but looking at the originals of cartoons I had seen in the papers was a delight and a good start to an evening which is somewhat blurry in my memory as Denise, a Scot with an iron constitution, insisted at some point we should hit the whisky which is never good for my head. Still hungover, I went back the next day at a time when I had been told Steven would be there and that’s when our friendship began. I bought two of his drawings – Aquatic Revenge! wherein the ghost of a shoal of cod head-butt the ‘Pride of Kelso’ and Mr. Doug Fairdale and his Monstrously Smug Airedale in which the dog boastfully basks at his winning ways with women which are clearly superior to those of his master. These drawings give me much joy but I still wish Steven’s cartoon featuring a tiny elephant in the cup of someone’s hand with a fantastic punch line that I am not going to repeat here had been among the drawings for sale.

Ah tiny elephants…which brings me to the subject of animations. Steven’s drawings lend themselves to being animated. Animator Pete Bishop saw the potential and in 1987 they began work on a series of films based on Steven’s Captain Star strip together with Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Pete and Steven have collaborating ever since and share a Peckham studio simply called The Shop. In 2009, I asked Steven and Pete whether they’d be interested in making some short films for the Greenpeace campaign to create a global network of marine reserves which I was then coordinating. To my great cheer, they agreed and it was an absolute blast making 3 short animations My Ocean Wonderland - Vaccuship and Aerial Trawler, How to Cook Jellyfish and my favourite Batfish. Take a few minutes to watch, they still stand up and are bang on message but weren’t given the level of promotion promised or deserved but the Spanish office liked them. During the process, I was lucky enough to meet Steven’s lovely cousin, Linda McCarthy, potter and marionette enthusiast. An interest in stop-frame animation led Linda to set up Tiny Elephants Ltd. and the making of four short films adapted from Steven’s strip for the Times - Small Birds Singing. The action takes place on a country estate somewhere in England, home to a dysfunctional family, their masked butler and a herd of tiny elephants who dust under the furniture.  – Pull back the curtain a smidge and take a glimpse.    

Hmm, I’ve been rabbiting on. At the time of writing (28th June 2020) Steven is busy working re-doing the lettering for the French edition of Dragman, the story of a superhero who is a bit different from the run-of-the-mill Marvel kind and way more marvelous. This re-lettering task reminds me of the fiddly manipulation and tediousness of laying out posters and magazines (anybody here remember The Archenfield Review??) before the advent of home computers - Letraset and Tippex, lightboxes and the mildly heady fumes of spray mount. Perhaps it is by way of distraction that Steven has kindly agreed to work on a drawing of Haretopia, envisioning that better place created by all you lovely wild hare people.  

   

*  note to self: must ask Steven about Spike Milligan, (key formative influence), and whether he too treasures A Book of Milliganimals the way I do. As it happens, in a lovely sliver of synchronicity, Helen McCrory has just requested the complete works of Spike Milligan hidden inside the cover of a book on philosophy as her choice of books on Desert Island Discs. Excellent choice, Helen, if you happen to be reading this.

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