Twisting Up A Dickens Classic: An Interview with the Creative Team Behind “Olivia Twist”

Olivia Twist (Dark Horse Comics, September 2018)

Reinventing a classic to another time or medium is an opportunity to breathe fresh life into the work. How many of us were inspired to revisit high school English reading list staples Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby after Baz Luhrmann put his own spin on them? Or finally understood the themes behind A Wrinkle in Time after Hope Larson’s graphic novel adaptation?

Olivia Twist, a gender-bent adaptation of Dickens’s Oliver Twist from Berger Books/Dark Horse Comics, is our latest modern take on a classic. But this is more than just switching a gender: writers Darin Strauss and Adam Dalva, and artist Emma Vieceli have switched the setting to a near-future London after a semi-apocalyptic event called “the Contraction,” and “twisted” up aspects of the source material to provide an extra dose of girl power.

Whether you’re a Dickens scholar or only know Oliver Twist thanks to Disney’s Oliver and Company, the series proves to be a fun ride. I had the opportunity to chat with Strauss, Dalva, and Vieceli about the series, the influences found in our current news cycle, their own love of the Dickens classic, and much more.

Adam and Darin, what inspired you to choose the classic story Oliver Twist to remix?

Adam Dalva: This is an epic tale that we’ve loved forever, just as we’ve both loved comic books forever. More, it was the thing we loved that most lent itself to a re-examination of our times. Wealth and poverty and who gets to be part of society, all of that’s in the book.

Darin Strauss: And this was the perfect medium to tell our story. The concept we had for 2050 London was big. It needed to be seen rather than described. Emma brought that to the page in an amazing way, beyond our expectations.

Did any of you have to read Oliver Twist for your schooling, and did you like it? Did you re-read the work as you approached this series?

Dalva: I did, and I remember liking it, and I even more remember watching the David Lean movie. (We keep on trying to work in “Food Glorious Food” to the scripts—one day!) When I re-read Oliver Twist recently, I was even more surprised by all the things that I’d forgotten—the politics, the humor, but also the ways that the story felt like it could be modernized, especially in the third act, and re-focused on the best parts. It’s such a pliable, fun idea—Fagin, the thieves, The Artful Dodger—that you can see why it is so endlessly reinvented.

Emma Vieceli: Darin and Adam have shown me how little I actually know of the original novel! Most of my knowledge comes from adaptations, and several characters and story elements rarely appear in those. I had no idea who Monks was! It’s been a real education as the guys really know the original Dickens story!

How close are you staying to the Charles Dickens work in this series?

Strauss: We’re respectful, but we’re also nabbing characters and plots from a range of his novels beyond Oliver Twist, which has let us take the story to a lot of new places.

Dalva: There was so much in this story that lent itself to sci-fi. But there’s also a lot we wanted to add—another layer of villains, for example. A real look at the implications of technology. A more modern take on race and gender.  

The story opens in a world that has faced a war and something called “the Contraction.” The parallels between this world and news of families in detention camps at the U.S./Mexico border and the current U.S. administration’s immigration policies. How much of that played into the depiction of this world?

Dalva: The parallels are off-putting! In 2014, when we started working on this idea, Darin and I broke down our fears about 30 years from now. And it has been a bit like holding a cursed lottery ticket. Like we had this great sci-fi idea: England exits the European Union due to racist fears!

Strauss: And it’s not just the detention centers for immigrants (in the script before the election). We also have a mile-high tower filled with American corporations, constant surveillance, gender discrimination. The relevance is a credit to Dickens, who thought about the everyday person, and how they might be affected by global concern, even then.

Dalva: So the Trump administration didn’t play in at first, but as you’ll see when you read through the series, he did help us decide which aspects of this sprawling world to focus on.

Will readers ever find out about the events that led to “the Contraction” that sets the tone for this series?

Dalva: They will! Much of the first arc details the real reason The Contraction happened, with a few twists and turns along the way. And it isn’t just a background bit of world building—the fears over the singularity, the loss of America, all of that will crash right into our A plot.

For both of you, this is your first comic. Has it been challenging translating your prose experience to a more visual medium? What have you learned from writing a comic that you can take back to future prose endeavors?

Strauss: Well, it’s a much harder medium in which to write. The rules are so strict. Each issue needs to be a certain number of pages, and you need to think in panels. That is, you need to think visually, and in still images. I’ve been saying that picking a single visual moment to convey the movement of a whole scene is like using just one word from a sentence to give a whole message.

Dalva: But learning how to tell stories his way has definitely made us more story focused and precise—the weight of a single gesture, a quick gaze, a jump transition. It’s really helped as I put the finishing touches on my novel.

Inevitably, readers are going to ask, “Why are two cisgender men writing this female-centric story. Are they the right voice for this character and tale?” How would you answer those critics?

Strauss: That’s a great question. That was how the story came to me, first, in a dream. And, of course, we did feel an urgency to tell this story with a female lead—a political necessity—once the idea of thrusting Oliver Twist into the future came to us. And I think that goes back to Dickens idea of an outsider. Oliver Twist, outcast, just wouldn’t be Oliver Twist these days; he would be Olivia.

Dalva: I just read The New Yorker profile of Mark Zuckerberg, and one disturbing point is that all of our social media giants were basically the fantasies of 18 to 21-year-old boys living in bubbles of privilege. Facebook, for example, was overtly, horribly sexist in its early days. We’ve seen what has happened over the last 10 years with these companies—we know who the President is, and why—but what happens when these now 31-year-old boys, who are in not-so-subtle ways still avatars of toxic masculinity (more insidious, I’d argue, then the Phi-Psi jock varietal), are 50, still in their bubbles, the richest people in the world, the men who connect our globalized society? Who will be cast out then? When I look at the future, I am scared about the marginalization of everyone who isn’t a white cisgender male, who isn’t me. The current administration is unfortunate evidence that this fear is real. That was why I wanted to tell this story in this way, to show the resiliency and force that outsiders can acquire. It’s a call for a world that I’d prefer to live in, and the kind of leader I’d most like to follow.

Strauss: But we would never have done the book without Karen Berger and Emma Vieceli. Karen is an industry legend for a reason—her edits are brilliant—and Emma is, beyond her extraordinary art, a fabulous writer who has been breaking story with us every step of the way. We wouldn’t have wanted to do this book with cisgender male editors and artists. As I’ve turned back to prose fiction, I feel that I’ve learned to write female-identifying and non-binary characters better because of my experience with these two brilliant creators.

Emma, who are your main artistic influences for this comic, as well as in general?

Vieceli: My influences are pretty broad. I was lucky enough to grow up with a decent influx of Italian and Japanese comics, as well as what was available here, thanks to having a family placed in convenient locations around the world. Some of my greatest influences have been Giovanni Freghieri for his work on Dylan Dog, Rumiko Takahashi for Ranma 1/2, and Keiko Nishi for her short stories. But these days I feel inspired and in awe just looking around at friends and peers like Becky Cloonan, Amy Reeder, Jamie McKelvie. There are so many amazing artists working in comics today, it’s hard not to take elements we admire on board in some way or another.

Your previous work runs the gamut from manga to superhero comics to even My Little Pony! Did you incorporate any of your previous styles into this series, or are you looking at this story as a chance to try something new?

Vieceli: Is it bad if I say that I don’t really think out the drawing style too much before I start on a comic? I think I just sort of draw what feels right for the piece. I mean, for Olivia Twist I did consider the overall approach in terms of using the penciled lines and keeping it a little rougher around the edges, but in terms of how I actually draw the pages, I think my approach is pretty similar to what I use for, say, BREAKS. I think we all evolve as artists, of course, and I’m always (hopefully) adding the odd little change or upgrade to what I do, but—at its core—my style has evolved on a single path. With the obvious exception of titles like My Little Pony, where I followed a style guide, or Jem and the Holograms, where I followed on from the amazing Sophie Campbell, I don’t think my lines have had conscious style changes whether I’m drawing Supergirl or Doctor Who, though different colorists can make visible differences. I’ve been lucky to work with some fantastic, and I love seeing how their choices affect what I’m drawing! For Olivia, I wanted to evoke an old-world feel despite the futuristic setting, and so I went with a rough line approach I’ve used for BREAKS and The Wicked + the Divine before. It’s just a bit looser and more natural than my inks, but what I’m drawing is essentially the same. And then Lee comes along and does some crazy cool things with those lines!

In drawing Olivia for this debut issue, what was the most important character aspect you wanted to get across to readers?

Vieceli: That’s a great question! I guess for Olivia herself the main thing in issue one is her transition and rebirth once she gets out of the workhouse. For the early scenes, when we see her in the workhouse, there’s a quiet confidence to her; the knowledge that she’ll be out soon, that she’s handled what’s been thrown at her, that she’s one of the oldest there. However, once she escapes and meets the Dodger, she becomes somehow younger, frailer in the readers’ eyes. She’s overwhelmed by the world outside and needs to re-find her footing. So you’ll see her expression and gesture work change a little as the realities of the outside world hit her. On a purely superficial level, I really enjoyed designing her outfit too. I wanted to evoke Oliver Twist, but giving Olivia her own, slightly snazzier, take on the street urchin look.

In addition to this story, Emma, you’re also writing for the Life is Strange comic debuting in November, based on the video game of the same name, itself a sci-fi story with a female lead. What attracts you about these kinds of stories?

Vieceli: Characters are always my main draw, regardless of setting. It is funny that these two fall into those similar brackets, as you say! My other big project is a modern day, urban story, and a couple of years ago, I was all about the fantasy with Avalon Chronicles and Vampire Academy, so I guess it was sci-fi’s turn, haha!. But the setting is just a backdrop to the bit I really care about: I want to see and draw and write stories filled with interesting characters who interact in real ways. I live for emotional interactions in storytelling! I love stories about characters who are able to break through barriers, face adversity, and find themselves on the other side, so this project seemed an ideal fit for that. And Life is Strange is a story that made my heart hurt when I played it, so revisiting those well-formed characters is a total joy! Max and Chloe feel as alive to me as any of my own characters (as I know they do for a lot of players), so getting into their heads was a possibility for me. I write by empathizing; seeing myself in the characters’ place and working out my actions from there, so a well-formed character makes that process easy, or at least enjoyable.

As a dual writer and artist Emma, how do you keep these two aspects separate for each project. It must be tough not wanting to write dialogue for Olivia Twist, or draw Max and Chloe in Life is Strange!

Vieceli: So true! With Olivia, it’s not been a total separation for me as Darin and Adam have been so amazingly open to input. (A fair few of my line suggestions and scene edits have made it in!) Karen has been incredible with bringing me in on the planning side of things and treating me as a collaborator, and—as with any comic art job—the artist is rarely not part of the storytelling.

Life is Strange has been a total mind-blower of a job for me though. With the exception of a mini-series for MadeFire a few years ago, this is the first time I’ve ever written for someone else to draw. I was allowed to help choose our artist, and Claudia Leonardi’s work leapt out at me from the ones Titan was looking at; her stuff is so alive and evocative! The process of writing has been so enjoyable, but I can’t deny that I’ve been picturing pages and panels as I write, haha! It’s impossible not to. However, part of the joy of being on this side of the fence is that I get to send off the scripts and then see what another artist has made of them. Seeing Claudia’s layouts of my script is the coolest thing ever! So, while I write it imagining myself at the drawing board (which hopefully makes my scripts relatively easy for another artist to follow), I can quickly forget all about my own artistic choices once I see Claudia’s.

Lastly, are there any other projects on the horizon for any of you can tell us about?

Strauss: I have a novel, The Queen of Tuesday, coming out fairly soon. And my first book, Chang & Eng, was bought by FX, and they just ordered a script written for it, so I’m hopeful! And Adam just finished his debut novel, Believe You Me, which I’m very excited about, too.

Vieceli: BREAKS is my ongoing, creator-owned title. I co-write it with Malin Ryden, and we run it as a webcomic with print editions by Soaring Penguin Press. We’ve been going for four years now! And you already mentioned Life is Strange, of course. (Squee!) Besides that, I’ve been working with tinyrebel and the BBC on Doctor Who Infinity. A fun story-lead puzzle game! The Silent Streets of Barry Island is my first game with them, written by Jac Farrow.

Near the end of Olivia Twist #1 we met Olivia’s new family, the Esther, the girl gang led by Fagin and the Artful Dodger. We’re thrilled to bring you a first look at Therese DeFarge, Little Nell Trent, the Artful Dodger, Nicola Nickleby, and Charley in their formal introduction in the second issue, available on October 24th.  London has no clue what’s coming.

Our thanks to Dark Horse and Berger Books for this preview, and be sure to check out “Olivia Twist” #2 when it drops next month.

Meet The Esthers

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