Tony Cliff’s new graphic novel, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, is as rich and satisfying as a hot cup of tea. In combination with a cast of engaging characters and stunning landscapes, the straightforward story carries a certain level of comfort and nostalgia for past adventures—whether real or fictional. In the tradition of Tintin, Treasure Island, and Indiana Jones, Delilah Dirk provides enough adventure to last a lifetime.
In 19th century Turkey, Erdemoglu Selim, the Turkish lieutenant of the title and the reluctant protagonist of our tale, is so resigned to his less-than-ordinary lot, that he is even willing to die for the arbitrary set of rules surrounding him. He works middle management to the Agha of Constantinople and makes at least enough money to survive and indulge in artisan tea every now and then. His is a simple life, and if he’s not happy, he is at least content. Until, of course Delilah Dirk comes along.
Dirk swoops into Selim’s life with all the grace and certainty of a cat, which is truly a feat considering her position as a prisoner. Selim may be one of her captors, but she immediately likes him and seems to realize that he’s different from the rest (it is, perhaps, his tea—a great kindness and comfort in a prison cell). In a brief monologue delivered by Selim to his skeptical boss, we learn that Dirk “grew up traveling the world… she is the master of forty-seven different sword-fighting techniques… she is a high-ranking member of at least three royal courts… and she suggested that she is able (through some sort of mechanical or alchemical means, no doubt) to travel through the air.” The list goes on, to the visuals, unsurprisingly, of Dirk busting out of prison. When the angry, irrational Agha accuses Selim of conspiring with her, it becomes only logical for him to fall in step with Dirk. She saves his life and makes him realize, as quickly as she arrived on the scene, that he should seek a life worth living.
Selim sticks around at first under the guise of repaying a debt to Dirk. It’s the thought that counts in any case—he’s a bit awful at adventuring, unable as he is to tell port from starboard, he almost crashes Dirk’s flying boat more than once, and he’s inordinately clumsy for one of his station. If it bothers Dirk, though, she doesn’t complain (much—she does forbid him from flying the boat). Selim considers leaving her multiple times. In one heart-wrenching scene, Selim imagines in full what it might be like to leave his new friend in the dust and see her thrown in prison, with him sneering at her from above as her moral superior. He just can’t seem to get enough, though, and he trudges on.
If the battles, suspense, and near-death experiences weren’t enough to keep Selim around, the landscapes drawn by Tony Cliff certainly would be. They’re characters in and of themselves, open and honest and colorfully diverse. The wilderness directly contrasts to the courts in England that Dirk left behind, which she describes as “hot, sweaty, and the air stinks—candle wax, sweat, perfume—blech, and the jewelry and the fashion are a horrible game of one-upmanship… No one says what they mean and everyone pretends to be something they’re not.” But “not,” she says, “out here.” When Selim decides to stay behind in a small town and begin again a more provincial life, it is the wilderness that he begins to miss first, the newness of it, the unpredictability. His yearning to return to a life of swordfights and stolen gold is inevitable after that.
All of Cliff’s artwork—landscape and character alike—is powerful. He doesn’t waste a single line. He uses visuals often, too, to build up contradictions and irony in the character’s speech; entire scenes will take place wherein the narration is the exact opposite of the action being performed. This works perfectly with both protagonists’ struggle to find sincerity and happiness in their lives. Selim, for instance, creates a lot of distractions for himself before Dirk comes around, including the use of absurd, loquacious speech. It gives him some semblance of power over his situation. But, he all but stops such monologues once he is living more honestly—the artwork of his surroundings completely overpowers his need to define it with words.
To be honest, I am a bit in love with Selim. Dirk is amazing too, of course—she takes shit from no one and has impossible, awe-inspiring hair— and Selim could not have lived up to his potential as a character without her. He is, though, his own type of amazing; he keeps in step with Dirk with barely a quarter of her skill and still cares more about finding spices for his food than about finding the actual food. He’s all about the simple things, and he never once pretends otherwise. I was at first frustrated by the book’s title—Selim is the main character! He’s so much more than his vocation! But then I realized that Cliff was using the same irony in the title that he does within the novel’s pages. Selim may think of himself as a Turkish lieutenant and little else, but the readers—and Delilah Dirk—know it’s all a farce. Selim is a badass.
You can check Delilah Dirk out online here, but I encourage you to buy the book as well, not only because it will support the publication of a second volume, but also because it is a great art piece to own. I’ve reread it three times now, and continue each time to delight in the nuanced facial expressions and contrasting colors (green dots the cities but erupts out of the countryside, and the explosions look like fireworks).
Tony Cliff created an amazing set of travel posters to accompany his series, and they, in combination with the book itself, have me more than ready to embark on my next great adventure.
Now I just need a tour guide as fabulous as Delilah Dirk.
Emily Nordling is a tea drinker in Chicago, IL, and most of her adventures are lived vicariously through books.