Graphic novelist Tony Cliff on Delilah Dirk's Disney deal

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Jul 6, 2016, 7:54 AM EDT

Have a thirst for adventure...or tea? Then say hello to your new favorite comic heroine, Delilah Dirk. A swashbuckling swordstress with a hot temper and wit as sharp as her blade, Delilah boldly adventures across the early 19th-century world in her flying boat, along with her companion and expert tea-maker Mister Selim, righting wrongs and getting into unnecessary amounts of trouble wherever she goes.

Recently picked up by Disney to be a live-action film, Delilah Dirk first appeared in the anthology Flight and then online before getting her first graphic novel collection from First Second Books, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, which was nominated for Eisner, Harvey and Shuster awards. It was followed by a second release in March of this year, Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling. You can find extended previews of both books at the official Delilah Dirk website, and some preview pages from the second book below.

I was able to talk with Delilah’s creator, writer/artist Tony Cliff—over email rather than tea, sadly—about Delilah, the Disney movie deal, and the upcoming third installment, Delilah Dirk and the Pillar of Hercules, so read on to find out all about one of the most exciting new characters in comics.


Delilah Dirk could simply be described as historical adventure fiction, but it seems like that puts in a bit too small of a box. How do you describe the series to people who haven’t read it before?

Ha, I always tell people, "I made it to fill the Indiana Jones-shaped hole in my heart," which is 100% true, and I think lets people know what to expect in terms of tone. From there, I usually describe the first book (The Turkish Lieutenant) as a story of duty, friendship, and very good tea, and the second book (The King's Shilling) is a story of reputation, revenge, and, again, very good tea. There's something about mentioning "tea" that also seems to communicate a lot about what to expect in the books.

Also, they feature a "strong female character," apparently. That was not a term that was in the air when I started making the comics, and I think it's a contentious term, but I'm glad to be able to contribute a lighthearted, well-rounded, action-oriented lady-character to a genre where those traits aren't in abundance. There's no better feeling in the world than getting an email from a reader saying "my daughters are jumping on the couch, playing Delilahs." I mean, shame for the couch, but still: heartwarming. 
Congratulations on the big news that Disney has acquired Delilah Dirk for a live-action film. What has the process of being brought into the Disney family been like, and what made them a good fit for Delilah?

The process has been smooth, but the work has been almost entirely that of Mark Mower and Justin Giritlian, who shepherded the book into the right hands.

As to what makes Disney a good fit—I think that comes down to the individuals. Everyone to whom I've spoken about DD has shared tremendous enthusiasm for the elements that make the books unique—the relationship between the characters, the setting, the sort of fantastic-but-not-too-fantastic elements, and the olde-timey adventure tone. I think we all appreciate the same things about these stories and these characters, so we're off to an excellent start.


With your animation background, was there ever a desire to see the series animated rather than in live-action?

I have many very talented friends in animation whose opinions I greatly respect who have made no secret about wanting to see it as an animated feature—2D, especially—but I have to admit...maybe I'm a traitor to the cause, but I always thought it would come across better in live action than animated. It goes back to the Indiana Jones influence.

But then, there are two other important considerations: if it were animated, where would it fit in the film market? At this point, animated features that aren't explicitly family-friendly (and DD's relatively family-friendly, but I can see how it might not read that way on first glance) are still regarded as a relative niche market, right? And, when it comes down to it, aren't all modern "live-action" films mostly animated anyway? Even if you set aside things like Iron Man and Groot and whatnot, there's so much manipulation that goes into most live-action shots that they're all basically animation.

What movies influenced the creation of Delilah Dirk? What movies do you envision a Delilah Dirk film being like?

Have I mentioned Indiana Jones yet? Definitely my beloved Indiana Jones, but also James Bond films, and Jane Austen adaptations, and Tarzan and Duck Tales and Robin Hood (in all his incarnations). Also, though I was introduced to them as books, I love the TV mini-series based on the Sharpe and Horatio Hornblower stories. They're both military/naval adventures set during the time of the Napoleonic wars, which is when DD is set. Sharpe features Sean Bean in a role in which he does not die. It's surreal.

If there's one thing I hope for a DD film, it would be the use of an old-fashioned approach. I'd love to see real locations as much as possible. I'd love to see action filmed from wide, expensive angles in long, patient cuts. I would especially like the camera to be given time to "sit" in a setting—give me some open, languorous establishing shots. Let the audience "settle in" to the locations and environments. I have a feeling that older films embraced that more than we do these days, and I think it's particularly valuable in this type of story, where ideas of travel and exploration are so important. Maybe that all sounds dull, but I think if you hook an audience with engaging characters and interesting stakes, their tolerance for that type of...meditation?...might be greater.


Does the possibility of a movie change the way you think about future stories?

I hope not. That's a tough thing to judge, because who knows what form that influence might take? Priority number one is to work to the strengths of the medium. So long as they're going to be comics, I want to make sure we're taking advantage of the comic medium and doing what comics do best—I want to present the reader with visuals they can "fall into" and I'd like to see what techniques I can bring to comics from prose writing.

While I'm at that, if I'm going to continue making DD stories, I want them to be essential to those characters and that world; a DD story should revolve around the unique characteristics of the leads and their setting...and I want them to be fun. And I'd like to increase my skill as a writer—I need to improve at exploring and navigating deeper emotions and I'd like to get better at keeping stories "tight," i.e. thematically and conceptually consistent. Those are my goals; I'm doing my best to stick to them, and I hope readers (and, eventually, viewers) continue to enjoy DD's stories in whichever form they appear!

You’re currently at work on the third installment of the series, The Pillar of Hercules. If the first book is about duty and friendship and the second is about reputation and revenge, what is this one about?

Much of it has to do with different motivations for “adventuring,” but there’s a parallel theme (or “B-plot,” I guess) which I think will be interesting to discover when the book’s out.

King’s Shilling ends with Delilah and Selim pointed toward Finland. Is that where we’ll find them when this story begins?

It might, it might. I feel bad, because I put this flying boat in so DD could “globe-trot,” but the books have been relatively light on globe-trotting so far. I have to try to fix that in The Pillar of Hercules.


What about this new book excites you most as a writer? Alternatively, what are you most excited to draw?

I can definitely answer the first of those: I’m excited for this book to hopefully be funnier than the last one. That’s a tough thing to admit to, because you never want to say “I’m trying to make something funny,” in case it turns out not to be funny. But hey, how else am I going to end up with entertaining memoirs without risky thrills like this?

There are going to be a lot of great visuals in the book, but I would be both “spoiling” the story and doing a disservice to the visuals to try to hint at them. Despite my own personal hangup about every image potentially being a spoiler, I’m trying to post work-in-progress pictures on my Twitter. So far, though, those tweets are outnumbered by inane video-game related tweets and Brexit panic.

When should fans look for the new book? And will you be serializing part of it online like you did with the last book?

Both of those things have yet to be determined! I suspect that yes, we will be serializing it again. I hope so. I like being able to offer that. I’m a big fan of informed purchases.

Either way, when I know the answers to those questions I will be Twittering (@tangocharlie / @delilahdirk) and Tumblring them.