REVIEW: Oliver #1 is a strong comic that maybe doesn’t need to reference Charles Dickens

Oliver #1  is out 1/23/2019.

Oliver #1 is out 1/23/2019.

By Zack Quaintance — An old rule in print journalism says that if you can find three instances of something, well then, you’ve got yourself a trend. You can then go ahead and write a story about athletes training with kettlebells, or people living on all egg diets, or gluten-free being the new Atkin’s (these are all actual trend stories I wrote during a brief period as a features reporter at a newspaper in South Texas). In comics in the last year, we’ve had two modern/futurist re-imaginings of the Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist. All I’m saying is if someone can put out one more, we’ll officially have ourselves a trend.

That said, I’ve liked both Oliver Twist-inspired comics so far to varying degrees. The first came out last year from Dark Horse Comics’ Berger Books imprint, an often-literary minded group of titles curated by ex DC/Vertigo editor Karen Berger. That series was Olivia Twist from writers Darin Strauss and Adam Dalva, with artist Emma Vieceli. It’s mostly fine, if a little safe with its plotting for my tastes. The second variation of this idea (out this week) is Oliver #1 from Image Comics, courtesy of a well-seasoned creative team: writer Gary Whitta (who has screenwriting credits on Star Wars: Rogue One and The Book of Eli) and artist Darick Robertson, of Transmetropolitan fame.

There are two relevant ways to evaluate these titles, the first being through the lens of a comics reader entirely unfamiliar with Oliver Twist, and the second as someone excited about a story that relates to the literary classic. This is a review of Oliver #1, so obviously we’ll focus our attention there. That comic, in my opinion, will work quite well for a reader who has absolutely no familiarity with (nor interest in) Oliver Twist. I’ve read the Dickens’ novel, for what it’s worth, but I still felt throughout that even if I hadn’t, this would have been a compelling comic, one that relies more on ideas about dystopian futures (all the rage in 2019) than it does on paying homage or connecting to the source material.

That brings me to the second point which gives rise to this question: is the connection to the Dickens’ work additive for this comic, or is it just a simple point from which to hang a new IP pitch? I must admit, I found myself wondering at times if this was conceived as an Oliver Twist homage, or if during the creative process similarities were pointed out, leading to the connective tissue to that work being reverse engineered. To be fair, there is an interesting in-plot reason for the connection, and ultimately, I’m not sure it even matters...I just think in this debut issue the whole futuristic Oliver Twist tagline might prove a bit distracting for what is otherwise a very good comic.

Which brings us to the last (and arguably most important) point I’d like to make in this review: the reasons this is a very good comic. My favorite aspect is Robertson’s artwork. As noted, he was the artist behind Warren Ellis’ seminal late ‘90s series, Transmetropolitan. One of the things I liked most about this comic was the rendering of the dystopian landscape. There are hints of Robertson’s previous work, but this without question feels like an update, a grittier (if such a thing is possible) and more familiar vision of life after the end of the world. Whitta, meanwhile, does an admirable job with pacing in a new (to him, I believe) medium, while also putting an orphan-protector relationship at the heart of this story that speaks to questions about our own responsibilities toward both our planet’s future and to youth who may be quite different from us, as well as the obligatory dystopian commentary about war and the military industrial complex. I liked it all, though, and as such, I will not artfully dodge (jesus) out of this book before its second issue.

Overall: A solid debut issue wherein Darick Robertson, a seasoned veteran of dystopian comics, continues to push his artful rendering of blown-out landscapes. What’s also compelling about this comic is the orphan-mentor relationship screenwriter Gary Whitta situates at its core. The Oliver Twist connection is perhaps a bit superfluous, but this is otherwise a strong comic. 8.3/10

Oliver #1
Gary Whitta
Artist: Darick Robertson
Colorist: Diego Rodriguez
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.