Tony Cliff Dives Into "Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant"

Tony Cliff is a Canadian cartoonist and animator who is known amongst comic book fans for his contributions to the "Flight" anthology series, but most webcomic fans know him for "Delilah Dirk." Set in the nineteenth century, Delilah Dirk is an adventurer who saves the life of a Janissary in nineteenth century Istanbul -- which is only fair, since she's responsible for him being sentenced to death.

In the webcomic "Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant" and in this year's new print comic "Delilah Dirk and the Seeds of Good Fortune," Cliff tells funny and exciting swash-buckling adventure tales. This year Cliff was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic and "Delilah Dirk and The Turkish Lieutenant" has been released in a two volume print edition in France -- English-language readers are still eagerly awaiting a translation. After returning from this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego, Cliff spoke with CBR News about all things "Delilah Dirk."

Tell us the origins of "Delilah Dirk" and where the concept came from?

"Delilah Dirk" began as a 28-page short story called "Delilah Dirk and the Treasure of Constantinople" back in 2007. I'm not sure exactly where the characters came from -- there is an early set of sketches that I did, but I don't remember the exact inspiration for the sketches. I'd been reading a lot of Hornblower and Sharpe novels, so I'd been enjoying that early 18th-century time period. Louis de Bernières's "Birds Without Wings" figures in there somewhere. I also discovered a lot of very handsome, very atmospheric mid-19th-Century engravings and drawings by Western European travelers/artists such as W.H. Bartlett and David Roberts. I'm not sure how I came across those, but they were pretty captivating and inspiring. Pretty sure there's a bit of "Duck Tales" in the inspiration pile, too. It's a big pile, and everything's run together long ago.

"Treasure of Constantinople" got half roughed out around 2006 before I was distracted by a shiny object or a bright colour or something and put it on hold in favor of some other pursuit. When I remembered the pages and decided to share them on the "Flight" forums as "something I had been working on; I don't know what will come from it," I was encouraged by a few of my good compatriots over there to finish the story up. I eventually self-published "Treasure of Constantinople" through the Lulu print-on-demand service, and due to some spectacular fortune it was seen by the right eyes and ended up being nominated for a Will Eisner award. "Constantinople" eventually became Chapter One of "The Turkish Lieutenant" with a few tweaks, such as the addition of colour.

When people ask you to describe the comic, what do you say?

That depends on the location and the context. At a con, after a few hours of practice, I'm usually able to describe "The Turkish Lieutenant" as a light-hearted action-adventure story with a sense of humour. When a brash English adventuress saves a Janissary officer from execution, he must struggle between repaying the debt he now owes her and trying to return to the quiet life he had always wanted. It's a conflict between principles and desires, plus sword fights. It's also a great way to fill the Indiana Jones-shaped hole in your heart.

Could you briefly explain who the Janissaries were?

[Laughs] I would imagine the "people who don't know" would be the vast majority. I'm surprised when people level a decent familiarity with the Janissaries at me.

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, most of the Eastern Mediterranean was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Janissaries were the center of the Empire's armed forces and were effectively the sultan's bodyguard. My understanding is that early in their history they were composed of boys pressed from Christian towns, castrated and raised as Muslim soldiers. As time passed, though, they became more of a political entity than a practical fighting force, and their composition began to include more free-born Muslims eager to join the Janissaries' privileged ranks. My conception of Selim is that he would be a grown son of one of these more political Janissary patriarchs.

Apparently, by the 1800s the Janissaries had become so politically powerful, self-interested and useless as a fighting force that they were dragging down the whole Empire. There were frequent conflicts with the sultans. Eventually Sultan Mahmud II waged war on them, and any Janissaries left over at the end were decapitated.

When you read something like that in the history books, it's hard not to want to stick your characters in the middle of it, so maybe that's something I'll get to incorporate at some point.

How much research did you do for the comic?

It's a continual process! A challenging, continual process. When I started out, I was poorly equipped in terms of research. I had a good amount of visual reference, but I'm still learning more and more about the time period and the location each day. The social standards and customs have been the hardest things to uncover -- little day to day details like peoples' various relationships with religion, the associated dress, and other small things: What did people have for breakfast? Did they even have "breakfast?"

Fortunately, putting the comic online has introduced me to a lot of very helpful readers who've emailed suggestions and pointers. All very politely and constructively, too. There are broader sweeping things that I can't really go back and change, but little details can be updated easily.

At any rate, the process continues, and as time goes on and I'm able to access more resources and spend more time with research, I'm hoping to give future stories a more accurate historical foundation.

Since you mentioned it, I have to ask, did they eat breakfast back then in the Ottoman Empire?

"The Seeds of Good Fortune" was supposed to be a 200 page graphic novel with a thrilling 164 page breakfast sequence, but I scrapped most of it because I still don't know the answer to that question.

How has the story and characters changed since you began working on "Delilah Dirk?"

"The Turkish Lieutenant" was built on the foundation of "Treasure of Constantinople" and was meant to tell the story of Selim's journey from meeting Delilah Dirk to -- spoiler alert -- deciding to join her as a traveling companion. There's always been that structure to the story, so in that sense it hasn't changed at all since the start.

Of course, all the stuff in the middle went through a few iterations. I've got a lot of exploratory scribblings and that sort of thing -- I even have an almost completely different version of what's now Chapter Four. I try to lock all that stuff down during the thumbnailing stage, though, so when I start in on the art I'm pretty happy with the shape of the story. There's no version of the story where Selim doesn't decide to join Delilah Dirk, though.

Different from how most webcomics are presented, you post two pages side by side and even though you don't use double page spreads, you're presenting the story the same way it would look in a comic book or graphic novel -- What were you trying to accomplish there in terms of pace and presentation? Do you think you succeeded?

There are a pair of spreads near the beginning that take advantage of the layout, but the decision to lay it out like that for the web happened because it's just how the book was designed. The book was thumbnailed out to be read in page pairs -- after all, it was my original intention for it to go straight to print, not the web. So the layout and the "reveals" are all designed for that format. Whether I took advantage of it as fully as possible is arguable. I just wanted to present the book as close as possible to the way it was originally designed, and so we have the two page presentation.

If I had been designing it strictly as a webcomic, I like to think I wouldn't have limited it to the format of the printed page. I'd do something that takes proper advantage of the web. You know, like you see in Emily Carroll's work (and others, of course).

As for "succeeding" or not, well, I'm happy with it. It does what I want it to -- it's easy to navigate (if your screen's big enough) and it's distraction free. If I have to read a comic online, that's how I want to read it.

I think you use humor and fantasy in your storytelling particularly well, but they can be tricky to balance in an adventure story like "Dirk." How do you keep the tone light but still maintain a sense of danger -- how do you keep elements like Delilah's ship, but otherwise it's fairly realistic?

Regarding the "fantastical" elements: I think it's probably just consistency and adding mistakes or "roughness" to it. You gotta keep the rules consistent -- establish that the flying boat does this thing and that thing and then stick to it. It flies, it lands on water, and it's operated by lines and a rudder. If you present it tangibly, matter of factly and consistently it begins to settle in to the world, and it feels like it belongs.

You gotta keep that fantastical thing from being a "perfect solution," too. Making the crazy stuff fallible helps it be believable. The boat does what it does, which is pretty remarkable, but it's not immune to, say, a burning arrow. Having each individual character react in their own honest way helps, too -- Selim is suitably astonished, and Delilah Dirk, who's familiar with it, is almost blase about her flying boat. If the reader is inclined to be doubting of the less realistic elements, having a character in the fiction who is disbelieving of the fantastical stuff gives the reader someone who's "on their side," too. In "The Turkish Lieutenant," the Agha really doesn't believe in the boat, and so when said flying boat turns out to NOT be nonsense, if the reader feels cheated, at least they're not alone. Hopefully that means they're able to remain invested in the fiction. This is all a moot point, though, because the flying boat is based on really solid, very real, actual and not fake scientific principles.

As for the humor, shoot -- I don't know. I just try to make characters that appeal to me and that means giving them a bit of a humorous side. Are you suggesting having a light tone and maintaining suspense or danger are mutually exclusive? I would argue that without having the light moments, you wouldn't recognize it when your characters are taxed by their challenges. If you don't have that contrast, and everything is danger, danger, danger and trouble, trouble, trouble, it would be monotonous.

I just meant we can think of comics taking themselves far too seriously, draining all the fun out and comics that are too light hearted and joke-y to the point where there's little sense of danger. You do a good job of balancing those elements.

[Laughs] Yeah, I hear you about the two extremes. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. Some people like their coffee black, some like a little coffee with their sugar. I just tried to make something I'd like, which -- like you say -- doesn't take itself too seriously but isn't completely toothless.

I'd plop "Delilah Dirk" more on the light hearted side of the spectrum, though. Writing "danger" into a story is tough, I find. It's hard to know what feels dangerous when you're writing something out. You know how it all turns out in the end, so you just have to hope the reader finds it as suspenseful as you think it should be. Making it humorous is easier: if it makes you chuckle while you're writing it, it's probably funny.

So, how much work is involved in it? Probably more than I think, but it's not a very calculated process. I just try to beat the story into a shape that appeals to me, usually meaning punctuating the funny bits with action-y, hopefully dangerous feeling bits and vice-versa.

Are the leading characters in love or is Selim the "Steed" to Delilah's "Peel?"

[Laughs] Everything you need to know about their relationship is on the pages. How that develops or is revealed will have to be left up to future books!

You were nominated for an Eisner Award this year for best digital comic. How does that feel?

Are you kidding? It's an extreme honor, and it feels great. I like the Eisner's a lot -- they promote a great sense of community and tradition in comics. Though I didn't end up receiving the award, I was nominated along with some excellent competition, and I'm grateful that the judges chose to recognize "The Turkish Lieutenant" and include it amongst such high quality company.

What is "Delilah Dirk and the Seeds of Good Fortune?"

It's a self-contained short story. It takes place after the events of "Turkish Lieutenant" and involves Delilah Dirk having to extract a signature from the malicious chieftain of a small town. She opts not to bring Selim along, so when things go wrong she's on her own -- almost. The story's completely self-contained; you don't have to have read "The Turkish Lieutenant" to enjoy it, but it doesn't hurt.

"The Seeds of Good Fortune" is in black and white and drawn in a different style than the webcomic. What was your intention with these choices?

The style's a bit different, but not by much. "The Turkish Lieutenant" was "inked" in pencil, and I was trying to get really clean lines out of the lead. For "Seeds," I figured I'd stop trying to make the pencil look like ink and embrace its pencil-ness. I'd stop trying to make it look less rough than it does naturally and try to take advantage of the organic texture and line quality. I'm happy with the results, but there's still a lot of room to push it further and get some unique effects more appropriate to the tool.

Do you have more stories in mind for Selim and Delilah?

Oh, of course! Now I just need the time to develop and produce them.

Talk about the challenges of turning Delilah into a print book.

Since "The Turkish Lieutenant" was originally designed and made to be a print book, the real challenges were in making those print pages work on the web (what with having to carefully balance usability, readability, file sizes, bandwidth and image quality).

Self-publishing "Seeds" involved a bit of learning, though. I used the same basic techniques as I had when making "The Turkish Lieutenant," but encountered some issues with "colour spaces" that I still don't fully understand. Fortunately, I had a very helpful ally at the printing house. They were super patient.

It's horribly unfair for there to be a French version of "The Turkish Lieutenant" before an English one. Why did that happen?

The fine people at Akileos (the French publisher) got in touch with me very early on. So early, in fact, I was suspicious. They've always been really enthusiastic about "Delilah Dirk," and when "The Turkish Lieutenant" was finished, they were eager to pick it up. They put together a beautiful two-volume edition of the book in the large, hardcover bandes dessinees format. The feedback's been great, and Richard, Emmanuel and the rest of the crew over at Akileos all turned out to be wonderful people I'm lucky to have met and worked with.

My suspicions were, of course, completely unfounded.

What are you working on now?

A few things! I'm working on a couple animation projects (for which I can't provide specifics) and am in the early stages of getting another "Delilah Dirk" story up and running. I'll be sharing news and progress on how that's going. To stay current with that info, the best way is to sign up for the Delilah Dirk newsletter, the Delilah Dirk tag on my tumblr, and on Twitter.

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