Olivia Twist: Post-Modern Adventure With 19th Century Family Ties

Olivia Twist (Dark Horse Comics, September 2018)

Olivia Twist #1

Adam Dalva (writer), Darin Strauss (writer), Emma Vieceli (artist)
Berger Books
September 19th, 2018

Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

It’s not enough today to offer a “new take” on a classic by just switching up the protagonist’s gender. But how much should a fresh adaptation of a classic work remain tied to its source? While Olivia Twist “twists” the story to new levels, it does so in such a way that those fond of the Dickens novel will find it a fun new look and those unfamiliar will have an adventure high on girl power.

Olivia Twist #1 cover

Let’s get this out of the way: I never read Oliver Twist in any of my schooling (though I wish I had; Great Expectations in freshman year English was a very painful slog). My knowledge is limited to Disney’s Oliver and Company and what I skimmed on Wikipedia prior to this review. If you’re looking for a beat-by-beat comparison of this comic to its source material, you won’t find it here. In fact, my CliffsNotes take on the Dickens work suggests that there’s only certain elements that Olivia Twist shares: the names of characters, setting, and plot basics. Everything else is fresh, reinventing the story to appeal to Dickens fans and those just looking for female-centric adventure.

Olivia’s world is one at least two decades (based on her age) removed from an event called “the Contraction.” It’s unknown what led to this Contraction, but the glimpses we see in the opening pages suggest far-right immigration policies and internment camps. That should be disturbing for anyone in 2018, where far-right parties remain on the rise in America and Europe, and U.S. immigration forcibly separates families at the border. It’s a world where Olivia has carved a position of power for herself to advocate for the less fortunate. But she also knows it is not the world she belongs in forever. A conveniently timed accident and a small child that awakens her maternal instincts lead her to London and a lady gang called the Esthers. It’s her new home and her new family that promise a story far more remarkable than from the likes of Dickens’ pen.

Strauss and Dalva do not waste time on backstory, devoting just enough page budget so that you understand Olivia’s background without diving into specific details of the larger social events. I would love to see a future issue devoted to the history behind this “Contraction,” if only as a careful lesson to today’s society. Neither author has ties to traditional sci-fi writing, so I’m not seeing many of the “dark technology” elements teased in the solicit. What Strauss does have talent for is writing the voice of a young person. He won the Alex Award winner for his first novel Chang and Eng, and his skill for making an 18-year-old sound like an 18-year-old, not a precocious, worldly mini-adult, is clear as a bell here.

Those familiar with the Bible will appreciate the choice of “Esther” for the name of Fagin’s gang (itself unnamed in the book). Biblical scholars today celebrate Esther as a post-feminist icon, a woman owning the agency of her future in a very unfamiliar environment. From the limited look we have at Olivia and the Esthers, this certainly sounds very accurate.

Emma Vieceli’s artwork style mashes up post-punk with touches of steampunk, along with with the Doctor Who aesthetic we can see in promos for the new series (particularly in the title typeface). The latter should be no surprise; Vieceli counts Titan’s Doctor Who comics among her credits. She draws Olivia and the Esthers realistically, celebrating every body type as attractive without resorting to conventional, classical tropes of beauty.  This representation is refreshing, and I crave more of it in all my comics. These women look like real women, not over-sexualized caricatures of women. Olivia is muscular but still vulnerable, a woman who knew one place in the world but hungered for more. Vieceli has a skill for detail in scenes, loading the streets of London with intense character and individuality—no two buildings or streets look alike.

Color choices hammer home the differences between the two worlds: the bright but slowly fading era of baby Olivia and her parents, the washed out world of the workhouses where she comes of age, the high-contrast, high-intensity 1980s Technicolor palette of London. I call this the “Wizard of Oz effect,” and it’s handled well here. You can feel Olivia’s sense of wonder and overwhelming anxiety upon confronting a London she only heard about second hand. While there’s nothing revolutionary in paneling style, there’s excellent execution in choice of panel styles for scenes. A near full page spread introduces us to Olivia with a view from the bottom up, presenting her as the force of the workhouse you don’t want to reckon with. Our first look at London is a full page, bird’s eye view spread, crammed with detail to show that “horrible grandeur” that Olivia first sees of her world.

Olivia cautions us to ignore whatever we have heard or read about her in the past, promising a new story from the ashes of utter loss. I’m certainly ready to hear the rest of this tale. Olivia Twist is a story that has certainly come along at the right place and right time for our social fabric, as women rise higher and further in power and claim a new voice and new agency to reshape our world.

Kate Kosturski

Kate Kosturski

Librarian by day, comics nerd by day and by night. Also published at Geeks OUT and Multiversity Comics (where she is also the social media manager for the site). Originally from New Jersey, now of Connecticut and New York City. Raging feminist your mother probably warned you about. Body positivity and LGBTQ+ advocate. Lover of good whiskey, Jensen Ackles, Doctor Who, Funko Pops, knitting, Hamilton, and the New York Mets. Will defend the Oxford Comma to her deathbed. Find her on twitter at @librarian_kate