Image Comics' Oliver #1, created by writer Gary Whitta and illustrator Darick Robertson, is a debut issue that sets out to do many things at once. On one hand, it reimagines the classic 1839 Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, complete with updated takes on the cast of characters including, of course, its scrappy eponymous orphan. On the other hand, Whitta and Robertson craft a post-apocalyptic vision of London, ravaged by nuclear war, with the ruins of the old metropolis now populated by artificially-bred humans, created en masse for never-ending battle. And, finally, this new survivalist incarnation of Oliver is a superhero of sorts, both an outsider from the rest of this hardened society, while demonstrating incredible abilities of his own. And for the most part, the issue succeeds in marrying all three together.
From the outset, it's apparent that the new series isn't just an imaginative update or love letter to Oliver Twist, but all manner of classic British literature. There are numerous allusions and references to the works of William Shakespeare in the first issue, including a prominent character named Prospero, a clear nod to Shakespeare's protagonist from his final play, The Tempest. Direct quotes from Dickens bookend the issue, reminding readers of the literary inspiration for the post-apocalyptic sci-fi series and classing up the dark and gritty proceedings from its contemporaries.
Whitta is right in his wheelhouse crafting science fiction, especially post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds. An accomplished screenwriter by trade, Whitta co-wrote the story to Star Wars: Rogue One (as well as writing the Marvel Comics adaptation of The Last Jedi) following writing 2010's The Book of Eli and 2013's After Earth. The new series, reportedly fifteen years in the making, is very much in the mold of the 2010 Denzel Washington film, with its post-nuclear war setting and scrappy survivors. But instead of drawing inspiration from the Bible, its characters and the story itself is influenced by one of Dickens' most enduring classics, making it a lot more fun while injecting a greater sense of wonder amidst the ruins of the old world.
Similarly, Robertson is no stranger to visualizing grim and gritty worlds, constantly shrouded in darkness. Primarily known for co-creating and illustrating over the top fare including the Image Comics series Happy! with Grant Morrison and Dynamite Entertainment's post-modern superhero series The Boys with Garth Ennis, Oliver is perhaps the most outlandish premise that Robertson has drawn yet. Despite this, the prolific artist brings a sense of realism, grounding even the more fantastical elements of the story through his illustrations. Oliver may be an unabashed science fiction comic book, but Robertson's visuals make post-apocalyptic London feel like something more akin to the films of Ridley Scott and Alex Garland than Mad Max or the Fallout video game franchise.
The biggest drawback to this first issue is that, at times, it feels overstuffed at certain moments. As with every debut issue, the creators are introducing the premise along with a brand new world and cast of characters. Having said that, the issue hits the ground running, literally, and never really lets up on the pacing. It has a lot of new concepts and characters to throw at readers and ask for a level of investment in its titular orphan. And then, on top of the breakneck pace, the issue also reveals that this post-apocalyptic Oliver possesses extraordinary abilities.
While this specific departure from the source material is absolutely an inspired choice, it is another big moment in an issue jam-packed with them. It's clear Whitta and Robertson are playing a longer game with this series, with the central driving mystery of the book surrounding this super-powered Oliver's true identity and parentage. While it's fairly certain that even more about Oliver's abilities will unveiled as the story progresses, coming so quickly off the heels of a time jump in an already fast-moving narrative is a slightly jarring addition with everything else going on.
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Oliver Twist is a classic story that's been told and retold and updated to reflect the times for nearly two centuries. In Oliver, Gary Whitta and Darick Robertson have both created an incarnation of the story that simultaneously feels both new and familiar. It is a comic book series tailored to both its creators' respective strengths and interests, which they certainly take full advantage of on the page. While the debut issue does run at a breakneck pace and through a lot of new concepts and characters at the reader fast and loose, the ambitious premise largely draws in the reader in a feat of genre-defying storytelling to keep readers guessing. A love letter to classic British literature, Oliver never feels like a cheap pastiche, but rather the clear passion project from its creative team.