When England is in the middle of a long and disastrous war that left the country ravaged, there’s only one person who can unite the country against the terrifying regime that grips it... Oliver Twist?
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story writer Gary Whitta and Happy! co-creator/artist Darick Robertson come together to for the aptly-named new series from Image, Oliver, which places Charles Dickens' fictional orphan into a post-apocalyptic landscape -- and all the familiar faces are here as well. Whitta and Robertson reimagine the timeless classic with Mad Max elements that gives readers and entirely new spin of the treasured tale.
With the series debuting January 23, Newsarama caught up with Whitta and Robertson as they talked about how they wanted to adapt the original story without it being an actual page-by-page recreation, how they wanted this version of London to look, and the possibility of taking Oliver to television.
Newsarama: Gary, Darick, first off, how did you both come together for Oliver?
Gary Whitta: I had been a fan of Darick’s work for a long time, particularly on Transmetropolitan, I thought the world-building he did with Warren Ellis on that series was phenomenal, so when I had the idea to do Oliver as a comic he struck me as the perfect collaborator. The only problem was, I had virtually no profile in comics and very little experience or contacts so the best I could do was take a blind shot and just reach out and hope that he wouldn’t think I wasn’t just some crazy fan.
Fortunately Darick turns out to be one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, and was very receptive both to me personally and to the idea for the book. He did some initial sketches which really helped bring life to the characters but he was too busy with existing projects to really commit to drawing the book at that point. But we kept in touch and became friends over the years that followed and Darick never lost his enthusiasm for collaborating on the book so it just became a case of stealing whatever time we could from his schedule to do a few pages here and there whenever he could. And that’s really been the story of the past 15 years, putting the comic together a little at a time until finally we were ready to launch.
Darick Robertson: Gary reached out to me when I was still living in New York back in 2003. He had the screenplay and the idea to make it into a comic. I wasn’t in a position to take it on then, as I was still working monthly on the last of Transmetropolitan and had just taken on regular art duties for Wolverine at Marvel. But I really liked the idea. A couple of years later when I returned to live in the Bay Area where Gary was living as well, we became good friends and I discovered that Oliver was still in limbo. After I'd read it, I'd never gotten it out of my mind, so back in 2004 we agreed to co-create the comic and adapt Gary’s screenplay together.
Being an indie book, I've had to take on other work while creating this, in order to protect our rights and vision, so during these years I've had some successful runs on mainstream titles as well as co-creating The Boys and Happy! while working to create Oliver to launch the book at the right time with the right publisher. Image is the perfect home for it and I couldn't be happier with the patience and timing it's needed to get us here. Gary has since shown the world what I saw in his work over a decade ago. I'm excited that this book is finally going to be out there for everyone to see.
Nrama: You both have worked in post-apocalyptic story environments, so there has to be a level of comfort here with taking this story to that setting. Was there anything you wanted to do differently this time around aesthetically?
Whitta: I definitely didn’t want to do just another generic Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic world. I think part of what sets it apart is the English setting, a combination of urban and rural environments that’s unlike anything else I’ve seen in the post-apocalyptic space outside of maybe the 28 Days Later movies. And Darick hit upon the idea of taking it a step even beyond that by introducing a steampunk-inspired aesthetic. I thought that was kind of a genius idea since both Oliver and the whole steampunk creative movement have their roots in the Victorian era, a kind of retro-futuristic look that I don’t think we see enough of in mainstream popular culture.
Robertson: It was important to me to get the setting and atmosphere of the London right. I took my own photos in Trafalgar Square and really worked for a feeling of authenticity in the ruins to try to make it immersive. I've studied pictures of London during World War 2, when it was literally bombed out, and looked for the details how life was interrupted. Having been places like Coventry, England, one can really see the impact and devastation that the war left on the country even all these years later.
Unlike fictional worlds where apocalypse has happened by something like a zombie epidemic or alien invasion, this world was destroyed by war and the survivors in our world are the people who fought that war.
Nrama: So tell us about this world though? Is there an omnipotent regime in charge or something more chaotic?
Whitta: One of the world-building choices I made very early on in Oliver’s development was to not explain the world too much. There’s some exposition that explains a little of the backstory, the war and its aftermath, but in terms of the “present day” world that Oliver finds himself in I wanted the reader to discover that along the way, as Oliver does. But the basic idea is that after the war that destroyed much of the world England is now in the process of slowly rebuilding. There is a government and a military in place but society is still kind of getting back on its feet and most of the big cities have become uninhabitable because of all the radiation so it’s more of a feudal, rural society now.
I hesitate to explain too much for fear of giving too much away, I really want the reader to discover the world’s secrets as the story progresses, but in general I’d say it’s more functional version of a post-apocalyptic society than we’re used to seeing, at least in terms of governmental power and control.
Nrama: Oliver started before your formal comics debut with 2005's Death Jr. What have you learned over the years in comics, film, and TV that you are applying back to Oliver now that it finally makes its debut?
Whitta: One thing comics has taught me is how multi-faceted you have to be in your creative approach.
Between the artist and the writer you really take on every major role in a movie’s production - not just writing but direction, cinematography, editing, casting, production design… in a way that’s great because on a movie the writer is rarely asked for their input into most of those areas so it’s a nice change of pace to be able to contribute to and help shape every major creative aspect of the storytelling, but on the other hand it’s a little daunting because you’re working without a net.
Mostly what I’ve learned is how grateful I am to be working with Darick, who over the years has developed an incredible instinct for sequential storytelling and has brought the book to life in a way that far exceeds anything I had imagined when I was first writing it.
Nrama: What was it about Dickens' Oliver Twist that made you want to reimagine it?
Whitta: I think there are certain stories that are both timeless and extremely robust in terms of liberal adaptation. For me it felt like the best of both worlds to take a basic story and characters that we already know have captured readers’ imaginations for over a hundred years then to try to filter them through an extremely abstract lens and make it feel like something almost entirely new. So we inherited a terrific foundation from Dickens, particularly an underdog character that people naturally want to root for, then combined it with a totally new and different sci-fi world that I hope is compelling in its own right.
Nrama: With incorporating this style and atmosphere to these characters, how did you make sure that their trademark look might still be recognizable?
Whitta: I don’t know if any of the Dickens characters necessarily ever had a trademark look, since the various movie and TV adaptations have all presented them in their own way, so for me it was more about preserving the personality essence of the characters. Oliver is still a plucky orphan with the odds stacked against him, Fagin is still a manipulative, exploitative double-dealing criminal, Sikes is still a malicious, violent bully, and the Artful Dodger is still as much a cocky survivor as ever, but I don’t know if you’d necessarily recognize any of them just by looking at them. We radically reinvented their look in each case. You’ll see.
Robertson: When I read Gary's screenplay I got a real sense of time and place that was separate from the original Dickens' story, which in many ways is something Gary used as more of a template than a roadmap. I wanted to create the environment and characters that I vividly imagined while reading the story and I love where it goes. By the second act it, will feel like a new comic as the first arc is the origin story and the second act issues 5 through 8, show what the character will become. Like Matt Murdock's evolution in becoming Daredevil or Bruce Wayne's journey to becoming the Batman, you see young Oliver on his way to becoming a hero in the first arc and the hero emerge in the second and third arc of our 12 issue plans.
Nrama: Will this be a beat-by-beat adaptation?
Whitta: No, not at all. In terms of the source material we really rely on the original book only very lightly, in terms of the starting points for the characters and general inspiration, and from then on it very quickly becomes its own original story.
Robertson: No, not at all. It's very much it's own world and the story is quite original. One of the things that attracted me to Gary's story was his ability to create a world separate from the original Dickens story but still with familiar touchstones and moments.
A straight adaptation would not have been as interesting to me, as in film, there have already been a number of Oliver Twist adaptations, including the famous musical adaptation. With Gary's take, he found a way to make these characters exist more within a superhero style universe, resulting in something I believe is pretty unique. I was free to bring my own ideas, (even some that have since been discarded or evolved as we've getting deeper into the actual creation) and really bring his vision to the page, while having the freedom and ultimately fun, to do my own thing. I've been able to bring my A-game to the detail and designs, as we've had time to create this world together.
Nrama: Are there multimedia plans for this down the line?
Whitta: We’ll see. Oliver originally was conceived as a screenplay for a feature film before it became a comic so inherently it might be a good fit for some kind of screen adaptation, but that wasn’t the goal in making the book. I know some comics these days are essentially just illustrated brochures for the film or television version the creators hope it will spawn, but in this instance it was really just a case of wanting to get the story told in a medium that made sense. If people embrace the comic I’ll consider that a win and good enough for me, anything else that may come of it after that is just gravy.