Welcome to the latest installment of Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our ongoing look at the best of the web! We’ve got a huge slate of new interviews planned, and don’t forget to check out our archives!
Coming up, we’ll have interviews with the creators of:
Cleopatra in Space
Sarah and the Seed
…and there might be even more.To start off, we’re heading back to the 1930s for an Eisner-nominated tale of high adventure. Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant (www.delilahdirk.com) is your classic tale of a lady adventurer with a flying sailboat, and the straight-laced Turkish official who finds himself her unwilling companion.
It’s got tons of action, color, humor, and it’s a complete graphic novel you can read for free online, with the sequel, Delilah Dirk and the Seeds of Good Fortune, about to be serialized as well.
We talked with creator Tony Cliff about Delilah, his love of adventure tales, his thoughts on the Eisner nomination, and more.
Newsarama: Tony, how'd you initially conceive of Delilah Dirk and her adventures?
Tony Cliff: The first DD story came from a lot of things - mostly, I just wanted to see if I could make a comic. I’d been hanging out online with a lot of people – bad people, horrible influences – who were getting into that sort of thing, and it seemed like a fun thing to do in the evenings.Plus, I wanted to make the sort of comic I’d want to read. I like the energy and the vitality of superhero comics, but I also like things such as rounded characters and complete story arcs.
As for the historical setting – at the time, around the mid-2000s, I’d read the entirety of CS Forester’s Hornblower books and was mowing through Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series.
I really enjoyed the strong sense of adventure and honor that was part of those books. Those books got me actually interested in history, too. History’s like fantasy, but with the added zing of being real.
And as for Delilah herself - if I’m honest, she might be a reaction to the female characters I was seeing in mainstream comics. All so serious, all so spandex-clad, all so boring. It felt like a challenge to introduce a female character who was lighthearted, sensibly-dressed, and well-rounded (you know, character-wise).A lot of historical fiction I’ve read also had a touch of stuffy soberness to it, too, so it felt like a fun idea to throw a wild character into the early 1800s.
Nrama: What's your reaction to the Eisner nomination?
Cliff: I’m pretty thrilled – It’s a great honor, and I’m happy to be counted among the other excellent authors who’ve been nominated this year. I really like the Eisners. I’ve been lucky enough to attend the ceremony in previous years, and the feeling of tradition is heart-warming. It makes you feel like your silly little drawings on paper are part of something bigger.
Nrama: What were some of your biggest influences on this story? I'm especially curious if classic adventure strips such as Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy or Terry and the Pirates played a role.
Cliff: I have not, unfortunately, read as many classic comics as I’d like. The Indiana Jones movies represent a pretty significant influence. I think I have to admit that Disney animated TV shows are in there somewhere, too – definitely Duck Tales, maybe others.Plus animated features, of course - Road to El Dorado, Aladdin, Tarzan I’d love to be able to say that I was inspired by more high-brow influences – maybe drop some impressive names on you – but that’s just not the case.
Nrama: What sort of research have you done for this time period, and what makes it fascinating for you?
Cliff: Not enough. Never enough. I started The Turkish Lieutenant with only a few reference images and some broad-strokes ideas about the time period and location, and it shows if you read carefully. The story’s pretty tightly focused on the characters, though, so a lot of the historical details end up as texture, but it’s nice to be able to get it right when I can.
A lot of the visual reference comes from Western artists who would travel in what was then “The Orient” and sell prints of their imagery back home. Apparently it was quite popular. The Vancouver library happened to have a 200-year-old copy of a book along those lines –Beauties of the Bosphorus is a collection of images and brief write-ups.I enjoy the historical setting because – like I mentioned above – it’s a little bit familiar, it’s almost relatable, but it’s still out-of-the-ordinary. Historical ways of thinking and living are just different enough to seem strange, but are familiar enough to avoid feeling completely alien.
I was recently able to visit the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, where they have loads of uniforms, weapons, and that sort of thing from the time of the Napoleonic wars, and it was a unique feeling to see artifacts that tangentially plug in to the events of (in this case) the Forester and Cornwell books I’d read. I like that hint of tangibility. You can’t go to a museum to see Orc bones.
Nrama: You initially did some B&W Delilah shorts -- what made you want to take this story online, and what have been the unique challenges and rewards of going this route?
Cliff: I put it online primarily because I wanted feedback about its appeal. It takes a long time to make a 160-page full-color comic – I'm not sure of the specifics, but The Turkish Lieutenant probably took about a year-and-a-half, and once I started I wasn't going to NOT finish it.
A lot of people liked the quality of the book but didn’t feel it was very marketable. I didn’t want to wait for the book to go through the publishing pipeline (a process of a years, possibly) in order to eventually be able to gauge its appeal.I wanted to know whether the story would sink or swim with readers, and the sooner I found that out the sooner I could go back to either investing in more DD stories or generating other projects to focus on.
The downside, of course, is that you have to be your own marketing agency. That’s a lot of work, no damn fun, and it takes time away from making more comics. Plus, staying on top of the technical challenges is tough. DelilahDirk.com was compromised by drug spam last fall, which was a nightmare (it’s all clean now).
On the other hand, it's been really exciting to connect with the people who've been enjoying the story. For example, a month or two ago I did a "help me pick the cover" thing. Of the three possible covers, only one featured Selim, and it wasn't the option with the strongest composition.
I heard from a lot of people who were disappointed there wasn't more Selim in the options I’d presented. I’m going to assume that means folks are connecting with the character, and that's really rewarding.
Nrama: Tell us a little about your process of writing/illustrating the strip?
Cliff: How long do you have? The internet will run out of bits.Quickly, though: initially I make point-form notes; random scribbles and thoughts and snippets of dialogue. Pages and pages of those. Once I think I might have a decent shape for the story, I'll start outlining it with point-form, step-by-step chunks of the plot. That gets beat around and hammered-on until it's a shape I really like.
After that, I make a pass over the whole story in tiny thumbnails. Those evolve into bigger thumbnails, where the dialogue starts to get put in.
In the case of the latest story – The Seeds of Good Fortune– I took those thumbnails into Photoshop, tightened 'em up, cut and pasted 'em and rearranged things. Those enlarged, chopped-and-tightened roughs get printed out on 11x17" pages.I do some additional tightening and development and start putting down the clean line art (for Seeds, I used Prismacolor Ebony pencils to do it all, which gives it a feel that’s a little closer to some of the quality of the olde-timey drawings that inspired the work).
Once clean, the pages get shoved back into the computer and colored digitally. Then I tie up each page's shoes, make sure it has a hot lunch, wipe a smudge off its cheek and send it scuttling out into the world.
Nrama: I'm curious about your background in animation -- what can you tell us about that, and how does it help (or even hinder) your process of creating comics?
Cliff: It can get in the way a bit – it's tough to get out of the habit of thinking of everything within the constant 16: 9 frame and start thinking of unique, creative ways to use the whole comic page. A lot of animators' comics can end up reading like a storyboard, I find.It's not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s easy to come up with examples of comics that use that approach to good effect, but I get more excited to see comics that take advantage of the medium's specific advantages. You can do more than just fill in a series of left-to-right rectangles.
I gotta say, though, I'm grateful for a lot of the good practices the animation training's ingrained in my process. There was a strong emphasis on observational drawing, which is always beneficial.
The need for a strong silhouette was also strongly emphasized, and remembering to focus on that has paid off. And of course there's representing the sense of movement – it's nice to be able to have that toolkit to bring to the comic page.
Nrama: The relationship between Delilah and Selim is a highlight of the strip -- how did you develop that?
Cliff: One of the first drawings I did of DD was similar to the scene in Chapter One of The Turkish Lieutenant where Selim’s “interviewing” Delilah. She’s chained up but relaxed – she’s seated on a chair, leaning back, legs crossed, making grand, adventurous hand gestures. Selim is hunched over, concentrating, trying to transcribe whatever she’s going on about.I liked the role reversal with the interrogator struggling to keep pace with the prisoner, who’s clearly in charge of the exchange, despite the shackles. I suppose everything sort of unfurled from there.
Nrama: What can readers anticipate in The Seeds of Good Fortune?
Cliff: Seeds is a fun, tight little story! It’s been a while since I finished The Turkish Lieutenant and Seeds was a chance to put into practice a lot of things that I’d been thinking about since then. I really wanted to include a lot of the “specific-to-comic-books” sorts of things that I mentioned above, and I think I was reasonably successful in that. There’s one double-page spread I particularly enjoyed, and had been looking for an opportunity to use for a long time now.
Nrama: What are some of your other favorite comics and creators, online and off?
Cliff: Ha - if I started mentioning people I could go on for a long, long time and still have managed to miss some dudes who deserve to be mentioned. Bill Watterson and Mike Mignola take up a lot of space in my modest library and my modest heart (The Amazing Screw-On Head might be my favorite comic-book comic).I will mention two of my favorite dudes working right now, though. They probably appeal to completely different readers, but I like them for similar reasons - Brandon Graham and Dave Roman both do super-fun things with words. I’m a sucker for puns and word-play, so they hook me with that. But Brandon does great things with labeling and design elements, and Dave has a great way with dialogue and putting together great-sounding phrases. They both make excellent comics that could only ever be delivered as comics – they take full advantage of the medium.
Nrama: Something I've been asking everyone in this series is what they think of the opportunities afforded by new delivery systems such as the iPad, smartphones, etc. and what both individual creators and larger companies can do to take advantage of these opportunities.
Cliff: You can’t read comics on a smartphone. Or, I guess you can, but you really shouldn’t. And I’m not totally sold on tablets yet. “Retina Display” is nice, but I’d still like to see a beautiful color e-ink display. Do those exist yet? When we get to that point, let’s talk again.
If that seems hypocritical, well, in the case of DelilahDirk.com, the advantages outweighed the negatives.
Looking at the site on a new iPad, I’m frustrated by the lack of resolution and the unfortunate JPEG compression that’s necessary to make it reasonably deliverable as a webcomic (you know, bandwidth costs and whatnot). It looks as good as I can make it look given the constraints, but it’s still not as nice as if it were printed.The other thing that frustrates me with digital comics right now is the preponderance of comic-delivery middleman services; the “comic-book store” apps. I’d like it to be more direct and more user- and consumer-friendly.
I don’t want to have to have accounts with three different e-comic providers just to get the few comics I’d like to read, and I remember looking into one service that seemed ideal for delivering DD digitally, but that wouldn’t allow me to use it, just because I’m in Canada.
That all sounds a bit curmudgeonly, but don’t get me wrong - I’m so glad for what digital distribution has done for comics. We’re really spoiled now with all the great work that’s available now, and all so easily. I love it. It’s practically raining great work. So maybe I’m just old-fashioned.
Nrama: How many adventures do you currently have planned for Delilah?
Cliff: Loosely? I could imagine doing as many as four more DD books, but right now I only have a solid outline for the next long-form graphic novel. There are a lot of places I want to go, though, there are a lot of trials I want to put DD and Selim through, and there are a lot of themes I’d like to tackle. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope the readers are, too.
Nrama: What else are you currently working on?
Cliff: I do a lot work with a very accommodating, very flexible (and very talented) animation studio in San Francisco called Ghostbot. I’ve worked on a few projects with them over the last while, and unfortunately I’m bound by an NDA to be vague about the one I’m most excited about. I can say it’s a major franchise for a game console, that it will probably be coming out eventually, and that it’s something I’ve wanted to be involved with since the early 2000s.Other than that, I have one side-project that’s too early to say anything about, and as of now (May 2012) – I’m just about to start tightening up the outline for that second long-form DD story.
If anyone’s interested in staying abreast of such things, TonyCliff.com links to all the Twitters and Tumblrs and whatnot where I post updates occasionally. And of course, Delilah-specific developments get posted on DelilahDirk.com and @delilahdirk on Twitter.
Check out Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant at www.delilahdirk.com.
Next: We celebrate the return of the comic that brings the adventure of the past to the furthest reaches of the universe in Cleopatra in Spaaaace!. Then, it’s a rockin’ rebellion on the Fourth Planet in Free Mars, and a dose of dark humor with Feel Afraid! All this and more as Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics continues!Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!