Review time! with Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant
According to this book’s jacket, Tony Cliff has been working on this comic for five years. I certainly hope it doesn’t take five years for the next one to come out! Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant is yet another book from First Second, and it’s priced to move at $15.99! You can read some of it on-line here, but you can’t get it all!
As you might know (because I only mention it a whole lot), I’m very into history, and while I might not mention it as much, I really dig the Ottoman Empire. So when I read that this was an adventure comic set in the decadent days of the Ottoman Empire, I was pretty much down with it. Don’t worry if you have no idea what the Ottoman Empire is or why someone would name an empire after the piece of furniture on which you rest your feet, because Cliff doesn’t get into any of that. We’re in Turkey in 1807, and that’s good enough. The only odd piece of information might be that Erdemoglu Selim, the “Turkish lieutenant” of the title, is a Janissary, but you don’t need to know what a Janissary is.
Cliff begins with Selim, a soldier in the Turkish army, who wants nothing more than to enjoy a good cup of tea. Unfortunately, Janissaries get their salary in an unusual way, so Selim is usually dirt poor because he’s not all that tough (I wonder if Cliff picked 1807 because in that year the Janissaries revolted against Sultan Selim III and deposed him). He does, however, know English, so he’s brought in to interrogate a prisoner, who turns out to be Delilah Dirk. Dirk is your atypical Renaissance lady – her father is an English ambassador and her mother is a Greek artist, and she learned all sorts of skills and traveled all over the world. According to Selim (who tells his superior all of this after the interrogation), she also has a flying boat. His superior thinks Selim is a fool for listening to Dirk, but of course, she’s quite capable of escaping, as she soon does. Selim’s superior believes that Selim is in league with Delilah, so Selim is forced to flee with her. And they’re off!
What’s most interesting about this story is that the adventure doesn’t really matter all that much. Dirk sneaks into Istanbul to steal an ancient scroll from the sultan, but it doesn’t seem to figure into the story very much (I think she uses it, but she didn’t really need to). Her bigger plan is to help a family friend out, as his ships have been seized by the evil pirate Zakul, and she wants to steal something from Zakul to balance the scales a bit. Cliff never shows her actually giving any of the treasure she steals to this friend, so who knows if she did. The theft and escape forms the major part of the narrative, but it feels somewhat anti-climactic. Then, when we think everything is pretty much over, Cliff introduces a new narrative thread, ending the book in an interesting place that has nothing to do with Zakul or any adventure they’ve had before.
If that sounds terrible, it’s really not. Cliff writes very good adventures – Dirk’s escape from the sultan’s prison is very fun, and her plan to steal from Zakul is lousy but means there are plenty of problems to overcome when she and Selim try to escape. We get to see plenty of Dirk’s skill with swords and Selim’s quick thinking and there’s lots of excitement, but the book isn’t really about the theft. Cliff is more interested in showing how a friendship develops between these two characters and how they come to respect the other’s attitudes about life. Selim is not at all interested in adventure – we see this in the earliest scenes – and he hilariously tries to act like a tough guy when it’s clear he’s not. He goes with Delilah only because the soldiers and his superior believe he helped her escape, so if he stays, he’ll be executed (she actually rescues him from execution during her escape). He’s continually thinking about leaving her to her own devices, because he thinks robbing Zakul is a phenomenally stupid idea (when she says she’s going to steal enough to send a message to the pirate, he asks, “Is that message, ‘I have led a sufficiently long life?’”) and he just wants to find a place to settle down and drink his tea. He gets that opportunity, and instead of ending the book there, Cliff shows what happens after he gets what he wants. It’s easy to say that what you think you want isn’t always what you really want, but Cliff does a good job showing how Selim changes over the course of the book and how he’s able to recognize that. Meanwhile, Dirk changes less, but she does begin to understand how to relate better to people who are her friends, and she too realizes that not everyone thinks the same way she does. She’s reckless because she’s never had to deal with consequences, and while this isn’t a very heavy book and so everything remains fairly light, she does come to understand that having friends means thinking about what they want occasionally. Cliff really makes the friendship between Dirk and Selim feel real, so that when they end up together on the road to another adventure, it feels like they’ve earned it. These are two fascinating characters who have good chemistry with each other, and the fact that Cliff’s writing is so often funny as well as insightful makes this an even more delightful read. Cliff often zigs when we think he’s going to zag, and he keeps us on our toes. It’s a charming story.
The art is very good, too. Cliff (who’s never been to Turkey) does a fine job evoking a Mediterranean kind of misc-en-scene (I’ve never been to Turkey, either, so I can’t say how good his specifics are, but the vibe is good). The pastoral landscape is beautiful, as it has to be for Dirk’s arguments about living free to make any impact, but the cities are also well done. We get a good sense of the crowded houses and narrow streets in many older cities, and when Dirk and Selim are chased through the city after stealing Zakul’s treasure, it’s a wonderfully claustrophobic race. He also does a marvelous job making the trappings of civilization feel comfortable, so we understand Selim’s reluctance to join Dirk on the road. Both characters make very good points about how they want to live, and Cliff’s artwork reflects that. In a book that relies on a lot of humor, Cliff needs to be good at facial expressions, and he does a great job with those. When Selim and Delilah first meet each other, he gives her some tea. As she drinks it, he asks her why she needs to dress the way she does, implying that she looks like a prostitute. She goes through four different facial expressions of anger and disbelief before deciding to take the high road and compliment his tea. There are a lot of moments like this, when a character says something either humorous or odd and the other characters need to react to it, and Cliff does it well. He’s also quite good at the action, as his character work is very fluid and moves easily over the page. In one of the big action set pieces, Dirk and Selim are trapped by Zakul’s men right next to an aqueduct, and when they climb up on it to escape, the pirates simply start blowing it apart with cannon fire. Cliff does a tremendous job showing how Dirk and Selim try to get away, with both contributing to their survival. It’s a very tense moment, which is very cool because it is, after all, just a bunch of drawings. But Cliff nails it. He’s done a lot of animation in his life, so I guess that’s where his style comes from, and it’s cool to see it translate well onto the page.
Cliff is working on a second book, which is very cool because there’s really no limit to how many adventures these two characters can have. This is a well written, well drawn, exciting action-adventure, and it’s far funnier than you might expect. Plus, I’m sure Greg Hatcher would love this comic. You can trust my assessment on whether someone else would like this comic, right?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆