In one form or another, you probably know the story of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist– but you’ve never seen a version like this before.
Olivia Twist, out on Wednesday, September 19, takes the tale into the future, with an 18-year-old female protagonist in a world full of internment camps, dark technology and a destiny she never expected. We talked to the creative team behind it, novelist Darin Strauss (Half a Life) co-writer Adam Dalva (book critic for Guernica magazine) and artist Emma Vieceli (Young Avengers, BREAKS) about why this is more than just another retelling of a classic tale.
Newsarama: Guys, tell us how this version updates the world and story of Oliver Twist.
Adam Dalva: We love the novel, but we knew from the start that we wanted to change things up. Moving the action to 2050 London let us keep what’s important about Dickens, while making it fresh and diverse.
Darin Strauss: So, now the passive little boy is a conflicted 18-year-old woman. Olivia escapes her workhouse to join a group of non-binary and female thieves.
We came up, too, with a future of assembly lines, where anti-singularity laws ensure that nothing can advance. New inventions are banned. These restrictions let Olivia’s tech feel stylish and advanced, but also relatable, a little dinged up.
Dalva: With the help of our amazing artist Emma Vieceli, we’ve turned Victorian England Steampunk, swapped gaslights for neon.
There’s a mile-high tower; there are internment camps for folks who can’t be deported (Olivia was born in one)—it’s the teeming part of the sci-fi just before everything goes wrong, the part you always wish you could spend more time in.
Strauss: It’s fun — recognizable but new.
Emma Vieceli: Probably the most obvious change from the get-go is that this is no longer a story about Oliver Twist, but Olivia Twist. Darin and Adam chose to gender switch most of the cast, offering a different angle on a classic story.
Also, the story isn't limited to Oliver Twist, but is a bit of a fusion of character names and nods to elements of Dickens' work. If you know your Dickens, you'll likely recognize a few names beyond Olivia, Fagin, and the Dodger.
We've also switched up the time period, with the guys setting the story in a near-future, dystopian London; a worst-case scenario of the paths we're already on. Darin and Adam's London is still entirely and hauntingly analogous to the London of Dickens' original story, in that the class struggle is real and evident.
This is a London where anti-tech laws have actually brought elements like a child workforce back around again, giving us a world that is able to fit the Dickensian ethos, despite being set in the future.
Regarding the visuals, it was almost a sandbox world for design. Only 50 years into our future, but also with a Dickensian twist. The guys had said they imagined the ‘20s and ‘30s fashion may have returned as well, and they have been added to the mix. And then we have technologically-augmented street gangs with a Mad Max vibe...so, all in all, it's a bit of a melting pot.
I had great fun designing our main cast – Olivia with her take on her original counterpart, Dodger with her love of “old fashioned” rock music, and Fagin with her roots between the Dickensian fashion of the lower classes, and the trappings of her eastern background.
Nrama: What was the inspiration behind the story? Why did you want to do it in comic book form?
Strauss: Adam and I — when we both were at the NYU writing program — often shared our love of Dickens and comic books. And it felt natural to bring them together! Dickens wrote overarching narratives in episodic form – big stories with colorful villains.
Dalva: And great names.
Strauss: And as in the best modern graphic storytelling, there is depth to his characters, there is sly commentary on the fears and anger of the times. This was the story we most wanted to tell, and there was no better medium for it.
Vieceli: I can say that my coming on board the project as the artist was largely down to Karen Berger. She approached me, pitching me the notion of a futuristic, gender-switched version of Oliver Twist.
Obviously, I hadn't seen scripts by then, and wouldn't for a little while, but the concept was intriguing to me. And Karen has been a hero of mine for years; I leaped at the chance to work with her!
Nrama:Truthfully, the first version of Oliver I encountered was Oliver and Company by Disney. My family still has some McDonald's Xmas decorations from that! That begs the question: What do you feel makes this a story that invites such reinterpretations and updates? What keeps it relevant?
Dalva: Oh wow, I loved Oliver and Company! Now I wish we’d done a kitten dream sequence.
The reason Oliver Twist is so relevant, I think, is not just that it’s the story of an underdog. Oliver Twist is one of the original dystopian stories. Dickens took a look at Industrialization and the Poor Laws and asked: What does it look like when the world falls apart; when outsiders have to make something from it all?
Strauss: Modern life has so many problematic trade-offs, right? Security vs. surveillance; seamless tech vs. corporations that know everything we do; profit vs. individual labor; wealth and power disparity, especially for people of color. Dickens’s topics are still the topics—they always have been.
Vieceli: (laughs) I remember seeing that at the cinema! Everyone loves a good underdog story – or, erm, underCAT – and Twist is a brilliant underdog story. While not all of us are, thankfully, toiling in a workhouse as orphans, we have probably all found ourselves hitting glass ceilings or feeling limited by the position we feel has been forced onto us.
Oliver Twist is about a character being able to transcend the expected and break through a societal wall to find the better life beyond. That the Twist in this version is also female and joining an underground rebellion made up of females adds an extra layer to that notion.
Twisthas also been etched into our consciousness by the characters Dickens created. More than Oliver himself, we love the moral ambiguity of a character like Fagin, or the cheeky self-assuredness of the Dodger...all of that stays firmly in place in this retelling.
Nrama: What's your collaborative process writing the book like? Darin, particularly curious about what challenges you've found writing comics - virtually every writer I've talked to who's come from novels/screenwriting to comics admits it's been a bit learning curve, but that there are also many things you can do in this medium that you can't in others.
Strauss: I'll start one issue, or Adam will, and then we'll converge. It has been a learning curve for me – different even from screenwriting. The structures are very tight. Pages, panels.
But, more, you need not to just think visually. You need to think visually, and in still images. Picking a single visual moment to convey the movement of a whole scene is like – I don't know – using just one word from a sentence to give an entire message. But whatever challenges it brings are exhilarating. And I'm sure learning how better to do it has made me an all-around better writer.
Nrama: And what's your artistic collaboration with Emma and Lee (Loughridge, colorist) like?
Dalva: Emma is a dream to work with — since she’s a writer as well as an artist, she’s always ready with plot suggestions –- and she helps us with British slang too.
Going back to your last question, the reward in comics is different from novel writing, and that’s mostly due to her. You can dream up something like a mile-high tower over London and a couple of days later: there it is!
She’s just an amazing, playful artist, and great with expression. We fell in love with her work the first time Karen Berger showed it to us.
Strauss: And then Lee’s colors are our secret weapon — he has a great ambient sense, so different scenes have different vibes. You immediately know the location, before your brain even deciphers the image or text.
Nrama: Emma, what's your artistic collaboration with Darin and Adam like?
Vieceli: Darin and Adam are new to comics, though not to writing stories. They've been very receptive throughout the process, and we've had some good back and forth. It's always great to see creators come to the comic format as a vessel for their story because comics are – in my opinion – the single best way to tell a story.
Karen has been a huge part of the process as well and we've had several of full-team emails and calls. It's been super collaborative!
Nrama: What were some of the things such as research and inspirations that went into crafting Olivia's world? How plausible do you find this future?
Strauss: We read a lot of science and science-fiction. We looked into demographic projections, and we – like all imaginative artists – took some guesses. I find this future –internment camps in the west; the gulf between rich and poor widening and solidifying –all too plausible.
Dalva: It kind of freaks us out sometimes — in the original pitch for Olivia Twist, we had a whole subplot where Britain becomes more nationalist and decides to leave the EU in 2032…that one, we had to adjust as we went.
Vieceli: For me, the world I was creating had to have immediate, recognizable impact as we're trying to throw an awful lot of stuff into four issues. Pages are packed, and scenes move fast, so I wanted to be sure readers could get the feel of a location quickly. Lee Loughridge's lovely colors have helped hugely with that!
The world is as much of a fusion as the clothing of its inhabitants, and so we'll sometimes be darting from pristine boardrooms to street slums within a page. It's certainly believable enough...because it's not that far off London now. The gap between the top and the bottom is growing all the time, all we've done is add a progression of technology and a consequential legal controlling of it to the mix.
When it comes to the uncomfortable notion of the Levantine war and resulting immigrant roundups as shown in issue one, we can only hope that it's wrong, wrong, wrong. It's scarily believable because much of the world lives in an age of fear and divide, and we can sincerely hope that seeing a dystopian nation, as shown in Olivia Twist, will highlight the worst of what we could be, and how important it is that we do all within our power to avoid it.
Thankfully, as a Brit spending a lot of time in London, much of what I see here does not follow that same path of fear, but this is a story written by Americans – and the notions they're expressing are a global issue.
Of course, there are fantastical elements to this story as well, and not everything has to be believable, but Dickens was all about social commentary – and Darin and Adam have definitely continued his process.
Nrama: The Pip character makes me wonder: What are some ways you'd do a SF update on other Dickens tales?
Dalva: So, you’ve hit on our secret idea for the series. We have a lot of stories to tell, and a lot of Easter eggs are scattered throughout the first four issues. Not just Pip, but our invention, the Esthers – a gang of thieves who you meet at the end of issue #1. Thérèse LeFarge, Cola Nickleby, Little Nell, all Dickens characters from other books. They’re our way of Marvelizing the world.
Strauss: A Tale of Two Cities arc in post-collapse Paris? Absolutely. Christmas Carol special issue? Let’s do it.
Dalva: Dickens is an amazing storyteller, and his entire bookshelf is fair game.
Nrama: Give us the HARD SELL on this.
Strauss: We took one of the greatest stories ever told, and updated it with additional "big bads," and cool tech, and lots of action, with diversity and queerness and characters who speak to the problems of our world right now.
Dalva: It’s a hell of a lot of fun. There are elaborate heists, soapy love triangles, fight scenes with illegally augmented men, terrifying villains, and a lot of jokes too.
Vieceli: Ironically, my hard sell line might be that this is actually not the story of Oliver Twist, because that story has been told a million times.
Olivia Twist takes elements of that story, mixes it up with sci-fi and a touch of fantasy, and throws it in back into a Dickens pot.
Tech companies rule the world, the singularity is nigh, the population divide is growing ever wider, illegally augmented gangs rule the streets, and somewhere underneath it all, a gang of thieves and rebels seek to do a lot more than just pick pockets. When the stakes of the class divide are higher, so too are the goals of those caught in the middle of it. - HOWZAT?
Nrama: What are some other comics/creators you're currently enjoying?
Dalva: We have to start with our artist, Emma Vieceli, who’s writing a great webcomic called BREAKS. Tom King’s run on Batman (and I loved his Grayson too) is literary and fun. She Could Fly is really good. I’ve just been reading Marjorie Liu’s Monstress, which is super ambitious and has amazing art by Sana Takeda. And I thought Yvan Alagbé’s Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures was extraordinary.
Strauss: My favorite recent stuff has been the new Watchmen series and the 2017 Batman Annual.
Vieceli: Isola by Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl is everything I want comics to be. That pacing, those visuals...uhnf. I'm late to the party but just finished reading My Brother's Husband, by Gengoroh Tagame - which hit me in the feels hard.
Nrama:What's next for you? Do you see yourself doing any more comics in the future?
Strauss: Well, Adam is putting on a bow on his great debut novel, Believe You Me, and I have a novel called The Queen of Tuesday coming out in about 10 months with Random House. And if all goes well, we're going to keep writing Olivia Twist. There's a lot to tell here, and we love telling it.
Vieceli: Since I'm here, I'd be remiss not to mention that I'm also currently writing Life is Strange for Titan Comics – super exciting as I love the property, and I am getting to see comics from the writer's chair – waiting on gorgeous art arriving from my artist Claudia Leonardi.
And I'm still working on mine and Malin's co-written, free-to-read, independent title, BREAKS (www.breakscomic.com). Four years of the webcomic and a printed volume with Soaring Penguin Press, and we're still going strong!