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Steven Appleby at the Literary Kitchen Festival
Steven Appleby reading his short story Sexy Little Cabbage at the 2014 Literary Kitchen Festival, Peckham, London
Photo by Andrea Mason
Return to The Captain Star Omnibus

About the Steven Appleby
(Courtesy of the author)

Steven Appleby (born 27th January 1956) is an absurdist cartoonist, illustrator and artist living in Britain. He is a dual citizen of the UK and Canada. His humour is usually observational or absurd, with a keen sense of the turmoil of fear and obsession that teems beneath the respectable exterior of most of us. 

Captain Star Rockets Passing Overhead Tea Towel DesignHis work first appeared in the New Musical Express in 1984 with the Rockets Passing Overhead (Captain Star) comic strip, which also appeared in The Observer, Zeit Magazin (Germany), as well as other newspapers and comics in the UK, Europe and America. Other comic strips followed in many publications including The Times, the Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian. Appleby’s work has also appeared on album covers, most notably Trompe le Monde by the Pixies

His comic strip Steven Appleby's Normal Life was translated into German and published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and also made into a radio series for BBC Radio 4. An earlier comic strip, Small Birds Singing, ran for eight years in The Times.

Appleby has also had numerous exhibitions of drawings & paintings, written and drawn many books, and collaborated on a musical play, Crocs In Frocks.


Steven Appleby was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1956 and grew up, the oldest of four children, in a dilapidated, draughty old vicarage in Wooler, close to the Scottish border.

Various hallways and brown-painted doors led to unused rooms or rooms piled high with furniture. Outside, abandoned scenery from an amateur dramatic production was stacked and stored in a rarely visited outbuilding.’  The Guardian, 6 October 2012  

As a child Appleby remembers reading Swallows and Amazons, making camps, climbing trees and hoisting flags. On rainy days he discovered the worlds of cartoonists such as Ronald Searle (St Trinian’s) and Charles Addams (The Addams Family) on his parents’ book shelves.  

Appleby’s mother, Ibbie, was from Canada, ‘... a distant land of snow and french toast, far away across the sea, where she skated and skied in the day and danced to big bands by night. Love for my dad brought her to Britain on a convoy towards the end of the Second World War… She travelled alone to live with my father’s family in a tiny village on the coast of north Northumberland while he was still away flying planes in Burma. Together, after the war, they bred boxer dogs, performed with the village amateur dramatic society and laughed at The Goon Show on the wireless.’  The Guardian, 6 October 2012  

Appleby attended Wooler Church of England Primary School, where he won prizes for plasticine modelling until, aged eleven, he was sent to Bootham School, York, as a boarder. At Bootham he kept his head down, avoided sports and became obsessed with music and art. He played keyboards in school bands and (inspired by Jesus Christ Superstar) wrote and performed (with Nick Battey) Inwards & Outwards, a rock cantata.

After school, in 1974, he took a foundation course in art & design at Manchester Polytechnic, followed by one term on the BA graphic design course (with Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville) after which he dropped out to play with school friends in a band called Ploog. Influenced by prog rock and complicated pop far beyond their playing capabilities, Ploog were swept aside by punk rock in 1977 and Appleby returned to art education. He studied graphic design at Newcastle Polytechnic (1978-1981), then illustration at the Royal College of Art (1981-1984), where his tutor was Quentin Blake. He has lived in London since 1981.

Studio International interview in which Appleby talks about growing up and becoming an artist: 


While at the RCA Appleby met writer George Mole at a friends wedding and the two immediately formed a strong, working friendship which led to their first book, No, Honestly, I Couldn’t Eat Another Mouthful (1984), various cartoon spreads for Punch (Daily Life On Other Planets, Lost Cars), The Observer (Home Economics in the Nineties), The Oldie, and a further three books. Mole also taught Appleby the life-changing fact that, when visiting a museum or gallery, you don’t have to look at every single item as a kind-of penance but should stroll briskly through the rooms only stopping at exhibits which draw your interest.

During and after the RCA Appleby worked for his old Manchester art school friend Malcolm Garrett , who had been commissioned by editor Kasper de Graaf to design a monthly music, art and fashion magazine (New Sounds New Styles). Appleby continued assisting Malcolm at his company Assorted Images designing books (When Cameras Go Crazy, More Dark Than Shark), and record sleeves, particularly for Duran Duran. Working on designs for Duran Duran merchandising – posters, greetings cards, balloons, stationary, bubble gum cards, board games, etc – gave Appleby ideas which, when he was asked to come up with a cartoon strip idea for the NME, would feed into the future world of Captain Star.

In late 1986 Appleby decided to ditch commercial design to concentrate solely on his own art and creative work. Garrett and de Graaf, now business partners in Assorted Imagesoffered to continue employing him, providing him with a studio and use of the Assorted Images facilities – computers, faxes, phones, etc. – as he developed his own work. The three-year period of patronage that followed allowed Appleby the freedom to make drawings and paintings for various exhibitions; develop Rockets Passing Overhead – the Annals of Captain Star for New Musical Express; contribute drawings to Punch and many other magazines; create Small Birds Singing for the Times, and write, design and draw the comic book Rockets – A Way of Life by Captain J. Star, which was published by Assorted Images in 1988.

In 1987, animator and commercials director Pete Bishop wrote to Appleby, care of the NME, suggesting they work together. Their meeting led to various Captain Star short animations, a series of TV commercials and, ultimately, to the development of the Captain Star TV series (with Frank Cottrell-Boyce) . A  pilot, written by Cottrell-Boyce, was made in the Assorted Images building and filled the entire place with animators, tracers and cell painters for a few weeks. Captain Star (featuring the voices of Adrian Edmondson, Richard E. Grant, Denica Fairman, Gary Martin and Kerry Shale) aired on CITV in the UK in 1997 and was seen on various networks throughout the world, including Teletoon (Canada), YLE (Finland), Canal+ (France), ZDF (Germany) and Nickelodeon. One series of 13 episodes was made.  

In 1989 Appleby left his employment at Assorted Images and established his own studio. Kasper de Graaf continued acting as his agent until 2005. Over the years Appleby has created cartoon strips for many publications, including The Guardian, The Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit, The Sunday Telegraph, The New Musical Express, The Daily Express and The Observer. He has also written and drawn over 24 books, including Men – The Truth, Jim – the Nine Lives Of A Dysfunctional Cat and Steven Appleby’s Guide To Life – the Complete Guardian Loomus Cartoons. In 1994 his book of cartoon strips from Die Zeit, Die Memoiren von Captain J. Star, won the Max und Moritz prize in Germany.

His other works include the musical play Crocs In Frocks (with Teresa Early & Roger Gosling), performed by theatre company New Peckham Varieties at The Magic Eye Theatre, Peckham and at the ICA, London (2006); and the radio series, Steven Appleby’s Normal Life, which ran for two series and a Christmas special on BBC Radio 4 from 2001 to 2004.

Since 2007 Appleby has collaborated with Linda McCarthy (of Tiny Elephants Ltd) on a series of stop motion animated films based on his eccentric country house cartoon strip Small Birds Singing. A new Small Birds Singing short film, Bob Bobbin and the Christmas Stocking, is currently in production. They also collaborated, in 2011, on a looped gallery piece entitled A Small Repetition of Myself in which a puppet Steven Appleby thinks, draws, discards, then starts over – forever.

Appleby has had numerous solo exhibitions of paintings, prints and ceramics, including Islands (2011) at The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, and Tell Me All Your Secrets And I Will Put Them In My Drawings (2005), Icebergs (2008) and REAL | UNREAL (2016) at ArteArtesania, Soller, Mallorca

In 2013 Appleby spent a year as the artist appointed to create all the art for the Royal Brompton Hospitals new Centre for Sleep. As part of this project he made about seventy drawings and paintings, including a large glass screen, ‘sleep maps’ painted directly onto the walls, and a book, into Sleep, to celebrate the completion of the work. He is currently working on a new sleep commission for the hospital. 

His images of rockets feature on the Pixies album sleeve, Tromp Le Monde, and in 2014 he produced over 100 drawings for The Good Inn, a novel by Pixies frontman Black Francis & writer Josh Frank, which was launched with events in New York and at The British Library, London.  

In March 2016 Appleby was one of five artists invited to take part in a residency at The Carlton Arms Hotel, New York, where he spent a month painting a mural on the walls and in the bathroom of room 9a. 


Appleby lives and worries in a small house in Camberwell, London with his wife, her partner, his two sons and three step-sons. He writes, paints and draws in The Shop, a studio he shares with animation director Pete Bishop.

Having been a secret transvestite all his adult life, Appleby began, in the mid-1990s, to come out to friends and family until finally, in 2008, he began living full-time as a trans-person.

Bio by Steven Appleby; the author grants Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) this bio and author photo, and for the illustrations:
~ Captain Star image from a Rockets Passing Overhead tea towel design, 1987
~ Star signs cartoon from Daily Life on Other Planets, Appleby & Mole 2015
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