Delilah Dirk: Swashbuckling Heroine

Image By First Second Books

There is a new swashbuckling adventurer on the literary scene, and her name is Delilah Dirk. In her first adventure, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, the author and illustrator, Tony Cliff, introduces our heroine through the eyes of Selim, a tea-loving lieutenant of early 19th century Constantinople. By simply doing his job in a civilized way, he impresses an imprisoned Delilah, and gets himself on the executioner’s block. He is saved by this resourceful and dangerous woman, and they set off on a journey to avenge her uncle from the pirate captain Zakul (the terrible!).

Daring escapes, witty banter, fine tea, and the start of a good friendship fill the colorful pages of Cliff’s first graphic novel. Both of my teens really enjoyed the book, and I did as well. Tony Cliff was kind enough to answer some questions I had about Delilah Dirk:

GeekMom: I am a bit obsessed with tea, so immediately bonded with Selim in the very first pages. Are you a tea drinker yourself? (I won’t hold it against you if you’re not…)

Image By Tony Cliff

Tony Cliff: I am! Definitely. It’s comforting. I’m pretty casual about it, though. A half-decent off-the-shelf Earl Grey will do me fine, though I DO take it with milk and sugar (don’t hold THAT against me).

There’s a nice story behind the “tea recipe” that Selim recites in the prologue. Chapter One of The Turkish Lieutenant had actually been self-published in 2007 as its own little self-contained comic, and in it Delilah has a line about only drinking “the blood of her enemies.” An enterprising reader took it upon herself to craft a “Blood of My Enemies” tea blend, which she documented online. Since the prologue for The Turkish Lieutenant was completed more recently, I asked her if I could use her recipe in that sequence. The ingredients are listed in order of representative quantity, so it’s conceivable that the recipe could be replicated. I have never tried it myself, though I understand it’s a bit spicy and the colour lives up to the tea’s name.

GM: Delilah’s character jumps off the page with her energy and personality. How did she arrive in your imagination? 

TC: Honestly, I have to admit that there wasn’t a lot of thought that went into her character. Some of her comes as a reaction to everything I’d taken in at that point–a lot of Hornblower and Sharpe books, a lot of mid-90s Image comics, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Disney Saturday-morning cartoons. The male heroes were relatively serious, stern, square-jawed men. The women were similarly humourless, fun-hating Amazons. I like James Bond as much as (probably more than) the next dude, but he’s not exactly a bundle of laughs. There’s a place for that, of course, and I understand that it’s a time-tested trope to surround a more serious-minded protagonist with other characters that provide comedy relief and so on and so forth.

I don’t know where I started with Delilah Dirk, but it felt natural to respond to those familiar action-adventure characters and tropes with a quirky, energetic, slightly sarcastic woman. It just seemed like a fun thing to do. There’s a bit of a gender-politics angle to it insofar as I DID feel motivated to put a female character out into the world that I could feel proud of; one that I wouldn’t feel ashamed to show my female friends, or my girlfriend, or a potential daughter, or my mom. So far, so good–my 92-year-old maternal grandmother likes Delilah, I’ve been told.

GM: Although Delilah pulls us along in this adventure, Selim is the main character. Why did you choose him to tell this story? How did his character come about?

TC: Because if I were to tell the story from Delilah’s point of view, all her feats would be presented in a hum-drum, matter-of-fact sort of fashion. This is daily life for her. She’s familiar with the sorts of things she’s willing and able to do.

For Selim, this is all new and astonishing, not least because Delilah is a woman in a time and place where exceptional feats are not generally expected from women. Quite the opposite (if you’ll allow me to generalize). From his point of view, Delilah and her exploits are surprising and unheard-of, which just seems like a more natural, more exciting point from which to approach Delilah. The reader is introduced to Delilah as Selim is introduced to Delilah. You’ve got a friend along for the ride as you meet this wholly exceptional character. Someone to reassure you, “Yes, this is as crazy as it seems.” It all just helps reveal the context in which Delilah’s operating, specifically, she is an unpredictable sword-swinging foreign woman in a land where such a thing is even MORE absurd than you might have assumed, had you not been presented solely with Delilah’s point of view.

In fact, Selim’s character might have come out just as a vehicle for illuminating Delilah’s adventurous exploits. I think it’s only through the process of writing the story and having them play off each other that they ended up having the exchanges that they do. It’s tough to remember exactly where these things came from.

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GM: Tell me about your research for the time and place of this book.

TC: It is constant! One thing I have discovered during the course of making this project is that if you stop to wait until you feel as if your research is “complete,” you will never make anything. Some days you just have to push forward with whatever information you have.

It’s also surprising the way research works. It feels as though 98-percent of the research that I’ve done has not explicitly informed the content of the book. This is a tough concept to explain, but I’ll try. It feels like most of the research goes into building a foundational understanding of the place and the time. You will never call explicit attention to it on any one page of the book, but it will be there in the background, informing every panel and every line of dialogue. There are a lot of things you and I understand about the world in which we live and we take those things for rote. You cannot assume those things will be the same in another culture, two hundred years ago. It is really surprising to discover that you have no idea about the specifics of how someone would have travelled from one town to another. Little things like that keep popping up–little intangibles of no major historical significance will pop up and remind you that you are in way over your head.

Fortunately, the main focus of the book is on the characters and their stories. Little historical details are important, and they add a subtle texture to the work that you can feel, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it, but they’re not the reason most people are engaged with your work. They’re there for the story, to see the play between characters unfold. When I get hung up on a little detail, I just try to remind myself that it’s the characters’ stories that are most important.

GM: What were the biggest challenges of this five year project?

TC: Just between you and me? Getting people to read it. Fortunately, it seems like a lot of the people who read it end up enjoying it, but man, it is tough to get over that first hurdle. I get it, too. The book has a setting that isn’t very familiar, there aren’t any easy hooks. The illustration style is something that perhaps most people would associate with a Disney cartoon (and thus associate with children’s entertainment) while the subject matter is better suited for a slightly older reader.

Nevertheless, I’ve tried to deliver some engaging characters, a good shot of humour, and a story that’s both honest and exciting.  I can tell it must read differently than people expect, as more than one reader has seemed surprised at how much they’ve enjoyed it. I like that reaction, though, and if I can keep surprising people, that makes me happy. I would much rather have people be pleasantly surprised than be disappointed at something that got hyped-up beyond warrant.

GM:  I assume (hope) there will be more adventures?

TC: That is my intention! Further adventures are, indeed, planned. These “travel posters” may provide a clue as to where things might be heading, maybe. I’m well through the writing process for a second graphic-novel-length story, and I’m intending to start thumbnails and roughs this Fall. If anyone wants to keep tabs on it and/or harass me to work faster, they can do so via Tumblr, or on either my Delilah-focused @delilahdirk Twitter account, or my more-frequently-updated kitchen-sink @tangocharlie account.

Making comics is a slow process, though, especially when you insist on doing all the work yourself, so it will still be a while before the second book arrives. That said, I’ve learned a lot from the process of making The Turkish Lieutenant–really worked all the kinks out–so how long could it possibly take? A month? Maybe two? Definitely two months, tops.

GM: Thanks, Tony! Looking forward to more global adventures with these two entertaining characters. Here is a page from the book of where Delilah and Selim first. The entire story is out now to purchase, so enjoy!

Image By First Second Books

Rebecca Angel was one of those kids that put the dragon book on top of her pile in the hopes that someone would say, "Hey, I'm into that stuff too!" Alas, she had to wait until she was an adult to find fellow geeks. Luckily, she married one and their kids are too. A music teacher by day, Rebecca is also a lover of tea, science literacy, funky tights, RPGs, anime, manga, comics, fantasy books and movies.