Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff

I have several confessions to make.

  1. I use this blog space as a place to work out ideas or issues that come up while I am writing more formal, academic work.
  2. I have some publishers that I really like a lot. I like their work, their ideals, and the ways their products. I am biased.
  3. I read books differently when thinking about them for academic settings.

Now that we have all that out of the way, I want to take on the task of writing about Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, published by First:Second Books. First:Second is my absolutely favorite graphic novel publisher … bar none. I could extoll the virtues of the paper they use, the printing process, the authors, and stories they find and cultivate. Just go here and see for yourself.

I was hugely excited to get a review copy of Delilah Dirk. I knew it was originally a web comic or was developed by Tony Cliff on the web or something like that – OK, so I don’t really know what it was because it started when I was writing my dissertation and when one is writing one’s dissertation there are things that one must not allow to distract one from one’s work. But, I digress.

Reading the book was a terrific thrill ride. The characters were funny, there was great banter, and no one had sex or even looked like they wanted to. It is truly a story about Delilah, a swash-buckling woman with a HUGE main of hair meets Selim, a Turkish lieutenant with even bigger morals, who is sent to interrogate her. Through some very unlikely but totally believable mishaps Delilah escapes and in the process saves Selim’s life. He, in turn,  feels indebted to her and vows to accompany her. Think of the best “buddy movies” you’ve seen but instead of two guys, it is a half Greek woman with swords and a flying boat and a Turkish guy with a tea fetish.

The illustrations are just fabulous: Rich color married to exquisitely penned details, along with very smart use of panels and page layouts, which all work together to give rise to an intimate and exciting book. There is a lot of text, almost all of it dialogue with a few bits of back-story exposition, or narration to keep things flexible and interesting. There are gaps in the written text where the author allows the illustrations to provide the details.

Cliff creates some of the most beautiful open water and sea port views. His use of color and line, along with the heavy grade gloss paper is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Boat at sea

Boat at sea

Flying boat

Flying boat

I’m going to walk you through page 14, which shows Delilah and Selim’s “meet cute”. First look over the page yourself, and then take a look at my reading notes.


-Panel 1, 1/3 panel, row 1: mid-shot of Selim baring hot tea though a jail door. Note the jailer keys, the steam rising from the pots and the formal tray, and his raised foot that suggests movement.

-Panel 2, 2/3 panel, row 1: wide-angle, Delilah is quite small in comparison to Salim in the previous panel. Note the chain attached to the wall in the upper left corner and the corresponding one just out of sight-line in the upper right.

-Panel 3, row 2: smaller still but inline with panel 1. Close up of Salim.

-Panel 4, row 2: wide shot that shows both. Selim’s movement from the door to the table (which was not seen prior to this panel) is complete. Note the chair on the far right side of the panel.

-Panel 5, 1/2 panel, row 3, close up of Delilah. Note the large cuff on her writst.

-Panel 6, ½ panel, row 3, mid shot of Selim – he is not amused. Note that this is the first time the panels are in balance with each other.

-Panel 7, full size, she sits and pours while he watches, hunches and displeased. Note they are both in the same panel.

The technical fore-thought is amazing and is consistent throughout the book. But …. And there is a big but, the book has a major flaw that I cannot get around or ignore.

Although Delilah is the main character, and she defies many stereo-types of women, and the relationship between Selim and Delilah is unique in the equanimity it shows, there are problems with the ways women are portrayed throughout. In fact, you could change Delilah to a man, and there would be little change in the story. That is a problem.

It took me until the third time through the book, when I was getting ready to write about it, to see the problem. I often read with the Bechtel Test in the for-front on my mine when looking for representations in a book. The Bechdel test is a great way to read graphic novels for inclusion and representation that  includes how and why visual elements are used and why.

In short, The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies highlights how women are portrayed in media. Just ask yourself these questions about the book or movie:

1. Are there 2 women who have names?

2. Do these women talk to each?

3. When they talk, is it about something other than men?

That’s it. Three questions … actually, two and a half since #2 and 3 are so tightly related.  Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant  fails.

Here are the reasons:

1. There are very few women that appear in the book (3, not counting Delilah).

2. Most of the women are nameless, covered in everything from chador to full-body bukas, even though the men are depicted in a range of clothing styles, and even shirtless in one scene.

3. Two of the three women who appear in the book are only there as objects of desire for Selim.

4. The  one other woman who has a name in introduced by her husband, Semih, as “my Sofya” who bakes and takes care of others.

5. When Sofya finally does speak she talks to Selim as he leaves the village in search of Delilah, “Come back when you are ready to marry one or more of my daughters!”

Yes, that is the extent of the women who speak in the book.

It doesn’t just fail a little. It fails EPICALLY and I am  mad.

I am mad because I wanted to be able to love this book. I wanted to use this book with preservice teachers, in-service teachers, and kids. But I can’t. I cannot recommend this book at all. I hate finding an almost terrific book more than finding horrid dreck. I believe that really horrid, simplistic, badly designed and written graphic novels have enough strong competition in the marketplace. At one point there was only Bone by Jeff Smith. Now, there are divisions and publishers that think, and think very carefully about books to keep truly terrible books in check.

But, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, isn’t just simply bad. It is beautiful and fun and a really good story that has one element that I cannot abide. I hate this kind of conundrum because I know there are loads of good teachers and parents who are going to look this book over and think it is a good read for theirs sons or daughters. But, it isn’t. It shows readers that women are more often then not nameless property or servants to the community.


Binky series by Ashley Spires

I was off to a good start with this blog. It felt good to put my heard-learned knowledge to something that might be useful to actual teachers. I was getting good feedback, from colleagues and from perfectly nice strangers. All of the things bloggers want.

And then someone asked me what, I am sure, she considered a perfectly innocent question, “Do you think having the irregularity of thought bubbles, action balloons, overlapping panels and other non-traditional print characteristics is OK for kids just beginning to learn to read?” And I had to say, “umn, I don’t know.”

I have to say that a lot when literacy people start asking very good questions, as they are want to do. The reason I say “I don’t know” so often is because there is not a lot of research on the cognitive activity involved in reading graphic novels and comics.

There is one thing that I can say. More and more emphasis on younger and younger children reading and gleaning information from non-narrative, informational texts means we had better figure this stuff out. The Common Core State Standards don’t call for reading graphic novels until the 5th grade and then they drop off the CCSS around grade 7. I can’t explain that either.

Owly: A Time to be Brave by Andy Runton

Owly: A Time to be Brave by Andy Runton

I went in search of graphic novels for young readers. I love the Owly series by Andy Runton. It is a  fabulous wordless stories.

But  I wanted to know what was available for readers who are just getting their feet wet and working towards  print automaticity – when reading means following the expected pattern of  left to right and top to bottom  that English requires.

I went to my local library, talked to one librarian who was not at all interested in me or my work because he “just doesn’t get that whole comics thing”.  I went to another librarian, she had some suggestions but I think she got them directly from The HornBook, which means she is reading trade journals about graphic novels, but not the actual books. I can say that because she responded to my questions with, “Yeah, I don’t actually read them”.

Then I saw a kid perusing the graphic novel shelves. I watched him for a while. He was opening books, flipping through them, pausing and putting them back.  He put  Cardboard on his stack, put back a couple of books that weren’t very good, paused to read a good chunk of Foiled by Jane Yolan and Mike Cavallero, then he put both Foiled and Foiled Again on his stack to be checked out. A women, who turned out to be his mom, came by and asked if he was ready to go. I took my chance and asked her if it was Ok if I talked to her son, I handed her my official looking Boston University business card, and gave her my 30 second dissertation explanation. She said sure and stood near us, which was fine by me.

Harold, I’ll call him Harold because he looks nothing like a kid named Harold, is 12. I chatted with him for a few minutes. He’s been reading graphic novels for a while. He’s a DC man and likes a lot of the reboot, especially the new Spider Man. He’s not too keen on Batman. We talked graphic novels, I suggested a few, especially the Olympians series by George O’Connor. We established mutual credibility and I moved on to what I really needed advise about.

Turns out Greg (He really wasn’t a Harold) liked being asked for help by an adult with a business card (I gave him one, too). After I explained what I was looking for, he pointed out the BINKY series by Ashley Spires, published by Kids Can Press. I got way too excited and geeky and started talking about publishers, Scaredy Squirrel (aslo published by Kids Can Press), fonts and white space. My cool-adult cred was totally blown and Hank (I really should have asked his name) and his mom took off.


I checked out all the Binky books (I found 4, there is a 5th coming out in September), and read them several times. I like them a lot. They appeal to my sense of the absurdity of taking oneself  seriously.

Binky The Space Cat, page 35

Binky The Space Cat, page 35

Plus, there are fart jokes.

Binky is a house cat who is in charge of protecting his space station (the house) from aliens (all manner of flying and stinging bugs). The books have a great dual narrative (much like the Bad Kitty books by Nick Bruel). Binky’s space station narrative, in which he is a highly trained member of F.U.R.S.T (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel) stand in sharp contract to the reality that the readers understands, in which  Binky is a total nut-job of a cat.

Binky concludes

Binky the Space Cat, page 25

The illustrations work on these levels perfectly, allowing the reader to understand the cues Binky uses to come to the completely wrong conclusion about the world. Also, did I mention the fart jokes?

In general the regularity of the panels, and the action oriented transitions work to provide scaffolding of the sequencing of the story for young readers. In addition, the colors are mostly muted with small dashes of vibrant color.

But, and there is always a but, I don’t think the reading level, the actual written words on the page, are designed for young readers. I wanted to see what others thought about Binky’s reading level and soon discovered that no one has developed a good measure of graphic novel reading levels (and there is another project).

Here is what the experts say about Binky’s reading levels. The thing is, these reading levels (including the Lexiles) range from grade 1 to grade 5, which is a wide range!


Lexile Level

Fountas & Pinnell

Grade level


Age Range*

Binky The Space Cat (2009)






Binky To The Rescue (2010)






Binky Under Pressure (2011)






Binky Takes Charge (2012)






Binky License to Scratch (September 1, 2013)






From Kids Can Press website (

There are many complex words and phrases like “collecting specimens” (Binky to The Rescue, p. 19) and “caught unlawfully reading” (Binky The Space Cat, p. 5). I wonder how many 5 year olds could figure out those phrases.

I want to return to the question that began this post. What about graphic novels for very young readers? Do these books help? Do they hinder? And, again, I have to say I don’t know. I know there are lots of lots of questions left to answer. I’ve been thinking about how to develop a measure or rubric or system to communicate reading levels but … I don’t know.