Interview with Tony Cliff of ‘Delilah Dirk’

Reading Time: 7 minutes
Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules
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Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules By Tony Cliff

The dictionary defines “swashbuckler” as: a swaggering swordsman, soldier, or adventurer; daredevil.

It’s hard to find a better example than Delilah Dirk, the heroine in a series of adventures about a daring young woman armed with a sword and no fear. The tales are told by her partner in excitement, Selim. The format is graphic novels, which make every scene cinematic and colorful. Tony Cliff is the author and illustrator for the series.

He has been gracious enough to answer some questions for the GeekMom community for each of the installments: Delilah Dirk and The Turkish Lieutenant, Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling, and this time for Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules.

The Process of Writing Delilah Dirk

GeekMom: Delilah Dirk is a wonderful character, but each book is such a long project. How do you stay motivated? Do you have any side projects?

Tony Cliff: I don’t have side projects per se – every time I’ve been working on DD, I’ve only been working on DD, though I have worked in animation between books, and I’ve been working on children’s book this year.

Motivation is not difficult, though I understand how it might seem that way. I lose motivation when a task doesn’t seem to hold any challenge, and the process of making these books presents fresh challenges with reliable frequency. Sometimes  it’s “what do I put in the bottom-right corner of this spread to make the reader absolutely need to turn the page,” or, “how do I get this expression to look ‘puzzled’ instead of ‘constipated?’”

Besides, making comics is a nice way to spend time. Even on the worst days, when the story seems like it’s garbage and the characters look like their poses just aren’t working out, it’s still a great job. I get to put the type of books I like out into the world. I’m lucky I’ve been able to get away with it as long as I have.

(Check out Shiri’s review of one of Tony’s other books: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring)

The Art of Delilah Dirk

GM: Talk to me about the evolution of your art through the series.

Tony: How so? Like, the quality of the draftsmanship? Style of the characters?

GM:  In the years of drawing the same characters, does it come more naturally to you? Do you feel your art has improved over the years or speed or ease? Has technology changed how you work?

Tony: Ahh, yeah. I don’t know if it comes more naturally, but I’ve definitely found a process that works well. It hasn’t become any easier or faster, but I think the imagery has become more consistent. Like, DD looks more like the same person from one panel to the next, page after page. She gets a bit wonky in the early chapters of the first book. I was surprised to find that the illustration in Pillars of Hercules is also more detailed than the previous books – while I was working on it, I believed and assumed it looked more-or-less the same in terms of the fine little fiddly bits, but then I put some of those pages next to pages from King’s Shilling and there was a real noticeable increase. I assume that’s why the process hasn’t sped up.

As far as technology is concerned, I’m still using essentially the same techniques I used a decade ago (and most of the same equipment). It is possible that I could illustrate the books entirely digitally, but I don’t think it would improve things. Working digitally is clean and convenient, but makes it too easy to obsess over details (which is already a problem for me). Working on paper involves a few more steps, but I like the tactile quality, I like getting away from the screen, and it keeps me away from endless “undos” and meticulous zooming.

GM: One of my favorite scenes is the facial expression “conversation” between Delilah and Selim on page 50. Did you look in the mirror for all the subtleties? Have a friend pose?

Tony: Ha, it’s mostly trial-and-error. If I used a mirror more often, maybe everything would go faster. But in comics and animation, you learn a lot of it with practice – what this type of raised eyebrow means, what that type of squinty eye means. When it comes to facial expressions, it never fails to surprise me how much can be communicated with very subtle changes. We’re all so good at decoding that stuff, the tiniest change of a line here or there – in the arch of a brow, in the corner of a mouth – can mean a world of difference. It’s almost its own little language, but it’s so second-nature that I think we don’t give enough credit to the complexity involved.

On the Historical Accuracy of Delilah Dirk

GM: Since my first interview with you, and your letter to your readers at the end of the 3rd book, you have welcomed anyone to help with historical accuracy. What has been the reaction as the series has progressed?T

Tony: For better or worse, I have not been mobbed by history scholars. I have never received as many emails about historical topics as I did when the comic first popped up online in 2012. I don’t know whether that’s because the books have improved in their historical representation or whether it’s the difference between print and online media.

As a webcomic is unfolding, maybe a reader feels like, “I can jump in here and inform the shape of the work,” whereas with a printed book, maybe a reader thinks, “ah, it’s already set in ink. All these catastrophic historical errors I have found will live on forever regardless of my intervention.”

When the topic comes up, say, talking to readers at a convention, I get the sense that most people agree the series is about as historically accurate as it ought to be, based on what it is (i.e., not a reliable primary source for historical information).

GM: Have you visited any of the locations mentioned in The Pillars of Hercules?

Tony: I have not! But all the globe-trotting in the series has had a side benefit that I didn’t anticipate: it makes for great conversations at conventions. I love hearing about peoples’ travels or about their relationships with some of the locations from the books.

GM: Go travel, man.

GM: Is the buried city based on historical fact or legend?

Tony: Not specifically, but I drew on a lot of the history of the Phoenician peoples. They were a Middle Eastern culture that radiated from what is now Lebanon, out all over the Mediterranean Sea, crossing the Straight of Gibraltar and along the Western Spanish and African coasts. This was at a time when doing so would have been especially difficult and would have required a unique level of tenacity and ingenuity (due to the early nature of their seafaring technology). I find it astonishing what they were able to accomplish, considering that if I were left to primitive devices I’d die within a half hour, tops.

Supporting Characters: Laurens Van Hassel and Merrick

GM: How did you come up with the character of Laurens Van Hassel? The field of archeology was just beginning during the time period of these books and seems an excellent fit for our heroine, but will Van Hassel turn her off to it?

Tony: I knew I needed a bombastic showman who wanted to exploit Delilah, and it’s fun to inject your friends into your work, so the character initially shared a name and nationality with a friend of mine. Early on, though, I ended up disliking the character in such a particular way that I couldn’t put him out there with that shared name. He did, however, remain Dutch, and I supplied him with a fictional name. (“Van Hassel” essentially means “of Hassel.” There is currently a city in the Netherlands called “Hasselt,” though I most likely found the name on an old map spelled without the “t.” And, of course, it sounding like “hassle” made it feel perfectly suitable.)

As for any of Delilah’s future archaeological pursuits, well, we’ll see. I’m confident that one bad experience wouldn’t sap her curiosity and love for exploration.

GM: Merrick, geez, that guy doesn’t give up. The scenes between him and Delilah are always very intense but the final one in the darkening cave is particularly riveting. Do you see the scenes play out in your mind ahead of time, or do they evolve as you write the script. (BTW, I loved seeing the evolution of the story at the back.) There is a chemistry between Merrick and Delilah- will it always be antagonistic?

Tony: Regarding their antagonism – again, we’ll see. I would never promise one thing either way, but DD would need an extremely convincing reason to extend that olive branch.

As for how the scenes take shape, I’m not sure. That’s a good question. The honest, boring answer is that sometimes you see them playing out and sometimes you figure it out as you go along. The hardest part is knowing which to pick when you can imagine a scene playing out a few different ways. For example, I went to the trouble of roughing-out two different versions of the fourth chapter of The Turkish Lieutenant because I didn’t know which one I liked best.

I wanted something I could show other people and ask, “which one should I use?” I put it online, actually, in case your readers want to see a whole alternate version of the last quarter of the first DD book. It starts and ends the same way, but there are more sword fights. (It’s at [the Delilah Dirk website] )

GM: Thanks for the link to the alternative ending- very cool.

On Attending Conventions

GM: What conventions do you regularly attend? Anything coming up?

Tony: I’ll be at CALA (Comic Arts Los Angeles) in December, and I hope to return to VanCAF and TCAF next year, but otherwise I have no fixed plans. I prefer conventions that are free-to-attend; it feels like there’s more of a chance I might get to introduce these books to someone who might be new to comics, and that’s always nice.

On the Growth of Graphic Novels For Kids

GM: The last decade has seen tremendous growth in the field of graphic novels. How can parents encourage this art form with their children?

Tony: Ha ha, do children need encouragement? Based on everything I’ve heard from librarians and teachers, kids are already reading graphic novels voraciously. I suspect parents just need to get out of the way, at the very least. Make sure your kids have library cards, and enable them to visit the library to whatever extent you’re able. Librarians are amazing and would absolutely love to help your kids find more books that they’ll enjoy.

I also encourage parents to recognize that among all these different book formats – novels, graphic novels, comic books, etc. – none is inherently more noble than another. A non-fiction book is not necessarily more “worthwhile” than a comic book, even though that seems to be the popular perception. Novels can have as much of a frivolous caramel centre as the silliest comic book, and there are comics that can require as much intellectual rigour and reflection as the Dostoevsky-est literary gold standard on the highest critical pedestal. Format is no indication of intellectual content. Again, most librarians and book-store workers will be more than happy to help a parent navigate these waters.

Failing that, just give your kids the gift of Calvin & Hobbes.

GM: Thanks, again, Tony! I recommend Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules for Junior High and up.

Female Speaking Characters: Although the main character is a woman, on the whole there are not quite 3%.

Diversity: Yes. One of the main characters is middle-eastern and some of the supporting cast is Northern African.

Disclaimer: Geekmom received a copy for review purposes.

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