CCI EXCLUSIVE: Whitta & Robertson Get Literary On "Oliver"

Team-ups have been an integral part of comics for years. One hero will pop up in another's book in order to tell a great story, boost sales or both. But interesting team-ups don't always take place on the page. It can be equally exciting when a pair of well-known and respected creators join forces to create something all new. That's the case with the just-announced four-issue Image Comics miniseries "Oliver" by writer Gary Whitta and artist Darick Robertson with a little guidance from Charles Dickens.

Whitta's resume includes episodes of "Futurama" and "Star Trek: Voyager," not to mention penning the feature film "The Book of Eli." He has also contributed to video games such as "Duke Nukem Forever," "Gears of War," and currently oversees the series of "The Walking Dead" games from Telltale. As if all that wasn't enough, he also created "Death, Jr." Meanwhile, Robertson's just about done it all in comics from working on the long running Vertigo series "Transmetropolitan" with writer Warren Ellis and "The Boys" with Garth Ennis to stints on "Wolverine" and "The Authority," and even "Conan the Barbarian" for Dark Horse.

"Oliver, scheduled for release in Summer 2013," brings these two creative heavyweights together and focuses on a futuristic world in which the government created a legion of clones to fight a war that has since ended. Given second class citizen status, the clones now live in their own sectors separate from regular humans. That is until a young man named Oliver who happens to be a half-human, half-clone Hybrid with special abilities decides to find himself. To get the lowdown on the world of "Oliver," how closely it follows the plot of Dickens' "Oliver Twist" and exactly how this team-up began, CBR News talked with both creators.

CBR News: Let's start with the obvious. How did you two hook up to work on "Oliver?"

Gary Whitta: I've always been a huge fan of Darick's work, so when I was looking for someone to collaborate with on this he was at the very top of my wish-list. Darick has a gritty, uncompromising style that is perfect for the world of "Oliver." I cold-contacted him via e-mail and found him to be incredibly friendly and enthusiastic about the project, even though he wasn't able to commit to it initially. It wasn't until some years later that we circled back around and were able to form a creative partnership -- but it was worth the wait.

Darick Robertson: Back around 2002 when I was living in New York, Gary reached out to me with this project, but I was very busy on "Transmetropolitan's" final year and just taking on "Wolverine" and "The Punisher," so I couldn't imagine drawing this book. I directed him towards a couple of artist friends I had at the time and wished him well. We started up a friendship out of that introduction and when I returned to California in 2004 we started to get together whenever our schedules would allow. I asked if he'd ever placed "Oliver" anywhere and he expressed how he still very much wanted to create the book with me, and I was in a place where I could see how much fun this book would be. So I did a design drawing and set about trying to find us a home for it. I had no idea at the time that would take nearly eight years!

Eight years is a long time to keep a story alive. What is it about this one and the idea of working together that kept you guys interested all these years?

Robertson: Well, having my second child and fulfilling exclusive contracts to Marvel, and to then DC, then "The Boys" run, all put "Oliver" on hold. We really wanted the right home for this. Gary's primarily a screenwriter and we wanted to ensure that our rights to the story and characters would be protected wherever we ended up.

Whitta: I always have multiple projects in development at once, if only because maybe one in ten projects will ever come to fruition. But "Oliver" has always held a special place for me as it's the piece of writing that first secured me representation in Hollywood. Even as projects came and went I would always return to "Oliver" and try again and again to find a way to complete it, and Darick was the missing piece of the puzzle that finally made it possible.
The book is filled with clones who were created to fight a war that's over now leaving them out in the cold. Was this a commentary on how we treat our veterans now or did it just have more sci-fi origins?

Whitta: Oliver's story, like the original Dickens tale it's loosely based on, is meant to touch on a variety of social and political themes. If anything the science-fiction spin allows us to really drive some of those themes home even further -- and certainly the way that our military veterans are often forgotten about and not given the treatment they deserve is one of those themes that we were able to amplify through the unique plight of the cloned warriors in "Oliver."
Oliver himself offers a very rare type of person -- a hybrid human and clone -- how does this realization change his life?

Whitta: Oliver's central story is a voyage of discovery -- Oliver grows up without really knowing who he is or where he came from and as he begins to suspect there may be more to his story than he has been raised to believe he embarks on a quest to find out the truth about himself, and to find his place in a world that is not ready to accept him. I think those kinds of stories -- journeys that are as much inward as they are outward, and dealing with primal themes like self-discovery and identity -- are among the most powerful in literature.

Does being a Hybrid give Oliver any special skills that humans or clones don't have?

Whitta: I'd rather keep quiet on this until people discover it for themselves in the book. But, oh yes.

The comic is based on a Dickens classic, but how closely did you stick to the characters and structure while setting it in the future with clones and super powers?

Whitta: In truth this is a very, very loose adaptation of the original Dickens story. Many of the memorable characters and scenes that people know are represented, but this version was much more inspired by -- and hopefully faithful to -- the themes of the original novel than the narrative itself. Essentially what we tried to do with this version is take the issues that Dickens dealt with -- poverty, class, crime, social justice -- and use a post-apocalyptic setting to present them in a new way.
Aside from the sci-fi elements, how do your versions of Oliver and the Dodger differ from their classical counterparts?
Whitta: I think, at their core, Oliver and Dodger are the same kind of characters as in the Dickens novel -- Oliver a kid who's just trying to find his place in the world despite all the social forces arrayed against him, and Dodger a tough, scrappy young criminal who has learned to survive in a hard world by any means necessary -- but beyond that I hope to have give them their own identities independent from the original versions. The fact that Oliver has, to all intents and purposes, superpowers, is also a pretty big differentiator!

The book has a very unique look. From a design standpoint how did you guys decide on the overall visual style of the comic?

Robertson: In 2009 after a San Diego Comic-Con visit, I was struck by how much 'Steam Punk' has a presence at shows and how naturally that fit this project. I called Gary to tell him my inspiration and see what he thought of the new direction. He was intrigued and so I sketched a redesign of Oliver on the plane flying home from the con. I felt like I immediately found a missing piece of this puzzle. When Gary and I got together next, we set about designing the cast in person. That is really unique to this collaboration, as most of the writers I've created with are far away and we talk through editors and e-mail. Gary is local to me and we prefer to sit together and talk through the creative process, even while creating the initial pages for issue one, which has been great fun.

Gary, you've done a lot of writing across different mediums from movies and video games to comics, what does the comic book medium offer that the others don't?

Whitta: When I originally started to think about "Oliver" one of the very first questions -- as it is when I'm beginning to conceive any story -- was what is the best medium to tell it in? It came down to a toss-up between a movie screenplay and a comic book -- I felt that it would have been equally well served either way -- and I initially wrote it as a screenplay simply because that was the form I was more practiced at and comfortable with at the time. But in returning to it later it felt increasingly like a comic because it is, in a weird sort of way, a superhero origin story. And given its literary inspiration I like that it's something that will still be read rather than watched.
Darick, having worked on both company-owned properties and creator owned ones, do you prefer one over the other?

Robertson: I don't necessarily have a preference. I would still enjoy working on something like "The Flash"' or "The Fantastic Four," but I don't seem to be moving in that direction. I love creating original stuff with people I like working with and would love it if I can continue to do so. It really comes down to what people want to read, and if we find our audience.

Do you approach creator owned work differently than work for hire projects?

Robertson: There's something fun and challenging in starting something from the ground up. As you can see in my sketches, ideas evolve and change over time, and that's a process that's almost magic, as it doesn't present itself until it's ready to. This happens, that happens, you're in the right place at the right time when inspiration strikes, or you think you have a sure thing and you have to try again when it doesn't work out -- all leading to what and when the project will find its legs. When working with established characters, there's a certain predictability to it. I might have my own wild ideas about what makes that character tick and what's cool about it, but ultimately, those characters belong to someone else. It's the difference between driving my own car or someone else's car. I can't trick out my friend's car when I borrow it, and bring it back with big mag tires and a flame paint job. It's my responsibility to return it the way I received it, but with gas in the tank, right? That's working on company-owned properties, but creating something new, that's between me and the writer, and that's it! There's something both liberating and totally challenging in that.

The plan is to do the larger "Oliver" story as three, four-issue miniseries. Why opt for that format instead of a 12-issue maxiseries?

Robertson: Just to create a breather between story arcs as I tend to have more than one project going at a time, as does Gary. It gives us a chance to to create natural breaks in the story and approach each arc with renewed enthusiasm. I like to think of it like a trilogy, and create each piece of the story like its own event.

Whitta: In its prototypical form the story was written as a movie which is a classic three-act structure. So in thinking about how to adapt it for a comic, it made sense to retain some of that pacing and structure. It's a very serialized story and designed to have big cliffhanger-type moments at the first and second act breaks, and I think it's kinda neat that those cliffhangers now play out at the end of each four-volume miniseries.
How did you guys land the project at Image?

Whitta: Part of the reason that "Oliver" has taken so long to come to fruition is because Darick and I were adamant about waiting for the right deal to come along. We passed on several offers to publish the comic over the past several years because none of the deals allowed us to make it just the way we wanted -- and then Image came along and did exactly that. Darick and I always joked that every time we hit a setback it was because it was meant to be and that the right publisher was out there somewhere, and I think that's finally turned out to be true with Image.

Robertson: We had at least four different places we thought "Oliver" was going to be a project before we found our way to Image, which is a perfect fit for us. I showed the work to [Image Comics Publisher] Eric Stephenson shortly after I signed my contract on "Happy!" this past spring and he was immediately interested. Gary was as excited to have the book at Image as I am. Being that Image is here in Berkeley and close to both Gary and I, it's a chance to have more of a  face to face interaction with the publisher in the process of creating the series. Something I haven't enjoyed since I lived in New York. With technology so convenient, it makes a real difference to deal with people in person, something that I believe adds to the overall creation.

Gary Whitta and Darick Robertson's first "Oliver" miniseries debuts next summer from Image Comics.

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