There seem to be reinterpretations of OLIVER TWIST everywhere these days, and it’s not hard to see why. Although they have nothing else in common, Dickens’ tale of a pick-pocketing orphan is like FRANKENSTEIN in that it’s a classic prose tale featuring morally ambiguous characters that lends itself well to reimaginings. However, the opening pages of Gary Whitta and Darick Robertson’s OLIVER are – to its benefit – nearly unrecognizable as Dickens: in a blown-out apocalyptic landscape, a lone figure wrapped in a hazmat suit and breathing apparatus trudges into the streets of London like it’s the last place on earth. Hardly post-Victorian class commentary.
It turns out to be a pregnant woman. Now, I happen to have a personal vendetta against epic stories that begin with a live birth (cough), for several reasons, not the least of which is that it can be a lazy way to set up a “birth to death” narrative. Also, quite frankly, I find childbirth disturbing. But OLIVER gets a pass, principally because the men delivering the baby in this post-apocalyptic scenario are organic military clones who have no idea what a regular baby is supposed to do or look like, and they react with disgust and exclamations of “Is that normal??” Relatable.
And truly, it is these clones that are the most entertaining part of OLIVER, at least in this first issue. Oliver himself doesn’t get to do much yet beyond running away and contemplating his parent-less existence, and that’s fine – he’s a catalyst, a symbol moreso than a human being at this point. It should be fascinating to see his personality develop as this series progresses, especially given the rather pointed implications that there’s something “off” about his anatomy (and his future in general).
The clones themselves, though, carry the weight of the narrative: as soldiers created in army test tubes, they clearly struggle with traditional sympathy and are more inclined to categorize a baby as a liability than a living thing, even after three years, when Oliver’s teenage appearance makes it clear that he’s got something special engineering his growth. A few of the clones do take Oliver under their wing and give him a brief history of how nuclear war destroyed the rest of the world. Whitta’s use of cinematic foreboding, while powerful, can come across as a bit heavy-handed at times (“He’s not ready for that yet”), which is my only major complaint, as it feels like the comic underestimates its audience.
Luckily, OLIVER’s real strength lies in its atmosphere. Combined with Whitta’s vivid apocalyptic imagination, Darick Robertson’s art shines. We all know Robertson for TRANSMETROPOLITAN, HAPPY!, and THE BOYS, but his work on OLIVER is truly next-level. He and longtime colorist Diego Rodriguez work as a symbiotic team in depicting the dirty, off-orange haze of post-nuclear armageddon. Robertson gets around the hurdle of every military clone looking the same by giving them defining facial scars, eyepatches, and sunglasses, and he creates a convincing steampunk-style street urchin of Oliver without making him overly innocent or wide-eyed.
Bottom line: OLIVER #1 is an establishment-of-setting issue, but a strong one. Its rag-tag apocalyptic universe is refined by intriguing supporting characters and truly beautiful artwork.
OLIVER #1 hits comic shops on Wednesday, January 23.