Fresh Meat: Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, a graphic novel by Tony CliffDelilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff is a graphic novel about an alternate 19th century, where an adventuress takes a new friend and a flying boat to rob a Sultan (available August 27, 2013).

In the late 19th century, an honest young janissary named Selim serves in the court of a Turkish agha. Being one of the few people at court to have learned the exotic English tongue, he is asked to interrogate a foreign captive who identifies herself as Delilah Dirk, our titular hero. As he briefs the Agha later, she has rather a wild story about how she comes to be there.

The daughter of an English diplomat and a Greek artist, she’s traveled the world learning martial arts, is possessed of seemingly magical powers, and fully intends to escape the prison and steal several valuable scrolls in the Agha’s possession, which she succeeds at just as Selim is finishing his oral report. Infuriated, the Agha orders the execution of both Delilah and Selim, whom he deems her accomplice. Delilah has no intention of letting an innocent man die for her crimes, so spirits Selim away from the executioner’s block. Together, they flee the city on her flying boat.

A grateful Selim feels that he owes it to her to repay his rescue with his service, but quails at the thought of assisting in her thievery. Delilah tells him, with her trademark bluntness:

Look, I already told you what I think of your honor-debt idea. Leave if you want. But if you're going to stay with me, then you're with me. Okay? Help or leave—no spectating.

And so the civilized, bookish Selim finds himself slipping into an easy, bantering relationship with the roguish Delilah. Their next stop: exacting revenge on Zakul, a warlord and pirate who’s plundered several of her friend’s ships. After a nerve-wracking (for Selim anyway) trip in the flying boat to the port city near Zakul’s stronghold, she explains that they’re going to steal back some of Zakul’s ill-gotten gains:

Delilah: Enough to make up for my friend's losses, and to irritate Zakul. Enough to send a message.

Selim: Is that message, “I have lived a sufficiently long life”? Perhaps you'll allow me to inherit your flying boat when you die.

Delilah: Don't be silly, you hate that boat.

Selim: I do not.

Delilah: Well, it must hate you, then. Besides, my plan is quite solid.

Witty repartee is only one of the strengths of this appropriate-for-all-ages graphic novel. The art is gorgeous: Tony Cliff knows how to utilize a double-page spread to maximum effect. But it’s really the concept, at once familiar and subversive, that stands out.

Growing up in the 80s, I read a lot of comic books and swashbuckling adventures, but I never read anything that had a grown-up, swashbuckling heroine as the main character. There was Pippi Longstocking, but she was a child, a friendly figure but not an aspirational one. DC Comics had Wonder Woman, but she was too morally upright at the time and, to be honest, kind of staid (in the 90s, Catwoman would get her own title, but had spent so much time being a Batman-appendage that it didn’t seem to count). Reading about Robin Hood and watching Indiana Jones was great, but I still craved the experience of watching a woman play the role of the lovable rogue who wasn’t just a sidekick, but a heroine in her own right.

from Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

Delilah Dirk And The Turkish Lieutenant fills that void so nicely, that I’m looking forward to introducing Delilah and Selim to any daughters I may have in future. More than just having a woman in the traditional man’s role of debonair international thief with a heart of gold, this book also breaks tradition by not inserting romance into the narrative. While I wouldn’t object if it were done in future installments, I thought it was refreshing that, at least in this book, Delilah and Selim are bound more by obligation and friendship than by any gooier emotion.

Subversion of traditional tropes aside, Delilah Dirk And The Turkish Lieutenant is a satisfying romp through 19th century Europe that tells a clever tale of high adventure. It will likely be especially appreciated by anyone who’s ever enjoyed a Tintin book and/or a strong female central character. I cannot recommend it enough.

Check out the first four chapters online here!

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.