History Turns Heroic In A Steampunk Oliver

by Vince Brusio

The story goes like this: two new friends becoming drinking buddies, and they work on a story together which would make Charles Dickens roll over in his grave. It’s the sort of reading material that got the attention of publisher Image Comics, and so Gary White and Darrick Robertson set out to put a steampunk twist on a historical work of fiction that results in the fantasy/science fiction comic book, Oliver. In this interview, writer Gary Whitta and artist Darick Robertson explain the logistics of making a new story from something that’s as old as a Charles Dickens’ classic.


Vince Brusio: What circumstances brought the two of you together as a creative team on Oliver?

Gary Whitta: I had originally written Oliver as a screenplay for a feature film, and in fact it’s the script that got me my first agent and manager in Hollywood. The film never got made but the story always stuck with me and the thought struck me that it might be just as well told as a comic book, so I began looking for an artist to help adapt it. My first thought was Darick Robertson, whose work on Transmetropolitan I’ve always admired and adored, and while Darick was initially too busy to take the project on he sparked to the concept, and the two of us wound up becoming good friends and drinking buddies.

The idea stuck with Darick as much as it had with me, so over the coming years we’d return to it, doing a little bit of work on it at a time. We’ve always been at the mercy of Darick’s punishing schedule, which is why it’s taken us more than a decade to finish it, but I think the fact that we never gave up on it speaks to the level of passion that both of us feel about telling this story.

Darick Robertson: Back in the early 2000's, when I was finishing up my run on Transmetropolitan and just beginning Wolverine, Gary reached out to me via e-mail about Oliver. Gary had written this screenplay and wanted to adapt it into a comic. I loved the concept, but I couldn't take it on then. I tried to help him find someone else and through that process, and we became friends. A couple years later, the project was still looking to get going, so I started designing characters and trying to find us a publisher that would leave our rights intact and not change up too much what our vision was for this project. In that time we became better friends and close collaborators, and our shared love of Sci-Fi, Star Wars, comics and movies paved the way for a great collaboration. It was Gary who originally turned me onto Simon Pegg's Spaced which inspired the appearance of "Wee Hughie" for The Boys.

Vince Brusio: What middle ground did you both search for in reviving a classic property so that it became something bigger, yet remained familiar?

Gary Whitta: I mean let’s be honest, Charles Dickens would probably be rolling in his grave. We took a lot of liberties with his classic story. As a starting point I wanted to remain faithful to the major themes and characters, all of which you’ll recognize here, but as I developed the story it became clear that it was its own story wanting to be told. So in the end I think we have a very happy medium, with a story that is recognizably Dickensian and yet at the same time not just another straight re-telling of a story you already know.

Darick Robertson: I love post-apocalyptic stories and designs, so the thought of London as a bombed out wasteland as a backdrop to this story was really appealing to me. In 2010, I started seeing Steampunk trending at conventions and I realized what a good fit that esthetic could be for 'Oliver' and adopted some of that feel and style into the characters and tech. What I ended up with is an amalgam where the government forces are high tech and the clone rebels are low tech, and the contrast looks great on the page. 

Vince Brusio: Tell us about some of the characters in this story. How did each of you tweak the characters to make them yours? To give them ticks? To give them new life?

Gary Whitta: Oliver himself is obviously the center that the whole piece revolves around, and he’s both very much like the Dickens character and also very different. They’re both orphans, both abandoned by his mother to impoverished slums in London before charting a course to make his mark on the world, but the similarities pretty much end there. It became clear to me as I was writing that this was as much a superhero origin story as it was anything else, so reinventing Oliver as a post-apocalyptic superhero with genetically-enhanced combat powers is definitely a pretty big tweak from the original. I don’t want to give too much away as these characters are introduced later, but I’m also really pleased with how the Artful Dodger and Fagin have been reinvented within the context of this new world.

Darick Robertson: Oliver goes through a physical transformation over the course of the first four issues that lays the groundwork for the latter eight issues. Oliver is the heart of the story, so I did my best to make him feel approachable and likeable. He stands out against the bleaker looking soldier characters and manages to find joy in his otherwise miserable environment. I had to capture Oliver's look at three different stages of growth and by the end of issue four he will look different than where he begins, but by issue five, he'll begin to look familiar again, but having gone through a lot of change and loss. With the soldiers, since they are clones, they all look alike, so I tried to vary them by thinking about their scars and wounds, since they are survivors of a great war.

I also began thinking that, just because they are clones, they would still look different from one another. Some would eat more than others, some can walk easily, some can't. They wouldn't all wear their uniforms exactly the same way, so even though they essentially look alike, I could bring a sense of uniqueness to the cast to distinguish who is who. 

Vince Brusio: Were there any past “remakes” that you noted as a template for what to do…or what not to do?

Gary Whitta: Pretty much the only source material Darick and I relied upon was the original novel. I admit I have a soft spot for the musical version but it’s hard to do musical numbers in comic books so that never really got off the ground.

Darick Robertson: I don't really see this as a remake as much as a reinterpretation. This is a wholly original world for me, so I try not to think too much outside the project I'm working on lest I find myself creatively chasing phantoms and stagnated by too much input. 

Vince Brusio: Could you each tell us what was your personal goal in telling this story? How did you keep your eye on the ball? What was your internal barometer for knowing if you were doing Dickens’ classic story justice?

Gary Whitta: I started out wanting to do a different kind of Dickens adaptation but over the course of story development it really became more about doing justice to the original story I wanted to tell. I hope that fans of the novel will at least be amused by this new version, but really it’s aimed more at comics readers who are looking for something a little different and might be interested in finding a new superhero origin in the unlikeliest of places.

Darick Robertson: I think there are moral through lines in Dickens' stories and his ability to enlighten and inspire, through showing the suffering of the classes, that I believe is something that works well in our story. Mostly, I want to bring a sense of a different world, and a different time and I am hopefully creating characters that the reader will come to enjoy and relate to. I am thinking very much about the screenplay this is based on and trying to bring a cinematic feel to it, as Gary has brought that classic literary edge to the story. 


Vince Brusio writes about comics, and writes comics. He is the long-serving Editor of PREVIEWSworld.com, the creator of PUSSYCATS, and encourages everyone to keep the faith...and keep reading comics.