Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant
Created by: Tony Cliff
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1596438134 (Amazon)
Growing up, I never had any concern with finding myself in the heroes of adventure stories. Being white and male, I had the privilege of being more than adequately represented in the protagonists of these adventures. Or at least roughly represented. Really roughly. Roughly enough so that no hero of any of the books or movies I loved remotely resembled me save that, perhaps, they had penises and skin that was lighter than it was dark. They might not have actually had penises—I never had the opportunity to check, nor would I have even considered the attempt. In truth, regardless my privilege, the heroes of my favourite adventures were always indelibly alien to me. The depth of their foreignness was complete. I did not have their strength, their skills, their abilities, their wit. Moreover, I could not conceive that I might ever share any of that je ne sais quoi that made them suitable heroes.
And here, on the cusp of Age Forty, I can look back and applaud the considerable judgment I possessed as a seven year old—because I have acquired none of those heroic traits (save perhaps a smidgeon of wit). I have always then wondered at those who are sad about not seeing themselves in their heroes. Chalk it up to privilege if you care to, or perhaps to the fact that I just never seemed to share in the growing-up experiences that so many of my friends had, but I have always imagined that I would feel as much disconnect between myself and my heroes as if I had been black or Asian or female. Because heroes were never even human to me. They were this Alien Other. When Spider-Man was Peter Parker, he wasn’t like me. He was this non-human creature with amazing skills that was pretending to be me. He was the privileged one and he was wearing some equivalent of black-face to try to blend in, some human-face camouflage. It didn’t work. Not for me.
Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy heroes or their adventures. I did. I ate that stuff up. I loved Spider-Man. I loved Rick Hunter. I loved Wolverine and Groo and Rogue and pre-ninja Psylocke and Nightcrawler and Tintin and Power Pack. And Kitty Pryde. While still foreign, Kitty Pryde was the adventure hero whom I could most relate to. I would of course never be able to be her or possess near a third of even her non-superhuman abilities. But if I were forced to relate to one of these fictional figures, it would have been her. And that’s kind of the point: I didn’t love these characters because I could relate to them. I loved them because they were unbelievable and fantastic. The stories they got wrapped up in were ludicrous and impossible and kind of delicious. And while I’ve mostly graduated from adventure tales11Real big of me, I know, right?
I shouldn’t by now, but I still do feel like I need to clarify when I say things like that. Probably because of the tongue-in-cheek way that I say them. I don’t honestly think adventure stories are lesser stories, even though my personal history has trained me to believe that. For me, it’s a matter of taste—yet my tastes are historically tied to different periods of my life. It’s like metal. I listened to heavy metal, speed metal, and thrash metal from 8th grade to maybe a little before my high school graduation. So for me, justified or not, metal will always feel like something you listen to when you’re a kid. Something you grow out of.
Because my taste in film and literature shifted away from adventure stories after highschool, I unconsciously associate those kinds of stories with my immaturity, and so adventure will always feel like something you grow out of. It will feel like that even if my rational mind denies the connection., I’m still able to take great joy in the occasional episode—despite not feeling that I am remotely represented in the protagonist. Bone is fantastic and amazing, even though Fone Bone isn’t even human. Raiders of the Lost Ark is thrilling, even though Doctor Jones is an immortal possessed of uncanny luck. The Sea Hawk is exciting and daring, even though there’s nothing in my make-up that could possess me to commandeer a tallship or run a guy through with a rapier.
And I found Delilah Dirk as delightful a hero and her adventures as blisteringly exciting as any other—despite the fact that she is a woman and I, clearly, am not. And a woman that has skills and fortune greater than those of any man or woman in all of the combined histories of the real world. She has a winning personality and a basketful of impossible abilities. I don’t know whether my daughter will take after me and feel no need to see herself in her protagonists,22I’m not too concerned this won’t be the case, as the character with whom she currently most identifies is Bartleby the rat creature. but if she does hope to find herself in her heroes, she won’t find that in Delilah. All the same, I expect she’ll take as much joy in this episode as I do. Delilah Dirk may be unconvincing in terms of realism or relatability, but it’s a grand little adventure.
While Delilah may be the book’s hero, its narrator is someone who flies a little closer to the earth, the mostly accessible Turkish lieutenant, Selim. It is through the eloquent Selim that we encounter the whirlwind, Delilah Dirk. He is as incredulous as we might be when encountering a woman who is trained in forty-seven sword-fighting techniques, who sits as a high-ranking member of three royal courts, and who—in the preindustrial Mediterranean33The Ottoman janissary corps existed between AD 1383 and 1826, so Delilah Dirk occurs sometime within that window, probably earlier than later.—claims the power of flight. Selim is just a normal guy, mostly. He’s a janissary lieutenant with astonishingly good taste in tea and a certain loquaciousness, but with no other skills to recommend him. Delilah helps him out of a bind and they begin their travels together, moving from hot water to scalding.
Only, when one is on Delilah Dirk’s side, things can’t get too hot—just more interesting. The only time when Miss Dirk isn’t entirely in command of her situation, Selim is able to provoke her to action simply because in the present crisis he has far less to lose and so is less shocked by their predicament. Delilah Dirk is a woman-run show. Honestly, it’d be a delightful romp either way, but it’s refreshing to see an overly competent woman in the Doctor Jones role for a change.
And beyond the easy romp of adventure, Cliff does allow for a moment’s meditation on the risks and benefits associated with both adventure and a more staid provincial sort of life. The characters are, at a point, afforded the opportunity to retire free of the kinds of consequences that would plague William Munny in Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven. Each character gets to choose between quietly settling down to enjoy the fruits of labours and leaping once more into the unknown, with all the associated joys and terrors. In a more critical world, we might read Cliff as contemplating the tension between liberty and security—marking Delilah Dirk, for all its old-world Mediterranean elegance, as a thoroughly Third-Millennial American work. Delilah and Selim each make their own decisions for their own reasons, but the reader may enjoy the opportunity to exercise the question along with the two companions. For myself, I was reminded how adventurous I once was and wanted to be, but how with age crept in so great a desire for comfort and reliability that any remnant thirst for adventure is nearly quenched. A bittersweet acknowledgement, but I’m grateful to Cliff’s book for bringing it to mind and giving me another opportunity to evaluate my own history and decisions.
Tony Cliff’s art and writing are perfectly enjoyable. It was Delilah Dirk's gorgeous cover that first attracted me to the volume. I saw its beauty and dynamism and knew this was a book I’d need to pay attention to. Cliff’s illustrations are fluid and graceful and his cartooning expressive. There is no ambiguity in his visual storytelling. Delilah is conveyed as a woman somewhere between elegant poise and a child’s crafty mischief. Selim is drawn lean and astounded, wiry and witful despite being out of his element. Their dialogue is peppered with smarts and humour and keeps an enjoyable cadence. Even though Delilah Dirk is lighter fare, it’s expertly conceived. I can’t wait for more and hope the wait won’t be too long.
I’m cheered that more and more great stories are featuring female protagonists. I’m grateful for Zita the Spacegirl, Spera, Broxo, Twin Spica, Friends with Boys, the works of Hope Larson and Raina Teglemeier, and the Hilda stories. And now, I’m grateful for Delilah Dirk. Not so much because these will be characters whom certain young women will be able to relate to (if that happens, I consider it a bonus), but because the proliferation of good, solid female heroes is a hint that things are getting better. That maybe the world my daughter grows up into won’t bear women quite so much animosity as it did when my mother was growing up. That maybe it could be entirely good and safe and joyous to be a woman in the coming age.
One cannot escape one’s privileges and so I cannot ever know what it feels like to be a woman. And yet, with great privileges come great responsibilities—so even if I cannot know that experience, I owe it to my daughter, my wife, my mother, my friends, and my whole society to listen to what I can’t understand. To learn of what is hidden. To care deeply for the well-being of those who are other from me. And to invest in what is made mysterious by nature of my privilege. And if part of that involves taking joy in good books about great women, then consider me the luckiest of men.
More Delilah Dirk, please.
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