Friday, October 18, 2013

[NYCC] Tableside Chat with Tony Cliff of Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant

There were a lot of highlights to my time down at New York Comic Con last weekend, but the best of the bunch may very well have been my extended chat with cartoonist Tony Cliff. His first full-length graphic novel, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, was published at the end of August. Released by First Second Books, the story originally began life as a webcomic before being nominated for the Best Digital Comic Eisner in 2012. Set around the Mediterranean in the 1800s, it's one of the better adventure stories you'll find. Starring the daring Delilah Dirk and the reticent Selim (that eponymous Turkish Lieutenant whose primary talent is making excellent tea), the book is a rip roaring yarn that more than deserves your reading time and effort. And did I mention their flying boat? There's a flying boat

Cliff sat down with me last weekend to talk about his wonderful book and its origins, but our conversation was wide ranging, touching on all and sundry, including Calvin and Hobbes, Indiana Jones, adventure serials, and much more. He also gave what are probably the best answers to the Literary Rorschach Test that I've ever encountered.  And should you need more encouragement, there's plenty of preview pages of Cliff's fantastic art.  So please come and join us on the other side for an extended Tableside Chat.

Tony Cliff is a Canadian cartoonist and animator based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He originally collected Delilah Dirk on his website (where the first 2 chapters are still available to read for free – something which you should definitely do) and maintains a frequently updated blog where he shares his work, methods, and thoughts. He is an incredibly nice guy, who just so happens to be something of a Chatty Cathy. If you're less than aware of his name or his work, you should rectify that post-haste.  [This conversation took place the afternoon of Saturday October 12th, 2013]

Artist's rendition of the artist
Grant McLaughlin: For those who may be unfamiliar with your work, what's your artistic background?

Cliff: I only discovered this in post-secondary, but apparently going up through elementary school and high school I had some very supportive, very dedicated art teachers who emphasized fundamentals like observation and perspective, figure drawing, anatomy – the foundations of, you know, solid representational drawing and stuff. I learned that apparently this is not a common thing. A lot of people have art teachers who are like, “Come in and earn an easy B and express the way you feel through you art” stuff. So I was very fortunate that I followed my track.

I've always been reading comics and drawing comics, since I was really small. I would make these tiny, inch by inch comic books. I don't know why I made them so small. Why would you do that? I eventually went to animation school. Followed high school with animation school. I got into the industry, sort of drawing and doodling off on the side. Connecting with people on online forums, back in the day. I connected with Kazu Kibuishi, who now is working on the Amulet books. He put together the Flight anthology and was like, “Hey, why don't you submit some work for Flight?” I did and feedback has been growing with everything and here we are now.

GM: How did that bring you to Delilah Dirk? Where did that emerge from or where did the idea first strike you?

Cliff: I don't know. It came from a lot of places. I was reading a lot of Napoleonic War fiction – like the Sharpe series and the Hornblower series – all set in the early 1800s, with muskets, canons, sailing ships – that sort of thing. There's something very appealing about that era for me.

I got into that, and combined it with my experience reading late 90s Image Comics? Those were my superheroes. I never really got into Batmans, Supermans, X-Mans. It was late 90s Image Comics mostly for me. And all of the female characters in there were... not interesting. Like, they're all very serious. Very sour. Very stern. So I wanted a female character who was fun and sarcastic and lighthearted. And that sort of thing. So I took all those things I didn't like in the comics I was reading and ended up creating a Delilah Dirk.

GM: What kind of research or preparation did you have to do for the series? For example, I understand that you've never been to Turkey, where the book opens.

Cliff: I have not. I have never been to Turkey. So there was a good amount of research to be done.

The early 1800s was kind of a hot time for that neoclassical movement in Europe. In bringing back all the old Greek ideas and aesthetics. So Europeans were travelling to the Mediterranean and digging up things like the Venus de Milo and the Elgin Marbles. I was initially thinking I could make this Indiana Jones character who gets involved in these significant art historical events. That would be kind of exciting.

And I found some drawings and the researching I was doing – like with the history of the Elgin
Marbles – very interesting. There's an excellent non-fiction book about the history of it which is great drama. And I think in there I probably discouvered some of the illustrations from the Victorian period and earlier travels in Istanbul. And one thing led to another and they were just very captivating. There was something very appealing about it. Soon, I found myself creating a Turkish character and having him interact with this crazy English lady.

It was all – I did one drawing with them. I did one drawing with Delilah and Selim sitting together. All those elements kind of came together, and I was like, “Hey, why don't I just make a comic out of this? A nice short, 30 page comic. Let's do it, why not?”

GM: And that 30 page comic morphed into the Turkish Lieutenant?

Cliff: Yeah. Chapter 1 of the Turkish Lieutenant is that comic. Which is why, if you look closely, you can see – at least I do when I look at – you can see how different it looks from the rest of the book. I put that out there and it got nominated for an Eisner Award, which was scary and encouraging, you know? How was I supposed to stop after that? You put a book out there and it gets nominated for an Eisner Award. That sort of encouragement is hard not to follow up on.

GM: Understandably. So is that what led you towards First Second?

Cliff: It was a sort of series of strange coincidences. I had been pitching it around, but I hadn't been getting much traction. And I thought, I needed to know, I needed some more feedback on this. Like, “Is this entirely a vanity project or is this something that people are going to be interested in? Is this something that readers will be interested in or am I just doing this for myself?” So I put it up online and it began to get interest.

And then there were a whole bunch of other details, but long story short, Kazu Kabuishi's agent – his film agent – I was talking to him and he helped put me in touch with First Second. At the time, a lot of the books I was reading – and that I'm still reading – you look at my shelf and they're all First Second books. It was an ideal match. I feel very lucky to be here.

GM: I also understand that the book has been published in French? And that it came out in French first, published in that beautiful oversized, hardcover bande déssinées format they do in Europe, right?

Cliff: It has, yes. It's the same story – they took it and split it into two volumes. Akileos, the French publisher got in touch with me so early that I don't even know how they found out about it. But they got in touch with me so early that I was very suspicious. I thought, “This has got to be a hoax,” or whatever. But it worked out great. Richard Saint Martin and Emmanuel Bouteille, who run Akileos, are fantastic guys and they did a beautiful job with the book.

GM: And did you did you go over to France to tour the book at all?

Cliff: Yeah, they invited me over in January of 2012, I think, to visit a couple of shops in Lyon and Le Mans and visit the Angoulême Festival, which was all very exciting. And freezing! But I had a great time. Learned a lot about the French industry – just how completely different it is from North American comics, which was interesting in and of itself.

GM: I'm sure we could go into a long tangent on that topic, but we'll try to restrain ourselves. I also understand that there is a second volume already announced?

Cliff: Yes, yes. Again, I'm very lucky to be in First Second's company where they are incredibly enthusiastic about a second book... as I am. [Laughs] I just assume – I don't know if I'm too self-deprecating – but I just assume that I'm the only one who's excited about the second book. Who can possibly match my enthusiasm? I'm constantly surprised.

Work on book 2 is well underway. I am excited to get back from this trip and to get back to work on it, because I met with Callista [the editor for First Second] and we hashed out some story points and solved some problems. So I'm going to get back home to nip some story issues in the bud and it's going to be a really strong story for it. It'll be really interesting.

It's going to be a lot more cohesive than the first book. It's going to be a lot more consistent than the first book. It's going to be a lot more exciting. Conflict's going to go way up.

GM: I hope the humour's not going anywhere.

Cliff: Nope. The humour's going to be – still going to have that same, casual humour. Chuckling humour.

GM: Subdued, but it's there.

Cliff: The character-type stuff. I'm trying to keep that all in there. Keep the funny. Keep it exciting. Turn everything up a little bit. Try and get it done as soon as I can. It's going to be longer and bigger. I'm excited.

It is tentatively titled Deliah Dirk and the Blades of England. And it will involve her – it's sort of a reverse adventure story – where in an adventure story, your hero leaves home to find adventure, and in this story, Deliah Dirk is drawn back to her home where adventure finds her.

And I'm sharing my process and all the behind the scenes details that I can on my tumblr and stuff. Hoping that people will follow along. For those of us who like to see how the sausage is made, there's all that going on, as I do it.

GM: Is there any reason in particular that you decided to start your tumblr and that behind the scenes process? I was going through it and thought it was pretty interesting.

Cliff: Making a comic is an extremely solitary pursuit. I wanted to share with people, and if not necessarily get feedback during the process, connect with people as I'm going along. I've been reading about how people are experiencing Kickstarter projects these days and how when you fund a Kickstarter you get progress updates and stuff. And I was reading about how you can take this idea and apply it to anything, basically. As people are becoming more used to taking in that process as, you know, the sausage is getting made.

So part of it is sort of wanting to experiment with that. The other thing is that The Turkish Lieutenant was online, so there were people who were used to encountering it online, and part of my wanting to still have a presence online and to basically keep from disappearing for a year to pop-up a year later and go “Here's that book I talked about! Do you remember? It was two years ago. A lot has changed in your life. You've had children, you've moved houses, you've got your bachelor's degree. I've spent it making a book for you.”

So it's to try to maintain that engagement with people as I'm going on. Continuing. Basically saying “Don't forget about me!”

GM: Always a good plan! Perhaps similarly, how often do you go to conventions in a professional capacity to talk about your work? Is that part of your process?

Cliff: It's tricky. I mean, technically I am a first time author, so it's a weird spot to be in, because some people recognize the book, some people know the book and the work, and sometimes I have to convince people and go “Hey! Try this.”

So, yeah. Conventions are strange. I try to get out around Vancouver. Beyond that, I'm hoping to attend TCAF next year. Try to get it out there a little bit, but to be honest, I would rather be focusing on the work. I guess it's a balancing act, right? I'm exposing the work to new people, but also need to make it.

GM: I hear that part's relatively important.

Cliff: [Laughs] Well, if you don't keep making it, you don't have anything to show to people. I try to mostly focus on just making it and hope that it speaks for itself. Ideally that would be nice, but also I'm not very good at talking about it – you know, stick to your strengths.

GM: One other question that we've touched on a little bit – who or what would you place as your influences? Either for Delilah Dirk or just in general with art and writing style?

Cliff: Definitely Calvin and Hobbes. And I know that not a lot of that will come through in Delilah Dirk. Not a lot of it does. But Calvin and Hobbes was kind of my Bible growing up. I would read those books religiously. So there's a lot of Bill Waterson in there, whether it's apparent or not.

Besides that, I wish I could say that there were things, there were some more highfalutin, respectable influences I could quote, but I spent a lot of time watching Disney Saturday morning and weekday afternoon cartoons. Like Duck Tales, Tail Spin, and Gummi Bears, and I'm pretty sure there's some of that in there. I actively wanted to try to make something that would make people feel the way that Indiana Jones maybe feels. Not necessarily make a new Indiana Jones but bring that feeling back. And people have compared it to Indy, so maybe I have been successful?

I haven't read as many comics as a lot of people who work in comics, so a lot of my influences come from TV and movies and animation obviously. There's a lot of stuff that goes in there. It's a complicated recipe.

GM: I also just gotta ask – where did the flying boat come from? At what point did you say “You know what this series needs? A boat... that can fly.”

Cliff: There were two things. The first part of it is from basically getting involved in the Flight anthology. I know the first volume of Flight featured a lot of flying boats, because Kazu and a lot of those other guys in there are heavily influenced by [Hayao] Miyazaki. For example, in the Flight forums, where we all shared our work and collaborated and everything, all the different sections are named after different locations in Porco Rossa – Miyazaki's flying boat film.

So where was never any mandate that you include a flying boat in your story for Flight. I mean, there was never a mandate that you do anything specifically other than tell a compelling story or a well-told story. But it happened anyways. [Laughs] So part of it comes from that Flight influence.

Boats are always a good idea. But also, setting a story in the 1800s, my options for fast travel were not great. You can't have your Indiana Jones-style red-line flying from point A to point B over the map thing in 1800. You can follow a ship as it sails for three months from one place to, you know, five blocks away. So adding that flying boat in there, even if it is slightly supernatural, felt like something that maybe I could get away with a little bit and make Delilah hypermobile, allowing me to do those James Bond, international intrigue things. So I'm hoping that I get to use it – to exploit that a little bit more in the next volume.

Flying boats, why not, right?
GM: Just to wrap up, the way we do things at the Weekly Crisis, we like to finish interviews with what we call the Literary Rorschach Test. I have a couple terms, and your job is to say the first thing that comes to your head, whether words or something more.

Cliff: These are obviously way better in person, as you're more on the spot.

GM: First one I'll go with – Swashbuckling.

Cliff: Errol Flynn. I just visualize a dude on a staircase, with a shadow cast on the wall. Errol Flynn and the Princess Bride. Those are the things that come to mind.

GM: Globetrotting.

Cliff: Oh, that thing we just talked about. You know, the travelling line on the map. Is that an Indiana Jones exclusive thing? Did that come from somewhere else?

GM: I don't know, to be honest. I associate it with that as well.

Cliff: And I know that there's a whole wealth of things that Indiana Jones was referencing, but Indiana Jones turned into such an--

GM: Iconic franchise.

Cliff: Exactly.

GM: So much so that so much just became associated with that character instead of what it may or may not be borrowed from.

Cliff: Right. They say he's an homage. He was created to be an homage to those serial adventure serials, but now I don't know what those are. I only know what Indiana Jones is.


GM: Tea.

Cliff: I don't – I get a lot of questions about tea. “How do you feel about tea?” I like tea, tea is fine, but I'm fine with a Twinings bag of Earl Grey.

GM: You're saying you don't need to make the greatest tea in the world.

Cliff: The very complicated recipes are intriguing, and I've seen some of the apparatus and some of the thought and the alchemy that goes into it, but I'm simple. I'll take tea and then I'll ruin it with milk and sugar.

But what I do know, and this is very valuable, is that if you're putting milk in your tea, you put the milk in first and then you pour the tea, because... Oh, there are reasons and I've forgotten them.

GM: There are reasons and it makes it better.

Cliff: You have to do it.

GM: Companions.

Cliff: I think pets. But why pets? It's a Rorshach Test. I've probably got tumblr gifs on my mind.

GM: I think the real question is who doesn't have tumblr gifs on their mind.  What do you say to Home?

Cliff: I think of my own home. I think of a lot of people who travel and – you meet people every now and then who are like “I'm from so and so town. It's a real garbage hole.” And I can't relate. I really like Vancouver. I know it's not perfect. I know it could use some improvement in some areas, but I really like it. I'm happy to represent it and talk up its finer points.

GM: Exotic.

Cliff: I worry about the book, about Delilah Dirk and about [sighs] about people thinking that it may be exploitative to try to represent a culture that is very foreign to me. And a lot of ideas of imperialism, cultural imperialism. You know, all the stuff you learn in Art History school and stuff. We have a lot of anxiety about those issues, so just trying to deal with everything honestly and present the characters as their own individuals and trying not to get involved, not to exploit them, like you say, exoticism. That idea. It's a fine line. It's a tough challenge and a fine line to walk. And I worry about it.

GM: Goals.

Cliff: Overrated. I've been reading this really great book lately called The Antidote. The subtitle is, I believe, Happiness For People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. It's got a chapter in there about setting goals and getting distracted by goals and how goals keep you from being happy. Or can if you get too invested in them. Obviously it's nice to have motivation, right? It's nice to have things you want to do. But keeping modest goals and not letting them overwhelm your life. Otherwise, you end a 40 year old banker who never sees his family – makes a lot of money – but is miserable and stressed out. You know, one of those stereotypical applications.

Delilah Dirk started off as baby steps. Small goals. 32 page comic, black and white, self-publish it, and see how it goes. And then I built on it, built on it, and built on it so that Delilah Dirk 2 will basically be the first graphic novel that – the first long format graphic novel that I'll have done because the first one was completed in baby steps. Goals. Why not, right?

GM: Maybe a little similar, but how about Creation?

Cliff: Yes, that also makes me think of the guy I heard of The Antidote from – Austin Kleon. He has an excellent tumblr and an excellent blog and he writes a book called Steal Like An Artist. And the whole idea – not the whole idea – but a strong element of it is inspiration is overrated. You do the hard work first and then find out if it's inspired. And creativity is just work. You buckle down, you do it, and you said creation, but creation-creativity. Yeah, it's work. If you wait for inspiration... [Laughs] you'll never get anything done. Basically.

GM: And finally, The End.

Cliff: Oh, well. See you later. [Laughs] I have no answer.

GM: That's alright. That's all I've got. Thank you so very much for your time.

Cliff: Thank you.

If you've enjoyed our talk and the pages you see here, you can read the first two chapters of Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant absolutely free of charge at the Delilah Dirk website.  Of course, you can also pick up a copy for yourself from wherever books are sold.  If you're looking for more Tony Cliff, both his Tumblr and his Twitter are both excellent places to start.

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