‘Delilah Dirk & the Turkish Lieutenant’: Tony Cliff inks an adventure

Aug. 28, 2013 | 1:49 p.m.

The cover for "Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant." (Tony Cliff / First Second Books)

A self-portrait of Tony Cliff, author of "Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant." (Tony Cliff / First Second Books)

Tony Cliff’s swashbuckling heroine Delilah Dirk finally has a graphic novel of her own.

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant,” out this week from First Second Books, follows the globe-trotting, sword-swinging, treasure-stealing character across early 19th century Turkey, where she meets Erdemoglu Selim, a timid tea aficionado who finds himself unexpectedly caught up in Delilah’s misadventures (not to mention her flying sailboat).

Cliff first introduced the character in 2007 in the 28-page short story “Delilah Dirk and the Treasure of Constantinople,” which earned an Eisner nod. Another installment found itself in the “Flight: Vol. 5” anthology.

Delilah may remind readers of such adventure heroes as Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and even Adele Blanc-Sec. The daughter of a famous Greek artisan and a British ambassador, Delilah’s worldly childhood was filled with sword-fighting, archery and a dash of aristocracy — skills she puts to good use as she runs from the law and bandits alike.

Hero Complex caught up with Cliff about Delilah and Mr. Selim’s origins and sequel possibilities.

HC: How did the idea come about? I understand this project began online?

Page 16 of "Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant." (Tony Cliff / First Second Books)

Page 12 of “Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant.” (Tony Cliff / First Second Books)

TC: Well, sort of. I can’t say I had heard Ray Bradbury’s advice that writers should begin by writing many short stories as opposed to starting out writing entire novels, but that’s what happened. The first “Delilah Dirk” comic was a 28-page lark. I almost never finished it, but when I posted my rough pages on the “Flight” forums, Doug Holgate and a few other folks made it clear in no uncertain terms that I had better finish that project. The result was “Delilah Dirk and the Treasure of Constantinople,” which was nominated for an Eisner award in 2007 and which would, several years later, became Chapter 1 of “The Turkish Lieutenant.” Chapter 3 was another short “Delilah Dirk” story I made for Volume 5 of the “Flight” anthology. I kept testing the waters with small projects, gauging the reaction. Baby steps.

Eventually I decided to combine those two stories into what is now “The Turkish Lieutenant.” How much of that I had planned ahead of time, it’s hard to say. I don’t remember accurately. At any rate, the intention was always that it would be a “real” printed book. I put it up on the Web just to further test its appeal. I needed to know whether these characters and the stories I was putting them through were appealing enough to strangers that it was worth my continuing to write stories about them, or whether I was working on something that amused me, and that was the limit. Fortunately, it appealed to First Second, and here we are now celebrating its North American release as a “real” printed book.

HC: Can you talk a little about the differences between creating for Web and for print?

TC: Since the book was always intended for print, the real difficulty was in presenting the pages well online. Existing templates for presenting webcomics were at the time, frankly, hideous. Most still are, and I’m not sure if two-page spreads are supported. I approached it from the point of view of, well, I’m not doing anything to this comic to specifically take advantage of the Web’s special characteristics, so I might as well make it replicate the book-reading experience as closely as possible. To that end, I built my own WordPress template specifically to present the comic in a two-page spread that would maintain the same page-turn reveals the reader would have experienced if they were holding a book. It wasn’t very robust or advanced, but it worked.

It’s tough, working on something that might be printed or might be presented online. Ideally, it’s nice to exploit a medium’s specific advantages, for example like Emily Carroll does with hotlinking or rollovers, or like this Boulet comic that really takes advantage of the vertical scroll. How do you make that work on paper, though? And I really like paper books, so I am nervous at the idea of committing just to the Web.

HC: What was your process like? Did you write the entire story first and then illustrate? Or did the drawing inform the narrative?

Page 17 of "Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant." (Tony Cliff / First Second Books)

Page 13 of “Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant.” (Tony Cliff / First Second Books)

TC: I generally work through the entire story in multiple passes, refining at each step. I do the most story structure work right at the start, because that’s the hard stuff, and the stuff that all the time-consuming drawing depends upon. The story starts loose and rough, and I keep going over it, tightening it and adding detail. Eventually, it feels tight enough that I can start doing the same with drawn pages. They start out as stick figures in rectangles and get more and more refined over subsequent passes until the line art is final. Once I’m drawing the line art, I like to make as few fundamental changes as possible. Dialogue, however, stays pretty fluid all the way through colouring. I change dialogue around constantly.

This process was all figured out and learned during the process of “The Turkish Lieutenant.” Like I mentioned above, Chapter 1 began many years ago, when my process was pretty crude and I barely knew what I was doing. By the time I’d finished Chapter 4, I had the system down pretty solid. The fact that no one’s mentioned how inconsistent the chapters are means either I’ve done a good job or I have very polite readers.

HC: Delilah reminds me of a swashbuckling Indiana Jones. Where did you find inspiration for her character?

TC: I was definitely trying to channel the same sort of feeling that I got from Indiana Jones. There’s a certain intangible quality that those first three movies had that I haven’t seen successfully reproduced since, despite some excellent efforts. The closest I’ve seen has been in the “Uncharted” series of games, and while they have their own superb qualities, there’s still a warmth or some other Indiana quality that’s missing. Maybe it’s just my personal nostalgia, though I get the impression I’m not alone in these feelings.

So Delilah comes a bit from that Indiana Jones-love, but also as a reaction to a lot of what I’d been reading a few years back. I’d been taking in a lot of Hornblower and Sharpe novels, as well as some late-’90s Image superhero comics, all of which featured relatively poorly developed or uninteresting female characters. Having had experience with actual human females and finding them to be full of humor, energy and independent spirit (who knew?), this incongruity between actual human females and what I was seeing in the types of stories I was enjoying didn’t make a lot of sense. So I thought I’d try to cover the gap as best I could. Plus, I like the feel of the early 1800s and the Napoleonic Wars. Considering the gender attitudes at the time, I figured having an adventurous lady would present a lot of solid options for conflict and gags.

HC: Mr. Selim is such a fun sidekick, partly because he’s an unwilling accomplice at first. What inspired his character? Why did you write the story from his perspective instead of Delilah’s?

Page 18 of "Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant." (Tony Cliff / First Second Books)

Page 14 of “Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant.” (Tony Cliff / First Second Books)

TC: It just seemed like the natural way to go. One of the first drawings I did of Delilah and Selim was the two of them at a table in a jail cell. He is hunched over a table, frustratedly trying to transcribe as Delilah sits back, sipping tea and gesturing wildly despite the chains around her wrists. The idea was that she was narrating tales from her world-traveling adventures, and he was tasked with taking notes on them, for some reason. Presenting Delilah’s adventures from his point of view made sense — her antics would seem outlandish and barely believable to Selim, not simply because of their outlandishness and unbelievability, but also because of the preconceived notions Selim would have about her. Again, it’s the gender thing, as well as his background as a relatively meek dude. Seeing her through his eyes would exaggerate her characteristics. Plus, he’s meeting her for the first time and so is the reader, so it all seemed most appropriate.

HC: Why this setting? What was appealing to you about these places and this time period?

TC: The time period appeals because it’s a little fantastical, but it has that undercurrent of authenticity; that feeling that, “Hey, this actually happened,” framing everything. Yes, I played fast and loose with the historical accuracy, but I like that it still has that subtle familiarity. On one hand, it seems otherworldly – how many readers can relate to the 19th-century technology and environment? On the other, it is Guaranteed True Facts that this was the reality of existence for some humans at one point in our history. It’s like free back story, as long as you don’t mess with it too much.

As for the location, well, I don’t remember exactly how or why I started focusing on Turkey. I mentioned the Hornblower and Sharpe books earlier, and they would have got me started on the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic Wars. I also started researching the histories of the Venus de Milo and the Elgin Marbles, because I thought it might have been interesting to have Delilah’s adventures intersect with these significant figures in art history. Perhaps there was an element in one of those books that led me to “Beauties of the Bosphorus,” a 19th-century travelogue written by Julia Pardoe and illustrated by William Bartlett. I think those illustrations were probably what got me excited about Istanbul.

HC: I love Delilah’s ship. What sparked that idea and its design?

TC: I wanted a globe-trotting character; someone who could get from place to place quickly. The technology of the early 19th century wasn’t really conducive to that sort of speedy travel, though, so I decided to get weird with it. Plus, I was hanging out with the “Flight” anthology dudes, and there were a lot of flying boats in the air, so to speak. I messed around with it a little bit, and it felt like I could make it fit. I wanted it to feel like it would be appropriate for the technology of the time, so I kept the steampunk-style brass heavy machinery away from it, co-opting the style of some small mid-20th century sailboats and abusing the laws of physics to make it work.

HC: Any plans for a sequel?

TC: Absolutely! I’m deep into writing a second full-length graphic novel. If you’re curious, these “travel posters” may provide a little insight as to the direction things could be heading.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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Comments


One Response to ‘Delilah Dirk & the Turkish Lieutenant’: Tony Cliff inks an adventure

  1. Alan Dean Foster says:

    This is a beautiful piece of work, well-written and exquisitely drawn, and thankfully completely different from the fetid sludge of mass-murder graphic novels that seem to dominate the genre. It would also make a delightful movie.

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