Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

This is a special review for my friend MJ who turned me on to this amazing comic:

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant is the first in a series of adventures, penned and illustrated by the incomparable Tony Cliff, following the eponymous Ms. Dirk as she sweeps across 19th century Eurasia and beyond, stealing both priceless treasure and our hearts.  Believe me when I say this comic has everything,  beautiful artwork, daring sword fights, flying boats, evil warlords, hilarious comedy, and perhaps even some romance in between explosions.

Genre: Adventure/Comedy/Historical

Plot:  It is the year 1805 in the city of Constantinople, and Selim is a lieutenant in His Majesty’s Jannisary Corps.  The job is thankless and tiresome, but things suddenly get a lot more interesting for Selim when a mysterious traveler named Delilah Dirk is arrested and brought to him for questioning.

Ms. Dirk proves to be a cheerful, well-mannered, enigmatic woman of remarkable talent and skill, boasting an eclectic knowledge of combat and swordsmanship, as well as the uncanny ability to get into as much trouble as physically possible at any given time.

Without much delay Selim finds himself caught up in Delilah’s whirlwind life of danger and excitement.  With an unfortunate death sentence on his head, he must flee his home and embark on a dazzling journey that will take him to all corners of the earth, in a flying sailboat no less!

Delilah Dirk is a fantastic narrative that transports us to a completely different world while keeping us firmly rooted in our own history.  While the story itself is set in a specific time period, it’s safe to say that Mr. Cliff has taken great creative liberties (have I mentioned the flying boat yet?!?!) and thus the setting and events seem more reminiscent of an adventure novel published by Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs than anything 100% historically accurate.  This is in fact, a great example of how well an author can suspend disbelief within a story and still keep the readers fully engaged.  There’s a beautiful level of detail lying beneath the unbelievable, creating in its own way a kind of hyper-realism that we allow ourselves to accept.  The places are real, the mode of dress carefully replicated, the laws and customs plainly displayed, and the one thing that sets all of them into disarray is the sly and lissome steel-edged dynamo that is Delilah Dirk herself.

Mr. Cliff’s writing is deeply engaging, Selim makes for a likeable and sympathetic narrator, Delilah herself charming and enrapturing.  The dialogue flows smoothly with a great balance between 19th century formality and modern dry humor.  His approach to storytelling is well paced; methodical and expressive in times of respite, suspenseful and harrowing in moments of danger, Selim’s candid narration is presented in brilliant counterpoint with the illustrations.

Warnings: Delilah Dirk, despite being an action/adventure serial, is surprisingly tame.  There is little blood, gore, or swearing, though there are copious fight scenes and quite a few stabbings.  Overall the violence is more energetic than graphic, and blood is shown only unobtrusively.  There are a few moments of misogyny in the story (mostly characters underestimating Delilah because she is a Westerner and a woman) but these are quickly proven groundless as Delilah manages to, as my dear sweet mother would say, kick all kinds of ass.

There is one brief moment of body horror in which Selim undergoes a hallucination and has his hand split open and head lopped off, but these are bloodless and largely for comedic purposes.

Art:  As I’ve stated already at length, this comic is gorgeous.  It’s not surprise that Tony Cliff has a background in both animation and illustration, there’s a stunning level of detail and energy running throughout Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant.  I could spend forever outlining Mr. Cliff’s lovely personal style, or his excellent design sense, or the near breathtaking quality of his landscapes, but I’d be repeating myself ad infinitum.

I do however want to draw attention to his pacing and structure of this comic, the way he skews perspective and angle to best suit the mood or action, and the careful way he lays out the visual gags to flow seamlessly with his text bubbles.

Mr. Cliff has a truly professional style, everything comes across polished and memorable, his illustrations latch their hooks into you and you never want them to let go.  While there has been some evolution in his character designs since the beginning of the story, Mr. Cliff does a marvelous job of keeping a solid look for his art, and accomplishes this with his distinctive use of color and light, and an excellent balance between the physical gestures of his characters and the way these actions are affected by their environment.

Mr. Cliff has a great sense of establishing shots, ones that will draw us into the setting immediately without disrupting the flow of the comic overall, especially since he often uses a full page spread to accomplish this.  His understanding of light and the way it affects color and mood is apparent in every scene.  In an almost cinematic way he manipulates the plot through these visual cues and gives the reader a deeply immersive reading experience.

Final Recommendation:  If Indiana Jones had a baby with Jane Austen and that baby was painted by Juanjo Guarnido, you might have something close to Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, but even then it would only be a facsimile.  Among all the webcomics I’ve read, Delilah Dirk really does stand out as one of the most original and riveting narratives, and it deserves more praise than I can cram into this measly review.  But believe me when I say this:

Delilah Dirk is, in this reviewer’s mind, one of the best comics you’ll find on the internet.  With its witty humor, charming characters, and eye-catching visuals, it’s a must-read for anyone and everyone who loves comics of all kinds.

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant is complete at 4 chapters.  You can read the further adventures of Delilah and Selim in “Delilah Dirk and the Seeds of Good Fortune”, available here in print.

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