Gary Whitta (Writer) Darick Robertson (Artist)
January 23, 2019
In the opening of David Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist, the titular character’s mother—pregnant, exhausted, and alone—trudges down a dirt road on a stormy night. Black trees and thorns sway beneath cloudy skies. A blast of wind freezes her in her tracks. Crows screech in the silence, which is then broken up by thunder. The woman’s face lights up when she sees a place of refuge, and then the sky opens up into a downpour. Even though she’s hit by labor pains, she fights through the rain and rings the bell to the shelter, the shelter which turns out to be a parish workhouse, a workhouse where she will shortly have her baby and die.
This is not an actual scene from the novel Oliver Twist. Charles Dickens’ original begins at the moment of Oliver’s birth. Yet Lean’s opening is a masterpiece of filmmaking that echoes scenes from other Dickens novels, like David Copperfield’s lonely journey to his aunt’s Betsey’s house. It’s this opening—not Dickens’—that’s wonderfully re-envisioned with a post-apocalyptic twist in Garry Whitta (screenwriter for The Book of Eli) and Darick Robertson’s (artist of Transmetropolitan and The Boys) Oliver #1.
A woman in a space suit—pregnant, exhausted, and alone—trudges down the dilapidated M25, passing bomb shelters and the remnants of Big Ben, until she finds the encampment of soldiers where she shortly has her baby and dies.
Still, for that opening sequence, Whitta doesn’t quote anything from Dickens, but John of Gaunt’s “This England” speech from William Shakespeare’s Richard II. It’s an effective contrast—the beauty of the language venerating England juxtaposed with scenes of its decay and destruction. It’s also a very strange choice considering this is supposed to be an adaptation of another author’s work. The Shakespeare references don’t stop there. In fact, in this version, Oliver isn’t left with a group of negligent nurses and cruel church officials, but a group of actually pretty nice soldiers named after Shakespeare characters who were grown in vats. Oliver doesn’t get his name, because it happens to be the next letter in the alphabet, but because the soldiers name him after the character in As You Like It.
The soldiers raise Oliver into very mature-looking three-year-old, but because he’s a “pure-bred” child who tends to get into mischief, he feels out of place. Most pure-bred humans, like his mother, left the city due to the poison air, but Oliver jumps very high, is already deft at spinning a stick like a weapon, and seems to be immune to the poison … and that’s basically where the story loses me.
Whitta and Robertson clearly have a lot planned for this series. Whitta stated that this story has been 15 years in the making and Robertson described it as a labor of love, but this opening left me wondering why they decided to hitch their story to Dickens’ novel at all.
I’m not against radical re-envisionings of stories, but I prefer if they have a relation to the original’s story, characters or themes or comment on the original in some way. On the one hand, I don’t expect a sci-fi comic adaptation to still be a take down of the parish workhouse system. Heck, I don’t even need the story to be about poverty. But I don’t recognize this kid as Oliver Twist. Given how he’s portrayed as a mischievous thief-in-the-making, this comic’s Oliver resembles The Artful Dodger more than the novel’s timid, sensitive Twist. And while the novel may not open with a pregnant woman coming to a lonely place to die, it does open with a narration that emphasizes Oliver is essentially destined to be cannon fodder for a system that grinds kids in poverty like him to pieces.
In making Oliver the one kid in a story populated by vat-grown adults, the story removes the anonymity that marks his early tragedy and makes him yet another character who is unique because he’s born special. I would have vastly preferred a story where Oliver was the one who came out of a vat, or kids born via natural reproduction were part of a disadvantaged underclass. I can accept an Oliver Twist with superpowers, but not one that knows he was born different than anyone else.
I may seem unduly harsh given that this is the first part of a long story, but this was supposed to sell me on the idea of a post-apocalyptic Oliver and instead it made me suspect Whitta and Robertson don’t understand the story they’re adapting. It takes a story about an anonymous orphan among many and turns it into another Chosen One narrative. It takes a classic piece of literature and buries it under generic sci fi tropes. The part that feels closest to the source actually doesn’t come from it and the literary references are to another writer entirely. I could be proven wrong, but as of now Oliver #1 doesn’t leave me asking for more.