Image From First Second Press
Delilah Dirk strikes again! In the new graphic novel by Tony Cliff: Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling, we are once more in the company of the swashbuckling heroine and her faithful friend, Mister Selim. This time, it’s Delilah’s reputation in her homeland of England that is at stake. She gets on the wrong side of a new character, Major Merrick (not being the submissive woman he expected), and he decides to use her as a scapegoat for his own traitorous deeds. I had the opportunity to ask Tony some questions about his second book: the action, the friendship, and even the fashion.
GEEKMOM: Creating, writing, and illustration on your own sounds overwhelming. How do you keep yourself motivated? Were there different challenges with the second book?
TONY: Oh, it is definitely difficult, but like any big project, once you break it down into chunks everything becomes manageable. The King’s Shilling is the first time I’ve tackled one huge, 266-page comic project. The heart of The Turkish Lieutenant was a pair of short, 28-page stories from back in the mid-2000s. I worked out most of my mistakes and figured out a production approach that works for me on those small-scale, low-risk books, and this has become a mantra that I will preach to anyone who will listen: Start with a small project, see how it works, and finish it. I think that feeling of knowing you know how to finish a project delivers a level of confidence and grants a type of momentum that makes it a lot easier to tackle similar, larger projects. Because on those days when you wake up feeling particularly unmotivated to tackle a 266-page project, the momentum and the knowledge that this project is finishable really helps. Also, I really enjoy making comics. Is that relevant? That seems relevant.
GM: There is so much action in your books. Describe your process for developing fight and action scenes. Do you watch live sequences? Use models? Total imagination?
TONY: It’s a pretty intuitive process, but there are a couple guidelines to which I try to adhere; I try to keep every “beat” of an action sequence meaningful and I try to provide as much environment context to the action as possible.
Movies do a much better job than comics of providing the sort of visceral thrills and suspense that makes action exciting to watch. A plain ol’ exchange-of-fisticuffs does not work in comic books (I don’t think). A reader can just scan over that and skip to the conclusion, so: no suspense. If I can combat that by making every panel or two deliver a meaningful evolution in the conflict, I think that makes it much more interesting and much more likely to engage the reader. And though it’s not particularly realistic, I do like the approach of putting a dialogue exchange over the action. Ideally, the action mirrors or contrasts or comments on the exchange of words, creating an effect that’s more powerful than just back-and-forth fighting.
I’m proud of the fight between DD and Agullo near the start, where the conflict is, yeah, sort of about the two fighters, but it’s much more about the conflict within DD between getting revenge on Agullo for the wound versus fulfilling her principal objective for being in this place. And I’m proud of the battle at the end, where, yes, (spoiler alert, I guess?) it’s a fight between DD and Merrick, but really it’s about revealing Merrick’s villainy to the soldiers and the public and seeing how DD navigates her chance to “get revenge.” I’m not pretending this approach is some great revelation, but it makes me happy if a fight sequence in a comic can have A Little More Going On. If the only question a conflict asks is, “who wins,” that’s not very interesting.
And while I don’t do anything crazy like build models of the sets or do elaborate choreography, I do like to make sure an action sequence feels “grounded” in the environment where it takes place. So I try to pull back and expose as much of the setting whenever I can. It doesn’t necessarily make it more believable or “realistic,” but I think it can clarify the stakes and satisfy a need in the reader’s brain for a more concrete understanding of the magical three-dimensional space that they are interpreting from lines and colours on a page.
GM: I love the clothing and accessory designs! Tell about that aspect of your illustrations.
TONY: Which, the stuff DD and Selim wear? Or the more traditional English dress?
GM: Both! I love Delilah’s belt she usually wears. Are her swords based on real swords? The ball scene is filled with lovely dresses and suits—suddenly I was in a Jane Austen book (but only for a moment—then the action started up!). Page 180 highlights Delilah’s earrings and hair style. Tell me about your research and inspiration on it all!
TONY: Well, DD’s costume comes from a few places—her skirt is inspired by the Fustanella, a traditional Balkan short skirt for men, and a nod toward DD’s half-Greek heritage. As for the belt, I have to admit that was inspired by something from a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, he said, blushing. I like it because it’s helpful when drawing action—the belt and skirt drag and flow around and help create an illusion of movement. The swords are modelled after Japanese swords as a sort of icon of DD’s well-traveled past, though I probably should have drawn them with more of a curve.
For the most part, though, the costuming in The King’s Shilling is stolen strictly from period references. I have a few very useful books like Racinet’s The Costume History, and (speaking of Jane Austen) Margaret C. Sullivan’s The Jane Austen Handbook was great for learning what was worn when and what are all the names for the different garments. It was a real epiphany when I discovered that you can get much better visual reference when you search for the proper specific term. Searching for “19th-century women’s coat” delivers mixed results at best, but searching for “19th-century pelisse” is much more useful, both in terms of visual reference and understanding how the garment’s used.
So most of the English characters are dressed in a pretty straightforward period fashion, using a sort of a mix-and-match approach (thank goodness for the abundance of Austen film and TV adaptations). There are a few twists, like DD’s initial costume in England is designed to be drab and a little shapeless to emphasize the change of environment and add contrast. Her styling in the ball scene incorporates a dress that’s based almost verbatim on a real dress in the collection of a certain museum (for the life of me, I can’t find the original photo), her hair is designed to be a half-way point between her usual hairstyle and something that would be fashionable in that setting, the floral accents are inspired by something from The Costume History, and her earrings… might just be made up. But they’re the same earrings her mother wears earlier in the book. A lot of the aesthetics of Europe in the early 1800s were adopting classical Greek influences, and I tried to emphasize that with DD’s mother (like the pattern around her red shawl), again to hint at her Greek background. The army soldiers and officers are dressed as accurately as possible, with small tweaks to emphasize their character, like Merrick’s father wears his collar stiff and tight to make him seem more rule-abiding. And to add an element of exaggerated costuming on the antagonist’s side (to pair with DD’s own less-grounded costuming), Merrick’s sergeant wears the shoulder piece of a medieval suit-of-armour. Cause hey, we’re having fun here.
GM: Mr. Selim is a dedicated friend to Delilah, even when she is not treating him fairly. What (or who) was the inspiration for their relationship?
TONY: Haven’t you had a friend who is, for the most part, pretty great, but whose mistakes you’re willing to tolerate?
GM: Yup! And I hope my friends feel the same about me. It’s brave to speak up when you’ve been treated badly, and do it in a way that is clear without being mean. Mr. Selim did that well. I’ve certainly had a few memorable moments when someone called out my mistakes in a relationship, and so I felt Delilah’s embarrassment. Was the scene at the ball inspired by a personal experience?
TONY: Ha ha, you know, if it was inspired by personal experience, I’m sure it’s been inspired by multiple personal experiences. I’m sure I’ve been called out before, but if the stuff in the story comes from a personal place, it’s more from my own shame at having done something stupid or thoughtless (Delilah’s embarrassment that you mention). In the ball scene Selim is maybe reacting the way I wish a friend would act if I had wronged them. Straightforward, honest, “you’ve been treating me like trash,” that sort of thing. Sometimes grudges are formed between friends, go unspoken, and the friendship just fades away. I’ve been a part of at least one of those and I’ve seen it in others, too.
Selim tolerates a lot of railroading from DD, which comes less from a feeling of friendship, I think, and more from a sense of duty and faithfulness. In that ball confrontation, though, finally we get to see the true exhibition of his friendship toward DD is when he stands up for himself and, by extension, that friendship. Heh, I wonder if that comes across for readers; I wonder if his example will spur someone to fight for a relationship.
GM: The villain in this story, Merrick, sets up Delilah simply because she is a head-strong woman. Yet, the woman he tries to escape with, Jeanette, is also headstrong (by refusing to go with him). We know he has father issues, but is there more to his backstory? Mother issues…?
TONY: He might, he might not, ha ha. I don’t know how headstrong Jeanette would seem if we spent more time with her. It’s implied earlier that she’s attached to Merrick’s brother, and I think that attachment would give her the spine necessary to refuse Jason, but more than that, I like to think that any level-headed person might respond to Merrick in that way. I suppose considering the standard gender dynamics of the time maybe that’s less likely, but it doesn’t seem outrageous. Certainly Merrick expected her to act differently and be more malleable, and I’ll admit to enjoying the schadenfreude of seeing him resisted by these two women (Jeanette and DD) he expected to bowl over.
GM: I love exciting historical fiction, and your book hits the spot. You end Delilah Dirk and The King’s Shilling with a note to the reader about how you try your best to be historically accurate, but always putting the story needs first. Can you go into some specific examples of that give and take? You also ask readers for help in keeping the setting accurate. Had you gotten some history geek responses from the first book?
TONY: You know, I was expecting a lot of email from historical fact-checkers on the first book, as well as critical responses from Turkish readers, but so far everyone has been extremely kind; if there are major gaffes, no one’s mentioned them. For the minor gaffes, when I’ve been called out, everyone’s been really nice about it. Maybe it’s because there’s a flying boat, so at that point the type of person who would get hung up on historical details just throws their hands in the air?
Anyway, sometimes there are detail mistakes—like the tea cups in Turkey in the first book—that happen just because I didn’t take the time to research that one thing. The King’s Shilling has been easier in that respect because visual reference for Regency England is relatively abundant (again, thank you, Jane Austen adaptations).
But as to specific examples of intentional choices, well, there are the travel times by carriage: Admittedly I’m intentionally vague about some of the story’s locations in England, but I’m certain that it would take people much longer to travel from point to point than is presented in the book. Logistically, I think those carriages would have to be doing sports-car speeds.
So that note at the end of the book is just a plea, hoping that there’s someone out there reading the book, thinking, “I know way more about this stuff than this guy does,” hoping that person will get in touch with me to tell me about the day-to-day details of the early 1800s. It’s easy enough to search for concrete, historically significant things, but (at least in my experience) if you want to know about mundane stuff like, “How does someone in 1809 draw a hot bath?” or, “How does a person get their newspaper?” Those are the sorts of aspects you just have to read a thousand books and hope you stumble across or deduce or absorb by osmosis. They also seem like the sorts of aspects that some people just know, so I am hoping one or more of those persons will reach out to me as I struggle against the current of historical accuracy.
Thanks, Tony! And here’s a peak of the book:
GeekMom received a copy of Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling for review purposes.