by Brendan Hodgdon. A desperate and forgotten underclass, struggling to survive in the aftermath of calamity. A depressed and damaged country allowing these inequalities to fester like an untreated wound. An underpriviledged child, who is nevertheless extraordinary in some way, fighting to make his way through a cruel world. This is the world of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a long-standing literary classic that has seen a great many notable adaptations since its initial publication 180 years ago.
Now, that world has been given some fresh, postapocalyptic life in the form of Oliver, the new Image Comics series from writer Gary Whitta (screenwriter of The Book of Eli and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and artist Darick Robertson (Transmetropolitan, The Boys). Along with colorist Diego Rodriguez and letterer Simon Bowland, they set up a fascinating world and an intriguing interpretation of a classic character in their debut issue, due out January 23. In their version, London slums full of poor workers are replaced with a bombed-out hellscape full of abandoned clones, and Oliver is far more than just a hungry kid tricked into picking pockets. On top of that, the whole thing is just incredibly fun.
Ahead of the release of this exciting new title, DoomRocket had the chance to get the inside scoop from Whitta and Robertson. Along the way, they told us about the significance of Dickens’ original story, the challenges and benefits of adaptation, and a whole lot more.
1. What is it about ‘Oliver Twist’ that makes it timeless? How did you try to celebrate that in this version?
Gary Whitta: I think it’s certainly timeless in its depiction of class struggle, a problem which doesn’t seem to have evolved or changed much in more than a hundred years since Dickens first wrote about it. The world is still made up of an unhappy mix of the franchised and the forgotten, and in this comic that’s something I tried to really amplify by showing a vision of a futuristic London that’s almost entirely populated by the kind of forgotten souls Dickens was writing about, those who do all the hard work so those above them can benefit, and who receive almost nothing in return.
Darick Robertson: Personally, I just wanted to capture the elements of Gary’s script and concept that make it feel like a new idea, so if you were a person coming into this cold you wouldn’t really need to know the Dickens story. But if you enjoyed ours, it would lead you to read the original. Much in the way Star Wars lead me to see Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress and study Joseph Campbell. When I originally saw Star Wars, I had no idea of those things, I just loved the story that I was experiencing.
2. Gary, what sort of changes did you have to make from your original screenplay to have it better fit the comics format?
GW: One of the happy accidents that emerged from reinventing the screenplay for comics format was realizing how episodic the original screenplay structure was, and therefore perfect for breaking down into individual comics issues. Being originally imagined as a feature film the story always had a three-act structure with what feel like natural tension-escalating breaks at the end of acts one and two, but beyond that it seemed like I didn’t have to do much work at all in finding the smaller issue breaks to separate the four issues that comprise each act because they also just happen to have naturally occurred in the right places without me needing to do any heavy re-organizing. I think serialized comics are a lot like television, and that episodic format works best when you can end each episode or issue on some kind of cliffhanger that leaves your audience clamoring for the next installment.
3. Darick, you’ve spoken elsewhere about going for an alternate, anachronistic version of London, and looking at comics like ‘Akira’ for inspiration when it came to designing the world. Between you and Diego Rodriguez, how did you settle on the particular color palette that you’re using, and how do you feel it informs the overall story and world?
DR: I’ve worked with Diego for a few years now and we have a very good collaborative relationship. He is happy to take direction and I’ll send him photos and images that I’m referencing to describe what effects I’m going for or what I’m seeing. He brilliantly will go after it, show me multiple versions and help us get the look and feel that we’re going for. I value that so much. In my early days of comics, it would be rare to have any oversight (and often I still see things that are in print that make me cringe) but with Image and Oliver, I have complete oversight, so to have a partners like Gary and Diego, is a real gift.
Specifically with the color palette, I see Oliver’s world as healing from a post devastating bomb. The atmosphere is toxic, the landscape is scarred, but we are still telling the story of survivors and rebels. So I wanted the tone and feel to reflect the idea of hope within oppression. If you know the old mariner’s saying: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailor’s warning” it indicates that atmosphere and light will portend things to come. I wanted to bring that element to this story, to have the sky and the city and the weather act as characters within, so there’s a visceral sense of being. There’s technology, but the inhabitants have been driven back to a time before. That element of firelight and rusty, hand-cranked machines, ghosts of a present past, are the things of Oliver and his people, while the government and the military have all the modern tech. Yet they are also living in a anachronistic, post-bomb version of the past. A little steampunk inspiration helped, too!
4. In translating the story of ‘Oliver Twist’ into this post-apocalyptic setting, was the original story helpful in guiding and informing the worldbuilding, or did it pose an obstacle to some of your ideas?
GW: Thematically the original novel’s story and characterizations were always the underpinnings for the story we’re telling in the comic, but I made a decision very early on to not feel encumbered by the need for this to be a very faithful adaptation, to give myself the freedom to take what was useful and construct the rest from original material. So if it helped tell my story, I found a way to incorporate it, and if it didn’t, I just came up with something else that served the story I wanted to tell.
5. The events and characters of this first issue of ‘Oliver’ don’t directly correlate to the original story. For instance, London is populated by factory-made humans—will these clones continue to play a role through the more recognizable parts of the original tale?
GW: The factory soldiers are a big part of the Oliver‘s first act, but beyond that—for reasons I won’t spoil—it becomes more specifically Oliver’s own story. He leaves London to embark on a kind of odyssey across the remains of Southern England and encounters other friends and foes, some of whom you’ll recognize from the Dickens book.
DR: The clones essentially become Oliver’s first family and his sense of belonging and identity are deeply entwined with the people who have raised and protected him. I designed them with the idea that while they look alike, they all have had their individual experiences and many are war-torn veterans and I gave them specific wounds to tell them apart. These people are essential to who he is, why he is, and what he will become. By the end of the first arc Oliver will be set to become the hero we see him becoming, so the first four issues are a bit of an origin story, the way that Batman: Year One or Man Without Fear were for Batman and Daredevil. Adapting this from a screenplay, this first four-issue arc would have been essentially the first 1/2 hour of the film, give or take.
6. One of the enduring criticisms of the original novel concerned the antisemetic stereotypes of the character Fagin. How have you addressed this in your version?
GW: That’s a good question. In truth it’s not something I gave much thought to because, beyond his name and his role in the story as a kind of arch criminal manipulator of wayward children, I built this version of Fagin pretty much from scratch. He’s very different in some very important ways that, again, I won’t spoil.
DR: Like the Artful Dodger Fagin is a very different character in our story in that regard, but I can’t say too much at this stage as there are secrets to be revealed. Antisemitism doesn’t really have a place in our version of the story.
7. The Richard II quotes that narrate the opening sequence are a great sardonic touch, and feels more than a little topical in the time of Brexit. Have current affairs influenced the script during its long development, or is that just an (un)fortunate parallel?
GW: It’s funny, Darick and I spoke just the other day about Brexit and if we wanted to retroactively engineer some reference to that in the story. You have to remember this was all conceived more than 15 years ago, long before Brexit was a twinkle in anybody’s eye. But it does seem like an unfortunate coincidence to be telling a story about a desolate, ruined, impoverished Britain just as Britain seems set on a course to become exactly that.
DR: Gary wrote the screenplay back in 2001 around the time I was deep into co-creating Transmetropolitan, so the parallels are sadly coincidental. If I could go back in time, I would have given everyone in Transmet a smart phone; while I suppose I imagined “Google glass”, I never saw those coming. That said though, the long development has allowed Gary and me to pivot with some of our original plans and we have discussed ways to subtly bring some of the current-day events into our story, as a lot has changed since we began.
8. Darick, was there any particular part of the story that you were eager to draw? And Gary, was there something in the script that you were excited to see Darick bring to life?
DR: I was eager to draw Gary’s version of the “Please sir, can I have some more?” scene with the overseer, as I think that was the creative sweet spot we both hit upon when I first got into creating the sequential artwork. Moving forward, there’s a sequence where we meet Dodger in issue five I’m close to penciling and I love the scenario and setting Gary has imagined.
GW: For my part, I was thrilled to see Darick’s takes on each of the characters, he’s really brought them to life in ways that have surpassed anything in my own visual imagination. Beyond that his vision of the post-war London is really something to behold. It almost makes me sad that we have to leave it, but I’m just as excited to see what he does with the rest of Southern England.
9. You’ve both already told your fair share of post-apocalyptic/future world stories before. What is it that draws each of you to stories like this?
GW: As a culture we seem to perpetually fantasize about our own destruction, perhaps as a cautionary tale or to make ourselves feel better about the world we live in today. For me personally it’s always a great opportunity to strip society down to its roots and create the kind of environment that’s perfect for conflict-based drama.
DR: Personally, I never saw Transmet as being post-apocalyptic. I just saw it much the way Mary [from the “Revival” in Transmetropolitan #8] saw that world. It was crazy to us because we didn’t live in it. But the world of Transmetropolitan was a work that had just kept going from the world we live in today. If you plucked Charles Dickens out of time and dropped him into Piccadilly Circus in 2019 he’d likely lose his mind, but then might be comforted to know “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese” pub on Fleet Street, where he used to write, is still there. Oliver’s world is quite different as I don’t really know what year it is set; I like to imagine it as a different timeline—I’m using bits from a number of different eras—but I do know that at least the husk of “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese” is still there.
10. If either of you could do another genre-bending take on a literary classic, what would it be?
DR: I’d love to reinterpret Melville’s Moby Dick, and I still dream of interpreting Huxley’s Brave New World.
GW: As the father of a six year-old I’m increasingly attracted to the idea of a post-apocalyptic version of EVERYONE POOPS. I’d love to see what Darick could do with that.
‘Oliver’ #1 hits stores January 23.
Check out this three-page preview of ‘Oliver’ #1, courtesy of Image Comics!
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