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Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules
by Tony Cliff
First Second, $17.99, 256pp
Published: August 2018

It's been a couple of years since I read the last Delilah Dirk graphic novel by Tony Cliff, but it was a lot of fun: an old school adventure romp with a dynamic female lead without any tolerance for the sexist mores of the day and an engaging sidekick in the Turkish lieutenant of the first book, Erdemoglu Selim. That book, 'Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling' was the second in the series and this is the third, which is even truer to its obvious influences than previous volumes.

The primary influence is surely Indiana Jones, because this is archaeology as adventure, very much in the pulp mould without any of the finesse that has gradually entered the science over the last century or two. Of course, there are some overt differences, not least that this is set in 1812 and our lead is female, but the tone feels right. This has all the exotic locations, physical danger and magnificent discoveries that we know and love from Indy, with a similar dab of humour to keep things lively and a hefty dose of cliffhangers to keep us all wide-eyed.

The background story here revolves around a search for the Third Pillar of Hercules, a mythical lost city which is prominently mentioned in the tomb which Delilah and Selim explore in Turkey. They're not alone this time, as a Dutch journalist by the name of Laurens van Hassel, who sparked the journey to begin with, joins them on it. It has to be said that he's a mysterious sort, but we can't be sure what kind of trouble he is. Is he just going to be an ongoing embarrassment to Delilah by documenting her adventures in detail and sending them off for publication in the 'Weekly Observer'? Or is there something else going on? Sometimes just asking a question answers it too.

I liked this dynamic, as van Hassel brings mystery to the book far beyond the object that they're seeking. He has character too, being an older gentleman who's nonetheless still able to keep up with his younger cohorts, though I have to add that he's far from the loyal companion that Selim is. The only other character of any worth is Jason Merrick, Delilah's nemesis, who shows back up here and dances through the book with suitably villainous flair.

The story is a bundle of fun, more so than the last book, because this one has more coherence and consistency. That one focused more on Delilah's background to build her character; Cliff saw little need to continue that in this book, so there's more room for action. They traipse around the Mediterranean, from site to site, racking up the miles. Today they're in Turkey, tomorrow Algeria and wherever the path leads them by the weekend. Each of these sites follows the Indiana Jones model: an ancient monument of some description which has remained in place over the centuries to impart the right clue to our heroes at the right time to move them onto the next stage. Where they end up is suitably epic, though I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that this particular mythical lost city isn't only a mythical lost city and the final act is glorious.

As with the last book, with its weaker story, the art is impossible to ignore. I realise that art is important in any graphic novel, but many tell stories with art backing it up, whereas the art in 'Delilah Dirk' is just as prominent as the story and sometimes more so. I wish this had been published in a larger format than it was because, after reading the thing, I'd like to flick back through and enjoy the artwork on its own merits, but it's often too small to appreciate properly. It sometimes feels like watching a particularly visual movie on a laptop instead of a big screen TV and that's a rare instance of me complaining about an editorial choice by First Second.

The flaw more applicable to the creator is his habit of adding enhancements to action panels. This is sometimes cute but more often distracting. I can see that this is a punch and that's a hug and that's a leap, or that this man is puzzled and that woman is shocked. I really don't need any enhancements in the form of punctuation or sound effects to accompany the action like a redundant commentator. Cliff is incredibly good at drawing action but he doesn't always seem to trust in his artwork and I don't get that.

There's a magnificent double page spread about halfway through the book that serves as a great example: Selim sights Merrick escaping from their rooms and he and Delilah battle the snakes that he left for them. It's comprised of twelve panels, which contain two words of dialogue and six instances of this sort of enhanced commentary. The artwork is exquisite here and the entire spread really only needed one word of dialogue to get its point across, a shout from Selim of 'Merrick!' to serve as a warning. Everything else is pointless and, to my mind, damages the impact this magnificent art has. I don't need the 'wap' and the 'clunf' and the 'shlunk'. I don't even need hissing from the snakes.

With that exception, which is annoying but not an impediment, most of the praise goes to Tony Cliff, who once again wrote and illustrated the entire book himself. However, I should give a shout out to the other artists who assisted with some of the colouring, because colour is a huge plus on the 'Delilah Dirk' books. It's so pervasive that sections feel like they've been coded, in the way that silent movies often tinted sections different colours to obtain different effects. It isn't as simple as the desert scenes being yellow and the sea scenes being blue. There is much effect imparted by the fantastic use of colour here and it's lush.

If you've ever wanted to see a period action hero leap into the fray in the form of a tempestuous lady in layers of skirts, Delilah Dirk ought to be top of your shopping list. She's very much her own woman at a time when that wasn't deemed appropriate and she really doesn't care. I like that and I'm already looking forward to book four! ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Tony Cliff click here

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