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Tony Cliff Creates Proper Adventure in “Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant”

by  in Comic News Comment
Tony Cliff Creates Proper Adventure in “Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant”

Constantinople, 1805. There is no Indiana Jones, no Lara Croft. There is only Delilah Dirk. An adventurer in an exotic location, one who has all the essentials: globetrotting upbringing, affluent lineage, flying ship, and even a sidekick who makes remarkable tea. She’s a master swordsman — a charming daredevil — who finds herself in one troubling situation after another. She is not humorless and she is certainly not grim. She is, in fact, a proper adventurer.

Creator Tony Cliff’s first, self-published Delilah Dirk one-shot arrived in 2007. As time passed, he added on a few chapters here and there, and by the time French publishing house Akileos had printed two paperbacks of what would be collectively called “Delilah Dirk et le Lieutenant Turc,” Cliff was anxious to see it as a graphic novel in North America.

Enter First Second Books.

This week in finer establishments, “Delilah Dirk and The Turkish Lieutenant” will give readers that exquisite experience of not only how a proper adventurer should behave, but how, in the deft capabilities of its creator — how dynamic and fresh a female adventurer can be. Between humorous quips, Cliff spoke with CBR News about “The Turkish Lieutenant” on the cusp of its release.

CBR News: Tony, to my surprise, “The Turkish Lieutenant” is but one story in the Delilah Dirk library. How long has this character been with you? And what was the inspiration behind creating her?

Tony Cliff: I made a 28-page comic called “Delilah Dirk and the Treasure of Constantinople” back in 2007, so I guess it’s been, what — oh, my math is rusty — fourteen years? At the time, I’d been reading a lot of C.S. Forester’s “Hornblower” series and Bernard Cornwell’s “Sharpe” series of novels, and was really into Napoleonic War-type stuff. I like the gunpowder and sails and bravery and pre-mechanization of the whole thing. It’s far enough back in time that it feels very exotic, but still close enough that folks are generally civilized. If you read a bit of Austen, you can see how modes of thought and behavior are pretty recognizable and/or relatable.

Delilah Dirk came from wanting to explore that time period and that chunk of the world (Europe and the Mediterranean), and to do so with what would have been the equivalent of a James Bond-type character. Since the genre’s already chock-a-block full of male heroes, though, and because I’m naturally contrary, my James Bond is a lady. With swords (for good measure).

“Delilah” started off being a small, self-published book. Then a publisher in France picked it up. It’s gone online, and now, for the first time, it’s available in print in the States thanks to First Second. Can you tell me a little bit about that journey?

Let me just — — I’m just going to check this timeline.

Yes, “The Treasure of Constantinople” was self-published through an online, print-on-demand service. I made a subsequent chapter, “Delilah Dirk and the Aqueduct,” for volume five of the “Flight” anthology. At the time, I had wanted the stories to be loosely connected. It didn’t matter how.

Then, for reasons which escape me now (and which I failed to note on this timeline), I decided it would be a “fun idea” to combine those two stories — ” Treasure of Constantinople” and “Aqueduct” — into one complete story. So that is what I did. I wrote a prologue, a Chapter Two, and a Chapter Four — each twice the length of “Constantinople” or “Aqueduct, ” which would become chapters One and Three, respectively. The result is “Delilah Dirk and The Turkish Lieutenant.”

I was approached early on by the gentlemen at Éditions Akileos. So early, in fact, that I thought it was a scam. I was suspicious about their early enthusiasm. The joke’s on me, though — they took “The Turkish Lieutenant,” translated it and published it as two big, beautiful BD editions.

Meanwhile, I continued looking for a North American publisher, as my hope from the very beginning was to see DD on store shelves as a “proper” book. I was lucky to be approached with a very promising offer, though when that fell through after several months of waiting, I felt like I just wanted to get the comic out there for people to read. I wanted feedback and to be able to gauge the comic’s reception so that I could determine whether this was something that would be worth pursuing in additional stories or whether I had just completed a vanity project in the most literal sense of the term.

Fortunately, the response has been extremely positive. First Second has been very enthusiastic about the book from quite early on, resulting in the very beautiful book that’s on shelves now!

Delilah herself is engaging, exciting, adventurous, but one thing she is not — she’s not the world-weary traveler we’re used to seeing. She’s not another tired imitation of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. At what point did you decide to shape and mold her into this type of character?

Do you mean the sort of grim, serious type of adventurer? I see what you might mean about Lara Croft, though I think Indiana Jones has those flashes of humor that keep him engaging.

Certainly you see a lot of that dour, un-fun type of personality in the “Hornblower”/”Sharpe” series, and in James Bond. There was a lot of that in the female characters of the late-90s Image comics I was reading, too. Humorless women. Yawn. I didn’t give much thought to that, though, when I was putting DD together. It just felt like a fun, lively sort of character was the way to go. I give the seriousness and earnest sense of duty or honor to Selim, just to balance DD out. 

Mr. Selim — a charming, meek tea master who has no business being a lieutenant. Delilah is fire and Selim is water. Why did you decided to include — to feature — Selim in the story? Could we have figured out what type of character Delilah was without the juxtaposition that Selim provided? 

That is an interesting question, though — would DD’s character stand out without Selim to play off? It could have, I’m sure. I could have just written DD solo adventures. That’s not the type of story I’m interested in putting out there, though. I grew up reading “Calvin & Hobbes,” watching sitcoms, laughing at exchanges between disparate characters like Indy and Short Round. Writing back-and-forth exchanges between characters is one of the more entertaining parts of the work, so if it weren’t Selim, there would be someone else in there for her to play against. It’s got to the point where I’m working on a new story, and it takes a lot of discipline not to just fritter away pages and pages on having the two characters blab back and forth at each other. Gotta keep things moving, keep things on point and related to the themes or ideas of the story. That’s what I’ve been told makes for good stories, at least according to books about how to do that sort of thing. Still, I’m going to try to inject as much self-indulgent bickering as possible.

All of Delilah’s stories are available online, and I’m curious as to what advantages you’ve seen from having the catalog online.

Ah ha! Not all of them. “The Seeds of Good Fortune” is still print-only, though I’m running out of actual copies and am considering making it available digitally, because the economics of making a small, self-published print-only book are not super-healthy. That said, man, are you kidding me? Nothing but fame and fortune! You should see the size of the swimming pool I just put in. It’s especially impressive considering I live on the seventh floor of an eighteen-story apartment building. The neighbors downstairs would not stop complaining for the longest time, but then I said, “Go check out my comic for free online,” and now we’re best friends.

Other than the overwhelming, sometimes crippling pressures of intense fame, it has been nice to hear from people who’ve read and enjoyed the comic. Every single person who’s emailed me regarding “The Turkish Lieutenant” has had something thoughtful, kind and/or constructive to say, which makes me feel very lucky. I’ve seen YouTube comments. I know who’s out there on the internet. I don’t get emails from them. Just nice people. 

What’s your background in illustration? And what’s your involvement in animation?

Nothing crazy — I’ve just been making comics since I was very young. I was lucky to have high-school art teachers who were both supportive and encouraging when it came to strong draftsmanship skills and comic-making. Lots of emphasis on fundamentals like perspective, proportion and drawing from life. After that, there was a two-year dip into the waters of a general Fine Arts education before seeing the light and being accepted to Capilano University’s excellent Commercial Animation program.

Since then, I’ve been fortunate to be able to try out most of the roles you can get in animation production. I started as a background layout artist, designing animation backgrounds. I spent a few years making actual (Flash) animation and supervising that sort of thing. Most recently I’ve been storyboarding–last fall on a show called “Max Steel,” and this spring on season four of “My Little Pony.” 

What does the future hold for Delilah Dirk?

I am currently writing out the story for a second long-form Delilah Dirk graphic novel. It needs one more draft, I think, before I’ll start roughing it out. Currently it’s just loosely-connected scenes of self-indulgent bickering. I should probably add some adventuring. More than that I cannot say right now, though!

Vancouver is an awesome spot for a comics creator to live. Do you have a collective art group that you get together with?

Is it? It’s almost ludicrously unaffordable. Honestly, I don’t understand how anyone who makes comics full-time can afford to live in Vancouver, especially outside of the suburbs.

Now, on the flip side, yes, the people here are amazeballs (he said un-ironically). I’m having a gallery show with three of them right now — if you’re in Vancouver and want to check out some amazing work by Rebecca Dart, Simon Roy, and Brandon Graham, come see Process Colour at the Hot Art Wet City gallery. It runs until August 30, when we’ll be having a launch party for “The Turkish Lieutenant.”

Unfortunately, I do not have a collective art group. That would be nice, though. Something like the 1920s or belle epoque salons of “Midnight in Paris”? Except with comics? How glamorous.

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