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Travelling with Delilah Dirk: A Q & A with Tony Cliff

by Dan
Graphica + Vancouver / August 29, 2013

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant

The adventures of Delilah Dirk drawn by Vancouver-based animator and illustrator Tony Cliff first started life as an online comic. But this week finally sees the release of the English-language graphic novel Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant published by First Second. 

A rollicking historical adventure story starring the eponymous English adventuress Delilah Dirk and her reluctant sidekick/straight-man, a Turkish soldier called Selim, it has sparky dialogue, easy off-beat humour and a disarming charm. To put it simply,  it's just one of the most straight-up fun comics I've read in ages. That it also looks beautiful doesn't hurt either! With the book hitting the shelves, I had to take the opportunity to ask Tony a few questions:


When did you start drawing comics?
Oh, I don’t even know. I’ve been reading them as long as I can remember, and probably drawing them just as long.

I did have a series of teachers through elementary and high school who were very supportive in terms of creativity in general and comics specifically. In elementary school, I had one teacher for three years in a row, and for each of the “units” that we’d study, we were tasked with making illustrated books to complete our assignments in. We weren’t simply filling out photocopied quiz sheets, everything took the form of a drawing, or an essay, and they were all glued into an exercise book, so that by the end of the unit you had this colourful little volume full of your learning on, say, medieval England, or the Pyramids, or whatever. Maybe that’s why, to this day, I prefer to hold an actual book instead of reading things online.

In high school, I started off with an art teacher who had a strong love of comics. We even had an elective art class specifically devoted to the craft of comic-making, and he ran an after-school club to take student’s comics and bind them into zine-like comic anthologies, full of short comics and pin-ups. Both he and my subsequent art teachers emphasized strong drawing fundamentals such as observation, perspective, anatomy, and composition. It wasn’t until I’d spent time in post-secondary schools that I discovered how fortunate I had been to have encountered so many excellent and supportive teachers.

Delilah Dirk Chapter 1

What was the inspiration for the character of Delilah Dirk?

There are a lot of streams that feed into the Delilah Dirk watershed, but I’ve done a poor job mapping them, so it’s tough for me to recall what they look like. I think a lot of it came from a contrary desire to make something different from what I’d seen, while at the same time recapturing a feel that I hadn’t seen in a while. I was seeing a lot of male protagonists and female supportive characters who were dour and serious and not a whole lot of fun, so I made the opposite. Since Indiana Jones, I haven’t encountered many movies, books, or games that felt the same way, so I tried to make something that would have a similar quality—I wish I could put my finger on it, but it’s a mix of tone and presentation that I haven’t seen anyone reproduce since Last Crusade.

I think I may have been inspired by some friends who were making similar characters, too. Kazu Kibuishi (of Amulet fame) was making drawings of Daisy Kutter and posting them on a message board that we were both frequenting. It wasn’t even a conscious thing, but several months into working on my first Delilah Dirk comic, I had to hit up Kazu and say, “oh dude, I think Delilah is a copy of Daisy Kutter.” He was kind and (probably) honest when he assured me that while they might have some similar qualities, there are so many differences and so many quirks that will get introduced as artifacts of our individual approaches that it’s silly to worry about it.
Though, I don’t really think of Delilah as the star of the story. I think there’s an element of her conception which was simply, “I need a fun character to allow me to explore different locales and different adventures.” Her character sprung from a desire simply to travel, drawing-wise, through different settings. I don’t think of her individually, I think of her as part of a puzzle with the other characters and the setting of the story.


Were you particularly interested in that place and time?
Not initially. If you had approached me several years ago and said, “make a comic set in Turkey of 1807,” I would have probably dismissed the suggestion.

I started out with an interest in Europe of the Napoleonic Wars, fuelled by reading a lot of Hornblower and Sharpe novels. I started researching the histories of the Venus de Milo and the Elgin Marbles, the major drama of which seems to have occurred at a relatively similar time (1810s-1830s, if I recall correctly). I think reading up on those things led me to western travel illustrations from what was at the time considered “the orient.” I think that led to a couple of drawings, just exploring some ideas, and next thing you know I was writing a comic set in 19th-century Istanbul. 


Did you have to do extensive research to draw the costumes and locations?
I didn’t have to, but I did try to be as accurate and respectful as possible. Sometimes I feel compelled by the requirements of one scene or another to go out and look for a specific costume or bit of architecture, and sometimes I try to take note of particularly appealing settings that I encounter during research and use those where I can. I have a genuine personal interest in a lot of the things that surround Delilah Dirk and her setting, so I’m always ingesting things from the library or on the internet and making notes when something seems important.

I find it’s easy for me to get stuck thinking that I need to accomplish a specific bit of research before I continue with a specific story element, but sometimes the work’s just gotta get done, and in the end the readers are there for the story of the characters. Sometimes the historical details just aren’t as important as they might feel. For me, as long as I’m not making any gross cultural faux pas, I feel pretty comfortable. But then, I also have a flying sailboat in there, so maybe that calibrates the reader to a different level of expectation.

Delilah Dirk Chapter 1 interior

The comic looks amazing, but the back-and-forth between Delilah and Selim is also a joy. Was it fun to write?
Absolutely. It’s one of my favourite parts of the process, and for me, bad dialogue is absolutely a deal-breaker. If the dialogue isn’t believable, it really ruins my enjoyment of a book/movie etc. This is why my enthusiasm for video games has been waning lately, I think. All that powerful technology and they still can’t write a line of dialogue.

Some people (ahem, Robert McKee) downplay the importance of dialogue, and I get their point. If a writer gets distracted by the nitty gritty of the dialogue, he or she can potentially lose track of what’s importantthe development of the story. So the recommendation is that you write your story without writing dialogue, so you can focus on the motivations within your characters and how it makes the story flow. Fair enough. 

On the other hand, assuming that same writer is willing to be diligent about critiquing and editing their story, why not go have some fun with the dialogue? Anything that gets you excited about moving forward in your writinganything that keeps you typing away at the keys and keeps things moving forwardthat’s a good thing. Maybe you’ll have to excise that really clever line of dialogue later, because it doesn’t necessarily help the story. But maybe it also adds levity or drama, texture and colour to a scene, and that has its own value. Discipline and efficiency are good, but sometimes you just have to have fun with it. Whether it works to help the end product or not, well, that’s why you need trustworthy test readers.


Delilah Dirk started as a webcomic. Was it important to you to see it in print as a graphic novel?
The Turkish Lieutenant was, indeed, first unleashed upon the public in the form of an online comic. I had always intended the book to be read as a book, though. That was my first priorityputting it online was just a way for me to gauge a public reaction to it. I needed to know whether I was doing something that might have wide appeal or whether I was working on something that was truly a vanity project. Considering how long a graphic novel takes to make, this would be an important factor when considering if I’d like to work on a second DD book.


How is drawing for the web different?
If I were designing the comic specifically for the web, I would like to take advantage of some of the medium’s strengths, like the infinite scroll, animated features, or interactive things. For better or worse, though, I like real, actual books too much to commit to making a comics exclusively for the web. Maybe someday, but for DD my preference will always be for paper, so I will continue to design it that way.


Who are some of cartooning heroes?

I grew up reading Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes almost religiously. He’s had a huge influence on me in many ways, not the least of which is my taste and values when it comes to comics.

I’m also a strong fan of Travis Charest. His draughtsmanship is superb. Not only that, but when I was sixteen years old and I took some of my (admittedly poor) comic pages to a local comic show so that I could get his opinion and advice, he was very polite and encouraging. He made it very clear that I had a lot of work to do, but he did it in a way that made me want to do that work, which is the best effect that advice can have, I think.


What comics are you reading now?
There are a few books from First Second that I have an unbiased love for - Dave Roman’s Astronaut Academy series and most recently Lucy Knisely’s Relish. It’s fun to see how far you can make it through Relish without having to get up to get something to eat. Do not read it on an empty stomach.

I also picked up Luke Pearson’s Hilda and the Bird Parade, and it’s spectacular. It’s charming, it has elegant, amusing dialogue, its story is a nice shape, and it delivers a theme effectively without being too heavy-handed about it. It is a very inviting book.


Is there a thriving community of cartoonists in Vancouver?
Ha ha, there is definitely a community of cartoonists. Whether it’s thriving or not, well, I’m not the best person to ask. I do know that Ed Brisson’s monthly comic jam is usually very busy. The folks involved with Cloudscape Comics are also doing some really excellent things. They run regular events which are good for comic-makers of all experience levels.

Vancouver also has a strong animation industry, and there’s a lot of overlap between animation folks and comic folks. After all, a lot of the skills are very similar, and comics present a good opportunity for someone who wants to be creatively involved in a narrative format to just be able to do the whole thing themselves. Animation, whether 2D or 3D, really relies on having a whole team to complete the work. With comics, an enterprising individual can present an entire story all by themselves, from start to finish. Novels allow that, too, but an animator tends to be more visually-focused, so comics end up being a better fit. 


Who else is doing interesting work right now?
Everyone is! It just depends what you’re interested in.
I like Brandon Graham’s work a lot. Not only does he make good things, but it seems like there are few people in the industry who actually love comics as much as he does. He breathes comics. This has the not-entirely-incidental effect of making him a really good person to consult about what sort of cool new stuff is out there.

Also, not enough North Americans read French comics. Okay, yes, some of that is because they’re in French, and few ever get translated. It’s a real chicken-egg issue. Nevertheless, even if you can’t read French, some of them are just gorgeous to look at. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Fabien Mense’s work on Agito Cosmos; Nicolas Sure’s work in general but specifically on Neverland; basically anything illustrated by Alessandro Barbucci, especially Chosp; and Bastien Vivés work on Polina and Last Man.

Delilah Dirk Chapter 2

When can we expect the next Delilah Dirk adventure?
I’m working hard on a second full-length, full-colour graphic novel. I don’t know what year it’ll land, or what month, but I can say it will probably be a Tuesday. If anyone wants to stay abreast of developments, I’ll be posting regular progress updates in a subsection of my Tumblr, or on my personal or Delilah Dirk-dedicated Twitter feeds.


Tony Cliff will be signing copies of Delilah Dirk and The Turkish Lieutenant on Friday August 30, 7:00pm-10:00pm at Hot Art Wet City Gallery (2206 Main St, Vancouver BC). 

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