Thursday, April 12, 2012

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant

Quick Overview:
Title: Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant
Author/Artist: Tony Cliff
Started: May 28, 2011
Ended: February 25, 2012
Pros: Breezy, swashbuckling action; endearing characters; dynamic environments.
Cons: A little on the short side, says the habitual reader of long, never-ending comics.

This Eisner-nominated comic has been getting so much well-deserved publicity lately, I hope it's not too redundant to add my own review to the mix. If it counts for anything, I have been a fan of Tony Cliff's work for many years, and had the pleasure of being introduced to Delilah Dirk long before it was made available online. The excellent comic anthology Flight featured his work in several volumes, and I thought his work really stood out among the others. It was such a treat to see the Delilah Dirk stories expanded, polished, and linked together.

If you enjoy/ed Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, don't touch that remote, because Mr. Cliff is hard at work on a new installment, Delilah Dirk and the Seeds of Good Fortune, due out in print on May 4, 2012!

The story: A lot of parallels can be drawn between Delilah Dirk and The Hobbit. An endearing, slightly bumbling, peace-loving character gets dragged unwillingly into the adventure of a lifetime, and (gradually) comes to discover that he actually likes it. In place of a cadre of dwarves, we have a single outlaw adventuress; for Bilbo Baggins, we have a dutiful, tea-drinking officer in the Turkish army; and for Middle Earth we have an idealized rendition of 19-century Turkey. And just forget all that Sauron nonsense. Delilah Dirk contains no true evil, nothing to make you cry, cringe, or curse. Oh, there is plenty of violence, but it comes across as clean, fun, and perfectly justified, the way Indiana Jones unapologetically cuts through swathes of Nazis or Communists or whatever. Also unlike The Hobbit, Delilah Dirk is concise. There isn't really a "plot" so much as a series of loosely related scenarios which serve to develop endearing characters and exhibit marvelous environments. Lightweight and lighthearted while never seeming shallow, it clips along at a brisk pace, and you will have devoured the entire thing before you know it. Delilah Dirk is like a light but exquisitely prepared lunch-- delicious and refreshing, but perhaps not quite satisfying, at least not to those of us accustomed to the hearty, overwhelming, multi-course dinners provided by longer comics. I just wish I could have gotten to know these characters more deeply. But perhaps that is a craving that The Seeds of Good Fortune will help to satisfy.

The setting:  Delilah Dirk takes place in a summery, romantic Mediterranean setting in the year 1805. We begin in Constantinople and then proceed to romp all over the Byzantine countryside. Although no historically specific events are involved, the sense of place is vivid and authentic. In fact, I would say that Cliff's ability to craft believable environments is his greatest strength. Rippling oceans, bustling cities, and majestic landscapes all come to life not only though artistic skill, but though the way his characters interact with them. Many comics treat characters and settings as two totally separate categories, but Cliff's settings are characters, fully developed environments that people don't just prance around in front of, they truly inhabit. When I read Delilah Dirk, I can practically feel the breeze, hear the marketplace bustle, and smell the tang of the sea.

The characters: Delilah may be the titular lead and the more colorful character, but I feel that Erdemoglu Selim is the true star. Mr. Selim, the Turkish Lieutenant from the subtitle, is just your average Joe. He is unadventurous, good-natured, imminently likable, and would be happy to be left in peace to make (damn good) tea. Most entertainingly for us, that is not to be. Delilah Dirk first endangers his life, then saves it, unwittingly entrapping him in a debt that Mr. Selim feels grudgingly honor-bound to repay. Delilah is difficult to succinctly describe, which is marvelous. She is reminiscent of many famous characters, and yet not quite like any of them. A little Indiana Jones, a little Xena, a little Robin Hood, and a lot of herself. She is confident, witty, capable, but also selfish, brash, and childish. She and Selim are wonderful foils for one another. It's really a two-man show, and it's a delight to watch them interact. And, though I relish a good romance, I appreciate and respect the fact that their relationship doesn't follow the predictable route.

The art: Some comics remain obediently within the borders of their panels, but Delilah Dirk has a way of flooding off the page, sweeping me up like a rakish scoundrel on horseback, and abducting me. Just take a look at the first spread to see what I mean. It is truly a window into another place. The two-page spreads also contribute to this feeling. I've already gone on at length about his environments, but Cliff's characters are just as scintillating. He has experience in animation, which really comes across in his loose, expressive, gestural lines. His art emphasizes the essential --expression, motion, storytelling-- above exacting detail. Not to say that his pages aren't lush and detailed, they just aren't fussy about it. He does a great job with the color as well-- again, not overdoing it on flashy displays but going straight for the heart of a scene, using a variety of atmospheric palettes.

The writing: All the dialogue in Delilah Dirk is sparkling and eloquent, which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. As mentioned above, Delilah Dirk is not carried by a complicated plot, but by characters, and their banter is essential to what makes them lovable. Cliff also has a great sense for humorous pacing and juxtaposition, and knows when to let a panel just be silent.

The bottom line: A short-and-sweet swashbuckler that will charm, delight, and leave you hungry for more.  

Rating: Five stars

>> Read Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant here! <<

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