Interview: Whitta & Robertson Twist OLIVER

This January, a project 15 years in the making is coming to Image Comics. Gary Whitta and Darick Robertson are teaming up to unleash Oliver, a post-apocalyptic twist on….well, Oliver Twist. As you can imagine with this creative team, nothing is what you expect it to be. Whitta and Robertson were kind enough to give me the goods on Oliver, below:

Aaron Long: Oliver is over 15 years in the making, how did you two start working together?

Gary Whitta: I originally conceived and wrote Oliver as a screenplay for a feature film back when I was first trying to break into the movie business. That script got me my first agent and manager and helped me get my foot in the door but the movie itself never got made. The story always stuck with me, though, and I was determined to see it told in one form or another. It occurred to me that structurally the story might work just as well, or maybe even better, in comic form so I set about looking for an artist to develop it with me. This was when I first realized that I didn’t know diddly squat about comics beyond being an avid reader of them, and I certainly didn’t know any artists. I did know whose work I admired though, and I’ve always been a huge fan of Darick’s, particularly for his amazing work on Transmetropolitan. I reached out to him and he was gracious enough to respond and take a look at the story. He sparked to the idea and did some initial sketches but was too busy to really engage on it fully so he just started doing little bits on it whenever he could find the time. And that’s been the story of the 15 years that followed, both of us working on it as time allowed, until in the last couple of years both of our schedules aligned so that we could collaboratively make a big push toward getting it ready for publication.

Darick Robertson: Gary reached out to me when I was still living in New York back around 2003. He had the screenplay and the idea to make into a comic. I liked the idea but I wasn’t in a position to take it on, as I was still working monthly on ‘Transmetropolitan’ and had just taken on regular art duties for ‘Wolverine’ at Marvel.  However in 2004, when I returned to live in the Bay Area, Gary and I became close friends and I when I discovered OLIVER was still in limbo, we decided to create it together.

During that time I went on to co-create “The BOYS” with the incredible Garth Ennis, which I’d begun designing in 2003 while still in New York. I was under contract to Marvel and then DC during these years when I’d begin to design OLIVER, so it took us until 2012 to find the right publisher. Gary has had an amazing career in that time as well, so It’s taken until now to get our schedules aligned so I could work on it regularly and show it to the world.

AL: How many iterations of the project have there been over the years?

DR: It’s slowly evolved on its own visually, but we’ve had a pretty cohesive vision for it all along. I brought a different edge to the characters in 2010, but even now, it’s still taking on a life of its own.

AL: Can you discuss the world of Oliver? This certainly isn’t England in the 1800s…

GW: It’s certainly not Victorian England although it is very much inspired by it. Part of the fun of building this world has been drawing parallels between the Dickensian London of the original novel, and the futuristic setting of the comic. And there are more similarities than you might think. In both Dickens’ book and our book, the slums of London are populated by a kind of forgotten underclass who have been swept under the carpet by the more privileged. In our comic that’s because of a third world war that has decimated England and left it populated by thousands of cloned soldiers who were created by the government to fight in the war but now find themselves unwanted in its aftermath. Society doesn’t want to deal with these veteran soldiers who once fought to protect them, so they just kind of throw them into the ruins of bombed-out cities like London where regular people can’t live any more because of the radiation but the soldiers can because they’ve been genetically engineered to withstand it. So there are definitely social and class-based parallels to the Dickensian canon, and maybe there’s some commentary in there too about how we should treat our veterans coming home from war better than we do.

AL: Oliver is obviously the title character of the book, but can you shed some light on the supporting cast for the book? 

GW: I can’t talk too much about other characters without giving away some surprises, so I’ll have to be vague. I will say that we definitely have our versions of many of the favorite characters from the Dickens book, including Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Sikes and even his dog Bullseye, and in each case we’ve tried to put a surprising spin on them so they’re not quite who you’d expect them to be.

AL: Darick, you are no stranger to drawing worlds of the future…

DR: I see this world not so much as a future, but as an alternate timeline, and an anachronistic one, on purpose.

AL: What is the most fun aspect of working in a post-apocalyptic visual landscape, and what is the most challenging?

DR: Creating a world in such detail, with the time necessary to do so, was gratifying. Working with Gary and seeing the world take shape and figuring out how to make the screenplay work visually in comics form, has been the most fun.

Getting the landscape right was challenging, so I specifically went to London, knowing that I would need to capture it and ‘destroy’ it accurately. I took a number of my own photos to work from to hopefully bring a sense of authenticity to ‘my’ London. I also researched WW2 photos to see actually bombed out London and try to bring that realism to the the setting.

I was inspired Otomo’s “Akira” was one, 2000 AD, and UK comics have always influenced my style, and this is certainly a UK set book. I was also reflecting on ‘V for Vendetta’, and films, like David Lean’s adaptation of “Oliver Twist” and then Polanski’s “Oliver Twist” for tone and setting. But ultimately, Image gives us all the creative freedom we want, so I’m creating something that doesn’t rely on anything  beyond what Gary and I are agreeing on, and this world feels original to me.

AL: How have the character and world designs of the book changed over the years?

DR: Around 2010 I started picking up on Steampunk and that genre, and integrated some fashion elements into the designs, but ultimately we’ve steered back into a look that I feel is true to the story rather than reaching for a genre.

AL: Any final words for Comicosity’s readers regarding Oliver?

GW: It’s been a really fun project to work on and I think that shows in the final result. Although it has classical literary roots it’s really meant to be a fun and emotional action-adventure story more than anything, and I think it’s also really interesting from the point of view of finding a different way to tell a superhero origin story. I think people are going to really enjoy it.

DR: This has been a passion project for me and I just hope that people enjoy it as much as Gary and I have had in creating it.

Oliver hits stores January 23, 2019 from Image Comics, Diamond ID: NOV180029. 


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